Tag Archives: gothic

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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The Flowers of the Dead

In the spirit of skullduggery, here are a few photos from my trip to Mexico during the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. A celebration at the end of October/beginning of November that culminates in the Noche de Muertos, or Night of the Dead from midnight on November 1st to midnight on November 2nd. The weeks and days leading up to the holidays are filled with sugar skulls and treats and all night “pop-up” flower markets. Although the time when the dead pass into the graveyard is a somber and silent occasion, the nights and hours before and after are full of revelry: drinking, building floral displays, and remembering. Entire families camp out in the graveyards and work together to honor their beloved departed. November 1st is typically a night to honor children and those who are lost souls. The following evening is in honor of all the dead, and it is believed especially powerful to make offerings to anyone who has passed on in the last year. Special breads are baked and tied to the headstones and flower arrangements, meals are laid out and altars are everywhere. It is magical and mystical. Here are a few pictures that show some of the floral extravaganza. We visited the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Much of the time we spent was in Patzcuaro.

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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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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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