Tag Archives: botanical

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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The Purple Tomato: Our New Dark Lord

or Purple Tomatoes: Not Just for Heirlooms Anymore!

Purple tomatoes you say? What’s the big deal? The heirloom varieties such as ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Purple Cherokee’ have been tumbling across market stands and making their way to our tables for a number of years, delighting foodies and gardeners alike.  So what on earth is all this horticultural hullabaloo about?

Meet the Indigo Rose.

This tomato doesn’t tumble or stumble. This baby waltzes.

The Indigo Rose, unlike the aforementioned varieties, is not an heirloom variety but more of a freak of nature–a carefully crafted freak, that is! It’s a fun new hybrid, and it has a very distinct difference from the other varieties. According to an article published by Oregon State University, whose horticulture department is responsible for the mad-creation of the ‘Indigo Rose’ variety, tomato fruits like ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Purple Cherokee’ get their color from various reactions within the tomato’s chemical makeup that results in a the green-skin gene producing a darker color.

In botanical-speak, OSU explains:

      What causes the purple pigment?

            A class of compounds generally called anthocyanin. The specific anthocyanins present in  the tomatoes are mainly petunidin, but malvidin and delphinidin are also present. The anthocyanins are modified by the presence of acyl (sugar) groups. Anthocyanins are a   member of a larger class of compounds called flavonoids. Other members of this class  include quercetin, kaempferol, naringenin, catechin, and isoflavones. Phenols or Phenolics are related compounds that differ in basic chemical structure, but have similar          function. In our tomato lines many different kinds of phenolics and flavonoids are up regulated along with the anthocyanins.

Say what?

Well, in a nutshell, the Indigo Rose has a purple-skinned gene rather than the typical green gene. This is the result of a high level of compounds known as anthocyanins, most commonly known as the compounds that give blueberries their nice, dark blue color.

Let’s face it, this is a true rotanical of the most Frankensteinian proportions. I’ve heard it doesn’t taste as good, falling short in flavor (but where it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in flavonoids)but as soon as I can sink my teeth into one, I’ll be the judge!

One other note that is important: this tomato has gotten a bad wrap already as being a GMO (genetically modified organism). It is not. It is a HYBRID. To quote again from the OSU article:

            Were genetic engineering techniques used to develop these lines?

            No, conventional crossing and selection techniques are being used. This is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of this project, and we will say it again: These tomatoes are  NOT GMO.

That means that they isolated naturally occurring genes from other plants and isolated them, combined them, and intensified them. Genetically modified organisms use new genes and sometimes new made-in-a-lab genes. This kind of isolating and breeding technique has been used for centuries, and in fact, many “heirloom” varieties are the result of hybridization. Just wanted to add a line in there in defense of this lil’ freak!

Check out the Territorial Seed Company’s online catalog description and see for yourself if you’d like to order some!

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The Nightmare Before Christmas Tree

Corokia cotoneaster ‘Little Prince’ 

Also called: Wire Netting Bush

Family: Cornaceae

One of the most unusual plants growing in my garden is the gnarled, twisted little shrub Corokia cotoneaster–what I like to refer to as “The Nightmare Before Christmas Tree.” Grey leaves growing upon black, zig-zagged stems may lead the untrained eye to think that this member of the Dogwood family is already dead. Prune it back to showcase its twisted form and add a little up lighting and you can get a spooky effect worthy of the most haunted of houses!

Macabre beauty aside, Corokia often appears in groomed commercial landscaping with golden cypress and crimson Japanese maples because of its contrasting color and interesting shape. ‘Little Prince’ is my personal favorite variety because its stems seem to be particularly black, and it grows much slower than the other varieties (it is a dwarf) and therefore lends itself very nicely to container gardening.

This plant looks amazing on a little mound, surrounded by a green moss or chartreuse Selaginella and circled with Black Mondo grass. It does produce small yellow flowers (not showy) followed by tiny berries, but again these are what we’d call in the botanical world “insignificant.”

Hardy to most climates, I’ve seen it in the dead of winter reaching out from a snowy bed like a skeletal finger.

Culture~

Height: 3-4 ft .

Hardiness:

Hardy to 20 degrees and I’ve seen it in the dead of winter reaching out from a snowy bed like a skeletal finger!

Full sun in milder climates, plant it in a shadier spot if you live somewhere that gets extra hot. Can survive pretty well in either!

Native to New Zealand.

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A New Rotanical Discovered!!!

A new species of Amorphophallus has recently been discovered !!! It isn’t quite as big as The Corpse Plant  (A. titanum)but seems to be just as wretched in scent. Amorphophallus perrieri possesses the unique adaptation of releasing a smell like death to attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flies just as its cousins the Corpse Plant and the Devil’s Tongue (A. konjac).

Growing some five feet big this thing could stink up the whole island of Madagascar where it was discovered. Apparently the botanist, Greg Walhert, was looking for violets when he happened upon this horror! What an amazing find.

Wahlert and his lab partner are affectionately referring to it as a Porta Potty Flower. Clearly this is a true rotanical deluxe.

You can read more about it here:

New “Porta Potty” Flower Discovered.

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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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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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Vampire Lily

Vampire Lily

Dracunculus vulgaris

Family: Araceae

No rotten garden is complete without the beloved Vampire LilyDracunculus vulgaris. Also called the Dragon Arum, it is in the Araceae family along with the Black Calla, and sports one of the finest botanical names in the whole rotten world! Similar in appearance to the Black Calla and more so, the Voodoo Lily, the Vampire Lily produces multiple green stems that appeart to be splattered with blood. Its flower is a deep dark red and has a ruffled edge, and the spadix is long, blackish purple, and totally evil. Not unlike its Voodoo cousin its fading flower emits a smell like that of rotting flesh, designed to attract flies and carrion beetles that pollinate it.

Culture~

Height: 14”-20”

Hardiness: to 25º

Full sun in mild climates, partial shade in hotter climates.  Regular water, mulch only in coldest climates. Thrives on neglect. Do not over fertilize. Native to Mediterranean Europe.

Took this picture from Listverse's top 10 Coolest Plants

Note that I do own several Vampire Lillies, planted inside a giant blood red pot, but they are not in bloom right now (it is January!) so I took a picture from this link: http://listverse.com/2007/11/30/top-10-coolest-plants/
Which happens to have some other super cool plants that I love, like the Corpse Plant. I will get into that later.
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Rotten Botany

Welcome to the dark side of gardening–Rotten Botany. Here you will find plants of the unusual variety–dark flowering, black leaves, poisonous, magical, monstrous–all have a home in my garden. You will find lore and tales of terror along with botanical care and feeding. From carnivorous plants to cataclysmic odoriferous Callas, Rotten Botany seeks to introduce the simply sinister and fully fetid floras in the known universe. Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes your garden grow stronger.

Arum palaestinum
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