Contents tagged with plants
Created: 4/25/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The world-famous PNNMPFPGS (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale) is in full swing! Plants are selling like hotcakes in the magical world of cyberspace at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale. You’re understandably excited, and probably opening a new browser tab as we speak. But don’t get distressed if you notice some ‘sold out’ messages. There’ll still be plenty of plants available for purchase IRL on May 8th here at the museum.
To help you keep that excitement percolating until sale day, let me drop some details about five of the pollinator favorites we will be offering.
Lesser Calamint (Calamintha nepeta)
Not to be confused with catmint (Nepeta spp.) Or catnip (Nepeta cataria.) Or Catwoman (Julie Newmar.) Calamint is more well-behaved than any of those, though it may spread a bit by seed. Growing only a foot or two tall, it produces a seemingly endless supply of small, white flowers on neat panicles from June to September. The foliage stays tidy and offers a pleasant, minty aroma. Spent flower heads look pretty cool in the winter, so you won’t want to cut them back until spring. Best of all, though, bees of many kinds go absolutely bugnuts (get it?) over calamint. A calamint without bees would be like…indoors, I guess? I don’t know how else that would be possible.
Alyssum is a delicate, precious plant – so sweet and dainty, with wiry little leaves and tiny, honey-scented flowers. Why, just look at it! One can hardly believe such a thing exists on the same planet as botflies, Ebola, and trial lawyers. But then, alyssum doesn’t just exist. It thrives. And frankly, it doesn’t appreciate your twee condescension. It blooms continuously throughout the spring (into summer if it’s not too hot) and again in fall if you chop it back a bit during the dog days. And those pleasant little flowers are potent pollinator attractors, bringing in all sorts of small bees and nectar-loving flies.
‘October Skies ‘ Aromatic Aster
Three things I love about this plant:
- Rabbits hate it.
- Butterflies love it.
- It stays low, neat, and dense, and unlike some other asters, never needs staking.
One thing I hate – that some botanist in search of something to do decided to change the genus name from the simple, evocative, and universally understood “aster” to the pedantic and thoroughly unspellable “symphyotrichum.”
This plant has a reputation, and not in a good way. People say it’s picky. Short-lived. Wants to be coddled with extra watering. Bupkis! With a little afternoon shade, it needs no more watering than your average perennial. Short-lived? No more so than coreopsis or columbine, and nobody complains about them. Seriously, give it a try – that striking, pure red color is a rare treat in the perennial garden. And hummingbirds love it!
I know what you’re thinking: either I’ve gone off my rocker or I have no idea what I’m talking about. Because everybody knows impatiens don’t attract pollinators. Before you write an angry, embarrassingly misguided letter to your congressman, hear me out. Let’s face it: butterflies like sunshine. They don’t spend much time in the shade, and few shade plants have formed mutually beneficial relationships with them. But people do like shade. And in a big city with lots of big, spiky buildings like Chicago, shade is all many of you have in your yards and on your patios. So I chose impatiens for the garden sale, as they will bloom quite reliably in shade. Are you likely to see a bunch of butterflies busily nectaring on impatiens? No. But they are the ONLY full-shade annual I am aware of that can and does feed the occasional wandering butterfly. So step aside, and let sunlight-impaired butterfly gardeners take a shot. (A long shot, admittedly.)
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.
Created: 4/12/2016 Updated: 7/7/2016
Do you realize what is happening RIGHT NOW at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale? Well, if you were gifted with even the vaguest ability to make discernments from contextual clues, I don’t need to tell you. But for the rest of you (bless your hearts), let me spell it out. We are having a Garden Sale! The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale (or PNNMPFPGS, for the simplicity’s sake) has begun, with pre-sale online ordering (at a discount!) Why should you be excited about the PNNMPFPGS? Because of the PFP part, naturally!
PFP (Plants for Pollinators) is a thing people are into these days, and for good reason. Planting a garden that can attract and feed pollinating species of insects and birds is like putting ice cream on a brownie. Sure, brownies are great, but when you add ice cream, you get a treat truly worthy of the inevitable, ensuing weight gain. Growing a garden is also great. But a garden that’s alive with bugs and birds – now that’s a real, brownie-and-ice-cream level experience!
Besides, pollinators do so much for us (over thirty percent of our food crop production relies on them) and we don’t always treat them well in return. Habitat loss and improper pesticide use have negatively impacted many populations of pollinators. Providing them with extra food in the form of beautiful garden flowers can really make a difference!
So check out the pre-sale, but if you’re the type that prefers to buy in person, come down to the museum on May 8th from 10am-4pm to pick out your plants. We’ll have everything you need: annuals, perennials, and knowledgeable horticulturists (who are handsome but in an approachable kind of way) to answer your questions. As if all this wasn’t enough, watch this space for more info on pollinator gardening as the season progresses.
