Thursday, July 31, 2008


Here's a smattering of daylilies, for your enjoyment:

Hemerocallis literally means "beauty of the day" in Greek. Calli- means beauty (Callicarpa, as another example, is named for its attractive magenta fruit: calli- = attractive; -carpa= fruit or body, related to corpus). Hemero means day.

The reason for the nomenclature (both scientific and common) is obvious enough to those who know this plant. Each morning, daylilies unfurl tubular flowers that last only until nightfall. The next day, a different bud will open. And so on. The plants typically have enough stems that you get a good bloom mileage, even though no individual flower lasts more than a day.

Before I understood how they worked - quite a while ago - I remember feeling foolish for cutting a stem and adding it to a vase. Daylilies are, obviously, not great cut flowers. This doesn't stop people from collecting them, though -- there are thousands of cultivars ranging in all colors, save for blue and pure white. Personally, I prefer the pale, creamy yellows; 'Lemon Mint' is gorgeous. Of course, the traditional canary hues are classics, too. Daylilies are not native, but are naturalized down in Viginia -- you see them on the sides of roads.

To me, there's a certain romance to the ephemeral quality (there's that Greek again: ephemeral) of the flowers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Naked Lady

Naked Lady is one of the common names for Lycoris squamigera, though if you google the plant, your results will be more...botanical if you search using the scientific name. This is especially recommended if you have a public workspace.

Lycoris is a bulb that blooms this time of year and is perhaps too often placed in the 'oddity' category and ignored as a wonderful late-summer addition to a garden. Like most bulbs, this plant puts out basal foliage in the spring. As the weather warms up, the foliage withers and dies, leaving what would appear to be virgin ground. Then, when August nears, erect stems rise from the ground...

...and in a matter of days, the plant bursts forth with a profusion of four to six blossoms per stem:

This plant has multiplied consistently in the six or so years since I planted it at my parents' place. This fall, I'll definitely need to divide it (or conscript my father to do it).

The photos above were taken shortly after an intense summer storm so you can see that the plant is quite resilient, too.

The plant is named for a Roman actress, who was also the mistress of Marc Antony. I suppose you can make some assumptions about why this name was applied. Squamigera means 'bearing scales' which likely refers to the bulb itself, which can appear scaly.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cotinus, revisited

Previously, I've commented on being less than crazy about Cotinus coggygria, or Smoketree.

I'm still not a fan, but in fairness to the plant, I thought I'd post this shot at City Hall Park:

I like the differing textures between the pine and dogwood in the background, the herbaceous plants in the foreground, and the Smoketree. Add to that, the purple does pop out fairly nicely (though I still think purple foliage plants should be used judiciously.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hungry March Band

Shortly before the Fourth of July weekend I got to enjoy some street music near my apartment. They were back again last night and I took some video:

I talked to the drummer to ask if it was okay to post this clip and found out they were the Hungry March Band. They were using the Park as a practice space, understandable since you'd need a pretty big studio to contain them. I was asked to underscore that the above was a rehearsal -- and if you listen to clips on their site you can here some of their more polished numbers.

But as I listened, I found the disclaimer was unnecessary; they sounded great. Last time, I mentioned that they sounded a little like they were from the jazz age, but failed to comment on the great klezmer influence. Definitely check them out!

To any friends in DC, they'll be at the Kennedy Center this September.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A few good reasons not to plant Bradford Pears

My students are no strangers to my... rants about Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford,' or Bradford Pears.

Sadly, I was not a plant geek when my parents hired a landscape designer for their house in Virginia. Otherwise, I would have protested against the use of this tree.

Alas, 20 years later this tree has succumbed like so many others Bradfords before it.

Bradfords, as you may know, are notoriously weak-wooded. They grow very quickly and that, coupled with the acute branching habit, is a recipe for the damage you can see in these photos. You have probably seen Bradfords and noted their perfect lollipop shape. After it loses a limb like this, it doesn't recover. Instead it looks like a lemon missing a wedge and will never quite fill in. Due to their low cost, they are also so over-used that the pollen is causing more allergies each spring when they bloom.

Finally, the wood rots very quickly after this kind of damage and it will be a fast ride to oblivion for this specimen.

