Today we celebrate a Swedish botanist with a famous father who observed flashes of light emitting from her nasturtiums.
We'll also learn about a modern-day forest advocate and conservationist on a mission to create something he calls a primary forest in France.
We’ll hear a poem about spring from the charming Christina Georgina Rossetti.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book that calls us to lead a wilder life - connecting with nature to find balance, energy, and restoration.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the story of a botanist who was the inspiration for the term that I use to describe the sweet little stories I end the show with every day - botanic sparks.
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April 15, 1782
Today is the anniversary of the death of the Swedish botanist and the daughter of Carl Linnaeus, Elisabeth Christina von Linné, known to her family as Lisa Stina.
Lisa Stina fell in love with one of her father’s star pupils, Daniel Solander. Linnaeus himself approved of the relationship. He had high hopes that Daniel might become not only his future son-in-law but also his backfill as the Professor of Botany at Uppsala.
Yet after spending time in England, Daniel elected not to return to Sweden. He would never again return to his home country. Despite sending letters referring to Lisa Stina as his “sweetest mamselle,” London was too exciting, and Daniel informed Linnaeus by post that he would not be coming back. In the ensuing years, Linnaeus would often refer to Daniel, the pupil that got away, as "the ungrateful Solander."
Daniel would go on to travel with Joseph Banks in Captain James Cook's first circumnavigation of the globe on the Endeavor. Back home in England, Daniel became Joseph Banks' personal secretary and librarian. But his work was cut short when he died from a brain aneurysm at the age of 46.
As for Lisa Stina, she ended up unhappily married to a grandson of Rudbeck - the man for whom the Rudbeckia or Black-Eyed Susans are named.
But when she was 19 (and in love with Daniel Solander), Lisa Stina published a paper about a little-known occurrence that came to be known as the “Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon.” Lisa Stina had been in her family’s garden at twilight, and she had observed flashes of light coming from nasturtium flowers. She told her father that the brighter reddish blossoms were the main source of the light. In her paper, she questioned whether the light came from the flowers themselves or if the flashing was an illusion. At the time, scientists could not discern the validity of her observations, and some even dismissed her observation altogether - assuming she’d imagined it.
But 150 years later, a German professor would uncover the mystery of the flashing flowers, which turns out to be an optical illusion that occurs at twilight. When the light bounces off the red color of the nasturtiums in contrast to the green leaves, the eye perceives it as a flash of light.
The same effect can happen with other bright-colored flowers, like Sunflowers, Calendulas, and African Marigolds. If you want to try to replicate it, you need to try to view the blooms at sunset using your peripheral vision.
The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote about the Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon in one of his verses:
'Tis said, in summer's evening hour
Flashes the golden-colored flower
A fair electric flame...
The etymology of Nasturtium is Latin 'nasus torsus' and means 'nose twist or nose torment.’ The word “nose” is found in many common names like the Nose Tickler due to the peppery sinus-clearing taste of the leaves. The flower tastes a bit sweeter.
April 15, 1938
Today is the birthday of the French botanist, biologist, and conservationist Francis Hallé.
Francis has spent over forty years studying the ecology of tropical forests and the architecture of their trees. These scientific areas of study have shaped how Francis views not only trees and forests but also our planet and the future.
Atlas Obscura wrote an excellent feature article about Francis called "The Botanist Who Made Fantastical Sketches of Rain Forest Flora.”
Francis’s book, The Atlas of Poetic Botany, is one of my favorites - it offers a Seussical charm thanks to Francis’s whimsical artwork. In 2018, Francis wrote,
“I draw mainly to get around language difficulties. The French language is made for humans and, in a pinch, for animals, but not at all for plants. Leaving the Latin that we use to name these [plants], we lack the vocabulary to describe their way of life."
As Francis likes to say, he respects the poetry of all living things - and this is a clue to the etymology of the title of Francis’s book, The Atlas of Poetic Botany.
In The Atlas, Francis gives us a tour of the rainforest and the rare plant life that can be found only under the canopy of the forest’s magnificent trees. Francis introduces us to a plant with a single, enormous leaf, an invasive hyacinth, a walking tree, and a dancing vine - just to name a few.
Francis also shares the history and lore of the many plants he profiles - like Queen Victoria's rubber tree and the moabi tree (the bark is believed to give the power of invisibility). Francis celebrates the wonders of the plant kingdom by sharing specimens with incredible characteristics: a flower that draws energy from trees; plants that can imitate other plants; a fern with cloning power; and a tree creates rain. And all this biodiversity is impossible without the protective covering of the rainforest.
Today Francis is passionate about forests. In a recent interview this winter, Francis said,
“Plants are much smarter than us... They improve their environment while we destroy ours. Humans are trees' greatest enemy. Of course… parasites kill some, that storms bring down those with weak roots and [stunted] fibers, but all this serves to improve the species, according to the laws of evolution. While we… deprive the equatorial forests of their tallest, upright trees, the most beautiful, leaving the lower trees. This madness will continue as long as there is a tree left to make money; I have no illusions.”