Here’s just a small sampling of the plants we are offering:
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ – Dwarf Joe Pye Weed
Not much is better at drawing in butterflies than Joe Pye Weed. But your typical version of this plant gets really tall and can require staking. Not this “dwarfish” variety. It still tops out at a rather impressive 3’-4’, but it stays manageable and doesn’t flop as much as other varieties.
Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ – Claire Grace Wild Bergamot
Bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds find this long-blooming native irresistible. This variety is less prone to foliar diseases than your standard, run-of-the-mill Wild Bergamot.
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ – ‘October Skies Aromatic Aster
Asters provide nectar late into the fall, which is crucial for bees as they store up honey for the winter. Monarchs also appreciate snacking on Asters as they migrate southward.
Good stuff, right? And that was just a taste! But maybe you’re new to gardening, and feeling a little intimidated. Take a deep breath. If you need some basic know-how, look no further than your taxpayer-funded, University of Illinois’ Cooperative Extension Service. They’ve got knowledge galore, like so:
See? Couldn’t be easier. So are you stoked about pollinator gardening now? Good, cause we’re super-stoked about helping you make it happen!
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 6/8/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
Apparently it’s been three days north of forever since I wrote a blog post. I realized this recently when our social media guru began dropping subtle hints about it.
(Picture is unrelated.)
What can I say? I’ve been busy with, you know, spring. But I get it; all y’alls been waitin’ for me to drop some botanical flava on this blog, and I just can’t keep letting you down. So hey, how about a new feature? What if I were to present, in no particular order and with no discernible practical application, an ongoing listicle of botanical wonderment? You down? Good. I think it should look a little something like this:
Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS
Still with me, despite the puerile, half-baked title? Then let’s do this.
1. Graft Chimeras
When it comes to stuff that’s cool and rad and rad and cool, it’s hard to beat a graft chimera. Few are known to exist, and even these are rarely seen. But before you can understand the extent of their coolradness, you’ll need a basic understanding of grafting.
Grafting is the age-old process of cutting off a piece of one plant, sticking it onto another, and hoping they get along. It’s extremely common in certain areas of horticulture, particularly fruit production. For example, basically every single apple you’ve ever eaten was grown on a grafted plant. A typical apple variety starts as a branch that just happens to be different from its neighbors on the tree. An orchardist might notice that this branch produces fruit that is redder, larger, or holds later into the fall. Perhaps it has a wicked backhand, and the orchardist is in need of a mixed-doubles partner. Whatever the reason, he or she cuts off a part of this branch, clones it, and then grafts the clones onto the bottom halves of young apple trees that have been selected for their superior roots. The resulting grafted plants will now produce reams of tennis-playing fruit on healthy-rooted trees.
Typically, the “root” portion of a grafted plant (called the rootstock) and the “shoot” portion (the scion) remain distinct from each other. But sometimes the union between the two gets…fuzzy. The result is a graft chimera, a plant that mixes two different sets of genes – and thus two different types of growth – into one. Here are a couple of famous examples. Below is a +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, and man, do I want one! Check it out:
Yep, that’s one tree with two entirely different types of flowers. Here’s another example, aptly named a Bizzaria:
This harvest-time nightmare is a genetic tutti-frutti of Citrus medica and Citrus aurantium. It was discovered in Florence in 1640, and is perhaps the best known graft chimera, with none other than Chuck Darwin taking a stab at describing it.
Unfortunately, graft chimeras are notoriously unstable, so individual plants may lose one of their conjoined halves, returning to a non-chimeric state. But that just makes them cooler, right? And rad-er.
2. The Mountain Buffalo
By now you’ve no doubt glanced ahead at the picture, BUT, before you go getting all excited, I must add a disclaimer to this entry. Most of the information I’ve found about this plant comes from not-so-sciencey sources, so please take it with a grain or two of salt. That being said, just look at this thing:
No small potatoes.
That is a tuber which will not be denied. According to this website, it is from a species of Thladiantha that grows in the Yunnan province of China, and if this picture is to be believed, it is one of the largest tubers in the world. Also, someone is trying to pickpocket a baby. (Good luck – babies are notoriously cash-strapped.) As the website helpfully explains, “The tubers are resembling resting buffalos when seen from the distance in dense forest, hence their name.” I’ve done some digging to try and find out more about this beast of a plant, and I can say without doubt that the genus Thladiantha is a real thing and that several species within this genus produce large tubers. But is this photo legit? I want to believe.
