A Visit to the Corpse Flower: Hell’s Kitchen Gardener Goes Uptown

I wasn’t really trying that hard to see the corpse flower, but fate had me traveling up to the Bronx for a class at the New York Botanical Garden on the same day that this giant was scheduled to bloom. That was a week ago and I’ve been thinking about this extraordinary plant and its effect on its human observers ever since.

It was a sticky day that between threats of rain offered blindingly bright cloud cover. This combination could have challenged my willingness to wait in line, but I was already in too deep, having promised my daughter to make this visit, and then there was the line, which itself drew me in. People had dressed up to see a flower! They wore flowered shirts and dresses and jewelry and jaunty summer hats. And the profusion of parasols… a symptom no doubt of the uncertain weather, but the effect was beyond utilitarian, the pinks, pale yellows, and blues contrasting delicately with the white spidery structure of the conservatory building.

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Conversations around us were fixated on the flower. A mother and son were anxious: What if it turns out not to be as big as everyone says? Would the smell drive them away before they could get pictures? People departed the building as if in a dream state. Was it the odor or the flower itself? There was an unspoken understanding, it seemed, that it would be wrong to give anything away to those still waiting.

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Stepping inside, I understood the dreamy looks of the visitors before me: Here was a hybrid of Jurassic Park and the Enchanted Forest. Amid the graceful backdrop of the other outsize frilly and ferny plantings, the Amorphophallus titanum—for that is its calling-it-like-it-is scientific name—stood on a pedestal in the conservatory pond, peacefully and regally undergoing the changes that all flowers must. The flower had opened earlier in the day, releasing its scent, which had now completely dissipated. The spathe—the skirt-like bract surrounding the flower spike—had started to close back up, revealing just a glimpse of its lush red interior. A security guard kindly shared his cell-phone photos of the fully opened blossom and his own experience of what he respectfully called “the fragrance.”

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Amorphophallus titanum closing up but still a sight to behold. Behind it and to the left (green stalk with white speckles) is the vegetative version of the plant. Though it looks like a small tree, that’s actually a compound leaf at the top. The plant sends up leaves periodically to capture the sun’s rays through photosynthesis. This energy is stored in the plant’s enormous corm (up to 200 pounds), until there is enough to produce a flower.

I was disappointed not to have smelled the corpse flower’s scent for myself and couldn’t help feeling that I was cheating, but I did seem to enter the dream state I had imagined seeing on the faces of preceding viewers. Of course, I tried to document this fantastical being with my camera.

Here in the northeast, we are accustomed to tropical plants potted up in our homes and serving as summer annuals in our garden beds. They offer a faint nod to greenery in doctor’s offices and workplaces and therefore, through no fault of their own, have become boring. The A. titanum, native to Sumatra, is no houseplant. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen here.

Or is it?

The corpse flower is a member of the Araceae, or more commonly, arum, family, and somewhat like finding vestiges of dinosaurs in present-day birds, arums abound in native and non-native forms here in the New York City area. As I write, my golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) drapes its viney self over the table. I rescued it years ago from the street. Horribly invasive in tropical forests, it grows eagerly in a pot on my balcony during the summer, requiring only a little water now and then. (I’ve seen these selling for $10 apiece in supermarkets. Crazy!)

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My little arum.

Arum italicum grows beautifully in a woodsy bed at my community garden. It too is invasive, from Europe as the name suggests, but under control in this particular spot. Like the corpse flower, on a comparatively tiny scale, it has a flower spike surrounded by a showy spathe. The spathe dies back and the flower spike produces glistening red-orange berries. These remind me of the corpse flower’s red berries, which are eaten by hornbills, who spread their seeds.

Our native eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, has both odor and thermogenesis in common with A. titanum. The corpse flower ensures the spreading of its scent by heating itself up close to the temperature of the human body. The stench attracts carrion flies and dung beetles. Growing in an entirely different environment in wet woods and bogs from Minnesota to the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, the eastern skunk cabbage heats up in early spring, melting through ice and snow. The heat in this case broadcasts its scent to the few early spring pollinators in the woods. These gnats, flies, and beetles find warmth and shelter in the skunk cabbage spathe, which induces them to stay awhile and get more covered in pollen.

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Eastern skunk cabbage—hot  and stinky like its relative from Sumatra.

All members of the Araceae family have in common crystals of calcium oxalate in parts, usually leaves and flowers, or all of the plant. These needle-like crystals are toxic to many animals although some, including humans, have found ways of getting around that problem, depending on the plant. Apparently hornbills don’t mind, which is a good thing for our rare titan.

