Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Hall of Ugly Babies, and Happy New Year

Hi there,

So two days ago was my one year anniversary on writing this blog. Hopefully it's been mildly interesting for anyone who has visited the site.

As I mentioned in my last post, I try to stick to the script of discussing plants, but as I've been otherwise distracted with moving and dealing with apartment fire stuff, I am posting one last "other stuff" offering for 2008.

The most well-tread wing of the Louvre in Paris is no doubt the one that hosts the collection of Renaissance art. It's the go-to spot for visitors since the Louvre's main attraction, the Mona Lisa, is located in this wing.

There are dozens of other beautiful pieces but, as walking through the wing for the 3rd time last fall, I noticed there is also a fair amount of very, very ugly babies depicted on the canvases.

Seriously, take a look:

I guess it was a real pain in the neck to paint these squirming little guys, without the benefit of a camera.

But still, sheesh, look at this:

What's funny is so many of them seem to have the faces of grown men, painted in miniature on little, oddly-proportioned bodies.

Of course, this one just looks like he's melting.

And, I'm not sure if you are familiar with him, but this one below reminds me of the comic Jim Norton. Which is sorta weird, considering his material.

I will say that there was one painting that showed all the peace and, well, proportion one hopes a typical baby would have.

I hope no one is offended by this -- the post isn't about religion -- even if most of the scenes are inspired by religious events. I just was downright tickled at how, well, *ugly* these toddlers were, and I had to share the photos back-to-back, 'cause I hoped you'd find it funny.

Anyway, I promise in the 2009, we will get back on point with posts about plants. December was sort of a wash for me, what with the fire. But, the days are getting longer, and I've finally noticed the buds on red maples and magnolias, and even the dreaded Bradford pears, are fattening up.

It won't be long 'til they all bloom.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Renter's Insurance & "Vacation"

This is definitely an "other stuff" item for any regular readers who have noticed I've been absent this week.

That's my apartment building, which -- though you can't tell from this photo -- was on fire Tuesday morning!

I have tried to avoid navel-gazing on this blog as I really doubt anyone cares about what I ate for breakfast or what party I went to last Saturday.

But my experience on Tuesday was unusual. And it's potentially educational for you, dear reader, so I thought it merits a post.

Tuesday morning I woke up with that feeling of, 'uh oh, I don't think my alarm went off.' Reluctantly, I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was 8:15 (which really means that it was 8:05). I shut my eyes and opened them again, somewhat more conscious. Then I realized my bedroom was full of smoke. Thick smoke. I ran into the kitchen, thinking that I had the stove on or my coffee maker (set on an alarm) had shorted. The kitchen was equally smoky and then a moment later I heard people yelling in the hallways and banging on the doors. 'Get out! Get out! The building's on fire!'

I put on a pair of sweatpants and scrambled for my coat.

My family and I have always had somewhat dark conversations. 'What's the worst way to die?' is a subject that can entertain us for a long car trip. We've also talked about what we'd grab in a fire so I was fortunately prepared for this moment. After putting on my coat & grabbing a pair of thin-soled shoes (more on that later), I got my signed anniversary edition copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and my jewelry box. I also got my wallet and cell phone. Unfortunately, I failed to grab a pair of glasses and forgot to get my camera. I'll remember them next time.

I got out of the building as the fire department was arriving. Everyone in the building was able to get out safely. The smoke detectors never went off. This is scary, but it's also really annoying; the damn thing goes off when I scramble an egg! Pretty much every time I cook something, it goes off.

The Chinese restaurant that is on the ground floor, diagonally below me, runs a dim sum cart in Chinatown. Most mornings I see them load the cart with food and late at night I see them wash the cart down. Tuesday, as they prepared spring rolls and dumplings, a grease fire erupted in the ventilation ducts above the stove. It quickly spread to my next-door neighbors apartment, who lives directly above the restaurant.

