Category Archives: Ethnobotanical Wonders

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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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 Bat Plant

 Tacca chantrieri

The Bat Plant

Family: Taccaceae

Among the lush greens and vibrant reds of the tropical forest lurks one of the most unusual plants of the world: Tacca chantrieri, or The Bat Plant. Named for its black bat-like flower that grow up to 12 inches across, The Bat Plant could also be nicknamed The Black Cat Plant for its distinctive long “whiskers” that can grow over 2 ft. long. Other common names include The Devil Flower, Bat-Head Lily, and Black Tacca.

The most common Bat Plant is the beautiful blackish variety, although there are actually several colors including a very ghostly white flowering variety. This amazing rotanical is more than just a fun freak of nature–recent evidence shows that it may actually have cancer-fighting properties. According to an article on this website:

The Therapeutics Program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, has been working to isolate substances in the plant in hopes of finding a new  plant-derived cancer drug with the potential of Taxol. Taxol, the first microtubule  stabilizer derived from the Yew family, has been an effective chemotherapy drug, but patients eventually develop problems with resistance over time and toxicity at higher doses. Researchers have long been seeking alternatives. “We’ve been working with these for years with some good results, but never with the potency of Taxol,” said Mooberry, lead author of the study. “Now we have that potency,  and we also show for the first time the taccalonolides’ cellular binding site.”

In other words they have isolated something as effective and powerful as Taxol in the beautiful bewitching bat plant. Go rotanical, go!

Want to grow your own super-freak? If you live in a steamy, humid climate you should have no problem. You can just let it go wild. But for the rest of us, even in my mild SF garden, you’ll need to do it in a pot in a greenhouse most of the year. If it gets below 40 degrees they get very, very cranky. Shade or bright indirect light. Why would a bat like the sun?

Height: About 18-20” with flowers of several inches. Remember the whiskers, though, which can dangle down to the ground!

Hardy to 40 degrees.

Note: this amazing photo came from my cousin Anne Mackin who snapped it at the SF Conservatory of Flowers. They have a regularly blooming Bat Plant!!

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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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The Corpse Plant

The Corpse Flower

Amorphophallus titanum

Family: Araceae

Ah, The Corpse Plant also called The Corpse Flower, Amorphophallus titanum is the mother of all stinky arums. Often referred to as the Titan Arum, this plant is probably the ultimate Lovely Lily of Death (note: it is not actually a lily.) This plant is ENORMOUS! The leaf can grow up to twenty feet tall and wide, and the flower can grow to be up to nine feet tall. Like its distant cousins, the Voodoo Lily and the Black Calla, the Corpse Plant produces leaves every year but flowers less frequently. Usually it takes seven or so years of producing leaves, sucking up enough energy into the tuber to produce the massive inflorescence (which is actually a many smaller flowers stacked up to make the “one” bloom.)

The most distinguishing feature of the Titan Arum is its distinctive smell. When at last mature enough to produce a full fetid bloom beware! This thing smells like a rotting corpse. Probably more like a rotting carcass, like that of a dead whale or seal on a beach, than an actual human corpse, its foul smell also attracts visitors to whatever botanical garden is hosting the stink-party. I was a docent at the Conservatory of Flowers back  in 2005 when Ted the Titan, on loan from the UC Davis Botanical Gardens, bloomed in all its funky glory. People were lined up out the door of the Victorian conservatory just to get a glimpse, or in this case, a whiff. It is truly a sight to behold.

The flower looks like a giant version of the Voodoo or Vampire lily, with a massive spadix jutting out of its delicately ruffled outer petals. It has a blood-red interior and a green outer layer, often streaked with color like dripping blood!

The cultivation of such a plant is only recommended for individuals with very strong stomachs, decent biceps and good backs,  who are also in possession of a very, very large hothouse. It is native to Sumatra and does not like cold temperatures. The tuber alone on a mature plant can be over forty pounds!

Culture~

Height to 20 ft. (Flower to 9 ft.)

Requires warm temperatures, extremely high humidity. Even when dormant, do not expose to temperatures lower than 59 degrees.

This is Ted the Titan from the 2005 bloom at the SF Conservatory of Flowers.

Please note I did not take this photo though this is the same Corpse Flower I was lucky enough to spend time with. I got it from this guys website. He has tons of great photos and I hope he doesn’t mind that I snagged this. Full credit to: http://www.pbase.com/mtpuff/ted

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