Monday, April 16, 2007

Flower Walk in April

After sending out my essay on learning the Names of Plants in my newsletter,
I got an invitation from my friend Fred (of Frog Hospital)
to go on a plant walk. He knows a lot about plants from working as a landscaper, which is exactly the sort of expert advice I needed as most of the plants I observe are cultivated, not wild plants.

We wandered around my neighborhood for over an hour today, noticing all the plants that were blooming. He taught me the names of pieris japonica (tiny little white bells) and leatherleaf viburnum (white fragrant flowers on a shrub with dark green leathery leaves) and barberry (bright yellow berries on red thorny branches) and I introduced him to one of my favorites, daphne odora. We also observed the blossoms on the trees: the big leaf maples have white flowers that droop down (I learned that these trees only blossom after they’ve turned 20) and the candles on the horse-chestnuts (white blossoms that point up).

Fred cleared up one of my prevailing scent mysteries. In recent weeks, I’ve frequently been stopped in my tracks by an incredibly strong, slightly musty fragrance, but I can never find the source. Fred pointed out the cherry laurel flowers and I realized that’s the source of the scent. Generally the white spires of the blossoms are at the very top of tall hedges and I just wasn’t looking up. Sort of like my experience with sarcococcus humilis, which is always the first fragrance of spring for me, but in that case, I wasn’t looking down for the tiny white flowers on the undersides of the leaves.

Many of the flowers we saw are ones I associate with May eve (April 30) when I roam through the alleyways picking flowers to bring indoors, including lilacs (just beginning to open their buds), woodruff (ditto), pieris japonica and the flowers on what I call the snowball bush. I now believe that’s another species of viburnum. Everything seems to be blooming earlier than usual here in Seattle.

Illustration: Viburnum opulus (Guelder-rose) from Thome, Flora von Deutschland, Osterreich und der Schwiez 1885 (found at

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Yes, it's pollen season. After writing about pussy willow catkins (see my last blog below), I got into my car the following day to find the windshield was covered with green pollen. I had parked beneath a birch tree, which was also decked with catkins. I just find it fascinating that catkins are male flower, since I think of flowers as feminine. (Of course they're not.)

Joanna from Minneapolis sent me a comment on the last blog (which I accidentally deleted) saying that she thought I'd like to read The Tree by Colin Tudge. I just reserved it at my library.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart. She mentions pollen in the section on Breeding Flowers: "It wasn't until the late 1600s that botanists begin to speculate that pollen might be the equivalent of sperm, but even that notion had its detractors, including a scientist in the early eighteenth century named Johann Siegesbeck who believe that "sex in flowers was not only scientifically unconvincing but morally revolting as well.""

I'm not sure I believe this statement since I know that the 17th century botanist, Linneaus, based his taxonomy of flowers on their sexual characteristics. He often used terms for human sexuality when referring to plants: they were virgins, eunuchs, husbands. Petals became marriage beds and the flower head of the Calendula was described thus: “where the beds of the married occupy the disk and those of the concubines the circumference, the married females are barren and the concubines fertile.”

If you want a peek at the sex lives of flowers, check out this exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium:

Friday, April 06, 2007

Pussy Willows for Easter

I just bought a book of old Easter postcards, and thanks to my new obsession with flowers, I found that I was flipping through the images noticing what flowers were depicted. The stores in my neighborhood are filled with those white lilies which I think of as Easter lilies, but only one of the postcards shows Easter lilies. Two feature tulips, one a hyacinth, one some speedwells (or maybe they’re forget-me-nots) and two display pussy willows.

You can see them most prominently in the one above with the train but I also like the card below with the pussy willows in a basket.

In parts of the world where palms are rare, pussy willows are the branches brought to church on Palm Sunday. And I also just learned about the Polish tradition called Dyngus Day (featured in my calendar on the Monday after Easter the boys dump water on the girls and whip them with pussy willows. A fertility ritual, especially when one considers how profligate pussy willows are with their pollen. And why.

A few weeks ago on a windy morning, I was walking the dog around the block when a fluffy, yellow-tipped bundle, about the size and shape of a caterpillar, plopped onto the sidewalk at my feet. It made a splat as it sounded. I picked it up and carried it home where it dried into a flattish, cotton ball like lump.

I looked it up in my tree book and realized that these were catkins, that is the male flowers of certain tree families. The yellow color is the pollen which they are trying to spread via the wind. My specimen looked most like the catkins of the goat willow, also known as the pussy willow, so I went back the next morning.

Sure enough, the buds on this particular tree are the soft velvety grey buds I think of as pussy willows. As they develop, they puff up with yellow bristles. These are pollen-covered anthers. I don’t understand the mechanism which makes them drop off the tree (perhaps they want to be blown by the wind into the arms of a female willow). In pussy willows, the sexes are on different trees, so this is a male tree (searching for its mate). Like all wind-pollinated plants (grasses are the same), pussy willows have to produce a lot of pollen to make sure they are spread around enough to find a receptive partner.

Once my specimens had dried, I can still see the little node where the bud once joined the stem. It is fuzzy and fun to pet, and you can see the silky, grey cat-like fur, for which the pussy willow is named, underneath the yellow tips.

The goat willow (salix caprea) is so named because the earliest known engraving of this plant shows a goat eating it. The tree has lots of suckers and the one at the end of the block exemplifies this tendency. It has many sprouts about three to four feet long around its trunk. The bark is a pale grey in color. My tree book says in the open they grow into upright shrubs but on edges they turn into crooked-stemmed trees. Mine is in-between, bigger than a shrub, scrubbier than a tree. The tree book also notes it “springs up rapidly on disturbed soil from seeds blown far with their fluffy coats.” Perhaps the rain in Seattle makes the coats sodden and thus they don’t get quite so far.

Here’s a photograph of the sidewalk in front of the tree, littered with spent catkins. Since I’ve never seen another pussy willow in the neighborhood, I’m not sure the longing of this tree is ever satisfied.