Friday, June 26, 2009

Carpinus caroliniana

Well, I'd love to say that I went for a walk in Central Park yesterday, during one of are extremely rare sunny June days. And that while I was on this walk, I took this photo of Carpinus caroliniana, or American hornbeam.

But I'd be lying. 'Cause the only really nice day was on a Thursday, and I, well I have a job.

This was actually shot last summer, around this time of year. It is in Central Park, next to the loop road as it circles back north from Central Park South, rising in grade before you see Wollman Rink on your right.

I do love this tree, though. Usually multistemmed, it has a broad elegant habit and okay(ish) fall color. Of course the bark is the real attraction. Smooth and gray, it has a sinewy look, which accounts for its other common name, musclewood (or ironwood).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Further down the block from the curious fruiting pear, there's a trio of raised planters housing a struggling perennial garden. The planters spend the summer under the dense shade of large Sophoras so few perennials thrive there.

However, hosta plants do best in the shade and one guesses that whomever takes care of this garden (maybe they're the same person who planted the pear?), has figured this out -- there are certainly a fair amount of cultivars planted there.

Most hostas are hybrids or cultivars of Hosta plantiginea, H. ventricosa or H. montana. Though the flowers, which are in bloom now, are lovely (and some are fragrant), hostas are sought after for their lush foliage, which varies widely in size, shape and color.

For example, the hosta above looks like 'Blue Angel' (or 'Blue Umbrella' or 'Blue Mammoth' or 'Blue Cadet' or 'Blue Jay'...I could go on), and is clearly cultivated for its color and large leaves. Alternatively, the hosta below is cultivated for its teeny-tiny size and chartreuse hue.

Here's another one, with a clear, jade-green leaf and white flowers.

And another, cultivated for its variegation (most likely this is 'Patriot').

As you can see, the variegated specimen is still leafing out and not nearly as full as the other plants. That can be due to an array of mitigating circumstances (bad soil, cigarette butts, who knows?) but variegated plants also grow more slowly because they have less chlorophyll. Chlorophyll, as you may recall from high school biology, basically runs the show in a plant leaf - on a cellular level. It's key to the process of photosynthesis, the process that produces sugars so that the plant can live and grow. Chlorophyll is also what makes a plant leaf green. So, on the white part of the leaves, there's no (or diminished amounts of) chlorophyll, thus less opportunity for photosynthesis, thus less robust growth.

Hostas are native to Japan and are named for a 19th Century Austrian botanist, Nicolaus Thomas Host. I've read that the young leaves are quite tasty and sold as greens in Japanese grocery stores. I know that deer certainly love them and that slugs will make quick work of a hosta leaf, too.

Fruiting Pear

Most of the pear trees I encounter in New York are Bradford Pears. And most of you know how I feel about the dreaded Bradford Pear. And even then, I've had to complain once or twice more. But I was actually surprised and even delighted to see this species of pear, Pyrus communis or fruiting pear, growing on East 5th Street.

I would love to know why a fruiting tree is growing here. Who planted it, and why? I was also surprised that it was even in fruit. Some fruiting trees, like cherries, cannot self-pollinate and I falsely assumed this was the case with Pyrus communis, but a quick google search attested that this plant can bear fruit individually. (Note: the need for a pollinator in orchard trees is not the same as a plant being monoecious or dioecious. Cherries, for example, do have male and female flowers on the same specimen, as opposed to hollies, which have male plants and female plants. Cherries just can't produce viable fruit without crossing with another cherry.)

The ability of the pear to self-pollinate is one of the reasons this plant makes a great orchard tree for the dilettante farmer. The plant is not nearly as high-maintenance as an apple, peach or plum. Fruiting pears thrive without much attention and don't get the blights, rusts and mildews that may attack their other relatives in the Rosaceae family.

And finally, below, a clue:

But who, or what, is Reine Valoir? A google search came up empty on anything specific to this tree or block. Reine is 'Queen' in French of course, and valoir is a verb that means 'to be worth.' So perhaps, this in fond memory of a Worthy Queen... Elizabeth? Victoria? Or maybe someone who worked at the nearby Lucky Cheng's?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Linden Flowers

Most of us New Yorkers are beginning to lose our senses of humor about the weather we've been having. Today's June 19 and I'm pretty sure it's rained 16 days this month. Or at least, it feels like we've had rain 16 days this month. I am not at all a fan of cool weather, nor rain. I prefer my Junes warm and sunny, even a bit hot. But yesterday, in my own way, I succumbed to the climate -- I gave up my own personal stance of not acknowledging the rain -- and took some photos of Tilia tomentosa in the deluge.

