Tuesday, April 9, 2024

A glimpse of Chilean plant life

 i was on a cruise along the coast of Chile last month. It was late summer and early Fall down there, not
exactly prime wildflower season, nor did I have much time on land. Nevertheless, as per my habit, I recorded whatever wildflowers I could find, and there were some very interesting ones. 

Chile is a long slender country. If you flipped it over onto the northern hemisphere, it would stretch from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico. So it has a wide range of climates and vegetation types. The southern tip is a stone's throw from the Antarctic peninsula, and the far north is barren desert. Our cruise focused on the fjords and glaciers of the southern third of the country. 

Glaciers and rugged mountains beyond counting line the Chilean coast.

The pictures that follow will speak for themselves. 

At our jumping off point in Ushuaia,
Argentina, planted flowers were at their
peak, giving hope that some wildflowers
would still be active.

Amidst the lichen-laden hrubby vegetation of the southern Chilean coast a lonely Chaura plant
(Gaultheria mucrunata) bears its crop of berries. Chaura is a relative of 
blueberries and cranberries.

At Punta Arenas, southernmost city in Chile,
yellow lupines (Lupinus arboreus), an invasive
species native to California, blooms throughout 
the short summer.

White daisies, possibly also from North America, also bloom
in Punta Arenas.

The native vegetation along the coast is dominated by Nothofagus antarctica, a relative of oak trees.

Fuschia magellanica, photographed here at the Rio Simpson Nature Preserve, is a common
sight in central Chile.

Gunnera tinctora is a curious plant with enormous leaves. Popular in
botanical gardens and landscapes in suitable climates, it is native
to southern Chile. Sometimes called Chilean rhubarb, because
its stems are used in the same way as a vegetable, it is unrelated
to the European rhubarb plant.

Because of its stiff, spiny-edged leaves,
Desfontainia spinosa is known as Chilean holly,
though it is in a completely different family, 
Columelliaceae. Note the lone orange and yellow

Ferns are also common in the moist forests of southern Chile.
A touch of fall color comes to Chacabuco, Chile
in late March.

After disembarking our ship at Valparaiso, I was thrilled to spot the native Chilean Wine Palm,
Jubaea chilensis growing in large numbers on a dry hillside. I was able to snap some halfway decent pictures through the window of our moving bus.

In earlier times, sap was extracted from the palm trunks
and used for syrup and wine. The sap could be
extracted only by felling the tree, a wasteful process
that has been banned.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Japan in Winter

Camellias with a single whorl of red petals are
common in Japanese landscapes, and little
changed from the wild species found in Japanese
coastal forests.
 I just returned from a family trip to Japan. Why we went there in January is a long story. In short, it was fulfillment of a trip long delayed by Covid.  

Winter is hardly the time to look for wildflowers, but in climatically moderate places like Japan there is
much to observe about plant life. While more sensitive plants, like the iconic Lotus and Wisteria, are completely dormant, native Camellias are in full bloom. Evergreens, like the Black Pine and Bamboo can dominate landscapes and make on forget entirely what season it is.

The origins of Camellia japonica are given away by its scientific name. Hundreds of varieties are grown worldwide in warm-temperate and subtropical climates, providing colorful displays in winter. It is a close relative of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), which is native to China.

Black Pines dominate Japanese gardens, parks, 
and temple grounds. These growing on a small 
island are on the spacious grounds of the
Kinkaju-ji Temple in Kyoto.

Many native species are revered elements of classical Japanese landscapes. None is more prominent than the Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii), which can be readily shaped by pruning, and even grown as bonsai. Buildings may even be modified to accommodate nearby specimens.

Near Kiamizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, this Black
Pine has been trained to grow along a rooftop.

At the Kasugataisha Temple, in the
ancient capital city of Nara, this roof
 was modified to accommodate the
trajectory of a nearby Japanese Cedar
tree  Cryptomeria japonica).

This Ardisia crenata, in Kenroku-en
Garden in the foothills of the Japanese
Alps, is still green and holding its fruit
a few days after an unusually heavy

As elsewhere, many Japanese plants produce their berries during the winter. Often colored red, they stand out against bleak winter landscapes, offering food for birds.

Though not native to Japan, these Narcissus 
blossoms herald an early Spring in Tokyo.

Though not as spectacular as their 
cherry cousins, the plum trees are the
earliest to bloom. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Native (?) Wildflowers of Hawaii

The Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum
seems perfectly at home in Hawaii, but
so much so that it has become one of the 
most troublesome weeds there. It's prolifically 
spreading rhizomes choke out native vegetation
wherever it takes hold. It comes originally from

We usually think of wildflowers as colorful displays bursting forth after the winter thaw in an alpine meadow, or after a rainstorm in the desert. In the tropics though, we're looking for flowers popping up randomly in the rainforest, or perhaps on dry lava slopes.

