Sunday, June 26, 2022

Thinking about Insects

We need to revise our attitude toward insects. 

It is probably fair to say we've waged war on insects this last half-century in the United States. Insects were generally bad: mosquitos when you ventured outside, cockroaches and ants in the kitchen, caterpillars and grasshoppers in the garden, moths in the stored woolens, weevils in the jar of beans of walnuts. You get the picture.

bee on echinacea flower
bumble bee on echinacea flower

So we deployed better and better weapons against them, to the point of spraying pesticide around neighborhoods to kill mosquitos. But of course that killed all manner of nontarget insects. (And, very few mosquitos; to reduce mosquitos, drain their breeding puddles.) So today insect numbers are way down. Not just monarch butterflies, but painted lady butterflies, swallowtail butterflies, and many, many more.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Attractive Wallflowers, Genus Erysimum

western wallflower, Erysimum capitatum
western or sanddune wallflower, Erysimum capitatum

Spring and early summer is when most members of the cabbage and mustard plant family, Brassicaceae, flower. There are a lot of them--774 species in North America. They share the "cross-like" flower structure: four petals at right angles, and the flowers tend to be yellow or white, so they can be hard to tell apart (hint: use seed pod shape.) But one genus that I quickly learned to distinguish is the wallflower, Erysimum. Wallflowers have a compact shape, large flowers (for a mustard), and orangy flowers that set them apart. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

How Accurate Was That Really?

How do I know what I read is accurate?

When I write about a plant, I pull books on that topic, books about herbs for example, from my shelf to see what they say about it. I search on the internet for government websites and blogs that discuss it. I usually want to identify the plant, define its names, describe where it originated and where it is found today, mention medical and other historical uses, and find a cool little fact about its biology to include. It becomes clear when reading all those sources that people writing about plants often quote each other. Of course. I didn't pour through old manuscripts to find the medical uses of yellow toadflax; I read people who did, or people who read people who did.  

yellow toadflax
yellow toadflax

And that's what's bothering me today. When are the people who I quote accurate and when am I repeating something doubtful?

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Planting Natives: Beautiful Colorado Flowers

The push to plant natives to make habitat for native animals, particularly birds (see previous post link) touches our often-negative attitudes toward native plants (wild plants). "Really, I should plant that stuff?"

Colorado grassland
A bit of native Colorado grassland in June 
The thistle in front is native, wavy-leaf thistle, the blue flax (Linum lewisii) are hard to spot, the red-orange hawkweed (Hieracium) is from Europe, the yellow is a wallflower (Erysimum), and a diverse collection of hardy grasses.

Our local plants are really beautiful! I'm writing about northern Colorado today, I wrote about central California last week (link). If I had the photos, I could write a "beautiful natives" post for every region in the country.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

California Natives in Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History Garden

The Pacific Grove Natural History Museum has a garden of native plants. In this post I share my photos from a visit in April. It meets two goals: a travel post and an affirmation that planting natives is not a hardship, you can have beautiful plants.

The first is the spectacular California flannel bush, Fremontidendron californicum (hibiscus family, Malvaceae). It is a native, fast-growing shrub (to 30'). The leaves and twigs are covered in a soft fuzz, the flannel. The scientific name honors J. C. Fremont (1813-1890) who explored California in the 1840s and took control of California for the United States in 1846. (See bios link). The plant is also commonly called fremontia, its former scientific name (Fremontidendron = Fremont-tree). 

California flannel bush, Fremontodendron californicum
California flannel bush, Fremontidendron californicum

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Native Plants for Wildlife: Details, Details

I was easy to convince that native animals and the plants they depend on are declining, hit by the double whammy of land development and competition from introduced species. DougTallamy's solution--that we all grow some native plants in our yards and foster native animals by tolerating insect damage --birds eat insects! -- also made sense to me. (See more on the logic: link). Thus, I reviewed my yard and found a few natives, but many more garden plants introduced from Eurasia, as well as a nice collection of exotic weeds. So I resolved last winter not to add any plant that wasn't native (for a while at least) and replace plants that died with natives. 

yard photo
The photo has several natives but as many nonnatives

Those were better as resolutions than as reality. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Beautiful, Invasive Dame's Rocket, Hesperis matronalis

Dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis mustard family, Brassicaceae) is an obvious garden plant with its bright red-purple flowers. But it grew so well in North America it is now on noxious weed lists across the U.S.
dames rocket, Hesperis matronalis
dames rocket, Hesperis matronalis

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Less Aggressive Iceplant, Sea-Fig, Carprobrotus chilensis, in California

I wrote last week about highway iceplant, Carprobrotus edulis (link). In 1970 as a new graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I chose to write a paper about it. I had an Anthropology-Zoology major and writing a paper about a plant for Botany Department professor Herbert Baker was well out of my comfort zone. It is true, as I indicated last week, that I seized on iceplant as conspicuous, but there was more to it. During breaks, my roommates and I explored California, especially the coastline. I saw icesplant hanging off the cliffs at the edge of the Pacific and enjoyed incorporating my observatioins and photos into my assignment. Botanists go interesting places, for work.

Carpobrotus chilensis
Iceplant, Carpobrotus chilensis, California coast 1970
There's a pink flower in the center, 1/5 of the way down

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Aggressive Highway Iceplant, Carprobrotus edulis, in California

Visiting coastal California, you can't miss iceplant (Carprobrotus edulis). It grows in big patchs of pointy green fingers, covering the ground in a monoculture. Probably every visitor and resident in California gets to know it. In 1970, I was a new graduate student taking a Genetic Ecology course  at the University of California, Berkeley, from Herbert Baker. He assigned a research paper about a plant. I had no idea what I was doing. I saw iceplant and chose that for my project. 

highway iceplant, Carprobrotus edulis
highway iceplant, Carprobrotus edulis

So I go way back with iceplant. Iceplant is from South Africa. It was brought to California a hundred years ago and widely planted to stop erosion. It did that pretty well, and was an easy, low maintenance plant, so roads departments and parks, and people generally, planted it all over the place. In 1970 it was very widespread and people were just starting to wonder if that was good thing.

iceplant in Berkeley 1970
Iceplant on the Berkely campus 1970 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Scarlet Flax, Linum grandiflorum, Spectacular!

Scarlet flax, Linum grandiflorum, flax family Linaceae, is a short plant with bright red flowers. I have admired it for years; last year I planted it. 

scarlet flax, Linum grandiflorum
scarlet flax, Linum grandiflorum 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Yard Plants in Monterey, California

I was in Monterey, California this week. I walked residential streets oogling the plants. Exotic plants with huge cascades of flowers, from places like Australia and South Africa. In full flower in April. And then I realized what I wasn't seeing: grass lawns.

Pride of Madeira, Echium candicans
Pride of Madeira, Echium candicans

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Native Plants for Wildlife: How to Know a Plant is Native?

As I wrote two weeks ago (link), I'm trying to support birds by growing plants that produce insects for them to eat. The evidence is strong that native plants will support the insects that live around us and that most exotic plants will not. 

BUT, to feature native plants in my yard, I have to know what plants are native. Or, alternatively,  know which of the plants in my yard are not native. That is suprisingly hard. 

garden flowers

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Plant Story:Trumpet Creeper, Campsis radicans

Trumpet creeper, also called trumpet vine, Campsis radicans (catalpa family, Bignoniaceae) has for years been one of my favorite plants. The flowers are spectacularl: large red tubes, classical hummingbird-pollinated shape. The tropics has many plants like this, but in New York and Ohio, trumpet vine stood out. In those areas, it was easy to recognize. Add to the red flowers, long leaves with five or more paired leaflets and one more leaflet at the tip and a woody base, and you see how I knew it when I saw it. And it had an easy common name, trumpet creeper, obvious and descriptive. 

trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans

This big plant is native to the southeastern United States where it is a magnet for ruby-throated hummingbirds, but also for long-tongued native bees and moths. It attracts other flower visitors, like smaller bees, and perhaps they sometimes pollinate. For bees getting nectar is a project since they have to climb into each flower, not just hover in front of it like a hummingbird. The nectar is so good that both the Northern Oriole and Orchard Oriole feed from the flowers. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Becoming Part of Homegrown National Park