It's always fun to say 'I told you so,' right? I'm glad no damage was done to their house, otherwise I may have held back a bit. But please: don't plant Bradford Pears!

Conservatory Gardens

Below find a few shots of summer perennials at the Conservatory Gardens.

The border edge at the south gardens:

A close up of the border and the great hedge of Japanese Holly:

Balloon Flower (or Platycodon grandiflorus), with Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Phlox paniculata (Phlox), and Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) in the background:

The common name exists for the pretty obvious reason that the buds enlarge like blue balloons before the petals open up. The Latin prefix, platy-, means broad (think of the broad beak of the Platypus). In this case, the root word refers to the plants' broad petals.

Finally, I am including a favorite annual, Gomphrena globosa, or Globe Amaranth:

Note that the pink 'petals' are really bracts and the true flower is tiny and white and sits among the many bracts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


It seems that this week was all about perennial gardens, which made me think I'm overdue for a post about a particular tree. Or, more accurately, a tree-ish shrub or a shrubby tree. And so now I am going to post a bit about Vitex agnus-castus, or Chastetree. Other common names include Chasteberry or Monk's Pepper.

The above is a very lovely specimen from the Conservatory Gardens. As you can see, it does occupy the middle ground between tree and shrub. Pruning it pushes the plant closer to a tree form, though it would never get very big.

The foliage is striking -- palmately compound leaves in a dusky green with silvery undersides. When crushed, the leaves are quite aromatic, emitting a scent similar to sage. The shot below is of the specimen at the southern entry to City Hall Park.

Finally, you have the bluish purple spikes of flowers. This plant is pretty tough; it can handle wind and salt with a wink, and can be pruned to the ground only to grow back in a year or two.

None of this, however, relates to its common names. Vitex is called Chastetree because medieval monks, in order to temper their libidos, and thus maintaining their vow of celibacy, would eat the pepper-like seeds. The plant is still employed as an herbal remedy, though not necessarily as an anaphrodisiac.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Here's some very poor video of fireflies near the Harlem Meer:

It's not great -- it's probably worse than the Mimosa video -- but I couldn't resist. ADDED: For a better video, see the bottom of this post.

Fireflies are yet another telltale sign that we are in the high summer season. I've seen them quite a lot this year -- in parks and even among foundation plantings next to buildings. Perhaps they are more prevalent this summer, due to the mild winter we experienced.

Here's a shot of the actual insect:

Fireflies are in the Coleoptera order, which means that they are related to beetles. The genus is most likely Photuris, though I am not sure if this is Photuris pennsylvanica, the Pennsylvania firefly or P. pyralis, the common firefly. It looks an awful lot like the photos of P. pennsylvanica that I found online, so I am leaning towards the former. The genus name's origin is pretty clear: Photo means light in Greek.

Most fireflies use their light -- due to an enzyme called luciferase -- to attract mates. After they mate, the females will lay eggs just below the ground's surface. The eggs will hatch and the larva will feed for a few weeks in late summer, then burrow deeper into the ground to overwinter. The following spring, the larva feed for a few more weeks before metamorphosing into their adult forms. And so on.

I won't try to explain how this enzyme works -- that's well out of my league. However, the name luciferase is interesting, isn't it? Lucifer, when broken down in Latin, simply means light-bearer. But of course, most of us think of Lucifer as another name for Satan.

This enzyme is also present in the fireflies during their juvenile phase and were the larva not underground, we could see them live up to their name, glow-worm.

ADDED: I just watched the video stream from the site and see my description of "very poor" is hardly adequate. The video below is closer view of the insects, though I won't know if it's any better until I post it. Here's hoping!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Queen Anne's Lace

First let me note that this plant is considered a noxious weed by the USDA and thus it is with some qualification that I wax romantic about Daucus carota, or Queen Anne's Lace. Also known as Wild Carrot.

So yes, Wild Carrot: This plant is actually the same species as the cultivated carrot, only the carrots we eat belong to a subspecies called sativus. It's a European plant and grows wild in this area, flowering in the summer.

