Sunday, August 1, 2021

Plant Confusion: Yucca and Yuca

Yucca and yuca are different plants. Both are important plants, but they don't grow in the Eastern U.S., rarely show up in grocery stores, and aren't in bouquets of flowers, so many people don't know them. And, therefore, don't know to try not to confuse them.

Yuca roots labeled as yucca
Yuca roots labeled as yucca.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Plant Story--Ixora, Flame of the Woods

Venturing from my Colorado home into the tropics, practically all of the plants change. It has always worked best for me to learn the plant and then learn its proper name. Consequently red-balls-of-flowers-that-look-like-grappling-hooks eventually becomes ixora.  I've recognized ixora a long time, but only recently gotten a proper name on it. 


Sunday, July 11, 2021

Thoughts While Weeding

We're far enough into the growing season that the bindweeds are flowering and the dandelions are ready for a second round of flowers. I try to weed part of the yard every day. 


One thing I noticed was that although my lawn started the season full of dandelions, my prairie did not. My prairie is maybe 500 square feet that I planted with native grasses and forbs (non-grass herbs) a decade ago. It isn't a great success--some weedy grasses are too common--but I don't water it and my maintenance is confined to weeding out exotics and occasionally cutting back the grasses to mimic natural disturbance such as bison grazing. By the time I got to the 800th tiny dandelion plant in the lawn--an area the size of the prairie--I was struck by the fact that there were only a couple dandelions in the prairie. 

my "prairie"
my "prairie"

What does that suggest? 

One deduction is about plant communities; healthy native plant communities are hard for aliens to invade. Not impossible, but much more resistant than most lawns and gardens. (Commercial weed control websites say much the same; make your grass healthy and thick to reduce dandelions.)  Ecologists noticed this pattern long ago and made it into an axiom. But they had to retreat when they found example after example of exotics invading good or pretty good native communities. You can't count on a community keeping weeds out, for two reasons. One is, most of our native communities have at least minor recurrent disturbance from humans (hiking trails!) along which invading weeds can move, little gaps of open ground welcoming the weed seed. Secondly, among all the weeds in the world, there will be one that can invade any particular native ecosystem. The closed community keeps out 99 weeds, but that one gets in. My prairie isn't dandelion-free, but there were only a dozen plants, nothing like the number in my rather neglected lawn. So it is generally true that healthy native ecosystems resist invasion. 

my "prairie"
my "prairie"

my bluegrass lawn
my bluegrass lawn

The second idea I took from the distribution of my dandelions was about dandelions themselves. We hate them as weeds, but they are plants adapted to lawns and yards, and to moderately disturbed paths and roadsides. They don't grow well in prairies, forests, or deserts. Thus, horrible weeds are a function of both the weed and the habitat. Particular plants are bad weeds in habitats where they grow well, but often they are unaggressive in other habitats. I am growing both creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens, buttercup family, Ranunculaceae) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia, primrose family, Primulaceae) as ground covers. They are not very invasive in my yard. I read about people in Ohio fighting to keep them from taking over. I don't see that. But Colorado is much drier than Ohio, and apparently creeping buttercup and creeping jenny like more rain that my yard provides.

creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens
creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens

creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia
creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia 

Gardeners are generally aware that environments differ. The USDA Plant Zones define different growing seasons with more or fewer days between the last and first frost, and we know planting a plant in a zone where it is not said to be hardy is a gamble. Gardeners in Colorado are very conscious of the water requirements of plants. Here, if the plant likes it moist, it will likely die if not given substantial supplemental water. Plants with medium water requirements do okay, but rarely thrive. The plants that like it dry or very dry are the ones Coloradans can count on. And then there is drainage. Some plants flourish in a periodically waterlogged soil, others don't grow well unless the soil is well-drained.