I've always liked native plants--stately cottonwoods (Populus deltoides), dramatic redbuds (Cercis canadensis), robin-attracting serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), blanketflowers (Gaillardia species), columbines (Aquilegia species)...I can go on and on. I grow them in my yard (well, not the cottonwood, too big) because I like them. But I also have a bit of Kentucky bluegrass lawn (Poa pretense, from Eurasia), creeping buttercup as a ground cover (Ranunculus repens, from Europe), a maple (Acer, not local to area), lilacs (Syringa vulgaris, from Eurasia), iris (Iris, from all over the world), peonies (Paeonia from China), crocus (Crocus from Eurasia) and many others. I like them too.

blanket flower, Gaillardia
blanket flower, Gaillardia, native

What I learned recently is that native animals--butterflies and moths, but also wood-borers and leafhoppers--often cannot eat introduced plants. That makes sense to me. In fact, I used to teach that one of the reasons for species being invasive is that they left behind the animals, fungi, and bacteria that ate them, and, with very little damage in the new continent, could grow much better. I never thought about the reverse of that: the impact of nonnatives on the native food chain.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Plant Story--Little Red Radishes, Raphanus sativus

The radish is an ancient vegetable that has been mainly reduced to a garnish. 

radishes, Raphanus sativus
radishes, Raphanus sativus

Calling the radish just a condiment is a little excessive, since in Asia radishes are important foods, but in my life, mostly little radishes are sliced into a salad for a little color. Yet they have been grown by Europeans for 5,000 years, and in Asia for at least 2,000. They were an important vegetable in Egypt 4,000 years ago. Greeks and Romans ate radishes, cooked and raw. The Romans spread them all over Europe But we don't seriously consider eating a dish of radishes...

Sunday, March 13, 2022

It is Spring, Some Places

Spring is late on the Front Range of Colorado this year. It is almost mid-March and my yard is under snow. Again. Normally I would have snowdrops and crocuses by now. So a visit to Corvallis and Eugene Oregon was a shocking, wonderful leap forward into spring. I'm posting spring flower pictures for your enjoyment if you are already in spring, for your encouragement if you are not.

hellebore; Helleborus sp.
a big stand of hellebores (lenten rose, Helleborus)

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Plant Story--Weeping Willow, Salix babylonica

I was four years old when my parents rented an old house in Scotia, New York. That was the 1950s; my father shoveled coal into the furnace each morning for heat. The back yard was dominated by a weeping willow tree. I think that was the first tree I learned. The tree was huge. Or, I remember it as huge. I was pretty small during the three years we lived there. The fact that I couldn't reach more than a quarter of the way around the trunk should be modified by remembering how short my reach was, at the beginning of elementary school. But my memory that the tree was taller than the two-story house is surely accurate. A big tree with dangling branches, creating a lot of fallen twigs that my father disliked. But the sticks were great for my games!

weeping willow, Salix babylonica
weeping willow, Salix babylonica

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Evening Primroses in Early Modern Science

Missouri evening primrose, Oenothera missouriensis
Missouri evening primrose, Oenothera missouriensis

Evening primroses are a group of moderately obscure North America wildflowers (genus Oenothera, evening primrose family, Onagraceae). Unrelated to primroses or roses, evening primroses are pretty and easy to grow, so they have played a solid role in the development of genetics and plant biology.

If you ask, "why do botanists study some plants and not others?" the answers are all very human. Does it grow where they work? Or at a spectacular location where they would like to work? Do they know the plant? That gives showy flowers an edge. Can it be grown easily? Having as many plants as you want allows much better experiments.

Evening primroses do most of those well, so they were noticed by botanists long ago. Which led to publications about their biology, and to more study.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Plant Story-- Eastern Catmint, an Ornamental Nepeta Species

Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is famous, the plant that is a cat drug. Its genus Nepeta, however, includes from 251- 350 species, native to the Old World. Several have been introduced into North America as garden plants. This blog is about N. racemosa, called eastern catmint, racemose catmint, and dwarf catnip. You can find it sold as Nepeta mussinii, which was its name, but has been replaced.

eastern catmint, Nepeta racemosa
eastern catmint, Nepeta racemosa

This is a cute little plant, less than 2' high, which has bright purple flowers and richly green leaves. In my garden it comes into full bloom well before much of anything else is available for bees. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Have You Seen...? An Eclectic Botanical Quiz

This week's post is a gallery of very neat plants. I have snow on the ground, snow in the forecast; its a good time to look at colorful photos.

