Robin-Lee

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No Mercy, Alnus

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A year goes by quickly!

Especially when it’s been four months.

We got the call late one night that our place not only had been on the market but that it had also, interestingly – and I use interestingly here very incorrectly — been sold.

The landlord, whose identity will remain anonymous and synonymous with the worst of shitstains after a Taco Bell 5-layer burrito, had gone to Florida with big dreams of making it in real estate. Florida was hard, he said. As a result, money was tight, he said. Real estate turned out to be weally weally hard. He didn’t know it would be so difficult in Florida in real estate. He said.

There are books in the library covering the disastrous state of Florida real estate, I said.

You put us through the wringer because you thought we would leave the place early and prove to be typical, terrible young renters. I said.

And now we’re without a support to hold us up, scrambling and reaching for any prospect of a decent living situation nearby and within budget.

Irony aside and damning the circumstances, our patio and housefront have never looked chuffier. The real late-summer winner has been the cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), grown from seed and which has wound its way around every fence post in the alleyway and through the front-step rail and mailbox.

According to a very unique site dedicated to climbing/twining plants*, “Ipomoea is from the Greek ips, which means ‘a worm,’ and homoios which, means ‘resembling,’ referring to the wormlike twining habit.”

The long, tubular red scarlet flowers seem to be a product of coevolution, perfect for the long beaks of hummingbirds — which, on second thought, might mean the hummingbird’s beak came to be specialized due to the flower’s structure. And it’s probably no mistake that a hummingbird’s vision, very different from ours, is attuned to the red hues of the light spectrum. The pleasingly shredded-looking leaves are a result of the hybrid between the cypress vine and a red morning glory.

What’s truly remarkable about this species — and any mentioned in The Climbers Project website, for that matter — is how it grows, how it reaches out to grasp and twine around the nearest object without the aid of eyes or any sort of guidance (such as the chemicals in odors, which some vining and twining plants use to detect nearby supports). In Daniel Chamovitz’s book, What a Plant Knows, the author devotes a chapter to a plant’s “sight”, which is really the interplay of gravity and light, the tiny particles known as statholiths that influence the direction of plant growth (gravity) and the chemical auxin literally changing the morphology of the stems (growth toward light).

This goes back to Darwin, cutting the nips and tips off of plant stems and roots, trying to figure out how the devil plants “knew” how to grow and where to grow. Thank god rabbits don’t photosynthesize.

The curiosities of later scientists gave the opportunity for plants to travel to space, beyond the wildest aspirations of a coconut dreaming of crossing the Pacific Ocean. Root and stem growth theories were confirmed with the absence of gravity, but what was still puzzling was the twining motion (including the “circumnutation”, or helical movement of such plants, demonstrating in the gyration of a sunflower). Here’s a video not of a sunflower demonstration this so-called heliotropism — I just loved the jazzy French gypsy music.

Which brings me back to my original anecdote: my roommate and I had our tips cut off. Well, that’s gross. But in any case, we suddenly had no support and were suddenly uprooted with no prospect in sight. But like a plant whose flowers are constantly decapitated by a brutal mailman and that somehow inexplicably wildly yet calculatedly strain themselves to find another solid support, we found a suitable place to call home and where we’ll spread our seed all over the place.

Again, gross. But for those of you who want our new address and to see more gratuitous photos of plants driven by narcissism, ego, and a touch of interest in plant science:

1915 S. Alder St., Philadelphia, PA 19148

 

 

 

*Burnham, R.J. (2008-2014). “CLIMBERS: Censusing Lianas in Mesic Biomes of Eastern RegionS.” <http://climbers.lsa.umich.edu&gt;.

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Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

September 17, 2017 at 7:43 pm

And the PHS Gardening and Greening Contest Award goes to…

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Not us!

Two months ago, I entered our front and backyard spaces in PHS’s Gardening and Greening Contest, which so exists to celebrate “the accomplishments of gardeners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.”

Alleyway before & after. Even some of the dirt in the before picture was added — this was originally a garbage pit and was spanned by broken-down wooden slats, which my roommate cleverly used to make our existing vegetable-garden planter. In this plot, we have growing Ipomoea sloteri, purple Salvia, stonecrop, coneflower, Cleome, Shepherd’s needles, and other wildflowers.

