Monday, December 30, 2013

Curious Plant Story--Cabbage Walking Canes

Walking sticks from cabbage!  What you see in the video is a stick made from Brussels sprouts.  This post is about that project and the reason for it.

I’m making a short video about the fact that the vegetables cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale are all botanically the same, Brassica oleracea (cabbage family, Brassicaceae). The oddest fact I plan to include is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the English channel, the cabbages grew to 20' tall and their stalks were dried, varnished and used as walking sticks. LINK

People on the Channel Islands raised cattle as well as cabbages and broke off the big lower leaves to feed their cows. In the cool, moist climate--perfect for cabbage plants--the plants grew taller and taller, while people picked off more lower leaves. Since the growing season is long and the frosts light, the cabbage plants sometimes reached twenty feet tall, with big cabbage leaves at the top. They looked from a distance like palm trees. 

The stems were pretty tough, so when the plant died, the resourceful islanders found a variety of uses for them. One was to dry, smooth, and varnish the cabbage stems and use them for canes or walking sticks.  

Time and change has mostly eliminated both the giant cabbages and the walking stick industry, but they still make a few (Note: 2/1/21: having gained attention, Jersey residents are making more walking sticks. link)
Brussels sprouts
Brussels sprouts

I wanted to show a picture of the canes in the video but I wasn't sure about copyright issues on the pictures I found.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Visiting Panama--Botanical Impressions

I recently took a week’s trip through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific Coast to Costa Rica. 

It was lovely. Traveling in a ship means I unpacked only once. It also meant I could retreat to air conditioning. 

This was an expedition/cruise on the National Geographic Sea Lion. Betchart Expeditions and Academic Arrangements Abroad working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Sigma Xi organized my part, but others on the ship had signed up with National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad. Lindblad organized the actual itinerary and provided the staff. This kind of complexity is common on tours for many reasons, including keeping group size small while filling a 70-passenger ship.

really big tree, Panama
lovely big tree, Panama

I had never been to Panama. It is tropical, about 10o N of the Equator. We were never very far above sea level. That made it the quintessential tropics: warm and humid! The temperature range, day and night, all year, is between 68 ad 93oF. The rainfall in Panama City is 75” annually, but many areas are much wetter. With warm temperatures and plentiful rain, the plants were lush. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Travel Story: In Pursuit of the Bush Morning Glory

Ipomoea leptophylla
bush morning glory Ipomoea leptophylla
One reason I became a plant ecologist was that my ecology class professor at University of Michigan, Dr. William Benninghoff, left, as planned, in mid-semester. He did research in the arctic and seasons in the tundra don’t wait for anyone. Ah, I observed, ecologists travel!

I had a chance to experience that again this summer.

From Indiana University came Ph. D. student Wesley Beaulieu and Professor Keith Clay to collect morning glory seeds. Not just any morning glory but the bush morning glory Ipomoea leptophylla. Since I had studied the bush morning glory, I agreed to be the local guide.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dye Plants: Yellows from Many Sources

naturally-dyed yarns
Naturally-dyed yarns
I love color. I have knitted and woven and embroidered since I was very small. Trying plant-based dyes was an obvious intersection of my interests. Plants! Color! Wonderful! 

So off and on I will write about dye plants, even though most of the important dye plants are unknown to most people.

But dyes from plant sources are familiar. The grass stain you got on you jeans sliding into first in the neighborhood softball game? That's a basic dye found in most leaves. Leaves of many plants will produce a yellow or olive green dye. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Plant Story: Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata)

Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome serrulata
Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome serrulata
Bees like it too.
I wrote a few weeks ago that it would be nicer if the pretty flowers on the roadside were native plants, not escaped aliens (link). One plant that fills that role in my region is Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome serrulata.

Rocky Mountain bee plant is a native North American relative of the cleome that is widely sold as a garden flower, commonly called spider flower (link to photo). Spider flower is Cleome hassleriana from South America. Rocky Mountain bee plant is smaller than spider flower and, as far as I know, only has purple flowers, not white,cream or pink.