Sunday, September 13, 2020

Alpine Tundra in Northern Colorado

Tundra is the ecosystem where it is too cold for trees. It can be too cold because the growing season is too short or because the soil is frozen (permafrost) much of the time and, in the brief periods when it is not frozen, shifts, knocking trees over, usually both. Tundra is found in the Arctic (in the Antarctic, ocean fills the area that would have tundra) and high on mountains. It is the coldest ecosystem on earth.



alpine zone, Rocky Mountain National Park
alpine tundra is above the highest trees

Ecologists try to reduce the world's ecosystems to a minimum number. Of land ecosystems, called biomes, they can be reduced to forest, grassland, desert, and tundra. For people in the lower 48 United States, tundra is hardest biome to see. There is no arctic tundra in the lower 48 and alpine tundra occurs only on the tops of mountains. There are areas of alpine tundra high in the mountains of New York and New England, a chain of spots of tundra along the Rocky Mountains above 10,500 feet, and a similar chain of tundra when you get high enough in the Sierras and Cascades. Rocky Mountain National Park has the most accessible alpine tundra, because Trail Ridge Road will let you drive right up to it. And it is pretty extensive, something like 149 square miles in all the park (though some of it is way too steep for people or on an isolated peak). I wanted to see all the biomes of the world. Tundra was the last of the four I reached.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Robert Fortune, Tea, and China

Robert Fortune (1820-1880) was a plant collector who did a lot of work in China. I encountered him reading about plants from China that are now common garden plants in Europe and North America (forsythias, peonies, wisteria and more), in Sarah Rose' book on tea, For All the Tea in China, How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, in London at Chelsea Physic Garden where he was curator, and his home nearby. British sources talk of him as a talented and brave plant collector. Sarah Rose's book and some thought about how the Chinese might view it, complicates that picture. 

sign from Robert Fortune's house in London
This placque is on the house at 9 Gilston Road,  Chelsea, London

Robert Fortune house, London

The language we choose is so evocative. Robert Fortune stole tea from China. He broke the Chinese monopoly on tea. He spied in China, disguised as a Chinese. Despite great difficulties, he collected and successfully brought many important Chinese plants to England. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Plant Story--St. John's Wort, Klamath Weed, Hypericum perforatum

Today, you mostly hear of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum, St. Johns wort family, Hypericaceae) as a medicinal plant. It has been shown to be effective treating depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders and is widely used for those. But when I studied ecology in graduate school in the 1970s, under its American name, Klamath weed, it was the weed in a major weed-control story. So here are both tales.

Hypericum St. John's wort
St. John's wort, Klamath weed, Hypericum perforatum

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Messy Forests


Rocky Mountain National Park

Walking in Rocky Mountain National Park, there are many places where fallen trees lie. It looks messy. 

                        Fallen trees, Rocky Mountain National Park

The visitor might think: they should clean that up, but perhaps they don't have the budget, or the spot is inaccessible. 

It is more complex than that. Leaving fallen trees lie may be the best use for them. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Plant Confusions--More than Three Coneflowers

coneflower, Rudbeckia
coneflower 

If you are confused when someone points out a coneflower and it is not what you expected, you are not alone. I count forty different plant species in five genera that are called coneflower. Some you will probably never encounter, but three genera, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Ratibida, are relatively common and sold as garden flowers. I'll start with those.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Plant Story--Cinquefoils, Potentilla

"If any man will ask any thing of a king or prince, [cinquefoil] giveth abundance of eloquence, if he have it with him, and he shall obtain that which he desires," wrote Albertus Magnus in the 13th century. Well, not really. Albertus Magnus (d. 1280, biography) was a real person, a famous medieval German scholar, but The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus was an anonymous work of folklore and superstition that appeared in the 16th century. But, clearly, cinquefoil was considered a powerful plant.


