Year of Pollination: Hellstrip Pollinator Garden

This month I have been reading and reviewing Evelyn Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, and I have arrived at the fourth and final section, “Curbside-Worthy Plants.” As the title suggests, this section is a list of plants that Hadden has deemed worthy of appearing in a curbside garden. It’s not exhaustive, of course, but with over 100 plants, it’s a great start. Photos and short descriptions accompany each plant name, and the plants are organized into four groups: showy flowers, showy foliage, culinary and medicinal use, and four-season structure.

This list is useful and fun to read through, but there isn’t much more to say about it beyond that. So I have decided to write this month’s Year of Pollination post about creating a hellstrip pollinator garden using some of the plants on Hadden’s list. Last year around this time I wrote about planting for pollinators where I listed some basic tips for creating a pollinator garden in your yard. It’s a fairly simple endeavor – choose a sunny location, plant a variety of flowering plants that bloom throughout the season, and provide nesting sites and a water source. If this sounds like something you would like to do with your hellstrip, consider planting some of the following plants.

Spring Flowers

Spring flowering plants are an important food source for pollinators as they emerge from hibernation and prepare to reproduce. There are several spring flowering trees and shrubs on Hadden’s list. Here are three of them:

  • Amelanchier laevis (Allegheny serviceberry) – A multi-trunked tree or large shrub that flowers early in the spring. Other small trees or shrubs in the genus Amelanchier may also be suitable.
  • Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud) – A small tree that is covered in tiny, vibrant, purple-pink flowers in early spring.
  • Ribes odoratum (clove currant) – A medium sized shrub that flowers in late spring. Try other species of Ribes as well, including one of my favorites, Ribes cereum (wax currant).

There aren’t many spring flowering herbaceous plants on Hadden’s list, but two that stood out to me are Amsonia hubrichtii (bluestar) and Polemonium reptans (creeping Jacob’s ladder).

Creeping Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptens) is native to eastern North America and attracts native bees with its mid-spring flowers. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Creeping Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptens) is native to eastern North America and attracts native bees with its mid-spring flowers. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Summer Flowers

There is no shortage of summer flowering plants, and Hadden’s list reflects that. When planting a pollinator garden, be sure to include flowers of different shapes, sizes, and colors in order to attract the greatest diversity of pollinators. Here are a few of my favorite summer flowering plants from Hadden’s list:

  • Amorpha canescens (leadplant) – A “good bee plant” and also a nitrogen fixer.
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) – “Valuable pollinator plant and larval host for monarch, gray hairstreak, and queen butterflies.” I love the tight clusters of deep orange flowers on this plant.
  • Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis) – I really like coreopsis (also known as tickseed). Try other species in the genus as well.
  • Penstemon pinifolius (pineleaf penstemon) – North America is bursting with penstemon species, especially the western states. All are great pollinator plants. Pineleaf penstemon is widely available and great for attracting hummingbirds.
  • Salvia pachyphylla (Mojave sage) – A very drought-tolerant plant with beautiful pink to purple to blue inflorescences. Salvia is another genus with lots of species to choose from.
  • Scutellaria suffratescens  (cherry skullcap) – A good ground cover plant with red-pink flowers that occur from late spring into the fall.
The flowers of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) are essential to monarch butterflies as they are the sole host plant of their larvae.

The flowers of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) are essential to the survival of monarch butterflies as they are the sole host plant of their larvae.

Fall Flowers

Fall flowering plants are essential to pollinators as they prepare to migrate and/or hibernate. Many of the plants on Hadden’s list start flowering in the summer and continue into the fall. A few are late summer/fall bloomers. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Epilobium canum (California fuchsia) – “Profuse orange-red tubular flowers late summer into fall furnish late-season nectar, fueling hummingbird migration.”
  • Liatris punctata (dotted blazing star) – Drought-tolerant plant with tall spikes of purple-pink flowers. “Nectar fuels migrating monarchs.”
  • Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (aromatic aster) – Loaded with lavender-blue flowers in the fall. It’s a spreading plant, so prune it back to keep it in check. Hadden recommends it for sloped beds.
  • Agastache rupestris (sunset hyssop) – Spikes of “small tubular flowers in sunset hues attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees midsummer to fall.” Try other species in the Agastache genus as well.
  • Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) – The unique flower heads are like magnets to a wide variety of pollinators. Also consider other Monarda species.
Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), an annual plant that attracts an array of pollinators.

Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), an annual plant that attracts an array of pollinators.

As with any other garden, your hardiness zone, soil conditions, water availability, and other environmental factors must be considered when selecting plants for your hellstrip pollinator garden. Groups like Pollinator Partnership and The Xerces Society have guides that will help you select pollinator friendly plants that are suitable for your region. Additionally, two plans for “boulevard pollinator gardens” complete with plant lists are included in the book Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm – one plan is for sunny and dry spots and the other is for shady and wet spots (pgs. 268-269). Once your pollinator garden is complete, consider getting it certified as a pollinator friendly habitat. There are various organizations that do this, such as the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia. If you are interested in such a thing, the public nature of your hellstrip garden makes it an ideal place to install a sign (like the one sold in The Xerces Society store) announcing your pollinator garden and educating passersby about the importance of pollinator conservation.

habsign

Other “Year of Pollination” Posts

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part three

The second section of Evelyn J. Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, is all about the unique challenges and obstacles one faces when gardening in that stretch of land between the sidewalk and the road. I highlighted some of those challenges last week. This week we are into the third section of Hadden’s book, the part that is all about designing, building, and managing a curbside garden. As I have read through this book, I have begun to look at hellstrips in a much different light. They are no longer boring sections of yard with little potential, but instead are full of possibility and have unique characteristics involving publicity and functionality that are absent from most of the rest of the urban landscape. Now that we are in the creation phase of the book, this fact becomes abundantly clear.

Choosing a Style

When deciding how to design and plant your curbside bed, it is important to consider – along with aesthetics – the functions you wish to achieve (storm water runoff collection, food production, wildlife habitat, etc.) as well as how you are going to maintain it. You may decide to embrace minimal maintenance with a mass planting of a single species or mass plantings of a handful of species in sections called drifts. This can be very attractively done, but it also has the risk of a disease or pest wiping out a section of plants. A mass planting of ground covers acts as a living mulch and will eliminate the need to replenish non-living mulch. Hadden provides descriptions of a few styles of garden design, such as formal, naturalistic, cottage garden, and stroll garden, each with their virtues and limitations. Growing food is also an option in a hellstrip. If this is the option you choose, keep the bed looking full by intermixing flowers and crop plants, growing perennial crops, and staggering planting times. Ultimately the style of the garden is the preference of the gardener; however, the environmental conditions of the hellstrip must also be a consideration.

Choosing Plants

Because hellstrips are by nature public gardens, they are the ideal place for plants that appeal to the human senses – plants that invite interaction. Hadden calls these plants “friendly plants.” They are plants that are aromatic, have interesting textures and bold colors, “feel great underfoot,” have “aesthetically pleasing symmetry,” and have unusual flowers or unique foliage. Hadden asserts that, “plants that invite touching engender good will,” so consider the ways that your hellstrip might make you a better neighbor.

Their public nature also means that hellstrip gardens are not the place for rare and valuable plants, and instead are ideal for easily replaceable and self-repairing plants. This includes perennials that are easily divided, shrubs that reproduce by layering, creeping plants that send out runners, and plants with seeds that are easily collected and can be sown in bare spots. One option is to plant only annuals. This eliminates the loss of plants during the winter when snow, sand, and/or salt are deposited in the beds by road clearing equipment. Just be sure to protect the soil with mulch or a cover crop during the cold months of the year.

A hellstrip is also an ideal location for an alternative lawn. Traditional lawns require loads of water and fertilizer and regular mowing in order to stay looking good. There are lots of other grasses and ground covers available now that are drought tolerant, require little or no fertilizer, don’t need to be mowed often or at all, and are still very attractive. Hadden has a website all about lawn alternatives called Less Lawn.

The seed heads of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The seed heads of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

When selecting plants for your hellstrip garden, consider the conditions it will have to endure. Unless you want to make serious amendments in order to accommodate certain plants, it is probably best to choose plants that are already adapted to your site. One way to determine this is to observe sites similar to yours and see what is thriving there; particularly make note of plants that look like they have been there for a while. Also, feel free to ask local experts at garden centers and public gardens what they might recommend for your site.

