Botanical Alchemy: An Interview with Artist Benjamin A. Vierling

Benjamin Vierling is an artist of exemplary abilities whose art features many themes, from magical plants to alchemy to astrology to mythology. His layered, nearly lacquered look and exquisite attention to detail rivals that of the great Renaissance painters. I was lucky enough to catch up with Vierling recently and discuss his rotanical leanings. Here are the results.

Plants seem to play an important role in your paintings, including being the main subject of several. What is your earliest plant memory?
he first actual plant memory may be of hanging house ferns, and of the delicate light being filtered through their lace-like fronds. I spent the early years of my childhood in an elegant San Francisco flat, and I seem to recall the atmosphere being imbued with soft green shadows and coiling tendrils. I believe that my mother had a number of plants placed near the tall, paned windows. I presumably spent hours as an infant watching the interplay of light and shade on the ivory walls and ornate Victorian moulding. The strongly aromatic scent of eucalyptus likewise permeates these memories, as a grove of the trees stood very near to our residence.

The subject of your paintings Papaver Somniferum and Atropa Belladonna, are both rotanicals in their own right, considering their deadly attractive properties. Can you tell us more about how you came to choose these plants as subjects?
These images were originally commissioned for the musical-herbal, Infernal Proteus, which was released by Ajna Records in 2002. This eclectic compilation of music featured a score of different bands and musical projects, each of whom selected a plant to illustrate by way of image and sound. In part because of the musicians with whom I was collaborating, Papaver Somniferum and Atropa Belladonna were selected along with Ficus sycamores. All of these unique flora figure prominently in folklore and legend. I always endeavor to depict the soul of the plant in my paintings, and so it is important to weave in mythological references along with the botanical details.Vierling_Papaver_SomniferumHF_

Are plants more difficult to paint than people or objects?
This definitely depends on the individual identity of the subject! On the whole, plants require more meticulous rendering, with their widely diverse manifestations of leaf, stem, and flower, all of which may appear in an infinite variety of colors. Textures are always important to acknowledge when rendering any form with paint. Some surfaces, like planed wood, or naked bone, are somewhat formulaic to render, whilst others, such as the multileveled labyrinth of pine-bark, pose a more rigorous challenge. The human subject is furthermore unique. The patron of a portrait inevitably has expectations about how the sitter should be depicted and perceived, whereas a plant is less vocal with it’s standards. I have nevertheless had nightmares about plants whose unique personas I had failed to exalt with due grace at the easel.

What are the plants in Sacred Heart and what do they represent?
There are three distinct species blossoming from the Sacred Heart; Datura stramonium, Hyoscyamus niger, & Atropa Belladonna. These herbs from the Witch’s garden were selected in part because of their toxic yet visionary properties, and also because of their wonderfully alluring forms. The general idea was to create a microcosm of rich abundance, in which 13 different species of small fauna navigate and interact amidst the radiant flora. The stylistic inspiration comes from baroque-era dutch floral paintings. The theme of the Sacred Heart further elaborates on the idea that life stems from a radiant source, however dangerous or venomous certain facets of it may be. The complex balance of nature.Vierling-Sacred-Heart-Web-HF

Your painting Pomegranates has a luscious but somehow sinister quality. What drove you to paint this fruit?
I have long been bewitched by the tantalizing color and form of the legendary pomegranate. This particulate fruit has a strong presence in art history, is featured often in still-lives and in cornucopia motifs, and is sometimes used as inspiration for the fruit of original sin within depictions of the garden of Eden. All of these nuances were implied in the creation of this work.

The story I am specifically insinuating with the composition is the Persephone myth from classical Greece. In the legend, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, abducts the goddess of Spring and brings her down below to his subterranean kingdom. Whilst captive, the Goddess partakes of the pomegranate offered to her by Hades. The Fates had ordained that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld would be doomed to stay for all eternity, but Hades capitulates to the will of the protesting Gods, and releases the goddess for all but the winter months of each year. She remains annually captive in the Underworld one month for each seed eaten.

