Under the Mistletoe

Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving? And yet here we are, days away from Christmas and the New Year. I’m already back in my home town for the holidays so you can expect updates from me this week, all centered around Yule, Christmas, and the New Year.


Mistletoe with berries

The first plant that “Santa Sexy Plants” will talk about this holiday is Mistletoe. Why? Mostly because in the long car ride across the great state of Pennsylvania yesterday my friend Chris asked me about it and I started lecturing him about this interesting plant (car rides are awesome for trying your material out on  a captive audience). But it really is a cool piece of botanic wonder. For starters, what we call mistletoe varies depending on your location. In Europe it refers to Viscum album and generally can be recognized by the white berries in clusters of 2-6. However in America, it most likely refers to the plant Phoradendron flavescens which  usually has clusters of 10 berries. These two different plants look incredibly similar and function similarly in their environments.

Mistletoes are usually parasites. They grow on trees, usually high up in branches where the seeds are deposited by birds, produce an appendage called a haustorium that penetrates the bark of the tree, and actually pilfer water and nutrients from the host tree. However, the correct term for these plants is “hemiparasite” since mistletoes are capable of photosynthesizing their own food if they do not find a host.

But the fertility folklore is probably the most interesting aspect of the plant. Continue reading

A tipitiwitchet of one’s own

What if I told you there was a plant, beloved the world over, that only grows in a small sliver of the United States? And I mean small: this plant’s range only extends 100 miles from the southern bit of North Carolina to the northern tip of  South Carolina. Of course that is it’s natural range. Now this plant can be seen the world over growing in botanic gardens or cultivated by collectors. And all because it eats a little meat…

339px-Drawing_of_Venus_FlytrapOf course I am talking about the famous Venus Flytrap. Discovered in the 18th century, the plant became a instant treasure of the colonies, beguiling curious collectors of all types: from the farmers of the new world all the way to the Queen of England. It was first described by Governor of North Carolina Author Dobbs in a letter to English botanist Peter Collinson dated April 2, 1759. In it, he commented that:

We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon any thing that touches it. It grows in Latitude 34 but not in 35. I will try to save the seed here.

Dobbs then welcomed Philadelphia plant collector William Bartram to his home to examine this new curious plant. William brought specimens home to his father, the famous botanist (and fellow friend of Peter Collinson) John Bartram. The Batrams were immediately smitten with the plant. They were the first to successfully cultivate the plant outside of its native range in their greenhouses along the Schuylkill River. John is credited with sending the first herbarium specimens of the plant to Peter Collinson for study. Collinson, in turn, provided the specimens to fellow botanists including John Ellis and later, Linnaeus.

But no one at this point had been able to collect seeds to send to Collinson in England. Remember this fact, it will become important later.

Ok, now it’s time to get down to the really raunchy stuff! Continue reading

The smell of the living dead

Even though its been four years (FOUR YEARS!) since I have left my friends at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh to move across the state, I have to admit, I still miss the gardens and all the craziness that goes along with them.

And this past week made me terribly jealous because it was the bloom of Romero*, Phipps’s very own Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum). One part phallus and all stink, this flower is native to the Sumatran rainforest and uses the putrid stench it gives off to attract it’s particular pollanators: carrion beetles! And that spadix! We are talking about flower that can reach 10 feet in length and most of that is a HUGE phallic spadix that swells, stands erect, and 24-48 hours later, wilts until it eventually tips and collapses under its own weight (whether or not it managed to attract a pollinator).

Just think about that  for a moment and take a look:

Phipps’s Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum)

Phipps was open late (till 2 am) for two nights to accommodate the influx of visitors for the time sensitive event. Plus there were zombie themed cocktails to sip on while waiting in line and two separate screenings of the human Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to get the crowd in the mood. It only blooms once every ten years on average, so this flower was a Big Deal.  And I am pleased to hear that Pittsburgh stepped up! I am always excited when the public gets pumped up for a plant or botany based event, and Phipps had over 10,000 visitors within 24 hours. THAT IS AMAZING YOU GUYS! I’m sorry, what I mean to say is “That is amazing, yinz guys.” Romero is Pittsburgh’s flower, after all.

* Why is it named Romero you ask? Because Phipps in Pittsburgh! And if something is known for its vile stench of rotting flesh then who better to honor with that smell than the king of the modern zombie cannon, Pittsburgh’s own George Romero? He even came to visit his namesake right before the bloom began.

Phipps horticulturist Ben Dunigan (left) and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ writer George Romero (right)