The Buzz

Exploring Place with Plants

We’ve heard the adage, “Right plant, right place." This is helpful garden advice, but also a reminder that we gain a sense of place by observing and knowing plants as they grow in our environment. I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and my memories are of the dense shade under Rhododendron maximum, picking Gaylussacia ursina berries in July, and the unmistakable, musky odor of Galax urceolata colonies. Whenever I pass our specimen of Tsuga canadensis on the Woodland Trail, I pause, and am reminded of the Appalachians, where I would often encounter these trees leaning over mountain streams, branches dipping low to the water, roots scrambling over the rocks.


But, what about houseplants, can we appreciate a sense of place from plants so estranged from their native soils? Recently, I’ve begun caring for the plants that we offer for sale in the Visitors Center, and I have been confronted by their strangeness, their boggling diversity of colors, shapes, and textures.

For example, from the forest floors of Brazil, we are selling Cryptanthus, commonly known as Earth Stars. These odd little plants with pink-banded, strap-like leaves are terrestrial bromeliads, relations of the familiar pineapple. The name comes from the Latin word crypt meaning “hidden” and the Greek word anthos meaning “flowers." Ours are showing signs of blooming soon, and I have to disagree with this naming: the little bouquet of white flowers that appears at the center of the rosette is hardly hidden, and is quite cute. 

One of my other favorites is the Zee Zee Plant, or, Zamioculcas zamiifolia. It is an unusual and striking aroid, with glossy, fleshy, compound leaves trusting upwards from stout, tuberous rhizomes. The Zee Zee is a newer addition to the cast of houseplants available, having only been commercially grown since the 1990s, but already has earned a reputation as a tough plant, able to tolerate a range of abuses. In its native ground in eastern Africa, the plant is adaptable to a range of environments, including tropical moist forests, savannahs, and stony ground. It readily regenerates from leaflets, which has earned it the moniker “money plant” in China (because who doesn’t wish that their money readily regenerated when set on moist media?). 

Lastly, we have Diffenbachia, native from Mexico south to Argentina, and better known as “dumbcane." This curious common name originates with the plant’s ability to render a person mute when chewed. This is attributed to the raphides (needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate) present in this plant, which irritate the mouth, causing numbing, swelling, and excessive drooling. Of course, left un-chewed, as is my recommendation, it makes a graceful houseplant, with green and silver foliage. 

Each plant belongs to a place, and has a story. Learning these stories not only gives us important context which helps us understand how to better care for these plants, but also feeds our imaginations and curiosity-- getting to know houseplants is like exploring the world, if only a couple leaves at a time!

By Carson Ellis, Horticulturist 

Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 6:30 AM


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