Cinquefoils were medicinal and magical plants in Europe. They are a group of plants in the rose family (Rosaceae) with pretty five-petal flowers, usually yellow, and distinctive leaves with five lobes like a hand. The common name, cinquefoil, means five-leaf in French. Old English names included five-finger grass (grass meaning "plant" in this context), but some species had distinctive names, for example silverweed and tormentil.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Plant Story--Shrubby Cinquefoil

shrubby cinquefoil Dasiphora fruticosa
shrubby cinquefoil, Dasiphora fruiticosa

Cinquefoils are cute little flowers, usually yellow, in the rose family, Rosaceae. Traditionally they were in the genus Potentilla. Shrubby cinquefoil of the northern and western North America (see USDA map link) was for many years called Potentilla fruticosa. It is easily distinguished from the 68 native and 8 introduced species of Potentilla in North America because it is the only woody shrub, not a non-woody herb. Then, some years ago, DNA and other evidence indicated that shrubby cinquefoil and the other cinquefoils that are shrubs (11, all from Eurasia) were pretty different from other cinquefoils, so they were reclassified into another genus. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

A Gallery of Bromeliads

Last week I talked about the diversity of the bromeliads, plants in the family Bromeliaceae (link).  Here are photos of a bunch of them, although, alas, I don't have pictures of some of the most extreme species. And I have to confess that because I only encounter them when traveling--it is too cold and too dry for them outdoors in Colorado and normally too dry indoors--for the most part I cannot name them. So enjoy the pictures.

Brilliant foliage 

red bromeliad

And it can be this red in the wild. This very old photo from Costa Rica shows red-leaved bromeliads in the tree
 
                                 red bromeliad in tree

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Bromeliads! The Plant Family Bromeliaceae

bromeliad

Bromeliad is the name of a plant family, Bromeliaceae,  turned into a common name. The family is almost entirely native to the New World and particularly, the New World tropics. There are 3,403 species in 69 genera. 

Bromeliads are all herbaceous, not woody, and most are easily recognize as bromeliads, and yet there is remarkable variation, since they range from pineapples (Ananas comosus) to rosettes of leaves with a water-collecting "tank" in the center which grow on the ground or high in trees, to "air plants" which take their water and nutrition out of the air, to strange shapes like Spanish moss (Tiliandsia usneoides).

bromeliads in tree
bromeliads in tree

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Ecosystem Recovery--River Edges Flooded in 2013

Sand and tree trunks

In September, 2013, the Big Thompson River flooded, sweeping down its channel from Estes Park to Loveland, Colorado and out onto the plains, overflowing its banks all the way. Small rivers seem placid, even when they are rushing down from the mountains. The power of those same rivers in flood was a revelation to those of us who had not seen it before. The water swept away all the river-side vegetation, leaving naked gravel and all sorts of debris. 

I spoke with people--a land owner along the river, a neighbor who regularly walked riverside paths--who wondered whether the riverside would ever recover.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Plant Story--Golden Banner, Thermopsis rhombifolia

golden banner flowers in a meadow

It is a bright spot under the trees of the Rocky Mountains, that patch of yellow flowers of golden banner, Thermopsis rhombifolia. This is a plant of the pea family, Fabaceae, with rather typical compound leaves of three to five leaflets, flower like a garden pea and, ultimately, pods. The flower is a dramatic yellow.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bali Dye Garden--Fiber Plants of Tropical Asia

On a trip to Asia, I visited Bali and had the opportunity to visit the Threads of Life Dye Garden in Ubud. They grew dye plants of the region and taught traditional dyeing, maintaining and sharing local cultural history. I wrote about their dye plants previously (blues, yellows).

garden path, dye garden Bali
Threads of Life Dye Garden. Ubud, Bali

The signs were very good, explaining how the plants were used--as dyes or mordants or in traditional dye mixes. But other plants in the dye garden were none of these, but rather traditional sources of fiber for various types of weaving. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Plant Story--Spiderwort, Tradescantia

Tradescantia flowers

Spiderwort, Tradescantia (spiderwort and dayflower family, Commelinaceae), is a native wildflower. The flowers come in shades from blue to white or pink (much color variation within species). Spider in the name refers to the visual effect of looking spidery, wort is an old word meaning plant.

