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7 Apr

Depending on who you ask, the color orange brings to mind many things: amusement, danger, encouragement, energy, enjoyment, enthusiasm, extroversion, fascination, fire, happiness, heat, sunshine, and warmth.

It is one of my favorite colors, because it is so cheery (and because it goes so well with blue, its complementary color). I particularly like that it is associated with joy and creativity, and I love this description: “Orange oozes with delight.”

Interestingly, people did not have a good way to describe the color at first, sometimes calling it (in English) “yellow-red” or “saffron.” It wasn’t until oranges made their way around the world from their native Southeast Himalayan foothills that the color began to be associated with the ripe fruit. The first recorded use of orange as a color name in English was in 1512.

This week’s color, orange, appears on the six stamens of an Asiatic Lily ‘Tiny Sensation.’ The stamens are the male reproductive organs of flowers, consisting of anthers coated in pollen resting atop slim filaments. The female part of the flower, the pistil, can be seen rising blurrily in the back. Though not visible in the photo, the top part (the stigma) has three lobes and is sticky, to better catch the pollen.

Here is a better view of the pistil and its three-lobed stigma, surrounded by the six stamens. This photo is from a different lily, but luckily the pollen here is also orange, fitting in with this week’s theme.

Pollination occurs when bees, butterflies, and other pollinators carry the pollen from the lily’s anthers to the female parts of other lilies. Successful sexual reproduction leads to seeds that ripen in pods and are dispersed when the pods start to open in the fall. Unfortunately, I do not have any good photos of lily seed pods (though will now be on the lookout this fall), but did stumble upon iris seeds one autumn, as described here.

And of course, as lilies come from bulbs, another great way to get more lilies is via bulb division.

A Mania for Tulips at Keukenhof

22 Mar

Anyone interested in passion and heartbreak need look no further than a flower garden. And there is no better place to look than Keukenhof (in Lisse, the Netherlands), which opens tomorrow for its 2017 season. It is the largest flower garden in the world and it specializes in tulips–which, like orchids, have driven people to distraction, debt, and death.

Keukenhof means ‘kitchen garden, but don’t let the name fool you into thinking it’s unobtrusively tucked round the back of a manor house; it covers 32 hectares (79 acres) and  is known as the Garden of Europe. This botanic wonderland features 7 million bulbs in bloom, including 800 varieties of tulips: botanical tulips; Greigii tulips; parrot tulips; single early, double early, single late, and double late tulips…. The list goes on.

Mixed beds; Double Late Tulip ‘Uncle Tom’

Tulip ‘Doll’s Minuet’; ‘Mysterious Parrot’ Tulip

A view of Keukenhof

High on that list are “broken” tulips, which originally were cultivars infected with a tulip breaking virus that  “broke” the plant’s single-color code, causing streaks, stripes, and flames of different colors to appear on the petals. Today, the same effects are achieved through breeding; only a few varieties of truly “broken” tulips still exist. But 380 years ago, the virus and those tulips caused people to lose their heads. While tip-toeing through the crowds at Keukenhof may not be for the faint-hearted, neither was the tulip trade in 17th-century Amsterdam.

Tulips are believed to have originated in current-day Iran; in fact, some scholars suggest the name “tulip” comes from the Persian word for “turban.” The flowers were highly prized by the Ottomans, and it is from ambassadors and visitors to the Ottoman courts that the flowers likely made their way to Northern Europe, and to the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish botanist and professor at the University of Leiden, planted the Netherlands’ first tulip bulbs in the university’s botanical garden in 1593.

Clusius’ tulips received a great deal of attention. Tulips were already considered an exotic flower in the Netherlands, and the virus only made them more so. As a result, there were regular raids on Clusius’ gardens and the market for tulips began to heat up, leading to the infamous Tulip Mania of 1634-37. At its height, a single, prized tulip bulb was worth exponentially more than the average person’s annual income, and more than a luxurious canal-side house. The tulip had become the ultimate status symbol. Some people put mirrors in their gardens to suggest there were more tulips than they actually had. Those who could not afford the bulbs bought furniture, art, and tableware decorated with tulips instead. And then the world’s first—but not last–speculative bubble burst, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and destitution in its wake. (This animated  Ted Ed video puts it in perspective.)