We put these ideas together for the seeds and plants we buy, but not so often for the weeds that trouble us. The aggravating weeds are the ones for which my yard has their favorite combination of growing season, water, soil, shade, etc. My neighbor's shadier yard will favor slightly different weeds. If I removed my trees and stopped supplemental watering, I'd significantly change the combination of weeds I fight. 

dandelion in the lawn
early spring dandelion in the lawn

To the degree that yards across the U.S. resemble each other, with Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis, grass family, Poaceae, originally from Eurasia) and the the growing conditions it likes, we all share the weeds that also like those conditions

Alas, for all my wisdom, I will still have to patrol my lawn, digging out dandelions, pulling other weeds. 

another dandelion
another dandelion!  --between the flowerbeds

But my conclusion is also that there will always be weeds. If dandelions suddenly ceased to exist, some other plant would take over the spots the dandelions vacated. And, "be careful what you wish for." Dandelions are hard to kill, but they are not spiny or toxic and can be eaten if you are ever in a famine.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Weeds Can Have Beautiful Flowers

Walking in Boulder (earlier blog), many of the "wildflowers" were European species that have become naturalized in the U.S. Some are sufficiently common to be recognized as weeds. And yet, they can be beautiful.

Suppress your attitude toward these plants and notice them as flowers,

salsify, Tragopogon porrifolius
purple salsify, Tragopogon porrifolius (sunflower family Asteraceae)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Plant Story - Aggressive Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense

 It is not from Canada, though you can find it there...

Canada thistle, Cirisum arvense

The plant we call Canada thistle, Cirsium arvense (sunflower family, Asteraceae) is from Eurasia but has spread all over North America. I was amused to see that Canadians call it Canada thistle, too, though official sites in Canada prefer creeping thistle or field thistle. In Europe it is usually called creeping thistle, a good descriptive name, and also corn thistle and field thistle. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Spring Wildflowers in Boulder

It was planned an easy morning hike: park the car at Chataqua Park in Boulder, Colorado, and walk southward, uphill. But the Front Range had a much wetter than normal May (2021), so the plants were lush and flowering vigorously. It turned into a spectacular wildflower walk:

Looking up at the Flatirons

the Flatirons, Boulder, CO

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Cowboy's Delight, Scarlet Globemallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea

Across the West, a spot of bright orange--it's cowboy's delight, copper mallow, scarlet globemallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea:
scarlet globemallow. Sphaeralcea coccinea

This is a plant of disturbed sites but not much of a weed. It can be common along trails and by parking lots. Its range goes from the Great Plains west to the Pacific. 

scarlet globemallow. Sphaeralcea coccinea

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Scenic Plants

The idea for today's blog was to share photos of plants in dramatic landscapes across the world. I have thousands of photos, but very few are a scenic shot featuring a small plant. Some of that is the problem of focus: either the foreground or the background is in focus. Some is that I never thought to take such pictures. I will try in the future. But, enjoy these: 

A field of mustards in bloom in central Tokyo (likely Brassica rapa planted by the park): 

Mustards in flower in Tokyo

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Plant Story--Cutleaf Vipergrass, Black Salsify, Scorzonera laciniata

Right now, in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, cutleaf vipergrass (Scorzonera laciniata) is flowering. 

cutleaf vipergrass, Scorzonera laciniata
cutleaf vipergrass, black salsify, false salsify Scorzonera laciniata

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Grass Lawns and Lawn Weeds

My yard has very little lawn, meaning areas with a monoculture of grass. Northern Colorado is too dry for standard varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, so having extensive grass wasn't water-efficient, and when we moved here, I was very conscious of the low rainfall of the region. Secondly, the need to keep a grass lawn mowed meant that the shaggy lawn would signal that we were away, back when we took extended trips. Third, my husband, the chief lawn-mower, didn't enjoy the activity. 

lawn of thyme
Thyme lawn

So I eliminated grass in the front, putting in instead shrubs and perennial herbs. We kept some bluegrass lawn in the back, for playing frisbee, mainly, and the occassional lawn party.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Big Bright Tropical Vines

We had a blast of sleet and cold rain and now a forecast for rain and cool all week. So I'm posting pictures of tropical vines in flower. All year round, you can visit the tropics and see flowers. Not all these vines bloom year round, but when you see them, wow!

red jade vine
red jade vine, Mucuna bennettii 

They are more wonderful in real life, with texture and scent, but I can only share photos today, so: enjoy. 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Plant Story--Ground Ivy, Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea

Ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea, is a plant of many common names, reflecting that it is very widespread and not very distinctive. Common names beyond ground ivy include creeping Charlie, alehoof, cat's foot, creeping Jenny, field balm, gill-over-the-ground, hay maids, hedge maids, robin-run-in-the-hedge, runaway robin, tunhoof, and variations on those. 

Ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea,
Ground ivy, creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea,

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Plant Story--Sweet Alyssum, Lobularia maritima

Sweet alyssum is a pretty plant with white to purple flowers, frequently planted in gardens. 

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima

It is in the mustard and cabbage family, Brassicaceae, and has the typical simple, cross-shaped flowers. The scientific name is Lobularia maritimaLobularia from the Latin lobulus, a small pod, and maritima means of the sea, as in maritime. It is native to southern Europe and into west Asia. In places without a winter, it may be perennial, but across North America it is grown as an annual. Seed it in just before the end of spring frosts. Sweet alyssum isn't picky about soil, water, or exposure, (though it doesn't grow well in deep shade or soggy soil), making it very easy to grow. It flowers quickly, will continue to flower all summer, and has a lovely fragrance (if you get your nose down close to the flowers). Under many conditions sweet alyssum will self-sow, scattering seeds that produce plants in subsequent years. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

From Introduced to Naturalized, North Americans

I am reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. I am going very slowly because the ideas are important to me. As Lawrence Durrell wrote in Balthazar, "one [idea] to be taken from time to time as needed and allowed to dissolve in the mind."


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Plant Story--A Small Weedy Alyssum, Alyssum simplex

Wanting to get out as the weather warms, I frequently walk Colorado foothills trails in April and May. Conspicuous there is wild alyssum, Alyssum simplex

wild alyssum, Alyssum simplex
All the little yellow flowers are wild alyssum, Alyssum simplex

Monday, April 12, 2021

Plant Story--The Spring Native Wildflower Called Salt and Pepper

 Easily over-looked in the foothills grasslands is salt and pepper, Lomatium orientale. A member of the carrot family, Apiaceae, it has the characteristic flat head of flowers, with each coming off a multiply dividing stem (an umbel (see)). Salt and pepper is named because the white flowers have red anthers, which look dark, like pepper, on the white flower. Or so I'm told. I don't exactly see it, but I know of no other white, early spring umbels with dark dots, and the name salt and pepper is easily remembered, so it works for me. 

salt and pepper Lomatium orientale
salt and pepper, Lomatium orientale

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Sculpture in Gardens

Art is one of the finest things humans produce. It gives happiness to the maker and to the viewer. Gardens may have begun for growing food or medicine, but today they are places of joy and relaxation. When you put art into gardens, there is the potential for amazing things. 

Horses --Kevin Box, Santa Fe Botanic Garden
Horses --steel, in the form of origami folded paper - by Kevin Box, Santa Fe Botanic Garden

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Plant Story--Spotted Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis

Spring brings memories of childhood. We lived in upstate New York (Scotia, near Schenectady) and behind the house was a forested hill, belonging to an owner who lived somewhere on the far side of it. At our edge, a stream wove through the lowest areas, making marshy ground under the willows. Jewelweed grew abundantly in that area.

jewel weed Impatiens
A wet area with many jewel weed plants

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Plant Story-- Wonderfully Fragrant Basil, Ocimum basilcum

basil, Ocimum basilicum
basil, Ocimum basilicum

If I ranked vegetable garden plants on their beauty as plants, basil would rank high. It has shiny green leaves opposite each other on a square stem. When you crush a leaf, you smell the lovely fragrance, the reason that basil is an important herb.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Lessons from Travel -- Wooden Shoes

windmill in the Netherlands

Like the windmill, the wooden shoe is symbolic of the Netherlands. But wooden shoes have always seemed pretty awkward to me. I’ve tried them on. I didn’t like the stiffness and was jarred when the hard, unbending shoe hit the pavement. So I relegated wooden shoes to “quaint, old fashioned European customs,” thinking that they were the cheap shoes of 200 years ago or a dated tradition, like local costume. So my visit to the Netherlands taught me an ecological lesson.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Plant Story--Crocuses, Signs of Spring

spring crocus
My yard's first crocus--and flower--of 2021

Crocuses are one of the very first plants to flower in the spring. I saw one in my neighborhood on February 23, 2021, but then we had 3" of snow. Those plants rebounded with new flowers within a few days but remained the only flowers in my neighborhood. My own yard's first crocus was on March 2 (see above). Spring!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Plant Story--Coralbells and Alumroot, Heuchera species