Here it is looking spidery: 

                                 spidery spiderwort

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Estes Park, Colorado, June 2020



Rocky Mountain National Park
Sheep Meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park
                           
We stayed at home from March 14 to May 31, 2020. Rocky Mountain National Park was closed then, in part to reduce crowds that might bring the corona virus to the nearby towns. One of Colorado's early lessons in the Covid-19 pandemic was that clinics in mountain towns have very small ICU (Intensive Care Units) and are easily overwhelmed. By late May, Colorado was reopening and Rocky Mountain National Park announced its own reopening, with a new daily entry pass required, free ($2 service charge and normal entrance fees), available online, but in limited numbers, to manage crowds. We booked a hotel we knew (Woodlands on Fall River) that has cabins with separate entrances. And off we went for three midweek days.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Plant Story--Turmeric Part 2 Dye and Indicator

Turmeric (Curcuma longa, ginger family, Zingiberaceae) is a spice produced from the ground rhizome of a tropical ginger. In the previous blog (link) I talked about its origins. I knew it as a  yellow powder used in curries, but little more. In fact, it has been a minor herb in European and North American cooking, but incredibly important plant in Asian life and an intense, fugitive yellow dye.
yellow from turmeric
Dyed with turmeric;  it is a spectacular yellow.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Plant Story--Turmeric Part 1 Spice and Much More

Turmeric (Curcuma longa, ginger family Zingiberaceae) is a Southeast Asian ginger that has been a major spice and dye since antiquity.
turmeric, Curcuma longa
turmeric (Curcuma longa)
It grows from a rhizome (the source of the spice), with short stems and tall leaves that can be 3' high. Flowers are yellow-white and pretty (link). While close relatives, called curcuma by nurseries, for example Curcuma petiolata and C. aromatica, are grown for their dramatic flowers, breeders have produced some handsome varieties of turmeric as well, with red, white, or pink flowers link. Turmeric is unknown in the wild and makes no seeds, so it requires people to spread it, although in a few places in the tropics it appears to have escaped from cultivation.

Turmeric has been cultivated in India for at least 4,500 years. It is an important spice in India and Southeast Asia, essential to curry powder, the yellow of yellow rice, and as a medicine and cleanser.  It is recorded from the Middle East by 800 BCE, China about 700 CE, and East Africa about 800 CE. It reached the coast of southeast Asia before the Micronesians and Polynesians set sail into the east, so arrived in Tahiti, Hawaii and Easter Island with humans. It does not grow in Europe (too cold and dry) but was brought there by trade through the Middle East shortly after 1000 CE. Europeans called it Indian saffron or eastern saffron, but, lacking a dish like curry in their cuisine, it never became a major spice. Today turmeric is of course essential to curries, and flavors dishes in cuisines from Polynesia to China to India to Iran to west Africa. It is also used commercially as a colorant for lots of foods that are yellowish, from cheese and butter to orange juice and popcorn.

Turmeric is often compared to saffron. Saffron (Crocus sativus, amaryllis family Amaryllidaceae) makes an intense yellow powdery dyestuff, but, because it is the dried, crushed stigmas of the
flower--small and only available when the plants are flowering--dyes similar to it but available in larger quantities were prized in the Middle East and Europe. Turmeric was valued in its own right, but it also substituted for saffron. For millennia unscrupulous merchants have sold turmeric for saffron. Saffron is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and was not recorded from India before the 10th century, so in India and eastward, saffron is imitation turmeric.

