Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hardy Cyclamen

I have been haunting the entry of the M'finda Kalunga Community Garden for several weeks now -- hoping to get inside their gates when it is still actually light out. But I've had little luck -- I find myself at work or otherwise busy during any of the daytime hours that the garden is open to the public. The reason I have been so desperate to visit is because I can see a wee patch of hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) blooming through the fence.

I finally gave in and took a photo of it, employing every bit of zoom that my camera would allow.

This is a sweety, dainty bulb that is hardy to zone 5 and blooms for up to two months each autumn. Cyclamen is derivative of the Greek work 'kyklos,' which means wheel or circle, and refers to the twisted flower stems of some Cyclamen species. Hederifolium refers to the variegated foliage of this plant which, thanks to my unfortunate schedule, is difficult to see in this photo.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I have raved enough about Amelanchier -- both A. arborea and A. canadensis -- that I don't really need to make this a long post.

But I did need to point out it's terrific fall color.

These are from one of my favorite parts of Battery Park -- it's the Cove area, which is just near the southernmost tip of the park. That's Gleditsia bark in the foreground.

Serviceberries aren't always yellow -- some specimens have an orangey-red fall color and some are even darker red.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Honey Locusts

Obviously, this is the time of year to post some good fall foliage photos. More and more, I am also considering honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) to be in the underappreciated category for autumn color. Right now, these trees -- so common in NYC -- are at various states of undress. Some have full canopies of green leaves, others have begun to turn a burnt-gold color, and others have completely defoliated.

Gleditsia is unusual for it's heterophyllic foliage. At times, the plant has a basic, pinnately compound leaf. That means that the leaf consists of smaller leaflets, all arranged on a straight line (horsechestnut, on the other hand, has a palmately compound leaf; leaflets are arranged like fingers from a palm). In addition to the pinnately compound leaves, honey locust can also have bipinnately compound leaves -- that means that the individual leaflets are compound and are composed of sub-leaflets. You can see both leaf types in the photo below; while the branch in the center of the photo has mostly pinnately compound leaves, the branches to the right and left have bipinnate leaves.

The trees below - sitting next to the Hudson - have lost all their leaves. It's a good chance to see the winter habit.

To me, this is a very recognizable tree in the winter -- the branches are knotty and have a zig-zaggy habit. The bark is also quite dark and will occasionally peel in thick plates.

's genus is named after a German botanist. Triacanthos means three-spined and conversely, inermis means thornless. The botanical name makes more sense when you realize that the straight species of honey locust is very thorny. You can occasionally see thorned honey locusts in the city -- in Central Park there are a few near the statue of the Polish King Jagiello at the east side of the Turtle Pond -- but most of the time these trees will be thornless.

Monday, October 27, 2008


It occurs to me this autumn that I have been selling Zelkova serrata, or Japanese zelkova, short when I teach it to students. I never make a note of its fall color and as you can see here, it's fall color is radiant.

(sorry that this is a bit fuzzy -- I took these shots early this morning and now, with our diminishing daylight, it's hard to get a flash-less photo!)

For a time, people thought zelkovas may be the best replacement for the American elm, which was slowly dying out due to Dutch Elm Disease. If you read Dirr's entry on this plant, you can see that he's passionate about the zelkova's potential and at the same steadfast in that no plant, no matter how lovely, could ever replace Ulmus americana.

The two trees are related -- both are in the elm, or Ulmaceae, family. The vase shape you see above is common to plants in this family, as is an asymmetrical leaf base.

Here's a shot of the very distinctive bark. Zelkovas have smooth gray bark and, as the tree ages, the base of the bark has blisters, exposing a cinnamon-colored inner layer.

The wood on zelkova is quite hard and has been used to make furniture in places where the tree occurs naturally. Zelkova's name, as you may have guessed, is not derivative of Latin or Greek. Instead it is from Caucasian name for the tree, dzelkva. Dzel- means bar, and kva means rock, indicating that the rock-hard wood can be used as a bar in construction.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is one of my favorite trees for fall color. In fact, it's simply one of my favorite trees (at least in the small, ornamental size). This is what it looks like right about now.

One of the other remarkable things about this tree is its wonderful texture. This is partly attributed to the very unusual leaf margin. The leaf margin is the edge of the leaf. Some leaves have a serrated margin (like Ostrya virginiana, for example) while some are entire (Quercus phellos). The leaves on Cercidiphyllum have a scalloped leaf margin and look like they have been cut with pinking shears.

They also sit on the branches in a striking manner -- evenly ranked and with leaves perpendicular to the ground.

You can also see that this is one of those few trees with leaf orientation that is not opposite, not alternate, but sub-opposite.

Of course, the long fibrous strips of gray bark isn't too bad either.