10-Vierling_PomegranatesThe painting is an allegory for this dramatic tale, the watchful preying mantis standing in for Hades, while Persephone is represented by the small, luminous butterfly that has alighted upon the jeweled seeds of the ripe pomegranate below. The lifeless fly on the tabletop indicates the realm of the dead that Hades rules, as well as denoting the willful smiting of adversity, for which Cronus’s eldest son was renown.
The composition contains layers of meaning, but the viewer need know nothing of mythology to appreciate the image. If one enjoys the rich, succulent vitality of a ripe pomegranate, then hopefully this painting will provide some food for thought.

Benjamin Vierling is available for commissioned work and many of his botanicals and other amazing works are for sale at:

If you are anywhere within driving distance of Seattle, you can check out Benjamin’s work will be at the following gallery:

Coming Soon to the Steele Gallery:
Benjamin Vierling: A Decennary Retrospective
January 17 — February 14 (2014)Concurrent Artist Lecture: Friday, January 17
7:00pm/Geo Studio (3rd floor)Showcasing select drawings and paintings from 10 years of work, 2004-2014, A Decennary Retrospective is California artist Benjamin Vierling’s first solo exhibition in Seattle. Employing primarily a 15th century mixed media technique of egg tempera and oil paints on panel, he integrates mythical references with contemporary subjects to bridge the timeless with the ephemeral. The iconic compositions of these panels indicate a rich historical precedent, distilling influences from the classical era, through the renaissance, the romantic period and into the present.

Artists’ Reception: January 17, 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Sacred Heart appears on the cover of Three Hand’s Press  Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Poison Path by Daniel A. Schulke. His painting Mandragora officianarum appeared on the cover of Raven Grimassi’s book, Old World Witchcraft. All images courtesy of the artist, Benjamin A. Vierling, and all rights are reserved.

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Mistletoe’s Back Side: Shitty News About Our Favorite Kissing Plant

748px-Mistletoe_Berries_UkAh, the holidays. Christmas boughs and holly, and mistletoe. It’s that time of year,  when co-workers and would-be-exes try to trick you into standing just perfectly under that semi-parasitic little rotanical, a sprig of mistletoe, wishing only for a kiss.  You may recall last holiday season I posted this awesome news about the cancer curing properties of the fair mistletoe. Click here to read more.

Well, this year I’m going a little more down-market, if you will. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking shit. Literally.

Recently some Argentine researchers made a surprising study. It was previously believed that mistletoe was spread in the Lake District of Argentine (and other places throughout the world) by birds. That birds feeding on the plants would get the seeds stuck to their legs and thus disperse them as they went from tree branch to tree branch.

It turns out a nocturnal marsupial, Dromiciops australis is the exclusive distributor of mistletoe seeds in their neck fo the woods. They chomp ‘em down and, you guessed it, distribute them via defecation. The seeds happy in a bed of pure compost, can sprout right there on the branch. This is actually a common (and very effective) means for plant distribution throughout the world, very similar to what happens with Strangler Figs.

Mistletoe, which has many varieties unique to different tree species, is a hemi-parasitic plant. It takes part of its nutrients and most of its water directly from its host.


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Mycelium Running or Underground Messengers of Distress

HyphaeIf you are a plant-brained type, or more accurately a fungaholic, you’ve no doubt heard of Paul Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running.  It’s about the amazing and awe-inspiring powers of the little ol’ mycelium, those underground thread like ‘shrooms. As his subtitle suggests, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World mushrooms can be used for everything from building houses to fuel to cleaning toxic waste up from the soil, not to mention our bodies. 

Once thought to have a sycophantic relationship with other plants, fungi got a bad rap. But numerous studies have shown that they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial, can’t we all just get along?) relationship that those fungi seek out. The fungus gets carbon from the plant, and the network they form through the soil helps the plants draw nutrients from a wider area. Plus they help compost. But that is not all, no, that is not all…

A recent study had revealed that they actually act as underground transmitters when  a plant is in distress. That’s right, they herald the cry of war in the deep, dark, dank underground.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland used five bean plants. Three were planted together, and the mycelium were allowed to grow between them in their usual fashion. The other two plants were planted together but inhibited from having mycelium in their soil. And then they botanist unleashed the hounds on them. Well, they unleashed aphids which is the rotany equivalent.