Some things you should do in a fire, in case your memories of grade school are hazy:
1. Check the door before leaving a room to see if it's warm. I didn't do this, though I did hear people in the hallway so I hope on some level I knew the hallway would be safe. It didn't even occur to me to use my fire escape, which when I think about where the fire was, it would have been the safest exit!
2. Shut the door behind you. I actually debated for a second about this and left it cracked. I thought it would be easier for the fire department to get in (most NYC apartment doors self-lock). BUT, that also makes it easier for the fire to spread. So better to shut the door.
Somebody evidently DID shut my door as it had been pried open by FDNY with a crowbar.
3., If you can, grab a pair of shoes that are at least somewhat thick-soled. Because standing out on the street in December with a thin pair of flats and no socks gets really, really uncomfortable after a while.

There are so many reasons I am lucky. At this point two such reasons come into play. My friend & coworker Dave lives around the corner from me and was able to take my jewelry box and book. Standing outside my apartment, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to get mugged. I wouldn't even be able to ID the perp, since I was half-blind at the time! I also live close enough to my office that my other friend and coworker Lauren could bring me a cardigan and a pair of socks while I waited out the fire.

When I think about it, I'm pretty sure the best way one could meet their neighbors would be at a party or a picnic. But I suppose a fire works as well. I met some great people and we all had that great 'we can take it, we're New Yorkers, fer crissakes' attitude that I last witnessed during the blackout in '03. We took turns holding each others pets and bought coffees for those of us who had forgotten cash.

Around 11:30, they let us back in. The hallways were smoky and full of broken glass -- the firefighters had broken all the windows in stairwell. My neighbor's apartment was almost gutted. It appears as if the fire came through the floor under the stove. It's funny the places your things end up after the firefighters have been through your place. Her refrigerator had been tossed into the living room and for me, well, my bicycle ended up in the sink. It's understandable; they have better things to do than redecorate, and they also need to make sure the apartment is fully vacated, so they must look under beds and behind furniture.

The fire hadn't spread to my apartment, though my place had (has) the worse smoke damage in the building (next door neighbor & Chinese restaurant aside, of course).

Here's a shot of my bedroom floor. That gives you the idea of what everything else looks like. It coated with a sticky, smelly, smoky film. I have since learned that smoke from a grease fire is particularly bad.

My neighbors and I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the super to secure our apartments. The Red Cross was there, as did the Department of Buildings (my neighbor's place & the restaurant are officially condemned and I meet with DOB Monday to have them reassess my status, given the fumes that have persisted in my bedroom). By 5pm, I was finally able to make an appearance at work, and then headed to a friends' place for the night. It wasn't 'til I left the house that I realized how badly I smelled. It's almost exactly what you'd smell at a fireplace or a campfire.

I have renter's insurance, thank God, and I've never been so happy to have it. I have it with USAA. I spoke with them Tuesday and on Wednesday they arranged for a crew to come and pick up all my clothes and other soft items like drapes, towels, luggage. It's a strange thing to have an inventory of all of your clothes. I own 68 blouses/tops and 9 scarves, for instance. I own 30 sweaters and a shocking 18 handbags. Who knew?

I also had an estimator come to assess how best to clean all my other belongings (furniture, books, appliances). They come back this coming Tuesday to take everything to a warehouse where they will clean it and essentially fumigate it. The smoke detectors never went off. I know I already said that, but...WTF?

God knows when the landlord will actually clean the place. I think they're gonna have to replace the floor in the bedroom. That stuff won't budge. It looks like you could write your name in it, but you can't -- it's too sticky. God knows where I'm gonna end up living. I am (again) extremely fortunate in that I have friends who have a guest room -- AND a washer/dryer (!!) in their apartment. I have a few pairs of jeans & pajamas there and they've been wonderful hosts. I also have awesome friends with fabulous taste who have lent me sweaters & a winter coat. I've been offered keys to apartments all over this city.

I have no idea if I'll stay or leave or when I'll get money back for unused rent or if the Chinese restaurant's insurance company will reimburse me for my deductible. I need to buy a new bed, air conditioner & curtain rods, and I'm pretty my bicycle's frame is permanently bent. This is all covered by insurance, thank goodness. But it's still a ridiculous headache, and I have no home. If you know anyone who has a 1BR apartment, preferably downtown, let me know!

All week I've been dancing on the brink, but this morning I finally got my door repaired (the super had jerry-rigged the door locked, but today I finally got a new casing & deadbolt). I've got a few clean sweaters and I know how I'm gonna get all my stuff fixed. And it's finally sunny (ish) and not raining -- that helps. AND, my fabulous mother is on her way to NY to pick me up and take me to the beach, where my awesome sister will be waiting for us, with a bottle (or three) of wine and more clothes to get me through the holiday party season. AND, the surf report is pretty good this weekend, and I can't imagine anything more therapeutic than surfing right now.

