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?

Monday, November 30, 2020

Bamboo--A Grass of Mystery

Bamboos are a subgroup of the grasses (grass family, Poaceae). There are 1,441 species in 116 genera in the grass subfamily Bambusoideae, more than whole  families of plants such as violets (Violaceae), oaks (Fagaceae) or geraniums (Geraniaceae). They are distinguished from other grasses because of the strong wood-like, jointed hollow stems, and the sizes they reach (10' and more).


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Bamboo - Amazingly Versatile

 In the United States, when I mention bamboo, the most common reaction is that it is horribly invasive. That's true, but bamboo in the U.S. is not balanced by its usefulness, as it is in Asia. This post showcases some of the uses I've seen, the next post will be about bamboo botany.

bamboo shoots and leaves
A clump of bamboo

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Plant Story: The Colorful Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja

They're a splash of orange on the mountainside or of red in the meadow: Indian paintbrushes. Also called flame flower, prairie-fire, squaw feather, and painted cups, the Castilleja species, now classified in the owl clover family, Orobanchaceae, but long considered figworts, Scrophulariaceae, are handsome wildflowers. 

Indian paintbrushes, Castilleja species
Indian paintbrush, Castilleja, in western Wyoming

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Plant Story--Dill, The Strong-Smelling Herb

Dill (Anethum graveolens, celery family Apiaceae) is one of the spices that is always in my kitchen. It is my go-to spice when the salad seems repetitious or the potatoes dull. (Generally, an herb is used fresh, while a spice is dried. Dill is both an herb and a spice.) This is a plant from southern Europe that has been cultivated since at least 400 BCE, the date of the archaeological site in Switzerland where it was found. 

Dill, Anethum graveolens
Dill in seed

Dill is usually described as an annual, but, in my garden, it often grows for two years before flowering and distributing seeds. I planted it years ago in the vegetable garden and, now and then, find plants showing up in other flower beds. The plants are pretty but not dramatic, with fine feathery leaves. The flowers are yellow but tiny, developing into umbels of round flat fruits, each of which contains two seeds.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Travel Ideas: Mountain Ranges of the World

Mountains in Alaska (above)

In the last six months, I haven't traveled more than 30 miles. My husband reads menus from restaurants from Honolulu and New York online. I tried a daydream about where would I go if I could leave tomorrow, but that wasn't encouraging; I'm not going anywhere dramatic for probably 100 tomorrows. Travel was such fun. There are spectacular vistas in our world and things I don't know I don't know. After experiencing a few "must sees," though, one has to decide among thousands of destinations. What goals lead a serious traveler? Bird watchers classically have "life lists" which motivate them to go to distant places to see a particular bird. Botanists don't generally do life lists, but what might those be, if you were a botanist or ecologist, or just a fan of the natural world?

The first one I thought of was: mountains. And, starting simple, mountain ranges. Here's the idea: a life list of mountain ranges. See them all!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Prostrate Juniper, Juniperus communis var. depressa

The prostrate juniper is, as the name says, a juniper that runs along the ground, like a ground cover, and does not stand tall like a tree. North America has two such junipers, the prostrate juniper, Juniperus communis variety depressa and the creeping juniper, Juniperus horizontalis. Both are native, but prostrate juniper is more widespread, found over most of the continent (map). The common juniper, Juniperus communis, is the most widespread woody plant in the world, growing across Eurasia as well as North America. With a range that big, it is very variable and seven distinctive varieties are recognized. In Eurasia it is mostly an upright tree, though one variety, J. communis var. saxatilis, is prostrate. There is no close relationship between the two prostrate forms and J. communis var. depressa colonized all of North America. 

prostrate juniper, Juniperus communis var. depressa
prostrate juniper, Juniperus communis var. depressa

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Plant Story--Harebells and Bluebells, Campanula rotundifolia

The little blue flowers are always a delight to see. Its a harebell, Campanula rotundifolia (harebell family, Campanulaceae), seen in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. 

