Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick

June 26th, 2012

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’

Young Harry Lauder with his walking stick

An oddity.
This twisted shrub is named for Scottish Vaudeville stageman [Harry Lauder] (b. 1870, d. 1950), who often performed with a gnarled walking stick.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (also simply called contorted hazelnut or contorted filbert), is a non-fruit bearing cultivar of the common hazelnut or filbert. Its parent, Corylus avellana, is the species grown commercially for edible nuts.


The shrub itself grows in a spreading clump about eight to twelve feet high if left to its own devices. The deciduous leaves a broad and fuzzy with a serrated margin. Small, yellowish flowers bloom in early spring before the leaves come in.

It shines in winter. After the foliage drops, the corkscrew character of the branches takes center stage. In late spring and summer, reproductive catkins hang in dusty clusters along the branches and remain through much of the winter. It’s definitely a great specimen plant and fun to sneak into otherwise innocent-looking shrub borders.

There are quite a few of these around Raleigh, but the pictures featured in this post come from the plants at J.C. Raulston Arboretum.

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ in early April












And here’s one of Harry Lauder’s most famous songs, “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”, from a 1911 release:


June 20th, 2012

In most of the South, a mimosa is either the tree with fluffy pink flowers or a delicious brunch cocktail.

Silky pink flowers of the mimosa

Silky pink flowers of the mimosa, Albizia julibrissin

Most of the mimosa trees in the area are some variety or [Albizia julibrissin] or another, but are no longer taxonomically classified as true mimosas. Most of the plants in question are still members of the pea family (your friend Fabacae) though the genus Mimosa is now in its own subfamily.

Thomas Jefferson even [recorded] having A. julibrissin at Monticello, though he called it by another of its common common names: the silk tree. It came to this country via European settlers, and it came to the Europeans via the Florentine nobleman Filippo degli Albizzi. Some of A. julibrissin‘s common names in other countries translate to variations of “night sleeper” and “sleeping tree”, referring to the closing of its leaves at night.

A. julibrissin‘s star feature is the dense clusters of silky, pink flowers throughout summer. The flowers are usually white to pink but have no petals–the color and wispy texture comes from groupings of stamens. The flowers are fragrant and attract butterflies, bees, and other insects.

The plants themselves are about five to twelve meters tall with umbrella-like branches, making it a popular shade tree. The bipinnate leaves are distinctive because of their fine texture and ability to fold themselves closed during the night or rain. The trees are deciduous but provide winter interest with their gently curving branches and prolific fruiting. The seed pods are typical for legumes and look like a skinny pea pod. The pods are edible and sometimes used in livestock feeds.

Leaves both open and collapsed

Leaves both open and collapsed

These days, mimosas are considered an invasive species. The strong root systems have been known to crack and disturb sidewalks and foundations, and is a frequent volunteer along roadside tree borders.

As a side note, the Wikipedia page for the [mimosa cocktail] posits that the drink was named for another not-really-a-true-mimosa-anymore yellow-flowering tree called [Acacia dealbata].


May 3rd, 2009

It’s May! According to the Japanese flower calendar, May is the month of the iris.

<i>Iris</i> 'Starwoman'

Iris 'Starwoman'

The iris takes both its scientific and common names from the Greek goddess of the rainbow. Iris was also the messenger of Hera and, like the rainbow itself, was a physical link between the mortal earth and the gods. Iris’ other job was to lead the souls of dead women and girls to the Elysian Fields–supposedly the ancient Greeks planted purple irises on the graves of women in tribute.

The iris as a symbol of power or mysticism was not limited to the Greeks. The ancient Egyptians associated the three largest petals of the iris with faith, wisdom and valor, according to Lehner and Lehner’s [Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees]. The iris was also associated with the sphinx, another female entity.

Blue iris with Mary from an unnamed artist

Blue iris with Mary from an unnamed artist

In Christian tradition, the iris was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Blue is a popular color in depictions of Mary, so often blue irises are used to represent Mary in her role as Queen of Heaven. In contrast, white iris are sometimes used alongside or in lieu of white lilies to represent Mary’s purity. [HolyPlants] also cites the iris as a sign of Mary’s sorrows.

