Friday, March 16, 2012

Oh those names!

Plant names are largely latin, and latin seems to be, for most people, a language of strange, dark magic.  You plant nerds know what I mean, right?  You can walk down the street and mutter something about Buxus japonica or Lonicera sempervirens and people around you will start crossing themselves and giving you plenty of space.  Well, names have meanings, and maybe we all instinctively know that and are a little awed or skeptical of it.  More likely is that it’s just annoying listening to a bunch of names that, to non-plant people, are so much gibberish.

Whether called love-in-a-pull or balloon plant, there is a little weed that grows along fencelines or out in un-mowed pastures around here.  It makes tiny little white flowers that are pretty easy to miss.  What stands out on this plant are the little one-inch diameter green seed-pods.  These seed-pods will float on water, and if we get one of those gully-washers that we get every other year or so they’ll sail on the temporary flood to the far corner of the pasture.  This, to me, is a pretty cool feature of the plant.  But what I really like about this plant is its name: Cardiospermum halicacabum.  Poking around on the internet, I couldn’t find what halicacabum means, but the Cardiospermum part is neatly self-descriptive.  There are generally three, and occasionally four seeds inside the little balloon seedpod (which will audibly pop when it’s still green- it really is one of the coolest plants).  These seeds are about the size of a peppercorn, and are green until they dry, and then they turn black.  But whether green or black, they have a little white heart on them, which is more striking and more impressive when the rest of the seed is black.  So what you get is a heart on a seed, or a heart-seed, or a Cardio(heart)spermum(seed).  Cool, huh?  Granted, you have to be in touch with your inner nerd. 

A great tree for this area, and one you can see all over Austin, is the burr oak, Quercus macrocarpa.  All oaks are Quercus, so that part’s easy enough.  But macrocarpa?  Macro= big  carpa=fruit.  Take a look at the acorn from a burr oak, and it all comes together.

These nuts are often the size of a golf ball or bigger, and they’re snuggled into a big, furry looking cap.  Every fall, the first couple of burr oak acorns I see make me want to glue of couple of those shaky eyes on them and keep them on my desk for a while.  Along with the big acorns, the burr oak features thick, deeply corrugated bark and larger, much more deeply lobed leaves than other oaks in this area.

So here’s what happens to me here at the nursery several times probably just once a week:  there’s a customer looking for a 45 gallon Mexican white oak (Quercus polymorpha).  So I jump into a golf cart and take off into the trees to find the very best one.  As I go past row after row of oak trees, there’s a running dialog in my head: “live oak, live oak, chinquapin oak, burr oak, cedar elm, chinquapin oak… where in the heck are the white oaks?”  It’s not until I finally admit defeat and actually check the tags that I realize that some of those chinquapin oaks I was looking at are actually Mexican white oaks.  Those wascally wabbits. 
Quercus polymorpha

Quercus polymorpha is either a trickster that disguises itself to look like some other- any other- oak tree, or it’s just not satisfied being the great oak tree that it is.  And the white oak is a great tree.  It’s one of the faster growing oak trees for this area.  The new leaves in the early spring come out pinkish to white, looking like flowers.  The older leaves lose the pink tinge, but maintain a soft, rounded look.  But that’s only when it looks like itself.  Often, it takes on the look of a chinquapin or, in some cases, a burr oak.  This would bring its parentage into question, if you’re the sort of person who looks at that sort of thing.  This failure to commit to one specific look is what gets the white oak the moniker polymorpha; because it can change (morph) to look like several (poly) other kinds of trees.  But we love them no matter the shape of their leaves.  
A white oak masquerading as a chinquapin.
 Sometimes, the specific epithet of a plant conveys the plants origins.  Kerria japonica is a yellow flowering shrub originally from Japan.  The crape myrtle that everyone is familiar with, that you can see throughout the American south, is called Lagerstroemia indica, and hails from India.  Now, to be perfectly precise about this, there may well have been Kerrias in China, or Lagerstroemias in Korea, but they got named for where they were first discovered by a European explorer.  So, class, where does Cercis canadensis come from?  Walla Walla, Washington, right?  Close enough.

Then there are the plants that get named for the people who found them, or at least who first recorded them.  Remember a blog several months ago about Ferdinand Lindheimer?  That guy that had a couple of dozen plants and a snake named after him?  The father of Texas botany?  Yeah, that guy.  One of the plants named after him is Nolina lindheimeri, a grass-like plant that takes 100 degree days and a dry, rocky soil and asks for ‘more, please!’  Not a bad legacy for a tough old bird like Ferdinand who withstood floods, droughts, poisonous snakes, starvation and other fun threats to his life all in the name of expanding the botanical knowledge of Texas. 

