Sunday, December 25, 2016

Plant Story--Fragrant Rosemary

Rosemary is for remembrance.

rosemary flowers
rosemary in flower
That's one of the few commonly-remembered plant meanings.

The "Language of Flowers" was a Victorian creation, putting meanings onto plants, so a bud or bouquet could convey a very specific message. There seem to have been several systems, which meant you could misunderstand the message. But, using Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers, one of the still-available lists (link), a white rose would say "I'm worthy of you, " while receiving white and red roses together meant "unity." In Greenaway's system, rosemary meant "remembrance".

But rosemary's role in remembrance goes back way before the Victorian era (1837-1901). In both ancient Greece and Rome, rosemary was worn by couples at weddings and placed in the hands of the dead. Both of these evoke enduring affection and remembering. Furthermore Greek students reportedly wore rosemary in their hair for examinations, to better remember the information.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Botanist Visiting London--in December

Two years ago I was in London in the first half of December. Looking back at the photos, I'm struck by the contrast to Colorado at the same time of year.
London, December
northern Colorado, December
London is well north of Denver, any map will show you that. Yet, the ocean effects prevail: it was much warmer than the Colorado we'd left behind. Not only was it warmer, I saw many plants that we cannot grow in Colorado.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Visiting Norway--So Scenic! and more

Norway isn't just fjords. It has many miles of scenic coastline and islands, as in the video.

But also beautiful fjords (below). A fjord is a long deep canyon filled with seawater. Most were carved by glaciers. Fjords are rare around the world, the famous ones are in found in Norway, New Zealand, Chile, Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

 Hardranger Fjord, Norway Fjord, Norway

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Edible Plants--What is an Edible Plant?


One of the things people like to ask about a plant: Is it edible?

That is probably not the right question.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Cactus Family, Cactaceae

Is this plant cute?
Opuntia polyacantha

"Of course it is," my prickly pear cactus replied. "We cacti grow well in pots, have beautiful flowers, and survive if the dumb human forgets to provide water for weeks. We're awesome!"

cactus, Majorca
Cactus in pot, Majorca, Spain.
"Ah," I replied cautiously, "then how come some people hate you, clearing you out of their pastures?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dye Story--Cochineal Reds

The big prickly pear cactus had white deposits. So unsightly! And yet, the source of fortunes!

Opuntai with cochineal

Humans love red, but red dyes are few in the natural world. Europe from prehistoric times raised madder (Isatis tinctoria) which makes a strong brick red. But though they loved madder, Europeans liked colors that were almost purple even better, and those were harder to produce. The Phoenecians, Greeks and Romans made them from small molluscs (murex, link  link) gathered in the Mediterranean. That was the source of the rare royal purple of Roman togas, a red-purple. The snails were over-harvested and when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the technology was lost until the 19th century.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Common Names--Too Many Shared Names

Calthus palustris
Calthus palustris  Do you call it cowslip or (marsh) marigold?
Nobody regulates common names. That's one of the reasons for scientific names. The rule on scientific names is: each organism has one and only one name, not shared with any other organism. 

Common names don't obey either of those rules. I wrote previously about multiple common names for the same plant. (linkThat is annoying, because sometimes you don't recognize that someone is talking about a plant you know only because they're using a different common name. 

I think the same common name for different plant is even more unfortunate. In this day of using words on the internet to learn about things, shared common names lead to at best, time wasted working out which plant you want, and at worst, possible poisoning because one plant with that name is toxic and one isn't. 

Primula vulgaris
another cowslip Primula vulgaris
marigold, Tagetes
another marigold, Tagetes sp.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Visiting Singapore--Gardens by the Bay

We stood astonished. Huge metal "trees."  This was Singapore. On the Equator, with lush plants but also industrialized and high-tech. So: a tree-like metal framework for tropical vines.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Here is how they looked from a distance, from a second or third story walkway.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Plant Story--Marigolds from the Americas

So, who are the marigolds, genus Tagetes?

marigolds, Tagetes
marigolds, Tagetes
The previous post (link) was about calendulas, called marigolds, now more properly called pot marigolds, important plants through much of European history. In the 1500s, a different group of flowers, species of the genus Tagetes (sunflower family, Asteraceae) were introduced to the Old World from the Americas. People loved them, called them marigolds and presently they became the plants people recognized as marigolds, not the Eurasian calendulas.