Earthshaping

“Diverse topography makes a more visually interesting garden, and it adds microclimates, letting you grow more diverse plants.” Shaping a curbside bed can also serve other functions such as softening traffic noise, defining pathways, collecting runoff, and providing wildlife habitat. When building a large berm, first create a rocky base and then fill in the spaces between the rocks with sand and small gravel. After that, add topsoil and firmly pack it down with machinery or a rolling drum. Small berms can be formed by simply piling up excess soil or turning over sections of sod and piling them up. Maintain good plant coverage on berms in order to reduce erosion, and consider planting shrubs with extensive root systems like sumac (Rhus sp.) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.).

Hellstrips are ideal locations for rain gardens and bioswales since they are typically surrounded by impervious surfaces. Storm water can be directed from these surfaces into your rain garden, thereby reducing the amount of storm water runoff that must be handled elsewhere. Hadden provides a brief overview on how to construct a rain garden; the process is too detailed to go into here. If you are serious about building one, it is important to do your research beforehand to be sure that it is built properly. There are several great resources available; one that I would recommend is Washington State University Extension.

Partnering with Nature

Time spent managing and maintaining your hellstrip garden can be greatly reduced when it is well planned out, contains plants that are suited to the site, and has good soil health. Helping you achieve these things is essentially what Hadden’s book is all about. Watering properly and wisely is key to the success of your hellstrip garden. Hadden suggests organizing plants into “irrigation zones,” separating those that need little or no water from those that need frequent or regular watering. When you do water, water “thoroughly and infrequently to maximize deep root growth and drought resistance.” Consider installing a drip irrigation system, particularly one that will direct the water to the roots of the plants and deliver it slowly. Avoid watering areas where there are no plants, as this encourages weed growth.

Mostly likely you will be doing some amount of trimming and pruning in your hellstrip. Consider how you will handle this plant material. You may choose to cut it up into fine pieces and leave it as mulch; or maybe you have a compost pile to add to. Large woody materials can be placed in a section of your property set aside for wildlife habitat. Choosing plants that will not outgrow the space will reduce the amount of pruning you will need to do.

As much as Hadden is an advocate for alternatives to conventional lawns, she is also an advocate for reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Nobody enjoys hearing the clamor of a smelly, polluting leaf blower echoing through the neighborhood, so be a good neighbor and use a broom or rake instead. You will probably enjoy the task more as you listen to nature, get some exercise, and revel in your garden.

Continued focus on building healthy soil is paramount to the ongoing success of your curbside garden. Continue to add organic matter by letting some of the plant litter lie and decompose. Plant nitrogen fixing species like lupines (Lupinus sp.) and false indigos (Baptisia sp.). As much as possible avoid compacting the soil, especially when it is wet, and keep tilling and digging to a minimum once the garden is planted.

Partidge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil health. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil fertility. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Again, this is only a fraction of what Hadden discusses in this section of her book. Consult the book for more of her wisdom. The final section of Hellstrip Gardening is a long list of plants that are “curbside-worthy” complete with photos and descriptions. Next week’s post will be all about a particular type of hellstrip garden that employs a subsection of those plants.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part two

Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn J. Hadden is a book intended to help transform roadside beds (or any neglected or hard to garden spot) into a verdant and productive green space. A “paradise,” if you will. Last week, I introduced the concept of hellstrips and briefly discussed the first section of Hadden’s book. This week we are looking at the second section, which is all about the unique challenges and obstacles that hellstrip gardening entails. Hadden has divided this section into 8 main areas of focus. She provides a ton of great information that is sure to be incredibly useful for anyone seriously engaged in improving a hellstrip. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend referring to the book. For simplicity’s sake, this post will include a quick overview of each of the main themes, detailing a few of the things that stood out to me.

Working with Trees

Trees offer many benefits to urban and suburban areas; however, it is not uncommon to see hellstrips with trees that are much too large for the space. Hellstrips are often surrounded by paved surfaces and are heavily trafficked. This leads to soil compaction which results in roots being starved of oxygen and water. Where there are power lines overhead, oversized trees must be heavily pruned to make room for them. Consider planting small or medium sized trees in these spaces. Make sure the soil is well aerated and that there is enough space for the roots to expand out beyond the canopy. Hadden advises avoiding growing turfgrass below trees because it is shallow rooted and uses up much of the available water and oxygen; instead plant deep rooted perennials that naturally grow in wooded environments.