Lantana horrida, or Texas Lantana, grows wild along fence rows and in pastures.  Birds help to spread it by eating the seeds.  It’s a pretty plant that sports yellow/orange blooms and can withstand extreme Texas summers without blinking.  It’s tough, it’s pretty, but whew!  That smell!  It’s not something you would notice unless you crush the leaves, and then it’s pretty strong.  I should add here that I actually, just a little, kinda like the smell of lantana leaves, but we’ve already established that I’m a weirdo, right?  In any case, it’s that odor that gives Texas lantana it’s latin handle: Lantana horrida.  ‘Cause it smells horrid.

During the summer of 2010, the Houston Museum of Natural Science attracted crowds so large that they had to be staged in smaller groups and kept in long lines.  The main attraction wasn’t the bones of some new dinosaur that were found, or a rare, snazzy, sparkly gem.  It was a flower.  Amorphophallus titanium take years to bloom, and once they do, the flower lasts just a few days and then dies, hopefully leaving behind a few seeds.  The Amorphophallus being displayed at the museum in Houston was named Lois, though a more common name for it is ‘corpse-flower’.  So, at the height of flowering, guess what ‘Lois’ smelled like.  It wasn’t exactly a spring-fresh breeze, nor was it the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking.  It was significantly more putrid, and a lot of people paid money to be exposed to it (and of course I was one of them).  But it’s not its smell that gives Amorphophallus titanium its name.  This flower, for all its rarity, is big.  By the time hundreds of museum-goers were shuffling past it and wishing they had smell-o-vision on their cameras, the spadix (the central part of the flower) was nearly six feet tall.  So the specific epithet (the second part of the plant’s latin name) comes from it’s size: titanum = big (like the titanic, but not as tragic).  As far as the Amorphophallus part, uh, here’s a picture.  You figure it out.
Along those lines, there is an absolutely beautiful plant commonly called butterfly pea vine.  When I worked in a retail nursery, customers would gush over it and occasionally come in and ask for it if they didn’t immediately see any.  Every now and then, maybe toward the end of a particularly long day when I was feeling a bit punchy, I would ask them for clarification.  “Do you mean the Clitoria?”  Some of the reactions were pretty entertaining.  Sometimes you have to make your own fun.  Butterfly pea vine is otherwise known as Clitoria ternatea.  Why?  Beats me, but here's a picture.  Now let’s move on.

So, I love plant names.  Some of them are great for the self-description hidden in the obscure latin names.  Some of them are just kind of funny.  Some of them might not get past the censors.  Chinese hat plant is one I’ve never grown, and I think I’ve only seen an actual plant once.  But it has one of the coolest names: Holmskioldia sanguinea.  Sanguinea just means that it has red stems; that’s straightforward enough.  Holmskioldia is where the magic happens.  Holmskioldia.  Hooooolms(likeSherlock)keeeyyyyyohhhldeeah.  There’s a mantra for you.  That’s a word you’ll have to practice until it trips lightly off the tongue, and then just keep it with you.  Bring it out when the time’s right; you’ll know when.  Personally, I think it’d be a great nickname for a little niece or nephew: “Here’s comes the little Holmskioldia right now.  What’s happening, Lagerstroemia?”

By the way, you haven’t really heard plant names until you hear them spoken by someone who basically already speaks latin.  Last summer, I had to chance to attempt to communicate with a group of Italians.  Essentially, we were reduced to pointing and smiling and using latin plant names.  When I say Teucrium frutescens or Lagerstroemia indica, at the very best communication happens.  When Italians say it, it’s as though they savor the words, and what happens is linguistic magic.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Greenhouses I Have Loved

