Archive for the ‘Botany for Gardeners’ Category

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mutter Natur

<i>Pisum sativum arvense</i>, "Blue Pod Capucijners" Madonna lily (<i>Lilum candidum</i>) Milk thistle (<i>Silybum marianum</i>)

Many of the healing herbs, flowers, and foodstuffs mentioned by the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen in her great work Physica are grown in Bonnefont garden at The Cloisters. Above, from left to right: Field peas (Pisum sativum arvense, variety ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’); Madonna lily (Lilium candidum); milk thistle (Silybum marianum).  Photographs from the Gardens archives.

It is the first book in which a woman discusses plants and trees in relation to their physical properties. It is the earliest book on natural history to be done in Germany and is, in essence, the foundation of botanical study there. It influenced the 16th-century works of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Bock, the so-called “German fathers of botany,” but the fact is that German botany is more indebted to a “mother.”
—Frank Anderson on the Physica, from An Illustrated History of the Herbals

Certain plants grow from air. These plants are gentle on the digestion and possess a happy nature, producing happiness in anyone who eats them. They are like a person’s hair in that they are always light and airy. Certain other herbs are windy, since they grow from the wind. These herbs are dry, and heavy on one’s digestion. They are of a sad nature, making the person who eats them sad. They are comparable to human perspiration. Moreover, there are herbs which are fatal as human food . . . they are comparable to human excrement.
—From Book I of the Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop

Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, poet, dramatist, composer, and the most learned woman of the twelfth century, wrote the Physica, or Natural Science, about the year 1150. Read more »

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monarchs Rule!

Monarch: Ventral View Monarch: Dorsal View Monarch Feeding

The monarch is the most widely known and readily recognizable butterfly in the eastern United States. Between August and November each year, virtually the entire North American population of the species migrates to winter roosts in fir forests in the mountains of Mexico. Above, from left to right: Ventral view of an adult monarch feeding on a Japanese anemone in Cuxa garden; dorsal view of a male monarch hovering near a crabapple shoot; ventral view of a monarch feeding on a tubular flower of Abelia x grandiflora. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

The annual northern and southern migrations (see image) of the monarch (Danaus plexippus), the most beloved and familiar of North American butterflies, are monitored not only by professional lepidopterists, but also by many citizens and students across the country. In late summer and autumn, monarchs in the millions make for their ancestral wintering roosts in forests of oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa) which grow at heights of ten thousand feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Mexico. Read more »

Friday, May 28, 2010

Those cuckoos . . .

Cuckoo spittle

Above: Froth on a tansy plant in Bonnefont garden on a May morning.  In the Middle Ages, this foamy substance was believed to be the spittle of the cuckoo. The froth is secreted by insects known as spittle bugs.

The cuckoo-spittle, gowk’s-spittle, cuckoo’s-spittens, frog-spit, toad-spit, snake’s-spit, or wood-sear, of England and Scotland; Kukuk-speichel, and hexenspiechel (witch’s spit) of the Germans; gugger-speu of the Swiss; gred-spott (frog-spit) of the Swedes; giogespit of the Danes; trold-kiaringspye of the Norwegians; and crachat de coucou of the French . . .

—James Hardy, “Popular History of the Cuckoo.” In The Folk-lore record, Vol. 2. London: Nichols & Sons, 1879.

Read more »

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mysterious Cucubalus

Cucubalus baccifer in flower Detail from The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle Cucubalus baccifer in fruit

Above, left to right: Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) flowering in a shady bed in Bonnefont Garden in July; a detail from the foreground of The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle showing the catchfly in flower and fruit behind the forelegs of a hunting dog; the shiny black fruits, which give the berry-bearing catchfly its name, ripening in August.

Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) is a pretty, lax-stemmed little plant that scrambles over and through the hellebores, ferns, and other shade-loving plants growing in a small bed under the east wall of Bonnefont Garden. We would be hard put to find a home for it anywhere else in Bonnefont, which is organized by use, since we haven’t been able to document either any medieval medicinal applications or any magical or symbolic attributes associated with it. Read more »

Friday, May 29, 2009

Arum Scarum

Dragon arum in Bonnefont garden Dragon arum flower Dragon arum stems

Above, from left: dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) growing in Bonnefont garden; detail of the spathe and spadix common to arums; detail of the reptilian markings on the stems.

Arums and other members of the botanical family Araceae are fly pollinated, and their flowers imitate both the color and the smell of rotting meat in order to attract pollinators. The little cuckoo-pint featured in last week’s post is by no means the most fetid member of the family. Cuckoo-pint’s enormous tropical cousin, Amorphophallus titanum, notorious for its overpowering stench, is native to Sumatra.  The titan arum is also cultivated in conservatories and gains worldwide attention when it blooms in botanical gardens like Kew. Read more »

Friday, May 22, 2009

Adam and Eve and Arum

Arum maculatum Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity Arum italicum in Flower

Above, from left: Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) growing in Bonnefont Garden; Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity that shows cuckoo-pint growing within the enclosure; Italian arum, (Arum italicum) growing in Bonnefont Garden.

Of all the spring-blooming “cuckoo plants” (see “Sumer is Icumen In,” April 3, 2009) associated not only with the bird but with magic, sexuality, snakes, and death, the cuckoo-pint or wake-robin is the most famous. Read more »

Friday, May 15, 2009

White Coral Bells . . .

Another Look at Lily of the Valley

Above: Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)

White coral bells upon a slender stalk
Lilies-of-the-valley deck my garden walk. . . .

—Traditional English Round

In spite of its medieval association with the exotic Queen of Sheba (see last week’s post), this modest, northern European woodland flower is actually as easy to grow as it is familiar. Read more »

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bulb Basics

Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)

Above, from left to right: Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), and saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) in Bonnefont Herb Garden.

Many bulbous plants are grown in the gardens of The Cloisters throughout the seasons. In addition to their place in the collection as medieval species, they prolong the garden’s ornamental value, often blooming when there are no other flowers to be seen. The snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) enliven Bonnefont Herb Garden while there is still snow on the ground. Certain bulbous plants, like the fall-blooming saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), possess a rich history that our garden lecturers are eager to discuss. However, the saffron crocus is actually not a true bulb, but actually what is known as a “corm.” Read more »

Friday, March 20, 2009

Getting the Most Out of Forced Bulbs

Assorted Bulbs Spent Daffodils

Left: Assorted bulbs; right: Spent daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp. obvallaris).

In the world of horticulture, the threshold between late winter and early spring is synonymous with forcing bulbs. Even if you don’t force your own, chances are you have received a pot of forced bulbs as a gift. Either way, you’re probably wondering what to do with the bulbs once the flowers have finished blooming. Many people discard them. However, with a little effort and luck, you can enjoy most forced bulbs well into the future. Read more »

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Fragrant Family of Fennel

Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in seed

Left: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden; right: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in seed, Bonnefont Herb Garden.

Representatives of the Apiaceae family are scattered throughout all of the gardens at The Cloisters, but they are most prominent in the culinary beds of Bonnefont Herb Garden. These plants are greatly exploited for their distinct fragrances and tastes. The essential oils, created from a fairly large group of chemical constituents within the plants, are responsible for the incredibly flavorful and aromatic properties of this family. In addition, these properties help to ensure the survival of plants in this family by attracting pollinators to the flowers. Read more »