Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The city of pomegranates

Pomegranate, Punica granatum, is thought to have been native to Iran through to the Himalaya in northern India, but was widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region during Ancient Greek and Roman times. It has a particular connection to the Andulacian region of Spain that I'm visiting in coming weeks.

The city of Granada, home to the hauntingly beautiful Alhambra, is said to have been named after the pomegranate, which in Spanish is called granada (from the Latin word for seed, granta). Alternatively the name of the city is a corruption of its Moorish name Karnattah, or Gharnatah, meaning something like 'hill of strangers'. We'll assume the former for the purposes of this post but the Moors had a special connection to this place, holding until 1492 and after the rest of Spain had fallen to the Christian invaders.

The common name, pomegranate, is a century or two older than the fall of Granada. As you might have guessed, the pome refers to an apple and its origin is Old French, from around the the start of the fourteenth century it seems. As I've mentioned, granata (grenate in Old French, grenade in modern French) means seed, so it was quite reasonably termed the 'apple with lots of seeds'.

According to a decidedly pro-pomegranite site, POMWonderful, Queen Isabella I (who with Ferdinand II reclaimed the city) is said to have 'stood with a pomegranate in her hand and declared, "Just like the pomegranate, I will take Andalusia seed by seed". It turns out Andalusia was easier to conquer than it is to seed a pomegranate (although I've found that squishing sides together a few times then tapping on the back with a wooden spoon works pretty well).

The plant, or at least its fruit, is clearly evocative when it comes to place naming. The north African city of Carthage was originally called Punica by the Romans: it was said to be the source of the best pomegranates at the time.

With its woody outer layer, the fruit travels well, and was carried through the deserts of this region as source of refreshment. It is of course added to various parts of a meal to add colour and bling.

The plant itself is tough and long-lived. Specimens at Versailles are thought to be 200 or so years old and you see the scrubby remains of bushes around old homes in Australia that are presumably a century or so in age.

Various parts of the plant are used to treat diarrhea and stomach problems, and tannins have been extracted from bark, leaves and fruit. Not surprisingly, the fruits and flowers are a source of red dye. 

It's an odd plant botanically, classified in its own family, the Punicaceae. Other than Punica granatum, there is only one other species, Punica protopunica from the island of Socotra (home to lots of other weird and wonderful plants such as the Dragon Tree, the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas and Frankinsense). 

I've always found the fresh green colour of the leaves and the bright red flowers attractive, even though the form of the plant is often a little untidy. The flowers also remind me a little of the underground orchid-like flower, Thismia. I'm not sure anyone else makes this association but it adds to the encounter. As will visiting Granada once again, discovering the image of the pomegranate fruit on flags and 'manhole' covers throughout the city.

Images: the fruit is from a local supermarket, and the flowers, cultivated plant and view of Alhambra are from Granada in 2008. The Coats of Arms are repeated repeatedly on the web.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Pinsapo on the edge

On day seven of the Gardens in Spanish Culture tour, we rock (sorry for the pun) into Ronda, perched scenically on the edge of this canyon called El Tajo.

A highlight of our visit to the Palace of the Marqués of Salvatierra will be, for me at least, the 200-year-old Pinsapo in the garden. The sixteenth century building, renovated in the eighteenth century, should provide the perfect backdrop to the 'National Tree' of Andulasia (the name given to this southern region of Spain).

The Pinsapo is a fir tree, Abies pinsapo, sometimes also called the Spanish Fir or even Hedgehog Fir (a reference to its overall form when young I think). The botanical epithet pinsapo is a corruption of the Spanish local name, Pinapares.

Its native habitat is in southern Spain and Morocco, but you can see it in parks and gardens in southern Australia. A cultivar with waxy blue leaves, called 'Glauca', is widely grown and there are others such as 'Fastigiata', 'Pendula', 'Argentea' and 'Aurea' (the last two leaf colour variants).

Pinsapo was discovered in 1837 by Swiss botanist Edmond Boisser. He discovered it in the mountains of Andalucia, in the south of Spain, which look a little like this.