Pulling your coat tighter around you just makes the wind mad, and it blows the rain directly into your face.  Is it even rain any more, or is it ice at this point?  It’s easily cold enough.  You’re trying to navigate by looking at the ground immediately in front of your feet, because if you look up the frozen air will whip under your hood and around your neck and try to strangle you with icy claws.  The grey ground is separated from the grey sky by only a line of black, bare branches of dead looking trees.  The color has all gone underground to wait for spring, apparently. And then you make it to the greenhouse.  Step inside and you’re in a different world.  It’s a safe haven for color and warmth, and it’s enough to finally get you to first unzip, and eventually take off your coat to let the warmth and humidity creep in under your clothes and start to thaw you out.  There may be some tropical plants that are taking refuge for the winter until it’s safe enough to go back to the front porch of the house, or there may be tables full of rows of seedlings or plants that are nearly visibly engaged in growing, oblivious to the howling, freezing weather outside.  Dark green leaves make a bed for deep red Poinsettias or plate-sized yellow Hibiscus blooms.  As you unbutton your flannel shirt, you realize that the only thing between you and the malicious outdoors is a very thin layer of plastic.  It’s incredible, and it’s nothing short of magic. 
The first greenhouse I ever encountered got delivered a good whallop by my brother and me.  When we were little kids, our mom worked at Ellison’s Greenhouse in Brenham.  One summer, she found a high school girl that lived just a half a mile or so away from the greenhouse who naively agreed to watch us during the day.  I think she was pretty glad when Mom came to get us in the afternoon.  One day we were at the greenhouse for whatever reason, and Mom left us alone for just a minute while she went in to turn off some sprinklers, or something.  In about 20 seconds, my brother and I had found two nursery carts and had arranged a race across the greenhouse, or we were trying to crash them into each other, or one of those kinds of things little boys think of when they get even a tiny bit bored.  The thing about a greenhouse is its thin covering of plastic is very good at doing what it’s meant to do: letting light in while keeping the cold out.  It is NOT meant to be able to withstand two little boys armed with nursery carts.  Consequently, when Mom finished what she was doing, she found the nursery carts put away where we found them and the two of us sitting quietly and patiently, hoping she wouldn’t notice the hole in the corrugated sliding door to the greenhouse.  She noticed.
Poinsettias in Ellison's Greenhouse, 1982
Years later I wound up living in Nacogdoches and working for a small nursery in nearby Lufkin.  The nursery owner had several interests, and one of them was Night Blooming Cereus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum).  He had a few great big ones that were his personal plants- his pets- that he kept in a homemade greenhouse at the nursery.  I had grown up with roses, but I was pretty unfamiliar with most houseplants and tropicals.  So the Cereus with its flat, vein-lined leaves and alien, pulpy fruit were fascinating.

Night Blooming Cereus
Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued by gourds.  So when someone told my dad he could have an old greenhouse frame that was too wobbly to be used for a greenhouse any more, I jumped at the chance to grow gourds on it.  My new “gourd arbor” was thirty feet long and fifteen feet tall.  One side I covered in Luffa gourds and the other supported a mixture of dipper gourds, apple gourds, birdhouse gourds and kettle gourds. 

If I believed in luck, I would say I’ve been incredibly lucky in all of my various “greenhouse” endeavors.  My dad had a small farm outside of College Station on the Brazos River where I was able to experiment with gourds, discover the heartbreak of homemade cold frames, and basically just be a plant-nerd to my heart’s content.  Next to my former-greenhouse-turned-gourd-arbor I decided to construct my own cold frame to protect a bunch of rose cuttings I was trying to nurture into rose bushes.  That was… interesting. 

So, apparently an essentially square wooden frame with plastic tacked to it doesn’t really make a good greenhouse.  Now I know.  Some of the problems that really should have been obvious from the outset showed up pretty fast.  Especially when the rain started.

Greenhouse have an arched roof for a very good reason.  This also demonstrates the incredible elasticity of (relatively) cheap plastic. 

For several years, I worked at a retail nursery in north Austin.  The owner decided he no longer wanted to deal with a twenty-four foot greenhouse frame that had been leaning against the back wall of the nursery for years.  What that really means is that is was time to either move it or give it away, and he dreaded the thought of moving it.  I, meanwhile, couldn't wait to get my hands on a real greenhouse frame, even if I had to take it apart myself and figure out how to move it to Dad’s farm. 

I took pictures like crazy so I would have a reference to how it was supposed to go back together.
And how it wasn’t.

This poor greenhouse frame has been moved all over half of Texas by this point.  For a while it lived behind a house my wife and I rented in south Austin.  Did my neighbors complain?  Not if I didn’t complain about their rooster crowing every morning.

I also acquired (as a birthday present) a little kit greenhouse.  It’s darn cute.

When we finally bought our own house, out in Elgin, I made immediate plans for a greenhouse; this time from a slightly smaller frame I got from a defunct Bougainvillea grower. 

