plants

Posted by Ellen

Mandrake, a plant of biblical, medieval, literary, medical, and comic book significance, blooms in April in New York City, in the garden of the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Mandrake flowers, shown here as buds just beginning to open, are pretty little bell-shaped blossoms, but they are traditionally of little interest. The leaves are heavy and heart-shaped and can grow huge over the course of a summer, but they too are mostly overlooked. With mandrake, a plant native to the Mediterranean region, it's all about the root.

Mandrake root is long and thick and often split into two legs, sometimes arguably resembling the human form. It's also powerfully sleep-inducing when ground and soaked; it was used as an anesthetic in antiquity and into the Middle Ages. In the bible, and perhaps also in the poetry of John Donne, extract of mandrake root cured infertility. In folklore all over Europe, a human-shaped mandrake root in your pocket offered protection even if the church was not on your side; Joan of Arc was charged with "habitually" carrying root of mandrake.

Mandrake was said to spring up in ground drenched with blood or semen from a man being hanged. If you pulled the plant up out of the ground, as Shakespeare warned us, its man-root would scream, and you could die from hearing the scream. There was a report as late as the ninteenth century of a British gardener falling down the stairs and dying after accidentally pulling up a volunteer mandrake.

(In Harry Potter, of course, young witches and wizards wore protection.)

In 1934, "Mandrake the Magician" emerged as the world's first modern costumed superhero, in a newpaper comic strip that ran continuously until 2013. The hero Mandrake's ability to instantly hypnotize bad guys may have been, pardon the expression, rooted in the medicinal tradition of the mandrake plant.

Posted by Ellen

Lupin–from North America–and gorse–from Europe–are valued plants in much of the northern hemisphere. They were intentionally imported into New Zealand, lupin as a showy garden flower, gorse as a golden-blooming hedgerow plant to help farmers establish the boundaries of their pastures.

Both plants grew well in New Zealand and quickly became naturalized, spreading across much of the countryside, crowding out native bush, reducing habitat for native animals, and eventually finding themselves on the official registry of invasive species and noxious weeds.

Gorse is much the worse offender, now occupying 5 percent of New Zealand's land area and virtually impossible to eradicate. In Europe, gorse thickets are functional living fences around fields and pastures. The hedgerows break up areas of agricultural monoculture, providing habitat for wild birds and other native critters, and the thorny branches help farmers keep "wild" animals out of the fields and grazing animals in place. In New Zealand, however, gorse jumps right out of any hedgerows, displaces both native plants and cultivated crops, and swallows up all the open land thereabouts, till there's no grass left for the sheep and cattle. In just a few years, a gorse infestation can reduce pastureland and cropland to worthless, thorny scrub that is highly prone to catching fire.

Gorse seeds survive for many years in the soil near their parent plants. If the plants are pulled out or killed, the seeds immediately germinate in the disturbed soil and quickly, vigorously, happily replace whatever gorse has been laboriously removed.

Lupin too, is happy in its adopted New Zealand home (even though Kiwis drop the "e" that Americans just know belongs at the end of the plant's name). The lupin species that has made itself at home in so much of the country is Russell lupin, native to western North America and noted for the range of color on its spectacular flower spikes. Russell lupin likes conditions in New Zealand so well it has learned to thrive there even in places without soil, such as in the wide open gravel beds of the South Island's famed braided rivers.

Braided rivers are actually a rare kind of habitat, found in Alaska, western Canada, New Zealand's South Island, and very few other places. They flow steeply down from rapidly eroding mountains, carrying lots of sediment but not much water except during spring snowmelt, when the gravel is scoured clean. During times of low water, shallow streams and pools meander through the gravel, habitat for rare birds and fish. But when lupin colonize a braided river, the dense mats of their roots and stems trap sediment, choking off the riverwater, pinching its flow into relatively deep, narrow, fast-flowing channels that native fish and birds can't survive in.

Lupin spreads across a braided riverbed at the rate of about two meters a year. And the riverwater washes the lupin seeds downstream, to begin new colonies.

The photo at the top of this posting shows both lupin and gorse becoming established at the edge of a braided river near Arthur Pass.

Photo 1 below: Gorse has conquered the hillside at left in the Taieri Gorge west of Dunedin and is spreading to still-pastoral hillsides in the photo's background.

Photo 2: A sheep picks its way between thorny gorse bushes in a pasture with little grass left to eat.

Photo 3: Beautiful lupin grows dreamily in the highlands around Lake Tekapo.

Possible error message: We are decidedly non-expert in the art and science of plant identification. What we claim is gorse in the photos here may actually be one or more of several vaguely gorse-like species, perhaps Scotch broom, which is also an invasive noxious weed, or perhaps a native Kiwi type of broom, which is not considered weedy at all because it keeps to its place in the ecological scheme of things.

Posted by Ellen

Point your camera at pretty scenes in New Zealand, and it won't take long before you notice how many of your snapshots include a fringe or scrim of tall red-brown lilies.

They call the lilies flax, which makes no sense. In the northern hemisphere, flax is the name of a field crop, a bushy, weedy looking plant grown for linen fiber and linseed oil. In New Zealand, flax is the name for a group of native lilies that grow wild all over the countryside, around mountain lakes and seaside marshes, in suburban yards and rural hedgerows and the far-flung edges of uninhabited woodlands.

New Zealand flax got its name as a marketing gimmick. The Maori called these lilies harakeke, and they used their fibrous leaves for weaving baskets, fishing nets, ropes, cords, mats, and all sorts of clothing, from rough raincloaks to fine gowns decorated with feathers. By the mid-nineteenth century, the strength and durability of the fiber was known around the world, particularly for ropes, fishnets, and cordage; the Maori began cultivating the lilies in huge plantations, sometimes using slave labor to tend the lilies and strip the leaves for fiber to sell to Europeans. The Europeans, smelling money, promoted New Zealand "flax" as a high-quality version of that Old World lineny stuff.

Meanwhile, Maori continued to weave their flax into goods for their own use, including baskets, as depicted below in a 1903 painting by the Czech artist Gottfried Bohumir Lindauer; the flax baskets in the painting are being woven by women who are wearing garments also woven from New Zealand flax fiber. Lindauer, trained as an artist in Vienna, fled to New Zealand to avoid military service in the Austrian army and discovered he could make a living painting scenes of Maori life.

Below the painting here are additional views of New Zealand flax in bloom.

Posted by Ellen

 

Highbush blueberries in New Jersey are getting riper and riper these days. If you're a commercial-type blueberry and you want to grow bigger and sweeter, the rain and the muggy heat are all good.

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