3. Sand Food
No disclaimer needed here; sand food is definitely legit and definitely weird (and cool and rad.) Found only in the Sonoran Desert, this bizarre member of the forget-me-not family is not-forgettable indeed. Its name is blandly appropriate, since it grows as a ropy stem buried under shifting sands, and it is an important food source for the area’s indigenous people and jawas. Containing no chlorophyll, sand food lives as a parasite on the roots of various desert shrubs. In the spring, it produces a mushroom like flower head, like so:
Photo courtesy of Tatooine Botanical Gardens
How the 10 or 20 tiny seeds that each flower produces manage to locate a suitable host plant is not well understood. Ants or kangaroo rats may carry the seeds underground. Or perhaps they move through the desert by clinging to the feet of lost droids. We may never know, but I would guess that the Force is strong with them.
Created: 1/16/2015 Updated: 8/8/2016
And the snow lies drifted white
In the bower of our delight
Where the beech threw gracious shade
On the cheek of boy and maid:
And the bitter blasts make roar
Through the fleshless sycamore
~ Willa Cather
It’s cold. Like, Siberia cold. I am a person who values his time outdoors, but to heck with this. Blankets, hot beverages, and good books – these shall be the apparatus of my forbearance, until the blessed day arrives when I can stand outside for more than ten minutes without losing feeling in my extremities.
Winter is hard on a horticulturist (as I have lamented before). But thanks to a the accidental genius of a Victorian-era Englishman named Nathaniel BagshawWard, and the insatiable social ambitions of the ascendant middle class in his milieu, we have houseplants upon which to turn our phytophilic attentions when snowflakes fly.
With enough space and the proper equipment, virtually any plant can be grown indoors. However, there are a few dozen hardy species that have become archetypal denizens of shopping malls, lobbies, and hotel atriums, as well as residential windowsills. You may not know their names, but you know them: aglaonemas, marantas, spathiphyllums, crotons…
Counter to their colloquial reputation, some familiar houseplants have secret talents and unique life stories that are worth investigating…under a Snuggie, with a laptop warming your thighs. So grab another mug of chai, and let’s explore a couple, shall we?
We’ll begin with Ficus benjamina, known as Benjamin’s fig or, more simply, the ficus tree. Despite its deserved reputation as a finicky leaf-dropper, ficus trees frequently adorn large interior spaces. This is due to their tolerance of low light and dry air, and because their fine texture and broad branching structure fit our temperate-zone expectations of what a tree should look like. Native to Southeast Asia, the ficus is a close relative of strangler figs and banyans, and like those plants, will often send down aerial roots from its branches. As with all plants in its genus (including the edible fig, Ficus carica), the Benjamin fig relies on a symbiotic relationship with a particular species of tiny wasp in order to produce seeds.
Botanically speaking, a fig is not an individual fruit, but rather a receptacle that encloses multiple small fruits (the fleshy bits inside). These fruits started off as hidden flowers, pollinated when the aforementioned wasp entered the fig through a tiny hole in the tip. The wasp lays eggs inside, thus protecting them from predators and providing a food source for the resultant larvae. In return, the wasp performs necessary pollination duties. In a fascinating example of coevolution, nearly all of the 800 or so species of Ficus are pollinated by different, unique species of wasps.
Surely one of the best scientifically-named plants of all time, Monstera deliciosa, aka Mexican breadfruit or Swiss cheese plant, is indeed a monster of a plant. In its native Central American climes, its stout, vining stems can climb 60 feet or more into the trees. Edible, pineapple-like fruits are sparsely produced beneath its enormous, leathery leaves.
Grown indoors, the “delicious monster” typically stays much smaller, and may lack the bizarre fenestration that makes this plant a favorite in humid conservatories. No one really knows the wherefores of the leaves’ “Swiss cheese” stylings, but there are some theories out there.
As with several other plants in its family, Monstera can actually generate its own heat. At certain blooming stages, its inflorescences (flower clusters) can be as much as 5°C hotter than the surrounding air. This phenomenon, known as thermogenesis, likely aids the dispersal of chemical signals that attract pollinators.
Now lets take a look the deceptively euro-sounding dieffenbachia. A relative of the Mostera, the dieffenbachia or dumbcane hails from similar, neo-tropical environs. Its speckled leaves have been bred and selected for many distinct and interesting patterns, which has led, along with its remarkable shade tolerance and overall ease of culture, to the Dieffenbachia’s predominance as a parochial favorite.
But dumbcane is not without its dark side. In common with its familial brethren, its cells contain tiny, sharp crystals of calcium oxylate that can be extremely irritating to the skin, eyes, mouth, and esophagus. The name dumbcane derives from the tendency of the tongue to swell if the plant is chewed, causing temporary mutism. In the West Indies, exceedingly awful human beings once took advantage of this phenomenon to punish their rebellious slaves.