Working with Water

Depending on where you are located, your hellstrip is either going to be water limited or water abundant. Water availability also varies depending on the time of year. If you are mostly water limited, include plants that can tolerate drought conditions. Avoid planting them too close to each other so that they aren’t competing for water. Increase your soil’s water holding capacity by adding organic matter and mulching bare ground. Strategically placed boulders can create cool, moist microclimates where plants can endure hot, dry stretches. If you are dealing with too much water, you can “increase the absorption power” of your property by ensuring that your soil is well aerated and high in organic matter. Plant high water use perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees with extensive root systems. Replace impermeable surfaces with ground covers and permeable pathways to reduce runoff, and reshape beds so that they collect, hold, and absorb excess runoff.

Working with Poor Soil

Curbside beds in urban areas are notorious for having soil that is compacted, contaminated, and depleted of nutrients. This issue can be addressed by removing and replacing the soil altogether or by heavily amending it. Another solution is to only include plants that can tolerate these harsh conditions. Most likely you will do something in between these two extremes. Adding organic matter seems like the best way to improve soil structure and fertility. Because contaminants from paved surfaces are regularly introduced to curbside gardens, there is a good chance that the soil may contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals. It is a good idea to test the soil before planting edibles. Contaminated soils can be remediated by growing certain plants like annual sunflowers, which take up heavy metals into their tissues. These plants must then be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soils. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soil (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Working with Laws and Covenants

Regulations and restrictions may prohibit you from creating the hellstrip garden you dream of having. Start by informing yourself of your areas laws and covenants. Some restrictions may be based on public safety (such as restrictions on street trees) while others may be based on outdated ways of thinking. Hadden advises not to assume that a regulation can’t be reversed; however, first you must prepare a well reasoned argument based on facts and evidence. Will your landscape design conserve resources, provide ecological services, improve property values, enhance the neighborhood in some way? Perhaps “your property can model a new landscaping strategy.” Prepare to state your case respectfully, intelligently, and convincingly, and you might just find yourself at the forefront of a new movement.

Living with Vehicles

A garden growing along a roadway is sure to be confronted by vehicles. Hadden suggests using “easily replaceable plants for vulnerable areas.” You can also protect your garden by installing a low fence or wall or by planting sturdy shrubs, prickly plants, or plants that are tall and/or brightly colored. If parking is a regular occurrence, leave room for people to exit their vehicles without trampling the garden. A garden surrounded by paved surfaces will be hotter than other areas on your property, so plant heat tolerant plants or shade the garden with trees and shrubs. A hedge, trellis, fence, or berm can act as a wind and dust break and can help reduce noise. Aromatic plants can help combat undesirable urban smells, and noise can be further masked by water features and plantings that attract songbirds.

Living with Wildlife

Wildlife can either be encouraged or discouraged depending on your preferences. Discouraging certain wildlife can be as simple as “learn[ing] what they need in terms of food and shelter, and then eliminat[ing] it.” A garden full of diverse plant life can help limit damage caused by leaf-eating insects. Encouraging birds and bats can also help control insects. Herbivory by mammals can be reduced by growing a wide array of plants and not over fertilizing or overwatering them. Conversely, encouraging wildlife entails discovering what they like and providing it. For example, to encourage large populations of pollinators, plant a diversity of plants that flower throughout the year and provide nesting sites such as patches of bare ground for ground nesting bees. Keep in mind that your property can be part of a wildlife corridor – a haven for migrating wildlife in an otherwise sea of uninhabitable urban space.

Living with Road Maintenance and Utilities

Curbsides gardens are unique in that they are directly affected by road maintenance and they often must accommodate public utility features like electrical boxes, fire hydrants, street signs, and telephone poles. In areas where salts are applied to roads to reduce ice, hellstrips can be planted with salt tolerant plants and can be deeply watered in order to flush salts down into the soil profile. In areas that receive heavy snowfall, avoid piling snow directly on top of plants. Always call utility companies before doing any major digging to find out where underground pipes and electrical cables are located. Utility features can be masked using shrubs, trellises, and vining plants (especially annual vines that are easily removed and replaced); just be sure to maintain access to them. If your hellstrip consists of “unsightly objects,” Hadden recommends “composing a riveting garden scene to divert attention from an uninspiring view.”

