Friday, May 29, 2009


First of all (since it's Friday), let me pat myself on the back, please? I wanted to google the botanical name for chives to make sure I had the correct spelling, suspecting that there was no way I'd get it right on the first try. But it turns out that I still remember the correct spelling for Allium schoenoprasum. Who knew?

In my magic-wand world, some of you regular readers (of which there are many, many -- *countless* -- droves of you) are reading this and thinking, Allium? Didn't she post on an Allium genus recently? (Hey, I can dream.) And in fact, I did post on this genus a few weeks back, showcasing the lovely Allium giganteum specimens in the New York Botanical Garden.

Allium schoenoprasum is clearly a smaller plant than the giant onion, actually A. schoenoprasum flowers are the smallest of this genus. And unusually, the species we see planted for ornamental purposes is no different than the one you grow with culinary goals in mind.

In addition to being a lovely ornamental flower, and a tasty herb for cooking (chives belong to the select group of plants that the French categorize as 'fines herbes'), chives dry beautifully and have some ability to repel unwanted insects in a garden.

While the word chive itself is derivative of the Latin word for onion, cepa, schoenoprasum has Greek origins. Schoinos means 'rush' (the plant, not the verb) in Greek and refers to the chives' grassy habit -- it looks like a rush. Prasum means 'leek'. Thus the species name can be translated as 'rush-like leek.'

As I mentioned in the previous Allium post, these plants share their genus with garlic (Allium sativum).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lupinus perennis

More perennials from the 91st Street Garden. Today, we have Lupinus perennis, or lupine.
Lupines are easy to identify in a garden, due to the large, palmately compound leaves and the tall spikes of pea-like flowers. Indeed the flower structure is a clue as to which family this plant belongs: Fabaceae, or the pea, or legume family.

Like most plants in the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family, Lupinus can fix its own nitrogen. Most of the nitrogen in the environment is released into the atmosphere as a gas when organic matter dies and decays. Plants generally need to have this nitrogen 'pulled' out of the atmosphere in order to benefit from the element. Legumes are unusual in that they have bacteria on the roots that form nodes. These nodes are able to harvest nitrogen from the air.

(An aside: this is why clover and alfalfa, other legumes, are used in crop rotations. Those nitrogen-rich plants can provide extra fertilizer in the soil when they are tilled over.)

The plants ability to fix nitrogen also accounts for its botanical name. Lupinus is derivative of the word for wolf. The belief was that this plant was stealing nitrogen from the soil, like a hungry, greedy wolf.

The flower itself, like other pea family plants, has two upper 'standards' and two lateral 'wings.' The lower petals form together to make a 'keel.' The overall effect is that the plant looks much like a bonnet, which accounts for another common name for Lupinus: bluebonnet.

This red cultivar above is from the New York Botanical Garden.

Lupines have seeds that are highly poisonous. In fact, there has been a historical problem with cowboys and ranchers seeing their livestock die in massive numbers when the unknowing cows and horses grazed on the native lupines so prevalent in the west.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A quick post today of another perennial at the 91st Street Garden.

The photo above is of Stoke's Aster, or Stokesia laevis. This is a perennial native to the Southern US, where it can remain evergreen all year round. Here, the foliage is likely to die back.

This perennial has vibrantly pink flowers, and like the regular aster, the flower consists of disk and ray florettes.

Stokesia is named after Jonathan Stokes, a Scottish botanist and contemporary of Linnaeus.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


From the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park, we have a couple lovely specimens of Clematis.

This one below is a cultivar, though I'm not certain which one. It could be 'Forever' or 'Pink Fantasy', though I doubt it's 'Pink Champagne.' I'm pretty terrible at keeping up with cultivars, especially of herbaceous plants.

Actually, that preceding statement requires correction; technically Clematis is a liana. Lianas, aside from being ubiquitous in crossword puzzles, are upward growing vines with woody bases. The word Clematis itself is Greek for vine or vinelike. This said, a majority of the plant dies back each winter.

These two specimens are most likely Clematis x. jackmanii, a very, very popular hybrid in the nursery trade. I imagine most people think of this plant when they hear the word Clematis, though there are over 250 species in the genus, many of which have smaller, more diminutive flowers.