Having experienced the harrowing topical effects of the dieffenbachia on more occasions than I like to admit (note to self: GLOVES!), I can attest that potency varies widely among varieties, and tends to be greatest in the stems and roots of large specimens. Fortunately the swelling, numbness, and prickly aches brought on by contact with the plant’s juices rarely last more than a day. And there is a rather unforgettable odor to the cut stems of older plants that serves as a helpful reminder not to rub an eye or bite a fingernail until one has thoroughly washed up.
This odor comes from compounds closely related to asparagusic acid, which is the same stuff that makes your pee smell funny (giggle) when you eat asparagus. Speaking of which, is there any vegetable that induces thoughts of springtime as reliably as fresh asparagus? I can see them now -- pale stems pushing their way out of the warming soil, ready to drink in the nourishing rays of waxing daylight…I can hear a robin tweeting happily among bursting buds…And the flowers! Daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia!
Crap. Have you seen the weather forecast?
Created: 12/10/2014 Updated: 8/8/2016
During the growing season, I was charged with the fun and interesting task of compiling a list of all plant species growing in the Museum’s “habitat vignettes”. For those unfamiliar with this term, we sometimes use it to refer to areas of the museum grounds where we’ve worked to recreate plant communities that were typical of our area before European settlement. Frequent visitors know these areas well: the Black Oak Savanna, Burr Oak Savanna, Elizabeth Plotnick Tallgrass Prairie, the rooftop garden, (the section visible from the Bird Walk) and our portion of the North Pond edge.
In creating the plant list, I counted species intentionally planted by us as part of our restoration efforts as well as those that showed up here on their own. The total number of species was 350! Being in list-making mode, I divided these into categories that had more meaning in relation to what we are trying to accomplish with the habitat vignettes. To wit:
Native Species: 229
Planted by us: 159
It’s worth noting that these categories are not cut and dried distinctions. There are differing opinions on whether some species grew here before Columbus. Also, several have strains both from North America and from other continents (which can behave differently ecologically). In these cases, I tended towards the majority opinion of authors who have studied our local flora, weighted by my own opinion. Then there was the matter of how local to get while defining “native.” In this case, I considered a species native if it was known from a county at least bordering Cook.
A final distinction I wanted to make was whether a species was invasive or not. This entered even blurrier territory as, aside from a few of the worst offenders, there is far from a standard consensus on which species are invasive locally. I used a pragmatic approach, counting any species as “invasive” if we have actively attempted to control or eradicate it. The resulting list included 63 species – 12 of them native, 51 non-native. (Yes, native species can be invasive, too. But that’s a subject for another blog post.)
Willow Herb, Courtesy of Frank Mayfield via Wikimedia Commons/cc-by-sa-2.0
In creating any such list, there are bound to be surprises. For example, I found two native species of Willow Herb in the Black Oak Savanna that are more typically found in wetland habitats. I suspect that seeds or seedlings of these plants arrived in the soil of native plant plugs. (We happened to see Willow Herb growing in abundance at a local nursery). I was also surprised that one of the species we’ve attempted to reintroduce over the years – Marram Grass – seems to have died out completely. It almost certainly grew here centuries ago when lakefront dunes made up portions of the museum grounds, but now its failure here is a good example of the challenges posed by “restoring” nature in heavily modified environment.
Marram Grass, Courtesy of UIC
It is impossible to know the exact species list that would have emerged if I had compiled it a few centuries ago. Historically, this land was sand dune, marsh, oak savanna and probably some prairie. The lakefront was originally much closer to the museum. The topography, hydrology, and soil here have been drastically altered over the last couple centuries, making it difficult to recreate the conditions required by some of the presumed original species. Despite this, both the museum and the North Pond Nature Sanctuary have successfully reintroduced a good number of plants that once would likely have grown here. Have any of these original species survived on the property on their own throughout all of these changes? The answer, sadly, is probably not. However, some native plants were likely in the general area the whole time and would have been able to easily re-colonize the museum grounds. These correlate to the 56-70 species that I’ve listed as spontaneous. Why did some species need to be replanted, while others came back uninvited?
You may know that some plant species are extremely sensitive to specific conditions (like Leadplant), while others will grow almost anywhere (Hairy Aster). There is a general spectrum between these two extremes. The species we intentionally replanted tend towards the more conservative, “specialist” side, while those that found their own way here are on the other, “weedier” side. Another way to describe this equation ecologically is that climax species are on one end, and pioneer species are on the other. Pioneer species do well in disturbed areas where bare soil is exposed. This situation always existed in nature but is far more common today, as a result of human land use patterns. As a result, the seeds of these species are practically everywhere. But unlike these weedier species, when more conservative, climax species have been absent for a long while, their seeds are no longer in the soil (or in nearby areas), and thus they generally will not return on their own.