Cercidiphyllum is named for having Cercis-like leaves, as the heart shape leaf certainly appears on both of these species.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Liberty Sunset Garden Center

This post is basically a shout-out to the Liberty Sunset Garden Center. I was able to visit it last night for a meet-and-greet event. It's a terrific space in Red Hook, sitting right on the water with beautiful views of the Verrazano Bridge. The people that run the place are all friendly and warm and offer an incredible selection of plants. There were beautiful pencil euphorbias and tropical hibiscus plants that equaled the height of most professional basketball players. Though the variety of large plants was impressive, they also had plants that would fit in a tiny Manhattan studio, too.

One of the things that made this place a destination was its selection of Columbian garden pieces. The shot below shows two sets of Columbian doors that had been salvaged and restored in their showroom.

I loved how they had taken the salvaged wood below and inserted recessed lights, it seemed like a creative way to use a prefab fixture.

I definitely recommend that you check the place out!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Swamp Milkweed Seedpods

If you've been to any wet meadow lately, you have probably seen the seed pods form on swamp milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca. I've seen them on sites as far north as Dutchess County and as far east as Amagansett.

Even if you haven't noticed the seed pods before, you've probably seen milkweed growing wild. The plant is called milkweed because the thick stems, when broken, have a milky sap. The plant is also a big-time butterfly plant. Butterflies love Asclepias syriaca, as well as its cousins, Asclepias tuberosa and incarnata.

But personally, this is the time of year I think milkweed is at its most provocative. The oversized seed pods look alien to me, particularly given the rubbery spurs on the pods themselves.

The pods below are just beginning to open, and as you can see, they are being feasted on by a juvenile form of the small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii). The bugs don't necessarily hurt the plant, but if you are looking to harvest the seeds and sow them, you best remove the bugs.

Below a dried seed pod has gently slipped away, revealing the seeds and the long, incredibly silky fibers that make them airborne. It's another great example of evolutionary engineering, no? I mentioned before how it still amazes me that the samaras on maples look like insect wings. The fact that the seeds are flattened like the scales of a fish inspires the same awe.

Here some morning dew weighed down the seeds, but I am sure that as the day warmed up, they were able to catch a breeze and settle down someplace new.

Asclepias is named for the Greek god of healing, Asklepios. Syriacus refers to Syria, which is a bit odd, since this plant is native to North America. I suppose it could be growing in the greater region of Syria, too, though I can't seem to find any information indicating this at the moment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Here's another one from my parents' place in Virginia: Pulmonaria angustifolia, or lungwort.

This particular lungwort species is different from other plants in the genus, which are characterized by light green spotting on the leaves' surfaces. In any species, however, all lungworts have very scratchy leaves.

You can see that more flower buds are forming and will possibly unfurl soon, which is odd because this plant usually flowers in late spring. Perhaps it's confused, like the cherrylaurels I mentioned two weeks ago.

No doubt, you can determine there is a connection between the genus name and the common name. Pulmos is Latin for lung, and historically people thought the spotted leaves of Pulmonaria indicated that this plant was a cure for diseased lungs. The plant has no modern medicinal uses.

When a common name ends in -wort, you can usually assume that it has had (or still does) a therapeutic reputation. St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), woundwort (Stachys palustris) and barrenwort (Epimedium) are other examples that illustrate this point.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern, or Onoclea sensibilis, is called such because it is highly susceptible to frost. As soon as the weather cools, the above-ground parts turn color and whither. During this period, they add a rusty hue to the wet meadows where they are often found.

The Genus name, Onoclea, has a Greek origin. 'Onos' means vessel and 'kleio' means to close. This refers to the tightly-closed emergent fronds.

I see this plant all over upstate New York and Connecticut, and it is native in North America all the way to the Rocky Mountains. It almost always is growing in damp, spongy spots.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Here's the drill at my folks' place in Virginia: I go to a plant nursery with them and, on a whim, we pick up a few perennials that I want to watch grow in order to decide if I like them. I plant them and presume them deceased when, after a year, they have done nothing. Inevitably, a few years later, they rise from the dead and baffle my parents, who wonder 'Where did this come from?' They take a picture, email it to me and I feel a little surge of relief to know that I didn't kill the damn thing.

This happened recently with Lycoris squamigera, and today I received these photos of Aconitum.

Aconitum has some of the coolest common names, ever: monkshood, woman's bane, wolfsbane, devil's helmet and leopard's bane. Apparently this plant is the ruin to a fair amount of forbidding creatures.

This is primarily due to the many toxicological (or therapeutic, depending on how you look at it) uses its various species possess. In some cases, they provide the poison for arrows; in other cases it has been used as an anodyne (painkiller that functions by creating numbness).

For most of these species, the plant is benign in only the tiniest of doses and is cultivated with great care. A bit too much can result in fatal consequences. A few famous literary characters have died from Aconitum poisoning, including Leopold Bloom's father in James Joyce's Ulysses. Medea tried to use it for her murderous plot and, more recently, Harry Potter has been quizzed on the proper use of wolfsbane at Hogwart's.