The iris is also the commonly accepted inspiration for the fleur-de-lis, but there are numerous legends about the hows, whys, and whos of its adoption as a symbol of France. One of the stories cited in the book I’m currently reading is that in the first century Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty, won a huge battle against the Alemanni. In celebration, the Frankish soldiers had a flower-power party and adorned themselves with irises fortuitously growing nearby.

<i>Iris tectorum</i> 'Alba'

Iris tectorum 'Alba'

Because it’s such and old and popular plant, there are [thousands of varieties] of iris and many of these are spectacular perrenials here in the Triangle. Irises come in a staggering array of shapes, sizes and colors (though blues, whites, and yellows are the most common). When visiting the J.C. Raulston Arboretum this spring I’ve seen irises nearly as wide as my head and irises much smaller than my fist–and I have tiny girl hands. Irises are usually be purchased as rhizomous roots but potted irises can be planted outdoors. Irises tend to perform best in full sun or mostly full sun and well-drained soil. A soil that’s too wet through the cold season can rot the root crown. Irises are also [easy to divide] after they’re done flowering–just be careful not to snap the biggest roots when breaking apart the crown.

The iris also has a unique flower structure. The lower petals are actually huge, colorful sepals (a leaf-like structure at the base of a flower–think the little leftover leafy things at the bottom of and apple or the base of a rose). These drooping sepals are called falls while the upright petals are called standards. The lighter parts of the flower in the diagram draw attention (and pollinators!) to the center of the flower.


April 13th, 2009

Viscum album (and its North American counterpart Phoradendron spp.) is the plant commonly referred to as mistletoe. Sprigs of real and plastic mistletoe are familiar sights at Christmas parties and in holiday wreaths. In fact, I think it would be a challenge to find someone unfamiliar with some form of the mistletoe kissing custom. As it stands, the polite tradition is for the man to take a berry off the plant for every woman he kisses beneath it. No more berries, no more kisses under that plant. Of course, simplifying this to “you have to kiss under the mistletoe!” is common and fairly ubiquitous. What do you do when faced with mistletoe?

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant that grows in the branches (epiphytic) of other woody plants–especially oak trees here in the Southeast. While it is capable of photosynthesis, mistletoe derives water and nutrients from its host plant. The types of mistletoe that are seen around the Triangle are probably Phoradendron leucarpum, which is a type of braod-leaved mistletoe. The dark green leaves are thick and leathery and the branches grow into dense shrubby clusters. (Once you start looking for it, mistletoe is everywhere. There are good-sized clusters of it in the oaks in front of D.H. Hill Library at NCSU if you’re in the neighborhood.)


There are tons of legends surrounding mistletoe. In the druidic culture, mistletoe–with its white berries–was a masculine counterpart to the red-berried holly. Both of these winter plants were important to celebrations of the winter solstice. According to [Pagan Christmas], the druids were believed to wear white and red robes during these winter rituals–though these are also the colors of the [fly agaric mushroom]. Still, a connection to semen is important in mistletoe’s use in fertility rituals and charms. Again in Pagan Christmas, the authors cite a region of Germany in which sprigs of mistletoe were bound to fruit trees in the winter for a good harvest. Mistletoe in the bedroom helped to conceive a child. Mistletoe in a bride’s bouquet was good luck for the marriage (it is almost wedding season!). The evolution of traditions like these to the modern custom of demanding a kiss when standing beneath the mistletoe is fairly clear.

Mistletoe was also dedicated by the Celts and some Germanic peoples to the various thunder gods, leading to sprigs of mistletoe on roofs or above doorways as protection against thunder or lightening.

The white berries of mistletoe were also thought to represent the tears of the goddess Frigga at the death of her son Balder. The long and short of it is that Balder could not be by anything, including the plants rooted in the earth. Mistletoe has no roots in the earth and thus was poisonous to Balder. The trickster god, Loki, had Balder shot with an arrow poisoned by mistletoe, resulting in his death. In some versions of the myth (such as the one featured on [How Stuff Works]), mistletoe is also the key to Balder’s resurrection.