Here are the pictures. You can make it a quiz.


1. Seen camellia plants heavy with flowers?

camellia in bloom

This photo is from Oregon. Camellias are native to Asia. In Japan, the samurai reportedly disliked camellias because the fallen flowers reminded them of decapitated heads.  

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Another Anniversary!

 I started this blog at the beginning of February, 2013. I am celebrating its 8th anniversary.

How very long ago 2013 seems! 

I started writing this blog to make good plant stories more available. For example, a Supreme Court decision that decided the tomato is a vegetable; several plants native to the Americas became such a part of Eurasian cultures so fast that by the 1700 people thought they were Eurasian plants, for example chili peppers, and plumeria (aka frangipani and Indian temple tree). 

red flax, Linum grandiflorum
red flax, Linum grandiflorum, a plant I grew because I'd read about it.
                                             It is as pretty as it was described to be.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Plant Story--Tasty Goji Berries, Chinese Wolfberries, Lycium species

The familiar fruits of the U.S. are only a small portion of the fruits eaten around the world. One that appears increasingly in the U.S. is the goji berry. As with many new fruits, they have lots of names, few  in widespread use. They're called Chinese wolfberries, Chinese box thorn, Barbary box thorn, and matrimony vine. Two species are sold commercially, Lycium chinense and L. barbarum.  The Chinese name is gojizi or, in some transliterations, kouchi, which often becomes goji berry. There are other Chinese names for the fruit, such as yang-ju, and specialized Chinese names for leaves and stalks, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

goji berries, Lycium, for sale in China
goji berries, Lycium species, for sale in China

As dried fruit, goji berries are sweet but not very sweet. One of my books says they taste like licorice. I can detect what he thought was licorice but to me that's a very minor part of the taste. Fresh, they look like small cherry tomatoes, but are sweeter than tomatoes and lack that distinctive "tomato" flavor. 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Plant's View: Plants in History

"Seriously," said Junior the Christmas cactus, wise in the ways of humans after decades as a houseplant, "What humans call history is just a list of past attempts to capture plants. You tell it as if heads of state or armies that were responsible, but, really, possessing particular plants is what has always motivated humans."

"Huh?" I said. 

Christmas cactus named Junior
Junior, a Christmas cactus

"Where should I start?" they asked. "The key to what you call civilization was agriculture. From that came cities and countries. Tell me that isn't all about plants?"

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Plant Story--Eucalyptus in Northern California, Eucalyptus globulus


Operator: "911. What is your emergency?"
Man: "I need an ambulance; a guy here is hurt."
Operator: "What is your location?"
Man: "I'm on Eucalyptus Street."
Operator: "Please spell that for me?"
Man: (long pause)
Operator: "Sir? Sir? Are you there?"
Man: "I'm just gonna drag him over to Maple Street. Call you right back."

eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus
eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus

Sunday, January 9, 2022

A Glimpse of Phoenix, Arizona

My husband and I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, in early December; the goal to get away for a few days. Mostly we went to museums and ate out. But we were in Arizona because it is mild in the winter, and even in a musuem trip, I couldn't miss the distinctive plants. 

hillside with saguaro cacti, Arizona
Hill of saguaro cacti

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Plant Story: Poinsettia Update

This December, it was easy to encounter posts pointing out that Poinsett, from whom poinsettias take their name, was a racist. Consequently, say these posts, we should use the Aztec (Nahuatl) name, cuetlaxochitl (ket la sho she) instead. I do not think it is that simple.  

poinsettia/ cuetlaxochitl/flor de la noche buena, Euphorbia pulcherrima,
poinsettia/ cuetlaxochitl/ flor de la noche buenaEuphorbia pulcherrima,

Most people have no idea of the history of the plants around them. Plant species go back thousands of years, so they will have interacted with dozens of human cultures over time and space. Individual humans learn the name of familiar plants from a relative or friend and are rarely taught about its history. 
I learned poinsettia as a name, struggled a bit to remember and spell it, but never, before writing a blog post six years ago (link), wondered what a poinset was.