Sunday, January 25, 2015

Travel Story--Botanists Touring Victoria, Australia

Acacia, Victoria, Australia
After the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne Australia in late July 2011, I took a tour across Victoria, Australia. A botanical tour, offered to the Botanical Congress attendees. Consequently, this tour was busload of botanists and their families--14 tourists, two guides and a driver. The tourists were an international mix: Americans, Germans, Austrians, an Estonian, an Australian from Sydney, a Colombian. We found the  native plants enthralling.

For example, here (above and belowOare two different species of Acacia. Acacias is a big genus in the pea family, Fabaceae. Australia has many many species of acacia, often called wattle, so it was fun to see the variation. In fact the majority of the world's acacias are found in Australia (tho the group is being split see previous post on acacia LINK). 

Acacia, Victoria, Australia

Then there was the wonderfully bizarre native Australian plant, a grass-tree, in the photo below. It is probably Xanthorrhoea australis, the austral grass-tree. The plant family is the Xanthorrhoeaceae. I don't think I had ever seen one before, certainly never growing wild. The 28 species of the genus Xanthorrhoea are found only in Australia. Other members of the family occur across the Old World (particularly to the south) and South America. It is a monocot, related (but not closely) to irises and amaryllises. It was one of the unusual native plants that the guides made an effort to show us. The site where we saw them--and many were flowering--had burned the year before. This grass-tree flowers especially profusely after a bush fire. (You can't tell from the photo but its about 5' tall to the tip of the flower stalk.)
grass-tree, Xanthrorrhoea, Victoria, Australia
grass-tree (Xanthorrhoea) in flower, Victoria, Australia
We hear on the news about devastating fires in Victoria, and they are. And yet, before settlement, the native vegetation burned periodically and many plants adapted to take advantage of post-fire conditions. It is a serious and complext problem, not just in Victoria but in many parts of the world, to figure ways to keep fires from hurting people and burning buildings while allowing them to rejuventate natural areas.

So we saw wonderful plants you can only see in Australia.

BUT -- the botanical tourists each also had botanical specialties. Functionally, what that meant was that the leaders couldn’t let us out of the bus without the group scattering as each person found plants of interest. And virtually every plant was of interest to one of us. 

Native Australian plants, of course. 

But also weeds…”we have dock in Germany but it doesn’t look like this.”

"Is that some kind of pea?"

 “Oh! a dandelion!” 

“Look here in the ditch, what is that reed?” 

“Funny that the oak is flowering now.”

Plants that bored me drew the attention of others and delayed our departure. But sometimes I was the last one ready to get back on the bus.

It was an natural response of visiting botanists, but I still smile in memory. 

In particular, we stopped to use the public restrooms in a spot that looked like a botanical desert—a couple of street trees, a parking lot, sidewalks. Of course I don't have a photo, it was distinctly unphotogenic.—And still the botanists wandered away. One found the street trees intriguing and walked down the block to see more. Another squatted down to identify the tiny weeds growing in the cracks in the pavement. Another found a couple of tall gangly plants along the wall behind the restrooms and vanished from sight behind the building to identify them. And, oh-no! across the road on the far side of the parking lot was a sandy path through an undeveloped lot with a mix of herbs and shrubs…more botanists scattered down that path, seeing noteworthy plants that had previously been invisible behind a slight hill. The 10-minute break stretched toward an hour before the botanists could be lured back into the van with the promise of greater treasures down the road. 

Do I sound like I'm making fun of my fellow travelers? 


But I was part of the story:  "Look!!! an oxalis! .. just a minute..."

oxalis, Melbourne, Australia
Oxalis (wood sorrel), Victoria, Australia

Comments and corrections welcome

Hope, C. and S. Parish. 2008. A Wild Australia Guide. Native Plants. Steve Parish Publishing, Archerfield, Queensland, Australia.

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Travel Story--Northern Hemisphere Botanist in Victoria, Australia

Victoria, AustraliaAt the end of the International Botanic Congress in Melbourne, Australia, in August 2011, I took a tour led by two Victoria botanists, Nigel Walsh and David Cameron, showing us plant wonders of southeastern Australia. And wonders they were.

Victoria, Australia
Australia’s native plants are very different from those familiar to me in the United States. First is the Northern Hemisphere-Southern Hemisphere difference: before the age of dinosaurs, the continents, which had been a single entity (Pangea), split. The southern landmass, today South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica, remained together as one continent, Gondwanaland, but separated from the northern continents, now North America, Europe and Asia, known as Laurasia. Thus, many of the plants of the continents that were Gondwanaland have been separate from those of Laurasia for 150-175 million years, fully long enough to produce vast differences. There are plant families and lineages within families that are only found in the Southern (or Northern) Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere plants were part of what I wanted to see. 