I learned to pronounce turmeric with the first r silent (like February). The first online dictionary I checked pronounced that r, the second said either pronunciation was okay, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has it silent (phonetically ˈtəːmərɪk"). I conclude either pronunciation is okay.


turmeric, Curcuma longa

I expected the name turmeric to be a version of a Sanskrit name, but the OED shows a whole list of variant English spellings. including tarmaret, tormarith, turn-merick, tarmanick, tarmaluk, and turmerick, and says the origin is from the French terre mérite and Latin terra merita "deserving or deserved earth,", reportedly the name used by early Arab traders. Why it should be "deserved earth" the OED does not say. However, in India, turmeric was sacred to the earth goddess, so perhaps the trade name reflected that.

The scientific name Curcuma is based on the Persian word for saffron kurcum "yellow" which became curcuma in Latin. There are 100 other species of Curcuma, native to tropical Asia. The species epithet for turmeric, longa, simply means long. (Curcuma domestica is an older, now replaced, name for C. longa.)

Turmeric has vast religious significance in Hinduism (see more link and the Sopher paper listed below). In parts of India, a marriage was completed if the couple linked hands and turmeric water was poured over their hands. That was just one of many ceremonial uses. Turmeric's bright yellow color represented the sun and sun gods but its yellow also matched the yellow of many soils in the region, linking it to earth goddesses, fertility, and prosperity. In an alkaline solution, turmeric turns reddish and as such was symbolic of blood, with all blood's complex associations. Few Hindu ceremonies could be completed without turmeric. I cannot think of a western European or American herb given a similar level of significance, for example by itself consecrating marriage.
turmeric, the spice
powdered, commercial turmeric
Turmeric is widely used in Ayurdevic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. It is antiseptic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory, with little toxicity (though it not recommended for people with bile duct obstructions and gallstones). German Commission E, testing traditional medicines with modern science, found it effective for digestive complaints and as a tonic. It reduces hay-fever symptoms, cholesterol and more (see WebMD, link).

Today, it is grown all across the tropics, with much more of that produced is used locally than is exported. Most tropical cuisines use it. It provides the color of yellow rice, often today colored with saffron but originally and traditionally made with turmeric. Though Europe barely noticed it, turmeric has been a very important spice for a very long time.


Turmeric also produces an intense yellow dye: about that in the next post. Turmeric Part 2.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Sources
Alexander, R. 2018. What Is the Meaning of Turmeric in Hinduism? Classroom.com link
Blumenthal, M., A. Goldberg and J. Brinckman. 2000. Herbal Medicine. Expanded Commission E Monographs. American Botanical Council, Austin, TX.
Crohn-Ching, V. F. 1980. Hawaii Dye Plants and Dye Recipes. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
Patnaik, N. 1993. The Garden of Life. An Introductino to the Healing Plants of India. Doubleday, New York.
Prabhakaran Nair, K. P. 2013. The Botany of Turmeric. The Agronomy and Economy of Turmeric and Ginger. online at Science Direct link (Accessed 5/27/20)
Prasad, S. and B. B. Agrawal. 2011. Turmeric, the Golden Spice. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. NCBI, NIH (National Institutes of Health) link (Accessed 5/27/20)
Sopher, D. E. 1964. Indigenous uses of turmeric (Curcuma domestica) in Asia and Oceania. Anthropos. 59 (1/2): 93-127.
Swahn, J. O. 1991. The Lore of Spices. Crescent Books, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Visiting Hawaii--Botanist on Oahu

In December, my husband and I visited Hawaii, staying in Honolulu for a week. Today (May 2020) there's a two week in-your-hotel-room quarantine for people arriving in Hawaii. I daydream about making taking a three week trip but probably not. So I'll reminisce.
Waikiki from Hau Tree Lanai
Waikiki Beach at sunrise
Of course there were beautiful sunrises, such as this one, over Waikiki. But wait, that's a plant picture, a hau tree, Hibiscus tiliaceus (mallow family, Malvaceae), frames the photo. (This is after all, a botanical post).

