Sunday, 11 May 2008

Mottisfont abbey and gardens

The weather is holding on: twenty-seven degrees and sunny.  

I should not be surprised maybe- I remember that last year Easter time weather was splendid, and the Kew gardens were marvelous under the sun. However, knowing how fleeting the weather can be in this country, I stole half a day from a Sunday in which I would otherwise have condemned myself to work, and went to Mottisfont House in Romsey. 

What is it in the British that makes them design gardens in which one feels and moves like on the set of a movie? Sceneries in which one participates of the view, but at the same time one also feels just as if he is the main character of a long shot? In which the appearing and disappearing of the people in the folds of the landscape reminds one of the twists of a plot by Jane Austen? (And isn't there just one such scene in Mansfield Park? Where all the characters walk in the park, and prodigious developments follow?) 

The roses in the walled garden are still sleeping- only some late irises and some rosemary bush (the latter must be rubbing its eyes at its good luck for this time of the year), are spreading scent. 

The wisteria on the South side of the house is in bloom, and the Test walk revealed a sweet surprise- what this flower growing underwater is, I don't know; but it is so beautiful. 


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Philodendron Erubescens 'Imperial Red'

This plant here finally started to show some sign of growing. Boy, is this a slow one- or did I do something wrong? 

Anyway, this is the first new leaf I see on my plant- it has a nice shiny reddish brown color at first, like a leather shoe, then veers to a olive green color. Photos taken at one day intervals from each other. 

Monday, 5 May 2008

Kenwood House

Bank holiday weekend, with more-or-less decent weather (meaning it is not pouring rain) so out to London to visit Kenwood House. 
One wonders what kind of plant could survive in those rooms with a 4 meter high ceiling and tall, but very narrow windows. (Alas, I still have to find a decent book on the social history of indoor gardening in order to find answers to this type of questions.) Compared with those of a Dutch stadthuis of the same period, whose diffused and copious light reminds one of Pieter Saenredam's paintings of church interiors, the rooms in Kenwood House fare rather poorly. Is this difference cause or effect of the British genius for outdoor gardening, and of the Dutch quiet love of indoor plants?

A nice orangerie in Kenwood House, though- perfectly aligned with the South, not too big to look like part of a commercial enterprise, not too small to be only cute. Also, symmetrically placed at the other end of the building from the library. Plants and books- what more could the Earl ask for? 

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Botanical dead languages

In Britain, a working knowledge of plant names had become one of the social graces. A young lady of genteel origins was expected to be capable of reeling off, without hesitation, the Latin binomial for any given popular flower. 

From Once upon a windowsill- a history of indoor plants, by T. Martin, Timber Press, Portland, OR

Mrs. P. was a woman of peculiar ugliness: tall, thin, stooped, with a beaky, disproportionate nose which created serious problems when one tried to focus one's eyes on the other features of her face. 

Her way of speaking was affected and almost dreamy- save when she would recite metrically long series of verses of Latin and Greek poetry. Then the modest, diminutive posture would disappear; the pin eyes would get animated; and a towering virago, flushed in the face, and short of breath, would be beating with her foot the prosody of Virgil, of Ennius, of Homer. 
Implacable with those of us who did not know their aorists and could not identify a given meter right away from a couple of verses, she was suave with those more talented (or simply nerdier). She would accompany then our recitation of the last part of a verse with half-voice, evidently enthusiastic that her love of classics had rubbed off on some of us.
I was one of the nerdier; for personal disposition, family environment, and sheer love of books, I had no problems following or getting enthusiastic about Sophocles or Plato, and could find the dirtiest of Martial's epigrams easily in the family library (of course, Mrs. P. never had us read those). 
It is due to the ministrations of classical wisdom from Mrs. P. that I now can pronounce my Schysmatoglottis and my Asterostigma without getting my tongue tied; why I can more or less understand what Anaphyllum means; and why these days I am finding unending pleasure in thumbing through my copy of Botanical Latin by W.T. Stearn. It is a self-described "working guide to the special kind of Latin internationally used by botanists for the description and the naming of plants". It is a splendid book, born out of the notebooks that the author compiled while on duty on a RAF ambulance during the war. It will teach one, for example, the difference between involute and convolute vernation (though, alas, it will not tell you that vernatio is 18th century Latin, from vernare, which means "to grow as if in spring"). 

