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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Araceae

Arisaema species are relatives of our native British wild arum or cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum), but are somewhat more elegant, with their curved, candy-striped spathe. They thrive in semi-shaded woodland conditions but I've often found that it's very easy to forget where you planted them and accidentally dig them up, so in recent years I've taken to planting them in pots, where their corms slowly increase by producing offsets. This species comes from North America, so should be very hardy - and I'm hoping that it will have survived the current unusually cold winter. 

If you take a look here you can see some of the other species that are in cultivation - and also see why they are considered to be highly collectable plants. Unlike many aroids they don't have a strong smell - just a rather elegant floral architecture.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Voodoo Lily Dracunculus vulgaris

Once smelled, never forgotten: the voodoo lily Dracunculus vulgaris has one of the most eye-wateringly awful aromas of any plant. It grows wild on stony hillsides in Greece and Crete, where the stench of its flowers - reminiscent of a decaying sheep carcass, drifts long distances and attracts fly pollinators. It belongs to a group of plants that are known as sapromyophilous flowers, which means that their flowers emit the scent of decay and attract flies. It sprouts from a corm and I've grown it twice. On the first occasion I left it on the living room windowsill for a couple of days while we went away for the weekend and it took us two weeks to get the pong out of the curtains and carpets. On the second occasion, a couple of years ago, I grew the specimen in the photo and planted it outside in the garden just as it was about to open its rather spooky inflorescence. I suspect that the neighbours much have wondered whether something had gone catastrophically amiss with their drains. It's one of those botanical curiosities that you just have to grow once - or if you are a real masochist twice - but that'll do. If you wanted to be really mean and had a tendency towards botanical practical jokes you could send an unlabelled corm to an acquiantance with instructions to grow it indoors. They'll love you for it. There's also another plant marketed under the name voodoo lily, Sauromatum venosum, which has a similar stench but has purple spots on the hood-like spathe and a much longer tongue-like spadix.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Skunk Cabbage Lysichiton americanus

As spring approaches, what plants spring to mind? Snowdrops? Primroses? Daffodils? If you lived in the Pacific Northwest of America your list might also include the imposing skunk cabbage Lysichiton americanus

Another skunk cabbage species, Symplocarpus foetidus, is a  thermogenic plant, emitting enough heat from that central club-shaped spadix to melt surrounding snow , although L.americanus isn't thermogenic.  If you take a look at you can see a thermal image of another aroid, Philodendron flower, a relative of skunk cabbage, showing how the central spadix generates heat. 

L. americanus has a slightly unpleasant smell that attracts beetle pollinators in its native habitat. This certainly works here in England too, half a world away from home - the skunk cabbage in my bog garden attracts pollinators , although here its flies rather than beetles that are attracted to its aroma. 

The flower buds on the plant in my garden are just beginning to elongate and will be fully open in two or three weeks. After they wither they're replaced by very large waxy green leaves which were once used as the botanical equivalent of waxed wrapping paper. The climate in the UK suits this plant well and I know of one local woodland close to the River Wear where a colony has been thriving in a swampy hollow between the trees for almost two decades - almost certainly a garden throw-out that has been swept down river and established itself in the wild.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Safflower Carthamnus tinctorius

Safflower Carthamnus tinctorius is a very ancient crop plant, cultivated at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The orange florets have been found sown into garlands of papyrus and cloth wrapped around the necks of mummies (including that of Tutankahmun) dated as early as 1600BC. Later the Egyptians learned to extract the dye from red- and orange-flowered varieties and used it to dye cloth, and together with indigo it remained an important dye up until the development of modern synthetic substitutes. The valuable edible oil content of safflower seed was probably discovered by the Romans. The crop has been cultivated for its oil in India for hundreds of years and by the end of the 19th. century it began to be grown elsewhere - including the United States - as a source of oil. A field crop of safflower in full bloom must be quite a sight. It develops deep roots quickly, so grows well on the falling water table in summer in Mediterranean climates and is relatively drought-tolerant. It produces two kinds of oil - polyunsaturates for soft margerines and salad oils and mono-unsaturates used for frying. More recently, ornamental varieties have been bred, not least because the florets retain their colour well when the flowers are dried - something that the ancient Egyptians discovered. The plant in the picture arrived in wild bird seed that I put out for birds in winter, and came up in the garden as a self-sown seedling.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris

This photo shows rather nicely why Aquilegia species are commonly known as columbines. The name columbine comes from columba, the Latin word for dove, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see a circle of five elegant, long-necked doves here, heads bowed, wings outstretched. Aquilegia vulgaris has been grown in gardens since the 13th. century, when it first appears in illuminated manuscripts, and most Aquilegia species are easy to cultivate. Columbines are plants that you usually only need to introduce into a garden once because they set large numbers of seed that germinate freely, with self-sown seedlings appearing all over the garden. There are at least seventy species of Aquilegia, including Britain’s native Aquilegia vulgaris, and when grown together most can form hybrids, producing a bewildering range of horticultural hybrid varieties of uncertain parentage that go under the general name of Aquilegia x hybrida. Long-spurred hybrids are derived from crosses with A. caerulea , introduced into British gardens from the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s, and hybrids with A. chrysantha from Arizona have widened the range of colours available. If you want to grow the true species, most of which are short-lived perennials, you need to take positive steps to prevent cross pollination, otherwise you end up with a garden full of hybrid seedlings.