Thursday, February 11, 2010

Plumbago auriculata

While we New Yorkers can rest a little more easily now that the snowstorm has passed (and we really weren't hit too badly at all; apologies to those of you snowed in further south!), there's still scant plant material to observe. So...I'm posting today about a plant in our office, Plumbago auriculata.

Plumbago is native to south Africa but is a common site in California and other Mediterranean climates. It's a vigorous grower and blooms as long as it has full sun and warm temperatures. Ours here, overlooking Crosby Street, would never live outside but the southern exposure has kept it blooming since December.

On a hunch, I checked to see if plumbago was related to phlox or vinca, since the flowers look so similar. No such luck; all three plants belong to different families (Plumbaginaceae, Apocynaceae and Polemoniaceae, respectively).

See below the fibers that protrude from the calyx? Those sticky fibers (commonly referred to as glandular hairs, though technically they are too substantial to be simply hairs) will remain at the base of the flower (look to the far right) and when a seed is ready for germination, they may attach to any animal that happens to pass by the plant. To be sure, I've seen more than a few plumbago seed capsules stuck in my boss's hair after she's watered this plant. These hairs also secrete a mucilage that can trap and kill insects.

The name plumbago is derivative from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. That's because it's believed this plant can cure lead poisoning. The plant is believed to also be a remedy for warts, broken bones and wounds. Indeed, hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is commonly called leadwort.