Thursday, December 24, 2009

Winter Buds

One of the things I like most of all about understanding the plant world is that, while we are barely just a few days into winter, I can already see the signs that warmer days will be here soon.

When I worked at a plant nursery in high school, customers would come in every summer with the same confounded plea, 'Why aren't my hydrangeas/azaleas/rhododendrons blooming?' The first question I quickly learned to ask was, 'When do you prune them?' Inevitably they would answer, 'Early spring.'

One quickly learns that plants which bloom in the spring set their flower buds in the fall. The buds sit, cocoon-like, all winter long, preparing for their flower show a few months later. When those customers prune their shrubs in the early spring, they are cutting off all the flowers prematurely.

As someone who really doesn't prefer the cold, I take a lot of comfort in seeing these flower buds. It's the promise of a spring that, at times, seems a bit too distant.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Red Tailed Hawk, Tompkins Square Park

If you look closely at the Sophora below, you'll notice a red tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched on one of the limbs. To add to the suspense, you may also notice the tree shades a dog run.

Don't worry, all the lapdogs survived - at least while I was there. But if you forgive a slight anthropomorphization, I like to think the hawk took a macabre thrill in scaring them a bit.

This hawk is most likely progeny of Pale Male, the famous hawk who resides on a 5th Avenue coop's ledge, to both the pride and horror of the building's many tenants, including Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore and Paula Zahn.

Friday, December 18, 2009

NYBG: The Best of the Rest

I'm going to wrap up the week with photos of some of the other great models at the NYBG Train Show. But first, I'm sharing a little attention: Carolyn Friedman runs a blog calledRadiology Technician Schools (random, I know) and included New York, Plants and Other Stuff in her list of Top 50 Botany Blogs. Check out Carolyn's list for other great plant-inspired blogs.

Various NYC townhouses.

The Brooklyn Bridge (I love the use of pine bark for the brownstone bricks).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Norway Spruce & Rockefeller Center

Since we are well into the holiday season, it seems appropriate to post on Picea abies or Norway Spruce.

Norway Spruces are probably recognizable to people living in the mid-Atlantic states, if not areas beyond, despite the fact that the plant is (as the common name suggests) native to areas between the Ural Moutains and Norway. It was introduced to North America during colonial times and has been a popular favorite since. It's often sold in a pot at plant nurseries as a 'live Christmas tree' that can be transplanted to the yard after the holidays. Of course, the subsequent danger is that it is planted too close to the house. I have seen more than one modest rancher dwarfed by these trees.

Norways are identifiable from other spruces by their almost pendulous habit. Long swooping branches have smaller branches, laden with needles, hanging down. In the past, I have likened this plant's habit to an Afghan dog. That's utterly ridiculous, I know, but my students seem to get it.

is derivative of the ancient Latin name for pitch (pix). That's because the Norway's wood is often used for pulp and paper. It is also used for a furniture varnish. New shoots are used in a spruce beer and finally, the roots of this tree can be used for rope.

Note the woody husk that is pulled from the branch along with the needle. That's quite typical with Picea abies.

Another key I tell my students is Picea=pierce. That's because the needles are quite sharp - they pierce your skin much more than a similar looking Fir (Abies) tree would.

Picea abies is also quite famous, because it is usually the tree used at Rockefeller Center. Which gives me the perfect segway to some photos of the NYBG train show:

Yes, there's 30 Rock itself (flanked by other New York sights such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building), complete with the angel statues and even Prometheus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Callicarpa and Penn Station (the good one)

It's always a good bet that when you see a plant full of untouched fruit in the winter, that said plant is not native. The subtext is that the non-native fruit is undesirable to the native wildlife. Things get a little muddy when you consider that some of our local wildlife is also non-native, or that deer -- a native animal -- will eat almost anything. But the concept has some merit, and if you assume the plant below is a non-native, you'd be right.

Here comes the part where I have to admit to a previous mistake (I hate that). When I last spoke about this genus, Callicarpa, I showed photos and equivocated on the species. I suggested it could be Callicarpa dichotoma or Callicarpa japonica and then I favored the latter.

Seeing these specimens at the NYBG last week, it's clear that the plant I posted on in September 2008 was Callicarpa dichotoma and this plant is C. japonica. The fruit set is decidedly different, the latter plant has fruit and flowers borne on longer cymes whereas the former has fruit set closely to the stem of the plant. Cymes, if you recall the post about linden flowers, are the small stems that connect the flower (or fruit) to the twig. Mea culpa.

