Sunday, January 17, 2021

Dye Plant--Annatto, Bixa orellana, the Lipstick Tree

Most dye plants are subtle. To get red from madder (Rubia tinctoria), the greatest red dye plant, you have to dig up the roots, cook them for an hour, and add a mordant. Annatto, known as lipstick tree, and achiote (Bixa orellana in the plant family named after it, Bixaceae) has big spiny red fruits that if you open them, smear red all over your hands. Not a bit subtle. Of course people tried it as a dye.  

annatto Bixa orellana seed pod
annatto Bixa orellana seed pod,
about 2" long

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Travel Story--La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, California

 Sometimes travel shows you unexpected wonders. I took a tour of art museums and gardens in the area of Los Angeles, California, in 2013. The tour took me to see Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Right next to it is the La Brea Tar Pit Museum. The tour surely mentioned it, but I didn't notice. Consequently I stumbled upon it. 

La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, CA
View across tar pit at La Brea Tar Pit Museum

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Plant Story--the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo

I was a tourist in Portugal and only caught the end of the guide's tale, "...strawberry tree." 

Strawberry tree?! Strawberries don't grow on trees! 

And, that's true, strawberries don't grow on trees, but there is very definitely a tree whose English name is strawberry tree.

strawberry-tree fruit, Arbutus unedo
strawberry-tree fruit, Arbutus unendo

It is Arbutus unedo, generally called the strawberry tree in English. It is in the heath family, Ericaceae, related to rhododendrons, blueberries, and cranberries, not at all closely related to strawberries, which are Fragaria species in the rose family, Rosaceae.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Plant Story--The Stately Colorado Blue Spruce

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens, pine family Pinaceae) is native to the central and southern Rocky Mountains, in Idaho and Wyoming south to New Mexico and Arizona, from high elevations (USDA Zone 2) down to Zone 7 (lowest winter temperature, freezing). It is endemic to the United States. and more specifically, the Rocky Mountains. A beautiful tree with bluish foliage, it has been widely planted as an ornamental around the world.

Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens
Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Plant Story-- A Little Bit about Cranberries, Vaccinium species

Cranberries (usually Vaccinum macrocarpon, heath family, Ericaceae) are a major crop. The tart red berries are usually made into cranberry sauce, served on or with meat, not used as a fresh fruit or even a jam. They are a common and handsome red fruit drink, which is usually sweetened or mixed with juices like apple and grape because a juice that is pure squeezed cranberries is so tart only a few people will drink it. Cranberries are the fruits of small, sometimes viney shrubs that grow in cool boggy places. 

ohelo, Vaccinium dentatum
ohelo, Hawaiian cranberry, Vaccinium dentatum

Monday, December 14, 2020

Cattails, Typha, Wetlands Icon

Cattails, genus Typha (cattail family, Typhaceae) are found all across the world in wet areas. Wet areas have specialist plants, because most plants cannot grow in water or saturated soil, but people who cannot recognize a reed or an ash, recognize cattails. Partly that is because they are distinctive. The flower and seed head looking like the stem was pushed up through it--or like a hotdog--is unusual and memorable. But also, they are common and numerous. Cattails often dominate large areas of wetlands. And, compared to many herbaceous plants, they are tall and broad. 

broad-leafed cattail, Typha latifolia
broad-leafed cattail, Typha latifolia

Monday, December 7, 2020

Time and the Botanist

Time is funny stuff. I live one day at a time. and somehow I've lived more than 26,645 of them. No doubt my memories of the past are filtered, but it doesn't seem that way to me. I easily remember things before other people were born. Weird. As I wrote about bamboos last week (link), I imagined a bamboo telling me about things that happened before I was born. More seriously, if more than 20 years elapses between the times when bamboos flower (true for many bamboos), a botanist can get only one replication of flowering into a career, that is, only see them flower twice. For species that flower less often, none of us get to see them flower more than once. 

clump of bamboo
Bamboo grove. When will it flower?