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Living with the Public

Your hellstrip is the most public part of your yard, so you are going to have to learn to share. In order to keep trampling to a minimum and contained to certain areas, make it obvious where pathways are and use berms to raise up the beds. Keep the paths clear of debris and avoid messy fruit and nut trees that can make pathways unfriendly to walk on. Avoid planting rare and valuable plants in your curbside garden. Remember that your hellstrip is typically the first part of your property that people see, so make a good first impression. Also, consider the potential that your public hellstrip garden has for building community and inspiring others.

There is so much more in this section; it is impossible to discuss it all here. Again, if you are serious about improving a hellstrip, get your hands on this book. All hellstrips are different and will have unique challenges. Hadden does a great job of touching on nearly any issue that may arise. Now that we’ve covered challenges and obstacles, next week we will look at designing, building, and managing hellstrip gardens.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part one

Keeping a garden alive and thriving is replete with its inherent challenges. Plants have needs, and those needs vary by plant. Lots of sun might be great for one plant but harmful to another. Some plants are very drought tolerant and don’t require much water beyond what falls naturally from the sky, while others insist on regular supplemental irrigation. Plants also have preferred soil types, and that soil must provide a proper balance of nutrients. Then there is the litany of potential pests, diseases, and predators that can present themselves at any given moment. Frankly, it’s surprising that any garden stays alive, all things considered.

Some gardens have added challenges. They may be regularly visited (and trampled) by the public, who may or may not have pets in tow. They may be surrounded by paved surfaces which increase ambient air temperatures significantly and can introduce contaminants to the garden in the form of road salts, petrochemicals, fertilizers, sediments, and animal waste. They may encompass utility boxes, water meters, and road signs that require regular visits and occasional maintenance. All of these things describe the plight of a curbside garden, also known as a hellstrip – that section of green space between the road and the sidewalk. Comparatively, backyard gardens are veritable havens for plants.

Hellstrips have been on my mind for several years now. It all started back in graduate school while studying green roof technology. One of the macro benefits of green roofs is storm water mitigation. During a storm event, green roofs capture a greater proportion of precipitation compared to conventional roofs and slowly release it back into the environment. Storm water is a major issue in urban areas where the percentage of impervious surfaces is high. These surfaces prohibit precipitation from infiltrating the soil and recharging groundwater and nearby waterways. Instead, this water is rushed away and directed into either waste water treatment facilities or local waterways, carrying with it the contaminants that have collected on paved surfaces and rooftops. Gardens along roadways can be engineered to manage storm water in a similar way that green roofs do – capturing it, filtering it, and releasing it back into the environment at a slow pace – thereby minimizing the negative effects of storm water runoff.

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff. (photo credit: epa.gov)

A rain garden or bioswale planted in a hellstrip to help mitigate storm water runoff (photo credit: epa.gov)

The hellstrip in front of my parent’s house has been the source of many headaches. It is another reason why hellstrips have been on my mind. It is a weed patch, but not intentionally so. I remember many years ago when my mom told me she was going to replace the weed patch with buffalograss. She was elated by the idea – little or no mowing, very little supplemental water, a cool alternative to conventional lawn. Now, years later after planting dozens of buffalograss plugs and making a concentrated effort to keep them alive and prospering, the hellstrip remains a weed patch. But my mom hasn’t given up hope. The hellstrip will be conquered in due time.

Riding my bike to work last summer, I regularly rode past a house that proudly displayed the potential that curbside gardens could reach. The house sits on the corner lot of an intersection that, due to the angle of the connecting roads, gives the lot a long triangular shape. This makes the hellstrip longer than most of the others in this neighborhood. On this lengthy strip, the owners have planted an expansive and diverse vegetable garden. While once upon a time vegetable gardens were largely confined to backyards, they have lately been making more regular appearances in front yards. Few, however, are as bold and as public as this one – a true hellstrip success.