Marigolds, Tagetes, were not wildflowers when they were brought to Europe (by 1520). The Aztecs and other Native American groups had been growing them for centuries.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Plant Story--Marigolds in History-- Pot Marigolds (Calendulas)

marigolds, Bali
marigolds, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Marigolds and calendulas are mixed up in the literature (previous post). Both are plants with yellow to orange flowers in the sunflower family, Asteraceae. Calendulas, Calendula officialis, are from southern Europe or the Near East, and over the last 1000 years were called marigolds or pot marigolds in the European literature. Marigolds, species of Tagetes, are native to the New World and were introduced to the Old World in the 1500s. Lacking English names originally, they were initially called French marigold (Tagetes patula) and African marigold (Tagetes erecta) in England. Today the Tagetes species are generally called marigolds and the calendulas (pot marigolds) are much less well known.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Plant Confusion -- Marigolds and Calendulas

The marigold has conquered the world. Marigolds are common enough that we don’t pay them much attention. Look: marigolds in Bali:

marigolds, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

and Taiwan
marigolds, Taipei, Taiwan
marigolds, Taipei, Taiwan
In Asia, they are very much loved...and a long way from home.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Visiting Japan--Gardens, Plants, Contrasts

Japan! I loved the contrasts

Medieval fortresses:
Himeji Castle, Japan
historic Himeji Castle
to futuristic buildings

Mikimoto main store, Ginza, Tokyo
Mikimoto main store, Ginza, Tokyo

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Common Names--Too Many Choices

Since people have been using plants "forever" you'd think plants would have long ago gotten generally-agreed-upon common names. But that is not the case. The internet is revealing that across the U.S. we call the same plant by many different names (earlier post). 

It is not the internet's fault, of course. We've been calling plants by different names all along, but now, instead of digging in my local plant identification book, I google the plant and come up with a series of different responses. For example Lithospermum incisum came up on the USDA plants list as narrowleaf stoneseed, at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as golden puccoon. and on as fringed gromwell. 

fringed puccoon, Lithospermum incisum
narrowleaf stoneseed, golden puccoon,
fringed gromwell, Lithospermum incisum

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Plant Story--Three-Leaf Sumac

You walk by without noticing. Its a nondramatic shrub, but very common across the whole western half of the United States link

Rhus trilobata three-leaf sumac

The USDA calls it skunkbush sumac. Other sources call it three-leaf sumac, skunkbush, lemonberry sumac and in the older literature, squawbush. It is Rhus trilobata in the sumac and poison ivy family, Anacardiaceae.

The name skunkbush comes from the odor of the shrub, which many people find unpleasant and I have never noticed.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tallgrass Prairie--the Lost Ecosystem

Romance is in the eye of the beholder. Many people find forests romantic. Many fewer love prairies.

So let me talk about tallgrass prairie.

tallgrass prairie, Nebraska

Most people have never seen a tallgrass prairie. Just two hundred years ago, tallgrass prairie extended from the forests of Kentucky and Tennessee to the middle of Nebraska and Kansas, from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Plant Confusions--The Three Bergamots

THREE unrelated plants are called bergamot, a pear, an orange and a mint.

Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot
wild bergamot
The original plant to have the name bergamot was the bergamot pear, Pyrus communis, (rose family, Rosaceae). (Link scroll down to lemon bergamot pear). Pears came to Europe from Asia before Roman times and were very popular fruits. Many sizes and shapes developed, across the Middle East and in Europe. Bergamot pears were a variety with a very round fruit. The food timeline website (link) suggests the name was from Pergamos, a village in Cyprus, because these bergamot pears
came from the Middle East during the Crusades and were also called Syrian pears. The Oxford English dictionary states the name is from their Italian name bergamotta, from the Turkish

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Plant Story--Chokecherries, a Native American Cherry

chokecherry Prunus virginiana flowers

We call them chokecherries. They are native American shrubs or small trees, in the same genus as cherries and plums, scientifically Prunus virginiana. They grow all across North America except the deep South (USDA map). We could have called them Virginia cherries, a much more dignified name. The name chokecherry name probably comes from the fact that the raw fruits are a shocking experience to your mouth: you pop one in and oh! my! it is sour, puckery, chokingly astringent. Yet chokecherries are edible and were widely used by Native Americans and settlers. Fruit pictures

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.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Visiting Hawaii--Hawaiian Diversity

Hawaii is an island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about as far from a continent as you can be on our earth. The islands were never part of a continent, they were created by a mid-Pacific volcanic hot spot forcing lava up to toward the surface. The ocean is 19,000 feet deep in that area, but the push from below is persistent: it built islands that not only emerged above the ocean surface but that reach heights of more than 13,000'. The two tall volcanoes on the Big Island, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are both taller than Mt. Everest (29,005') if you count from the sea floor (30,085 and 30,196' respectively.)