Sooo, that's the whole story. Thank God I'm okay, and everyone else was, too. I'm not gonna review this or edit it or craft the language in any way. But I did want to put this up so you all sign up for renter's insurance TODAY! And you keep warm boots by your beds.

It really did smell that bad!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nandina, redux

Last week, when I was writing about Nandina domestica, I had touched on it's ability to become invasive, though noted that at my folks' place it hadn't become too big an issue.

Last Thursday - on Thanksgiving - our neighborhood deer demonstrated why this is the case.

It's hard to be too frustrated with the deer; the one nearest the plant is the mother of the other two. We see her all the time, easily recognizing her game leg. The poor thing has been limping around our backyard for a few years now!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Parachute Plant

What a cool little vine this plant is!

Ceropegia sandersonii (or parachute plant, or umbrella plant) is a South African native succulent. It's fleshy stems enable the plant to essentially stockpile water, for use during the long periods between rain.

The flower structure is amazing, as are most of the flowers in the Ceropegia genus. The pollinators of these plants are flies. They are attracted to the plant because the flowers smell like rotten garbage and the flies mistakenly assume that there is some tasty carrion at the base of the tubular structure (I didn't smell anything from this plant, so it's hardly noxious). Hairs along the inside of the tube hinder the fly's speedy escape, ensuring that he provides a thorough pollen exchange among two specimens of Ceropegia sandersonii.

They look so alien. Like jellyfish, or some kind of spaceship in a sci-fi movie.

Keros is Greek for wax and -pegia is derivative of the Greek word for fountain, thus the genus name pays homage to the plant's ability to sustain itself during drought.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Asclepias phsyocarpa

The seed pod below should look a bit familiar, if you read my previous post about Asclepias syriacus.

These pods are from another milkweed, Asclepias phsyocarpa, more commonly referred to as balloonplant or swan plant. These photos were taken the Sunday before Thanksgiving and, as you can see, the plant was still blooming, despite below-freezing temps.

I can't dig up any information as to why the plant is called swan plant, but Asclepias is derivative of the Greek god of healing, Asklepios. Phusa or physa is Greek for bladder, which refers to the shape of the seed pod, while karpos is Greek for fruit.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Camellia japonica

Despite the fact that it is *far* too cold for late November, plants are still managing to bloom.

Here's a Camellia japonica at the BBG, blooming in the Japanese garden:

Thank goodness for winter-blooming plants! Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica, unfortunately, has gorgeous fall color this time of year:

I say it's unfortunate because in the past ten years or so it's become apparent that this plant is fairly invasive in the southeast US. I suppose it is not a total surprise, as this plant is in the Berberidaceae family, which also includes Berberis thunbergii, the Japanese barberry, which is also highly invasive.

When I teach students about invasive plants like barberry and nandina, I try to instill some sense of responsibility in them. While I personally am not outraged by the use of these plants in intensely urban conditions (where they will have a very hard time finding nearby woods to invade), one should seriously consider alternatives when they live in suburban or rural areas, as no doubt such species will misplace the native herbaceous and shrub layer of forests and meadows.

The plant above is growing in my parents place in Virginia. They have a wooded lot, so while we haven't removed it, we do check out the woods and remove any would-be conquerers.

Many feel that native plants should be exclusively used in order to prevent invasion of plants like nandina and barberry into nearby natural habitats. It's an ongoing debate. While I avoid using invasive plants, I don't eschew all exotic species, though some may consider it more politically correct.

