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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

Day Trip from Rome: Garden of Ninfa

19 Mar

Spring is in the air and that means the Garden of Ninfa, which has been called the most romantic garden in the world, will soon be open for its limited 2017 season. Ninfa is the Italian word for nymph. It is an apt name for this sylvan place that time forgot, with its flowers, trees, and gurgling streams, and its ruins covered in vines.


Located near Cisterna Latina 75 km (46 miles) southeast of Rome, Ninfa has a long and colorful history. A thousand years ago, it was a small town by a flowing stream, home to a temple dedicated to the water nymphs from whence it got its name. By 1100 it had become an important and wealthy place next to the only north-south road that was passable when the Appia Antica was flooded.

  
Pope Alexander III was crowned there in 1159, but the town’s honor and glory would not last long; the Pope’s enemy the Emperor Barbarossa sacked the town. It eventually passed into the hands of the Caetani family, though it suffered a long and steady decline starting in the 1300s. During subsequent centuries, nature took its course, engulfing the abandoned medieval town, which faded from sight.


But not from memory. In the early 1920s, Gelasio Caetani decided to reclaim the swampy land via a custom-built drainage and irrigation system, and establish a garden amid the ruined town with the help of his English-born mother and American-born sister-in-law. Gelasio’s’ niece Leilia Caetani and husband Hubert Howard continued the family’s work. They imported plants from all over the world; the 8-hectacre (20-acre) site is home to more than 1,000 plant species, including dozens of roses, clematis, climbing hydrangea, water irises, ornamental cherry trees, cypress, magnolias, oaks, and poplars, among many others.

 
  

Today, a foundation maintains the garden, which is only open on certain dates and is accessible only via a guided tour. In 2017, visiting season kicks off on April 1. The majority of open days are in the spring, though the season runs through November 5. Check online for dates and to buy tickets–and if you are going to go, get there early. If you have a few minutes before your tour starts (or after it ends), you can cross the road and visit the Horti Nympharum, a classic citrus garden across the lane complete with fountain, a family of swans, and castle ruins to wander through. There is a separate entry fee for that garden, but it is worth the price.

  
Finally, if you are making a day of it, head up to the walled hill town of Sermoneta for lunch; the town itself is charming, and the views of the valley from above are gorgeous.

  
  

View of Garden of Ninfa from above

Geneva’s Botanic Garden-and Plant Theft

4 Jun


Any flower garden is a pleasure to behold, but a thoughtfully curated, beautifully laid-out, well-maintained botanic garden is truly magical. It is a living museum based on sustainability and conservation where knowledge and art come together to educate visitors and expose them to collections they might not otherwise see. The Geneva Botanic Garden — with its outdoor rock gardens, streams, and ponds; its conservatories; and its arboretum — is such a place.


I visited it twice and saw hundreds of gorgeous plants, including the ethereal, ballerina-like Pulsatilla serotina Magnier:

  
Gunnera tinctoria (Giant Rhubarb) and Orontium aquaticum (Golden Club), at water’s edge:

  
…  Paeonia tenuifolia (Fern Leaf Peony) and Euphorbia rigida (Gopher Spurge):

  
Because botanic gardens are such peaceful places, it is hard to imagine any nefarious activity occurring in them. But botanic gardens contain items of great beauty and of great worth, and just as there have been art heists, there have also been famous plant heists: from the almost-daily theft of tulips in Carolus Clusius‘ botanic garden at Leiden University in the late 1500s (precursor to the really nasty Tulip Mania that would follow) to the 2014 theft of a water lily brought back from the brink of extinction at London’s Kew Gardens–a crime Scotland Yard was called in to investigate.

The result is that at many botanic and private gardens, and in other unexpected places, increased security is now par for the course. Pun intended–a lone, wild lady slipper orchid found on a golf course in England in 1930 (the only one if its kind–the plant had been declared extinct) is said to have more police protection than the Queen.

I was reminded of this dark side of the botanic world twice in recent weeks: first, by a sign in an empty spot at the Geneva Botanic Garden: “Here a plant was STOLEN by someone without scruples and without respect for our collections.” It was a sobering sight.


And second, on a private garden tour on the outskirts of Rome, where a well-dressed elderly lady surreptitiously took clippings of numerous plants and hid them in her handbag.  Luckily, the owner of the garden is usually quite gracious about clippings, when asked. But what is it that compels people to possess something beautiful, rather than simply admire it?

