A Poinsettia by any other name… the cuetlaxochitl


Politics was different in the early 1800s. You didn’t even have to run for office to be elected. Joel Poinsett’s friends nominated him to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and he won. By that time, he’d already completed years of travel through Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and South America where he’d met with foreign ministers, consuls, an empress, and many other political figures.

Within a few years, Poinsett became a U.S. congressman and then the first foreign minister in Mexico. That’s where he saw that plant that would later carry his name. He sent cuttings back to his greenhouses in Charleston and introduced the United States to a beautiful Mexican plant. Unfortunately, Poinsett got in a bit of trouble over his political views in Mexico (the word “poinsettismo” was coined as a result of his intrusive meddling) and was recalled from his post. Poinsett went on to cofound the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, later known as the Smithsonian Institution.(1)

Of course, the Poinsettia was well-known in Mexico long before Joel Poinsett. The plant is called cuetlaxochitl (pronounce), and grows as a shrub in Mexico City. The blood-red bracts are symbolic of sacrifices and creation.(2)

  1. To learn more about Joel Poinsett, read “Joel R. Poinsett: Versatile American” by J. F. Rippy
  2. Lots of interesting information about Poinsettias can be found at http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/

Saving the Corpse Flower… and its friends


Deep inside the corpse flower are its developing fruits (painted in the sketch above). After 6-9 months, they’ll look like a column full of beautiful ripe tomatoes, tempting birds to eat them and distribute the seeds inside.

Unfortunately, both the corpse flower (Amorphophalus titanium) and its major seed distributor, the rhinoceros hornbill, are threatened by deforestation. Populations of the rhinoceros hornbill bird (Buceros rhinoceros) have declined by 72%. Other species, such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, are also suffering from this habitat loss.

What’s driving the deforestation? Many old growth forests in Sumatra have been cut to make way for palm oil plantations. Are the Sumatrans really eating that much palm oil? Nope. It’s you and me. So check your food labels – sometimes palm oil is listed under “vegetable oil” (if so, it must describe which plants). Look up eateries and food brands by using the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Palm Oil Scorecard – thankfully, Ben & Jerry’s has a good score!

Mocking Berries


My yard is full of Strawberries – crawling across the patio, creeping over the lawn, growing around the a/c unit. Too bad they’re all fakers.

Delicious Wild Strawberries bloom white flowers that develop drooping mini-versions of the strawberries we know and love. The Mock Strawberries (Potentilla indica) growing in my yard, in comparison, display yellow flowers and upright little red fruits so tempting to behold. It’s like the little plant begs, “Look at this beautiful, juicy berry. Don’t you want to eat it?” Unfortunately, the fruit is totally flavorless. Just a tiny little ball of seeds and water. The little jerk-plant “mocks” us.

There may be hope though. Mock Strawberries came from India or south Asia where they’re called She Mei (Snake Strawberry). Apparently, the plant is used to control mosquito larvae in China (1959 Compendium of Chinese Indigenous Pesticides). I’m not quite sure how that works, but I’ll be conducting my own experiments this summer. If successful, I won’t feel so betrayed.

Gnarly trees

liveOakBranches of the Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) loop and twist their way toward openings in the forest canopy. Many branches sag down to the ground before stretching back up again.

These low branches help the oak survive in the hurricane-prone regions of the Southeastern U.S. Short, wide trees resist strong winds better than tall, thin ones. Those curvy branches helped the USS Constitution stay afloat during the War of 1812 too. Live Oak limbs were frequently used in ship building due to their natural bends, strength and density.

Pitch In – Help the Pitcher Plants

pitcherplantsCarnivorous plants have turned the tables on food webs. Rather than insects munching on plants, these plants chow down on insects.

The “traps” of pitcher plants are actually modified leaves. The flap (or operculum) prevents rain from entering the pitcher. The opening to the pitcher lures insects with nectar, but any bug that reaps the sweet reward will find a very slippery surface. Plop!! Into the digestive fluids at the bottom of the trap.

Many carnivorous plants are threatened or endangered. They live in marshy lands, the kind of places humans drain to build subdivisions and shopping centers. And since marshy areas are low spots in the terrain, chemicals like herbicides can wash from higher ground. People also love carnivorous plants to death – millions of pitcher plants have been dug up and sold to collectors.

What can you do to help the pitcher plants?
1) Support wetlands protection
2) Buy daisies, not carnivorous plants. Even if you buy the plants from a reputable source, it increases demand for these plants.

Good Grapes

Vitis rotundifoliaScientists are discovering new species all the time.
If you discovered a new species, what would you name it?

All known species of life are given scientific names. These names consist of two words – the Genus (the group they’re a part of) and the Species, or “specific epithet”. For this grape vine growing in my yard, its scientific name is Vitis rotundifolia (“vine with round leaves”).

Scientific names often describe the organism, though sometimes they’re named for people or places. Names are Latin because it’s a “dead” language so the meanings of words won’t change as people use them.

The names also help us figure out relationships between species. For instance, other grape species include Vitis barbata (“bearded vine”), Vitis sylvestri (“forest vine”) or Vitis monticola (“vine dwelling on the mountain”). Since they all have the same Genus name, we know they’re closely related to our grape.

 So, what would you name your new grape species? Vitis _____

 Here are some Latin word roots to help:
Ascendi – climb
Austr – south
Aqua – water
Bon – good
Callo – thick skin
Carpus – fruit
Folia – leaf
Gluco – sweet
Multi – many
Pannos – ragged
Plati – broad/wide
Purpur – purple
Rubri – red
Sola – sun
Strombi – spiral
Verdi – green