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Red, White, and Blue 2014

4 Jul

A few photos for US Independence Day. Red: Costus woodsonii (Indian Head Ginger) and Hibiscus. White: Cornus kousa (Kousa Dogwood). Blue: Echium candicans (Pride of Madeira) and Iris reticulata (Dwarf Dutch Iris).



Weekly Photo Challenge: Extra, Extra

14 Jun

This week, the challenge is for a photo with something extra–an unexpected detail. This photo was an experiment. I was sitting in our living room on a rainy morning earlier this spring, looking out at our deciduous azaleas and wondering what would happen if I took a photo of them through the window screen. Here is the result. The “something extra” is the pattern of the screen in the background (or is it the foreground?).

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.


The Challenges of Gardening and Cooking on Crutches

17 May

This title is misleading because it sounds like I actually have been able to do some gardening and cooking since breaking my ankle three weeks ago and being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis three days ago. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hence this lovely photo of one of the many weeds that have now taken up residence in the garden. And the absence of any photos (or blog posts) pertaining to new garden initiatives or new dishes. But I can write about things happening in the garden of their own accord (future posts), as well as recent lessons learned, many of which involve crutches (this post).


1. When crossing a street, look left, right, and DOWN. Or else your ankle could go one way and you could go the other, with unhappy results.
2. You will develop a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with your crutches.
3. Crutches are made to transport mainly one thing–you. But you have been used to transporting multiple things yourself with the help of both your hands and feet, one of which can no longer be used and the other three of which are valiantly trying to to keep you upright and semi-mobile. This poses certain challenges.
4. Namely, how to transport hot beverages. A beverage tray for crutches would really come in handy. I was able to carry a number of things on crutches via the-tuck-the-item-into-my-waistband-and-hope-my-pants-don’t-fall-down method, but I didn’t dare try that with a cup of tea.
5. Not being able to use one foot means you will develop really good balancing skills on the other one. This came in handy when I leaned over on one foot to pull a few weeds from the edge of our patio the other day, though the neighbors may have thought I was practicing some bizarre new form of Tai Chi. The downside to all this balancing on one foot: your injured leg muscles will disappear while the muscles on your other leg will fill out quite nicely, leading to a lovely asymmetrical look.
6. If you are like me, crutches will also allow you to discover muscles in your arms that you didn’t know existed. That’s another plus: increased upper body strength for improved gardening efficiency. But if the muscles in your injured leg ever start aching, pay attention. What I thought was a calf muscle that was strained from limping around too much three weeks post fracture turned out to be a blood clot.
7. If you should ever have the misfortune to end up with deep vein thrombosis after a fracture, you will find that all things considered, the fracture might actually be the less painful/scary of the two. Part of the reason is the blood-thinning medication you have to inject into your own stomach twice a day, which feels as if you were being stung by a bee each time. It is really not fair to bees.
8. Finally and most importantly, be immensely thankful when your body works well. All the many parts, including the humble foot, make even the simplest things possible–yet it’s so easy to take those parts for granted.
9. Ditto for the family members and friends/coworkers who turned into nurses, chauffeurs, and advocates at a moment’s notice. They make everything possible, too.

Birth of an Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

10 May

The thing I love most about this time of year is the process by which new flower buds slowly open up and reveal their hidden treasures. I particularly love watching my Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ as the buds break free from the papery bracts protecting them and explode into a profusion of perky florets. The allium ‘flower’ is actually a cluster of much smaller flowers (florets) atop a stem–this type of arrangement is called an inflorescence.

The papery bract begins to split open under the strain of the growing florets.

The florets start to take on color.

The emerging inflorescence, seen from above.

Individual florets begin to bloom.                Close-up of a floret.

The newly emerged inflorescence, seen from above.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ in bloom.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

3 May

When I think of Spring, I think of flowers and new life.  This Tulipa “Ballerina” is one the the earliest and cheeriest flowers in my garden, and a look inside the tulip reveals some essentials about plant reproduction.

This close-up focuses on the three-lobed stigma (the top-most section of the tulip’s female reproductive parts, known collectively as the pistil), which catches pollen via its sticky and fuzzy surface. The pollen then travels down the tube-like style to the ovary where  fertilization takes place (if the pollen came from a tulip plant), ultimately leading to the production of seeds. The six pollen-covered anthers (the top-most parts of the male reproductive organs, known collectively as the stamens) are blurred in the background; the stamens emanate from the base of the pistil.