The Independent said it well in an article about the obsession with orchids: “It is a curious and dispiriting aspect of human behaviour that some of the most beautiful features of the Earth can be destroyed by people’s love for them.”

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.

Botanical Garden of Rome (Orto Botanico)

29 Sep

Sometimes, after a week spent dealing with the logistical and bureaucratic aspects of moving to a new country (opening a bank account in Italy and accessing online banking are not for the faint-hearted, for example), all you want is a tiny bit of peace. That can be hard to find anywhere near the usual sights of Rome. But there are two spots where it is possible if you get to each when they open: the walled-in ‘Non-Catholic” Cemetery in Testaccio (burial place of Keats, Shelley, and other luminaries), which I will write about later, and the Botanical Garden of Rome in Trastevere, which is featured in this post. Despite having lived in Rome before, we had never been to this lovely spot; beyond the horticultural appeal, it would have been a fantastic, open place to take our (then young) children and let them run around. That is why you should get there right when it opens, especially on weekends–Roman families start arriving later in the morning.

 
Entrance sign; View of fountain

 
Hybrid Tea Rose ‘Altesse;’ White Gossypium (cotton) flower

 
White water lily and its reflection; Ferocactus pilosus (cactus)

 
View from Medicinal Garden; Tropical Greenhouse

 
Giant Water Lily pad; a young pad unfurling

–More photos from the Botanical Garden of Rome here.

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.

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.

 

Collegiality, Competition, and Lotuses

29 Jun

Early this morning, my mother and I stumbled upon an other-worldly scene: thousands of lotus flowers in bloom at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC. We arrived at 7:30 am to see the lotus flowers while they are open. The lotuses were indeed gorgeous, but the most striking aspect of our visit was seeing all the photographers who had arrived before us to stake their claims. The ones I spoke with were amateurs–but they were serious amateurs, with lenses almost as big as my leg, tripods, reflectors, step ladders, rolling equipment cases, and assistants. Some came from as far as New York. I had no idea Kenilworth’s lotus blooms attracted this much attention. I showed up with my camera, a small case containing three lenses (the largest of which is smaller than my hand), and my mother. No tripod, no reflector, no ladder. I looked glaringly out of place, unencumbered by the accoutrements of the trade, with not even a flak jacket to my name.

Photographers
For the most part, there was a great spirit of collegiality–sharing of tips, patient waiting for good spots, etc. But everyone was there to get a good shot, and as the sun bore down and the light became trickier, some competitiveness emerged. One photographer and her friend/assistant had spent some time setting up tripod and camera, and were focusing on a particularly lovely lotus flower. Another photographer stopped close by, but not in the first photographer’s line of vision, to see if he could get a differently angled shot of the same flower. He asked if that was okay. Female photographer: “I can’t tell you where you can or can’t stand, but there are lots of other flowers here.”  Male photographer got the hint and moved on. I’d like to think that was the exception, rather than the rule.

I was using a macro lens to capture a dragonfly on a lotus bud when another photographer came by, took a second look to see what I was shooting so close up, and got very excited when he saw the dragonfly. I stepped aside to give him a  turn. The good thing about dragonflies is that once they find a spot they like, they often spend some time there, so I knew I would probably get another chance. Plus, the gentleman I ceded the spot to had a huge lens and I knew he would be able to get a really, really nice close-up shot. If I got any closer with my little macro lens, I’d fall into the pond.

Later, I was admiring some lotuses, but ruing the fact they were in direct sunlight–and hence, beyond my ability to shoot them properly–when the same gentleman stopped by again, and had his friend hold up a huge reflector that allowed both of us to take the shot (third photo below). In the end, I like to think that though we are all photographers of varying abilities, we are kindred spirits nonetheless–out there to capture fleeting moments of beauty. Below are lotus buds and blooms, with close-ups of a lotus receptacle, and of water pooling on a lotus leaf.

  

  

The Birds and the Bees

22 Jun

I’ve written quite a lot about flora lately, so today it’s all about showcasing some local fauna: a few of the birds and bees (and a bug and a chipmunk) that I have had the pleasure to encounter in the past couple of months.


A cardinal in flight in our backyard…

  
A robin at Brookside Gardens in an optimistic (but ultimately futile) bid to score twine for its nest; a makeshift bird beach at the US Botanical Garden

  
A Canada Goose guarding his territory at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens; and a bee coming…


…and going.

  
And finally, a dragonfly and a chipmunk, each going about their business earlier today at Brookside.

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.