Naturally very few of these turned out, and while I intensely snapped photos of the blossoms, ignoring the rain, I got a few askance looks from passersby, briefly noting and cataloguing me as another Eccentric New Yorker.

No matter. They're pretty flowers aren't they? The flower structure you're looking at is called a cyme. Cymes are stems from which several small flowers branch. You can also see that the stamens are the showiest part of the flower. The large green tongue above the cymes is a bract.

This is my third post on Tilia and I've yet to really get into the etymology of the name. But, I will save that for a rainy day (as, um, it's not raining right now, right at this second).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rhododendron maximum

Here's a classic shrub, Rhododendron maximum var. 'Roseum' growing in the Liz Christy Garden.

Rhododendron is an amazing genus, with over 900 species and countless hybrids. One reason there are so many cultivars is because this plant can cross pollinate within the genus. You see, most plants can only create seeds, or offspring, with another individual of its species. But, Rhododendron maximum, for example, could 'mate' very easily with Rhododendron catawbiense to make a new hybrid.

Despite the fact that this plant is so damn fertile, it can be really tough to grow. It's part of the lovely Ericaceae family, which includes Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel), Oxydendron arboreum (sourwood), as well as Erica and Vaccinium species (heathers and blueberries, respectively). If you know plants, you may note a trend: all of those plants prefer or even, insist upon, great drainage and acidic soil. ...Ericaceous plants are beautiful, but like so many beautiful things, they are high, high maintenance.

-dendron, as you may guess, means 'tree.' Rhodo- means 'rose.' The genus name is thus essentially 'rosetree' referring to the large lustrous flowers. Though it always strikes me as odd since the flowers look so much more like a trumpet lily than a rose.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I've been remiss about taking photos lately. And I hate posting pictures of plants that are not currently in bloom. So, I'm pulling (a non-blooming) one from the archives.

Below are shots of Sempervivum tectorum, from the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

I'm fairly sure the plants on the lower left hand corner are Sempervivum tectorum, or common houseleek. There are about 40 species of Sempervivum and while I am sure the larger plant on the right belongs to the genus, I can't attest to the species name.

That said, there are many cultivars of S. tectorum and the plant also qualifies as one of the most frost-tolerant succulents available, so the larger-leaved specimen could be another hybrid.

It's certainly a beauty:

It's pretty obvious what the Latin roots are for the genus name; semper means 'always' and vivum means 'living.' And indeed all winter long this succulent maintains its leaves. But it thrives in hot, Mediterranean climates since the spongy leaves can retain water for weeks.

The common name 'hens and chicks' is also applied to this plant as the main rosette will eventually bear smaller offshoots of baby, or 'chick,' plants. The name for the most popular species, tectorum, is derivative from the Latin word for roof, tecti-, as the plant was planted on some of the oldest of green roofs, for the questionable purpose of deterring lightning strikes.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thank you, Rugby, North Dakota

It's probably no surprise that I track my readership. I use google analytics, which has all kinds of great charts and even better, a map of the world so I can see if I have conquered Europe or South America (my plans of world domination end there; I don't think this blog translates well in Asia or Africa). Serbia and Belarus continue to elude me, and don't even get me started on French Guyana and Suriname. But, I am happy to report that on April 27, 2009, longtime holdout North Dakota finally decided to check this site out. So thanks to you, whoever (whomever?) you are. All I know is you are one of Rugby, North Dakota's 2939 citizens. Please come back sometime and tell me what you think. Oh, and tell your friends, especially if they live in Serbia, Belarus, Suriname or French Guyana.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Central Park's Lilac Walk

It always bothered me that I had such dreary photos of Japanese Lilac Tree posted on this blog. It's a lovely tree, but the photos I took at Sarah Roosevelt Park were, well honestly, a bit dismal.

So, when I was in the Sheep Meadow last Sunday - on what may very well be our *only* sunny day in June - and I saw these beautiful, sparkling specimens, I decided to do another post on Syringa reticulata and the Lilac Walk in Central Park. In fact, it was only when I looked up the link to my previous post on this species did I realize that I wrote it exactly a year ago.

