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A Toad Lily blossom

A Toad Lily blossom

Time for a short flower post to highlight the joys of the late summer garden! Toad lilies are delicately beautiful woodland flowers with a somewhat awkward English common name. The genus name “Tricyrtis” is not very euphonic either, but the pretty little spotted members of the lily family are a real highlight of temperate gardens at the end of August and into the still-warm fall months.


Toad lilies are natives of Asia where various species range from the Himalayas east across China and all the way out to Japan and the Philippines. The flowers are various soft shades of blue, purple, mauve, and brown with little dark animal-like spots (which give them their English name). They are perennials which sprout from a creeping rhizome and they are hardy enough to resist extremes of both heat and cold. In their native habitat they grow at the edges of forests and bamboo groves—which makes them shade tolerant. Look at how pretty they are!



I meant to finish off flower week last Friday with some photos of my garden in Brooklyn as it bursts into spring blossoms—but I was unable to find my camera (well actually I couldn’t find the charger for the battery of my camera). This past weekend I went through all sorts of drawers, shelves, and closets and finally found the missing unit in a cabinet which I swear I checked before—why don’t electronics manufacturers make these things the color of marine rescue equipment as opposed to matte black? Anyway, here is the back garden. After a long hard winter, it is pure joy to see the tulips, dogwoods, and bleeding hearts in bloom. I’m sorry I am not a very gifted photographer: the plants are so much prettier in the real world! However, maybe a little part of their beauty shows up in these photographs.


Above all else, the star of the garden is the huge stately Kwanzan flowering cherry tree which overtops the house. The tree is so big that it is difficult to photograph all of it. Additionally no camera can do justice to the ineffable beauty of its stately pink blossoms (which I have written about in past posts about the Japanese blossom viewing festival and about the wistful poignancy of ephemeral beauty). I love that tree so much—maybe I’ll go out and take pictures of it tonight with the lanterns on (sorry about all of the ugly cords).




There are some holes in the garden where summer plants have not yet sprouted (or where grim winter laid waste to the flower that was living there) but that is all part of the joy of gardening. I’ll try to post some more pictures with the irises, roses, and hydrangeas once they have bloomed. In the mean time it is a lovely season to head outside and enjoy the flowers!


Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

One of my favorite spring flowers suffers unjustly from a tainted name. When visitors to my garden see the beautiful dark colors and delicate fairy shapes of this plant and ask its name, I am always loathe to say “columbine” because people then want to talk about the infamous high school shooting which took place in Colorado in 1999 at Columbine High School (columbines grow naturally in Colorado and are the state flower there). Indeed when I googled the name of the flower to search for pretty floral pictures I got all sorts of insane teen gunmen, digital tributes to victims, and soppy made-for-tv movies. This is a shame, since columbines are not just lovely, but hardy (all the way to the frigid depths of Zone 3) and easy to grow. Columbines are flowers of the genus Aquilegia which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. They hybridize prolifically, so it is hard to pin down the exact wild species. In addition to their hardiness they easily germinate from seeds.

Columbines (Aquilegias)

Columbines (Aquilegias)

The flower’s common and scientific names are also weirdly at odds. Aquilegia is the Latin name for eagle. The flowers received this fearsome name because the long flower spurs were thought to resemble eagle’s claws. Columbine is Latin for dove—since it was thought the inverted flower looked like five doves nestled together. It is strange that gardeners use a (tainted) Latin name at the expense of a different yet equally euphonic Latin name. I think we should henceforth call columbines aquilegias and put the columbine name behind us. Indeed, forgetting the Columbine massacre itself might be for the best, since greater media attention may lead to copycat attacks. [I realize that I am now guilty of writing about Columbine too–so I earnestly entreat any teenagers who are somehow reading this blog post about flowers not to shoot up their high schools. Stay in school, kids, and grow up to write eclectic blogs about winsome spring flowers: that’ll really teach the bullies!]

columbine flower

With their elongated petal spurs and delicate shades of pink, blue, purple, and yellow, aquilegias are extremely pretty. Yet their prettiness belies their poisonous nature. Like many shade plants, aquilegias have poisonous seeds and roots. Indeed they are related to the infamous aconitums—which are also a part of the treacherous buttercup family. Hopefully other gardeners will follow my lead in calling columbines aquilegias—but more importantly, you should follow good example by growing them—they are really magical.

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)


Orchis italica

Orchis italica

Today we showcase a humorous-looking orchid–Orchis italica, which (for self-evident reasons) is also known as the naked man orchid, the Italian orchid, or the naked fairy orchid. The orchid grows in the Mediterranean along the coast of Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.  Sometimes it is even found as far west as Portugal.  The plant favors poor soil and mixed shade.  In the summer it produces a remarkable array of blooms which resemble tiny nude lavender men wearing crazy turban-crowns.