If one used to know Latin and Greek, reading this book is a pleasant rendezvous with one's past. If one has not that privilege- far from a snobbish one, it is one of the few that really bring a pleasure irrespective of the perceived social importance- it is a good occasion to peer into a world where words mean what they say. 

Like a Borges' character, lose yourself into a quiet and engrossing intellectual endeavour. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

La vie sexuelle d'Alocasia

"One thing above all makes aroids stars of the botanical world and that is their strange and fascinating sex lives."
Deni Bown, Aroids, Century Press, London, 1988.
A couple of days ago I noticed that something was emerging from the sheath (I suppose it is called that way) of my Alocasia... and in fact here it is, the spadix. It is about 4 cm long for the moment, and it is growing quite quickly as far as I can tell. (Is it because of the splendid- though glacial- weather we are experiencing?)
Apparently it was Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) who noticed for the first time in 1778 (a propos Arum Italicum, in the Flore Francaise, vol. 3, ch. 358) the phenomenon of thermogenesis, i.e. the raising in temperature of the flower in order to attract pollinators. Not that the temperature alone does the trick: when artificially heated but scentless spadices have been used, the insects did not react. The temperature is apparently a way to improve the dispersion of the scent so as to attract pollinators. 
Now I do not know if this is going to be the case for my 'Polly', but from a quick search on the Net a number of its cousins (from Alocasia Macrorrhizos to Colocasia Esculenta), not to mention a number of other Aroids, exhibit this type of behavior. Apparently the best way to bring this into evidence is to use liquid crystals to paint the spadix- changes in temperature will then cause changes in color. Would be nice to have some chemistry background...

And by the way, the plants spend an enormous amount of energy increasing the temperatures of their spades- Philodendron Bipinnatifidum apparently uses as much oxygen during the process as a hummingbird. A hummingbird! In order to go through thermogenesis, these plants use the carbohydrates and in some cases lipids (!) stored in the rhizome. This fact may explain the conventional wisdom of eliminating the spadix as soon as it forms, in order for the plant to continue producing the foliage which is the main object of interest for us. 
On an Aroid-unrelated note, also my Peperomia Caperata seems to be in high spirits, and has produced what I also would call spadices (if you have a better term for that thing, please let me know what the correct name is.)

There's three of those spadices; here I show two of them. Funny that it seems in such high spirits- recently I had sort of neglected it and let it dry up a bit, and the result were some brownish spots on the tips of the leaves. Must be not too unhappy though...

Friday, 29 February 2008

Alocasia Amazonica day

Christopher Lloyd wrote in The Well-tempered Garden:

"Gardening, like living, should be fun. It can't be much of the time, but we can do our best to make it so. It is that intangible something which immediately proclaims that behind the scenes there is an original whose guiding hand has created something ephemeral; ephemeral, yes, but with the magic of a sunset".  

Living up to such a statement of intent is going to be difficult- this is not hard to realize especially when one has just bought an Alocasia  x Amazonica 'Polly', a challenging plant at the best of times, imagine for an accidental indoor gardener...  
I mean, I can do Peperomias, Calatheas and Stromanthes and Ctenanthes, Dieffenbachias- just about- and Citrus and Olea... but this is a whole different ball game, and it called for a blog, my very first blog ever. 

Now what has got me to move from the challenging (the Ctenanthes and co.) to what seems by all accounts to be the almost impossible, were two things. One was watching the fantastic photos of the Exotic Rainforest (fantastic!). The second, total irresponsibility. But honestly, when one reads from "Foliage plants for decorating indoors" by Virginie F. and George A. Elbert, Timber Press: 

"We have always esteemed them the most aristocratic of the aroids."

how can one resist? 

So out I went on the Net looking for Alocasia- any type. And I found it! (Which honestly, is far from assured when you're talking a house Alocasia, not an Elephant's Ear for your garden... at least in the UK.)
I found it at the House of Plants, which in a few days provided me with a splendid specimen of 'Polly'  which had just arrived. (Thanks, you've been great!)

I have repotted it this afternoon- a wet and windy one, which after the beautiful blue skies of the last days feels even worse than it actually is. I came back from work as soon as I got to know that the plant was there, almost running in the park. Taking it out of the perfectly packaged box was thrilling... and there it was, in all its nine-leaved splendor! 
I put the pot in a nice cream cache-pot I bought for the occasion, and  I placed it on the stairs, where the tall '70s style  window will hopefully let enough light in even in the worst of the English weather. Here it is!