It's a fir, Abies, because the needles are soft and flattened, and attached to the stem by a spherical 'sucker' (when you remove the needle the stem is rather smooth). A spruce, Picea, on the other hand has stiff, pointy needles with a knobbly bases that extends along the stem and remains as a bump when you remove a leaf. As firs go, the Pinsapo has relatively short needles.

Although there are no firs in this picture of the Sierra Nevada, limestone outcrops in the nearby Sierra Bermeja and Sierra de las Nieves are home to two of the three remaining populations of Pinsapo in Europe (the third, according to Kew's Plant, is on serpentine rock in an unprotected area). Across the Mediterranean in northern Morocco, there are two distinct varieties found naturally.

In the geological record there is evidence of Pinsapo around the Mediterranean during the Tertiary period, from 65 to about 2 million years ago. The climatic changes occurring during the following million years, including the last major ice age, were not as intense in Andalucia as elsewhere in Europe.

In the mountains outside Ronda, not far from the Marqués' garden, is part of the Pinsapos remaning strong hold. Having survived this major climatic event its existence became precarious over the last few centuries due to extensive land clearing. In 1964 there were just 700 hectares of pinsapo forests remaining.

Things have improved over recent decades. With replanting and careful management, there are now over 5000 hectares. Although more secure, the remaining European populations of Pinsapo are susceptible to fire, goat grazing and most recently a fungus, Heterobasidium annosum.

It's thought more recent changes in the climate may well have weakened the species' resistance to the fungus. So Pinsapo may have survived the last ice age and the axe, to succumb to the side effects of human-induced global warming.

Given a chance, the Pinsapo grows to 30 metres tall and, as we know from Ronda, can live for at least 200 years. Don't panic though, baring fire, fungus and feral animals, you may have another 100 years or so to visit the Marquis' tree: word is (Gymnosperm Database), the oldest specimens are 300 years old.

Images: The pictures of Ronda are from 2008, my last visit. Those of the Pinsapos are copied from the Gymnosperm Database site, both from trees growing in nature and taken by Jose Angel Campos Sandoval.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Deadly roadside beauty, in season

Oleander is a well known but hardly loved garden plant in Australia. You see it out the front of rental properties and blocks of cream-brick units, or more recently in dwarf form on motorway verges and median strips. Key attributes are its gaudy pink flowers, tolerance of the most extreme of growing conditions, and ability to kill pets and small children.

Stuck in my head are stories of a child dying after digesting a single leaf and a group of soldiers (with Alexander the Great, or Napoleon - take your pick) who roasted a pig on a Oleander spit and suffered horrid deaths. The reality seems to be that 5 to 15 leaves can cause a fatal poisoning, but there are varying reports of tolerance and toxicity among the young and old.

All parts of Nerium oleander are toxic, due to something called a cardiac glycoside. These heart-stopping chemicals are most concentrated in the seeds and roots, followed by the fruits and leaves. Red-flowering forms have more cardiac glycosides than white-flowering forms, and there is more of it at flowering time.

First-century Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder mentions the flowers and the poisonous qualities. His countrymen also knew it as a cure for hangovers - although in the wrong quantity it would seem to be a permanent cure. Used medicinally since at least Roman times, these cardiac glycosides have deleterious side effects and of course in the wrong dose will kill you.

So you have to be careful with this plant. But then there are many toxic plants out there so unless you are growing a known vegetable or other food plant, don't nibble any leaves.

The classic flower colour is pink but they come in all kinds of red and white tones. In full blush, they can look attractive. Out of flower, it's a personal thing I guess. Better perhaps than concrete.

Like any plant (or thing) they can be evocative in the landscape. I have fond memories of whizzing past them in my hire car when touring through southern Spain back in 2008, through countryside like this between Cordoba and Granada.

Apart from its landscape attributes and deadly contents, is there anything else you should know about Oleanders? Well, it is even more common in Spain than Australia, which is why it's in my special series of pre-Spain-tour posts. Not only is it widely planted on roadsides and in gardens, but it seems to be native to the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean region more generally, as well as further south into northern Africa, and west into Asia.