 A more relevant question about Hawaii is "what are the native plants here?" It's a  more complicated and perplexing question than you might think. The hibiscus, orchids, plumeria, gingers, and heliconias we associate with this island paradise were all brought in by European visitors and settlers - so not native. The many climbing aroids - philodendrons, pothos, and monsteras that climb the trees in the tropical rainforests, along with most of the palms one sees, also came from elsewhere. Some have become invasive weeds. 

Plants brought by Europeans caused the most radical and disruptive changes to the local flora, but the vegetation has been continuously changing ever since the first volcanic cone of this island chain emerged above water. 

Before the Europeans, Polynesian settlers originally from the the Indo-Malayan region, brought in coconuts, noni fruits, breadfruit, taro, sugar cane, bananas, and other useful plants, along with chickens and pigs. So that brought about a significant disturbance in the flora as well.

So what plants were in the islands before the first Polynesian settlers arrived? There was of course a rich flora there at that time, what we might consider the true indigenous flora of Hawaii, but little that would be familiar to anyone. Even that native flora, however, arrived piecemeal over time. 

Ferns were among the first plants to arrive in 
Hawaii, and are still among the first to colonize
new lava flows.
When that first volcanic cone appeared millions of years ago, there was of course no native flora at all. The first plant life to arrive was of spore-dispersed plants like ferns and mosses (along with lichens, which are combinations of fungi and algae). The most familiar descendent of these wind-dispersed plants would probably be the Hawaiian tree fern, Cibotium menziesii, which can be seen in many parts of the rainforest, and are prominent in the undisturbed forest around the Kilauea volcano, in Volcanos National Park on the island of Hawaii. 
Hawaiian tree ferns in Volcanos National Park.

There are some salt-tolerant plants flowering plants, like the beach morning glory and "half-flower" (Scaevola spp.) that are everywhere along tropical beaches, and their seeds probably floated to the islands. 
Scaevola is a widespread genus of salt-tolerant
plants common along tropical beaches in the
Pacific region. Several indigenous species have 
evolved in Hawaii.

The beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae
is common on tropical and
subtropical beaches around the world.

Metrosideros polymorpha is still the dominant
tree in most parts of Hawaii.

The first woody plant to arrive was a species of Metrosideros, a relative of Eucalyptus and guava. It had no competition at first, and became the dominant tree of the Hawaiian rainforest. It evolved into many forms, including dwarf shrubs at high elevations. By some accounts there are now five species of Metrosideros indigenous to Hawaii, with M. polymorpha the dominant species. Experts estimate that about 275 flowering plant species migrated to Hawaii in the pre-human era, and from that base evolved into about 1000 endemic species.
In the Alakai Swamp on Kauai, Metrosideros polymorpha
grows as a low-lying shrub.

A silversword plant in bloom inside the 
Haleakala Crater on Maui.
Another indigenous plant is the odd-looking silversword  (Argyroxiphium sandwicense), found in exposed areas of the Hawaiian volcanos, and most readily seen in Haleakala Crater on Maui. There are some nineteen species of the palm genus, Pritchardia, that are found only in Hawaii.

So there are interesting native plants to be found in Hawaii, if you know where to look.
Nineteen species of the genus Pritchardia are the
only palms endemic to Hawaii.

The pink knotweed, Persicaria capitata, forms conspicuous
pink patches along the saddle road that crosses the island
of Hawaii. It is, however, a native of Asia.

I thought I had found a native species of Passiflora with distinctive feather-like bracts that wrap around the fruit as it develops. It turned out, though, that it was another import from tropical America, Passiflora foetida. (The petals on the flower have already
curled up.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Story of Canna

Canna flowers are red, orange, or yellow,
often with varied stripes, spots or other patterns.
The bright reds, yellows, and oranges of Cannas are a common sight in Florida and other subtropical parts of the country nearly  year-round. Elsewhere, they can be planted out in the summer and lifted before the ground freezes, or grown in containers. Have you ever taken a closer look though? 

Cannas are rhizomatous plants with paddle-shaped leaves that resemble those of related bananas, gingers, and birds-of-paradise. The flowers are showy, but oddly asymmetrical, with large, overlapping petals. Flowers give way to bristly seed capsules filled with hard, black, round, shot-like seeds. 

The parallel veins of Canna leaves enter
the leaf as a dense bundle, and spread one
 by one to either side to form the broad
blade. This is the pattern seen in other
monocots, like bananas, gingers, 
birds-of-paradise and  unsplit palm fronds.

The commonly grown varieties come from the wild species Canna indica and/or C. discolor. Depending on which taxonomic treatment you follow, there are 10-20 species in total, all native to tropical and subtropical America. 
The bristly seed pods of Canna reach full-
size a few weeks after the petals fall.

The common Cannas grow in ordinary mesic soil, but some are aquatic marsh plants, like C. flaccida, which is common in Florida. The familiar species are 3-6 feet tall, but some tropical species can be up to 16 feet tall. 