(the last two sections were just temporary; I needed a little more storage space for houseplants in the winter)

From my same, incredibly generous, former boss who gave me the first greenhouse frame, I got some oooold French doors that I fantasize about someday building into a much nicer greenhouse.  It’ll be mostly glass, have automatic vents, a fine-misting system, possibly a heated floor…  an’ we’ll live offa da fatta da land, right George?  Well, that’s what ‘someday’ is for, right?

My wife calls this dream-greenhouse our ‘Orangery’, like a wealthy land-baron would use to keep his exotic citrus trees and huge tree ferns.  Speaking of which, I’ve seen some pretty spectacular greenhouses.

The Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania.   Way too grand to call a “greenhouse” any more. 

And in one of the most famous gardens in the world…

… the Kew Garden Conservatory.  For those greenhouse-empire building plant-nerds.  With a whole lot of money.

A couple of years ago, we were on vacation in Medina, TX, and checked out this nursery with a greenhouse built into the side of a hill.

Medina Valley Greenhouse.  That wall on the left is the side of a hill that they built right into.  This greenhouse ain’t blowing away. 

Here’s a little greenhouse at The Antique Rose Emporium.  I don’t know that they actually grow anything in there, but like so many things The Antique Rose Emporium does, it is the definition of  “cottagey”, in the best way possible.  I love it.

And finally, here’s a “greenhouse” we visit every year about this time on our annual River Walk/margarita/Botanical Garden weekend in San Antonio. 

My wife asked my once if this ever gave me ideas about our own greenhouse.  I said it would take a lot more old rusted French doors.  But what the heck.  Someday…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rocktober Festival of Decorative Gourds and Exuberant Flowers.

Whuh.. wha… huh?  What just happened?  It’s not 128 degrees anymore?  I remember sometime back in May thinking ‘hmm, is this going to be one of those terrible summers?’  And then it was like Manny Pacquiao tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned around- ka-POW! 
So now, when I step outside in the morning and it’s nice out, or even blessedly cool, I feel a bit like I’ve just left a full-on metal concert and got in a car with my friends to go home, and for the next twenty minutes we’re all yelling at full volume and don’t even realize it.  Only in this case instead of yelling we’re trying to make sure we park in the shade and/or put the sunscreen up, slathering on the SPF 380, and trying to avoid exposure in the middle of the afternoon altogether. 
Okay, all right, calm down, it’s over. 
There, feel better?  Starting to relax?  Well, don’t get too comfy, ‘cause it’s ROCKtober, Baby!  And it’s just as intense as the summer ever thought about being.  I was talking to my brother in Rosenberg the other day about when we could get together with our buddies to hang out and catch up.  We started tallying up holidays, weekends at the in-laws’, various fall festivals, and other obligations, and it looks like we’ll get around to it sometime in late February.  And the whole season kicks off with fat sausages, dark beers, pecans on the ground, deer running across the road early in the morning with a panicked look in their eye, and pink hogs on everything (you know what I mean, Elginites).  BUT, I’m a plant nerd.  So the icons of fall for me are Fall Asters in bloom…
Fall Asters going crazy
Fall Mums…
'Clara Curtis' garden mum
… and the sight and smell of Copper Canyon Daisies.
Pumpkins are pretty cool.  Sometimes the faces people give them can get pretty imaginative.  The kind of gourds I like, though, are those warty little orange and yellow ones that pop up in grocery stores this time of the year.  This year, for the first time in several years, I grew birdhouse-type gourds in my backyard on a twenty-foot arbor I built back in the late spring. 

After being shy throughout the summer, now the gourds are popping out all over the place.  Every day I walk through the arbor and count how many new little baby gourds there are. 
What am I going to do with all these gourds?  Well, it’s one of those journey-rather-than-the-destination kinds of things.  I guess there will be plenty of housing for the local birds.
October also means rose-cuttings.
Around mid-October is the best time to take cuttings of any roses you’d like to propagate.  I have several roses around the house I propagated myself that are still smallish, but it won’t take long before they’re established, full-size rose bushes.  One of my favorites, and a very easy one to propagate, is the Green Rose.  And strangely appropriate for October, I think.

Yep, that's a rose.  Sort of.