There are plenty of cultivars, accounting for the various flower colours and forms, as well as shrub heights. The flower I've posted at the top is a double-flowered form, probably Nerium oleander 'Splendens'. On mass, as I said, they can impress.

I personally haven't taken much notice of the seedpods but the beautiful photographs by Anne Laurent at Print Magazine reveal another side to them, and their fluffy seeds.

As to the vegetative plant, perhaps the most interesting thing is the way they are joined to the stem, in groups of three with the stalk of each expanding at the base to join with the other two. Other than that, watch out for the milky sap when pruning and remember to wash your hands.

Images: From southern Spain in 2008, except for the close ups of flowers and leaves, which are from the Melbourne Gardens in February 2017.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Quixotic plants (Plant Portrait XVI*)

Over the next few weeks, and months, it's going to be all about the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). I'm off in May to lead Gardens in Spanish Culture for Australians Studying Abroad Cultural Tours, followed by holidaying in Portugal and northern Spain. My posts in April will be about plants or plant related matters with a Spanish connection. Then in May and June, it will be 'blogging lite' as I post a few pictures from locations in what the Romans called Iberia. Normal blog service will resume in July...

To start, a Plant Portrait*, about Cervantes. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in a small university town near Madrid called Alcalá de Henares but his epic work, Don Quixote, was set in the vast arid plateau of La Mancha, a little further south.

Cervantes lived from 1547 to 1616 (dying in the same year as William Shakespeare), loosing the use of left arm in a war injury and becoming imprisoned in Algiers for five years (from where he tried to escape four times, unsuccessfully). Returning to Spain and marrying at 37, he settled in Seville, into the first of a series of government jobs (this one as Commissary of Provisions for the Spanish Armada). He was arrested for theft at least twice and it's said that the first part of Don Quixote was written while in jail.

The history of the valorous and witty knight errant, Don Quixote, of La Mancha - as the full title is sometimes translated - was published in two volumes, the first (The Ingenious Hidalgo [Gentleman] Don Quixote of La Mancha) appearing in 1605 when Cevantes was 57. Cervanates moved to Madrid in 1609 and continued to write.

His first volume of Don Quixote was a big success. So much so that in 1614 another author, Fernández de Tordesillas, published a second volume, spurring Cevantes to do the same, which was published a year before his death (as Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha). Cervantes never realised the fame or the fortune he desired.

In addition to our knight errant (oh, and Sancho Panza and his donkey), the landscape of La Mancha stars in this book. Cervantes writes, famously, in chapter of eight of Don Quixote:

At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."

"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.

And so it goes. If you haven't read it, do. But be warned, it's a (very) 'long read'.

La Mancha is still home to the monstrous giants, particularly around Consuegra, although I gather they now process tourists rather than grain. Wine and (Manchego) cheese are the chief export products these days, but away from the olives and vines there is a fascinating flora. 

According to Linnaeus (according to Kelly Lipscomb), Spain as a whole is 'the India of Europe', a reference to its diverse flora with more than half only found (endemic) on the Iberian peninsula. Out of a flora of 8,000 species known today, 1600 (c. 20%) are endemic to the country of Spain. 

Much of the La Mancha plateau is very dry, sometimes with salt accumulating at the surface, producing what is called a 'salt-steppe' (a relatively flat, treeless grassland on salty soils). This results in a large number of endemic plants with their closest relatives in North Africa, Turkey or even the Caspian Sea (all of which have have similar salt-steppe areas). About 200 plant species are restricted to La Mancha and a few other steppes in Spain, and about 30% of all the plants growing in these habitats are rather short-lived annuals, coming up after rains.

According to Flowers of South-west Europe (by O. Polunin and B.E. Smythes) I'm to look out for 'tall and spectacular' thistles in arid areas of La Mancha: genera such as Carlina, Carduus, Carthamus, Scolymus, Onopordum, Cynara, Cirsium and Centaurea. Which gives me licence to include this (probably) Cirsium vulgare from a roadside in southern of Spain, photographed back in 2012, and above, a Cynura cardunculus from Kew Gardens, photographed in 2011.

And as to the two crocus images (taken by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew's talented photographer Andrew McRob), they are presumably cultivars of Crocus vernus, a species native to Spain but not I don't think to La Mancha. However they are my token representative of an important crop plant of the region.