If you want to see the flowers that inspired these events, Keukenhof’s 2017  season runs from March 23 to May 21. As you wander the grounds, you will see that modern-day tulips still have the power to inspire; it is not unusual to see visitors climbing into the flower beds to pose for photos while lying among the blooms. But spare a moment for the many other flowers you are likely to see, too, because they are also worth the attention:

River of Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) ‘Blue Magic’ 

Fritillaria ‘Early Magic’

Anthurium bouquet

Lilium ‘Blushing Joy,’ Medinilla magnifica

Golden Lotus Banana

8 Apr

On a recent visit to Rome’s Botanical Garden, I walked past an elbow-high plant with a stunning yellow orb unfurling on top of a sturdy stem, and did a double take.

The foliage looked like that of a banana plant, but I had never seen a banana plant with such a glorious eminence perched atop layers of golden yellow “petals” before. It didn’t like look at all like the growing tip of a regular banana plant, or even like the part most people think of as the flower:

Upon closer inspection, however, it did have a familiar feature–the tiny flowers characteristic of banana plants. That’s because the Ensete lasiocarpa (also known as Musa/Musella lasiocarpa* and commonly known as Golden Lotus Banana, Chinese Dwarf Banana) is closely related to the edible banana we know, though it does not produce edible fruit. It is an ornamental banana native to the Yunnan province in China. As mentioned in a previous post, what looks like a flower is actually an inflorescence consisting of layers of bracts (the golden yellow petal-like parts), with rows of the actual, very small  flowers nestled in between. You can see the small, elongated banana flowers in photos 1, 3, and 4.

The ornamental banana is known as a Golden Lotus Banana because its unfurled, ethereal brachts are said to resemble the petals of a lotus flower, which is known as a Sacred Lotus. I think the closed inflorescence of the Ensete lasiocarpa  and the closed bud of a lotus flower also look alike. And it may be no coincidence that the Golden Lotus Banana was a sacred plant of Buddhist monks.


* There have been some disagreements as to nomenclature.

Birds or Bananas? Strelitzia, Musa, and Heliconia

8 Apr

Is it a bird or a banana? When it comes to Bird of Paradise, False Bird of Paradise, Parrot or Parakeet Flower, Macaw Flower, Crane Flower, Banana, Wild Banana, or Wild Plantain–it can be hard to tell which is which. That’s because these tropical plants belong to three closely related families: Strelitiziaceae, Musaceae, and Heliconiaceae. And yes, some look like birds, others look like banana plants, and some actually are banana plants.

Though common plant names can be endearingly whimsical and creative, they often lead to confusion; many plants have multiple common names and the same common name can refer to more than one plant. Today, thanks to binomial nomenclature (and to Google and other easily accessible sources), it is fairly easy to figure out that one person’s Bird of Paradise is someone else’s Crane Flower, and that both, in fact, are the same Strelitizia reginae. 

Carl Linnaeus laid the foundations for binomial nomenclature in his 1753 Species Plantarum. According to the system, all living things must have a scientific name in Latin consisting of two basic parts. The first part identifies the genus; the second part identifies the species within the genus (if, as happened to me, the taxonomic ranks you learned in school have since retreated to the lesser-used recesses of your brain, they are: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.) As an example, the American Robin, a migratory bird in the thrush family, belongs to the genus Turdus (this somewhat unfortunate name means thrush in Latin…) and to the species migratorius within that genus. The European Robin, however, belongs to the genus Erithacus and to the species rubecula, which is derived from the Latin for “red.”

But back to plants that look like birds. In 1773, Sir Joseph Banks (then director of Kew Gardens) took advantage of the system of binomial nomenclature to give the exotic Bird of Paradise plant–with its orange sepals, purple petals, and beak-like spathe–its scientific name (Strelitzia reginae) in honor of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III of England, an enthusiastic amateur botanist, and a strong supporter of Kew Gardens. The genus name Strelitzia refers to the Queen’s birthplace; the species name reginae comes from the Latin for “queen.” Strelitzia nicolai, on the other hand, refers to the Wild Banana, aka the Giant White Bird of Paradise. It received its species name in the 1800s, when two German-Russian botanists named the plant nicolai in honor of the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, son of Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Birds or bananas–those are lofty names indeed. I’m just glad I now know which is which.

Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise) aka Crane Flower in its native South Africa

Strelitzia nicolai (Giant White Bird of Paradise) aka Wild Banana–though it does not produce edible fruit.

Strelitzia nicolai, left; an edible banana plant in the Musaceae family, right. They look very similar when not in flower–see the leaves.

Heliconia psittacorum (Parakeet or Parrot Heliconia), left; Heliconia bihai (Macaw Flower), right. Heliconia are also known as False Bird of Paradise and Wild Plantains because their leaves are similar to the leaves of the Bird of Paradise and banana plants.

An Unexpected and (Re)Productive Study of the California Poppy

21 Mar

Sometimes, blown car tires lead to unexpected opportunities. While in California on our way to Monterey, our tire blew out on the freeway and very spectacularly separated itself from the rim. Our oldest son was driving and successfully steered the car to the side of the road, with the help of a kind truck driver, who stopped traffic in the right lane to let us over. While the spare tire was being put on, I noticed a cheery patch of poppies down a small hill, and headed there with my camera, whereupon I had an impromptu lesson in reproduction–of the floral kind.

The Golden State loves golden symbols, so it’s no surprise the California Poppy is the state flower. It’s a favorite of many gardeners, but also grows wild across California and elsewhere; masses of poppies make some Western mountains look as if they have been dusted with orange-yellow confetti. They also grow by the roadside, where I was lucky enough to get to study them for a little while. In that scraggly patch, there were poppies at all stages of development, from buds to full flowers, to seed pods.

The flower buds are encased in a calyx made up of two fused sepals; the papery cap slowly gets pushed off as the four overlapping poppy petals begin to unfurl.

Inside the cup-shaped flower itself are the stamens (pollen-tipped male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female organ), waiting for pollinators–usually bees, but also beetles and flies–to help ensure a new generation of Eschscholzia californica. This is the plant’s  very civilized (and somewhat passive) Plan A in terms of reproduction.

But, there’s a Plan B, too–and it’s a bit more lively. Once the poppy’s main flowering cycle comes to an end, the petals start dropping off, revealing an elongated seed pod (fruit) sitting on the disk-like torus. The pod gets longer and bigger, starts drying up in the sun, and finally bursts open, ejecting seeds as far as 6 feet away. This type of seed dispersal has a great name: explosive dehiscence.  Oh, how I wish I could have seen it in action.

So, what pollinators cannot achieve, the plant takes care of on its own, spreading its wealth just a bit further one seed pod at a time. Something to admire this April 6, which is California Poppy day.


Oh, Nuts: Chestnuts

19 Oct

My father was a New Jersey boy who went to elementary school in Manhattan in the 1940s. He loved the smell of chestnuts roasting over open fires on city street corners, a snack available almost year round when he was young. By the time I was a teenager, roasted chestnuts were primarily a holiday season treat, due to changing tastes and a perception that chestnuts were a poor man’s food. (Amazingly, lobster was once viewed the same way; today, the lines that form in front of the lobster roll truck by my office at lunchtime are a sight to behold). Here is a photo of chestnuts roasting in NYC, courtesy of a fellow Flickr user:

Photo credit: Adam Fagen, Flickr

Chestnuts–which are chewier and starchier than, say, walnuts–have been a staple food in southern Europe and parts of Asia for millennia. They can be boiled, candied, eaten raw, mashed, roasted, sautéed, steamed, or ground into flour–and have long been a favored ingredient in stuffing, vegetables dishes, casseroles, porridge, and desserts. They have less calories than other nuts and are the only nut to contain significant amounts of Vitamin C. So, as often happens when nutritious traditional foods are “rediscovered,” chestnuts and the naturally gluten-free chestnut flour are making a comeback, especially in upscale U.S. restaurants and specialty stores. Demand for chestnuts in the United States outstrips supply.

There are four main species of chestnuts: European, Chinese, Japanese, and American. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata)–known as the sequoia of the east because of its height–was almost completely wiped out by blight in the first half of the twentieth century, right around the time my father was enjoying the roasted (and probably Italian) versions near his school in New York City. Four billion trees died. Before tragedy struck, American chestnut trees were highly valued not just for their nuts, which fed both people and animals, but also for their wood. Nowadays, most of the chestnuts we eat in the United States are imported, but efforts are underway by organizations such as the American Chestnut Foundation and others to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts and reintroduce them into the forests of the American east.

