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Mycelium Running or Underground Messengers of Distress

HyphaeIf you are a plant-brained type, or more accurately a fungaholic, you’ve no doubt heard of Paul Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running.  It’s about the amazing and awe-inspiring powers of the little ol’ mycelium, those underground thread like ‘shrooms. As his subtitle suggests, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World mushrooms can be used for everything from building houses to fuel to cleaning toxic waste up from the soil, not to mention our bodies. 

Once thought to have a sycophantic relationship with other plants, fungi got a bad rap. But numerous studies have shown that they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial, can’t we all just get along?) relationship that those fungi seek out. The fungus gets carbon from the plant, and the network they form through the soil helps the plants draw nutrients from a wider area. Plus they help compost. But that is not all, no, that is not all…

A recent study had revealed that they actually act as underground transmitters when  a plant is in distress. That’s right, they herald the cry of war in the deep, dark, dank underground.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland used five bean plants. Three were planted together, and the mycelium were allowed to grow between them in their usual fashion. The other two plants were planted together but inhibited from having mycelium in their soil. And then they botanist unleashed the hounds on them. Well, they unleashed aphids which is the rotany equivalent.

The plant that was attacked by aphids began emitting chemicals that help to attract wasps, something that many plants do when in distress. And while this is amazing enough, it’s hardly news. But this is: the plants that were connected via underground mycelium began also to produce the “distress” chemicals. But when aphids were released on the mycelium-free plant, it’s neighbor did not produce chemicals.

Previously, botanists believed that this chemical transmission was via the air from plant to plant. This astounding discovery means that the plants were using the mycelium to communicate. That’s right, folks, there is an entire underground network of mycelium and they are communicating from plant to plant, fungi to fungi.

The findings could turn the tides significantly on how to control pests without chemicals. Most food crops–such as wheat, maize, rice, beans including soy, and barley support a symbiotic fungi.

According to one of the study’s authors, Professor John Pickett of Rothamsted Research:

In a field of plants that have some inducible resistance to aphids, we could use a plant that’s susceptible to aphid  attack to ‘switch on’ the defence mechanism through the natural underground connection. Aphids affect all higher-latitude agricultural regions, including the UK, the EU, North America, and North East Asia and there’s the potential to deal with other pests and diseases, in other regions, in a similar way.

Fungus are unique and classified in their own kingdom (The Kingdom of Fungi!!) because of the cell walls which contain chitin. Animal cells also contain chitin, but plant cells cellulose. Coulld you say they are half-plant, half-human. Almost. In truth, they fit neither group and so are their own kingdom, though generally considered the domain of botanists. (Mycologists and botanists certainly have a symbiotic relationship!)

Roots of nearly all groups of plants have symbiotic fungi.

Never underestimate the power of a mushroom. Stamets doesn’t. And Smurfs don’t.

smurf on mushroom

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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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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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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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