You Lousy Stinking Hellebore

Helleborus foetidus

Stinking Hellebore. Also Dungwort, Bear’s Foot

Family: Ranunculaceae

Not just a botanical insult the Stinking Hellebore is actually one of the least stinky of the foul-smelling plants. This shade loving perennial gets its name not from a foul flower but rather from the stinky smell when the leaves are stems are crushed. The classic variety of this Euro-and English native (also parts of Greece and Asia Minor) sports a pale green to yellowish-white, fice petaled flower but can even have purple edging. Hybrids commonly sold today include deeper purple flowers.

H. foetidus is a unique plant in that to date it is the only plant discovered that uses yeast to produce heat. According to an article in New Scientist from February, 2010 author Shanta Barley writes:

A European herb, the stinking hellebore, is the only plant discovered so far that relies on another organism to generate heat for it. Other plants, like the famous “corpse flower” whose blooms smell of rotting flesh, warm up by breaking down salicylic acid, or by tracking the sun’s movement.

 Which means that its nectar hosts colonies of yeast which it is believe attract certain pollinators. (This may also account for the issues I’ve always had with sticky aphids infesting my Stinking Hellebores!)
Plant in your garden in shade to part sun, this is a hardy and lovely addition to any garden. Grows to about 18″-24″ high and about as wide. Generally hardy to about 10 °F but I am told this can survive below zero in the right, well mulched and established garden bed. Moderate water. Great pollinator attractor, especially bees.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, causing violent vomiting and delirium. Ethnobotany, especially in the regions of Southern Italy, suggests that the poisonous qualities were used in folk medicine, including as an abortifacient. Decoctions of the leaves can be used as a topical treatment against parasites and fleas. The root of the plant is a heart stimulant.
H. foetidus is one of more than a dozen similar flowering perennials that belong to the Helleborus genus, with flowers that vary from white to pink to deep purple, nearly black. Check out for everything you ever wanted to know about hellebores! 
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Is That a Sausage In Your Tree? (Or are you just batty to see me?)

sausage tree

The Sausage Tree aka Kigelia africana
Family: Bignoniaceae

The Sausage Tree, sometimes called a Cucumber Tree, is truly a one-of-a-kind botancial bastion. A member of the Bignoniaceae family (more common plants in this family include the gorgeous purple Jacaranda tree) is a stand alone in its genus with no other members of the Kigelia clan. It can can grow more than 60-feet tall and produces impressive fruit that can grow nearly 2-feet long and weigh as much as 15 lbs. These long sausage-like fruit give the tree its distinctive name.

800px-Kigelia_africana_MS_10010And while you might already see this as a potential horror-movie plant (it has a very science fiction quality to it) what makes it just a hair cooler is its pollinator! The amazing flowers that are produced (prior to fruiting of course) are red bell-shaped flowers that grow horizontally but hang in swinging clusters. Perfect for the bat. The scent is strongest at night, a sign that bats are its key pollinator, although some birds and bees do visit this plant. It basically takes whatever help it can get!

sausage tree in africa

In traditional African herbal medicine, the fruit of the Sausage Tree is thought to cure many ailments, including snakebites, evil spirits, and syphilis! The fresh fruit is quite poisonous and therefore used as a purgative. (Um, makes sense why it is believed to rid the riddled of evil spirits!) Research is being done especially in UK labs to test the potential healing properties on skin ailments such as psoriasis and eczema. So before you get busy frying up a “sausage fruit” for dinner, think again.

Also in the Bignoniacea family is the Calabash Tree, native to the Philipines. It produces large, globular fruit. 

photo credit:

(1) wikimedia commons, (2) & (3) flickr creative commons, james mannersimke.stahlmann

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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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Dead Horse Arum!

I love this photo because it has a fly on it!

Helicodiceros muscivorus

Dead horse Arum or Dead Horse Lily

Family: Araecea

(Synonyms are Helicodiceros crintius and Dracunculus crintitus–I prefer this one of course!)

This Mediterranean island native  is, next to the Corpse Plant, the category killer for rotten botanicals. Like it’s odoriferous cousins the Voodoo Lily and the Vampire Lily, The Dead Horse Arum lures flies and carrion beetles to its pollen coated stamen with the alluring smells of rotting meat, or rotting flesh of horses.(And like its cousins Voodoo and Vampire, it is also not really a lily.)

This beauty sports a wide inflorescence, with a somewhat phallic spadix (well, have you met a spadix that isn’t phallic?) which is made up of tiny male and female flowers. What is referred to as the flower is actually a modified leaf (spathe) plus spadix made up of tiny flowers. The spathe is moddled, usually a rich shade of red but can have some green and even white. The spadix is typically black or deep maroon.

The Dead Horse Arum is also one of a rare group of thermogenic plants. It can raise its own temperature, a handy trick to convince those flies that it really is hot, dead, flesh. How rotten is that? The Corpse Plant does this as well.

Incidentally, other plants that are thermogenic include the Elephant Ear philodendron and certain water lilies. Who knew?

Similar to other arums or aroids the Dead Horse Arum goes dormant. It is grown from a corm and likes a nice hummus rich soil, does great in containers, and can even withstand a bit of a temperature drop, as long as its buried snugly in a said hummus-y soil. I expect this would do well in most climates if kept in a container and properly mulched/brought into a hot house for the winter. That being said, I’m spoiled in my Mediterranean San Francisco climate and wonder if any of you inlanders, Southerners, or Northern Europeans have any experience growing this savory rotanical? Let us know !

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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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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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