Contenders could win in one of several categories, including Children’s Garden (we have far too many poisonous plants and far too few children to be considered, it seems), Combination Garden, Container Garden, Flower & Specialty Garden, Garden Block, Public Space: Plantings/Parks, Urban Farm (ineligible as we do not sell our fruits of labor…yet), and Vegetable Garden.

Gods alive! Our leafy friends have really thrived in this humid summer. In the left-hand corner, my ace-in-the-hole Mucuna Pruriens is hopefully vining, twining, and waiting for the right timing until its big show… Bottom left-hand corner: Mothra

While I’ve listed the categories now, I didn’t take it upon myself when entering the contest to read the fine print of the rules, regulations, and possible winning categories. Had there been an “Entirely Green Foliage” or “Drunk Garden Design” category, we would have surely won. That being said, we did our damnedest, and I’m proud that my roommate and I worked together to put some green against the otherwise bleached concrete of 1109 Mercy Street. I’m also chuffed that we managed to keep most plants alive throughout a week of scorching sun and some strange man who our neighbor informed us was peeing in a particular plant at four in the morning (which, incidentally, is now dead).

Lesson learned: Borage deserves a bigger bed

While we’ve been busy with our own green space, I’d been meaning to take a stroll around South Philadelphia to show off some of our neighbor’s beautiful front-porch/yard/patio green spaces. I’ve met a few of them, and they certainly know their plants. First up…

Christ, this place. The owners looked down on me from their upper deck veranda — sitting in white, Victorian chairs, drinking wine out of marble goblets and savoring cheeses and capers — and told me to scamper off like a good little urchin, before I had a brief glimpse of a nude Minerva with water arching from her teats into a pool of porcelain koi.

No. Not right. I didn’t see these people at all, and I’m betting they’re absolutely lovely. At the least, they take extraordinary care of their magical courtyard, and it must have been years of attention to train the now-bursting grape vine and some careful thought into establishing the soft-colored pines that preside over their unbelievably Spring-green lawn.

You’ll see from the photos of our own front green space that I’m partial to purples, pinks, blues, and greens. I am not a fan of yellows, reds, and oranges. Yet, this house just up 11th street has some definite interest and a well-thought-out plan (heat- and sun-tolerant varieties) with its cascading Lysimachia, well-matched Coleus, and Amaranthus tricolor, a striking red-yellow-orange pigweed I’ve never seen before.

 

Again with the orange hues in the photo above, but these owners have cleverly used an elevated tub and a smart, symmetrical arrangement as well as some interest in the right, lower-hand corner with a blue oat grass and an unknown vine.

Not far from the red-yellow-orange house, this front appeals to me with its old-fashioned street lamp and entirely red-green theme with Elephant Ear plants and mandevilla.

 

I imagine this neighbor vied for the container competition. He’s also the one who gifted me the purpletop vervain and bronze fennel (now sadly passed) on my walk with the dog a month ago. And I can never resist a good use of pines and Lantana.

We met our neighbor on the corner a few nights ago as we were arranging our own front yard green space. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, odd curlers still in hair, she said she had been training her clematis and ivy for over 10 years. The stunning double clematis variety which she disdains, as it takes on a rather ragged and dried appearance after a short flowering period, peeps out from the pink roses and Japanese stone fountain hidden below the trellis.

So there we have the finest of South Central Philly, and it narrows down both the possible PHS winner and whose plants on which I’ll be increasing the pH balance.

 

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

July 23, 2017 at 5:19 pm

New Buds & Blooms in the Mercy Lee Botanical Garden

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Exploring FDR Park

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One massive donger: The Liberty Bell entrance of the Sesqui Expo

A good many things existing in Philadelphia came to be in 1926, thanks to the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition, a large fair held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. Much like its predecessor celebrating 100 years of throwing off the British yoke, the 1876 Centennial Exposition, both left their mark on Philadelphia’s landscape in its ornate, structurally unique (for their time) buildings and parks.