For more about the corpse flower, check out this blog by Marc Hachadourian, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections. NYBG’s website also diagrams the plant’s life cycle, which helps account for why this blooming happens only once a decade:

http://blogs.nybg.org/plant-talk/2016/07/horticulture-2/the-corpse-flower-a-decade-in-the-making/

 

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1 + 2 = Soldier Beetle to the Rescue

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Columbine blossom hosting an aphid and its predator.

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Soldier beetle on a leaf. These beetles look a little like small fireflies.

Symptom No. 1: The ants told me about the aphids. I watched them climb the columbine stems and travel the extravagant blossoms. The buds and blooms the ants were monitoring were covered in tiny pale-green triangular aphid bodies. Symptom No. 2: Sooty mold appears on leaves. Putting the pieces together, as many of my gardener readers already have, my garden plot, as well as the community garden as whole, has an aphid infestation, carefully cultivated by ants with ranching instincts. Then today help arrived in the shape of a soldier beetle, which I identified using Garden Insects of North America (Whitney Cranshaw), a handy, if hefty, tome. Soldier beetles eat aphids! Sadly, I had already cut down and disposed of many blossoms. The fairy-garden look is now over.

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Columbine, globe allium, herb fennel, and yellow iris creating a feathery, fluttery landscape.

On Not Blowing or Why I Rake

 

The fallen.

The fallen.

In the 1970s suburb I grew up in, no one I knew blew their leaves. Across the continent in California, though, the leaf blower was starting to be commercially available. Adapted from a portable agricultural machine used to spray chemicals on orchards and crops, the leaf blower was variously hailed as a labor-saving replacement of the yard rake and, somewhat bizarrely, as a water-saving device (instead of washing sidewalks in drought-stricken places, blow them clear). Almost immediately people objected to the very loud and obnoxious racket that these gas-powered machines made. By 1975, Carmel, California, had banned leaf blowers. Other towns followed. But despite the work of citizen’s organizations and success in banning, here we are today with lawn crews and homeowners blasting leaves and anything else deemed messy on any given day, sunrise to sunset, year round. Even in towns and cities that have restrictions and bans, it turns out, enforcement is lax.

The leaf blower was invented to sanitize the landscape. And that is very strange because this is a very dirty tool. How dirty? According to the manual of the Stihl company that makes them:

“As soon as the engine is running, this product generates toxic exhaust fumes containing chemicals, such as unburned hydrocarbons (including benzene) and carbon monoxide [emphasis mine], that are known to cause respiratory problems, cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Some of the gases (e.g. carbon monoxide) may be colorless and odorless.”

The Stihl manual further warns:

“Inhalation of certain dusts, especially organic dusts such as mold or pollen, can cause susceptible persons to have an allergic or asthmatic reaction. Substantial or repeated inhalation of dust and other airborne contaminants, in particular those with a smaller particle size, may cause respiratory or other illnesses. This includes wood dust, especially from hardwoods, but also from some softwoods such as Western Red Cedar. Control dust at the source where possible. Use good work practices, such as operating the unit so that the wind or operating process directs any dust raised by the power tool away from the operator. Follow the recommendations of EPA/OSHA/NIOSH and occupational and trade associations with respect to “particulate matter”). When the inhalation of dust cannot be substantially controlled, i.e., kept at or near the ambient (background) level, the operator and any bystanders should wear a respirator approved by NIOSH/MSHA for the type of dust encountered.”

Another warning statement tells operators to beware silica dust, a component of concrete and masonry products. Such dust “may contain crystalline silica,” which is known to cause cancer. But extensive landscaping takes place around newly built homes and buildings, and that landscaping work usually includes leaf blowers among the cleanup tools.

Here’s another tidbit that wasn’t even on my list of worries; again, a direct quote from the operator’s manual:

“Prolonged use of a power tool (or other machines) exposing the operator to vibrations may produce white finger disease (Raynaud’s phenomenon) or carpal tunnel syndrome. These conditions reduce the hand’s ability to feel and regulate temperature, produce numbness and burning sensations and may cause nerve and circulation damage and tissue necrosis.”

Hearing loss is almost inevitable if one uses a gas-powered leaf blower on a regular basis. The EPA considers exposure to noise levels at 85 decibels to be harmful to human hearing. Leaf blowers expose operators to 115 decibels. The Stihl manual again: “Power tool noise may damage your hearing. Wear sound barriers (ear plugs or ear mufflers) to protect your hearing. Continual and regular users should have their hearing checked regularly. Be particularly alert and cautious when wearing hearing protection because your ability to hear warnings (shouts, alarms, etc.) is restricted.”

These are published facts, but I rarely see landscape workers wearing hearing protection, dust masks, and goggles, all required for proper use, according to the manual. The manual does not address how it is that bystanders or next-door neighbors can manage to place themselves 50 feet away (the magic number) from their neighbor’s blowing activities when houses might be only 10 feet apart. Forget the absurdity, of course, of having to guess and prepare for when a neighbor might be having his or her yard “dusted.”