That combination of history and isolation makes Hawaii the hardest place for plants and animals to colonize. Botanists estimate that only 290 plants ever made it on their own. They have to have survived drifting in floating debris for weeks, or clung as living seeds to the feet of birds on a long-distance flight or, in the case of the tiny spores of ferns, ridden a storm wind and landed not in the sea but on a tiny bit of land.

ferns growing on new lava

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Plants with Extrafloral Nectaries

Why are there ants on the peony buds?
ants on peony extrafloral nectaries
Ants taking nectar from peony extrafloral nectaries.
The simple answer is because peony buds secrete nectar (sugar water).
drop of nectar on peony bud
Drop of nectar on peony bud (upper right)
Why do peony buds secrete nectar?

There is no definitive answer to that question, but, based on studies of other plants, to attract ants which defend the plant from damage.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Plant Story--Peonies from Europe

Its always a joy when the peonies flower!


Europeans have been using two of their five native peonies, the female peony Paeonia officinalis (link) and the male peony P. mascula (link) medicinally for millennia.

It is not obvious today why they are called male and female. It does not reflect the botany. Both are male, in the sense of having pollen (sperm) and both are female, in the sense of having eggs within ovules that develop into seeds. In both species, both "male" and "female" function occur within the same flower (hermaphrodite flowers). Furthermore that explanation is relatively recent--that plants did any kind of sexual reproduction was one of Linneaus' absolutely shocking suggestions in the late 1700s. Peonies were called male and female long before that.


The Bynums in Remarkable Plants suggest that the designation reflects the relative size and vigor of the two plants, male peonies being larger than female peonies.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Plant Stories: Peonies from the Orient


Peonies! Wonderful big flowers and a rich scent. No wonder they've been favorites for millennia.

Peonies are plants of the genus Paeonia. It is the only genus in the peony family, the Paeoniaceae. There are 33 species, very like each other and not like much of anything else. They have an odd distribution: two species are native to the western US, a few species are found in southern Europe and across Asia but most peonies are native to eastern Asia.

The Chinese have been cultivating peonies for more than 3,000 years (written records from the early Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE)), creating hybrids, doubles and new colors. The Chinese particularly liked tree peonies (dan), which are native only to China and available but not particularly common elsewhere. But they also loved herbaceous peonies (sháoyào).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Where to Buy Milkweeds to Grow in Colorado

Colorado, straddling the Rocky Mountains, has, on the eastern side--Front Range--monarch butterflies from the eastern North American population and on the Western Slope, butterflies from the western monarch population. Colorado doesn't fit neatly into the current "Grow Milkweeds for Monarchs!" push because the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca is not native here.

Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweeds, so reductions in milkweed populations reduce monarch butterfly numbers.
showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
a Colorado milkweed
showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
Milkweeds are native all across North America--there are 140 species--but that "weed" in their name makes us assume they are ubiquitous. Far from it. Planting milkweeds to help monarch butterflies find it easier to find food for their larvave makes very good sense.

The common milkweed (A. syriaca) doesn't grow in Colorado. Since there are 19 species of milkweed native to Colorado, it only makes sense to grow those. The easiest to grow is the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa It is the milkweed you see in Colrado side-lots and roadside ditches. It looks a lot like the common milkweed.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Reminiscing--Hiking the Costa Rican Rainforest

Thirty years ago yesterday, I was picked up at the end of a backpack trip in the Costa Rican rain

Costa Rican Atlantic rainforest

I grew up in suburbia, it was love of plant ecology that drew me into strange activities like a week's trek in the rainforest.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Plant Story--the Dramatic Larkspurs

You hike the trail casually glancing into the brush and then, ooh! a bright blue spike of flowers catches the eye!  Larkspur!

larkspur, seen in Colorado
For me, larkspurs are one of the wildflower treats of spring.  Common enough that you see them, not common enough that you go "oh, just a larkspur."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Visiting Northern Colorado--Horsetooth Mountain Park in Sunshine

Horsetooth Mountain Park, Fort Collins, Colorado

Five days later (see last week's blog) I revisited Horsetooth Waterfall Trail, this time on a sunny morning after three days of warm weather.

Flowers that close in cold weather were open!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Visiting Northern Colorado--Horsetooth Mountain Park in Spring Snow

Horsetooth Mountain Park
Horsetooth Mountain Park trail, in falling snow
April 28. I needed to check out the trailside plants of Horsetooth Mountain Park, on the west side of Fort Collins Colorado, for a plant hike I was going to lead the next weekend.

When I got there it was snowing. Lightly, mixed with sleet, but persistently.

One of the things I learned as a prairie ecologist: "do it now, the weather later may be worse."

Hiking out in the sleet/snow was cool but not unpleasant and I knew the weather forecast was for snow for the next three days. Out I went!