Tag Archives: gardening

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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Baby’s in Black: Nemophila menziesii ‘Penny Black’

Family: Hydrophyllaceae

Nemophila menziesii ‘penny black’

Black nemophila, ‘Penny Black’ or ‘Baby Black Eyes’

A sweet and rampantly blooming annual that frequently reseeds itself, this delightful hybrid of the California Native Baby Blue Eyes (of the same botanical name, Nemophilia menziesii)  is a must-grow for the pirate’s garden. Little cup-like, black and white flowers.  This little lovely looks amazing in containers, hanging baskets, or as a gothically-minded border plant. It grows about 8” wide by up to 12” across and thrives in all USDA zones as a spring and summer bloomer. Sunset zones 1-24. Likes sun to part sun. A word of caution for those of you in coastal climates where the summer means fog: this plant is prone to powdery mildew and should go in the sunniest possible place in your garden. Hotter inland gardeners can place it in the more dappled light of their sunnier shade beds.

Bay Area gardeners: Look for the plants at Annie’s Annuals in the early Spring through Summer or check out Sloat Garden Center.

I believe the seeds are available through Botanical Interests, but you need to start them in March or so to get a summer bloomer.

If you’ve had luck with these beauties or know where readers can pick them up feel free to comment and let us know!

Yarrrr!

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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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Wicked Cool: An Interview with Amy Stewart

For all you fans of the rotten, stinky, beautiful, wicked plants in the world, if you haven’t somehow yet heard of Amy Stewart take heed! She is the author of Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, Flower Confidential, The Earth Moved, From the Ground Up, and a forthcoming book called  The Drunken Botanist. She writes blogs called Dirt and Garden Rant.
She is fun, punchy, and incredibly knowledgeable. Her book Wicked Plants has been touring the country in the form of exhibits at botanical gardens and conservatories since it first hit the stands.  Once I read Wicked Plants I was hooked and went back to read nearly everything she’d written. Amy was gracious enough to recently grant me an interview for Rotten Botany.  Read on for a few words from Amy about the most beautiful and low-down rotanicals she fancies.
What is your favorite plant (wicked or otherwise)?
I am a big fan of salvias of all kinds–there are many species native to California that do really well with no effort at all.  I love the colors, and the fact that they are so tough and drought-tolerant, and the fact that they attract a lot of hummingbirds and bees.  I probably have 30 or 35 species in my garden.
And there is a wicked salvia–Salvia divinorum, an intoxicating little annual salvia native to Mexico.  It apparently causes quite nasty hallucinations.  It’s not illegal, but the DEA does consider it a “plant of concern.”
What is your favorite poisonous plant?
I really love castor bean–it’s gorgeous, very dramatic, quite frightful-looking–and the seeds contain ricin, one of the most deadly poisons the plant kingdom makes.  Just a few seeds, chewed well, could kill a person.
What do you think is the most dangerous plant?
In terms of the number of people it has killed?  That’s easy–tobacco.  Over 90 million people have died because of that plant.
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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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Spiritual Botany: An Interview with Raven Grimassi

Raven Grimassi is a plant witch. He is a world-renowned author on witchcraft, folklore, Wicca, and Neopaganism whose most recent book, Old World Witchcraft, addresses something he refers to as the organic memory of the earth. He is a spiritual botanist–that is to say he goes beyond the medicinal or ethnobotanical uses of a plant and works with the spirit and the consciousness of the plant. In particular, he works with what we may all consider traditionally “witchy” or dark plants–rotanicals such as Aconite, mandrake, and hemlock. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to Raven in Salem, Massachusetts a couple of years ago and to work with him as this book came out. I recently interviewed him.

What is your earliest plant memory?

This question brings back fond memories.  When I was around five or six years old, my mother had an herb garden in the backyard.  She would often call me over, show me a plant, and then ask “Did I ever tell you what we do with this plant?”  This was always a learning opportunity.  Here was the beginning of my interest in herbs and my understanding that they possessed abilities to influence things.

In Old World Witchcraft you introduce readers to the Ash, Birch, and Willow magical system. Can you describe this?

It’s a system that, in part, is designed to link people with the sentient nature of plants and the spirits that inhabit them.  At the core is a desire to be linked to the Green Wood in intimate ways, as were our ancestors before the time that humans moved towards mastering Nature as opposed to living in common cause with Her.

The practice is intended to establish communication on inner spiritual levels with the consciousness of the living plant life within Nature.  This is done through a variety of techniques such as meditation, conscious dream work, and the use of plant symbols that open direct channels to the Green Wood.

You speak of the organic memory of the earth. Where do plants and plant magic fit in with this memory?

Yes, the idea is that every living thing that died upon the earth had its essence absorbed into the soil.  The memory of each is contained in the mineral composition of the earth, what we call the “bone memory” of the Land.  We know scientifically that crystallized minerals can store, transmit,  and direct energy.  Plants absorb minerals through their root system, and the associated magical belief is that plants therefore can tap into the organic memory of the earth.   This makes it possible to extract memories from the earth when we work closely with plants and their spirits.

The book cover has an image of the mandrake on it. What is the significance of the mandrake?

Poetically speaking, the mandrake is the plant that dreamed of being human, and therefore its roots took on a humanoid shape.  Because we view the mandrake as part plant, part human (in the mystical sense) we think of it as a bridge between humankind and the Green Wood Realm.  In this way the mandrake is a mediator between the worlds.  Therefore we rely upon it to help with spirit contact and as an ally when working with plant spirits.

Do you have a favorite plant?