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Plant Story--Blue Mustard, Chorispora tenella

Spring is the blooming time of many plants of the mustard family, Brassicaceae, from shepherd's purse to black mustard to clasping pepperweed, but also radishes, cabbages, and oilseed rape. The family is pretty easily recognized because the flowers have four petals in the shape of a cross, the source of the older (still valid) family name Cruciferae.
blue mustard, Chorispora tenella
blue mustard, Chorispora tenella
Blue mustard, Chorispora tenella, is one of the spring mustards. Actually, its seeds germinate in the fall, the young plants lay low over the winter and put on a spurt of growth in spring to flower in April or May, dying in the heat of midsummer. That life cycle is described as being a winter annual, and like many winter annuals, if conditions are right, blue mustard seeds will germinate in spring and grow rapidly, making them also "spring annuals."

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Visiting Native South Florida

In February I visited south Florida. Lots of it looks like this:

south Florida

Which is very different from the look of the native vegetation:

wild south Florida

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Plant Story--Puccoon, Lithospermum

In ecology classes, some student always complained about the difficulty of learning the scientific names of plants, and I long ago came up with examples where the common name is no easier. One of those is puccoon.
puccoon, Lithospermum
fringed puccoon, Lithospermum incisum
The plants called puccoon are in the genus Lithospermum (borage family, Boraginaceae). Neither puccoon, which means "dye-plant" in Virginia Algonquian, nor Lithospermum. which means "stone seed" in Latin, is a familiar word to Americans. Stone seed and gromwell (what is a gromwell?) are other common names for Lithospermum species, but I learned it as puccoon.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Cinnamon and Cassia, A Tangled Story

Cinnamon is a spice that has been valued for millennia. It is made from the inner bark of trees in the genus Cinnamomum (sound it out, it is fun to say) in the laurel family, Lauraceae, native to southeastern Asia. The first known records are from China, about 2800 BCE. Cinnamon has been imported to Europe since Egyptian times.
Cinnamomum, the tree that produces cinnamon
Cinnamomum, source of cinnamon. New leaves are red.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Names and Confusions


Last month, researching cucumbers (Cucumis sativa), I discovered that recent studies show that they were unknown in Europe before the 1300s. Originally from northern India, cucumbers were cultivated in southern Asia long ago but stayed there. Detaileded studies of cucumber reports from Europe before 1300, published in 2007-2009 by Janick, Paris, and Parrish, found the fruits drawn or described in Europe were actually Cucumis melo, melons, if not more distant relatives (Bryonia, Ecballium and others).

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Plant Story--Henbit Deadnettle, Lamium amplexicaule

Every spring I notice henbit in my neighborhood, one of the early flowers of spring. It grows as a weed, slipping into the corners of lawns or the edges of driveways.
henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
henbit, Lamium amplexicaule 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

More Plant Possibilities

Last week I posted pictures of ambitious plant projects, like bonsai and topiary (link), that one could do while working from home or staying in. Here are some more:

flowers in pots  as butterfly

Arrange flower pots in designs, butterfly above, numerals below (it was New Year's):

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Plant Possibilities

flowers, China
Dramatic, decorative flowers, Beijing China
Lots of people are working from home, unable to take a break by chatting with coworkers. Well, at home you could take a break with a plant project. Here are some fantastic plants I've seen; you might want to try:

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Spring Flowers

Spring is late on the Colorado Front Range this year, cold and snow still coming. Add to that closures due to corona virus concerns and it seems a good time for flower pictures. Here are flowers to anticipate

Galanthus
snowdrops, Galanthus

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Gardens and Art--Ribbit the Exhibit


J.A. Cobb sculpture


Putting art displays in public gardens is trendy. It adds novelty to familiar vistas. I like both plants and art, but often it seems to me that the relationship between garden and art is strained. But I was delighted by J.A. Cobb's fanciful statues, "Ribbit the Exhibit" seen at the Mounts Botanical Garden of Palm Beach County, Florida.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Barberries and Wheat

If you look at the entries in the Flora of North America for barberry species (Berberis), each notes whether it hosts Puccinia or not. That is not a common sort of entry into a plant description; Puccinia is a fungus, the genus of wheat rusts. (Examples  Berberis amplectens, Berberis aquifolium , Berberis bealei and every other one: scroll down to Discussion).