I'm guilty of pronouncing the genus wrong, over and over again. The correct pronunciation is KLEM-uh-tiss, but I always end up saying cluh-MAT-iss. To me, the former pronunciation sounds a tiny bit like a skin condition one would wish to avoid. Alas.

During a brief google search for some extra information on Clematis, I came across this site. Then I found this site and then this one. It quickly became clear that, while I think Clematis plants are just great, I am in no way capable of matching the enthusiasm others have for thsi genus. They all deserve a shout-out.

Friday, May 22, 2009

91st Street Garden, redux

Last July, I speculated that the garden at 91st Street in Riverside Park would look terrific in May. This week I took a bike ride up that way to find out.

While it may not have been *flooded* with spring color, the garden was quite lovely and had many species in bloom.

Next week I'll highlight a few of the perennials there. In the meantime, I'll show a few plants that I've already covered in blog posts past. First up, Aquilegia species and hybrids:

This one below is a native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis:

A great looking bearded iris (Iris germanica):

And finally, a white ('Alba') hybrid of bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis):

I'll cover the Clematis to the right of the bleeding heart next week. Enjoy the Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yet Another Book

As Memorial Day weekend is coming up, this seemed to make an apropos book recommendation:

Kelly Klein's Pools

We're ordering it at my office right now as, over the years, we've heard nothing but good things about it. There are seemingly limitless choices in books on pool design, but the photos in this are luscious and some of the properties that are showcased are hard to find in other publications.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Since I don't have a key (grumble, grumble) to Gramercy Park, these are the best photos I could take of the lovely fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) which is currently in bloom.

...Don't get me started on the elitism of this park.

Anyhoo, Chionanthus is a great little flowering tree that, while rarely seen around New York City, I used to see all the time in Virginia. When it blooms there, it coincides with some of the first really hot days that serve as a prelude to summer. Here in New York that would certainly not be the case, as we're having such a chilly spring.

Chionanthus literally means snow-flower; chion is Greek for snow and as we've covered before, anthus means flower.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I was so pleased to see tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) planted at the new Cooper Square Hotel building on 3rd Avenue at 6th Street.

Tuliptrees are rare in Manhattan. To be honest, I've only encountered them in Central Park, where there is a lovely stand near Turtle Pond. In the Bronx, there's a community of tuliptrees near the Bronx Zoo's World of Birds building.

In some ways, the rarity of tuliptrees makes sense. They are narrow-canopied trees and wouldn't provide a wealth of shade on a street. And while the tulip-shaped, salmon-colored flowers (which bloom in summer) are lovely, they can also become a litter problem.

Alternatively, this narrow shape lends itself very well for the Cooper Union site, where you have a small courtyard set next to tall buildings.

And, like the World of Birds building, the staircase next to the tree provides people the opportunity to get close to the canopy and appreciate the flowers when the tree is in bloom, as you can barely make them out from the ground below.

Personally, I think Liriodendron is a slam-dunk to identify. The fastigiate form and the stripey bark are reliable identifiers, as is the mature habit. The habit always reminds me of a person who has their shoulders raised, sort of like the way you would look if you were saying, 'Well, what do you expect me to do??'

...That may be a stretch. I know.

Finally, the most obvious of identifying characteristics is the leaves. The broad leaves have four lobes which end in rounded points. The margins are entire.

To me, the leaf looks just like Hello Kitty.

It does, right?

Once, last summer, I described the leaves as Hello Kitty-shaped to my mother. On the following Valentine's Day, I received a Valentine from her with Hello Kitty on it. Written right next to Kitty's face, my mother had written "Tuliptree!"

Friday, May 15, 2009

Book Review

If you're a regular reader, you may notice that I'm trying to get a bit more elaborate with my tags for posts. I've added 'medicinal plants' and 'edible plants' and a bit on etymology, which is clearly a favorite of mine.

Lately though, I've also discussed plant form in greater detail. Yesterday's post mentioned nectar spurs and we've covered bracts more than once.