The plant that was attacked by aphids began emitting chemicals that help to attract wasps, something that many plants do when in distress. And while this is amazing enough, it’s hardly news. But this is: the plants that were connected via underground mycelium began also to produce the “distress” chemicals. But when aphids were released on the mycelium-free plant, it’s neighbor did not produce chemicals.

Previously, botanists believed that this chemical transmission was via the air from plant to plant. This astounding discovery means that the plants were using the mycelium to communicate. That’s right, folks, there is an entire underground network of mycelium and they are communicating from plant to plant, fungi to fungi.

The findings could turn the tides significantly on how to control pests without chemicals. Most food crops–such as wheat, maize, rice, beans including soy, and barley support a symbiotic fungi.

According to one of the study’s authors, Professor John Pickett of Rothamsted Research:

In a field of plants that have some inducible resistance to aphids, we could use a plant that’s susceptible to aphid  attack to ‘switch on’ the defence mechanism through the natural underground connection. Aphids affect all higher-latitude agricultural regions, including the UK, the EU, North America, and North East Asia and there’s the potential to deal with other pests and diseases, in other regions, in a similar way.

Fungus are unique and classified in their own kingdom (The Kingdom of Fungi!!) because of the cell walls which contain chitin. Animal cells also contain chitin, but plant cells cellulose. Coulld you say they are half-plant, half-human. Almost. In truth, they fit neither group and so are their own kingdom, though generally considered the domain of botanists. (Mycologists and botanists certainly have a symbiotic relationship!)

Roots of nearly all groups of plants have symbiotic fungi.

Never underestimate the power of a mushroom. Stamets doesn’t. And Smurfs don’t.

smurf on mushroom

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Dead Horse Arum Rises from the Earth

A reader of Rotten Botany gracioulsy sent me pictures of this gorgeous Dead Horse Arum that came up in the garden of her  home in the Sierra Foothills in spite of a heavy snowfall this winter. As she wrote to me, it is located in the back corner of the garden so its scent isn’t too permeating.

I agree with the owner that this is a Dead Horse Arum. The Arum Konjac or Devil’s Tongue has a red stamen, and the Voodoo Lily has a moddled stem. The Vampire Lily seems to have more of a ruffled edge to the flower but it does look similar to this. They are all members of the same Araceae family. mmmm..ARUMS!

Thanks, Mary A. for this amazing pictures. I have to admit, I am super jealous. I’ve always dreamed of moving into an overgrown garden with hidden creepers and fetid florals lurking beneath the ivy. Who planted this arum there? It was no accident. Read more about the Dead Horse Arum on Rotten Botany HERE.

And if you have pictures of any unsusal plants growing let me know!

Dead Horse Arum in GVArum in gardnedead horse arum two

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Zombie Plants: The Walking Dead of the Plant Kingdom

Oh ye zombie fans, it’s not just those rotting-limbed creatures of movies and comics and voodoo lore that posses the ability to return from beyond the grave. There are coursing, pulsing, wild things at rest just beneath the soil, calling out not the mournful desire for “Brrrainnns!” but rather the haunting cry for “Raaainnns!!” The near-dead, seemingly-dead, not-really-dead zombie plants of rotany, longing for but a drop of moisture, or perhaps a good defrost, to come back to their former glory.


Meet the Resurrection Fern, sometimes known as Miracle Fern. (I like to call it Zombie Fern)
Pleopeltis polypodioides also Polypodium incanum (Florida)

You may already be familiar with the Resurrection Fern for its place in the old-school houseplant’s hall of fame. Named for its uncanny ability to recover from a dried up, dead-husk type state, to a semi-lush version of its former green self, upon being soaked overnight in water. In my personal experience the brown still remains on the edges if it’s gone completely dry for too long, but no amount of neglect can actually kill this rotanical.