In the meantime, the most commonly seen chestnut trees in the United States are Chinese Chestnut trees (Castanaea mollisisma), which are resistant to blight. On a recent visit to the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Nature Sanctuary, Castanea mollisima burs carpeted the ground. Here are two burs (and boy, are they prickly and sharp), one of which is beginning to open.

Chestnuts are harvested once the burs have fallen from the tree. Typically, there are up to three nuts inside each bur; here is a photo with one nut inside a more mature (and browner) bur. The nuts are covered by two “skins”: a dark brown, hard seed coat (or husk) and a papery under layer.

Sweetness or Deceit? Attracting Pollinators

28 Sep

Plants are wily, in their own ways. Some beguile with sweetness, others lure with deceit. This weekend at the United States Botanic Garden, I saw examples of both.

The Jamaican Poinsettia (Euphorbia punicea) takes the nicer approach. Below, you can see the brightly colored bracts, which are modified leaves, and a yellow, cup-like flower cluster called a cyathium. Insects are attracted to the clusters by the reddish-pink bracts and are then rewarded with the sugary nectar; in the photo, the glistening drops are almost overflowing from the cups. Arising from the center of the cluster is the pistil (the female reproductive organ), with three curved stigmas at the top, waiting to receive a dusting of pollen from the visiting pollinator.

Successful pollination leads to the development of a seed-bearing fruit. But if the plant has not been successfully pollinated, the fruit may wilt and never produce seeds.

Other plants, such as the Carrion Flower (Stapelia gigantea), attract pollinators by pretending to be (and smell like) something they are not: rotting flesh. You might think that if someone knows a flower smells like a decomposing mammal, s/he would avoid taking a sniff. But no. I partook of the putrid odor more than once, and can confirm that the flower does indeed smell vile. I pointed this out to other passersby, who also conducted repeated olfactory experiments of their own with identical results…. But back to the plant. In addition to its odor, this wrinkly and hairy flower is also meant to look like a decaying, oozing, leathery, peeling dead animal.

And boy, do some insects love that. Perfect spot to lay eggs, with plenty of food for the larvae, or so they think. They are mistaken; their reproductive efforts are futile. But they will have served their purpose: to help ensure the reproduction of the plant by taking and depositing pollen as they go about their business. A devious deception indeed. Here is a close up of the inside of the flower, complete with a green bottle fly circling around, and a pile of ill-fated eggs below.


Spathe and Spadix

9 Jun

There are two plant parts that are frequently found together whose names I quite like: “spathe” and “spadix.” The two words evoke something mysterious, almost like “cloak” and “dagger.” In fact, there is an element of danger when it comes to plants that have both spathes and spadices, such as Anthuriums, Calla Lilies, and the fabulous Titan Arum (also known as the Corpse Flower because it smells like rotting flesh): they are all poisonous. Their sap contains needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, which can cause significant pain and swelling if an unwitting animal happens to take a bite of the plant. Ingesting large amounts can be fatal because the swelling can make swallowing and breathing difficult–but most animals quickly learn to stay far away. The plants have an excellent defense system.

Toxicity aside, plants with spathes and spadices are striking, as evidenced by this Anthurium andreanum ‘Fantasy Love,’ which is a member of the Arum family (Araceae, aka the aroids). This Anthurium may want to repel herbivores, but it also wants to attract pollinators and one way to do that is via the colorful spathe.

The spathe looks like a petal, but it is actually a bract–a modified leaf. It helps get pollinators closer to the actual flowers, which are tiny and are located in spirals on the spadix. Here is a close-up view of an Anthurium spadix–the stigmas on the almost microscopic white female flowers are emitting a fluid that indicates the flowers are ready to be pollinated. If pollination is successful, the spadix will produce little fruits (or berries) containing seeds.

Sometimes spathes are open and fairly flat, as with the Anthurium above, but they can also encase the spadix and appear funnel like, as with Calla lilies. The photo below is an internal view of my neighbor’s ‘Calypso’ Calla lily–with the  deep-red spathe almost entirely surrounding the spadix.