Secondly, most of Australia is tropical to subtropical (or desert), while North America is largely temperate, the different climates favoring different kinds of plants.

Victoria is the smallish province in the lower right hand corner of Australia (link) so I really can’t say I have seen Australia, but Victoria was full of treats.

Here are some Southern Hemisphere natives that it was a treat to see in their home territory: 

1) Southern Hemisphere conifers, for example the pine relatives, Aurcaria species. The division of Pangea took ancestral "pines" north and south, so the pines, firs and spruces of the Northern Hemisphere are distinct from but mirrored by their relatives such as auricaria and podocarpus. An auricaria in the horticultural trade and known to many Northern Hemisphere people is Norfolk island pine (Auricaria heterophylla and not a pine at all, family Auricariaceae, not Pinaceae).

Auricaria, Melbourne, Australia
in Melbourne, Australia

2) Eucalyptus - Eucalyptus species are iconic plants of Australia and, are indeed, Southern Hemisphere trees, native only to Australia and a few surrounding areas. (Plant family Myrtaceae, which is a Southern Hemisphere group that in some places has moved a little north of the Equator see map on Angiosperm Phylogeny Website: choose Families: Myrtaceae, scroll down to the 2nd world map to see the pattern which is neat link). There are at least 800 species of Eucalyptus. Here is a photo of E. regnans, called mountain ash or swamp gum. It holds the record for the world's tallest hardwood trees (angiosperms).

Eucalyptus regia, Victoria Austalia
Looking up at Eucalyptus regnans,
Victoria, Australia
3) Proteaceae - The Proteaceae is a distinctive family of Southern Hemisphere plants. Until recently they were simply something Northern Hemisphere people read about. Recently some have been brought into the horticultural trade, so there were Proteaceae flowers in the reception area of the Seattle Hilton when I was there in September. 

Banksia, Victoria, Australia
Banksia (banksia family, Proteaceae),
Victoria, Australia
Banksia, Victoria, Australia
another Banksia in the forest in Victoria, Australia

Proteaceae, Seattle
Flowers of the banksia family (Proteaceae)
 seen in Seattle

I am not a sophisticated plant geographer. However, I had for decades of given examples of Southern Hemisphere plant groups in my university courses, so it was exciting to see plants characteristic of or endemic to Australia. There is much more--I only know the groups and the most dramatic ones.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Visiting Seattle--Rambling in the Forest at Bloedel Reserve

View from the Ferry, Seattle
An escape into nature in Seattle.

I was on a tour with the Denver Art Museum's  Asian Art Association in Seattle. Art tours are great fun: they feature private collections you could not see otherwise and walks through museums led by enthusiastic curators. But this one also took me to Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island for a relaxed afternoon that nurtured my love of plants close to the hustle of a big city.

If, like me, you don’t live in city with ferries, taking a water route to a destination is a treat in itself.

We landed on Bainbridge Island and took the bus (very convenient).

Bloedel Residence
Bloedel Residence, Bainbridge Island

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Plant story-- Holly, holy and Hollywood, a Holly Postscript

In researching English (or European) holly Ilex aquifolium (holly family, Aquifoliaceae) I generated questions and here are the answers to two that puzzled me:
1) Is the word holly derived from holy?
2) Is Hollywood, California named for a grove of European holly trees?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Plant Story -- European Holly - Not Always with Spines and Red Berries

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium is widely recognized by its spiny leaves and red berries (drupes) (see post on holly folklore). Curiously, not all the leaves on European holly are spiny and not all the plants have fruit.

First, holly trees vary in the number of spiny leaves. You can see it in any of the photos--some leaves are smooth and others have spines on the edge.

All sorts of people have thought about the variation in the spines. Young plants tend to have mostly spiny leaves. (photo below) On a big tree, the lower branches have more spiny leaves than higher branches.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plant Story -- Holly (Ilex aquifolium) Celebrating the Solstice--and Christmas--for Millennia

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
We sing "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" at Christmastime, often without thinking about what we are saying. 

I live in an area where the traditional holly cannot grow, and yet everyone knows what holly looks like.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Visiting Portugal--the Algarve on the south coast

Portugal and Spain in October surprised me because dawn was at nearly 8 am. One consequence of that was that I was up to appreciate the sunrise.

sunrise off Portugal
sunrise off Portugal
I went ashore in the Algarve, the province that runs across the southern end of Portugal, to learn about the climate from the plants and about the history from the buildings.