Crocus sativus is widely planted in La Mancha for saffron production. In late October the purple flowers are harvested for their three pronged 'stigmas' (the female bit sticking out of the middle of the flower). Spain, after Iran, is the second biggest producer of saffron in the world. The Moors brought saffron to Spain when they occupied the region between 600 and 1400, and La Mancha has remained the main crocus growing area and now has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

So when I visit in May I'll be on the look out for monstrous giants disguised as windmills, thistles of all kinds, but sadly not crocus flowers. However I will no doubt enjoy their female bits flavouring and colouring a dish or two in the late evening.

*Occasional (or not so occasional, given I did one last week as well!) posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed. In my case, it could be that every story has a plant to tell...

The image of Don Quixote and Sancho is by Pablo Picasso, from 1955. I used to have T-shirt with it emblazened on the front but that is long gone so I've copied the image from www.PabloPicasso.org.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

No more re-Joyce-ing (Plant Portrait XV*)

"The high railings of Prospect rippled past their gaze. Dark poplars, rare white forms. Forms more frequent, white shapes thronged amid the trees, white forms and fragments streaming by mutely, sustaining vain gestures on the air."

So writes James Joyce, as the funeral carriage reaches Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, early in his major work Ulysses. The best book I've never read. And from the size of the Joycean support industry – interpreting, simplifying and reading the book aloud – I don’t think I’m alone.

Until now. With the death of Irish author and broadcaster Frank Delaney, and my podcast Re:Joyce, I now feel very alone. The death of a podcast is an unsettling and very twenty-first century experience.

I’m used to musicians and other artists dying, with the implied posthumous invitation to revisit their life’s work. Sometimes there is an unfinished work or two to tear to shreds like a hungry shark, but generally their oeuvre is what it is and no more.

Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce was a very different kind of project. Each week a fifteen-minute episode, with an extra one per month and a ‘baker’s dozen’ special (on some related topic) after every 12 weeks.

Ulysses is the story of Dublin on 16 June 1904. And much more. Delaney would read a page of the book and then dissect it sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. He wasn’t telling me what Joyce meant or what it might all represent, but offering a guiding hand through the vocabulary, geography and the gist of what was going on.

I was put onto this podcast in 2011 by my friend Janelle Hatherly, from Sydney, who knew I was interested in Joyce and who knew I had struggled with this particular book. I’d read the first 250 pages of Ulysses a few times, dipped into various other chapters, and listened to the entire book read by Jim Norton (on 22 CDS, also provided by Janelle).

The CD recording was fantastic and I loved every minute of it. That’s despite one particular session in my kayak on Sydney’s Middle Harbour, when I set my device to shuffle by mistake, adding further complexity to the narrative.

While the author Will Self (whose writing has affinities to Joyce) may disapprove of this form of ‘reading’ I’ve now experienced every word and sentence of the book. I’ve also read lots of books about the book, and visited the Joyce Museum in (Stephen’s) Martello tower at Sandycove, near Dublin. So I’m a tragic who hasn’t really read the book.

I loved and hated Delaney. I'm mentioned this before, but at times he was pretentious, mawkish and a little tiresome in his delivery. But if you love Joyce and his words it was worth the collateral. I was even, sometimes, reading pages of the book myself, along with the podcast.

Delaney’s was a grand project, much like Joyce’s. Even after Delaney increased the length of each episode from five to fifteen minutes, and added extra editions each month, it was estimated to take 22 years from its start in 2010.

In early February we – Delaney, me and eight thousand others (with more than 2.5 million downloads so far) – were in the middle of Chapter 10 ‘Wandering Rocks’. This is half way through the book in terms of chapters but only a third through the 1000 or so pages, depending on the edition.

But then, in late February an episode was late. A few days, then a week. I didn’t worry at first. Perhaps he’s sick I thought; there was a patch a year or so ago when he lost his voice and had to add some extra episodes to catch up. After four weeks though I became concerned and thought I’d check out his website for an explanation.

