Friday, March 27, 2009

Buttercup Winterhazel

First off, what a fantastic name Corylopsis pauciflora has: buttercup winterhazel. The flowers do look a little bit like buttercups, and have a great creamy yellow color (an unusual contrast to the brighter, more sulphuric yellows you see this time of year). It blooms so early in the spring, it makes sense to have the name winterhazel, too.

Of course, it's hard to make out the specimen of Corylopsis from the plastic flowers that are placed with it. Like garden statuary, I lean against using fake flowers in a garden, but appreciate the better intentions of the gardener.

Corylopsis is a member of the Hamamelidaceae, or witch hazel, family. Like witch hazel, it has a great, irregular, spatula-like leaf. It blooms early in the spring and in the right conditions (not these) it has a loose, sprawling suckering habit. A great specimen of this plant can be found just southwest of the restrooms at the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park.

Corylopsis is derivative of the Greek work for hazel (korylos) and -opsis generally means 'looks like.' If you hear -opsis or -oides in a botanical name, it usually means 'looks like.' Pauciflora literally means 'few flowers.'

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Iris reticulata

When most people think of the Iris, they probably think of the flags (Iris pseudacorus) that grow in bogs, or the simple Iris siberia that is often seen as a cut flower in florists and delis.

Less common is the dwarf iris, Iris reticulata.

Unlike the other species of Iris I mentioned - which spread via underground rhizomes, this one grows as bulb, much like snowdrop or Lycoris.

It's the earliest of the iris and I am always surprised at how prevalent it is in New York. I have seen it at Liz Christy, in Washington Square Park and in planters all around the NYU campus. Someone responsible for the greenspaces at NYU clearly had a weakness for this plant.

And who can blame them? Though diminutive, and probably overlooked at first glance as another crocus, it's a sweet flower and always a bit of a discovery when found in the city.

Reticulata refers to the ridged quality of the leaves. Like all irises, this plant has six modified petals. The bottom three (the ones with the yellow markings that essentially function as runway lights for pollinators) are called falls. The top three are called standards.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Red Ginger

Here's another classic tropical plant, Alpinia purpurata, or red ginger:

Yes, this is the plant that is responsible to adding that great ginger flavor to so many foods, and of course, ginger ale, too. You can recognize the flavor, if you rub your fingers against the large, lanceloate leaves.

And ginger, like Heliconia, is a repeating tropical that works quite well as a cut flower and can be found in most floral shops.

Alpinia is named after Prospero Alpino, a 16th century Italian botanist.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Heliconia psittacorum

I took this photo during my last hours in Puerto Rico. I was desperately hoping that my flight back to New York would be canceled -- I wasn't ready to leave, and there was a bit of snow there, anyway. Alas, flights were merely delayed. I was fearful that would be the case, so I spent my last bit of time in the tropics furiously snapping photos of plants.

I was pretty sure the plant below was a Heliconia, but it was not until I got back home (and at a computer) that I was able to pin down not just the species, but the cultivar, too. I'm fairly certain this plant is Heliconia psitticorum 'Lady Di.'

The common name for Heliconia psitticorum is parrot's beak, so named for the beak-like red bracts that are the showy part of the plant. Bracts, as I think I've mentioned before (note to self: make more tags for this blog), are modified leaves associated with the flower. More often than not, they are modified to aid in attracting pollinators. In this case, their red color is aiming to attract hummingbirds. The actual flower is nestled inside the interior set of yellow bracts.

There are around 150 species of Heliconia, and Heliconia is the sole genus in its family, Heliconiaceae. Heliconias were formerly members of the banana family but have since been deemed different enough from Musaceae to merit its own family name.

Heliconias are native to South America and the Pacific tropical islands. They are definitely 'go-to' tropicals which bloom all year round.

When I speculated about the origin of the genus name, I got a bit smug. I figured that the arrangement of bracts was probably helical, thus the name Heliconia. But when I looked it up, I found out I was dead wrong. The plant is named after Helicon, which was the mountain of muses in Greek mythology.

PS -- You may notice (upper right) that I have set up a twitter account. I am still fooling around with it, and am not sure I'll keep it up. But right now I am using it to give a brief 'real time' account of what's in bloom (or otherwise notable) in NYC. Feel free to 'follow' me if you are on twitter yourself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cocos nucifera

It was particularly thrilling, while in Puerto Rico, to see coconut palms sprouting out of the sand.