This list might be considered a “snapshot” of what was here in 2014. While I was positively surprised by the ratio of native to non-native species growing here, it should be noted that the species list doesn’t reflect how many individual plants of each species are present, which is what we hope to alter most as the years go by. The quantity of individual, reintroduced native plants will hopefully increase with time. The number of weedy native and non-natives will probably also change, as we extirpate some, and new ones arrive. Now that we have a list, we will be able to compare it to lists of future years, hopefully showing progress as we strive towards recreating lost native habitats.
Want to check out the list for yourself? You can view and download a PDF of it by clicking here.
Nate FremontView Comments
Created: 9/15/2014 Updated: 8/9/2016
It’s raining. Again. (For those of you keeping score at home, most of Chicago is now 8-12 inches above normal rainfall for the year.) This is a good thing in that I have barely touched a hose or sprinkler all summer. But there is also a downside to these soggy mornings, as I sometimes find myself spending too much time at my desk flipping through garden supply catalogs and clicking the email refresh button. On such occasions, inspiration for a great new blog post will sometimes mercifully find me. I’d like to say that this is exactly what’s happening just now – a genius idea is percolating in my mind, and it’s all I can do to keep it contained until it essentially writes itself. But today is not one of those times. Today, I am tired. It’s chilly in this office. I had Pop Tarts for breakfast. These and other excuses are why I am subjecting you to the following bizarre and half-baked blog entry. Sorry about this.
So, here we go: Favorite bands of various plants – a thought experiment.
Plant: Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) | Favorite Band: The Sex Pistols
(John Lydon photo via Ed Vill/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
Ugly. Crass. Generally unwelcome and proud of it. These traits apply equally well to the plant and to stars of the early punk movement. Like a young John Lydon, ragweed hates you, and it does not care if you know it. It throws pollen in your face and laughs when you itch and sneeze. And it sneers at the class system you’ve created to separate garden flowers from weeds – a system that relegates it to life in alleyways, ditches, and vacant lots. Out on the street, it grows angry and defiant, looking for ways to cause trouble. Lydon got the name Johnny Rotten because of his poor oral hygiene. Have you ever seen ragweed shopping for toothpaste? Just sayin’.
Plant: Midnight Horror Tree (Oroxylum indicum) | Favorite Band: Slayer
(Slayer photo via Francis/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
Why Slayer, the most metal band of all time? Because Oroxylum indicum is the most metal tree of all time. This plant gets its name from its long seedpods, which on moonlit nights look like swords or daggers hanging from the branches. Also known as the broken bones tree, its large leaf stems tend to accumulate at the base of the trunk, looking for all the world like a pile of ribs and femurs. And of course, it blooms at night, attracting bats as its primary pollinator. Hails and horns, Oroxylum. Long may you Reign in Blood.
Plant: Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) | Favorite Band: The Grateful Dead
(Harry Lauder's Walking Stick photo via Malcolm Gin/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, Jerry Garcia photo via Carl Lender/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
Harry Lauder’s walking stick, otherwise known as contorted hazelnut, is a cultivated variety of the European filbert. It is grown as an ornamental for its unusual, twisting stems. So how did they get that way? Well, imagine if you will, a young, naïve filbert tree at its first Dead show. It meets some new friends. One thing leads to another. The music begins, and soon, there is no more up or down for our little tree. Its branches, much like the band’s music, begin to loop and twist endlessly with no pattern or direction. Each song seems to last for hours as the concert stretches deep into the night. The tree is forever changed. The next morning, it hitches a ride to California in a VW Microbus with an artist collective called Dawnglow Machine. To this day, when it sees other filberts growing straight and tall and producing nuts, it shakes its head and thinks, “Man, what a bunch of squares, man.” Kinda sad, really.
Plant: Metallic Palm (Chamaedorea metallica) | Favorite Band: pre-1994 Metallica
(Metallica photo via Kreepin Deth/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)
Because post-1993 Metallica is nobody’s favorite band.
Plant: Century Plant (Agave americana) | Favorite Band (Artist): Jeff Buckley
(Century Plant photo via WRT3/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, Jeff Buckley photo via nlaspf/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Century plant uses a reproductive strategy called semelparity. It grows for 10, 20, 30 years or more, then produces a single, glorious flowering stalk. Towering up to 40 feet high, rich with nectar and pollen, and producing edible seeds, it is truly a wonder of nature that anyone should feel blessed to have experienced. And then the whole plant dies…
I’ve really depressed myself now.