Before and After of Res Fern (245x192)

It’s a real fern, too, not just an imposter. A creeping little epiphyte of a fern, with varietals native to both the Americas—including areas of the southeastern United States—and Africa. Being an air plant means it takes its nutrients from the air, rather than through the soil, which contributes to its success in reviving after long periods of near-death-experiences. They are fairly small in size, many of those available in retail nurseries or places like Paxton Gate fit in the palm of your hand. You just take the dry, curled up little thing and place it in a dish of water and watch the magic. It takes about a day to see the full glory, but improvements occur within the hour.

There is evidence that the native Floridian variety, Polypodium incanum, was used in combination with Shoestring fern (Vittaria lineate) by the Seminole and Mikasuki tribes as a treatment for chronic health conditions including ill babies. Many of the ferns were traditionally used in a bath as a treatment for insanity.

Creek Indians called this plant Ihosi:Cokhissi—derived from Ehose, a mystical being that causes people to get lost, and kokhesse, meaning whiskers. (This last definition came from Daniel F. Austin’s insanely amazing book Florida Ethnobotany. Out of print, but you can read parts of it on googlebooks.)

Zombie Moss

Edmonton Journal Moss Photo

Very recently a type of ancient arctic moss was discovered by University of Alberta Professor Catherine La Farge. She discovered the plant material at the toe of the Teardrop glacier in Northern Canada. La Farge noticed that some of the moss at the edge of the ice seemed to have a tinge of green to it, so she harvested it and brought it back to her lab.

The moss is actually 400 years old—having been buried during what is known as the Little Ice Age (1550-1850). It went down, and it got up again. Big time.

La Farge took the moss, ground it up, and planted in petri dishes full of potting soil. Four weeks later, life emerged. She said, “Now we have to think there may be populations of land plants that survived that freezing. It makes you wonder what’s under the big ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic and alpine glaciers. And we have a 400-year-old lineage of genetic material.”

The implications are not just botanical either. There could be something life-saving, or life-preserving, in the cells of such resilient plants. Read the full article about La Farge’s groundbreaking discovery here:

Edmonton Journal Article on Zombie Moss


Photo one taken from Wikimedia commons

Photo two taken from Edmonton Journal’s article on the arctic moss, Shaughn Butts

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Farm and Food Science Fellowship~ A Journalist Grant from Berkeley School of Journalism

My great Uncle Fritz's tractor, which remains on the old homestead in Texas.

My great Uncle Fritz’s tractor, which remains on the old homestead in Texas.

I found out about this today from my local Urban Agricultural Alliance and thought I’d do a quick post to spread the word. The UC Berkeley School of Journalism is offering a Food Fellowship, deadline for application is April 1st. The grant is $ 10,000, described below:

Aimed at early and mid-career journalists, the Fellowship presents an opportunity to report ambitious longform stories on the full range of subjects under the rubric of food systems: agricultural and nutritional policy, the food industry, food science, technology and culture, rural and urban farming, agriculture and the environment (including climate change), global trade and supply chains, consolidation and securitization of the food system and public health as it relates to food and farming. In 2013 we will award five, early and mid-career journalists $10,000 to travel and report these stories.

Here is the complete link to find out more:


Not exactly rotten, but botten just the same.



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We Are Watching You: Plant Sense, Neurobotany, Plantopomorphizing, and Other Rotten Thoughts on Plant Brains

Feed me, Seymour!!!

Feed me, Seymour!!!

What plantophile hasn’t, at one point or another, hummed to their plants, or perhaps imagined a small face in the center of a pansie? And poets, since time immemorial have waxed about the amazing beauty and cunning of the natural world. We plant lovers “plantopomorphize” our favorite green companions by naming them (I once had a Purple Velvet plant named Nico). And who doesn’t remember that 6th grade science fair project that proves plants thrive when listening to classical music? Alice’s garden of flowers is a prime example of an imagined “language” and personality of individual plants. And of course there is the Secret Life of Plants, the book that claimed that plants have brains. And feelings.

