Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Mystery Plant

At the start of March, I embarked on a new topic in my year-long quest to learn about flowers. I began to focus on plant identification. I read Botany in a Day by Thomas J Elpel, a wonderful book that teaches you to identify plants by learning about plant families, then went out walking, eager to apply my newfound knowledge.

Unfortunately, I ran into a snag right away. I decided to identify the plant on the left. I call it the snail plant because snails love to eat the leaves and it usually looks pretty ratty by this time of year (the one on the left is looking pretty good). I used the process of keying out described by Elpel and quickly established that this was a Pyrola or wintergreen. I was thrilled! I had identified my first plant. Wanting to confirm my conclusion, I Googled Pyrola only to find out: this is not a Pyrola.

I was relating this story over lunch to some friends and one of them after hearing my description (round leaves with scalloped edges, pink flowers on red stalks) suggested my mystery plant was bear's britches. Again more excitement.

I rushed home and Googled Bear's Britches, the common name for acanthus mollis, the ancient plant whose leaves often decorate the capitals of Roman columns. Unfortunately, my plant is not Acanthus mollis (although I did have the good fortune, now that I know about it, to find an Acanthus on my walk to work this morning)

So I was sulking and feeling like I couldn't post anything because I was such a failure as an amateur botanist. Then I realized, this is what the Internet is for. One of you will surely recognize this plant. Can you tell me what it is? I look forward to your wisdom.

One thing that has happened as a result of my quest is that I now love this plant that I used to hate. I'm much more intimate with it now, having pried apart the five pink petals to count the ten tiny white stamens. I admire the combination of colors the bloom displays as it fades: the vivid magenta of the petals, the greenish-purple sepals and the deep maroon of the stem.