There it was. With tremendous sadness… On 21 February 2017 Frank Dalaney died, aged 74. With that announcement, the door to Ulysses slammed shut again. I have my other podcasts, including The Science Show and Blueprint for Living (from ABC RN), If there is hell below (my dose of new music from the UK) and In our Time with Melvyn Bragg (from BBC Radio 4). But Delaney, and for now, Joyce’s Ulysses, is no more.

The book, though, is still beside my bed. The bookmark is at page 350, 100 pages further than I’d ever got before… Perhaps I’m strong and wise enough now to go it alone.

RIP Frank Delaney (1942-2017)

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.

Images: the top picture is of an avenue leading towards Glasnevin Cemetery, an avenue I'm hoping consists of poplars, perhaps even Populus alba, the White Poplar... (I borrowed the image from a local - Dublin - tourist site). The others are of the nearby Glasnevin National Botanic Gardens, from a visit there in 2010. I've mentioned this botanic garden in a few previous posts. The image of Frank Delaney is from his website.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Whatever you do, don't throw this Hoya into the briar patch

The way we remember Thomas Hoy, the 2nd Duke of Northumberland's gardener at Syon House, is through 300 species, and some varieties, of mostly waxy leaved creepers.

Hoyas were a novelty in London in the nineteenth century. They grow naturally across southern Asia into the Pacific Islands, with some extending into the Indian region. In Australia there are six native species, all but one extending into other neighbouring countries. 

In this blog in 2009, I was showing off the latest flowers on Wax Plant, Hoya australis. Growing below our decking in Sydney, this climbing vine enjoyed a nice humid and mostly shaded spot, with a little loving attention from time-to-time. The species is a popular plant in cultivation, and easy to grow, but it is just one subspecies of Hoya australis, called subspecies australis. It grows throughout the tropics of Australia and further afield, extending southward into north-eastern New South Wales.

There are four other subspecies: two (sanae, tenuipes) from Cape York Peninsula in Queensland and two from the Top End of Northern Territory, where I was visiting back in October 2016. One of the two Northern Territorian subspecies, oramicola, is found only in the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin.

The other, rupicola (sometimes considered a separate species, Hoya rupicola) grows throughout monsoonal Northern Territory and in the nearby Kimberley region. I saw it at Litchfield National Park, near Tolmer Falls. 

Both Northern Territory subspecies lack things called colleters, a cluster of glands on the upper surface of the leave near to where the blade connects to its stalk. I gather you will find these in the more commonly cultivated subspecies australis, but I haven't been able to check yet. Thanks to Flickr image by Xylopia they look like this:

Hoya australis subspecies rupicola is a scrambler rather than a climber. In fact often it's little more than a couple of leaves among the rocks, looking as if they'd rather be somewhere else.  The highly succulent (chunky) leaves are good fit for this tough setting and you can see in this picture a stem heading out along the rocks to find another nook for its next cluster of leaves.

The name 'rupicola' means rock loving, or dwelling, and in the original description of this plant (as a species), botanist Ken Hill described rupicola as 'extremely succulent and drought resistant, growing in small humus accumulations usually on sandstone rocks, often in full sun'. Ken reminded us that this region (the monsoonal north of Australia) can have no rain for up to six months of the year.

But the plant is not foolish. In more sheltered places it can bulk up a bit, and one of the best places is scrambling under and around another species, as you can see here. .

*The title is an adaptation of the line used by Br'er Rabbit to escape being eaten by a fox. Brer and our hoya might imply they like the open ground but both thrive amid the undergrowth.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Maple Twist is no Monkey's Hand

Apart from the absence of red simian-like floral parts, Maple Twist makes me think of Monkey's Hand Tree. There's the big downy leaves (as above!), the chunky flowers with an ornate centrepiece and the soft fragility of the trunk and stems.

As it turns out, Pterospermum acerifolium is indeed closely related to Chiranthodendron pentadactylon (the scientific names being informative if a little cumbersome).  They both belong to what was once Sterculiaceae (think Brachychiton) and is now Malvaceae (think Hibiscus plus now Brachychiton). The flower turns out to be more different than I thought, but we'll get to that later, like I did when I discovered this plant in Melbourne Gardens.