Scientists sometimes (still)chagrin this book, because its authors Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins, made radical claims (radical at least in 1973) such as the idea that plants have emotions and that actually originate in a “supramaterial world of cosmic beings [such as] fairies, elves, gnomes, sylphs, and host of other creatures, were a matter of direct vision and experience to clairvoyants among the Celts and other sensitives.”

The popular books based in the Findhorn community of Scotland, including the seminal work by Paul Hawken (of Smith and Hawken fame) The Magic of Findhorn (1975), give cred to the idea that something else is in control when plants are involved. The book,  which features a skeptic (Hawken) joining the community for a year and witnessing incredible gardening feats, says this on its first edition jacket (thanks, Mom!):

There have been stories in the press and other media about a small community in the north of Scotland called Findhorn where people talk to plants with amazing results—stories of vegetable and flower gardens animated by angelic forms where Pan’s pipes are heard in the winds—stories of plants performing incredible feats of growth and endurance: 40-pound cabbages, 8-foot delphiniums, and roses blooming in the snow.

Modern botanists, in their own way, are extending the idea that plants have brains. According to an article in Natural History from May of 2012, the first international plant neurobiology meeting was held in 2005 in Florence, Italy (can I get on that invite list?) Their website defines plant neurobiology (what I like to call neurobotany) as ” a newly named, but also old and fascinating field in plant biology addressing the physiological basis of adaptive behavior in plants. Perhaps this field could be called ‘Sensory Biology in Plants.'”

The Natural History article outlined three reasons for plants having nervous systems:

  1. Plants have genes similar to those that specify components of animal nervous systems, specifically proteins that have been show to have distinct roles in neural function.
  2. While said proteins are likely to not have “neural” functions in plants, they are believed to behave in ways very similar to neural molecules.
  3. Some plants show synapse-like regions between the cells, where neurotransmitter molecules facilitate cell-to-cell communication.

Say what, you crazy rotanist??? Basically, plants have their own “version” of nervous system. And if you want some more scientific proof for what Bird, Tompkins, Hawkens (and before them even Darwin had a similar theory) are saying about plants having “feelings” a recent study with peas might give a little more validation. Peas, when stressed from drought, close their “pores” (known in botany as stomata.) The study showed that a non-stressed, well watered pea plant whose rooted near by a stressed plant will also close its stomata as a precaution. Yes, it gets the vibes of stress!

Of course this is all basically scientific evidence of what shamans and plant magic workers have been saying since we had teeth.

So maybe there is a real-life Audrey II out there, waiting to get its “jaws” on us. One that thinks, feels, longs, yearns…a rotanist can hope!

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Mistletoe: Kiss for the Cure for Cancer

European MistletoeMistletoe

The globular-leafed, green little bunches are synonymous with Christmas cheer of a very romantic variety. But mistletoe may well be more than just an excuse to steal a kiss:  this parasitic little plant could contain the cure for colon and other cancers.

Other common names: All Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Golden Bough, Witches Broom, Wood of the Cross

“Mistletoe” is the common name for a hemiparasitic (semi parasitic–a plant that gains nourishment from the host plant but also photosynthesizes) plant of several families (all within the order Santales.) Some of the most familiar plants we know as mistletoe are the common European variety, Viscum album and the North American species, Phoradendron serotinum, both of which are widely harvested as Christmas decoration.

A very recent study from the University of Adelaide in Australia has shown an extract from the European Viscum that grows specifically on Ash trees, Viscum fraxini, is ” highly effective against colon cancer cells in cell culture and was gentler on healthy intestinal cells compared with chemotherapy. Significantly, Fraxini extract was found to be more potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug.

Yes, you read that right. More potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug. It also has fewer side-effects and is gentler on the system.

Scientists, herbalists, and ethnobotanists have been studying mistletoe for years. It is known to be poisonous, causing stomach pains and other intestinal distress. For centuries the stems and leaves have been used to make an extract to treat sluggish circulatory systems and major respiratory problems.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, pioneered the concept of mistletoe as an anti-cancer medicine. A spiritual botanist, Steiner believed that the parasitic nature of the plant could counteract the parasitic nature of a disease like cancer.