You can get a fair amount of information online about plant morphology, but I have recently fallen in love with this book, Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology. It's an accessible read and, at the same time, it's an incredible resource for detailed, scientific information. If you have even a passing interest in morphology, I'd definitely recommend it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Columbine, or Aquilegia, is in bloom right now. The white one below (most likely a cultivar of A. hybrida) is growing just near the courts at Tompkins Square Park.

Many columbines are native to the Rockies and other mountainous areas in the west. They grow best at high altitudes, but are very popular perennials elsewhere. They self-seed readily but are not invasive. A spring ephemeral, the foliage will die back in late June, when the weather gets quite hot.

I suspect part of the reason the plant is so popular in the nursery trade is due to the very showy, very unique flower structure. The petals form into nectar spurs. That alone may be hint enough that one of the pollinators of this plant is a moth -- moths have long proboscises to access the nectar. Native Americans would often use the flowers as an edible garnish, but other parts of the plant are highly toxic.

Aquilegia -- of which there are over sixty species -- is in the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, famliy, and is a relative of the also-toxic Aconitum.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Below is a shot of foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea, at the NYBG.

Foxglove's an amazing, regal spring biennial. Biennials, unlike the more common perennials and annuals, need two seasons to complete its life cycle (another popular biennial is the common pansy).

If the name Digitalis sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the heart drug digitalis. Digitalis contains cardiac glycoside digitoxin, which is used to treat congestive heart failure -- it essentially makes the heart beat stronger and faster. However, if you have a bad ticker, don't go gnawing on the plant as-is. Foxglove is highly toxic when taken in anything other than the smallest of quantities, or in its basic form.

Digitalis obviously refers to one's digits, presumably because the individual blossoms would fit over one's finger easily enough. This also accounts for the less-common name, witch's bells, as witches wore these blossoms as little finger-gloves (I suspect the poisonous nature of this plant could have something to do with witches using it, too). Finally, it's not a long shot to guess that the common name foxglove refers to the blossoms easily fitting over a fox's paws as well.

Foxglove used to belong in the Scrophulariaceae (snapdragon or figwort) family, but has recently been moved to the Plantaginaceae (plantain) family. Most people with a lawn probably shudder at the word plantain, as Plantago a tenacious lawn weed. Similarly, in areas out west, foxglove is an invasive wildflower.

An aside: The plantain family does not include the tropical banana-like plantain, Musa. Musa, incidentally, is also the genus name for mouse. The fact that these plants share the common name plantain is a great example of how common names can get pretty confusing, pretty fast.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Giant Onion

Giant onion, or Allium giganteum, in the New York Botanical Garden:

If you're a regular reader, you don't need to be told that the large purple globe is actually a sum of many smaller flowers, all of which radiate from the same spot on the top of the stem.

Giant onion, as you can guess, is a bulb and it doesn't look much different from the onion bulbs you'd buy at a grocery store.

I can't get enough of this funky perennial en masse, along this path. It provides such a great contrast to the verdant, spring green of the lawn.

Here it is again, playfully popping out of a boxwood parterre:

Just. love. it. So fun.

Allium is the Latin name for garlic, and indeed, giant onion shares its genus with regular garlic, which is Allium sativum.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fritillaria imperialis

Crown imperials (or Fritillaria imperialis) are a rare sight in Manhattan. This one was growing in Battery Park, blooming this week.

Fritillaries are such great, weird plants. They're bulbs, and I love that they have these pineapple-like crowns on top of the blossoms. Native to Turkey and the near east, these bulbs have been cultivated longer than most other flowers.

This species is Fritillaria imperialis, but the genus name (latin for 'dice box') refers to Fritillaria meleagris, or the checkered fritillary.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Fothergilla species are in bloom right now, and my guess is that the ones below, blooming in Teardrop Park, are Fothergilla x gardenii, as that's the smaller, dwarf species.

Any type of Fothergilla is pretty cool though, due to the unusual flowers. The white spikes are the stamens and there are no petals on the flowers whatsoever.

Fothergilla is native to the southeast United States, is relatively deer resistant and has very few diseases. I have also seen it in Union Square and Tompkins Square Parks, so that demonstrates the plant's fortitude.

It is in the Hamamelidaceae family, and is thus cousins with witch hazel. It would be easy to guess this as the leaves on Fothergilla have that same distinctive spatula-shape, only smaller.