Maple Twist is also called Dinner Plate Tree on account of the big leaves, which are in fact used to hold or to wrap less savoury things like tobacco. Where it grows naturally - India and southern China, southwards to the Malaysian Penninsular - it gets called Bayur Tree, Machukunda, Bayog, Kanakchampa and more.

Most parts of the plant, including the flowers, are used in India for traditional medicine, to treat ailments from cancer to small pox. In recent years there has been a steady stream of scientific papers (e.g.) demonstrating antibacterial, antioxidant and other medicinal activity in, particularly, leaves and bark. The flowers are mostly used in a tonic, for treatment of various internal and external wounds, while the downy hairs on the undersurface of the leaves are said to prevent bleeding (as well as provide a handy tinder for starting fires).

The leaves are, as the species name suggests, shaped like (large) maple leaves. In dryer climates the tree is deciduous for a short time. When I photographed our Melbourne Gardens specimen, growing among a fine collection of araucarias from New Caledonia, there were plenty of dry leaves on the ground below.

The white flowers, like the red flowers of the Monkey's Hand Tree, attract bats as pollinators. But close up, they are not remarkably similar (see my post from November 2013) . What I had thought - at a distance of a few metres (the flowers are high in the tree) - to be something like the monkey hand of Chiranthodendron turned out to be the main part of the flower, with petals. The sepals (the layer outside the petals) are pealed back in the mature plant, like a banana skin.

In Monkey's Hand Tree, the petals and sepals seem glued together (I called them, naively perhaps, simply 'sepals' in my 2013 post) around the centre-piece which often drops from the flower. In Maple Twist, the petals and inner parts are more likely to fall together to the ground. You can see some of the detail here, but remember I've had to photograph this from a distance. I'm assuming the inside bits of the flower somehow conjures up the 'twist' part of Maple Twist. Maybe.

What you can't see, or detect, is the flowers producing a soft perfume. Mostly at night as an extra attractant for those bats but it also appeals to humans - the spent flowers are used as a fragrance and deodoriser for stored clothes and linen.

The fruits are large and 'cucumber-shaped', but given they persist on the tree for up to a year and I could see none on ours, it seems our trees don't set seed. If they did, the seed would be winged, living up to the genus name which means exactly that (winged seed).

This is a tropical to subtropical tree, but from sometimes higher elevations where temperatures can be lower and rainfall higher. They tolerate a dry season of up to seven months so perhaps they'll survive conditions in Melbourne in 2090.

It's grown widely around the world but mostly in Asia and nearby, and seldom, I think, in Australia. At least in the south. Although they can grow in areas with low rainfall, they tend to do best near a water body of some kind. Our tree is next to the Nymphaea Lily Lake and its roots no doubt take advantage of that situation.

Note: I must thank Stuart Williams (@stuartwilliams_) for alerting me to this species. Stuart posted a picture of the flower on Twitter, 23 December 2016, later remarking that it was taken in Melbourne Gardens. Thanks to these tweets I tracked it down on our census, and to this specimen!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Californian fried eggs in need of ironing

Back in January, this poppy was a stand out in our California Garden, on the Anderson Street side of the Melbourne Gardens. Was it the yellow pom-pom of stamens in the middle of each flower, the soft, crinkled white petals floating in the wind, or the summery-grey leaves? Presumably the combination of all.

We have a couple of mature plants in the California Garden, and others in the rockery near the William Tell Shelter, and one in the Grey Garden near the Temple of the Winds. Tough locations with little extra water added.

Romneya coulteri is often called the the Californian Tree Poppy. It's a poppy (family Papaveraceae), from California (and Mexico) and compared to most other poppies it's tree-like (although lanky, it grows to over two metres high with a woody base).

The leaves are leathery and coloured waxy grey-green, as are many of the succulents sharing similar habitats in our botanic garden.

There are two species of Romneya, the other being just little smaller in flower and leaf size (both are considered naturalised in south-west Western Australia, with Romneya coulteri seemingly an escape from gardens in Perth).