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

During the middle ages, a certain school of natural-history held that the creator had put clues about the pharmacological utility of flora in the very shape of the plants themselves.  This so-called “doctrine of signatures” asserted that plants which looked like the liver were good for the liver and flowers that resembled the skin were good for the skin.   Orchis italica was sought out and crushed down as a virility aid.  The naked fairy orchid was not alone in becoming a part of such decoctions:  other Mediterranean orchids (like Orchis mascula) were also dug up.  The tubers of these plants (which tend to come in pairs and also resemble male anatomy) were crushed into a heavy flour which was used to make salep or salop–a dense sugary beverage which had extensive popularity in Europe and the Ottoman world during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was sold in coffee houses everywhere and is still sold in Turkey.

Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula


The vernal equinox will be here in a few days.  This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night.  However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear).    A few bulbs have already flowered:  one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant.  The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.

Snowdrop flower

Snowdrop flower

There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants.  The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests.  Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring.  For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry.  [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering.  Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties.  In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes).  Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers).   The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture.  The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).


Um, snowdrop?

Fuchsia denticulata (from cloud forests of the Andes mountains)

Fuchsias are flowering shrubs and trees which have gained vast popularity in the garden for their lovely colorful blossoms.  The genus has nearly 110 different species, most of which are indigenous to South America.  Additionally some fuchsias occur northwards into Central America and westward across the South Pacific on island chains such as Tahiti.  The genus extends all the way to New Zealand where the largest fuchsia, Kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), is a tree which can grow to sizes of up to 15 meters (45 feet) in height. The majority of fuchsias however are much much smaller.

The plants were first discovered and named (by Europeans) on the island of Hispaniola in 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French Minim monk.  Plumier was a polymath who excelled at math, physics, painting, draftsmanship, woodworking, and the creation of scientific instruments.  He was appointed royal botanist in 1693 and cataloged the plants of the French Caribbean over the course of several voyages.  Plumier named the beautiful shrub after Leonhart Fuchs a Medieval German physician who was one of the three fathers of modern botany.

Portrait of Fuchs (Heinrich Füllmaurer, Tübingen, 1541)

The flowers of the fuchsia are teardrop-shaped dangling blossoms with four short broad petals and four long slender sepals.  These blossoms are usually extremely colorful in order to attract the animals which fertilize them–hummingbirds.  The flowers can be red, white, blue, violet, or orange, but the majority of fuchsias occur in lovely shades of pink and purple. The purple-pink color of many garden fuchsias is so distinct and characteristic that the color itself is now called fuchsia (and has been since the nineteenth century).  That is how one of the loveliest and most flamboyant of all colors (and one of the most nonexistent) has come to be named for a medieval German doctor!

A Hummingbird drinking from a Fuchsia

Fuchsias form a small edible berry which is said to taste like a subtle combination of mild grape and black pepper (although I have never “harvested” the plants in my garden).  There are immense numbers of hybrid fuchsias in cultivation in gardens around the world and whole horticultural societies devoted to the plant, yet it does not have the myth and mystique of other beloved flowers like roses, orchids, and lilies.  Perhaps the new world origins of the fuchsia have subsumed the folklore of the flower.  Whatever the case, fuchsias are a stunning garden treat. They are one of my favorite plants in my shady Brooklyn garden and fuchsia is a favorite color.

A collage of different fancy fuchsias

Ornamental Adenium Tree

The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family.  The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa.  The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses).  A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.

In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes.  A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals.  To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous.  Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether.  Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.

San hunters of the Kalahari

Dactylanthus taylorii

In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air.  In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything).  It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.

However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture.  There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight.  Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites.  Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all.  They leach nourishment out of other vegetation.  One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand.  Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.

Dactylanthus taylorii: close-up of male flowers (Photo by Helen Jonas)

Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family to other plants are anything but clear.  The Hades plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees.  It has not roots and no leaves but is connected to its host via a stem.  The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure.  Plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) (a strange and evocative creature which the native Maori call by the name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto”).  The flowers produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat–which apparently attracts the bats which then carry pollen between male and female plants.

The Lesser Short-tailed Bat pollinating Dactylanthus taylorii

Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find.  Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown.  However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create.  In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.

Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl.  According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new.  But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power.  She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld.  One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races.  In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings.  Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.

altar de muertos

Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld?  Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers.  The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor.  Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers.  It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it  lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”.  The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico.  Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.

And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself?  The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild!  The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold.  The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage.  Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils and they are also used as ingredients in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings.  In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success.  The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020