I've begun reading the Robert Sullivan book, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Coincidentally enough, last night I read an interesting description of the native/non-native debate in a footnote I've copied below. It doesn't address the subtle, vital difference between non-native and invasive, but it did include some new information:
The term native when used in regards to plants and animals can be complicated. In an essay entitled "The Mania for Native Plants in Nazi Germany," published in a collection called Concrete Jungle, Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, the director of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington , D.C., says, "The missionary zeal with which so-called foreign plants are condemned as aggressive is significant. Such characterizations do not contribute to a rational discussion about the future development of our natural and cultural environment, but possibly promote xenophobia." Wolschke-Bulmahn points out that some plants that are considered "native" to the United States may have been carried over from Siberia by people migrating to American over a land bridge, and he writes of an early proponent of native plants, Jens Jensen, a landscape architect who lived in Wisconsin who advocated the destruction of "foreign" plants, especially "Latin" or "Oriental" plants. Jensen had close ties to Nazi landscape architects in Germany. In a journal, Jensen wrote: "The gardens I have created myself...shall express a spirit of American and therefore shall be free of foreign character as far as possible." In 1938, Rudolph Borchardt, a Jewish writer persecuted by the Nazis, wrote this of native plant advocates like Jensen: "If this kind of garden-owning barbarian became the rule, then neither a gillyflower nor a rosemary, neither a peach-tree nor a myrtle sapling nor a tea-rose would ever have crossed the Alps. Gardens connect people, time and latitudes...The garden of humanity is a huge democracy. It is not the only democracy which such clumsy advocates threaten to dehumanize."
The book, by the way, is a terrific read, not only full of fascinating, at times squeamish, information about rats but also about New York City history. It reads very easily, too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wollemia nobilis

A week ago yesterday, I was on the train coming from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A seasoned New Yorker, I can tune out my neighbors on the train with ease. But when one of the people to my left said "botany" I immediately began to pay attention. He was talking about the academic landscape of plant sciences to a man and a woman, who I later learned, were his daughter and grandson.

I had to interrupt. It turns out that the man speaking was a plant scientist, working at the herbarium of the University of Florida. He had taken his family to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to see Wollemia nobilis, or the Wollemia pine, discovered for the first time in 1994.

was found in the Wollemi National Park, 200 km away from Sydney. That's just over 100 miles. 100 miles from a major city, and yet, this plant was growing unnamed, unidentified by all. That's kinda amazing these days. It was discovered by a park officer named David Noble (thus nobilis for a species name).

The specimen at the BBG was petite, to say the least. The largest ones found in the Wollemi Park reached 130 feet. The plant is unique in that the flattened leaves can grow off the stem in two ranks, as well as four ranks.

Wollemia is in the Araucariaceae family, and perhaps it's most recognizable relative in this climate would be the monkey puzzle tree, or Araucaria araucana, which is native to Chile and Argentina.

Araucaria araucana in the Jardin du Plantes, Paris.

Scientists have compared the pollen of Wollemia to fossils of pollen, and Wollemia's pollen more closely resembles the fossil pollen than any living genus in this plant family. Wollemia has other characteristics that make it closely resemble plants from the Cretaceous era, meaning this species has most likely survived for over 90 million years.

I think this whole story is incredible. On the one hand, you have a plant growing in a fairly well-tread area and yet it wasn't discovered until 1994. On the other, you have an individual who saw this tree and knew his plants well enough to realize this was something different. The comprehensive knowledge one must have to spot a new species is impressive. Finally, it's simply exciting to know that we haven't seen it all yet. Not nearly, one hopes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Student Post, English Oak

This post is by Ngoc Ngo, who is also an accomplished photographer:

The English countryside is full of magnificent trees, and the English Oak , Quercus robur, is among the most majestic. Known to grow from the Urals and the Caucasus, from Mount Taurus and Mount Atlas, almost to the Arctic Circle, it is a tree full of historical and mythological associations. In ancient times, massive oak forests covered most of central Europe, and oak was the favorite timber of the Greeks and Romans. Being particularly prone to lightning strikes, the oak tree was associated with the supreme gods in many ancient cultures, including Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor. Ancient kings wore crowns of oak leaves to symbolize their roles as representatives of gods on earth. In ancient Rome, it was also the custom for commanders to wear crowns of oak leaves during their victory parades.

Historically, the English valued the oak for its strength and durability, which made excellent timber for building ships and churches. Much of Tudor architecture was built with oak. Because of their size and longevity, oak trees were often planted as boundary markers. Prominent oak trees were also used as the locations for the reading of the Gospel during ceremonies, leading to their being known as Gospel Oaks. The high tannin content of the oak bark was found to be useful for tanning leather during the Industrial Revolution. Other common uses for the bark included making brown ink and a tonic for treating harness sores on horses.