With open flowers stretching to about 10 centimetres across, Romneya coulteri is the biggest flowered member of the poppy family and, along with Hibiscus lasiocarpos, the biggest flowered plant in California. So yes, the flowers are even bigger than those of the Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia, which they resemble apart from the petal colour.

The Californian Tree Poppy is also called the Matilija Poppy, after one of it's natural locations, a canyon 100 km or so north-east of Los Angeles, and Fried Egg Plant, after the resemblance of the flowers to a fried egg.

Poppies are well known from their crazy number of stamens (the pollen-bearing sticks surrounding the sticky female centre of the flower) and this species has 'very numerous'. I reckon there's about 300-400 stamens in each flower, almost as many as the wrinkles as I can see in its petals...

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Yellow Gum and trousers hanging by a thread

A generally erect, straight trunked, stately tree, with mottled bark sometimes similar to that of River Red Gum, but more likely to have a cream/yellow tinge, and to grow a little uphill from wet areas.

That's how Bernard Slattery, Ernie Perkins and Bronwyn Silver describe the Yellow Gum, Eucalyptus leucoxylon, in their guide to the Eucalypts of the Mount Alexander Region. In case you are wondering, the Mount Alexander Region is Castlemaine and surrounding goldfield country, and that's where I met Ernie Perkins.

Ernie died last year and the little booklet is dedicated to him, 'teacher, botanist, field naturalist (1934-2016). Back in the day, Mr Perkins taught me chemistry at Castlemaine High School. He was also my tennis partner on weekends. More relevant to this booklet, however, I remember his A4 guides to the wattles, eucalypts and other bits and pieces of nature to be found around Castlemaine. They were always simple, succinct and accurate.

This book, published by the Friends of the Box-Ironbark Forests includes 12 common species and eight 'less common' species of Eucalyptus. In a section that Ernie must have written, is a guide to where you can find these species, and other eucalypts, in the streets of Castlemaine.

For example, my feature eucalypt, the Yellow Gum, can be found in McEwan St (outside numbers 4-6), Wheeler Street (outside number 7 - my grandparents used to live at 17), as an avenue planting in Elizabeth Street, in a copse in Yates Street, and in Kaweka Flora Reserve. 

The book reminds me of Leon Costerman's pocket guide to the trees of Victoria, first published when I was six (1966) and reprinted squillions of times since then (you can still buy it). In fact Leon very kindly provided his drawings to be included this Mount Alexander guide.

As to Yellow Gum, the variant found around Mount Alexander and generally more or less north of the Divide (even popping into NSW) is subspecies pruinosa. There are others in Victoria: subspecies connata, clustered around Port Philip Bay; subspecies bellarinensis, clustered, appropriately, around Geelong; subspecies leucoxylon in mostly western Victoria and across into South Australia, but reaching out a little into the north-east of our State; subspecies megalocarpa just popping into Victoria from South Australia, around Nelson, but widely planted for its big fruits and colourful red flowers; and, phew... subspecies stephanie in the deserts of western Victoria.

The differences are to do with a waxy bloom (or not) on the buds and fruits, plus the size of fruits, flower cluster stalks and leaves. Take a look at the key in VicFlora.

I can't confirm the nomenclature of the sprig featured in this post but I suspect it was modeled from a specimen of subspecies megalocarpa, or the difficult to classify cultivar 'Rosea'. It is made from thread, by embroidery wizard Lynne Stone. Lynne presented me with this artwork as a gift in thanks for opening 'A Secret Garden', the annual exhibition for the Embroiderers Guild Victoria back in October 2016.

I was able to spring a surprise on the group by revealing a set of Mueller's braces. Not quite holding up my trousers but, as the experts say, 'the braces are on fine canvas displaying floral motifs in cross stitch, in Berlin needlework style'. Sadly no Yellow gum in the motif, but at least I don't have try and identify the subspecies.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Cannon ball fruits in Mexico need horses, old or new

Shading the car park in George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens is a tree with fruits that only a horse could break open. Or perhaps an animal now extinct in Mexico and Central America, the current homeland of the Mexican Calabash, Crescentia alata.

