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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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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.

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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!

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Bhutan

Bhutan

Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations.  The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time.  Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world.  However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections.  He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy.  The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926, wearing the Raven Crown

The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown.  It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain).  The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla.  The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight.  Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!

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A Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) which I photographed at the Central Park Zoo

Today we present the lovable red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal which is the only species of the only genus of the family Ailuridae.  Weighing up to 15 pounds red pandas are shaped like cats—indeed their scientific name means “shining cats”—however they are not at all closely related to cats and their nearest cousins are in the superfamily Musteloidea (which includes raccoons, coatis, skunks, as well as mustelids like otters, weasels, and badgers).  These kinship bonds between the red panda and the other Musteloidea are not especially close:  the red panda is a living fossil and taxonomists are still arguing about where to put it.

During the Miocene era (approximately 20 million years ago to 5 million years ago), close relatives of the red panda spread around the temperate forests of earth. Remains of a very similar creature, Pristinailurus bristoli, were found in the magnificent Gray fossil site of Tennessee and fossils of other red panda like creatures have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  However, today the family consists of one last surviving species which is indigenous only to the high temperate forests of the Himalayan. The animal can be found in India (in Sikkim & Assam), Tibet, Bhutan, in the northern tip of Myanmar, and in southwestern China in the high forests of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Unfortunately, throughout its range the red panda is endangered from hunting and habitat loss. They are hunted for their glorious red striped coats and bushy tails which help the creatures survive the cold and blend in with lichen-covered trees (but unfortunately attract our primate eyes).

Red pandas predominantly dine on bamboo, but they are omnivores who also consume small mammals, birds, eggs, blossoms, and berries.  In captivity they have been observed to eat the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of maples, beeches, and especially mulberries (perhaps this is what their extinct relatives in Europe and the New World ate).  They are solitary arboreal animals who carefully guard their forest territories and seek each others’ company only during mating season.

…although apparently they do fine together when they are eating pumpkins carved with their faces….

The red panda was not well known during the twentieth century, but because it flourishes in zoos it is becoming ever more famous among new generations of zoo-goers.  To reiterate, the animal flourishes in zoos even as it vanishes in the wild, so some day the red panda might be like that other magnificent orange Asian mammal, the tiger (which are now far more numerous in captivity than in the wild).  Thanks to their success in wildlife centers, red pandas are growing more popular in the media world: in the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda” an animated red panda was featured as the venerable dojo master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman (who has admitted to knowing very little about the red panda before taking on the role).  Sikkim has adopted the animal as its official state animal and red pandas are also the mascots for the Darjeeling tea festival.  All of this matters in a ever more human-dominated planet where a species’ charisma to people is what is likely to keep it from going extinct.

Concept Drawings of Master Shifu, the Red Panda Sage from “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks Studios

Speaking of charismatic red pandas, the world’s most famous (real) red panda is a male red panda named Babu who lives at Birmingham Nature Centre, in England. In 2005 Babu escaped into the suburban woods and, like Mia the cobra, attained media stardom before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted Brummie of the year (A Brummie apparently being a resident of Birmingham).  I have often watched Red Pandas at the Bronx, Central Park, and Prospect Park Zoos and I am surprised they do not have a similar designation in New York City.  No animal could be more designed to tickle human tastes or appeal more directly to the “cuteness” short circuit of our brain—at least until the red pandas smile and reveal that their jaws are filled with needle sharp teeth.

A Chinese Painting of a Red Panda (I can’t translate the name of the gifted artist) from auction.artxun.com

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