Weekly Photo Challenge: It Is Easy Being Green! Different shades, textures, and forms of green from the garden.
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.
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to go on the White House’s Spring Garden Tour with a good friend. There were tulips everywhere, but these striking red ones caught my eye, probably because they were past the first flush of youth yet managed to look so elegant in their decay. I won’t dwell on the philosophical ramifications of that–but I will dub them ‘Norma Desmond’ tulips since I don’t know what type they actually are.
Aside from tulips , there are commemorative trees throughout the gardens, planted by various presidents and first ladies. The oldest are two huge Southern Magnolias that have been flanking the South Portico of the White House since 1830, when Andrew Jackson planted them (see glimpses of both trees, plus some wisteria, below):
And of course, there is the spectacular view from the White House of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.
Could the day get any better? Why yes, it could. Because the Willard Hotel, renown for its afternoon tea, is right around the corner, and they seated us despite our not having any reservations. The Willard’s ‘Peacock Alley’ afternoon tea venue is below:
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
This is the story of a small spider in my garden. It being a cloudy and rainy morning, I grabbed my camera and headed for the yard. When it’s wet outside, colors pop and raindrops pearl on flowers and foliage—a gorgeous sight. But I only got as far as the sole remaining bloom on a Hybrid Tea Rose “Perfume Delight,” because I discovered that a small but industrious spider had established a new home there.
It’s hard to see, but for a good part of the morning, that spider was busy making silk threads; the first photo below shows a thread at top left, and the other is a not-very good photo of the spider spinning (I managed to focus on the thread and a few rain drops, but alas, not on the spider…).
That rose bloom wasn’t there a couple weeks ago. The spider could only have happened upon it recently, not knowing it had chosen an ever-evolving and ultimately doomed home. Even in the few hours between this morning and this afternoon, the rose bloom unfurled a bit more, breaking some of the spider’s newly spun threads. In a couple weeks, the bloom won’t be there at all. And yet, the spider remains, a Don Quixote in disguise.
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.
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.
Not far from a mailbox near our house is a cheery patch of yellow flowers commonly known as Black-Eyed Susans. When I went to confirm their scientific name (Rudbeckia hirta), I discovered that–much to my chagrin–they are the state flower of Maryland, which has been our home for the past 12 years. I have no excuse. I really had no idea, despite having some Black-Eyed Susans in the garden of our old house (also in Maryland). My current garden does feature a close cousin: some tall and graceful Rudbeckia maximas. I’m hoping I get some bonus points for that family connection….
This bout of state-related ignorance has inspired me to go from having no idea to having a nice idea: in two weeks, we will drive across the United States (from the West Coast back home to the East Coast). So my admittedly joyful task will now be to make note of each state flower along the route and see if I can take a picture of it. In the meantime, here is the lovely state flower of Maryland:
Few things beat the taste of a tomato that’s come straight from the garden. And cherry tomatoes offer that extra, satisfying little pop as you bite into them. The photo below shows our first harvest of the season, but the tomatoes in this bowl won’t make it into any recipe; these sun-warmed beauties are all going to be eaten just as they are–as a snack straight from Nature. However, there is a reason these tomatoes are called Sweet 100s: before long, I’ll be wondering what to do with all of them. I see lots of salads on the horizon, as well as our favorite Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella, and Basil. And cherry tomatoes would also work in Roasted Tomatoes, Onions, and Garlic with Basil–though I’d start cooking the onions and garlic first, adding the cherry tomatoes toward the end of the roasting time. I detect a common theme in both recipes: basil. And now that I recall, last I saw it, our basil was in danger of being overtaken by the flowering oregano that has run riot in the herb garden…. Time for some triage in the name of good eats!