harebell or bluebell, Campanula rotundifolia
harebell, Campanula rotundifolia

Harebells are relatively common on the eastern slope of the Rockies, so I have often done "there it is!" while my brain races to remember the name. The scientific name Campanula is Latin for "little bell", from campana a bell. The distinctive bell tower on the University of California Berkeley campus is called the Campanile (see Wikipedia link) and there are other words with this root in English, such as campanology, the study of bells, and the botanical campanulate, bell-shaped, so looking at the bell-like flowers I think of the scientific name easily enough. (The species epithet rotundifolia, means round-leaf)  But the common name in Colorado, given in the Flora of Colorado and most wildflower identification books, is harebell, as in "rabbit bell." If I think bluebell, in Colorado bluebells are plants in the genus Mertensia, which has bell-shaped blue flowers too (borage family. Boraginaceae).

bluebell, Mertensia
bluebells, Mertensia

harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
harebells, Campanula

That's been my problem, I always know it is a bell, but am not sure which one. Harebell. 

I discovered, though, that people do call Campanula rotundifolia bluebells. The plant is native all across northern North America and Europe. Europeans often say bluebells; in fact, my harebell is the famous bluebell of Scotland. This is the plant Anne Brönte wrote about link and the folk bands sing about (Bluebells of Scotland: youtube). But Americans call Mertensia species bluebells, not Campanula species. Mertensia virginica is the bluebell of Virginia. The USDA lists the bluebell of Scotland, Campanula rotundifolia, as occurring in Virginia, but my guess is Mertensia is or was more common, so in North America it got the bluebell name, and as a consequence, Campanula went by an alternate name (harebell is sometimes used for it in Britain). Whatever the original story, in North America, generally a bluebell is Mertensia and in the British Isles it is Campanula. 

Bluebell is the kind of common name easily given to various plants. Sources on British folklore (see links in references) frequently comment that bluebell is also the name for wild hyacinth (Hyacinthus non-scriptus, also called scilla, as Scilla nutans, Asparagus family, Asparagaceae) and the folklore can apply to both plants. 

Other common names for harebell/bluebell of Scotland include bluebell bellflower in the U.S. and witches' thimble and old man's bell in Great Britain.

harebell, Campanula rotundifolia with bee
bumble bee visiting harebells

Harebells grow in a wide variety of forest and meadow environments across the Northern Hemisphere. They start blooming in June but continue into the fall as long as there is good weather. The buds point upward, but the flowers nod when open, hanging like a hand bell. Opening downward protects the working flower parts (stigma and stamens) and the nectar from rain. They are pollinated by a diversity of flower-visiting insects but especially bees. 

The leaves are edible cooked or raw, though I rarely find enough in one place to consider gathering it. Harebell is a close relative of Campanula rapunculus, rampion, which has been a garden vegetable in Europe for centuries (the leaves are treated like spinach, the roots are eaten like radishes.)

Native Americans also used the roots medicinally to treat ear, lung, and heart ailments (Chippewa, Thompson, Woodlands Cree respectively). The Ramah Navajo included it in mixes of ceremonial cleansing smoke for head trouble or deer infection, and rubbed it on for protection while hunting or against witches.

Across the Atlantic, there is lots of folklore. The name harebell associated the flower with witches, the hare being a favorite of witches (and more see link). Calling it old man's bell, or aul' man's bell, was saying "the devils' bell." Possibly the devil would be called if you picked it. And especially, fairies. Fairies frequented places with many harebells, so, in such a spot, you might be able to glimpse a fairy, but you need to be wary to protect yourself from fairy spells. In all cases, hearing the harebells ring warned of magic and not necessarily friendly magic.

a place of fairies
a place to look for fairies

Of course they were used in charms. Anyone who wore a bluebell was compelled to tell the truth, though in one version, only about his/her loves. Turn a harebell flower inside out without damaging it, and you are assured you will eventually have the person you love. Or, when you see a harebell, say "Bluebell, bluebell, bring me some luck before tomorrow night!" put the flower inside your shoe, and watch for the luck it sent.