Last year, garden writer and lawn alternative enthusiast, Evelyn Hadden, put out a book called, Hellstrip Gardening. When I discovered this, I was intrigued, especially considering all of the mulling over hellstrips I had been doing for so long. I was curious to learn what she had to say. It has taken me until now to read it, but it seems like an opportune time to do so. After all, we are in pre-spring, a time when garden planning is being done in earnest. Perhaps this book will give me some ideas and encouragement to tackle some hard to garden spots this year. And maybe this review (and Hadden’s book) will inspire you to do the same. After all, this approach (as Hadden suggests) doesn’t have to be limited to curbside garden beds and can, in fact, be applied to any garden with challenges beyond the norm (like gardens along driveways and in alleyways, for example). The ultimate goal, for me at least, will be to pass along whatever knowledge I gain from this to my parents so that we can address their hellstrip issues once and for all.

hellstrip gardening book

Hellstrip Gardening is organized into four sections: Inspirations, Situations, Creation, and Curbside-Worthy Plants. This review will also have multiple parts that will be posted as I read through the book. The first section of the book is intended to inspire and encourage – to show through words and pictures what others have done and to give you that “if they can do it, so can I” sort of feeling. It also introduces some of the challenges of gardening in hellstrips as Hadden visits 12 gardens across the United States and talks with the people who designed, installed, and maintain them. She tells the story of how the gardens came to be and showcases some of the plants and plant combinations that were used in each situation. The challenges will be fleshed out in the following section; these narratives are meant more to demonstrate what can be done. There are dozens of great photos throughout, and the short plant lists at the end of each profile are sure to be useful.

Now that we’re inspired, next week’s post will take a look at what Hadden has to say about addressing challenges and overcoming obstacles that are unique to hellstrip gardens.

Botany in Popular Culture: Black Orchid

Black Orchid coverBlack Orchid is a minor character in the DC Comics universe. She is a superhero with a troubled past, and although she first began appearing in comic books in 1973, her origin was a mystery until 1988 when Neil Gaiman wrote his 3 part mini-series entitled, Black Orchid, revealing that she was a plant-human hybrid created by Dr. Philip Sylvain after combining the DNA of Susan Linden-Thorne with the DNA of an epiphytic orchid.

Curiously, in order to reveal Black Orchid’s origins, Gaiman has the namesake of his series killed off within the first few pages. A master of disguise, Black Orchid is following her standard modus operandi of impersonating someone in order to infiltrate enemy headquarters. In this case she is pretending to be a secretary in Lex Luthor’s employ. While sitting in on a board meeting in which the activities of Luthor’s crime ring are being discussed, her secret identity is revealed, which leads to her being tied to a chair and shot through the head. The bullet doesn’t kill her though since invulnerability to bullets is one of her superpowers (along with flight, super strength, shape shifting, and others). However, the building is also set on fire, and ultimately all that is left of Black Orchid at the end of the night are some charred plant remains.

The story can’t end there though, so as Black Orchid goes up in flames, two of her clones emerge from flower buds in Dr. Sylvain’s greenhouse. They aren’t sure what they are at first. They have some of Susan’s memories but don’t know what to make of them. One of them is a child called Suzy, and the other is an adult who eventually gets the name Flora Black. They find their way to Dr. Sylvain who tells them the story of how they and the original Black Orchid came to be.

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about how he

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about his childhood with Susan Linden.

Susan was Dr. Sylvain’s childhood friend. They spent lots of time in the garden together learning about plants and growing things. But Susan was abused regularly by her father and eventually ran away as a teenager. Dr. Sylvain didn’t see her for many years, and in the meantime grew up and became a botanist. At university, Dr. Sylvain studied with Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley, and Alex Holland, each of whom went on to become plant-human hybrids of some sort (Floronic Man, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing respectively). Dr. Sylvain had ambitions of making “people of plants” as part of a plan to save a dying earth. His ambitions remained a dream until Susan returned.

Dr. Sylvain's friends from university who later became plant-hybrid heroes and villians.

Dr. Sylvain’s friends from university who later became notorious plant-human hybrids.