I have several that call to me in different ways and on different levels.  I like the mandrake because of its direct connection to humankind, and have grown them for many years.  The foxglove enchants me and I love its flowers.  Aconite is another plant that I love for its potent energy that it emanates – it is quite mystical.

What is growing in your garden right now that you are especially proud or fond of?

Well, all the traditional plants of Witchcraft, of course!   I grow them all: aconite, henbane, hemlock, hellebore, belladonna, and foxglove.  These plants surround a rose bush that represents the spiritual teachings of my personal tradition.   I also recently planted seedlings from selected trees that have legends associated with them:  rowan, hawthorn and blackthorn.

Learn more about Raven Grimassi at his website: www.ravengrimassi.net

Cover artist for Grimassi’s book is Benjamin A. Vierling. Look for an upcoming Rotten Botany interview with Vierling and his botanical alchemy!

Also be sure and watch for future entries on all of the above mentioned wickedly wonderful plants!

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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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Dracula on the Rise

Dracula Orchids

This last weekend I dragged the whole little family down to the Pacific Orchid Expo at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was a glorious day to be down by the water with the sun shining and the waves lapping at the piers, a soft breeze rippling off the crisp February bay. But the real beauty that day was inside!

There were THOUSANDS of amazing orchids (more pictures on Rotten Botany Facebook page) but being the Rotten Botanist the main reason I went to this show was to see what kind of Dracula orchids might be lurking about. And I have to admit (no offense to the gorgeousness of the Dendrobiums, Oncidiums, and award-winning Masdevallias) I felt pretty nonchalant about the rest of the show once I’d gotten my Dracula-fix!

The majority of the Dracula orchids at the show were in this large glass coffin of a display case, hosted by the SF Bay Area Pleurothalid Alliance. (Draculas are a member of the sub-tribe of Pleurothalids, along with Masdevallias but are a separate genus from Masdevallias) This fantastic display housed dozens of beautiful hanging plants oozing with dark flowers and tendrilly bits, shrouded in misty bursts of simulated fog.

Draculas are New World orchid genus that include over 100 varieties, the highlight of which may well be the infamous Dracula vampira.There is even a variety of Drac vampira known as ‘Bela Lugosi’ for those of you who are aficionados of all things dark and rotanical. I’ll include a future entry on this specific species, but this time round one of the show stoppers was Dracula Raven ‘Mad Hatter’. This velvety ruddy beauty was suspended among many other prize Dracs, but stood out for its sheer girth. My other favorite was the Dracula ubingina ‘Juan’ which looked like it could actually take a bite out of you.

The majority of Draculas are not native to Transylvania but rather Ecuador, with Columbia and Peru also hosting a wide variety. Their preference for dark, shadowy forests and cool, misty temperatures are perhaps what have earned them their name.

Ah, the most marvelous Dracula orchids! How vicious they look, how wickedly wonderful they are!

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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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In Praise of Discolor

Salvia discolor

Andean Sage

Family: Lamiaceea    

Salvias are one of the more amazing plants. There are dozens of varieties, all of which have different color blooms: red, white, turquoise, purple, chartreuse. But nothing could be cooler than the salvia that blooms black. That’s right! There is a BLACK BLOOMING SALVIA which has earned the name Salvia discolor. 

A tender perennial, Salvia discolor thrives in the local Bay Area climate but being a native to Peru it can manage in a variety of climates and winters over nicely with the proper mulching. The leaves are mossy green and the stems brilliantly silver, contrasting with the deep purpled blackness of the blooms. It has a pleasant acrid smell, not unlike your common household sage. The leaves do have a sticky quality, which earns it the nick name “fly paper sage”.

I had been an admirer of this unusual salvia for its ability to surprise even the most seasoned gardener with its striking flowers and was riding home on the N Judah one evening, proudly bearing my newest 4″ S. discolor which I had purchased just that afternoon via special order at The Scarlet Sage. The Scarlet Sage is San Francisco’s only herbal apothecary with decided witchy undertones and one of my all time favorite shops. In the spring you can count on them to have a fine selection of medicinal and edible plants, and they kindly special ordered my discolor. A woman sitting in front of me asked me what the plant was and what it was for and I had to admit I only knew the botanical basics. As far as I knew it wasn’t used in cooking or medicine, its value being in its unusual colored flowers. Just then a slight woman sitting next to her piped up. Like Salvia discolor, this woman was a Peruvian native and gladly informed me that this plant is used in Peru much like we use the common sage in cooking–beans, meats, stews. (Thank you public transit for the ethnobotanical opportunity!) The stickiness and pungent smell suggests that there is even more to this plant than meets the eye–so if anyone out there knows more about its medicinal properties let us know! Many sages are used to treat mild stomach upset and aid digestion.

Like all sages, Salvia discolor attracts pollinators to your garden–bees, butterflies, small birds–so it is an invaluable asset. Plus it looks really freaking cool, its wild and wiry spindles of silver and black writhing up from the shrubbiness of its green leaves. Even though it is a bit sticky, it looks great in floral arrangements too, especially with white roses. Another true rotanical!!

It is also drought resistant and needs little care once established! A bonus for those of us who tend to gardens that thrive on neglect. Below is a photo from the flickr commons. I will upload more pictures of my own discolor in the coming weeks. In addition there is a wild and wooly garden near my house with an abundant S. discolor just begging to be featured on Rotten Botany! 

Salvia discolor photo by Scott Zona, taken from flickr commons.

Culture~

Grows from 1 to 3 ft high and wide. Water regularly to establish and then infrequently. Likes full sun unless in an extremely dry and hot climate, then give partial shade. Hardy to 10 degrees though I would advise mulching with straw or something similar if you are in an area of heavy snow.

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