As a memorable wildflower, harebells frequently appear in poetry and literature. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of poems and essays. Yet my favorite is a Wordsworth story of a poetic line that doesn't actually mention harebells. William Wordsworth (1770-1850, biography), in his 70s, visited familiar places but found himself mourning for lost friends. Walking sorrowfully, he spotted harebells growing on a wall. The sight lifted his spirits, and he was moved to quote, from one of his recent poems,

"Would that the little flowers that grow could live,
Conscious of half the pleasure that they give."
               Poems and Sentimental Reflections #4

Let harebells raise your spirits, wherever you see them.
harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
harebells, Campanula rotundifolia,

Comments and corrections welcome.


Cunningham, S. 1993. Scott Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN.
Durant, M. 1976. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? Congdon and Weed, New York.
Edmiston, A. 2019. Flower folklore: spring blooms and bells of blue. link Accessed 10/16/2020.
Finch, S. 1982. Wordsworth's Flowers. Limesdale Publishing Group, Carnforth, Lancashire, U.K.
Hypnogoria blog. 2016. Folklore on Friday, The chime of the harebells. link Accessed 10/16/2020/
Moorman, D, E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR. (database online link)
Rhian. 2012. Fairy flower. Scottish Wildlife Trust link Accessed 10/16/2020.
Rich, V.A. 1998. Cursing the Basil and othe Folklore of the Garden. Horsdal and Schubart, Victoria, BC, Canada.
Windling, Terri. 2019. Myth and Moor blog. Wildflower season. link Accessed 10/16/2020.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Musing about Recycling

Recycling is on my mind because a National Public Radio (NPR) study (link) last month found that plastic recycling is basically not happening; most of the plastic goes to landfills. And always has. What? I am a believer in recycling.

recycling bin and trash bin

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Plant Story--Lupines, Little Wolves

Lupines, also spelled lupins, are plants in the pea family native (Fabaceae). More than 200 species are recognized, found native all across the world but especially the Americas. (Lupines in Texas and surrounding states are often called bluebonnets.) These are distinctive plants, the leaves tending to be compound with five or more leaflets projecting out from the center so they are hand- or star-like. The flowers are a tall spike of closed, pea-like blossoms, in colors from white to yellow to pink, blue, and purple. 

lupine, Lupinus, flowers and leaves

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Future of the Alpine Tundra

arctic tundra, Sweden
arctic tundra in Sweden, 1980s

The tundra is the coldest ecosystem on earth, found in the Arctic and high on mountains. As the coldest, it is changing rapidly from global warming. World temperature is up by about 2o Fahrenheit over the last 100 years (link) but at the poles it is up twice that (link). The average temperatures on high mountains (Alps, Rocky Mountains) are up 3o Fahrenheit during that time. In arctic tundra, the permanently frozen ground is melting, forming lakes, in other places it is drying out and has caught fire, while glaciers and sea ice are melting, all of these imperiling cold-adapted animals and plants and the people who depend on them. At high elevations, conditions are rapidly changing as well. On mountains, animals and plants will migrate higher for cooler conditions, but when the summit gets too warm, they will die out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Alpine Tundra Wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park

Life is hard for plants of the alpine tundra (previous post link). Alpine tundra is the ecosystem above treeline, in the United States from about 10,000' elevation up. The growing season is short, about three months. Frosts occur most nights all year and snow can fall any day. 

                     alpine tundra in July

The soil is unstable as the water in it freezes (expanding) and thaws (contracting). The soil shifts and the rocks steadily move around. Plant roots are displaced, making them sprawl. There is little cover, thin atmosphere, and less distance to the sun, so sunlight is very strong, despite cool temperatures, making sun damage to tissues much more common than better-protected places.

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

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 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.

Alexander, R. 2018. What Is the Meaning of Turmeric in Hinduism? 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).