One such park is FDR Park, once part of a large tract of south Philadelphia land known as League Island Park. While its dominated today by sports stadiums, the park’s 80-foot, illuminated replica of the Liberty Bell must have been quite an impressive sight for fair goers. Among some other notable legacies from the fair still around today are the 11,000-pipe Curtis Organ — now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium — and The Fountain of the Seahorses, a gift from our good chum Benito Mussolini and which now sits behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Russian Tea House overlooking Meadow Lake was among other points of interest during the Exposition, including some delightfully named pavilions like Persia, Public Welfare, and Nuremberg.

But before the Sesqui, before the Centennial International Exhibition, before the signing of the Declaration and all the hullabaloo leading up to it, and before the settlement of the Swedes, the area appears to have been mostly underwater.

From the Philadelphia Water Department:

“The entire “Neck” (as South Philadelphia was once known) historically encompassed thousands of acres of tidal marsh, and was therefore a single drainage area…Much of the area remained marshy until the 20th century; one major filling project was undertaken to make land for the Sesquicentennial Exposition, held at League Island Park in 1926.”

A diversity of freshwater plants and wildlife and 12,000 years of Lenape inhabitance in these marshy lands was broken up by the property divisions among the sworn subjects of Penn, the diking and draining and filling of the estuaries, and the deforestation and transformation of marshes to meadows.

Tennis, children of the corn style

A swimming pool came and went (and swimming has now been banned in Meadow Lake), “picturesque” structures were built and remained behind from the Exposition, and an interstate rose over the lower portion of the park, the noise from which is the loudest I’ve ever heard standing underneath in the abandoned, derelict tennis courts.

Since the late 90s, however, and possibly stemming from (or at least influenced by) a very excellent and thorough plan (if you’re into this kind of thing) put together by the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, the Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program, and the Philadelphia Water Department, the park has seen a comeback of native species.

“[The marshes] have been shown to support diverse plants and animals including Heteranthera multiflora and Echinochloa walteri, two endangered wetland species in Pennsylvania.” There are also thriving cattail (Typha latifolia) populations thriving in the park.

The amazingly named Red-Bellied Cooter, who popped out to say hello during my exploring

Efforts have been made to remove purple loosestrife, and, while I did spot a troubling amount of mile-a-minute, I didn’t spot a stalk of Japanese knotweed, previously known to be a nasty invasive in the park. The above-mentioned trifecta’s plan called for some thought-provoking if not difficult means of complete park restoration:

*Foresting of uplands: open fields may present an opportunity for invasives/exotics like my favorite edible, garlic mustard. Foresting will also help prevent erosion and flooding, already a problem in a city of pavement and overflowing sewers.

“Areas which are not presently used for recreation, but are being mowed could be managed as meadows by mowing infrequently and possibly burning the area to promote plant diversity. Replanting of these areas is also recommended to establish native species and deter exotic species.”

Who’s ready for a swim?

*Well-managed edge habitats: Edge habitats, or the line along forest edges, are a playground for non-natives such as tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and wild rose (Rosa multiflora). Managing these and eradicating such edge-advantageous species may help maintain the park’s diversity.

The master plan is packed full of other fascinating insights into water composition, quality, and management, but I didn’t read these because I had to pee.

 

The Prickly & Pawpaw Patch of Pennypack Park

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Pennypack Park map

Pennypack Park map

The alliteration is back, as is my voracious weight gain.

Now that I’m not breathing through Jell-O and the cool season’s moving in, I thought it’d be good to do some trail running and seed collecting (I grandiosely tell my colleagues I’m “botanizing”) in some of the parks of the Philadelphia environs.

Adjacent to the free parking lot across from Fox Chase Farm and off of Pine Road, there’s a quaint paved trail running along the West side of Pennypack Creek and which apparently runs the nine-mile length of the rising smoke—like sliver slicing through Northeast Philadelphia.

Had I seen this, I wouldn’t have crossed the creek onto the east side and wouldn’t have run into a recreation of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin and – worst of all – wouldn’t have had my first taste of Passionflower, Pawpaw, and Prickly Ash at an unlikely gem that was the Pennypack Environmental Center.

