Tag Archives: botany

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 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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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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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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The Voodoo Lily

Sauromatum venosum 

Oh the things that grow in the dank earth, the things that thrive on rain and shadows and neglect. The Voodoo Lily,  sometimes identified as S. venosum (although there are other species of Amorphophallus that are called Voodoo Lillies) seems like something you’d find growing at the Crossroads. With a speckled, bloody red flower, and the foul smell of a corpse when in full-bloom, the Voodoo Lily certainly seems to belong to the world of swamps and curses and spells. This zombie-scented flower’s disgusting aroma is used to attract flies and beetles as its pollinators. The Voodoo Lily’s flower forms similarly to the Black Calla and Vampire Lily, with a tall central spike, or spadix, surrounded by the spathe. For the Voodoo Lily, the spadix is the richest of reds, and the spathe is a vibrant red spotted with deep burgundy. Especially enchanting even when not in bloom, the Voodoo Lily’s speckled leaf spikes appear after the single flower has come and gone, shooting up and branching out to look like miniature gothic tropical trees, green and smattered with blood red spots at the base. Bizarre, enchanting, and gorgeously ghastly!

Culture-

Height: 14”-20”

Hardiness: to 25º

Prefers partial shade, regular water during growth period. Stop watering after bloom for several weks. Allow to die back, then, if growing in pot leave pot out in the rain. Thrives on gloomy sweet rain. Native to tropical Africa and Asia.

This is not my lily, but the same kind. I got this from http://www.ruralramblings.com. I hope they don't mind!

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The Lovely Lilies of Death

The Lovely Lilies of Death! Who knew you could grow such novelties as Black Callas, Vampire Liles, Voodoo Liles, and more? The Rotten Botanist, that’s who! This week, Rotten Botany is “dead”icated to some of my all time favorite flowers–what I call the lovely lilies of death. Today, we begin with The Black Calla.

The Black Calla Lily

Botanical Name: Arum palaestinum

Family: Tracheae

You know those classic funereal flowers so often draped across a coffin or propped up in the corner of the parlor room during a wake? They are white with a yellow spike in the center, and if you grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area they very likely grew in your back yard. That would be the classic white Calla Lily,  Zantedeschia aethiopica. The Black Calla Lily, Arum palaestinum, is not a true Calla Lily though they are both members of the same greater family, Araceae. The Black Calla’s spathe is terribly special! Usually it has a greenish exterior that unfurl to reveal a the deep maroon color of the flower with an intensely black spike (spadix) thrusting out of the middle. with a tapered tip that dangles behind it like a tail.  In milder climates, like the one I live in, this plant can can be grown outdoors. Like its distant cousin the white calla, it thrives in sandy soil and can be planted in the shade to partial shade. In climates with a colder snap in the winter it is better suited to be a hot-house or houseplant. But be cautious. Like many of its morbid cousins, there is a faint fetid odor that is emitted when this plant is in full bloom. This is thought to attract its pollinators, usually flies and gnats.

Culture~

Height: Grows from 18-24”.

Hardiness: to 25 º

Light shade, regular water, mildly acidic soil.  Quite likes neglect.

Original native of the Middle East

You can keep it in a pot for a long time, just remember that it dies back completely and loves the rain, so mark the pot well and set it out somewhere it will absorb rain for the winter. Don’t let the “empty” pot fool you! Mine produced only leaves for several years and then bammo! One year in mid-April it bloomed in all its glory.

My Black Calla in bloom!


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