The cultural significance of oak trees in England is summed up by the historian Simon Schama; “Ancient Britons were thought to have worshipped them; righteous outlaws are sheltered by them; kings on the run hide in them; hearts of oak go to sea and win empires.” The oak is a symbol of strength, refuge, longevity and resilience. Robin Hood was reputed to hide in the hollow of an oak tree. King Charles the Second also found refuge in another hollow ancient oak tree near Boscobel on September 6, 1651 before successfully reclaiming his crown. The accommodating tree became known as the Royal Oak, and today there are countless pubs in England with the same name.

Botanically, Quercus robur is in the Fagaceae family. Its common name is English Oak, or Pedunculate Oak. Its size can reach 75 to 100 feet in height and width. Its leaves are alternate, simple, obovate to obovate-oblong, 2 to 5” long, with rounded lobes, rounded apex and auriculate to rounded base. The earlobe-like (auriculate) leaf base is a distinguishing feature from the otherwise similarly shaped Q. alba leaf. There are 3 to 7 pairs of veins on the leaf, which is dark green above and pale blue-green underneath. The bark is deeply furrowed and grayish black in color. Q. robur is monoecious, and the flowers appear 7-14 days after the leaves burst. Fertilized flowers develop into acorns of about 1” long, narrow elongated conical, enclosed by a cap. The acorns ripen in the autumn and fall on the ground before the leaves drop.

The Greek botanical writer Theophrastus, writing around 300 BC noted: “The oak bears more things beside its fruit than any other tree.” The complex ecosystem of an oak tree provides the habitat for at least 350 varieties of insect, more organisms than any other trees. The insects in turn attract birds. Caterpillars and moths also feed on oak leaves. In southern England, the oak trees also host colonies of the rare Purple Emperor Butterfly in the summer months. In the autumn, the acorns that fall to the ground provide an important food source for wood pigeons, rooks, squirrels, and mice, all of which in turn attract birds of prey, such as sparrow hawks and owls.

The life expectancy of an oak averages from 200 to 400 years; however, there are specimens aged over 800 years. The oldest oak in England is thought to be the Bowthorpe Oak in Bourne, which is estimated to be over 1,000 years old. My favorite is this beautiful specimen in the countryside of Sussex, south of London. The tree stands alone in an open field dissected by a public footpath. I have spent many wonderful hours walking along this footpath, and I am always happy to see the sight of this magnificent tree, a symbol of strength and a source of so much life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Student Post, Cherrylaurel

We are just past the peak of autumn and most of the trees are bare. While there's no shortage of material to post about, this seems to be a good time to post some more blog entries from my students. First off, the cherrylaurel, by Pat Miller:

In Washington, DC it is de rigor for visitors to swoon over the famous Yoshino Cherries with their magnificent scent and flowers. Oh how they remind us of the chiffon dresses popular in the 1960’s. But on this trip, I was distracted by a plant I’d never seen before. Its leaves, a perfect shade of dark green, appear to stand smartly at attention guarding Jefferson’s Memorial while making a hedged path that frames the monument. The hedge is perfectly formal, yet surprisingly natural. And it perfectly complements the magnificent cherries.

Speaking of perfection, I found out the Landscape Designer’s name. It is Arthur Edwin Bye and he was my new hero, but the green-leafed beauty remained a mystery. Some 12 years after this journey to Washington, I am working at a nursery in Connecticut surrounded by trucks and workmen. It is early May and the men start to unload various shrubs from Hines Nursery. And there they were again; still green, still dazzling and standing at attention. B&B in all their glory with hundreds of fluffy white flowers. The plant looked fabulous to me and I couldn’t wait to bring one home.

Now my love can be properly identified: Prunus Lauroserasus, and this particular cultivar is ”Otto Luyken”. From that day forward I never stopped planting “Cherry Laurels’ in my clients’ gardens even though (it seems it was a lot colder back then) I was told they were not really “Winter Hardy” in Fairfield County.

Fast forward to Jen’s first class meeting at Bryant Park. It’s Fashion Week in the City and, wait, isn’t that Lindsey Lohan walking right through he Park!