In 2019, Francis started an 800-year rewilding project - an initiative called the Association for Primary Forest. This project aims to create a primary forest in Europe in an area that would encompass 70,000 hectares. Francis said,
“I dream of a forest with zero management, like those I've had the privilege to see in the tropics. For me, a primary forest offers the ultimate biological diversity, as well as the best in planetary aesthetics."
A primary forest is a forest that has not been cleared, exploited or modified in any way by man. Primary forests differ from plantation forests because plantation trees are planted to be used or harvested. In contrast, a primary forest would be planted to allow it to develop freely over millennia. Primary forests are precious spaces. According to Francis, they offer much more carbon capture than secondary forests. And Francis calls primary forests summits of biodiversity. Primary forests also offer climate regulation and replenishment of water resources - along with countless other benefits.
In 2021, when Elon Musk announced his $100 million award for the best ideas to capture carbon, Francis Hallé quickly responded that his primary forest initiative was the ultimate carbon capture solution. We’ll see if Elon agrees.
It was Francis Hallé who said,
"I wonder if our initial relationship to trees is aesthetic rather than scientific. When we come across a beautiful #tree, it is an extraordinary thing."
A Robin said: The Spring will never come,
And I shall never care to build again.
A Rosebush said: These frosts are wearisome,
My sap will never stir for sun or rain.
The half Moon said: These nights are fogged and slow,
I neither care to wax nor care to wane.
The Ocean said: I thirst from long ago,
Because earth's rivers cannot fill the main. —
When Springtime came, red Robin built a nest,
And trilled a lover's song in sheer delight.
Grey hoarfrost vanished, and the Rose with might
Clothed her in leaves and buds of crimson core.
The dim Moon brightened. Ocean sunned his crest,
Dimpled his blue, yet thirsted evermore.
― Christina Rossetti, English poet, A Winter Sonnet
Grow That Garden Library
A Wilder Life by Celestine Maddy (“Cell-ah-steen”)
This book came out in 2016, and the subtitle is A Season-by-Season Guide to Getting in Touch with Nature
In this book, Celestine urges us to garden with a greater purpose than simply growing plants for food and beauty. She wants us to connect with our gardens and refresh our spirits.
Celestine was the founder of Wilder Quarterly - A magazine for people enthralled by the natural world. The magazine ran from 2011 to 2013.
A Wilder Life is a beautiful coffee table book that offers tips for connecting with nature. Celestine’s ideas include planting a night-blooming Garden, learning to read the Stars, creating a habitat for butterflies, dying your clothes with natural dyes, building an outdoor shelter, and learning to identify insects - just to name a few. Celestine’s book and projects embraced the simple life trend that started after the year 2000.
Celestine's book is divided into seasons and within each season are five main sections: growing (which covers suggested plants), cooking (a fantastic section with seasonal recipes), Home & Self Reliance, Beauty & Healing, and Wilderness (a guide to appreciating all that nature offers in the season).
This book is 272 pages of restoration and connection with nature by living a wilder life.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
April 15, 1791
Today is the anniversary of the death of the English botanist Alexander Garden.
Alexander’s story is a fascinating one - starting with the fact that he had the perfect last name for a botanist: Garden. The Gardenia flower is named for him.
After immigrating from England, Alexander had settled in Charleston, South Carolina.
Now, if you’ve ever wondered how I came up with the term botanic spark to describe the sweet stories that I ended the show with, it was a term I read in a letter written by Alexander Garden.
One summer, Alexander found himself stuck in Charleston - while many of his botanist friends were off exploring and botanizing.
In a letter to the botanist, John Bartram, Alexander wrote,
"Think that I am here, confined to the sandy streets of Charleston, where the ox, where the ass, and where man, as stupid as either, fill up the vacant space while you range the green fields of Florida.”
And to John Ellis, who sent Alexander detailed accounts of his botanizing, Alexander wrote:
"I know that every letter which I receive not only revives the little botanic spark in my breast but even increases its quantity and flaming force."
When the Revolutionary War began, Alexander sided with the British, even though he sympathized with the colonists. Alexander’s son, Alex Jr., fought against the British. As a consequence, Alexander and his son became permanently estranged. They never forgave each other.
A biographical sketch of Alexander sadly reported that Alexander’s son had a little girl he had named Gardenia. But after the two men became estranged, Alexander never met his little granddaughter with the flower name that honored the botanical work of her grandfather.
When the war was over, Alexander and other British sympathizers were punished. In Alexander’s case, his property was confiscated, and he was forced to leave South Carolina. After losing everything, Alexander and his wife and two daughters went to live in London, where he became vice-president of the Royal Society. He died of tuberculosis, at age 61, on this day in 1791.
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