Monthly Archives: August 2015

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 hellebores.org 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.

800px-GreenPolypods

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

zombie

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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