Susan was running away again – this time from her abusive husband, Carl Thorne, who worked for Lex Luthor as an arms dealer. Thorne was in trouble with the law and was ultimately put on trial for his crimes. Susan came to Dr. Sylvain seeking refuge. She was set to testify against her husband, but before she could do that, Thorne killed her. Dr. Sylvain then used Susan’s DNA to create the crime fighting, superhero, Black Orchid.

Coincidentally, as the original Black Orchid is being killed and the two new Black Orchids are emerging, Thorne is finishing his prison sentence and being released. He first goes to Luthor to try and get his job back, but is turned away. Next he goes to Dr. Sylvain’s house where he discovers the newly emerged Black Orchids. He alerts Luthor, who sends a team to hunt down the “super-purple-flower women” and bring them back to the lab for “examination and dissection.” The rest of the series details the Black Orchids’ mission to make sense of who they are and what their purpose in life is while simultaneously contending with Luthor’s men (and Thorne) who are out to get them. Flora Black meets with Batman, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing along the way, filling in her origin story and gaining instruction and insight about her future as a superhero.

Gaiman is a popular, prolific, and well-respected author; however, this is the first of his books that I have read. I was impressed by his storytelling and appreciated the departure from the typical superhero vs. villain narrative. Dave McKean did the artwork for this series, which was an excellent decision as his work is also quite atypical for the genre. His illustrations gave the book a mystical feel as the panels altered from standard storytelling sequences to abstract, fantasy pieces.

This Black Orchid storyline continued for several issues after Gaiman’s three part mini-series without Gaiman as the author. Flora Black was eventually killed off. A new version of the Black Orchid character currently appears in the ongoing Justice League Dark series.

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

You can read more about Black Orchid on her Wikipedia and Comic Vine pages.

Botany and Everyday Chemistry

What’s not to love about plants? They provide us with oxygen, food, medicine, fuel, fibers, and countless other things. They help filter groundwater and sequester carbon. They beautify our landscapes and communities. They provide habitat for wildlife and help reduce soil erosion. And the list goes on.

But there is more to plants than meets the eye. There is something deeper within – at their cellular and molecular levels – that is just as worthy of our fascination and appreciation as the blooms that beautify our yards and the fruits that fill our tables, and that is the abundant and diverse world of chemical compounds present in the botanical kingdom.

But how does one gain an understanding and appreciation for such a subject. Luckily, there is a blog for that. It’s called Compound Interest. Authored by UK chemistry teacher, Andy Brunning, Compound Interest explores the “chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.” Much of what Andy writes about doesn’t have anything to do with plants – fireworks, bacon, gunpowder, snowflakes, etc. – but a sizeable portion of his posts do (evidenced particularly by the Food Chemistry category). For example: Did you know nutmeg is hallucinogenic? Have you ever wondered why avocados turn brown so quickly? Why is it that some people have such a strong aversion to cilantro (aka coriander)? What makes coffee bitter, chili peppers spicy, and catnip so attractive to cats?

These and so many other questions are answered by Andy in a fun and approachable way. One thing that makes Compound Interest so approachable is the use of infographics to tell the stories and explain the science. Each post is accompanied by an infographic featuring photos of the subject, structural formulas of the chemicals, and short descriptions.  For example, this infographic explains why beets are red and why our urine turns red after eating them:

Chemistry-of-Beetroot

The infographics can also be downloaded as pdf files, like this one that explains the chemistry behind the smell of fresh-cut grass.

In this manner, the images and files can be easily shared with others. In fact, Andy encourages this practice, provided that the originals are not altered and that Compound Interest is given proper credit. He is particularly interested in seeing his infographics used in a classroom setting. Read more about the content usage guidelines here. Produced by someone who is obviously passionate about chemistry, these posts and graphics are meant to educate and excite people about everyday chemistry both in the botanical world and beyond.

Year of Pollination: Dung Moss

Last year I wrote about two groups of plants that emit foul odors when they bloom: corpse flowers and carrion flowers. Their scent is akin to the smell of rotting flesh, hence their common names. The purpose of this repugnant act is to attract a specific group of pollinators: flies, carrion beetles, and other insects that are attracted to gross things. Though this particular strategy is rare, these aren’t the only plants that have evolved to produce stinky smells in order to recruit such insects to aid in their reproductive processes. For one, there is a very unique group of mosses that do this, commonly known as dung mosses. Judging from the name, you can probably imagine what their smell must be like. However, their common name doesn’t just describe their scent, but also where they live.