Speaking of celebs, our first plant of the day is a “Cherry Laurel” all perky and bright resting underneath the canopy of a Dogwood. I toned down my excitement in front of my classmates but I could hardly control myself. There were some “Shot Holes “ in the leaves, which I’ll get to later, but they were nearly perfect specimens in a really low-light environment.

The great thing about “Laurels” besides the great leaves, great color and great habit is they can be planted in the sun or the shade, at least that’s been my experience. I now have 31 plants on my property and have planted dozens on others so I think I know what I’m talking about. In the US, the shrub is referred to as a “Cherry Laurel”, “Skip Laurel” or sometimes “English Laurel.” But in England, not surprisingly, they refer to it as Cherry Laurels.

Prunus laurocerasus , Rosaceae family.

“Otto Luykens” (Cherry Laurel) is named after the director of the “Hesse Tree Nurseries” (Baumschulen Hesse) in Weener (a town in Lower Saxony, Germany close to the Netherlands. His nursery bred the cherry laurel variety beginning in 1940 and introduced it to the trade in 1953. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit in 1968, Award of Garden Merit in 1984.

“Schipkaensis” (Skip Laurel) Selected in 1889 from Schipka Pass at 4,000’ near Kasanlik, Bulgaria by Spath of Berlin. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit in 1959.
They are indigenous to South Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. For more than 400 years they have been grown as hedges and ornamental garden shrubs in Europe.

“Otto Luyken “ has a compact habit and matures to 4’ high by 6’ wide but can be easily maintained and pruned to 3’ high by 4’ wide. The 4” long and 1” wide leaves are a very shiny dark green (holly –like in color). The plants are covered with fuzzy-feathery billowy fragrant creamy white flowers that appear heaviest during May on upright 2” to 5” spikes (racemes). A “raceme” is an inflorescence with stalked flowers, which radiate off a single unbranched stem. The individual flowers are cup shaped with 5 petals and are almost a half-inch across. The fruits are 1/2 in (1.3 cm) cherry like drupes (stone fruits) that ripen to dark purple. (Floridata) Some people like the fragrance and others find it offensive. It is a matter of opinion whether or not the flowers have a powerful fragrance or a rather offensive odor. Many people feel it smells sweetly of honey and Dirr calls it “sickeningly fragrant” To be honest; I’ve never even noticed a smell one way or another.

“Schipkaensis” is the more upright cultivar and has the same basic characteristics as the “Otto Luyken”. This shrub can reach 10’ high and 4’ to 5’ wide. I have seen it planted as an individual plant but it ‘s much more suitable as a hedge for screening. It’s a really nice alternative to arborvitae in many landscapes. Both cultivars are fast growing. The USDA hardiness zones vary from source to source but for the most part it averages between Zones 5-8, Skip is said to be the hardiest variety and is said to grow as far north as Chicago. I have experienced some winter sunburn (leaves turn brown) particularly when I have planted them on a north/west side of a house and an unprotected area. If I have any doubts about the location I usually spray them with an anti-desiccant (wilt-pruf) for the first year or two and then after they are established I leave them alone. I have even planted them near the coast and they seem to tolerate the salt sprays and all the wind that goes along with living by the sea.

Many sources list these shrubs for deer damage but my own personal experience (and I Bambi’s extended family was tripping through my yard for years) shows that they don’t bother with it because they can be toxic. Along with their great use as a hedge plant, I like to use them to cover a foundation Otto is an expellant plant for shady borders and mass plantings. Makes a great plant near homes, walkways and roads, as the roots will not damage foundations.
Laurels are susceptible to something called” Shot-hole” (as if someone shot a hole at the leaf). It is usually caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv. mors-prunorum, which also causes bacterial canker. The disease is usually worst at the garden centers and nurseries due to the watering practices-overheard sprinklers. Once they are planted they usually do much better. Most of the sources say to avoid overhead irrigation and make sure you remove and distroy the fallen leaves. If you want to be really smart about it buy clean plants to begin with. I have seen plants covered with Shot hole after a long wet summer and it usually goes away, especially after a dry, cold winter. Identical symptoms can be caused by a minor fungal pathogen known as Stigmina carpophila. In general, they can deal with difficult growing conditions. They need to have moisture but do develop problems when they are in a wet environment (Dirr says they are prone to root rot in places with inadequate drainage) and I have found them to be drought tolerant once they are established in the garden.

