Today we celebrate a man with, perhaps, the perfect last name for a botanist: Blume.
We'll also learn about a wild berry that is a sister to the blueberry and the cranberry.
We hear some words about the devastating impact of the poisonous White Snakeroot on the family of one of our American Presidents.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about the story of two botanists with different fates - yet both made their mark in horticulture.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the story of a Southern poet born on this day.
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February 3, 1862
Today is the anniversary of the death of the German-Dutch botanist with the perfect last name - Carl Ludwig Blume.
Born in Germany and orphaned by the age of five, Carl proved to be a bright little boy and a successful student. He studied at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands - a place that would become his Northstar. When he died in Leiden, on this day in 1862, he had become a naturalized Dutch citizen.
Scholastically, Carl went the path of most botanists. He first became a physician, and he ran an apothecary. In short order, he started botanizing in the Dutch East Indies, specifically on the island of Java, where he was the Botanic Garden director. Carl wrote a spectacular book on the collection of orchids that were available on the island. The title page is stunning, and it features three native women from Java performing a ceremonial dance. The mountains of Java in the village are in the background, and a garland of orchids frames the stunning portrait. This publication is considered one of the finest works of scientific literature during the early 1800s.
In 1825, Carl established the Dendrobium genus of orchids. The genus name is derived from the Greek; "dendron" for tree and "bios" meaning life. The two terms, tree and life, refer to orchids’ epiphytic habit of growing on trees.
And, here's a great story about Carl. During his time in Java, Carl saw what he thought was a group of moths flying in a motionless fashion by a tree. It was a strange vision. But, when he got closer, Carl realized what he thought were moths were actually orchid flowers. Carl named the species Phalaenopsis amabilis (fayl-eh-NOP-sis ah-MA-bo-lis). In nature, the phalaenopsis orchid stems are not clipped to a bamboo pole like they are when we buy them in the supermarket. Instead, they arch away from the tree they are attached to and sway easily with the Wind. It was the motion of the Orchid flowers swaying in the wind that lead Carl to believe he saw an insect and not a blossom.
The etymology of the word phalaenopsis comes from the Latin word "phal,” which means moth - which is why this Orchid is commonly referred to as the Moth Orchid.
Phalaenopsis orchids are native to Southeast Asia. Their popularity has steadily grown because they are so easy to grow and because they bloom indoors all year round. This makes them one of the most popular house plants in the world.
Now, should you be tempted this summer to move your phalaenopsis orchid outside, think twice. Just because they are a tropical plant doesn’t mean they want full sun. Phalaenopsis orchids grow in the shade of trees under the tree canopy. They like indirect light, and if you put them in full sun, they will get sunburned. If you are going to move them outside, make sure to put them in a place where they will not get direct sunlight. Sometimes I’ll put mine onto my north-facing covered porch.
In 1853, Carl Ludwig Blume discovered another popular plant in the mountains of Java: coleus. Coleus bluemei was named in Carl’s honor until it was changed in 2006 to Coleux x Hybridus in recognition of all the new hybrid variations. As of 2012, the botanical name for coleus is Plectranthus scutellarioides (Plek-TRAN-thus SKOO-til-air-ee-OY-deez).
And Coleus is in the Mint or Lamiaceae family. They have that signature square stem and opposite leaves - along with other famous members of the Mint family: Basil, Peppermint, Oregano, Salvia, Swedish Ivy, and Thyme. An early nickname for Coleus was painted nettle or flame nettle.
Coleus is easy to propagate from cuttings. You can simply pop them in a glass of water, and in a few days, roots will start to form. To encourage your Coleus to grow more compactly, keep pruning them before they bloom.
You might remember that the National Garden Bureau made 2015 the year of the coleus.
February 3, 1941
On this day, The Daily Republican out of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, published a tiny snippet about the Box Huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera).
“In Tuscarora Forest, Perry county, there is a large box huckleberry bush considered the largest on earth.
In 1846, Dr. Asa Gray, the famous Harvard botanist, wrote the first description of the bush, which covers hundreds of square feet of earth. Experts estimate its age to be about 12,000 years, five times as old as the big California trees.”
Today, that massive colony of Box Huckleberry still lives in the Tuscarora Forest (I checked). In fact, it’s listed on the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website. And they thoughtfully include a Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area Trail Guide (PDF) right on their website.
Speaking of websites, I love what Zoe Bommarito wrote about the western Huckleberry species in a post on the National Forest Foundation website:
“Coming from the Midwest, I heard about huckleberries as a child – but I had never eaten one, or even seen a huckleberry for that matter. They don’t grow in Michigan.
When I moved to Missoula, Montana, I began to hear about these iconic berries. People are obsessed. Driving through Montana, I guarantee you’ll see at least a couple of roadside signs advertising huckleberry milkshakes. I thought everyone was crazy.
I soon learned that huckleberries are in my own backyard — they’re abundant in our National Forests. These delicious, sought-after, and magical berries are available to you on our public lands.
Huckleberries are small red and purple berries related to both blueberries and cranberries. Smaller than a blueberry and sweeter than a cranberry, many believe that huckleberries are the best of both worlds. Huckleberries come from a shrub-like plant that grows in the underbrush of forests. More than twelve species of huckleberries are found throughout Pacific Northwest forests.”