Yep, a trip to the tropics is fertile ground for a blogging botanist, although presumably the same applies to a tropical botanist slumming it in the temperate region for a few days. Anyway, I'm close to the end of my northern Australian obsession but I couldn't resist another exotic tropical species with a cute back story.

In a learned paper on 'the fruits the gomphotheres [now extinct elephant relatives] ate', Daniel Janzen and Paul Martin hypothesise that horses and cattle may now provide a decent substitute for extinct 'megafauna'. Not just these elephant relatives but perhaps extinct horse ancestors.

The Mexican Calabash, or Jicaro, is the only member of the plant family Bignoniaceae in Janzen and Martin's list of Costa Rican lowland plants with seeds 'probably dispersed by extinct megafauna'. There are quite a few members of the pea family, figs, palms and others.

Bignoniaceae includes well known temperate trees such as the Indian Bean (Catalpa) and Jacaranda, bearing flowers with the male bits (stamens) attached to the petals, and typically the whole flower looking a bit like a trumpet or vase.

The Calabash has a shy and crooked, bell-shaped flower, followed by a hard and heavy ('cannon-ball-like') fruit. Both arise directly from the trunk or stems, making this a cauliflorous plant.

Today introduced horses crack open the ripe fruit of the Calabash in their mouth, eating and then distributing the 200-800 seeds held within a slippery pulp inside. Tests showed that 97% of seeds extracted from the horse dung and washed would germinate.

In the absence of horses, the fruit rots on the ground during the wet season and the fermenting pulp kills the seeds. The fruit drops from the tree while still green then, over a month or so, browns and ripens, with the innards becoming black and slimy. Although the pulp is sweet, it was a 'fetid' odour.

It seems likely the tree is more common in Cost Rica today than it was historically, thanks to the free-ranging horses. One consequence of the plant going through a bit of a bottle-neck when the local horses died out might have been a reduction in some pollinating animals such as bats.

The flowers of the Calabash are visited by four different kinds of bat today, and their numbers and diversity may have suffered as the horses, and then the Calabash, declined. This in turn could have led to changes to other plants species that may have depended on these bats for pollination. Such a tangled web!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Showy Crepe Myrtle, pride of the tropics

Pride of India is a species of Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle) from China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. As you will have noticed, not from India, although there are numerous references (logically with a common name like this) to it growing in that country.

More reliably perhaps, a scientific paper on the reproduction of the species specifies its range in India as 'across the Northern Himalayas and Western Ghats'.

The increasingly commonly planted Crepe Myrtle in southern Australia is Lagerstroemia indica, definitely from India in this case - plus a few other nearby countries - although there are other native and exotic species available in horticulture. Most of them are bursting into flower across Melbourne as I write. All up there are about 55 species of Lagerstroemia, growing naturally in Australia, eastern Asia and through into Japan.

We don't grow Pride of India, Lagerstroemia speciosa, in the Melbourne Gardens but there is (or was) a specimen in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, and it is commonly grown in the tropics. You will see more often around Melbourne cultivars of Lagerstroemia x matthewsii, a cross between Lagerstroemia speciosa and Lagerstroemia indica, and various mixes and selections of this hybrid and the species. My pictures of the Pride of India are from outside a church in Darwin, Northern Territory.

The species name 'speciosa' means showy or spectacular. The leaves are big, for the genus, and the flowers certainly grab your attention. They are big and in a prominent flowering stem.

The petals are crumpled, as they are in most of the family Lythraceae - a family which also includes the Victorian (apparently) native, Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), a vigorous plant of wet areas in both our Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria sites.

You might also notice this picture the many stamens - the male parts bearing yellow anthers full of pollen. Reputedly each flower has 130 to 200 stamens.

The fruit is a capsule, splitting to released winged seeds.

The wood of the species seems to be something of which we should be particularly proud. In India, where we'll say it's native, the wood is used for construction of furniture, buildings, boats and rail sleepers. The wood is tough, durable and water resistant.

Other parts of the plant have more transient uses such as the leaves being used to make a tea, leaf extracts being used as a insulin-like treatment for diabetes, and the fruits used - somehow - to cure mouth ulcers. Take care with this plant though - some parts are 'astringent', others are poisonous.