Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy May Day

So, in honor of May Day (and the fact that I found it in the M'finda gardens), I'm posting a photo of Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis).

Each year, as I understand, Lily of the Valley is sold in France in honor of May Day, dating back to 1561, when King Charles IX received a sprig of Convallaria as a lucky charm.

I think the fact you can see it creeping between two Belgian Block edging stones is a testament to it's ability to spread.

The nomenclature is pretty straight-forward. Convallaria means valley and majalis refers to the month of May.

Monday, April 28, 2008


If you haven't been to the Conservatory Gardens yet (in the park at 5th Avenue and 104th Street), I strongly encourage you go now! The large allees of crabapples (Malus) are just past the height of their blooms (which I prefer, because you have thousands of flower petals, not just in the canopy, but dusting the ground as well). Also, the dozens of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are in full bloom, which perfumes the whole garden. Below, the lilacs are to the right, in the foreground of the pink crabapples.

As you can see, the tulips are looking pretty good, too.

A friend of mine asked if I knew the Whitman poem about Lilacs. I did not. Whitman wrote When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, and included it in Leaves of Grass as an elegy for Lincoln.

The first stanza:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

In the third stanza, he describes the shrub:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle -- and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

The botanical name, Syringa, is derivative of the Greek word syrinx which means hollow. Lilac stems can be hollowed out quite easily (as they are pithy) and have been used before to make pipes. The plant is native to the middle east, as is the common name lilac. Laylak is Arabic for blue, and nylak is Persian for blue. The species name vulgaris simply means common.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Black Locust

This is perhaps my favorite Black Locust (Robinia psuedoacacia) in New York City. It is in Madison Square Park, near the Southeast corner, behind the Shake Shack.

Black Locusts are wild-growing plants. Their habit is informal and asymmetrical and they are fairly short-lived (especially for such a hard-wooded plant). The wood, in addition to being very durable, is rot-resistant and has an agricultural history of being used as fenceposts.

I've been misinforming my students that this tree is in the Leguminosae family. It turns out the family has been subdivided into four distinct families and now Robinia is in the Fabaceae, or Pea, family. The unique thing about most Fabaceous plants is that the roots can fix nitrogen.

But, the most remarkable thing about this plant, to me, is the bark. Cinnamon-colored at the deepest parts of its fissures, and a light, stony gray on the outer layers, the bark looks more like petrified driftwood than part of a living tree. It's wild and abandoned-looking.

When it leafs out, the texture softens significantly and the grayish-blue foliage reminds me of European landscape paintings from 17th and 18th Centuries, like this Lorrain:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) and a Kwanzan Cherry (Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan') in Madison Square Park:

Bleeding Hearts are just ridiculously gorgeous plants. And I see them with surprising regularity in the city this time of year. Madison Square Park has a great herbaceous plant collection, but I would also find this in planters outside of condos when I lived on the Upper East Side. The soft, chartreuse foliage is ephemeral -- which means all above-ground evidence of this plant will evaporate come July, only to surprise us again the following spring.

The origin for the common name, Bleeding Heart, is obvious:

It made me curious what the Latin name, Dicentra, meant. Di- obviously refers to two. At first I thought -centra may mean 100 or something like that (century, centimeter, etc.), but it turns out that Dicentra actually means two-hooded, referring to the upper part of the flower structure. Those pink heart halves aren't petals though, it turns out they are considered 'flowering stems.' A screen shot (from google books) showing a cross-section of the flower structure:

Finally, a shot of a Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba', or a white Bleeding Heart:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Weeping Cherries

It's uses like this that give weeping cherries (Prunus subhirtella pendula) a bad name:

Puny whips of trees placed right up against a building. Yikes.

I think if you're ever going to use this in a planting plan, you're gonna have to select one at a much larger size so it will look like something better than a McDonald's Fry Guy.

Next, it should be placed somewhere that gives it some room to go. When mature, a weeping cherry strikes such a lovely silhouette, but the sad little trees in the planters above don't stand half a chance.

These cherries are near the ballfields at the great lawn. You can see them from hundreds of feet away and they are beautiful. I can't think of any instances in Manhattan where a weeping cherry looks as thoughtfully (and successfully) placed as these two (though there is one in the courtyard of the Washington Square Village apartments that is pretty nice).

I still don't think I could ever spec out a weeping cherry, but these two in Central Park always make me question it once more...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Google Books

I love google books. Sometimes you are searching something very specific and a regular google search won't do the trick. But google books usually delivers.

Plus, when you first get to the site, you get a random selection of featured books. Like these:

Sadly, I was too busy trying to find out which roses are depicted on the frescoes of Knossos (seriously) to browse the Chihuahua book, despite those pleading puppy eyes.