Tulips are considered “perfect” flowers because they contain both male and female reproductive organs. They can self pollinate, but can also cross pollinate in the wild with the help of bees and other pollinators. Alas, most commercial tulips, including this one, are sterile hybrids. But the good thing is that tulips also reproduce via their bulbs, which allows gardeners to enjoy them anew each spring.

Double, Double, Toil and Shovel

14 Apr

One good thing about gardening is that while certain things need to be done throughout the year, I believe (hope) there is significant flexibility in when those things can be done (otherwise, I’m in trouble). There is one big exception to this philosophy: Easter. It is our one and only gardening deadline–an immutable date by which the garden must receive a serious makeover in order to present its best (or at least, not its worst) side to the guests who will come to our house for Easter. It helps that this excuse forces us to give the garden a really good start to the season, in compensation for any benign neglect that may be headed its way later.

This spring-cleaning mania also applies to Schnauzer 1 and Schnauzer 2–without fail, they get nice new haircuts so that our guests do not mistakenly assume we have taken to rearing sheep. After four hours of on-and-off grooming yesterday that neither they nor I appreciated very much, they now look like leaner and more refined versions of their former selves. They also look naked, but we are all getting used to it.

The garden, too, looks simultaneously neater and more naked. The protective fall leaves have now been replaced with a tidier layer of mulch. The emerging plants are still maintaining their distance from their neighbors; at at this time of year there is only a foreshadowing of the lushness of summer. But the garden’s current low-key appearance is deceptive. I planted or transplanted more than 130 plants during the past two weekends.

This is admittedly a bit nuts. I have a tendency to move plants around before they are in their fully active growth mode,  if I can still move them easily. Sometimes it is for altruistic reasons (to save plants  in danger of being overtaken by their neighbors) and sometimes for aesthetic ones (something else may look better there, or vice versa). But in recent days, I also replaced plants that did not survive our rough winter; filled in a new, long and narrow flower bed alongside our new-ish patio (populated entirely by some of the aforementioned transplanted plants: Montauk Daisy, roses, and Switchgrass); decommissioned the rose garden and turned it into a vegetable garden; covered a sloped area with ground cover; and installed a bird bath.

The stage is now set; time for the actors to arrive.

New (transplanted) flower bed                           Robin enjoying new bird bath

Plants: Why it Pays to Be Prickly

5 Apr
Didierea madagascariensis (Octopus Tree)

Didierea madagascariensis (Octopus Tree), close-up

While most people would bristle at the thought of being called prickly, a plant would consider it quite the compliment.

For us, prickliness has negative connotations. A prickly disposition means someone is easily irritated, a prickly sensation is one that is itchy and scratchy, and a prickly situation is one to avoid.

But for a plant, prickliness pays. It is a protective adaptation that allows the plant to survive while facing multiple challenges, the main one being herbivores hoping for a nice snack. In my garden, carnivores of the canine variety are the bigger problem; their rampages through the flower beds in pursuit of squirrels have felled less-protected plants. But even they now know not to tear through the rose garden.

In common parlance, the terms “prickles,” “thorns,” and “spines” are often used interchangeably, but botanically speaking, they are different things: prickles come from a plant’s epidermis (the outermost cell layer) and break off quite easily, thorns are modified plant stems, and spines are modified leaves or parts of leaves. Rose “thorns” are actually prickles.

In this post, I’ll focus on spines. Why? Because it still boggles my mind that spines are ….  (modified) leaves.

Didierea madagascariensis                                       Pachypodium lamerei

Aside from being a source of protection, spines serve an important function for xeric plants (xerophytes: plants that have adapted to survive in environments with little water; cacti, aloes, agaves and other succulents are xeric plants). In desert areas, most plants with large, thin, flat leaves wouldn’t last very long; they would lose too much water. So desert plants had to adapt, or die. One of their adaptations was the modification of leaves into spines. Compared to traditional leaves, spines have a very small surface area, which reduces water loss. They reflect sunlight, deflect drying winds, and provide shade to the plant. At night, when it’s cooler, spines collect and drip condensed water vapor.

Knowing all this has expanded my thinking about “prickliness;”  in this case, the pricklier the situation, the better!

Cleistocactus winteri (Golden Rat Tail cactus)