These guys were popping up all over the beaches, and demonstrate well why the coconut palm has been successfully migrating to virtually any beach located between 26ºN and 26ºS.

The origin of Cocos nucifera is up for debate. This plant, whose well-known fruit is unusually buoyant and salt-tolerant, was first recorded in the 1st or 2nd century BC by indigenous Sri Lankans. Fossil records indicate plants that are similar to coconuts existed in New Zealand and Kerala (southwest India).

Books can (and are) written about the coconut. I'll keep this post short, however. Cocos is derivative from the Portuguese word for 'mask' and likely refers to the face-like appearance of the three holes on the coconut shell.

Coconuts are excellent uses for sound design, though they fail to trick even the more medieval mind and only end up triggering a debate about how coconuts migrate:

Finally, I'll end with some good news: Based on my fairly limited online research, it seems there is scant evidence of people being fatally hit on head by a falling coconut, despite the oft-used comparison that this as equally likely to a fatal shark attack. If you're the (extremely) cautious type, better to take your chances on the beach.


PS -- As I mentioned once before in regards to lotus, nucifera means nut-bearing, which is certainly an apt species name for this plant.


....As promised:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Puerto Rico -- Anthurium andraeanum

This plant here, commonly called flamingo lily, is one of the first plants I remember noticing. I think the first plant I was ever conscious of was marigolds from my parents' place in New Jersey, but then I remember seeing this wild things growing everywhere when we lived in Kuala Lumpur.

I remember being fascinated by the waxy 'petal.' Of course, now I know the red part of the flower below is a spadix, or a modified bract. The business side of the flower is really taking place on the whitish conical structure, called a spathe.

On this spathe, hundreds of miniature flowers are arranged, for pollinators as varied as hummingbirds and flies.

The leaf shape may look familiar -- it's typical for plants in the Araceae or Arum family which includes the popular annual Caladium.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ficus benjamina

Most people in Manhattan would recognize Ficus benjamina or Benjamin ficus (also called weeping ficus) as this specimen:

Symbolizing the better intentions of a would-be plants person, the Benjamin ficus is abandoned to the elements, left to survive or perish on its own. Normally they perish, unlike the mythic baby NYC alligators that are flushed down toilets when they become too big to feed.

Benjamin ficus is one of those paradoxical plants that can be produced en masse quite quickly and cheap, but sadly as soon as it leaves a greenhouse and takes up residency in a dry, drafty apartment, it gives up the ghost. They are temperamental, known to drop all their leaves after a modest change in sun orientation. Move the Benjamin ficus from a west facing window to a north one and gamble with its survival.

All of which makes these specimens, which grew like weeds in Puerto Rico, all the more amazing.

Ficus is a genus with over 850 species. They include the common fig, Ficus carica, most known for it's fruit and a key plant in any Mediterranean garden. They also include the Indian banyan tree and the rubber tree.

A telltale identifier for species of Ficus can be found when you break a leaf at the stem -- a milky, sticky substance will drip out. That is latex and it is harvested for rubber from Ficus elastica (below).

Figs also typically have the aerial roots you see in these photos, designed to pull moisture out of the humid tropical rain forest air. This opportunistic growth actually provides Benjamin ficus with the status of hemi-epiphyte. That means this plant spends half its life (roughly) rooted in soil and half its life living entirely off the aerial roots. True epiphytes (like many orchids, or Spanish moss) survive without ever setting roots on solid ground.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Puerto Rico -- Foxtail Palm

I was lucky enough to spend the snowstorm last week on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Rico and ambling through the streets of Old San Juan. I know some people prefer the winter, but I think they're just crazy.

Anyway, I'll be posting some of the plants I encountered there in the upcoming week.

I've only worked on a few tropical landscape design jobs, and I haven't lived in the tropics since a four year stint in Malaysia from '81-85. But it's funny the way you can pull up these vague hints of memories and make them take a fuller shape...

It didn't take long before I realized I recognized this tree as the foxtail palm, Wodyetia bifurcata:

Of course, the common name foxtail palm is about as apt as a common name can be. The fronds, which are double-ranked (thus the species name) are fairly unique amongst palms.

As unique looking as this palm is, it was only first discovered by botanists in 1983, in Australia. (It would seem that Australia is the best place for undiscovered plants). Though incredibly tough and easy to grow, the plant is now endangered in its native habitat

The name Wodyetia is derivative of the name Wodyeti, who was an Australian Aboriginal bushman -- the last male in the Melville Range Aborigines -- who had a reknowned knowledge of this tree.