The path you see above is the Lilac Walk in Central Park. As the name suggests, the path is planted with various species of lilacs, including Syringa vulgaris, S. reticulata and S. patula. From April until June this little part of Central Park has something in bloom.

The Lilac Walk is only 39 years old -- it was created in 1970 by philanthropist Nell Singer, who passed away in 2006. The path itself leads to a (currently defunct) concession stand that was once called Mineral Springs. The site was originally conceived as a concession (and will be once again -- the Central Park Conservancy has an outstanding RFP for a Shake Shack type venue) in the late 19th Century. It was called Mineral Springs because, just as now, people were very into fresh 'high end' waters and would-be reformers thought touting the benefits of spring water would lure people away from the evils of alcohol!

Personally, it looks like a great spot for a glass of white wine.

Monday, June 8, 2009

With the beach in mind...

I've been asked by students and friends what books are good for inspiration on beachside gardening.

Plants that thrive on the sea are hard to come by. For one thing, you have high winds and a lot of salt in the air. Additionally, since most people are at the beach in the summer, you want to plant something that blooms around that time.

Here are a couple books that I think are good sources for beachside landscape design:

I've never worked at a residential office that practices in the Hamptons and doesn't have Seaside Gardening on the bookshelves. It's a pretty accessible and easy-to-use resource.

If you are working on gardens further south, say in Florida, this Gardens by the Sea: Creating a Tropical Paradise is an economical choice.

And finally, you have good old Taylors: Taylor's Guide to Seashore Gardening: From the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Best Plants to Grow on Every Coast (Taylor's Gardening Guides).

Enjoy the warmer summer weather (if it finally stays here with us!).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Camassia leichtlinii

Here's a wonderful bulb, growing in the Liz Christy Garden: Camassia leichtlinii, or great camas.

Camas, also called quamash, is native to western north America and was historically used as a food source by Native Americans -- the bulb tastes (allegedely -- I've never eaten it) like sweet potato. In fact, the genus is responsible for the survival of Lewis & Clark during their westbound expedition (as noted in the book I've mentioned before -- Common to this Country).

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but when a species name has an -ii at the end, it's usually a clue that the plant is named after someone (for example, thunbergii is named after Thunberg, davidii is named after David, etc.). In this case, the species is named after Max Leichtlin, a 19th century German horticulturalist and botanist.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lonicera japonica

Coming back from the Astoria Beer Garden (the old one, not the new one), I encountered this fragrant honeysuckle thriving on an iron fence.

I have a soft spot for this plant, Lonicera japonica, primarily because I remember it from when I was a kid and, for a few years, was living on the Jersey shore. Our house abutted a salt marsh and was in a yet-t0-be-totally-developed area. We had an empty lot between our house and the neighbors' and a large honeysuckle had taken up residence there, growing on top of itself in massive heaps.

I'm not sure who told me, but I knew that you could pull out the stigma and, if your hand was steady enough, taste the droplet of nectar that came with it. It's incredibly, dizzyingly sweet. Of course the flowers, which slowly change from white to gold, have a wonderfully heady fragrance, too.

And yes: this plant is indeed quite invasive. You certainly would not want to plant it in an area where it can invade woodlands (or empty lots for that matter). But I don't think it's too sinful to enjoy a nostalgic moment in Astoria, when this particular specimen is unlikely to cause any larger environmental damage.


Then again, maybe not. After a bit more reading on, I read that the original Lonicera japonica was brought to the North American continent via Queens. Oops.

Lonicera is named for a 16th century botanist, Adam Lonitzer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Armeria maritima

I was in the Liz Christy Garden last week, trying to come up with a new route for my summer students, when I saw a sweet little stand of sea thrift, or Armeria maritima, growing at my feet. Unfortunately the light was fading so I only have a few fairly uncreative shots.

As both the common and scientific names would imply, sea thrift thrives in sandy, dry or even rocky conditions much like those you'd find near the beach.

An interesting (to me, at least) story about sea thrift: In 1937 the silver three-pence coins were becoming too small to feel substantial in the hands of their owners so a more substantial coin made primarily of brass, was printed. On the reverse side, a three-stemmed thrift appeared. As brass is largely composed of copper, the appearance of Armeria makes sense, as this plant can grow with a large amount of copper in the soil. It's likely this plant served as an indicator plant, telling miners where to dig.

Armeria is the Latin word for Dianthus (Dianthus itself is Greek), indicating that sea thrift looks a bit like a pink, or Dianthus.