Monthly Archives: February 2012

In Praise of Discolor

Salvia discolor

Andean Sage

Family: Lamiaceea    

Salvias are one of the more amazing plants. There are dozens of varieties, all of which have different color blooms: red, white, turquoise, purple, chartreuse. But nothing could be cooler than the salvia that blooms black. That’s right! There is a BLACK BLOOMING SALVIA which has earned the name Salvia discolor. 

A tender perennial, Salvia discolor thrives in the local Bay Area climate but being a native to Peru it can manage in a variety of climates and winters over nicely with the proper mulching. The leaves are mossy green and the stems brilliantly silver, contrasting with the deep purpled blackness of the blooms. It has a pleasant acrid smell, not unlike your common household sage. The leaves do have a sticky quality, which earns it the nick name “fly paper sage”.

I had been an admirer of this unusual salvia for its ability to surprise even the most seasoned gardener with its striking flowers and was riding home on the N Judah one evening, proudly bearing my newest 4″ S. discolor which I had purchased just that afternoon via special order at The Scarlet Sage. The Scarlet Sage is San Francisco’s only herbal apothecary with decided witchy undertones and one of my all time favorite shops. In the spring you can count on them to have a fine selection of medicinal and edible plants, and they kindly special ordered my discolor. A woman sitting in front of me asked me what the plant was and what it was for and I had to admit I only knew the botanical basics. As far as I knew it wasn’t used in cooking or medicine, its value being in its unusual colored flowers. Just then a slight woman sitting next to her piped up. Like Salvia discolor, this woman was a Peruvian native and gladly informed me that this plant is used in Peru much like we use the common sage in cooking–beans, meats, stews. (Thank you public transit for the ethnobotanical opportunity!) The stickiness and pungent smell suggests that there is even more to this plant than meets the eye–so if anyone out there knows more about its medicinal properties let us know! Many sages are used to treat mild stomach upset and aid digestion.

Like all sages, Salvia discolor attracts pollinators to your garden–bees, butterflies, small birds–so it is an invaluable asset. Plus it looks really freaking cool, its wild and wiry spindles of silver and black writhing up from the shrubbiness of its green leaves. Even though it is a bit sticky, it looks great in floral arrangements too, especially with white roses. Another true rotanical!!

It is also drought resistant and needs little care once established! A bonus for those of us who tend to gardens that thrive on neglect. Below is a photo from the flickr commons. I will upload more pictures of my own discolor in the coming weeks. In addition there is a wild and wooly garden near my house with an abundant S. discolor just begging to be featured on Rotten Botany! 

Salvia discolor photo by Scott Zona, taken from flickr commons.

Culture~

Grows from 1 to 3 ft high and wide. Water regularly to establish and then infrequently. Likes full sun unless in an extremely dry and hot climate, then give partial shade. Hardy to 10 degrees though I would advise mulching with straw or something similar if you are in an area of heavy snow.

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The Beautiful Tongue of the Devil (A. konjac)

Amorphohallus konjac at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco

Devil’s Tongue

Amorphophallus konjac

Family: Araceae

Sometimes called the Devil’s Tongue and also referred to as the Voodoo Lily (but an entirely different species from the Voodoo Lily featured here) this beautiful specimen was caught blooming and befouling the entire Lowland Tropics gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers this weekend! And I count myself among the lucky few who got to “enjoy” this disgusting delight of the rottenest botanist variety.

According to the Conservatory of Flowers: “Our bloomer is an amorphophallus konjac. Despite its unsavory odor, it’s actually used to make candy! It’s gelatinous excretions can be an ingredient, however we featured it in Wicked Plants, as the gelatin can often be so thick that children have choked.”

Apparently this Jello-like substance is used as a vegan substitute for gelatin and is made into the popular Asian fruit jelly snack, Lychee cups. (Adults have been known to choke on these too.) In fact, a quick google search will lead you to a number of products that feature konjac. Fiber-rich vitamin supplements are made from the tuber, and thought to promote healthy digestion and weight loss. The tuber is used in soups and stews, and you can even buy konjac flour. However parts of the plant are known to be poisonous. O’ the wonders never cease!