Wouldn't it be great if a Chihuahua-owning drug addict happened upon this selection? (Better even, if he was just about to sell something to a segmented market.) It would be such a fateful message, like internet tarot cards that were telling said dog-lover to clean up his or her act.

However, it looks like this is already available (Thanks Pete & Olaf):

As is this:

Littleleaf Linden

Emerging Littleleaf Linden (Tilia cordata) leaves on Prince Street:

The branching habit of this tree is so unique - so utterly recognizable in the winter - but I can't quite get the right words to describe it.

The young bark is really shiny, and though the lateral branches sprout from the trunk in an upward, arcing habit, once the canopy opens up, they sit in horizontal planes.

The buds here are pretty big as they are about to leaf out, but all winter, they are noticeable and seem to punctuate the ends of twigs. Again, you see the arcing shape repeat here. Whenever I walk under them, I appreciate the lacy look of these canopies.

Of course, in leaf the tree is pretty remarkable. They have fragrant flowers in the summer time (rare for a street tree) and have a lovely yellow fall color. Lindens (or Lime Trees, as they are also called) are very popular in Europe as well. There are two clipped allees of them in Paris, at the Palais Royale.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tulips and the Bashful Gardener

It seems that quite suddenly the tulips have emerged in the M'Finda Kalunga Community garden.

For what it's worth, I took these from pretty far away and wished the man a good morning. Though shy, he didn't seem to mind my taking a shot of the tulips, if not his own face.

...Perhaps he is two-timing on the Liz Christy garden by volunteering at M'Finda Kalunga and is afraid he'll get caught.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Virginia Bluebells

Perhaps it's because I have spent a fair amount of time living in the eponymous state, that I really love Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). They are truly spring ephemerals, and will probably be finished blooming within a week or so. The foliage won't last much longer. But the colors of both the flowers and the leaves are so cheery and bright. Plus, the thick, cabbage-like foliage appeals to me. It really does look good enough to eat, har har.

Linnaeus himself named this plant after a German botanist named Franz Mertens.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Saucer Magnolias in Central Park

Saucer Magnolias (Magnolia x soulangiana) are related to some of the oldest angiosperms (flowering plants, as opposed to gymnosperms, or conifers). Some members of the magnolia family are found in fossils that date back to 95 million years ago. Magnolias co-existed with dinosaurs, and survived the extinction event that marked the end of the prehistoric creatures.

Magnolias were the first flowers and were not pollinated by flying insects, but instead by beetles. That's why the seed cones are so rigid and tough (to protect them from the large, chewing bugs). In fact, it was not until after flowers evolved did insects and other pollinators co-evolve to match a food source.

The plant below, the Saucer Magnolia, was not one of these ancient flowers. This is instead a hybrid of M. lilliflora and M. denudata. It's popular for it's large, fragrant flowers that burst open as soon as it gets warm enough.

The magnolias behind the Met in Central Park are the best looking ones I can find in Manhattan, if not the entire city. They sit on this hillside and, with their neighbors, the Crabapples, provide spring color from April until mid to late May. There's nothing quite like going for a run or a bike ride when these are in bloom and catching a whiff of their scent on your way up the hill.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Sophora japonica

Actually, the Genus Sophora has been replaced with Styphnolobium though, for sentimental reasons - and the fact that most people in the nursery trade still do - I like to stick with its older name. The common name is Japanese Pagodatree or Japanese Scholartree. It's one of the loveliest street trees, as it has flowers in the summer, persistent edamame-like pea pods (it's in the Fabaceae family) and adequate yellow fall color.

You see this tree all over New York City. Usually they reach about 40-50 feet in height, with a caliper of 10-12". However, in the Jardin du Plantes in Paris, I saw an 18th Century specimen that was just a wee bit larger:

The water bottle gives you an idea of how wide the trunk is - my best estimate was 5' or so.

The plaque dated the specimen as planted in 1747 :

I looked a little ridiculous to the other people strolling the gardens - taking dozens of photos of this tree, mouth agape. In my bad French, I tried to explain to one Frenchman how unusual it is to see this tree at this size. He was mildly, politely, impressed.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Grape Hyacinths in Union Square

Muscari armeniacum is tucked into the planting along the east-west path that is an extension of 15th street. However, they are very easy to miss. I love this bulb - it's fragrant and multiplies and looks great en masse, but this is not the best spot for it. In a raised park like Union Square, it'd be better used along the edges of the park, where it would be eye level with passersby.

PS- Even if you don't know Latin, it should be easy to break down the meaning of this plant's name. Muscari : Musc is Latin for "fly" but this plant was probably called such due to it's musky odor. Armeniacum refers to the plant's native habitat of Armenia.