Okay, the manual spells out the potential (I would say inevitable) cost to the human body of using leaf blowers. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the garden and the natural world the garden lives in. What might a 200-mile-per-hour blast of air do to the land and the plants and creatures living on it? It can blow away the organic top layer of the soil. This is the part of the soil that is slowly decomposing, providing food to a host of invertebrates and micoorganisms that in turn carry nutrients below ground where they become accessible to plant roots. This layer keeps the ground cooler and retains water. Blowing that away in heat of summer, or worse, during a drought, is a double whammy of plant stress.

Studies in recent years have also shown that noise pollution is a contributor to habitat loss for wildlife. It has been shown to interfere with bird communication, even causing male birds to raise the pitch of their songs, which affects mating. Imagine you’ve just finished your nest, it seems like a cozy place to raise your young and an hour later there’s this noise-, wind-, and heat-blasting thing at the foot of the tree you call home.

So, I rake because it never occurred to me not to. I grew into gardening in a community garden where it isn’t practical, economical, or possible to have power tools. The garden is a quiet place in a loud city, and it’s a place where we gardeners can engage directly with nature instead of being passive onlookers in parks and playgrounds. I find raking to be a soothing chore, almost graceful, that works the whole body, kind of like a waltz. Since taking gardening courses, I’ve also gained some practical tips for deploying garden tools. The tip for raking sounds simple but makes a big difference: Stand up straight and keep your raking motions within a couple of feet of your body. Bending over and reaching the rake out as far as it can go may seem like it accomplishes more, but it actually reduces control over the rake and tires the body much faster.

That does, however, bring me to fact that people buy these things to save labor or they hire landscape workers to clean up leaves and nobody in the business uses a rake anymore. That puts people who can’t rake because of age, disabilities, or time constraints in a particularly bad position, especially if they are environmentally conscious gardeners. On the other side of the coin are lawn workers trying to earn a living who can only remain competitive if they can speed through each job, frequently using more than one leaf blower per property (another no-no, according to the manual, apparently not a well-read document).

A way out of this dilemma is already happening with the rethinking of the American yard through native plantings, lawn reduction, mulching mowers, and composting. At the same time, electric blowers are now available. I think they still pose environmental problems, and I don’t think lawn companies will trade in their gas-powered blowers unless they are forced to. But we can resist the current highly marketed aesthetic that demands a spotless lawn and garden. Do we really want to fund landscape companies that put their workers at risk, raise the asthma levels in neighborhoods, threaten wildlife, and assist in the overall burning up of our planet? Fellow gardeners, let us rake.

Turning a new leaf.

Turning a new leaf.

 

May

It’s a rainy, chilly patch of spring and I don’t mind. It reminds me of Irish weather—the bit of it I experienced in person last summer and the rest that I’ve been reading about for most of my life. As a gardener and a gazer-upon-gardens, I’m drawn to the beautiful depth of a moody landscape. The colors of plant life as well as of rocks and water reveal themselves endlessly against the gray skies and mists of a rainy spring. There is so much that is missed in the straight-up light of unfiltered sunshine: so many different shades of green, for instance, and the pinks, purples, and gray-blues of early flowers that have a richness quite apart from the stereotypical candy colors that advertisers would have us accept as emblematic of spring.

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Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, dianthus… 

This week a friend invited me to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s plant sale. I’d never been but almost turned her down, thinking mainly in terms of crowds and traffic and boring things I had on my to-do list. I went and discovered that what friends had been telling me for years was true. Picture a lawn bordered by BBG’s famous cherry trees, their blossoms floating down on a wealth of non-Home Depot plants: native plants, herbs, small trees, annuals. In a large tent were garden vegetable plants, cacti, succulents, and small potted herbs. It was crowded, bordering on chaotic but somehow in a gentle way. People were pausing to look closely and read detailed descriptions of care and planting instructions. Gardeners from the very old to the very young, from every walk of life and ethnicity wandered about in half-dream states. The lines were long but everyone waited their turn. It rained off and on and nobody cared. I had come thinking I’d just look and came home with a comfortable armload that includes two different kinds of lavender and three different kinds of dianthus from tiny flowers on up.

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The look of May moodiness: Lady’s mantle at BP City Park.