Plant: Hosta (Hosta spp.) | Favorite Band: U2
(Hosta photo via El Grafo/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, U2 photo via Zachary Gillman/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5)
Look, I like The Joshua Tree as much as the next guy, and hostas can find a place in just about any shade garden (like mine, for example.) But I’d bet dollars to donuts that an image search for ‘banal ubiquity’ turns up photos of Bono in a hosta nursery. These two are safe bets, reliable but never spectacular, the Toyota Camrys of music and horticulture. So when a hosta hits the iTunes store, it searches U2 first, then Taylor Swift for a little variety and some Dave Matthews Band if it’s feeling nostalgic. But don’t pity U2 – their harmless consistency has netted the band members a combined €632,535,925 (about $818,985,376) according to The Sunday Times. Reportedly, half of all album sales are to hostas.
Created: 8/13/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
As predicted, Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten is well on its way to becoming an important, nay, essential treatise within the vast and tangled gallimaufry of gardening discourse. I am sorry for the delay in bringing you the next installment, gentle reader, but as you may well imagine, I have been wholly occupied accepting international awards, juggling requests for public appearances, and turning down marriage proposals. However, today I shall set aside these distractions, for the task at hand remains vital, and my expertise indispensable to its execution. So welcome, everyone, to the Bottom Ten Part Two: Unspeakable Lovecraftian Nightmare Edition!
For those of you who don’t know what awesome is, H. P. Lovecraft was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant horror writers. If you’re unacquainted with his oeuvre, go read “The Thing at the Doorstep.” I’ll wait. Done? Cool. Good luck sleeping tonight. Lovecraft specializes in nurturing a crawling sense that someone or something within a story is…off. Unnatural. Distorted. Perverse. Then, in the final pages, when you’re good and creeped out, you finally encounter it: the Thing That Should Not Be.
I am certainly no Lovecraft. But I can recognize a hideous, forsaken monstrosity when I see it. I can tell when plant breeding has run disturbingly amok. Yes, gentle reader, I know them. I know the Plants That Should Not Be.
Example 1: Here is a normal coneflower…
…here is a ‘Greenline’ coneflower…
Eyeballs on stalks. Watching you. Forever.
…and a ‘Green Wizard’ coneflower
Kill it. With fire.
Why? Just why? What disturbed compulsion forced otherwise well-intentioned plantsmen and women to create these botanical perversities? Are they pretty? Are they an improvement on the standard form? The answer to both questions is a clear and resounding “no”. Yet there they are. Living. Growing.
Example 2: Here is your standard daylily…
…and here is the cultivar ‘Sanford Double Doozy’.
Who did this? Who saw a daylily flower and thought it would look better disguised as a mutated, scum-crawling, deep-sea nudibranch? There is only one explanation. This must be the work of some ancient, cosmic horror lurking beyond the veil, pulling the strings on an unwitting, puppet horticulturist.
Example 3: A typical daffodil…
…and a cultivar called ‘Delnashaugh’.
On quiet mornings, you can just make out the sound of its constant, pitiful weeping.
Clearly, this daffodil is the product of a diseased mind. How else can one explain its nauseating jumble of contorted, flesh-colored protuberances? No one of sound faculties could ever conceive of creating something so unspeakable from a beloved harbinger of spring. Speaking of which…
Example 4: Here is a tulip called ‘Rococo’.
No. No, no, no. That is not a flower. That is an incubus spawned from the unholy union of a cabbage and a stygian cacodemon. Without doubt, its insatiable roots twist downward, downward, ever downward, though the inky, sulfurous miasmas of Tartarus, into the very gates of Gahenna, past the Well of Souls, finally plunging into the black, putrid soil of the Abyss. Any second now, its blood-caked petals will yawn open, revealing a hideous maw of toothy destruction. And it will scream.
My god, it will scream.
Oh no. I think it saw me! I’ve got to get…blog…must finish…must warn…….
Created: 7/15/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Gardening has, for many years, been America’s most popular hobby, so it should come as no surprise that numerous people have attempted to make a buck or two dispensing horticultural information to the masses. Gardeners clamor endlessly for the advice of experts, and so your average bookstore is absolutely lousy with flower books, to say nothing of the countless gardening websites available for the perusal of the plant-addled. Most of these resources focus on what to grow and why. As I considered topics for a blog post today, it occurred to me that I should avoid contributing to this information overload. There is an eminently more useful service I can offer to the horticulturally inclined. And so, calling upon my years of training and experience, I've come up a with a list of plants that should never ever be planted by anyone, ever. Witness the first installment of the soon-to-be-indispensable Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten!*
Norway Maple – Acer platanoides.