barberry
Japanese barberry
Here's the story:

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Plant Story--Wisteria, Big Purple-Flowered Vines


My first memory of wisteria is of my father digging out a big plant, shaped like a small tree that was growing at the end of the driveway of our new house in Ohio. He disliked the way it came up well into the lawn. I liked it for its beautiful, fragrant flowers. And that is a good summary of Asian wisterias in the United States.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Plant Story--The Mysterious Star-lily (Sand-lily, Leucocrinum)

star-lily Leucocrinum montanum
star-lily, sand-lily, Leucocrinum montanum
Early in the spring on the Rocky Mountain Front Range, star-lilies (Leucocrinum montanum) bloom. They're neat little plants, very visible for a week or two, so early that your hike might be in sleet. Although common in some areas and easy to recognize, star-lilies are pretty mysterious.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Appreciating Mangroves

mangroves in Panama

Early in my career as an ecologist, I had the opportunity to explore a stand of mangroves. I haven't wanted to do it again.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Seventh Anniversary

sunrise over Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii
Waikiki beach from the Hau Tree Lanai restaurant, dawn
(hau is sea hibiscus, Hibiscus tiliaceus, lanai is Hawaiian for a partly-roofed patio.
Note the flower on the banister and more on the sand beyond.
This week this blog celebrates its seventh anniversary. This is the 375th published post. That sounds like a lot, but there are 400,000 higher plant species and surely as many neat places in the world to visit...no shortage of topics.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Plant Story--Mountain Mahogany, Tough Little Tree

mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus

Mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus (rose family, Rosaceae) is a native shrub or small tree of the foothills of the Rockies and across the western U.S. It is not related to the tropical mahoganies (genus Swietenia, chinaberry family, Meliaceae) except in the sense that the common name reflects the color and luster of the wood.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Playing Cupid for the Double Coconut

double coconut Lodoica malvidica
World's largest seed: double coconut Lodoica malvidica 
see in Foster Botanical Garden, Honolulu
The fitbit is for scale, but better is the dandelion at the top
of the seed. The seed is way bigger than a whole
dandelion plant.
I saw the double coconut, Lodoicea maldivica (palm family, Arecaceae) seeds, largest in the world--see previous post link--lying on the ground inside their cages at the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu in April 2018.

I've seen seedling coconuts (Cocos nucifera); they send up a pretty dramatic set of first leaves.
Newly sprouted coconut palm, Cocos nucifera
Young coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, with four leaves
Note the coconut at the base
With the double coconuts, nothing seemed to be happening.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Plant Story--Double Coconut, World's Largest Seed

In April 2018, I visited Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu, Hawaii, and saw this:
double coconut seed, April 2018
Double coconut (Lodoicea maldivica) seed, April 2018
A cage around a very large seed.

It was the double coconut, also called coco de mer (sea coconut), and Seychelles coconut, the largest seed in the world. Largest seed in the world!--of course I was interested. It is the seed of the palm Lodoicea maldivica (palm family, Arecaceae), a very rare plant endemic to the Secheylles. (Lodoicea is Latin for Louis, honoring King Louis XV of France, maldivica is because it was thought, incorrectly, to come from the Maldives.)

This post, Plant Story--The Double Coconut, is about the plant. The next post, Playing Cupid for the Double Coconut, gives the story behind the seed in the cage in 2018 and what I saw on my return  in 2019.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Looking at 2020

Happy New Year! 2020.

snow scene

I decided to make 2020 "the Year of 2020 Vision," reviewing my activities and all my stuff, asking if each is an active interest or something I think I might, maybe, do or use, sometime in the future. My possessions and surroundings should reflect my current self. The trick will be honest answers.

When I dial up 2020 Vision beyond the junk drawer, looking at my yard I find lots of ideas that I have carried over for years, to dust off and reconsider.