 

 

Golden Butterflies

On walks along the Hudson, I’ve come across lots of interesting plants, some intentionally placed, most not. There is a certain section just past the former sanitation building where Riverside Park South starts. This little stretch is for some reason woebegone in contrast to the more well-cared-for trees, grasses, and seasonal garden beds a few steps away. The stone pavers are always popping up and half broken here. The river washes up the rocks, splashing the thin soil with a brine that many plants would find intolerable. The weedy things that tend to grow here are chickory, mullein, lamb’s quarters, golden rod, dandelions, and wild asters, but a few days ago none of these plants were yet visible. I did, however, spot some shrubbery that took my breath away.

Against the gray backdrop of the river and sky, golden butterflies fluttered. There is plenty of official outdoor artwork in the park, some of which I am very fond. This, however, was the work of a mystery artist—or sprite. Someone had to do this careful wiring after dark or in the very early morning. And the butterflies themselves were made of trimmed feathers, skillfully joined and spray painted with gold paint. A flock of tourists came by just as I was taking one last picture. “Shhh,” I said, “don’t scare them away.” They immediately took out their smartphones.

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Brown, Green, Purple

This is a poignant season, the space between winter and spring, when the landscape appears dull but is not. Death is everywhere in the dry grays and browns of fallen leaves and bare branches, some broken from winter storms, and strawlike remnants of last season’s stems. But so is life, asserting itself with piercing intensity. Without any help from me, fierce little crocus plants push straight up through the leaves, tearing openings, and all at once their pale purple heads have arrived. This is when the gardener is a mere bystander—and happily so. Here are some of my sightings as I stood by.

Bare branches of the community garden’s apple tree

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Snowdrop in Jane’s garden.

Turkey tail mushrooms (I think)

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) mushrooms.

 

 

Crocuses emerging

Crocuses emerging, piercing dry leaves.

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Witch hazel among skyscrapers.

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Blooming on schedule on the playground.

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Crocus blooms amid the grays and browns of last year’s leaves.

 

 

The Garden Inside

Late last fall, I found fresh trimmings from the garden’s grape vines in the compost pile and decided to experiment. I made cuttings, put them in a jar of water on the kitchen counter, and let them be. Over the course of a couple of months, these sticks began to bulge with roots and

Grape vines growing on the kitchen counter.

then shoots—and now leaves of a delicate pale green. Decoratively speaking, they make a lovely living centerpiece for the table. I’m hoping I can eventually get them to grow more permanently in a pot on our balcony as well. I have in mind the stories of homegrown wine in Greenwich Village: Italian families bringing grape vines from Italy, growing them up the outside walls of their buildings, and pressing their own wines. A truly local production.

Other winter projects are taking place on windowsills, inside cabinets, and on top of the refrigerator. For instance, I’m growing ferns! Thanks to a class in propagation, I now have a mound of fern prothalli growing in a sealed plastic cup. These heart-shaped, leaflike organisms are where eggs and sperm meet (given a droplet of water falling exactly in the right spot for a sperm to swim to an egg) and reproduce to form a sporophyte that grows into a fern plant. The spores of the Osmunda regalis are startlingly blue-green (though only the green shows up in the photo below) and thus photosynthetic.

Fern spores

Fern spores

Fern prothalli

Fern prothalli

Oyster mushrooms occupy the top of the refrigerator where it is warm and dimly lit. These sculptural fungi are highly decorative. I put them on a table in late afternoon and the setting sun flamed out around their votive-like caps. Quick and easy to grow, they also make an

Mushrooms fruiting out

Mushrooms fruiting out

excellent indoor gardening project for preschoolers. Oyster mushrooms have a fairly strong smoky—and of course, oyster-y— taste, so they are not necessarily ideal for the taste buds of young children. For everyone else, I’ve found preparing them in a vegetable broth with some miso and wine (I happened to use sherry in a recent concoction) helps balance the smokiness while bringing out the intense earthiness of this mushroom.

Oyster mushrooms grow out of their mini farm.

Oyster mushrooms grow out of their mini farm.

In the cabinet over the fridge, a bulb-forcing operation is taking place. In the same plant propagation class, I learned to scoop a hyacinth bulb. By wounding all the scales with a sharpened spoon edge or pen knife, a wound response is triggered, leading to the growth of

Hyacinth bulb scooped to propagate "babies," or bulblets.

Hyacinth bulb scooped to propagate “babies,” or bulblets.

adventitious bulblets. A sealed baggie keeps the bulb happily humid although it also makes for a nice environment for fungi. When mold developed, I thought that would be that, but a dusting with fungicide gave the bulblets a chance to grow.

When a friend needed to bring her summer garden indoors, she invited me to handle the succulents that she could no longer fit on her apartment windowsills. That has been inspiring me to understand them better, learn their names, and create miniature succulent scenes. It’s a little like setting up a dollhouse—and presents another way to engage kids with plants during the winter. Placing stones and shells is something three- and four-year-olds can’t seem to resist.

Another tiny world.

Tiny world.