Monday, February 25, 2013

Plant Confusions: Garden Sage and Sagebrush are Different

garden sage, Salvia officinalis
Artemisia tridentata, big sagebrush
big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata
Sometimes two plants with the same name are quite different. 
     I still remember my surprise, years ago, when I realized garden sage and prairie sages were unrelated.
    The culinary herb, sage, sometimes called garden sage for clarity, Salvia officinalis, is from Europe. Although it doesn’t taste or smell minty, you can call it a mint because it is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is related to a host of important culinary herbs, not just clary sage, spearmint and peppermint, but also plants as diverse as lemon balm, catnip and oregano. 
garden sage with flowers

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Related Plants: Camellia and Tea

Camellia variety, Pink Perfection
    There have been times when plant relationships surprised me. The fact that tea is a camellia, or one kind of camellia gives us tea, whichever way you want to look at it, is one of them.

   My father, when he retired to Florida, became a camellia grower, officer in the local Camellia Society and judge at camellia flower shows. Consequently I learned a lot about camellias and certainly admired the flowers.    

    Camellia is a genus of shrubs, classified in the plant family Theaceae, native to east and southeast Asia, especially China and Japan. They have attractive flowers, and have been bred and hybridized to create great floral diversity. See some of the diversity on 

     Camellias have been in cultivation in China and Japan for centuries.  Most of the varieties cultivated for their flowers are Camellia japonica,  although Camellia reticulata (from China) and C. sassanqua (from Japan) have contributed important varieties.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Plant Story: Not Always Just Plain Vanilla

     Good vanilla is one of my favorite flavors, and the idea of "plain vanilla," vanilla as the no-flavor flavor, has always been somehow annoying.  And it wasn't always the case.

Vanilla orchid
The vanilla orchid is the plant in the middle,
hanging down over the tree branch. (In the
Conservatory at the Smithsonian in
Washington D.C.)
   Vanilla is native to the Americas and although probably in use for millennia there, it only reached Europe after 1492. At that time it was a rare and highly desirable flavor.

   Vanilla comes from “beans,” long thin bean-like pods, but vanilla is not at all a bean (legume, plant family Fabaceae), but an orchid (plant family Orchidaceae). In fact, it is the only orchid used as a food, or used by commerce in any other way than as ornamentals (flowers) even though there are more species of orchids than species in any other plant family, legumes and grasses included.  

   Vanilla is a climbing vine with fleshy leaves longer than my hand, but 2-3 fingers wide. We grew a vanilla orchid in the greenhouse at the University of Nebraska. It climbed up to the ceiling. Then its stem connecting it to the pot broke, so the plant was hanging from the wall and ceiling without being rooted in soil at all. It lived like that for years. And that was fine until we wanted to move it...which is of course one function of flowerpots, mobility.

      The flowers of the vanilla orchid are cream-colored recognizable orchid flowers ( vanilla flowers on Google).  The fruit develops as long dark pods.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Plants and History, Mostly

  I retired, having been a professor of biology for more than 30 years. But work shapes you in ways you didn't consider. So, for example, "publish or perish," usually described as an evil thing, remains part of my wiring. "It is not done until it is published"was a rule I lived by and even though I no longer need to publish, I still want to share what I've learned. Likewise, the photos I took were used in publishing or teaching. I still take photos but they just accumulate in files.

  Thus, my motivation for this blog is to see if I can satisfy my need to share good stories and interesting  pictures via this medium.

  What I plan is to write about plants--their quirks, their uses, their history--in short, their stories.  Two very short examples:

     Vanilla, one of my favorite flavors, comes from an orchid. Although there are more species of orchids than species in any other plant family, vanilla is the only orchid that is commercially produced (for anything besides beautiful flowers), and so a very special orchid.

  My father retired to Florida and became a serious camellia grower.  I too like camellias but cannot grow them in Colorado because they cannot survive much frost. Consequently in my travels, I note and enjoy camellias wherever I see them.

    In Japan I learned that while the Japanese have native camellias and certainly grow them, the samurai disliked them because the fallen flowers reminded them too much of beheaded samurai. That has certainly changed the way I look at camellias.