It appears that the deer stay away for good reason. …….Water distilled from the leaves is used as almond flavoring and in perfumery. All parts of the plant contain hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavor. This toxin is found mainly in the leaves and seed and is readily detected by its bitter taste. It is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities it can stimulate respiration and improve digestion. I read that Cherry Laurel water has been used in Paris fraudulently to imitate the cordial, Kirsch. I bet that gets your heart racing
Unfortunately, there are those people who don’t share my opinion of the Laurel.
They refer to this wonderful shrub as “unsexy” and say it doesn’t scream, “buy me” at the nursery but I just shrug and comfort myself in the thought that if it was good enough for a guy with the stature of AE Bye it’s good enough for me.

The images accompanying this post came from plantings in my own yard and my favorite nursery where I bought and planted them successfully for twenty years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Edible Plants

A few weeks ago, I went on an 'edible plants' tour of the west side of Central Park, led by an ethnobotanist. I was familiar with some of the edibles, but these two were very pleasant surprises:

Chenopodium album, or lamb's quarters, or fat hen. This is a common weed and you can encounter it not just in the park, but growing out of tree pits on the sidewalk (not that I'd recommend you sample that particular specimen). The leaves were mildly bitter, like a mellow arugula. Really tasty.

Below is the flower bud of Commelina communis, or day-flower. The buds tasted very much like sugar-snap peas, though they were much smaller. This weed is also quite common and is easy to recognize due when you realize it's related to Tradescantia, a genus that includes the perennial spiderwort (T. virginiana) and the houseplant commonly referred to as wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina).

Like those other plants, Commelina will grow in sprawling heaps, the weight of the foliage too heavy to be supported by the fleshy stems. When the plant sends out a new branch, it looks distinctly like an elbow, with a knobby leaf indicating the point where the stem sends out new growth.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An "other stuff" item

This is just so weird. So crazy, I had to post it.

It's funny, in an alternate-reality kinda way. I would pay good money to meet someone who even remotely takes the content of this magazine spread seriously.

Of course, I am a little embarrassed that once again, Lindsay Lohan is featured on this blog!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Daylength & Fall Color

I am a little bit fascinated by the circadian rhythms of plants, so I can't help but share a photo of these dreaded Bradford pears growing in southern New Jersey.

Check it out:

So, on one side you have a row of trees that are still fairly green. On the other side of the street, the trees are at their fall color peak. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense: The trees that are further along in their procession to dormancy (the red ones) are on the south side of the street. They sit just north of the adjacent townhome, which reduces the amount of daylight they receive. The trees on the left have slightly more day-length and thus won't turn color at the same time as their neighbors.

This was such a great illustration of how day-length influences fall color that I had to use it, even if it was the lousy pear tree.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ginkgo biloba

This woman has hit the motherload as far as harvesting Ginkgo biloba fruit goes. These large specimens were indeed female and had a substantial, smelly bounty.

New Yorkers may not know this tree, nor know that there are female and male specimens, but they have probably smelled the ginkgo before. The smell is most aptly described as similar to vomit or dog waste, or a mix of the both. That doesn't prevent people like the woman in the photo - protected with latex gloves - from collecting the fruit. Ginkgo biloba is traditionally used by Asian cultures for tea and, of course, is a popular herbal remedy (promoting brain power) at the drugstore.

Now is as good a time as any to note that calling this a fruit is in fact a misnomer - ginkgoes are gymnosperms, which means that they are not flowering plants. Despite the fact they are broadleaved deciduous plants, they have more in common with a pine or a spruce than an oak or maple. Technically the woman in the first photo is collecting 'naked seeds.' Gymnosperms are more primitive plants than angiosperms (flowering plants) and the ginkgo's evolutionary history dates back over 150 million years. It is a living fossil.

Despite its homeopathic applications, female ginkgo trees are not commonly planted - 'never plant a female ginkgo' could be considered the horticultural equivalent of 'don't spit in the wind' - and they are on the Parks Department's list of noxious plants. Instead, the male plants are used, as the tree is nonetheless beautiful and, for the same reason that it has survived for so many millions of years, is very tolerant to urban conditions like pollution, compaction and drought.