Here you see that the foliage is much like the herbal tops of carrots. Note the tiny red flower in the umbel of otherwise white flower: that's there to attract pollinators. It's also part of the reason the plant has the common name, Queen Anne's Lace. Allegedly, Queen Anne, while making lace, pricked her finger on a needle and the red flower represents a drop of her blood.

After the plant starts to turn to seed, the stems holding the individual flowers and begin to curl up:

This, like Crown Vetch, is one of my favorite weeds. It has a great, herbal scent and it's a reminder that we are in the midst of summertime. The flowers don't last long, and when they begin to go to seed the petals fall quickly, making it a little messy as a cut flower. That said, in college I would help out at a florist, and each July we'd use this as an alternate to Baby's Breath (Gypsophila elegans) for filler with red roses. It's a striking combination.

Monday, July 14, 2008

91st Street Garden, Riverside Park

I remember seeing the movie, 'You've Got Mail' and thinking, 'Wow, what a pretty garden! ...I wonder if they forced some of those plants to shoot this scene?' during the ending.

In case you too were momentarily distracted from the romantic tribulations of attractive, professional, and unimpeachably nice New Yorkers due to the cinematic horticulture, you may like to know this is the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park.

As you can see, it's still a lovely garden, and I bet in May it looks just as colorful as it did in the film.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Brooklyn Bridge entry, Manhattan side

One of my usual walking or running routes in the morning is from the Lower East Side, over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, then back to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge. For the past few weeks, I've admired a small triangle of planting at the entry of the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path, near Centre Street.

Yesterday, I finally brought a camera with me, though I was a week or two too late to get a pic of the roses in their prime. As you can see, the Echinacea purpureum (Purple Coneflower), Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), Verbena bonariensis (South American Verbena), Coreopsis (Tickseed) and what I think is Verbascum (Mullein) are still showing quite well.

A closer shot of the Echinacea with Achillea in the background:

In case you don't know, yes: Purple Coneflower is the plant from which the herbal supplement Echinacea is derived. Purportedly, it aides ones' immune system and many swear by it. Though personally, my immune system is somewhat stubborn and if wants me to get a cold, I get a cold. Achillea, as you can imagine, is named after the Greek warrior Achilles, who was said to use this plant for medicinal purposes.

Further along the edge of the planting, a Lavender (Lavandula) is thriving happily:

I love the austere texture of Lavender, though many around here have a hard time keeping it alive. I'm told it's not so much the cold temperatures of our winters that prevent the plant from thriving, but the cold, wet springs that irk the plant. Using a sandy soil mix and placing this soil mix over a layer of gravel should help keep the roots dry and ensure the plant's return each spring.

The only bad thing about Lavender is that it makes me wish I were in France... Bonne weekend!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Willow Oak

Quercus phellos, or Willow Oak, may very well be one of my top five trees. It has the classic character and fortitude of an oak, and its fine texture of narrow, willow-like leaves, gives it a modern look. Simply put, it's a gorgeous plant.

It also does fairly well as a street tree or in our city parks. Here's a shot of one in Tompkins Square Park:

Certain trees are particularly beautiful when you look up into their canopies. Willow Oak (as well as Sweetgum) qualifies as such. The leaves are willow-like, in that they are narrow and lanceolate (though not cerrated like Salix), but looking into the canopy of the tree always reminds me more of bamboo. I love the way the leaves sprout from the twigs in little bundles, like fireworks or unfurling hand-held fans.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Here's a shot of Koelreuteria paniculata, shortly after the seed pods had formed, in Arlington, Virginia. You'll note that the tree is upstaging a Hummer-Limo, the environmental opposite of yesterday's post.

I was hoping that there was some kind of meaning behind the genus name, but alas, it is simply named after a German naturalist, J.G. Koelreuter.

Goldenraintree, however, is a common name applied for more precise reasons. In early summer, large panicles of yellow flowers adorn the tree. As the flowers age they fall from the tree like so many canary colored raindrops. Shortly after, seed pods resembling Chinese lanterns form on the panicles and persist well into autumn. The transition from blooms to seedpods is very, very fast. In fact, on some trees, half the canopy will be in flower, while the other half has well-formed pods.

