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  • Wingnuts in the City that Never Sleeps

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    Tags: autumn, plant names, trees

    Created: 11/15/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Autumn in New York
    Why does it seem so inviting?

    New York

    Billie Holliday sang the praises of fall in the Big Apple, and if a recent weekend was any indication, it would be hard to disagree (though some might this year, thanks to hurricane Sandy.) There is something agreeably evocative about brownstone stoops strewn with cast off foliage and planetree leaves chattering down the sidewalk on a fresh breeze. On the way to JFK after a weekend with family, I took a detour to Brooklyn Botanic Garden to revel in the sunshine and autumn color, and while the grounds had sadly suffered a number of tree falls from the storm, it was nonetheless a lovely afternoon.

    The Garden was quiet and felt particularly dignified, perhaps due to the somber hues of drying leaves and the lack of energetic floral activity. However, one stop on my circuit of the Plant Families Garden sent me into fits of decidedly indecorous laughter. A grand, gnarled old tree – perhaps the largest and oldest on the grounds, and a species I was previously unfamiliar with – was earnestly labeled with its scientific name, Pterocarya fraxinifolia, and its common name, Caucasian Wingnut.

    While “Caucasian Wingnut” is a label some might choose to apply broadly, it seems a bit unfair to condemn an entire species to derogatory snickers and finger pointing. But at least the CWs, as I will mercifully abbreviate them, have plenty of company. Many a plant has endured a lifetime of awkward introductions at cocktail parties. Pity the poor Mountain Misery, Midnight Horror Tree, Beggar’s Tick, Corpse Flower, Mal Mujer, Crybaby Tree, Lousewort, Fly Poison, or Pleuro amparoana, also known as the Toilet Bowl Orchid.

    Deservedly or not, other species have fared quite well in the name game, such as Balm of Gilead, Fairy Petticoats, Sorrowless Tree, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Venus’ Looking Glass, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, and a favorite here on the Museum's grounds, the Rattlesnake Master. Euphorbia leucocephala has it particularly good.  Its many common names include Snows of Kilimanjaro, Christ Child, and Little Christmas Flower. Other plants must get a lot of confused stares from doormen and receptionists:  Ramping Fumitory, Moses in a Boat, Napoleon’s Hat, Monkey Puzzle, and Rat Stripper to name a few.

    There are scientific names – always Latinized – that take the cake in both lyricism and absurdity.  Consider the poetic qualities of words such as Dasylirion, Mandragora, Bauhinia, Ipheon, and Vitex agnus castus, which translates to “chaste lamb of life.” Dread the doubtless horrors of Dracula nosferatu and Monstera deliciosa. Or, try some lingual calisthenics with a couple of cactus species, Weberbauerocereus cephalomacrostibas and Austrocephalocereus dolichospermatichus. Quiz tomorrow. Spelling counts.

    But back to New York and our dear CW. No matter how ridiculous its name, the tree I visited that afternoon was remarkable – venerable, steadfast, antediluvian. Perhaps we should thank Sandy for sparing it, but then, the tree has surely stood strong in the face of many storms. And perhaps, with maturity, it’s learned to laugh at its awkward moniker and even appreciate the chuckles of passersby. They say laughter is the secret to long life. Maybe this Wingnut is living proof.

    Seth Harper
    Horticulturist

     

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  • Wherefore the fall that makes fall, fall?

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    Tags: trees, autumn, botany, horticulture, grounds

    Created: 10/8/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The last, tremulous notes of the ice cream truck have faded into the distance. Sales of fun-sized candy bars are spiking. And all across this great nation, people are attaching their egos to teams of large, colorfully outfitted men battling over oblong balls. Yes, fall is here, and leaves are raining to the ground like opponents’ home runs onto the bleachers of Wrigley Field.  But why? Why would otherwise perfectly reasonable trees decide to shamelessly expose their naked limbs? (In front of the saplings, no less!)

    Fallen leaves on museum grounds

    Thanks, guys. You know I'm gonna have to rake that, right?

    Well, winter is hard on us all. For plants, the main problem is water, which, like most people, becomes sedentary and expands during cold weather. Sedentary water (by which I mean ice and snow) can’t be absorbed by a plant’s roots. So when the ground is frozen, water lost through its leaves can’t be replaced.  Most plants in our area avoid the problem by stripping bare.

    Tree with fall colors

    As for expansion, water is quite odd in that it becomes less dense when it freezes, so the same amount of water takes up more space when it becomes ice. This is a big deal for plants, since it causes their cells to quite literally explode as the water inside them swells. Try freezing a salad and you’ll know what I mean.

    So instead of risking death by dehydration or cell destruction, a clever tree ditches its leaves for the winter. But, you say, ever the contrarian, what about evergreens? Well, your average pine or spruce has small leaves with thick 'skin' to slow water loss. And it's quite industrious, churning out resins and antifreeze compounds to prevent cell damage. Deciduous (leaf-losing) trees can't be bothered to spend as much energy on such nonsense. What antifreeze they do get around to manufacturing is concentrated in their buds in preparation for spring.

    Tree with fall colors

    All this hard work gives evergreens a competitive advantage in early spring, when temperatures are warm enough for efficient photosynthesis. Deciduous trees can’t get moving until they stop hitting the snooze button and get to work cranking out leaves, while Joe Spruce is already soaking up the vernal sun and adding inches. The tables turn in summer, when the larger leaves of deciduous trees allow them to collect more light and grow faster than our work-a-day friend Mr. Spruce. These differing strategies are one reason evergreens dominate the landscape of northern latitudes. Short summers don’t allow those deciduous layabouts enough time to catch up.  

    Seth Harper - Museum Horticulturist

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