Sunday, August 21, 2016

Common Names--What a Mess!

Saskatoon berries, or you might know them as...
Here are the fruits on my saskatoon--you might know them service berries or June berries. In the East you might call this a shadbush. Robins don't argue over the names, they just gobble the fruits down.

To entertain with the stories I love, I have to identify the plant. That is what names are for--communication. Why is it so difficult to have widely recognized plant names?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Visiting Baja California--Flowers in the Desert

mesquite, Baja California
mesquite, probably  Prosopis glandulosa, honey mesquite 
Deserts are stressful places for plants. Water is in short supply and often unpredictable in its arrival. Growing and flowering are difficult, since they require water. Yet plants like the mesquite, above, and the cardón cacti, below, were in flower in the dry Baja California desert in April.

desert, Baja California
desert scene, Baja California
Deserts plants cope with drought various ways.  Annual plants are opportunists. They spend most of the time as seeds, then grow, flower and go to seed within one to four weeks after a good rain, not to reappear until the next heavy rain. Other plants are perennial, visible members of the community. They have woody stems that increase in size or expand without wood from a big root system. Perennial plants must store water, soaking it up like a sponge when it rains, so that they can consume it slowly during long dry periods. Some perennials flower based on rainfall, but others flower the same time every year, using their stored water.

On the islands of the southern half of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), a surprizing number of perennial plants were flowering in mid-April.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Plant Story--Wavy Leaf Thistle, A Pretty Native, Not A Weed

Cirsium undulatum, wavyleaf thistle

Wavy leaf thistle, Cirsium undulatum, is a native thistle of the plains and the west of North America (sunflower family, Asteraceae). Thistles are a weird group: some are rare and endangered, some are extremely abundant noxious weeds. Wavy leaf isn't currently protected, but it is closer to being rare than noxious.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Plant Story--Thyme and Its Folklore

Having a lot of thyme is joy. Grow some and see.

Thyme is a small mint (mint family, Lamiaceae) with the scientific name Thymus. The thymes are from Eurasia where there are some 350 species.

Humans have liked the scent for a very long time. The oldest report of thyme use that I could find is apparently in the Ebers Papyrus, from ancient Egypt about 1550 BCE (more information) where it was used medicinally.

Several species of thyme grow in the hills of Greece. Ancient Greeks, liking the fragrance, used thyme freely, especially as an important ingredient in incense. The name thyme is from Greek,
variously described as derived from the word for incense (thymiama), the word for incense burner (thymiaterion), a word for a perfume (thuo), and/or the word for courage/bravery (thymos or thumus).

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Visitng Sweden--A Wandering Botanist in Stockholm part 2

Our trip to the big city of Stockholm, Sweden, turned into a botanical tour as well (link to last week). Here are some more of the pleasures of botanizing in a city.
the Gustav Vasa
the Gustav Vasa
The Vasa Museum is the very famous Stockholm museum housing the ship the Gustav Vasa, a sailing ship that sank in Stockholm harbor in 1628 on its maiden voyage and that, 333 years later, was raised, restored and provides a wonderful glimpse of the time (link). I had seen the museum in 1969 and 1987 but enjoyed it mightily this time too. One engaging addition was a series of videos on the situation elsewhere in the world at the time--I didn't know that at that time the Ming Dynasty in China was being defeated by the Qing (link) or that the Vasa was concurrent with the Mughal empire in India (link).

AND, the Vasa Museum curators had created a garden of plants typically used when the Vasa sailed. I certainly never saw the garden in my previous visits. It is close to the doors to the museum, but not particularly obvious. The little garden featured food plants such as broad beans (Vicia fava) and kale (Brassica oleracea), and medical plants like St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). The flax (Linum usitatissimum) was in full bloom. Flax was grown for flax seeds and the linseed oil produced from them and the stalks were processed into linen. Today there are specialized varieties of flax for each purpose, but that was probably not the case in 1628. I was surprised the flax was so short: turning those little stalks into thread would have been hard work. But all linen production is hard work, because you have to strip the outer layers off the strong central fiber, a process of rotting and pounding, before you can begin to spin.( more on making linen thread).

Flax, Linum usitatissimum, in flower

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Visiting Sweden—A Wandering Botanist in Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden, a major city with a population of almost 800,000. How is that a botanical destination? 

Well, as soon as you get more than, say, 100 miles from home, the plants start to change because the climate (and soil or both) change. By the time you hop half way around the world (Denver to Newark, 4 hour flight, Newark to Stockholm 7 hours more) the native plants are almost entirely different. Recognizing a plant is exciting!

lawn with yarrow
Lawn with yarrow (Achillea millefolium, sunflower family, Asteraceae) as weeds
There are green trees and green lawns in a city like Stockholm, so it seems familiar. But when I looked more closely, most of the plants were different. Distance--being on opposite sides of an ocean, for example--is important in making different areas have different ordinary plants but climate plays a big part too. In Stockholm it was light until nearly midnight although the sun was very low by then and although the days were sunny the highs rarely topped 80 F. Several nights, it rained. In Colorado while we were gone, most days were over 90 and there was one brief thunderstorm. Plants that do well in the cool moisture of Stockholm are just not the same plants that grow well in the intense dry heat of midsummer Colorado.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Plant Story--Thyme Lawn

When I retired, I had lots of thyme.

blooming thyme

That's because I removed the grass from my lawn and planted thyme in that space. I reasoned that the front lawn was never needed for a picnic or a croquet game and mowing was tedious. It has worked wonderfully. The small plants I planted have spread to cover all the space:

newly planted thyme lawn
The lawn just after it was planted.