This plant should need no introduction. Wherever you are in the city of Chicago, statistically speaking, a well-swung dead cat will either hit the side of a Dunkin Donuts or the trunk of a Norway Maple. This tree looks like it was lifted straight from your first grade art project - you know, back when you stupidly drew trees like green lollipops on brown sticks. Puerile geometry is pretty much all Norway Maples have to offer; yet people inexplicably keep planting them. Yes, the fall color is decent, but the brilliant oranges and crimsons of our native Red and Sugar Maples make the Norway’s pale yellow look sickly by comparison. If that’s not enough to dissuade you from planting a Norway, please, for the sake of all that’s good in the world, read on. This tree’s shade is so dense that it’s tough to grow much of anything beneath it, especially since its shallow roots crowd out other plants. Its seeds sprout everywhere, requiring you to pull multitudes of saplings lest you end up with more of these affronts to botanical decency darkening your property. Oh, did I mention it’s an invasive species? And that YOU CAN’T EVEN MAKE MAPLE SYRUP WITH IT!? Sheesh!
Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus.
Your grandma had one of these. She also had Pat Boone records and a crocheted cover over the Kleenex box. Just sayin.’ The Rose of Sharon looks good on paper – a tough shrub with reliable mid to late summer color. But you see, that’s what makes it so insidious. You want to like this shrub. You think you should. It’s got huge pink or blue flowers after all. What’s not to like? That’s what I’m here for, gentle reader, to tell you what’s not to like. Those flowers you were so excited about have limp, fleshy petals, insipid colors, and discordant, reddish centers. They smell…weird. After they die, they continue to hang around, all floppy and messy (see photo), for several days. And the rest of the plant has nothing at all to recommend it. Its form is sort of like an upside-down Christmas tree, until it gets older and full of heavy flowers and starts looking like an upside-down Christmas tree trodden by elephants. The seed pods are unattractive and their contents sprout readily into hard-to-pull seedlings. Oh, and the curled up flower buds are a favorite home for slugs, as well as every homeowner’s favorite, Japanese Beetles.
Siberian Elm - Ulmus pumila.
Unscrupulous plant peddlers sometimes sell this tree as a Dutch Elm Disease resistant alternative to the majestic American Elm. Unfortunately, it lacks the impeccable vase-like form of its American cousin, leaving it with - let me do the math here - ah yes, precisely zero ornamental characteristics. With weak wood that leaves the lawn littered with broken twigs, and massive horizontal roots to impede your mower, expect to spend more time than ever on yard work after you plant one of these embarrassments of the arboreal world. Here’s how I would describe the form: Take a bunch of parsley in your fist. Smash it into the wall a few times. Tie the stems together to form the “trunk” and poke it in the dirt. Congratulations, you now have a perfect bonsai replica of a Siberian Elm. Let me leave you with a few comments from the renowned plantsman Michael Dirr: “A poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere!…One of, if not the, world’s worst trees…Native to eastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Korea and, unfortunately, was not left there.” I think there’s a lesson there for us all.
To be continued - watch this blog for the next installment!*Someone out there is about to fire off an indignant comment pointing out that there are examples of some of these plants on the museum grounds. Rest assured, I sure as heck didn’t put ‘em there.View Comments
Created: 6/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
People often think of carnivorous plants as being tropical monstrosities, but many species make their homes in cold climates, and some can even be found in the Chicago region. The Museum's Biology Department took a trip several years ago to the Indiana Dunes' Pinhook Bog (open only to guided tours due to the fragility of the ecosystem) where we saw sundews, pitcher plants, and bladderworts--all species that make up for the low-nutrient peat moss they grow in by digesting insects. Combined with the rare orchids, blueberry-lined walkways, and the fact that the ground moves when you walk on it, it was one of my favorite daytrips. Volo Bog, north of Chicago, is home to such strange plants as well.
While the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is the most iconic carnivorous plant outside of Super Mario Brothers and Little Shop of Horrors, our local meat-eating flora have plenty to offer. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) have leaves that form a tube that collects rainwater. The attractive red coloration draws curious creatures to the rim of the "pitcher." Occasionally an insect will fall down the slippery slopes into the pool of rainwater and be trapped, and shortly thereafter digested. But since plants lack teeth, the plant has to hire someone else to chew its food. It is said that "If you build it, they will come," and a host of invertebrates make their home in the water of the pitcher plant, forming a mini-ecosystem inside the leaves of one plant. The top predator is usually the larva of the Pitcher Plant Mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii), one of several animals which lives only inside pitcher plant puddles, and nowhere else. Please don't think we should fog the bogs, though; the pitcher plant mosquito doesn't go for people. Eventually bits of the prey are chewed, shredded, digested, and excreted by enough little bugs, bacteria, and other critters that nutrients from the victim's body become usable by the plant.