It turns out he was right. Scientists have been studying mistletoe’s many varieties for years. In this article published the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, you can see photographs of a tumor virtually disappearing after six months of treatment with the fraxini extract.

Researches at University of Adelaide in Australia extracted three different varieties of mistletoe, all from the Viscum species. Each variety grows on a different kind of tree. The one that grows on the Ash tree so far has proven to be the most effective. However, there are hundreds upon hundreds of types of mistletoe. The potential is actually quite astounding.

In Europe, mistletoe is already being used in the treatment of colon cancer but not it is currently not legal in the United States or Australia, where research is underway to approve it.

Mistletoe is steeped in mythology. Viscum album is thought to be The Golden Bough–the branch that Aeneas must give to the Queen of the Underworld in the epic Greek myth. The Romans believed mistletoe contained divine male essence. The Ancient Druids believed the most sacred mistletoe to be the one that grows on oaks. The Norse believed mistletoe contained the power to resurrect the dead.

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The Ant Fern and Other Oddities: An Informative Rotanical Interview with Bill Barnett

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

I recently scored an interview with the most horticulturally minded person I know, Bill Barnett. Bill is the manager of Sloat Garden Center on 3rd Avenue (at Clement) in San Francisco. I first met Bill when I was his underling at the retail nursery.  Those in the know, know that this branch of Sloat Garden Center is a secret oasis of rare and thriving gems. There is no plant, odd or otherwise that Bill doesn’t know about. I’ve tried to stump him and only come close once: I found out about a new hybrid of a dianthus about a week before he did (score one for the Rotten Botanist!) Bill knows more about plants than any other human alive. Seriously. And he doesn’t hold a PhD or even a master’s in horticulture. Bill got his knowledge the old-fashioned way: immersion. He has discovered a species and trained me in the ways of the weirdest plants. He introduced me to Black Mondo Grass, for which I am forever grateful.  He is also a master diagnoser of plant diseases and a damn amazing cook.

Bill is pretty old school. I did this interview with him via mail. That’s right, MAIL. Not email. He hand wrote the answers, complete with a tiny botanical illustration of a pitcher plant he is fond of. Probably the only way he’ll read this interview is if I print it and bring it into him.

RB: What is your earliest garden or plant memory?

BB: As a toddler I can remember my mom’s houseplants. My aunts all had the same ones because they traded cuttings. They all had the Achimenes — a member of the African Violet family that goes dormant int he winter. My mom believed that you needed to water it with hot water in the spring to wake it up, but of course you don’t. Everyone just called it the hot water plant. My mom also bought houseplants that were reduced in price at the grocery store because they were fading. They rarely looked any better under her care.

RB: How long have you worked in the horticultural field?

BB: Too long. I have seen evolution occur. 34 years. And I really do believe that plants propagated from plants that “like” captivity have produced progeny that are much easier to grow, in just a few generations instead of eons. Or maybe I’m just a better grower–whatever.

RB: What is your favorite plant (indoor or otherwise)?

BB: I love the Staghorn ferns–all 18 species. There’s nothing else like them. They have the shield leaves that stack up as they grow. The inner shields become compost for the roots and they funnel falling leaves and rain to the roots for even more compost. Another type of leaf hangs into the air and look like the staghorn or antler.

RB: What plant do you despise the most? (and why?)

BB: The Fo-Ti that Pixie planted against the North wall. [Rot Bot note, Pixie is a former colleague and amazing gardener who currently works at Annie’s Annuals. Tell him we said ‘Hi!’] We’ve pulled all of it on this side but it still comes in from the neighbor’s yard. It comes through the drainage holes in the flower box. One tendril found the drainage hole of a pot sitting on a shelf and rooted into the hole. We all now hate it. It taunts us through the fence.

RB: Is there a particularly bizarre plant that you think Rotten Botanists should know about?