Perhaps this speedy transition also accounts for why the tree self-seeds very aggressively. I recommend to my students that they don't plant this over juniper beds or any other underplanting that will be difficult to weed. That's the situation my poor parents have inherited at their home in Virginia. Though the tree has a lovely form, each year my folks have to scour their lot for seedlings before they become too large, and they must sheepishly tell neighbors about this tree's aggressive progeny when they see saplings growing in the yard next door. This plant annoys them very, very much.

To prove the point, here you can see the seedlings sprouting in a planting bed nearby:

Goldenraintree is very easy to ID. Though there is a slew of plants that have pinnately compound leaves, very few have lobed leaflets. And to the tree's defense, it is very tough and performs well as a street tree.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Street Music

So, riding my bike home from class last night, I was lucky enough to catch a big band performing in Sarah Roosevelt Park. They had drums, trumpet, alto sax, tuba, guitar and maybe a couple other musicians (great reporting, right?). They were performing these sorta Django-inspired syncopations and rhythms. Great stuff, especially the trumpet, but then again I'm biased. The sun had just set and I was sadly caught without a tripod, so this is the best I can do.

Things like this are what New York is all about. Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lacebark Elm

This is definitely the largest 'Central Park Splendor' cultivar of Ulmus parviflora one can find. That's because cultivars were cloned from this 'mother' tree.

Legend has it that this tree was a gift from the King of Prussia, bestowed on Central Park in the 1870's. It is surprising to think that this tree is over 130 years old, but the timeline works out well; Central park was officially completed in 1873.

The cultivar was first cloned and distributed in 1989 and since has become a popular tree in parks and on streets. I speculate that a lot of 'Central Park Splendor's' thunder was stolen by the rise in popularity of Zelkova serrata in the 80's, but cannot be sure if that's really the case. From my observations, it always seems that Zelkovas are more ubiquitous than this cultivar.

The trees themselves are quite similar. They have the typical Ulmaceae asymmetrically leaf bases and small, ovate leaves with cerrated margins. Both have a vase shape and a feathery, graceful habit. Ulmus parviflora gets larger than Zelkova so perhaps the popularity of the latter can be attributed to its better use in residential lots and small spaces.

The other difference among the two is the bark. While Zelkova's bark is smooth and gray, with lenticels and, as it gets larger, exfoliated blister-like pieces of cinnamon bark, U. parviflora has a consistently exfoliated bark. Thus the common name, Lacebark Elm.

Parviflora is a popular epithet for plants; it literally means 'small flowers.' This is true, as you don't notice the diminutive blossoms of these trees.

If you want to track down this plant, it is in the lawn southwest of the 72nd Street transverse and Bethesda Fountain (i.e., due west of the bandshell).

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Here are some students, inspecting a Tilia species from two weeks ago. If you aren't familiar with Tilia tomentosa (Silver Linden) or Tilia cordata (Littleleaf Linden), then you may have encountered the trees recently and wondered if their tiny flowers were accountable for a subtly pungent fragrance.

Lindens are great trees and at first, it may be difficult to tell the difference between these two species, but the more you look at them, the more distinct they become. Littleleaf Linden, eponymously, has small, medium-green leaves and a horizontal branching habit. Silver Linden leaves are a darker with silvery undersides and the branches seem to sprout from the trunk like a bouquet of wildflowers. It's interesting -- at least to me -- to realize that the more pendulous habit of Tilia tomentosa is partly due to the fact that the leaves are larger and thus, heavier. The added mass, no doubt, pulls the branches closer to earth than Tilia cordata.

There is also American Linden (Tilia americana) or Basswood. Their leaves can be up to 8" long and the tree itself is much larger than the other two. Consequently, the habit of Basswood is even more pendulous than Silver Linden, and all the branches eventually touch the ground.

As you can see above, these leaves aren't as silvery as most Silver Lindens. But my bet is that this is still Tilia tomentosa, due to the bloom time and the fact the leaves are no more than 5" long.

There was once also a Tilia heterophylla, which has now been absorbed by the Tilia americana species. There's also the possibility that this is that plant.

If anyone has any concrete information on this tree (it's behind the Met, among the Saucer Magnolias and Corktrees), please let me know. I'd love to have a definitive ID.