Today we celebrate a French botanist who broke the news to the scientific community in Paris: plants have sex.
We'll also learn about a German botanist who settled in Kodiak, Alaska, and created a fascinating look at Alaskan plants through the eyes of the Native People of Alaska.
We hear an excerpt about Lily of the Valley from one of my favorite modern writers.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about houseplants and how to incorporate them into your home, your life, and your happiness.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the birthday of a poet who wrote some beautiful verses inspired by nature.
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May 26, 1669
Today is the birthday of the French botanist Sébastien Vaillant.
Appointed to the King’s garden in Paris, Sebastien loved organizing and cataloging plants. Biographical accounts say Sebastian showed a passion for plants from the age of five.
His masterpiece, forty years in the making, Botanicon Parisienne, was a book about the flora of Paris. It wasn’t published until five years after his death.
Today, Sebastian Vaillant is credited for acknowledging the importance of the sexual anatomy of plants. Sebastian’s work on plant sexuality inspired generations of botanists and set the stage for Linneaus to develop his sexual system of plant classification. Linnaeus used the male stamens to determine the class and the female pistils to determine the order.
And like Sebastion, Linnaeus often compared plant sexuality to that of humans. Linnaeus wrote,
“Love even seizes... plants... both [males and females], even the hermaphrodites, hold their nuptials, which is what I now intend to discuss.”
Sebastian caused a sensation when he presented his work on plant sexuality at the Royal Garden in Paris on June 10, 1717. He began by reinforcing the idea that the flower is the most important part of a plant - essential to reproduction - and then he began to lead his scientific colleagues down a path they had never thought to follow. His lecture was titled, Lecture on the Structure of the Flowers: Their Differences and the Use of Their Parts.
Today, we can imagine the reaction of his 600 person audience as he began using fairly explicit language and the lens of human sexuality to describe the sex lives of plants - at six in the morning, no less. Before Sebastian’s lecture, the topic of sex in the plant world had only been touched on lightly, allowing flowers and blossoms to maintain their reputation as pure, sweet, and innocent.
Sebastian was no fool. He knew his lecture would cause a stir. In a 2002 translation of his speech presented in A Journal of Botanical History known as Huntia, Sebastian began his lecture by acknowledging that he was going to talk about plant sexuality very explicitly, saying,
“Perhaps the language I am going to use for this purpose will seem a little novel for botany, but since it will be filled with terminology that is perfectly proper for the use of the parts that I intend to expose, I believe it will be more comprehensible than the old fashioned terminology, which — being crammed with incorrect and ambiguous terms better suited for confusing the subject than for shedding light on it — leads into error those whose imaginations are still obscured, and who have a poor understanding of the true functions of most of these structures.”
It wasn’t all salacious. Sebastian’s discussion of plant embryos was rather poetic. The shapes he references are the shapes of the pollen grains. Sebastian remarked,
“Who can imagine that a prism with four faces becomes a Pansy; a narrow roll, the Borage; a kidney, the Daffodil; that a cross can metamorphose into a maple; two crystal balls intimately glued to each other, [Comfrey], etc.? These are nevertheless the shapes favored, in these diverse plants, by their lowly little embryos.”
Sebastian Valliant is especially remembered for his work with the male and female pistachio tree to demonstrate pollination and the sexuality of plants. At the time of Sebastian’s work, the pistachio was growing in the King’s garden and had managed to survive the harsh winters of Paris.
The slow-growing pistachio tree is deciduous and dioecious. This means that a pistachio tree can have only male flowers or female flowers.
Only female trees produce fruits, and female trees are wind-pollinated by pollen from the male tree. In a perfect world, there would be one male pistachio tree centrally located near nine female pistachio trees.
As for telling the trees apart, male pistachio trees are taller, hold on to their leaves longer in the fall, and generally more robust than female pistachio trees.
In terms of fruiting, pistachios grow in clusters, like grapes. Trees need seven years of growing before reliably producing a good yield. But, once they get started, pistachios can produce fruit for over a hundred years.
May 26, 1830
Today is the birthday of the German-American naturalist, marine biologist, and Smithsonian collector William J. Fisher.