The coralbells or alumroots, Heuchera species, are a genus of 37 species in the saxifrage family Saxifragaceae. They are endemic to (native to and only found in) North America, at least one species native to every state but Florida. Some have really small ranges, within a single state or part of a state (see USDA map link). Mostly the wild ones are called alumroots, while the larger species, several of which have been domesticated as garden plants, are called coralbells.

common alumroot, Heuchera parvifolia
common alumroot, Heuchera parvifolia
the flower stalk is still expanding
(those are dandelion buds hiding among the alumroot leaves)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Visiting Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

February 2021 has put most of North America into a deep freeze, with unfamiliarly cold temperatures and, for many, lots of snow. Flipping through my pictures, I was drawn to memories of Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica...because the memories include being bakingly hot.

January flowers, buttercup tree
Flowering in January, Cochlospermum vitifolium

Western Costa Rica has a very seasonal climate, with 70 inches of rain falling between May and October, and virtually none in November to April. At 9 degrees north of the Equator and close to sea level, it is very warm all year. During the rainy season, that warmth is tempered (or intensified, depending on your views) by humidity. During the dry season, the moisture evaporates away, and it is hot (monthly average highs 90-95 February to April) and dry.  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Plant Story -- Star Fruit, Carambola, Averrhoa carambola

Star fruit is a distinctive fruit, appearing occasionally in northern U.S. tables. It is easy to learn to call it star fruit, since in cross section, it forms a yellow star.

star fruit, carambola
 Star fruits, carambolas, Averhoa carambola

Monday, February 8, 2021

Eight Anniversary of this Blog

I started writing this blog at the beginning of February, 2013. I didn't know how much fun it would be. I still haven't missed a week, although I have given myself permission to do so. This last year has been quite different from previous years, since, due to covid, I have not traveled more than 50 miles, which dramatically reduced my exposure to novel experiences to marvel at and write about. But I haven't found any shortage of topics. 

Big Island, Hawai'i
In February 2013, I visited the Big Island of Hawaii: 
this is looking south and west to the Kona Coast

These days A Wandering Botanist wanders her neighborhood, thinking about native and introduced plants, garden flowers, and weeds.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Travel Story--Along Mediterranean in northern Italy

 This is a post reminiscing. We aren't traveling to Europe for a while yet. One of the places I have not adequately explored is the Mediterranean Sea. Here are photos from a trip that took me there, scentic views of the Cinque Terra area in Italy. I would certainly like to go back and to see more. That has always been my philosophy; I don't need to gobble up this experience because I can come back for the parts I missed. A year of closed international borders puts more than the usual doubt into that statement. But one of my favorite memories of Italy was taking train past Monterossa, oogling the beach, and saying, "I'd love to come back to stay on the beach here and walk the Cinque Terra at my leisure."  It hasn't happened yet, but this photo essay reminds me of that plan.

Looking out at the Mediterranean
the Mediterranean Sea

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Contradictory Plant Known as Beefsteak Plant, Shiso, and Perilla Mint, Perilla frutescens

Thirty years ago in San Francisco, influenced by Asian cuisine, my husband and I frequently sprinkled powdered shiso on our food as a spice. In Nebraska, I had a period of trying to grow everything I ate--to see what its plant looked like--so we grew a few plants in the garden. I hadn't given it much thought since, until seeing it in botanical gardens and as an ornamental in Ohio.

beefsteak plant, Perilla frutescens
beefsteak plant, Perilla frutescens, also called shiso

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.