With the exception of Prickly Ash, which has its own unique appearance, it seems odd that Pawpaw and Passionflower thrive as far north as they do, especially given the latter’s exotic look.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

As with any plant, I’ve found in my readings and researchings that Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, has been used for everything from anti-anxiety and cough medicines to the ever-perplexing treatment for both constipation and diarrhea. While I didn’t have the need to relieve either that day, the Environmental Center’s ranger – I’ll call him Pete, as that’s what he said he was called by his wife at least on Thursdays – shared with me a swelled, papery-skinned Passionflower fruit, inside of which was a gooey mass of seeds held together like frog spawn. The flavor was sweet, but the gelatinous substance was difficult to separate from the seeds. A lot of effort, but a sweet, grapey reward.

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket

The Pawpaw fruit is one of the more unusual berries to see dangling from above, and, while sweet, it has a more custardy, banana-y flavor. In “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations”, the authors claim that the pawpaw – derived from the Spanish word “papaya” (another flavor of the pawpaw fruit noted by some) – was grown by a number of American Indian tribes and was then later rediscovered by my favorite Philadelphian botanist, John Bartram, who then sent some species to his horticultural pen pal Peter Collinson in Britain.

With all the problems over the years with banana cultivation, it’s surprising that this fruit isn’t more prevalent in the market (maybe due to its short shelf life once off the tree?), but people like Pete are bringing it back – the park ranger’s stand towers over the Environmental Center’s entrance and still has at the time of this posting plenty of berries ready to drop. Even a recent posting claims that Bartrams Gardens has a stand of pawpaws made possible by the Philadelphia Orchard Project and used as an ingredient in an ice cream brand promoted by the Gardens.

The Gardens has also promoted the attempt of Philadelphia Distilling (claiming to be the first craft distillery in the state of Pennsylvania since prohibition) to recreate John Bartram’s Bitters. One of the ingredients of this “cocktail additive” happened to be growing just in back of the Environmental Center. The ranger took a small red seed from a branch of thorny-trunked tree and told me to put it in my mouth, bite down – but not too hard – and not to swallow.

Prickly Ash berries

I’m fairly certain he was a park ranger.

Pricky Ash, or Zanthoxylum americanum, is of the same family as Sichuan pepper. Upon crushing the seed and releasing the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecules, the tongue experiences paresthesia – another damn good P word – or, in other words, a numbing and tingling sensation. I had my unwitting colleagues try the seeds: one experienced paresthesia but not the changing flavors from spicy to minty to sweet that I had experienced, while the other accidentally swallowed the seed.

Again, herbalists have used the plant’s various parts to quell their farts and for other excretorial purposes, but one I can readily accept is its role in Native American life in alleviating toothaches – the park ranger did, in fact, initially introduce the tree as the “toothache plant”. It’s also a boon for Giant Swallowtail butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plant’s leaves. All the more reason to encourage more plantings.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

For those who’d like to attempt propagating Passionflower and Pawpaw by seed as I am, I found the following sites to be helpful so far:

While I’ve not found a trustworthy online guide or text for growing Prickly Ash from seed, Pete suggested a month in cold peat moss storage and then planting in any soil (as it’s a hardy plant that tolerates a range). I’ll trust Pete – his name, after all, does start with a P.

 

My meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway

Post Philly Flower Show Review

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The highly anticipated 2016 Philadelphia Flower Show has come and gone, and so suddenly it seems.

Being that it was my first, I’ve no basis for comparison, but I can pick out the highlights that made the event worthwhile for the 30 bucks I didn’t pay (thanks, part-time job perks!).

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

At the entry of massive Hall A was Big Timber Lodge, an impressive, rustic wooden-beam structure stretching loftily to the Convention Center rafters. Beneath the beam-hung floral chandeliers were ferns and fading columbines galore among the pines.

Wooden-cage animal models such as bison and maybe elk (a new species of elk unsure of its decisions in life) featured throughout the exhibition, stuffed and draped with twigs, flowers, mosses, and such. Funny how most of the life forced for the Flower Show would wilt well before its natural time — as long as they compost, I’m fine with it!