And here are a few additional points about the Huckleberry.
Many gardeners think blueberries and huckleberries are interchangeable - but this is not the case. Although you can’t tell by color alone, since some huckleberries are blue and some blueberries are almost purple, you can distinguish them by the seeds. Blueberries have lots of itty-bitty seeds in their pulp, while Huckleberries have exactly ten small seeds.
The etymology of the word Huckle is a reference to an old word for joint or hip because of the Huckleberry plant’s joined stems. In fact, the handles on a coffin are often called Huckles - so when you carry a coffin, you are a Hucklebearer - or pallbearer.
And the phrase, “I'm your Huckleberry,” is a way of letting someone know you’re just the person for the job.
And don’t forget that Tom Sawyer's trusted friend was Huckleberry Finn.
Huckleberries love to grow on the forest floor in acidic soil - they feel right at home under a fir or pine canopy. And although plenty of gardeners have tried to grow Huckleberries from seed, their attempts didn’t yield fruit. To this day, Huckleberry plants have never been reliably cultivated.
Thus, Huckleberries are still harvested the old fashioned way: foragers pick them. And the laborious foraging is precisely why Huckleberries are so expensive; they sell for double-digits - over $10 a pound.
One of the most famous victims of milk sickness was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of Abraham Lincoln. She fought the disease for a week but finally succumbed, as did her aunt and uncle and several other people in the small town of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana. She died in 1818 at the age of thirty-four, leaving behind nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln and his sister, Sarah. Lincoln’s father built the coffins himself; young Abraham helped by carving the pegs for his mother’s casket.
— Amy Stewart, gardener and garden writer, Wicked Plants, White Snakeroot
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2004, and the subtitle is A Portrait in Two Parts.
In this book, we learn about a fascinating fifty-year relationship between Dwight Ripley (the heir to an American railroad fortune and a polymath who excelled in horticulture, music, language, and painting) and Rupert Barneby (the son of an aristocratic English family and one of the greatest botanists of the 20th Century).
After meeting at Harrow, an exclusive boarding school in England, Dwight and Rupert discovered a shared obsession for botany and love for each other. Ultimately, the two would go on many botanizing trips before settling in Los Angeles in the 1930s. In addition to regular botanizing trips in the American Southwest, Dwight and Rupert were part of a lively social circle among the artistic élite of New York that included W. H. Auden, Peggy Guggenheim, and Jackson Pollock.
This book features the incredible life stories of Dwight and Rupert, and gardeners will thrill to learn more about their botanical mania and exploits through their “exquisite prose on plants, snatches of Barneby's witty poetry, and reproductions of drawings in each of their distinctive styles.”
This book is 320 pages of the extraordinary lives of two immensely talented men and their impact on botany, horticulture, and American art in the 20th Century.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
February 3, 1842
Today is the birthday of the American poet, musician, and author, Sidney Lanier.
Born in Macon, Georgia, Sidney rose to fame after writing a poem about, of all things, corn. He had been visiting friends when he was immediately struck by the “beauty of cornfields and the pathos of deserted farms.”
Sidney is one of our under-appreciated 19th-century poets. Music and nature were endless wells of inspiration for Sidney’s work. After fighting in the civil war, he wrote a book about his experience called Tiger Lilies.
He could be light-hearted:
I am but a small-winged bird:
But I will conquer the big world
As the bee-martin beats the crow,
By attacking it always from above.
And Sidney was also spiritual - as in his poem A Ballad of Trees and the Master about the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, with a compelling first verse that ends:
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him:
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him
When into the woods He came.
Today gardeners can visit the Sidney Lanier Cottage in Macon, Georgia. And if you go, there is a marvelous little herb garden with cobblestone paths and a sundial in the center. The little cottage gets high marks on Trip Advisor, where one reviewer wrote,
“From the moment we walked in and breathed in the scent of the old building, to the end of the (extra good) tour, we enjoyed everything we learned.”
And there is a school called the Sidney Lanier Center in northeast Gainesville, Florida, which offers education to elementary and secondary students with disabilities.
In 2015, students created the Sidney Lanier Community Garden with the help of a master gardener named Susan Lucas. Today, the whole school enjoys the garden, which grows herbs (for cooking and sensory therapy), carrots, kale, as well as blueberries, and strawberries.
Sidney’s dream was to teach at a new University called Johns Hopkins. Three years after the University opened, Sidney was invited to teach. He became an instant sensation with the students, but his body was failing him.
In 1880, after battling years of poor health due to tuberculosis contracted during his time in the Civil War, Sidney wrote his final poem, "Sunrise,"
After lecturing for a little over a year, Sidney had to teach sitting down. He was 39 years old.
When the school year ended, Sidney and his family went to North Carolina to reset his failing health. Instead, he died with his family around him in a home in Tryon, just a few blocks west of where the musician Nina Simone would grow up.
Fittingly, Sidney’s grave in Baltimore is inscribed with words from his final poem, “Sunrise,”
“I am lit with the Sun.”
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