It's pretty easy to understand why the common names monkshood and devil's helmet are applied to Aconitum -- the flowers are shaped like a hood or helmet. The other common names most likely relate to the pharmaceutical reputation this plant has accrued over the ages and across cultures.

The scientific name also relates to the plant's toxic qualities: Aconitum is derivative from the Greek word for dart and can be loosely translated as unconquerable poison.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bear's Breeches

The persistent flower heads of Acanthus mollis, or bear's breeches, growing near the fountain in Battery Park.

Acanthus mollis is one of the oldest cultivated plants; they say that the flowers were the inspiration for the capitals on Corinthian columns.

Acanthus is derivative for the Greek work for thorn or spine; mollis is Latin for soft or downy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Parthenocissus quinquefolia, or Virginia creeper, growing up along the boardwalk rail on the Jersey shore.

Chances are you have noticed Virginia creeper these days. It is a climbing vine and while it's inconspicuous growing along the trunk of a tree in the summertime, it's hard to miss right now, as the leaves are turning a brilliant crimson red.

It's fruit are also maturing and will soon be eaten up by birds. The fruit on this native vine are high in oxalic acid and can be fatal to mammals. It's apparently also awful-tasting, so deaths by Virginia creeper are fairly rare.

Parthenocissus is literally Greek for virgin ivy. 'Parthenos' means 'virgin' and the Greek work for ivy is 'kissos.'

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hedge Maple

On my way to work this morning, I noticed, for the first time, that Acer campestre, or hedge maple, is being used as a street tree on Mulberry Street, between Spring and Prince. It was such a bizarre choice that I had to take a few photos and post this.

Hedge maple, as you can infer from the common name, can branch quite low to the ground and has thus been employed to good effect as a hedge. Perhaps that accounts for the reason this tree is *not* ideal for a narrow street like Mulberry. You can see how badly trucks have damaged the overall shape. The tree's 'instinct' to branch low only makes this kind of damage (typical with any street tree) more obvious.

Hedge maple leaves are fairly remarkable from other plants in the Acer genus due to the rounded tips on the lobes. To me, they always look a little bit cartoonish.

Like Acer rubrum (red, or swamp, maple), the leaves can have five or three lobes.

Another noteworthy item about the leaves on Acer campestre is the tomentous (fuzzy) underside. If you run your fingertips over the bottom of the leaf, you will feel a faint scratchiness, like very soft, fine sandpaper.

The bark is a bit stripey -- vertical fissures occur with regularity.

Finally - you can see the samaras have formed and dried and soon will be helicoptering their way down to the ground. I think the samaras on maples have to be one of the most beautiful examples of how plants and animals (like insects) can evolve independently but still reach similar forms, simply due to the fact that it's the best design to achieve a particular function.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Confused Cherrylaurels

Here's a few shots of Prunus laurocerasus, or cherrylaurel, in Union Square Park.

As you can see, these plants, which typically bloom in the spring, have a fair amount of flowers on it. This phenomena in not unheard-of among spring-blooming plants -- I see
it most often with saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana). The dreaded Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') does this, too.

Plants have, like people and animals, their own circadian rhythms, triggered day-length. I mentioned this before, when discussing redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Sometimes, plants that flower in the spring will mistakenly bloom in the fall. Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense: The daylengths in October are similar to those in April.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Since I've already spent some time lately revisiting last autumn's trip to Paris, I may as well stay there for a few more days.

Here's a shot of Pyracantha coccinea, or firethorn, growing in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

I'm not sure that firethorn is a plant that I would jump to use in a planting plan, but you do enjoy its fruit this time of year. As you can see, the plant has a generous bounty of berry-like pomes each fall. Depending on the cultivar, you can get the fruit in shades of orange or red.

Firethorn is a direct translation of the genus name. Pyra- refers to fire, and -cantha, when used in plant nomenclature, typically means thorn or spine.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I try to keep these posts seasonal, so I have been waiting for autumn to arrive before posting any photos of my trip to Fontainebleau last October.

Fontainebleau Palace is a short train ride away from Paris, and is one of the larger French chateaux. It abuts the Fontainebleau forest, and thus was a popular destination for royals to hunt game.

The site demonstrates most of the classical design fundamentals you would experience in the more famous chateaux of Versailles or Vaux le Vicomte.

Long allees or canals are sited on axis with fountains and other similar punctuation marks.

There's a very clear line between the landscape that has been contained or controlled by man and the woods that are kept at bay beyond.

And of course, sculpture and topiary -- essentially a sculpture of plants -- are utilized in the formal gardens.

Finally, tiers of varying elevation create the experience of limitless landscape.

It's a beautiful landscape and on the other side of the chateau more intimate gardens exist, complete with plant ID tags, which is always helpful when you are among potentially unfamilar plants.