31 July 2007

The miracle of life

arum italicum berries
Honestly, I'm ambivalent at best on the arums, but as long as we're on the topic...

Everyday I see a "bed" of "landscaping" that consists of Ivy and trash (if that's not redundant). The Ivy is cut back maybe 3 times a year. But this hideous wasteland in fact harbors surprising biodiversity, not even counting the rats. Some kind of nightshady weed occasionally pokes its menacing berries through the groundcover, along with some brave, i.e. terrifyingly weedy, bindweed. But the interesting part is a stand of Arum italicum that has happily naturalized in this harsh environment. I can't tell if they were planted intentionally or not.

Last week I was staring at these ridiculous berries and contemplating the miracle of evolution: not only that such appealing things are produced from such a sinister plant, but the complicated and bizarre flowering apparatus that produced them (see the Dranunculus above [below]).

Anyway, I was wondering whether these berries are really appealing, or just bizarre, when some slack-jawed kid walked by and snapped off a stalk. Whether he carried it off as a gift for an unfortunate paramour, or simply as a distraction from his habitual stupefaction, no one can say. But is was a humbling example of natural selection in action.

And that is why I don't know if these arums were planted on purpose or not.

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26 July 2007

The Curate of Selbourne

D. vulgaris by andytince6423

My new favorite blogger may be
Gilbert White:

July 24, 1791 – The foreign Arum in the vicarage court, called by my Grandmother Dragons, & by Linnaeus Arum Dracunculus, has lately blown. It is an Italian plant, & yet has subsisted there thro’ all the severe frosts of 80 or 90 years; & has escaped all the diggings, & alterations that have befallen the borders of that garden. It thrives best under a N. wall, but how it is propagated does not appear. The spatha, & spadix are very long.

Speaking of Arums, the UCBG's seed propagated Amorphophallus titanum is about to bloom.

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18 July 2007

The gods must be crazy

Last night water fell from the sky. This might not sound very exciting to you, but such things are simply not done here.

I may never see raindrops on these passionflowers again.

It will be ten weeks before I can reasonably start to expect a meaningful amount of rain, so even .01 inch is a welcome diversion.

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03 July 2007


I read a lot of plant books, as you might have guessed. Approximately 90% of the ones that are worth reading are published by Timber Press. So I was eagerly anticipating their release of Martyn Rix's Subtropical and Dry Climate Plants. Rix is the editor of the best magazine ever.

Despite the unfortunate subtitle, there is nothing definitive about this book. It is rather an whirlwind tour of plants from around the world (many from not particularly dry climates). It makes no sense to yoke subtropicalness (both wet and dry) indiscriminately to dryness (both mediterranean- and monsoon-climate) like this unless the organizing principle is really: things Brits fantasize about growing in Cornwall or Chiantishire (or maybe after a few more years of global warming...)

This approach is both innocuously and insidiously shallow: UC Botanical Garden is called the "Berkeley Botanic Garden", and its "African Hill" the "Cape Rock Garden"; Brugmansia x candida certainly does not require "ample water" in summer in my subtropical garden. This problem is compounded by poor editing, in what I hope is not a sign of declining standards in the wake of Workman's acquisition of Timber last year. (I don't suppose I can blame the editors for spelling Rix's name wrong on their web page).

The organization is stupefying, with plants lumped into sections with names like "Acanthus, Monkey Flower and Related Shrubs" whose only principle is that they fit into a single spread. Thankfully there is a full index.

This organization makes it hard to assess the selection, but the list of both species and genera is idiosyncratic. This is actually the book's great strength: it is odd, for example, to ignore Penstemon completely (because the cvv. common in England are hybrids adapted to more temperate climes?), but the compensation is, say, two species of Bomarea (bizarrely located under "Chilean climbers"). Interesting taxa of common genera like Clematis cirrhosa and Dianthus 'Old Spice' are singled out at the expense of the "usual suspects" to be found in many such books.

But the main reason to buy this book is the photographs, something like 800 of them, almost all taken by Rix himself. Of course some of them are merely pedestrian, and the quality control on the printing leaves something to be desired, but the cumulative effect is a treasure trove of (mostly) subtropical plant porn. The text attached to them, notwithstanding the problems enumerated above, is a valuable bonus.

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