By the time he was in his fifties, William had made his way to Kodiak, Alaska. Ten years later, he married a native Alutiiq (“al-yoot-eek”) woman, and they raised their family in Kodiak.
William’s biography at Find-a-Grave was provided by the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository in Kodiak. It says,
“Fisher collected hundreds of Native artifacts for the Smithsonian during a time when the Native culture was being impacted by Western culture. His assemblage and documentation provides us information today about Alutiiq history at that time.”
In terms of his botanical legacy, digital copies of William’s 1899 field book are now available online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
William’s field book is a modern treasure because he documented by hand almost fifty different plants that the Alutiiq people had used. Using the Russian and Native American names for the plants, William wrote about these plants' edible and medicinal aspects.
For example, with impeccable penmanship, William described the cranberry or Brussnika in Russian or Knich-tat in Alutiiq.
“Mixed with seal or whale oil and salmon spawn for winter's preserves. Very plentiful.”
The cover page of William’s field book indicates that he collected the specimens with a visiting botanist from the USDA named Thomas Henry Kearney. William also shared for posterity that he and William had a bit of fun while they botanized. He wrote,
“Notes accompanying collection of useful plants made by W.J. Fisher at Kodiak, in 1899. Dried plants with Mr. Kearney, alcoholics in seed collection.”
Sita closed her eyes and breathed into her cupped hands. Before she left, she had remembered to perfume her wrist with Muguet (“moo-gay” or Lily of the valley)
The faint odor of that flower, so pure and close to the earth, was comforting. She had planted real lilies of the valley because she liked them so much as a perfume.
Just last fall, before the hard freeze, when she was feeling back to normal, the pips had arrived in a little white box. Her order from a nursery company. She'd put on her deerskin gloves and, on her knees, using a hand trowel, dug a shallow trench along the border of her blue Dwarf iris. Then one by one, she'd planted the pips. They looked like shelled acorns, only tinier. "To be planted points upward," said a leaflet in the directions. They came up early in the spring. The tiny spears of their leaves would be showing soon.
Lying there, sleepless, she imaged their white venous roots, a mass of them fastening together, forming new shoots below the earth, unfurling their stiff leaves. She saw herself touching their tiny bells, waxed white, fluted, and breathing the ravishing fragrance, they gave off because Louis had absently walked through her border again, dragging his shovel, crushing them with his big, careless feet.
It seemed as though hours of imaginary gardening passed before Mrs. Waldvogel tiptoed in without turning on the light.
― Louise Erdrich, American author, writer of novels, poetry, and children's books, The Beet Queen
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2019, and the subtitle is Cultivate / Create / Soothe / Nourish.
Camille helps us embrace houseplants in this book - from their care and growing tips to botanical styling and heath and beauty products.
An editor at Elle Décor Camille takes us on a tour of her favorite houseplants, hardy succulents and cacti, and flowering perennials. Promoting plants as a good source of well-being and enhancing our homes, Camille’s DIY projects are sure to inspire you to up your houseplant game.
Camille shows how to create ideal growing environments with terrariums and aquatic plant habitats with her detailed instructions and photography. She also brings plants into the home with wreaths or geometric frames that feature vines. She even stages the dining room table with natural elements like leaves and dried herbs.
This book is 160 pages of Nature Crafts, Houseplants, Indoor Gardening, and Home Decor — all designed to foster a sense of calm, harmony, and healing.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
May 26, 1847
Today is the birthday of the little-remembered American poet Edgar Fawcett.
Edgar wrote some popular garden verses.
"[A]ll life budding like a rose and sparkling like its dew."
Come rambling awhile through this exquisite weather
Of days that are fleet to pass,
When the stem of the willow shoots out a green feather,
And buttercups burn in the grass!
My favorite Edgar Fawcett verses feature trees.
Here’s one about lovers speaking to each other using the language of birds:
Hark, love, while...we walk,
Beneath melodious trees…
You'd speak to me in Redbreast;
I would answer you in Wren!
And finally, this verse is such a great reminder of the value of all green living things.
We say of the oak "How grand of girth!"
Of the willow we say, "How slender!"
And yet to the soft grass clothing the earth
How slight is the praise we render.
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