Take a cutting of a rose that’s about the thickness of a pencil, and about 2-3 inches long.  Cut it so that there is a node (where a leaf comes out) at the bottom, exposed to the soil.  Use a nice, loose soil, and maybe even some rooting hormone, like Rootone.  Make a hole in the soil with your finger or else the same pencil you used to measure the cutting.  Dip the cutting end into water, and then into the Rootone.  Carefully place the end into the hole, being careful not to knock off the Rootone as you do.  And then cover up the bottom with soil, and keep the cutting warm and moist for the next eight weeks or so.  Some folks will make a little tent with a plastic bag or an empty two-liter plastic bottle.  The bottle method is nice because you can cut off the bottom and put it down over the cutting, and unscrew the top whenever you need to vent it.  Until you vent it, it’s an enclosed system, so it won’t really need much water.  Just keep an eye on it and make sure there’s some condensation on the inside.  My wife used this method to propagate a Cramoisi Superieur rose, which was the first thing we planted in front of our first house. 
So we humans, mostly, love cooler weather.  But the plants are digging it, too.  Aside from the Autumn-specific bloomers like the Fall Aster and Copper Canyon Daisy (and Mexican Mint Marigold, which has the same flowers but with foliage that smells like licorice), a lot of the plants are breathing a sigh of relief that’s nearly audible, and absolutely visual. 
Make time for Octoberfest in Fredericksburg, the Fall Festival of Roses at the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, maybe a trip to Plantersville in your coolest chain-mail, squeeze in a drive through the country to see what’s going on out there, and go buy enough candy to make sure the little tricksters-or-treaters are zipping around like hummingbirds on coca-nectar when they get home.  And rock out!  ‘Cause it’s Rocktober!  Which is like October, just more. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dreams of Ice

Long, long ago in a land that for all practical purposes might as well be far, far away, it was not brutally hot.  No, really.  Think back… it was a time known as “February”.  It was a time when British towns were not being looted and Standard and Poor’s wasn’t quite so dismal.  Not only was it not so hot, it was cold.  It was really cold.  There were no leaves on the trees, but it wasn’t because of drought.  The landscape was bare and stark and the ground was rock-solid.  And then, one morning, we came to work here at the nursery to find fantastic scenes of alien worlds, fairy castles, and extravagant island resorts built by Middle-eastern sheiks.  There was ice, and not just a little.  Remember that?  Maybe you do.  Maybe you have a vague memory that you’ve started to assume was a really crazy, really vivid dream.  But it was real.  We know because we saw it, too, and we took pictures. 

This sprinkler stand was a column of ice all night, but as the sun struck it in the morning, I was able to catch that little drop of water coming off of the stalactite on the right in mid-drop.
 There’s this really cool succulent plant called Lithops, which kind of look like little round rocks that have been split in half.  These looked to me like Ice-Lithops.
One of the best things about the ice was all the different and weird patterns it made. 
Grass in stasis
The frozen grass made a very satisfying crunch when stepped on, which presented us with a dilemma: stomp around in it and listen to the crunch, or leave it as pristine as possible as long as possible?
An ice-beard hanging off of one of the pots
Ever read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”?
 The ice has decided to colonize the pot, and is trying to put down a root to anchor itself there. 
It’s like these trunks started out as pure ice, but were slowly becoming real trees as they grew.  That ice is tricky stuff.
 Ice-falls.  If you were about two inches tall, this would be so awesome!
Poor frozen extremities of the Dwarf Yaupon Holly

 This is like a scene from a horror movie for plants.  This is the part where it’s nearly completely engulfed by the Ice-blob, and finally manages to stretch one small branch up and out of its icy clutches.  But the the Ice-blob bloorps up a little bit of itself to smother the Yaupon’s last hope for freedom.  This is the scene that makes little Yaupons want to sleep with the lights on, and make the Mommy Yaupon look under the bed and make sure there are no Ice-blobs hiding there. 
So how did we get all of that ice all over our plants?  With an ice-hose, of course.
A leaf's-eye view

Trapped behind a wall of ice.  Poor little plants.

This is a new variety of Texas Mountain Laurel we’re working on.  Gives you big clusters of ice-flowers all summer.  They smell like orange blossoms and taste like a frozen margarita.  You can either enjoy the flowers on the tree, or use them in your drink.  We expect this to be one of our best sellers

Is it live or is it Memorex?  Or is it just really blasted cold?

It was so cold the camera shutter stuck about halfway open.  But it did make kind of a cool effect. 
Is that a penny trapped under the ice?
 These little frozen blobs didn’t crunch like the frozen grass, but we couldn’t slide across them either.  We just sort of hobbled across while trying not to fall down.  Which was fun in its own way.
Jared's World

Christina's World
A frozen grass-blade's-eye view
Ice-a-saurus sculpture
Apparently wire fences stop ice formations.  This is useful information.


Here are either reminders of the awful winter we all survived six months ago, or they’re images of relief while we all survive this awful summer.  In which case, you’re welcome.