Onward, to some fun models. The building below is a new addition to the NYBG train show but chances are it's a familiar building to most New Yorkers. Its familiarity is not because we see the building depicted in movies or postcards, but sadly because it was a beautiful building that the city foolishly demolished.

As you can see from the hand in the left of the photo, the model is massive. It's beautiful, too, though one has to look at some of the stunning black and white photos of the original structure to realize how lovely the building really was.

The model makers, as you can see, were very detailed. Though that man is evidently very, very tall.

Note the acorn cap on the column!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Idesia & Yankee Stadium

More photos of the Holiday Train Show at NYBG today, but first, Idesia polycarpa or the Igiri tree.

I had never heard of Igiri tree before, but I was stopped in my tracks when I saw its elegant shape and the lovely chandeliers of red berries, contrasting so beautifully against the blue sky and green pines.

Idesia is a dioecious tree which means the male and female flowers exist on separate trees (remember dioecious is Greek for 'two houses'). This accounts for the reason you rarely see this tree (which also has yellow fragrant flowers in June) outside of a park setting -- you simply need too much room for the male and female(s) needed to make an impact.

Polycarpa of course means 'multiple fruit' which is a bit of an understatement in this case. . Idesia derives from Eberhad Isbarnd Ides, a 17th century explorer employed by the Russian Czar Peter the Great.

Back to the train show, below we have the old Yankee Stadium -- the model is based on the stadium before the 1976 renovations:

I particularly liked the red leaves used as flags.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas Rose & the Guggenheim

Recently the New York Botanical Garden invited me (or more accurately, they invited New York Plants & Other Stuff) to a sneak peak of their holiday train show.

If you haven't been, definitely check it out. I had been once before in 2003, but forgot how much fun it is to see these models of New York City sights made out of plant material. Paul Busse, a landscape architect and principal of his firm Applied Imagination, fashions hundreds of buildings, using only bark, seeds, petals and leaves, etc.. He even uses lichens. To wit, one of my favorites had to be the Guggenheim:

Of course, I also had to walk around the grounds and check out what was happening in the garden. Helleborus niger or Christmas rose or black hellebore, immediately caught my eye. Like Lenten rose, Christmas rose is named such due to the season in which it blooms. The common name black hellebore is applied becuase the rhizome (a long, flat tuber or bulb-like
structure) is black.

The flower structure you see above is a bit unusual. The white parts that look like petals are sepals. The larger, stringy yellow parts that look like stamens are actually nectaries, petals that have been modified to hold nectar. Pollinators are usually bees and flies.

Hellebores have a rich history of medicinal use. The plant's roots contain two chemicals, helleborein - which can be considered a cardiac poison, and helleborin, a narcotic posion. Highly toxic, the plant can be used as an emmenagogue, cathartic, diuretic or cardiac stimulant in low doses. Higher concentrations of Helleborus niger can cause death allegedly by relentless spasms and exhaustion. Wow, right? Apparently in ye olden times the plant was used to treat such outdated afflictions as hysteria, insanity and my new favorite word: dropsy, which is sort of like an extreme bloatedness.

Next week I'll be posting more photos of Busse's models along with some new plants.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lobivia lonigispina

I wish I could say I was posting a photo of the Argentina landscape I took myself, but these were emailed to me last year. Friends had sent me these photos as well as the ones of Jacaranda mimosifolia that I posted last year.

I never got around to posting these cacti photos. They'd be in bloom again now, so they merit some attention. The plant at the bottom left is most likely Lobivia longispina. I write "most likely" because there's a fair amount of dialogue on the differences between Lobivia and Echinopsis, or whether the two genera are one and the same.

But based on the long spines, I'm hedging this is Lobivia longispina. Both genera thrive in the dry soil comprised of degraded volcanic substrates. They also most often occur naturally within a limited elevation (1800-4000 m) and on north, east and northeast faces (read: they don't like direct sun).

Apparently the pulp of these plants is quite tasty though I hope I'll never be thirsty enough to wrangle with one of these plants when on a Patagonian hike.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I was at MoMA last weekend and decided to take a few pics of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Yes, the image above says the Lillie P. Bliss Garden Plaza, but presumably the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden commences when one descends the steps on the right.