BB: I bought the weirdest plant from a grower from the Philippines at the orchid expo this year. It’s a fern called Lecanopteris carnosa or the Ant Fern. It is an epiphyte. The base looks like a green potato and seems to have hardly any roots. The leaves are pretty fern like. It likes to grow in the sun and get bone dry between soakings. The base grows in one direction and as it does the rear portion dies and becomes dry and black and hollow. Stinging ants move into the backroom. They’re not squatters–they work for their lodging. At any vibration from something munching on the leaves they rush out en mass and run the invader off. They groom the leaves of any aphids or scale and they fertilize the roots by dumping all of their food scraps and poop in the yard. My plant is growing well, without ants.

RB: Rumor has it you discovered a species of Sanseveria (snake plant). Can you tell us about that?

BB: It’s a cultivar actually of the normal green ‘snake plant’. Someone was buying it where I was working and I noticed a yellow colored sprout. When they left to get their car I un-potted the plant and replaced it with another green plant because I knew they hadn’t even noticed. It’s called ‘Sunrise’ because the leaves come up plain green and slowly the yellow creeps up the stem and intensifies like the sunlight coming over the horizon. it can take years for full color development. [Rot Bot note: The one Bill gave me about 9 years ago is half yellow now!]

RB: If your house was on fire and you had time to save just ONE plant, what would it be? Why?

I’ve got plants that it would be harder to find or more expensive to replace (if possible). But I love my little Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, so much. It’s a nice clump of the miniature pitchers. They all face away from the center of the group. It looks kinda like a nest of baby birds all with their mouths open for feeding. I feed them frozen baby crickets.

Bill's illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

Bill’s illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

The Strangler Fig

A random photo from the interwebs. I will upload photos of the stranglers I saw in So America once I get around to scanning them. The trip was prior to the digital age.

The Strangler Fig

Family: Moraceae (Mulberry)

Ficus spp.

Sound like something from a horror movie? Well, its behavior certainly is.  The rotten habits of the Strangler Fig have earned this type of Ficus its dastardly nick-name.

Strangler Fig is a common term for several species of Ficus that grow in tropical and subtropical forests throughout the world,  and the term can even be used to refer to any vine that exhibits the behavior similar (sucking the life out of its host plant while it thrives). As there are more than 150 species of Strangler figs in the New World forests alone, I’m going to focus mainly on the ones in Central and South America. Several years ago, on an ethonobotanical sojourn to a Peruvian rainforest, the tale of the Stranglers was relayed to me by one of our local guides and has haunted me ever since.

In a very general sense, the Strangler Figs are considered Banyans, as Banyans are defined as a fig that starts out as an epiphyte. This is very common because most species (if not all) of Ficus produce small fruits (figs!) which birds, bats, monkeys and other small animals dine on, thus distributing the seeds via their waste, to all manner of cracks and crevices of a host tree. (This is not to be confused with the Ficus benghalensis, or Indian banyan which is the national tree of India.)

In the competitive world of the tropical forest, sunlight and compost are hot commodities. The Strangler fig has figured out exactly how to get what it needs.Once the animal has left behind the seed, which is now nestled in a crook of a tree covered in fertilizer (aka animal feces) it is only a matter of hours before it starts to thrive. Slowly it grows roots, which begin to reach down toward the soil below. The roots can grow hundreds of feet long, and eventually form a lattice-like network around the tree’s trunk and into its root system. It also grows up toward the sunlight, eventually shading the host tree from sunlight. In this way the Strangler fig is slowly but surely strangling the life out of its host tree. It is robbing the nutrients from the ground, gobbling up the sunlight above, and using the structure to wrap ever tighter and grow ever larger. More often than not the Strangler Fig kills its host, though some have shown enough mercy to let the host tree live–though it is only a shadow of the life they once had.

You wouldn’t necessarily notice if you strolled by one. You might just think you see a big, beautiful, healthy Ficus tree. But upon closer inspection you’ll see the “trunk” is a network of roots, its support being the carcass inside.

Strangler figs do play an important role in the ecology of forests, including providing rotanical homes for bats and other small animals as well as food for a wide variety of species.

A very wonderful and menacing plant in the kingdom of Rotten Botany.




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