Awkward Botanical Sketches #1

At the beginning of the year I unveiled my plan to share some of my sketches with you as I learn how to draw. This is to make up for not writing quite as many posts so that I can spend time working on some other projects. It also serves as a great motivator to actually draw, which isn’t something I do very often. Turns out that if you want to get better at something, you actually have to do it.

To help me in my quest, I collected a few books. Some are instructional and others simply feature inspirational artwork. I’ve included links to a few of these books with my drawings below. If you have any books you would like to recommend, particularly a book that has helped you learn to draw, please let me know in the comment section below.

And now on to my dumb drawings…

My first drawing in Drawing Nature by Jill Bliss

Drawing of a hibiscus flower with help from Illustration School: Let’s Draw Plants and Small Creatures by Sachiko Umoto

A sketch inspired by Carcassonne: Over Hill and Dale

Sketch of an old tree inspired by a drawing in Clare Walker Leslie’s book, Drawn to Nature

Sketch of agave in bloom inspired by an image on the back of some guy’s shirt at Treefort Music Fest

Sketch of a tiny tuft of grass I was trying to identify. It’s still a bit of a mystery.

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Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

A friendly reminder: If you like what you see here, please share it with your friends and family by whatever means you prefer. Questions, comments, and feedback are always welcome. Comment below or contact me directly via the Contact page. Follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter. After you’ve done all that, step away from the screen, go outside, and explore.

Planting for Pollinators

“All urban greenspaces offer potential for pollinators, and all can become important links in a chain of wildlife habitat winding through developed land. At the most basic level, healthy greenspaces mean healthy people and healthy communities. And at the core of a healthy environment are the pollinators.” –excerpt from the book, Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society

Concern for pollinators, particularly bees, is widespread. Whether you pay attention to the news or not, you are most likely aware that something is up. The bees are disappearing and no one seems to know why. Of course, most of the news concerning dying bees is in reference to honey bees, largely because they are major agricultural pollinators and producers of honey. But there are two things that many people may not be aware of: 1. Honey bees are not native to North America – they were brought over from Europe by early settlers – and 2. North America is replete with native pollinators (including numerous species of bees, butterflies, beetles, and wasps) and they, too, are threatened (partly due to non-native honey bees, but we won’t get into that here). Oh, and there is a third thing, we do know why bees and other pollinators are disappearing, and it’s not because of cell phone towers or other wacky ideas that have been proposed.

Actually, pollinator decline is due to a whole suite of things. As much as we like to seek out the silver bullet – the single cause with a single solution that will solve the problem – this issue (like so many others) does not have one. Habitat degradation and loss, the spread of pests and diseases, extensive pesticide use, and climate change all play a role in pollinator decline. Consider a modern day farm: acres and acres of a single crop planted from one edge of the field to the other, often planted with an herbicide resistant variety of crop so that all plants (both weedy and non-weedy) can be sprayed and killed leaving only the crop in question to grow competitor free. Or consider an urban landscape: patchy green space amidst miles and miles of pavement, concrete, and rooftops, and when that green space occurs, it is often a chemical green lawn free of weeds or a flower bed loaded with non-native ornamentals, bred for aesthetic appeal and often lacking in wildlife value. Our modern landscapes just aren’t fit for pollinators.

But things can change. The problem is complex, but there are small things each of us can do that when added up can make a colossal difference. Creating pollinator friendly habitats in our communities – spaces that are free from pesticides and include diverse food sources and nesting sites – can help ensure that pollinators will survive and thrive. Here are a few guidelines and resources to help you create pollinator habitat in your yard or neighborhood:

– Find a sunny location: Pollinators are most active when it is warm, so find areas that get at least 6-8 hours of full sun (just like you would if you were planning a vegetable garden).

Plant a wide variety of plants: Something should always be in bloom during the growing season, so select at least 3 plants that flower in each of the 3 blooming periods (spring, summer, and fall). Early spring bloomers and fall bloomers are especially important. Also, in order to attract a wide range of pollinators, select plants with varying heights and growth habits and that have flowers of various colors, shapes, and sizes.

– Plant in clusters: On each foraging trip, bees visit the flowers of a single plant species, so plant each species in small clumps.

-Provide nesting sites and a water source: Bumble bees nest at the bases of bunchgrasses, so include a warm season bunchgrass like little bluestem in your yard. Ground nesting bees require a section of bare ground, so lay off on the mulch. Construct and install bundles of hollow stems (like bamboo or elderberry) in order to provide nesting sites for mason bees. Also, include a birdbath or something with a ledge for pollinators to perch and drink.

There are many resources that can instruct you on providing habitat for pollinators. One standout is The Xerces Society. They are “a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.” Their website is loaded with information: specific plant recommendations by region, instructions on how to provide habitat for certain pollinators, alternatives to pesticides, etc. You can even help them by becoming a citizen scientist. Other excellent resources include Monarch Watch and The Great Sunflower Project.

attracting-native-pollinators1

“Simple decisions about selecting plants, providing nest sites, minimizing disturbance, and reducing pesticides can make a dramatic difference between a green, manicured, but lifeless landscape, and one that teems with the color, energy, and life of buzz-pollinating bumble bees, rapidly dashing hummingbird moths, and busy nest-building leafcutter bees.” –excerpt from Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society

Stay tuned for future posts about pollinators, including pollinator conservation and specific pollinator and plant interactions. Also, comment below to share what you are doing to help pollinators in your community. 

Related Posts:

In the News: Declining Insect Populations

Figs and Fig Wasps

Book Review: Seedswap

Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery

Continuing debate and concern over genetically modified crops has resulted in increased interest in heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties. The communities and groups that have emerged from this movement are both the impetus and the target for Josie Jeffrey’s recent book, Seedswap.

Seed swaps are nothing new, of course. Humans have likely gathered in some form or another to exchange seeds since the invention of agriculture, but recent interest in saving, sharing, and trading seeds parallels the GMO debate and the rise of urban agriculture. In that regard, Jeffrey’s book is a timely resource for anyone interested in joining the seed banking, seed swapping, and seed activism movements.

While much of this book is devoted to explaining the how-to’s of seed saving (including specific information on how to grow and save seed from 49 vegetable, herb, and flower varieties), the content that really sets it apart from other seed saving guides is, unsurprisingly, the focus on seed banking and seed swapping. Jeffrey provides a brief history of seed banks, the reasons behind them, descriptions of some of the more prominent ones, and some tips for starting a seed library. For seed swap novices, Jeffrey’s advice concerning where to find them and what to expect when attending them, as well as tips and etiquette to keep in mind are incredibly useful. After spending a few moments with Seedswap, every gardener should find themselves inspired and motivated to start saving and sharing seeds.

Jeffrey’s book is beautifully designed and well put together. Apart from the fact that it jumps around a bit and could stand to be better organized, it’s a nice little reference for anyone involved or looking to be involved in the world of seeds.

seed swap book

‘Tis the season for seed swaps. Find fellow gardeners to swap seeds with here.

Related Posts

Starting Seeds Indoors: The Planning Stage

Seed Swaps

Onion Seed Viability, etc.

Winter Interest

We are well into winter in the northern hemisphere, and the plants in our landscapes have been dormant for weeks now. Trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, grasses have gone brown, and perennial forbs have died back – their roots harboring the food they will need to return to life in the spring. What little green that is left is provided mainly by evergreen trees and shrubs, but even they are resting – metabolizing slowly and putting off further growth until warmer temperatures return. The view outside may appear largely bleak and dreary, but there is still beauty in a frozen landscape, and much of that beauty is provided by the same things that brought color and interest during the warmer months.

Many plants, though appearing dead, remain attractive throughout the winter. From fruits and cones to seed heads and seed pods, there are various structures that remain on certain plants even after leaves fall that provide winter interest. Deciduous trees and shrubs show off their branches in the winter months, which when freed from the camouflage of leaves are like sculptures – art pieces in their own right. Perennial grasses can continue to provide structure to a garden bed when left in place and upright, and color is provided by evergreen foliage and colored bark, such as the red and yellow bark of some dogwoods (Cornus spp.).

Beauty surrounds us, even in unlikely places. Things are quiet and frozen now, and foggy, dismal days abound. But winter won’t last forever. Plants can remind us of that. In them we find remnants of brighter days and an assurance that there are more to come.

alnus viridis

Male and female cones on Sitka alder (Alnus viridis)

ericameria nauseosa

Seed head on rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

SAMSUNG

Flower stalks on strict buckwheat (Eriogonum strictum)

sorbus scopulina

Cluster of berries on Cascade mountain-ash (Sorbus scopulina)

maclura pomifera

Ice crystals on the branches of young Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera)

rosa pisocarpa

Rose hips on cluster rose (Rosa pisocarpa)

sedum sp. seed head

Seed head on showy stonecrop (Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’)

All photos were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Documentary: What Plants Talk About

Earlier this summer I posted a review of a book called, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz. It’s a book that describes plant senses – senses that are similar to human senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.). Plants are much more aware of their surroundings than we might initially think, and so I recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of plants and their “awareness”. However, I also understand that this can be an intimidating subject – especially for those who haven’t spent much time studying plants and their biology. Chamovitz wrote his book with the intention of making this subject accessible to everyone. Anyone with even a limited understanding of biology should be able to understand the basic concepts in Chamovitz’s book. However, the subject can still be challenging.

Luckily, a recent documentary by PBS explores similar concepts. It simplifies things even more – exploring the ways in which plants communicate with the world around them, even without having the organs we typically attribute to communication and awareness (i.e. brains, ears, eyes, etc.). The documentary is called What Plants Talk About. I watched it recently and was reminded of Chamovitz’s book. They fit together so well. If you have any interest in this subject at all, I recommend both. If all you are after is a simple introduction, watch the documentary. If the documentary intrigues you, read the book.

There is a lot more to learn about plants and their “awareness,” but these sources are a great start. Watch the documentary and/or read the book and then let me know what you think in the comments below. Meanwhile, we wait in anticipation of what science might discover next concerning this remarkable aspect of the plant kingdom.

Excerpt from Amanda Thomsen Interview

Plenty of books have been written about gardening and landscaping 101, but none are quite like Kiss My Aster by Amanda Thomsen. The title alone should clue you in that Thomsen’s approach is unique. Flipping through the pages it becomes more apparent. It’s a graphic novel. It’s a choose your own adventure book. There is a pink unicorn and a vampire reference, but there is also great information for those interested in gardening. Much of it is geared towards beginners, but seasoned gardeners will find it useful as well. This book is in a league of it’s own…so it’s certainly worth a look.

In the latest issue of Greenwoman Magazine, Sandra Knauf interviews Amanda Thomsen. It’s a lively conversation, in which Thomsen reveals how the book came about, among other things. What follows is an excerpt from that interview. Get your hands on a copy of the magazine for the full conversation.

Knauf: Who or what inspired you to become a gardener? A writer?

Thomsen: When I was little I wanted to do three things when I grew up: 1. Be a writer, 2. Recycle, and 3. Wear red lipstick. Happily, I have achieved these three goals. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to make that happen growing up. No one pointed me in the right direction. I’ve taken a few writing classes, but overall nothing that was memorable. I have always been super creative and have just looked for ways to demonstrate that!

My parents were the prototypes for yuppies. For some reason, and I think it was my dad’s Indiana upbringing, they were SUPER into Crockett’s Victory Gardening on PBS and did, literally, everything he did. We have a 30′ x 50′ victory garden each summer and I just grew up in it. They had a greenhouse added to the house, canned up everything from applesauce to giardiniera. It was a delicious way to grow up, and I didn’t realize that EVERYBODY didn’t have that until I was, like, 20. Maybe older. I didn’t realize there were jobs in gardening and horticulture.

Knauf: You have this funny, sassy, sexy, free-spirited, curse-word-strewn, delightfully naughty blog for a few years, and you’re a landscaper, and suddenly you’re blogging for Horticulture magazine’s website, and now you blog for Fine Gardening. I don’t want to disrespect these fine publications, but, well, they can be at times just a bit, shall we say, dry. How did you get together with them?

Thomsen: Horticulture asked me to join this contest they were having for a blogger. I did and I won. It was hard on me to blog exclusively for them and not on my personal blog at all – not even about personal stuff – but that was the deal. Fine Gardening has been a great, laid back home for my more horty things to say. I leave the eff-bombs at the door and get my freak on over there and I’ve loved it. AND they’ve given me a chance to write articles, which is seriously one of my happiest achievements in life…

All these magazines KNOW that if they are going to survive, they have to get new, younger readers, and I’m happy as a salami at a mustard party to help do that for them.

Knauf: How did the idea for a book come about?

Thomsen: I was dreaming about how to make books more interactive when I thought of the idea. Originally it was going to be SO comprehensive that I thought I’d need help writing it. You know, a backyard bible of sorts. Then I got this wack-a-doo idea of having a hipster gardening book that was illustrated with, you know those terrible IKEA instructions with no words and very vague symbolism? I wanted to do it like that. Carleen Madigan at Storey literally found me in a dumpster and asked me if I had ideas for books. We met up in Boston while I was there speaking, and I just LOVED her. She was totally the midwife of this book. I literally wrote the whole book for her and if I could make her laugh then I was golden. I wrote the whole book, and then they found the illustrators, which completely adds everything.  The illustrations are way better than the writing!

kissmyaster

Visit Amanda Thomsen’s blog: www.kissmyaster.co

Read the entire interview and more at Flora’s Forum.