By the way, doesn't Lillie P. Bliss sounds almost like a pseudonym someone would daftly invent, were one in a screwball comedy? The real Miss Bliss was a key figure to MoMA due to the terms in her will. She left a large art collection to MoMA but also allowed MoMA to sell art from that collection in order to acquire better pieces. For example, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was partially bought with funds raised by selling a Degas in Bliss's collection.

Back to the garden:

When MoMA was redesigned by architect Yoshio Taniguchi, Taniguchi preserved Philip Johnson's original design (1953) for the garden. Some expansions were made, but for the most part the garden was untouched.

Note that the bridge is comprised of only three slabs of marble. In the background, there are the Bertoia chairs we last saw in Paley Park.

The weeping European beech trees, or Fagus sylvatica, (so sensitive to compaction due to their shallow roots) were preserved, though I'm skeptical as to whether I could say the same of the birches (Betula populifolia); they look a bit small for the originals.

Birch trees seem to be a touch ubiquitous outside museums. The Tate Modern in London opened 53 years after MoMA, and birch trees were used once again. Of course, birches have an austere quality that mirrors the sense of peace and order you achieve in a museum, and they're vertical, compact plants which work in the urban environments of most museums.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ilex verticillata

Since we are well into December and Soho streets are getting thronged with tourists, it seems appropriate to do a post on Ilex verticillata or winterberry holly. Here's one in full fruit on the High Line.

Ilex verticillata
(sometimes called fever bush, as is Lindera benzoin -- both species have been used as antiseptics and astringents) is an incredibly tough plant with a vast range - it can grow as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Florida. It thrives in wet soils and like most hollies, it prefers a slightly slightly acid pH.

Of course, the bare stems are beautiful and make frequent appearances in holiday floral decorations. I remember seeing fields of these hollies being grown in rural Virginia during college and stunned at the plants' beauty.

Like most hollies (but not all) this plant is dioecious, which means you'll need one male plant in order for the females to fruit.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Equisetum hyemale

There are a fair amount of wetland plants listed on the High Line's plant list, one of which is Equisetum hyemale, or giant horsetail.

Now, at this point I have to pause to explain a bit about how I write this blog. I take my camera with me everywhere and if I see something that interests me, I take a photo of it. Most of the time I know what I'm looking at, but if I don't and I have the time, I try to identify the plant. After that I google it, trying to find some more information about the plant. If you're a regular reader, you know I have a soft spot for etymology or unusual things regarding plant morphology, lineage or ethnobotany.

I knew the plant above was Equisetum but you can imagine my excitement when the first hit on google reads as such:

Equisetum hyemale is not a rush however. Nor is it a fern. Equisetum is the single surviving genus of a class of primitive vascular plants that dates back to the ...

To the what?! Well, after reading on, I find that this species dates back to the mid-Devonian period (of course) which was about 350 million years ago. And little facts like that really make my day. (To assure you that I don't take the first google hit as gospel, know that I try to verify a fact like that on a few other reputable sites before regurgitating it on this blog.)

Equisetum is also lumped into the category of fern ally -- it means that while the plant is not a fern (another ancient primitive plant type), it is similar in that the plant doesn't flower, nor has seeds and instead reproduces with spores. Other fern allies include Lycopodium and Salaginella.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

High Line, Rhus & Cotinus

The palette of shrubs on the high line made a lot of sense to me. They are primarily tough plants and while not all are native, most of them are associated as colonial plants; plants which can inhabit a difficult environment.

Rhus typhina or staghorn sumac, definitely belongs in this category. You've probably seen this plant on the sides of highways or growing in craggy areas where few other plants succeed. The plant is called staghorn sumac because of the fuzzy stems -- they almost resemble the hairy antlers of a stag.

Below is another Rhus, Rhus glabra or smooth sumac.

Like most Rhus species, the plant has a characteristic red seed head, which as you can see, is quite beautiful.

Finally, a third Rhus, Rhus aromatica or fragrant sumac. I love this plant. It's tough, has great fall color and it emits a spicy aroma when the leaves are crushed. Of course, it's important to know the difference between this plant and it's more aggressive cousin, Rhus dermatitis, or poison oak.

I've spoken about Cotinus coggygria two times in the past. It's a plant I don't really love, since it seems so alien in almost any landscape. However, the small whips of this tree (or is it a shrub? It seems to occupy the no-man's land between these two categories...) that dotted the High Line seemed right.

And it's hard to deny the brilliance of its autumn color.