At least three genera (SplachnumTetraplodon, and Tayloria) in the family Splachnaceae include species that go by the common name, dung moss. All Splachnum and Tetraplodon species and many species in the genus Tayloria are entomophilous. Entomophily is a “pollination syndrome”, a subject we will explore more thoroughly in future posts, in which pollen or spores are distributed by insects. Compare this to anemophily, or wind pollination, which is the more common way that moss spores are distributed. In fact, dung mosses are the only mosses known to exhibit entomophily.

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Before we go too much further, it’s probably important to have a basic understanding of how mosses differ from other plants. Mosses are in a group of non-vascular and non-flowering plants called bryophytes. Vascular tissues are the means by which water and nutrients are transported to and from different plant parts. Lacking vascular tissues, water and nutrients are simply absorbed by the leaves of bryophytes (although some species have structures akin to vascular tissue), which is why they typically grow low to the ground and in moist environments. Bryophytes also lack true roots and instead have rhizoids, threadlike structures that anchor the plants to the ground or to some other substrate (such as dung).

Another major distinction between bryophytes and other plants is that bryophytes spend most of their life cycle as a haploid gametophyte rather than a diploid sporophyte (haploid meaning that it only has one set of chromosomes; diploid meaning that there are two sets of chromosomes, one from the father and one from the mother). In most plants, the haploid gametophyte is a sperm (pollen) or an egg. In bryophytes, the familiar green, leafy structure is actually the gametophyte. The gametophyte houses sperm and egg cells, and when the egg is fertilized by sperm it forms a zygote that develops into the sporophyte structure which extends above the leafy gametophyte. A capsule at the top of the sporophyte contains spores which are eventually released and, upon finding themselves on a suitable substrate in a hospitable environment, germinate to produce new plants. The spore then is comparable to a seed in vascular, flowering plants.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

As stated earlier, the spores of most mosses are distributed by wind. Dung mosses, on the other hand, employ flies in the distribution of their spores. They attract the flies by emitting scents that only flies can love from an area on the capsule of the sporophyte called the apophysis. This area is often enlarged and brightly colored in yellow, magenta, or red, giving it a flower-like appearance which acts as a visual attractant. The smells emitted vary depending on the type of substrate a particular species of dung moss has become adapted to living on. Some dung mosses grow on the dung of herbivores and others on the dung of carnivores. Some even prefer the dung of a particular group of animals; for example, a population of Tetraplodon fuegiensis was found to be restricted to the feces and remains of foxes. However, dung is not the only material that dung mosses call home.  Certain species grow on carrion, skeletal remains, or antlers. The smell these species produce attract flies that prefer dead flesh and bone in various states of decay.

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The spores of dung mosses are small and sticky. When a fly visits these plants, the spores adhere to its body in clumps. The fly then moves on to its substrate of choice to lay its eggs, and the spores are deposited where they will then germinate and grow into new moss plants. Flies that visit dung mosses receive nothing in return for doing so, but instead are simply “tricked” into disseminating the propagules. The story is similar with corpse flowers and carrion flowers; flies are drawn in by the smells and recruited to transmit pollen but receive no nectar reward for their work.

There are 73 species in the Splachnaceae family, and nearly half of these species are dung mosses. These mosses are mostly found in temperate habitats in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with a few species occurring in the mountains of subtropical regions. They can be found in both wet and relatively dry habitats. Dung mosses are generally fast growing but short lived, with some lasting only about 2 years. It isn’t entirely clear how and why mosses in this family evolved to become entomophilous, but one major benefit of being this way is that their spores are reliably deposited on suitable habitat. Because of this directed dispersal, they can produce fewer and smaller spores, which is an economical use of resources.

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

References

Koponen, A. 2009. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 104: 115-127.

Marino, P., R. Raguso, and B. Goffinet. 2009. The ecology and evolution of fly dispersed dung mosses (Family Splachnaceae): Manipulating insect behavior through odour and visual cues. Symbiosis 47: 61-76.