This particular Amorphohallus blooms about once a year, though it can skip a year or two, and must be kept in the tropical hothouse temperatures of the conservatory’s greenhouse or steamy main gallery.

How best to describe the smell? Acrid, cloying–like the body of a roadkill animal left in the noonday sun. A touch sulfuric. This is the kind of smell you can’t quite place but you know you have smelled it before. It is the smell of decay. It reminded me most of the smell when you have left flowers in a vase too long and you finally decide to toss them, thus disturbing the putrid water that has been writhing with bacteria for a week or more. You dump it out and are aghast at the end result of what was a gorgeous, cheerful bouquet.

The Amorphohallus konjac is a true rotanical!!!

I would guess this plant is about two feet tall, from stem to the very top of its spadix, which sticks out considerably from its beautiful spathe. It is an incredible burgundy color, very velvety. If you dare get up close enough to examine it! It is tricky to see from the pictures but there is a sign to the left which will give you a bit of perspective. I tried to make my son stand next to it but he wasn’t having it!!

Culture~

Height: 18-24″ (can sometimes grow larger)

Hardiness: To about 10 degrees.

Plant in shade in sunnier climates, prefers more sun in foggier or cooler climates. Keep outdoors when blooming if you don’t want you house to smell like a toilet.

The Devil's Tongue at the C of F

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Amorphophallus Amungus

A quick note to let you know that the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco currently has a blooming stinky amophophallus. I am not sure what variety, but it does not appear to be a titan arum. There are more than 150 plants known as amorphohallus so I will report back on the exact kind when I return, and I will post pics too! 

It’s a rare, er, treat to see and smell one of these fantastic and foul beauties. They only bloom for a few days at most so you have a pretty brief window. And some species go for years in between blooms. 

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Mondo Bizarre-O

               Black Mondo Grass

     Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘nigrescens’ 

 Family: Liliaceae

There is nothing quite as creepy as a sprawling planting of Black Mondo Grass. It looks like a lawn of  spider legs, undulating from the earth, dark as night. This is not the kind of lawn you hide Easter Eggs in. This is the Devil’s carpet!

Sometimes also called Black Lily Turf or Black Dragon Grass this extremely hardy plant is, to my knowledge, the ONLY truly black plant on earth. Most flowers and petals or leaves of “black” plants are deep maroon or purple when held to a spot of sunlight. Not so the Black Mondo! No light penetrates this beautiful blade.

Not a true grass but actually a member of the Lily family, the Black Mondo Grass is the cousin of the well-known soldier of the busy landscaper, Liriope. Lirope is an ol’ standby for many gardeners, especially in commercial plantings, because it is shade tolerant and hardy, forgiving of trash and dogs, and overall a fairly attractive (if overused) plant. There was an attempt to reinvigorate Liriope’s popularity a few years ago with a flashy new variegated hybrid, but I digress…

For the average climate Black Mondo Grass does well planted in a shade or partial shade setting. In San Francisco’s foggy but consistent climate this does fine as a sun plant, providing the exposure is primarily morning sun. A north or northeastern facing place is excellent. With a bit more sunlight the blades get wider and the fairly slow-growing Black Mondo thrives. A lot of botanical sites say that this plant can take full sun but I would caution you not to put it into  blazing afternoon sun unless you want Black Mondo to become Brown Mondo.

It does get small flowers that give way to a beautiful blue-black fruit. This is pretty small, though, and not all that showy but another cool feature of an already insanely cool plant.

This is an excellent planting for small spaces and container. To emphasize its spidery qualities, plant it in a container edge so it looks like it is crawling over! My friend Bill Barnett at Sloat Garden Center taught me to “Plant the Black Mondo in a cobalt blue pot with Chartreuse Selaginella” for maximum contrast!

Culture:

About 8″ wide by 12″ wide at its maximum. This is a clumping plant that won’t spread or take over your garden. It grows fairly slowly.

Hardy to 0 degrees (yep, ZERO!)

This is a native to Japan. There are a couple of varieties, including ‘Black Beard’ which has wider blades and grows a little faster.

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