One last fun fact: some spadices in the Arum family can produce a lot of heat in cold weather, reaching temperatures significantly warmer than the surrounding air temperature. The Titan Arum is one of them. This ability is yet another way the plants attract pollinators.  A warm spadix does two things: it provides pollinators with a bit of energy in chilly weather and it acts as a fragrance diffuser, wafting that delicious putrid odor just a bit further as an added enticement. So if you are a pollinator, you get a colorful, warm, and nice smelling (ok, odoriferous) welcome. If you are a herbivore, you come under chemical attack. Isn’t nature great?

Bearded Iris: ‘Spartan’

26 May

In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow; the flower’s name pays homage to the many colors of irises that exist. In the language of flowers, an iris is viewed as the bearer of good tidings–a reflection of the goddess Iris’ other role as messenger to the gods. I was swayed to include irises in the garden solely because of their beautiful display–but if they also bring good luck, even better.

This year, I added a maroon-colored bearded Iris: ‘Spartan.’ Its name is a nod to ancient Greek history, though their enemies would probably not have equated Spartan warriors with good tidings. I at least hope the name means the three plants I now have in my garden will be hardy.

They are the first bearded irises I have had the pleasure to observe at close range, and though they are now at the end of their brief blooming season, I kept an eager eye on them from the moment they were first in bud:

Bud and emerging bloom.

Three upward-facing petals (standards); three downward-facing petals (falls), with the beards resting atop the falls.

Close-up of a beard, which helps to guides pollinators (bees) into the flower. With the standard removed and this section of the plant opened up a bit (right), it is easier to see how the beard–and the color pattern–point the way to the nectar at the inner base of the flower. The stamen (male reproductive organ) with its pollen-covered anther is visible at the back, just in front of another petal-like structure that is called the style arm. The style arm is a highly modified pistil (female reproductive organ). Normally it’s a tight squeeze for a bee to get to the nectar; as it heads downward, it will brush up against the anther and get dusted with pollen. When the bee visits another iris, the pollen on its back rubs off and attaches to the sticky stigmatic lip (the arched line toward the top of the style arm, below the upper crest), allowing pollination to begin.

Banana Flowers and Other Edible Parts

22 May

Being a bit less mobile than usual, I thought I’d use the opportunity to choose a photo I’ve previously taken and see if I can learn more about the subject. What you see below is commonly called a banana flower or banana blossom (photo taken at the United States Botanic Garden). I’ve always been struck by this part of the plant, a deep-red appendage that dangles below the bunches of bananas. Though we like to think of the banana plant as a tree, it is technically a perennial herb, albeit a really big one; it dies down to the ground after the plant flowers and produces fruit. The inner part of the stem of the plant (which is actually a false stem consisting of leaf sheaths) is edible, as are parts of the flowers–they are considered vegetables and are popular in Asian and tropical cuisines, where they are used in salads, curries, stir fries, and other dishes.

The banana “flower” seen in the photo above is actually the lowest part of an inflorescence consisting of layers of bracts (the petal- or leaf-like parts) that cover rows of  flowers. The female flowers are higher up and can develop into fruit (bananas). Once that happens, the inflorescence elongates and produces a terminal male bud. Here, the redder (and tougher) outermost bracts of that bud have opened upward, revealing yellow-tipped male flowers underneath and paler closed bracts below.

Different parts of the banana flower (or bud) can be eaten: the innermost bracts, the florets (once the stamens and tough covers have been removed), and the inner core, or heart. The tougher outer bracts are often used as serving plates for dishes made with the other parts of the banana flower. I don’t have easy access to banana flowers, but if you do and want to experiment with them, here are some resources:

To read about the ornamental Golden Lotus Banana/Chinese Dwarf Banana, see this post. To read about the difference between Musa (bananas), Strelitzia, and Heliconia, see this post.

And here are some additional banana-related photos:

1) A banana leaf unfurling at the Eden Project in England. Each leaf emerges from the center of the banana plant in the form of a rolled cylinder. Once the last leaf has emerged, the plant produces the inflorescence, which starts off pointing skyward, but then falls over and dangles as it gets heavier and the female flowers develop into bananas.
2 ) Banana bunches on the plant (with the terminal bud having fallen off). Some bunches can contain 200-300 bananas each; the largest one recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records contained 473 bananas and weighed 287 pounds.
3) Banana transport in Rwanda.