Cannas have multiple practical uses as well. The rhizomes contain edible starch, leaves and stems have fiber useful for making paper or ropes, and the extremely hard seeds are used as beads or rattles in musical instruments.

This bright yellow blossom of Canna
was found in a Central Florida
marsh. The extremely hard seeds collected
from nearby plants germinated only after
filing through the seed coat, but grew to
flowering size in 2-3 months.

The dangling red flowers of the 16 ft. tall 
Canna iridiflora suggest pollination
by hummingbirds. This species 
grows in tropical mountains between 5000 and 
9000 feet elevation, where it can be cool but 
never freezing. Photo posted on Wikipedia, CC.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The incredible Lotus

 The lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is an aquatic plant of great elegance, and one
Lotus plants fill a pond in Taiwan.

that is highly revered throughout southern and
eastern Asia particularly among Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Because the leaves and the flowers arise literally from the mud, appearing above the water clean and unstained, they are considered symbols of purity, strength and rebirth,. Wherever they can be grown, they are prized members of  aquatic landscapes. 

Religious figures are often depicted
as being borne (or sometimes born)
 on lotus flowers. From Wikipedia,
public domain.

When a Lotus seed germinates, leaves
appear first, roots and rhizome will
emerge later.
I recently found lotus seeds for sale on the internet and decided to try growing them in a tub. I was astonished at how quickly they germinated and grew to maturity. It took less than a week  the seeds to sprout, wrapped in a wet paper towel in a plastic sandwich bag. I waited another week to stick them into the soil, eight inches below the water surface in the tub. The first leaf to emerge to the surface was about an inch across, but each succeeding leaf was a bit larger, and in a few weeks were more than a foot in diameter. They smallest leaves floated on the surface of the water, but later leaves pushed above the surface on sturdy stems. 

I planted the seeds in February, and by late May I was startled to see small flower buds appearing above the water, and these were fully opened in another couple of weeks. So, from seed to flower took scarcely three months. 

The solitary flowers of the Lotus rise to sit above the
leaves that are completely circular in outline.

Lotus plants are sometimes confused with waterlilies, which are in a completely different family. Their remarkable resemblance is a great example of convergent evolution. In waterlilies, however, leaves remain floating on the water surface, and have a deep cleft at the base. Waterlily seeds are borne in a series of separate carpels rather than a flat-headed structure. They are much slower in their growth also, taking three or more weeks to germinate and up to two years to form their first flowers. Waterlilies branched off from the earliest ancestors of flowering plants, while Lotuses are more closely related to Proteas and Sycamores.

Remarkably, though, they have similar pollination strategies. In both waterlilies and lotuses, insects, which often are bearing pollen from another flower, enter the flowers on the first day they are opened. In the evening the flowers close, trapping the insects. Flowers reopen the next day, and the pollen covered insects escape, to repeat the process in another flower.
As Lotus flowers fully open, the distinctive, flat-
headed receptacle, with young ovules embedded
in surface pits, are revealed.

Waterlily leaves have a cleft at the base, and their
separate carpels are hidden in a chamber below
the stamens.

The sacred Lotus of Asia has an American cousin,
Nelumbo lutea, which has yellow flowers. Photo
by Liz West, CC by 2.0.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Flowers of the Midnight Sun


The sun at midnight above the Arctic

I recently realized a dream of experiencing the longest day of the year above the arctic circle, and can confirm that the sun never sets on that day! Of course, I also hoped to see some arctic wildflowers while there, and though it was early in the season, I was not disappointed. 

Much of the arctic flora circles the globe across Eurasia and North America, and so there are some common elements between what I have seen in Alaska and Norway, but also with some that are unique to each region.

Dogwoods (Cornus suecica) in cold northern
climates are ground-hugging dwarfs, rather
than trees. They are thus protected from strong
winds and covered with snow during the 
winter, which protects them from the cold.

Arctic willows (genus Salix) are likewise dwarfed. 

Lotus corniculata is a relative of clover and alfalfa.

Silene dioica, a member of the Carnation Flower, is common
in Norway during the long days of June.

Silene acaulis forms low mats in more exposed areas.

Buttercups, genus Ranunculus, are universal in
temperate to arctic climates.

I had to borrow this image from Wikipedia, as it was
too early in the season for Fireweed, genus Epiolbium,
an icon of arctic and subarctic regions. Photo by
Kallerna, CC by SA 3.0

Wild Geraniums abound in the Norwegian woods.

Yellow violets survive nestled among the rocks.

At a stop in the northerly Orkney Islands,
a ground orchid in the genus Dactylorhiza

Yellow flag, an Iris, fills bogs in the Orkneys.

Arctic poppies were in bloom in the Shetland Islands.

Thymus praecox, a relative of Thyme, forms low mats among mosses in the Shetlands.