Drosera rotundifolia, the Downy Sundew, takes a different tactic. Its leaves are covered with red, tentacle-like protrusions, and coated in a sticky, sugary substance. When prey come investigating they get stuck. The tentacles then curl up around the insect, and the plant begins to exude enzymes to extract precious, nitrogen-containing compounds that are otherwise hard to come by in the sundew’s habitat. This is because in bogs, the high acidity of the peat moss and water inhibit the breakdown of organic matter, so nutrients remain locked away instead of cycling through the ecosystem as they might in more garden-variety soils. Many Drosera species have become so adapted to their conditions that they completely lack the enzyme that enables other plants to absorb nitrogen from their roots.
While our collection is small, the Museum does maintain several living examples of carnivorous plants in our Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit. As these are wetland plants, they are members of some of the most imperiled ecosystems in our region, and throughout the world. While we are tempted to think of plants as basically immobile, passive denizens of our world, carnivorous plants are some of the most obvious examples of the incredibly active role plants take in nature. Stop by and see ours, but more importantly make sure to get out into the wild, visit our protected wetlands, and spot these fantastic plants in their native environments. You won't regret it.View Comments
Created: 5/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The first question I ask of any plant is “Can I eat it?". But there are plenty of other fascinating stories waiting to be told. Take for instance the unruly-looking and inedible* Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Its closest regional relative is the mulberry (Morus sp.) but most of the Moraceae family is more tropical—figs and jackfruits, for example. Its softball-sized fruits are hard, dense, only vaguely resemble oranges, and aren’t related to them at all. It takes its common name from the Osage Nation, a tribe which used the tree for tools, clubs, and most importantly, bows. There are records of a well-made Osage-orange bow being worth a horse and blanket as an even trade, meaning the people controlling the supply of the trees could make quite a tidy living as, effectively, arms traders. There seem to have been multiple wars fought over the land where the trees grew, and the Osage Nation was known to send parties hundreds of miles to harvest from their favorite stands. Even the Blackfoot tribe in now Montana used bows of this wood, nearly 2000 miles from where it grew.
At the time of European colonization, the range of the Osage-orange was confined to river bottoms in a relatively small area of what became Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Why this is so is a subject of some speculation. Generally when a tree produces such a large fruit it is because some large critter loves to eat that fruit, and the seeds get dispersed when the odd few make it through the digestive tract unharmed and germinate. But nothing really seems to like the Osage-orange fruit. Squirrels will tear them apart to get to the seeds, but they grind the seeds to pulp and destroy them in the process. One theory is that animals now extinct on the continent were the primary distributor of the fruit, perhaps mastodons, early horse-like animals, or some sort of (I’m not kidding) giant sloth. With their decline, possibly due to overhunting, came the diminishing range of the tree, and it is possible it could have gone extinct without Native Americans propagating it for their uses.
Lewis and Clark sent some cuttings to President Jefferson as part of their first shipment of samples. They got them from a guy who said they came from an Osage Indian village, and the common name was a done deal--though they called them Osage-apples at first. European settlers had little to no use for longbows, but high on their wish list was fencing or hedges to ‘civilize’ the prairies. (It had been common practice in much of Europe to mark field boundaries with hedges, which can provide harvestable yields, contain livestock, reduce wind, and provide habitat for wildlife.) Osage-orange was found incredibly suitable to this task, because if densely planted it provided a fence “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” in the words of one early promoter. This is why many people from rural backgrounds, myself included, first learn this tree as the “Hedge-apple.” (As an aside, other plants brought from overseas to serve this purpose include buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), both of which have become destructive invasive species.)
Eventually the hedge fell out of fashion because of a fabulous new invention: barbed wire. Farmers decided they’d rather have dead fences than living ones, since time spent pruning is time not plowing. They were pleased I’m sure to learn that Osage-orange is one of the most fungal- and rot-resistant woods in the world, and immune to termites, giving farmers another incentive to keep the trees around for their value as fencepost material (above right). And after the Dustbowl, millions of the trees were planted in a 100-mile wide strip from North Dakota to Texas as part of FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt program, eventually run by the WPA. This program is to date the largest US government program aimed at tackling an environmental problem. Eventually the trees became established or reestablished in all of the lower 48 states.
You can still see remnant Osage-orange windbreaks marking field edges in the Chicagoland region and beyond. Some people recognize the altogether silly fruits, and occasionally remember hearing that people put them around the house to repel spiders back in The Before Time. Some folks still heat their homes with wood, and may know that it provides the highest BTU value of any wood in North America. But few people are aware of the role this one plant species has played in the history of this country, the many nations that came before it, and perhaps the continent before humans ever arrived.
Not a bad story for being inedible.
*There are reports you could go through a lot of effort to get the seeds out and eat them, with no ill effects, but to me “edible” means “worth eating.”View Comments