Category Archives: Deadly Plants

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! 
Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

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.

 

 

 

Tagged , , ,