Pink ColumbinesCHARRED!

One of my favorite exhibits unfortunately had some technological problems and an upsetting lack of information, but as soon as I saw the charred logs at its entrance, I recognized it as a representation of the succession of a forest following a fire.

Go here for a brief overview of succession at Yellowstone National Park.

Rock plantsNatural Landscapes

“These look like they’ve been here for years!” My sister keened to the realistic settings painstakingly installed by Stoney Bank Nurseries (representing Yellowstone National Park), Hunter Hayes Landscape Design (representing Valley Forge National Historical Park), and J. Downend Landscaping, Inc. (representing Arcadia National Park).

HorsesFloral Structure Displays

Well into my third wine and vaguely aware of my need for a proper toilet despite all the natural ones about me, I and my equally wined sister ventured into the space designated for floral sculptures and displays. This blurry display did not impress us, though the flower-stuffed cardboard display, a nod to the natural arches in the aptly named Arches National Park, was quite the photogenic opportunity for visitors.

Foamflower!

Foamflower!

The red flower and glass chandeliers, representing the Chandelier Tree — a 276-foot-tall coast redwood tree in Leggett, California, with a 6-foot-wide-by-6-foot-9-inch-high hole cut through its base to allow a car to drive through — were a magical and captivating display arranged by the Institute of Floral Designers.

All in all, while it had interest in its tie with the NPS and well-installed natural exhibits, most I spoke with were a bit disappointed by the lack of the “exotic”, some finding that even the natural landscapes were all too familiar. Those same people had been previously wow’ed by the 2012 exhibition, which had a

Floral chandeliers

Floral chandeliers

Hawaii theme, and the 2015 movies-themed exhibition (which would’ve been so timely considering this month’s new Pixar exhibit at Franklin Institute!).

Even still, I hope the Flower Show helped to highlight the importance of our national parks and encourage parents to in turn encourage their kids to become Junior Rangers — I watch kids come to the NPS desk at the Independence Visitor Center and see how excited they are when they stamp their Passport Books and take the oath to become part of the great program.

Floral and cardboard arches

Floral and cardboard arches

For those looking for more botanical adventures, I can’t recommend enough Morris Arboretum, located a bit out of the way north of Philadelphia but entirely worth the effort getting there. This sanctuary of trees features a gorgeous, shady Katsura and an equally gargantuan Blue Spruce, one of the most amazing miniature railroads I’ve ever seen and, just as so, the most amazing herb and rose garden, and a number of fascinating ground plants like a favorite species of mine, Epimedium.

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Worth visiting as well are the native plants of Bartram’s Garden and, of course, the east coast’s premier plant palace,  Longwood Gardens. I’ve also been impressed by Scott Arboretum out in Delaware County, part of Swarthmore College, about 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

The 2016 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show

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This month in Philadelphia, the International Flower Show will kick off from March 5—13 with this year’s theme “Explore America”, and I’ll not only be working there as part of my job but also visiting with my arch nemesis/biological sister.

I have high expectations for this year and have been researching the flora found in the parks being represented at the botanical bonanza event celebrating “100 years of National Park Service”. Well, in fact, I’ve made up a list of the fantastical flora I hope to be on display from the parks chosen to be a part of the show:

Yosemite National Park

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii)

Harlequin Lupine (Lupinus stiversii)

Valley Forge National Park

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Spotted Wintergreen/Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculate)

Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana)

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Yellowstone National Park

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Hooded Ladies-Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)

Other parks being highlighted include Acadia and Cape Cod, Shenandoah, and “everything from the Everglades to Hawaii’s Volcano National Park”, according to The Trentonian, a New Jersey publication that seems to have a better idea of what’s going on in Philadelphia than the adolescent-led Philadelphia Business Journal.

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

My dream list above is far from what I really think will be featured at the event, which will most likely boast the usual display of chrysanthemums,

But perhaps this is also a chance for the Park Service to demonstrate what it is they actually do and its illustrious and hard-fought history in preserving America’s lands home to these botanical beauties.

Also: Read an article by a Flower Show veteran and exhibitor here.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

March 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm