Native Perennials, Astraea and Her Asters, Banana's British Origin


By —— Bio and Archives--August 31, 2016

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Joseph Paxton’s 3 August 186th birthday falls on 3 August 2016. If you’ve eaten a banana or walked in, perhaps even owned a greenhouse you have him to thank. “The busiest man in England” was to Queen Victoria “a common gardener’s boy”—but knighted him anyway in 1851 for designing the Great Exhibition’s famed Crystal Place featuring Paxton’s modular glass-and-iron design. Yet he was born 1803 the seventh son of a yeoman farmer in Bedfordshire and an apprentice gardener to his older brother. Noticed by the William Cavendish 6th Duke of Devonshire and brought to his Chatsworth Estate, he raised the banana plants named after his patron that were to become the standard commercial banana of the 20th century. He progressed to be a botanist, publisher, architect and Member of Parliament before his death in 1865. Not bad for a gardener’s boy.


Diversion No. 1

Drinking your garden: turning fruits, vegetables into wine, suggests CBC News from Saskatchewan. Carrots, parsnips, choke cherries and dandelions can all be used as ingredients to make homemade wine, explains the national broadcaster

Dried out planters are proving a serious fire hazard. In Montreal alone, at least 20 fires caused by cigarettes being butted out in them are being blamed by authorities this past spring. Potting soil blends recommended for container usually contain peat moss to make them both lighter and more water retentive. Mineral vermiculite and Styrofoam pellets may also by present with the same aim in mind. Unfortunately when dry all these are flammable. Add traces of fertilizer, an excellent fire accelerant, and you have all the makings of what one unfortunate described as “like a fireball on the deck” in a Toronto third-floor conflagration. Planters, especially metal ones, may require generous watering twice a day, especially in hot windy weather. As for use as ashtrays, it could be your funeral. You might end up without a pot to plant in.

Diversion No. 2

Forestart, a Shropshire tree producer, is faking beaver attacks against the trees as experts believe there is direct correlation between the attacks and the increase in seed production. Aspen trees have traditionally struggled to grow in the U.K. because of a shortage of seeds, according to The Daily Telegraph

Warm humid days, cool nights: perfect late summer weather for gardeners. Not so, however, for some plants sensitive to powdery mildew disease. Common lilac and old-fashioned phlox selections are especially prone to this insidious pathogen. Foliage and buds become covered with a white to grayish powder, wither and perish. Modest infections rarely kill. Prolonged and severe infections may do just that though. There is no completely effective chemical or natural fungicide. There are resistant varieties available. In already established gardens, avoid watering late in the day, leaving foliage wet as temperatures drop, a sure opening for such an infection.

Diversion No. 3

A couple accused of riding naked on a stolen lawn mower were arrested in Missouri, The Joplin Globe reported. A 55-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman admitted they rode the lawn mower home starkers after their clothing was stolen while they skinny dipped in a creek northwest of Joplin.

Almost annually it seems some entrepreneur offers a new technological wonder to care for plants. Thus the Phytl Signs Explorer (really!) claims to inform you what your plants are saying. Attach electrodes to the soil and a leaf or stem and signals are sent to your phone or tablet. That plants produce weak electrical emissions has been known for more than a century. Up to now they have been too weak to make much of, however. Swiss-based Vivent, the company behind the device, generously offer a ‘Super Early Bird’ price is ¬£99, according to The Mail On Sunday, delivery scheduled for April 2017. Frankly, Prince Charles may want to know what his plants are saying about him—and can afford to—but we don’t.

Diversion No. 4

Female praying mantises eat their partners during and after sex because it boosts fertility. Scientists at State University of New York found females who ate their partners produced more eggs. Having their head bitten off also causes males to thrust more vigorously, they reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

It’s too hot for gardening. So you come indoors, turn on the boob tube. Up comes the world’s tip top tennis tournament. And, you wonder how Wimbledon does it—keeps the grass so perfect. Right after they last game, they scalp those courts then spread six tonnes of new soil on each. Three selections of perennial rye grass stand up to the two weeks of wear and tear. But all winter it has been mown to 13mm. From March on it this reduced by a single millimetre each week until it reaches playing height of eight millimetres. During tournaments it is cut daily—and vacuumed to remove scuffing from players’ footwear. Pigeon poop might spoil all this, so a pair of hawks are on duty, day in, day out.  Sigh . . . if only it wasn’t for those hawks . . .

Banana’s British Origin

Weird as it may sound, but the standard commercial banana today originated on a stately English estate.

The first banana fruit to reach England was recently identified from a Tudor cesspit. In the early 1600s a bunch was displayed in a London herbalist’s shop. With the arrival of the modern heated glasshouse in the early 19th century banana plant cultivation was possible. 

In 1829 plants,  probably originating in Mauritius, arrived at Alton Towers, the seat of the Earl of Shrewsbury. His chaplain in turn sent some to the 6th Earl of Devonshire, William Cavendish’s extensive Chatsworth Estate. There they came under the care of his brilliant young head gardener Joseph Paxton. Carefully he nurtured them in the Great Conservatory. They flowered in November 1834, and bore over 100 fruit next year in May. A plant was exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society the same month. They were botanically described by Paxton as Musa cavandishii, in honour of his patron the Duke. The Chatsworth Estate still extends over 35,000 acres.

Shortly thereafter, the Duke received a visit from John Williams, a missionary collecting contributions for his mission to the South Pacific. He was presented with two of the newly-invented Wardian Cases to transport the Cavendish banana plants to Samoa. While only a single plant survived the voyage, from it arose populations in many far-flung Pacific islands. Not so the unfortunate John Williams. Against advice he landed on a New Hebrides island in 1839. The inhabitants promptly killed and ate him.

Another weird fact:: Despite frequent popular reference to banana trees, there is no such thing. Botanically, the banana plant is a herb. It lacks a woody structure. Following fruiting, it dies but is replaced by shoots from its base—“mothers” and daughters” in commercial terminology. And it may not look like a berry but botanists say otherwise, terming it a ‘drupe.’

Although Cavendish bananas entered commercial mass production in 1903 it was another half-century before it gained but any prominence. Up until that time the standard banana was the Gros Michel. Many swear this predecessor to the Cavendish was far superior. Indeed many swear at the Cavendish. In India, they are said to be known as ‘hotel bananas’ since only tourists eat them. Nevertheless, bananas have entered popular culture. The banana split arrived in 1904 thanks to a Latrobe, Pennsylvania drug store counterman. In Central America, commercial plantations overtook nations to such a degree that they became known as ‘Banana Republics.’ Across the Caribbean fast schooners were known as banana boats, commemorated in the Banana Boat Song by Harry Belafonte in 1956 from a traditional Jamaican folk song. Miss Chiquita label arrived in 1963. About the same time the expression “going bananas” became used for becoming mad. Later Lisa Minnelli so described her sojourn in a psychiatric hospital.

Sadly, like its commercial predecessor the ‘Gros Michel,’ or ‘Big Mike’ as it was happily known by its admirers, the ‘Cavendish’ banana is doomed. The virulent Panama disease is pursuing its devastating path across the globe from its emergence in Southeast Asia. The perennially popular song, Yes, We Have No Bananas by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn from the 1922 Broadway review Make It Snappy could become all too true.

Astraea and Her Asters

In Greek mythology, Astraea, the daughter of Astraeus and Eos, was regarded as the Goddess of Justice. She is thus often depicted to this day as bearing a set of scales and a sword. The Roman poet Ovid recorded that she was the last of the immortals to live with humans during the Golden Age, one of the old Greek religion’s five deteriorating Ages of Man. Horrified by increasing wickedness of the Iron Age that followed, Astraea fled.

Zeus, the supreme deity, observing her distress, granted her a place in the heavens. There she became the constellation Virgo, the celestial virgin also known as the ‘Star Maiden’ or ‘Star Goddess.’

Looking down upon a dark and starless Earth, Astraea began to cry. Where her tears fell, beautiful asters sprang forth, reflecting the goddess’ new realm since in Latin, aster means ‘star.’

According to popular legend, Astraea will one day return to Earth, bringing with her once again the Utopian Golden Age of which she as the ambassador.

Native Perennials

An eighteenth-century Englishman sneered at ‘a few American weeds’ being introduced into his country’s landscapes. Today it appears more like our native perennials being ignored for a new creations by British plant breeders.

An example is Aquilegia, Columbine: colourful selections derived from the original muddy mauve European form, A. vulgaris or Granny’s Bonnet, quickly disappear if all seed heads are not religiously removed to prevent self-seeding and probably reversion to the older undesirable form. A better choice might be the western blue A. caerulea Colorado Columbine, the floral emblem of that state, and red A. canadensis Eastern Columbine also known as Meeting Houses. The genera name is derived from the Latin, aquila, a fancied resemblance of the flower spurs to eagle claws. Columbine from yet more Latin columba, a dove, it is claimed appearing like a flight of doves. Two other North American species worth keeping an eye out for are A. crysantha and A. longissima, both yellow.

The so-called wild plant gardeners—how can any garden by definition be ‘wild?’—recognize this and demand a return of their ancestral roots. In large part thanks to them, even the big box stores have been forced to stock such a selection.

A favourite—some claim it is the most popular perennial—is the magnificent scarlet Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis. This despite its reputation for being somewhat tricky, perhaps even short-lived under cultivation.

Yet in wild, wet places and on river banks from Minnesota, Michigan, southern Ontario and southern New Brunswick southwards the brilliant blooms disperse the gloom. However, “A good many flowers bloom and fade away in deserted places, seen by no one,” observed the poet Thomas Gray (1716-71) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). Lobelia is named after Matthias de l’Obel (1538-1616) a Flemish botanist and physician to James I of England; cardinalis coloured like a cardinal’s robes, scarlet, an apt description.

Among other related species are L. inflate, Indian Tobacco, with its small blue flowers commonly found over much of North America sprawling in woods, fields, roadsides and even gardens. Like L. cardinalis found in swamps and also about 60cm high, the Blue Cardinal Flower or Great Lobelia, L. siphilitica, ranges from Manitoba to western. New England on south. The unfortunate botanical name came thanks to its believed ability to cure that unpleasant sexually transmitted disease that carried off so many, including the Irish author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, and the American gangster Al Capone.

It seems but a few years since it was difficult to discover Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, for sale in local retailers. The intriguing white blooms indeed resemble the aquatic reptile so much as they deserve the Greek designation chelone, a tortoise. In fact it will be found naturally in wet soils, on stream banks from Minnesota and Ontario through to Newfoundland and southwards. A few other species make up the genera, such as C. barbata, pink, C. lyonii, purple and the purple Shell Flower C. oblique.

All this is not to ignore the fact that North American hybridizers have turned their attention to native species. The fiscal rewards are considerable. While a species cannot be ‘patented’ “improvements” to the original can and are, at least for a decade or so until such commercial protection runs out.

So it has been for yet another inhabitant of shady woods, the pretty evergreen Heuchera sanguinea, Coralbells. Despite the specific sanguinea, meaning blood red, the flowers are nearer pink. Originating from the southwest United States down into Mexico, it is one of about 50 or so species of Heuchera. Another American, Alumroot or H. americana, ranges from Michigan to Minnesota and to the south and west, sprinkling woods with its red flowers. H. mycrantha bears pale yellow blooms and H. pubescens deep pink, giving hybridizers plenty to work with. The genera is named after Johann Heinrich Heucher (1677-1747), professor of medicine and botanist at Wittenberg; Germany.

Another for light shade is the Great Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum biflorum that finds its home in wooded areas from Iowa to southern Ontario down into New York and further south, producing 30cm to 90cm arched sprays of white flowers followed by black berries. Since these blooms occur in pairs, it merits the specific biflorum, while the generic name reflects the pointed rhizomes, Greek polys, many, and gony, knee or small joint.

By contrast, the wide open spaces of the wild prairies supported Liatris pycnostachya, variously known as the Prairie Blazing Star, Gayfeather or, less ornately Button Snake Root. The 30cm to 120cm spikes of pink to red blooms brightened moist areas of prairies from Minnesota and Wisconsin south. The dense spike of the flower head is commemorated in its species name pycnostachya. There are over 30 other species of Liatris found east of the Rockies all part of the great Compositae or Daisy Family, so well represented in North America. Not all prefer a grassland habitat. The New England Blazing Star L. borealis dwells in just such localities, preferring open woods. Confusingly, the Kansas Gay Feather L. spicata spreads far outside its name state, to be found as far north as Wisconsin and southwestern Ontario.

According to one belief, those with more names is an indication of their popularity. Rightly so with Tradescantia virginiana glorying in such names as Spiderwort, Flower of a Day, even Devil in the Pulpit—the last possibly by those sufferers of arachnophobia. This must have been one of the earliest North American perennials to be introduced into horticulture having been collected by John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62), English botanist, gardener and plant collector or perhaps after his father, who died in 1637. The virginiana indicates of Virginia and it ranges widely over eastern North America with blue-purple flowers although white and pink flowering varieties are available. It deserves its popularity by demonstrating an affinity for shaded areas. The name Tradescantia may be more familiar as popular trailing houseplants. The genus of 65-70 species ranges from North into tropical South America, for example the pervasive purple-foliaged T. zebrina from Mexico.


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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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