Mistletoe for a time was recast as “devil’s broom” during the Christianization of many pagan areas, but it was soon incorporated into Christian myth. One legend states that the cross used to crucify Jesus was made of mistletoe; as a punishment to the plant, God took away its roots, forcing it to live on top of other plants.

Pliny the Elder describes a presumed druidic ritual of mistletoe in his [Natural History] (translated by Bostock and Riley):

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street elm

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street tree on Gorman Street

Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations.

So on the fifth night after the winter solstice, druids cut down mistletoe with a golden scythe, sacrificed some bulls, and then distributed the sprigs and drank mistletoe teas and medicines. Mistletoe isn’t as highly toxic as rumor would have it, but eating it can make you nauseous–this isn’t one I recommend for home ingestion.

March Flora Watch

March 8th, 2009

I took a walk this past Saturday around N.C. State’s campus, J.C. Raulston Arboretum, and my own Gorman Street to see what’s what right now in the landscape. I’m not sure if we’re safely out of danger from frost yet between the alternating snow and eighty-degree weather, but it’s definitely spring. I saw lots of yellow and white blossoms plus the beginnings of new leaves of a lot of the shrubs and some of the trees. By the way, the stinky-but-pretty (and overplanted, frankly) bradford pears ([Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford']) are also in bloom so that’s probably the source of any random smells of decay.

Highlights from the [flickr photoset]:

<i>Narcissus willkommii</i>

Narcissus willkommii


Artemisia (wormwood)

<i>Crocus vernus</i>

Crocus vernus

<i>Fatsia japonica</i>

Fatsia japonica (aralia)

<i>Forsythia</i> X <i>intermedia</i>

Forsythia X intermedia (spring forsythia)

<i>Hammamelis virginiana</i> 'Sunburst'

Hammamelis virginiana 'Sunburst' (witch hazel)

<i>Hyacinthus orientalis</i> 'Blue Festival'

Hyacinthus orientalis 'Blue Festival'

<i>Iberis sempervirens</i>

Iberis sempervirens (candytufts)

<i>Lonicera fragrantissima</i> (fragrant winter honeysuckle)

Lonicera fragrantissima (fragrant winter honeysuckle)

<i>Magnolia</i> X <i>soulangiana</i> (saucer magnolia)

Magnolia X soulangiana (saucer magnolia)

<i>Phlox subulata</i> (moss pinks)

Phlox subulata (moss pinks)

<i>Berberis julianae</i>

Berberis julianae (wintergreen barberry)


Witch hazel

February 22nd, 2009

hammelis_x_intermedia2_sunburst_feb2009I love witch hazels. This very small tree or shrub boasts at least two native species, Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis. They typically have yellow to orange or red flowers in the early spring and winter. The flowers usually bloom before the leaves, so yellow branches stand out with their four-petaled flowers and red calyxes. Many varieties (often derived from the hybrid H. X intermedia) sport multi-colored or extra-long petaled flowers. There’s a beautiful example of H. X intermedia ‘Sunburst’ in the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. There’s a [full-res version] of a photo I took of the flowers that I’m using as a desktop background.

Michael Dirr (of the [Manual of Woody Landscape Plants]) recommends planting witch hazels together with early-flowering cherries (like the carmine-colored Prunus campanulata varieties) for a “splashy” winter display.

After leafing, witch hazels retain their red calyxes. The leaves are obovate, a little asymmetrical, and dark green with sinuous margins. The plants themselves tend to prefer a more moist environment and tolerate most light conditions. Fall leaf color is yellow.

hammelis_x_intermedia1_sunburst_feb2009Witch hazel probably received its name from a homophonic Middle English word for bendy or pliable and not from “witch” as we know it today. Witch hazel is not closely related to actual hazels, but they were both used as [dowsing] or water-finding rods (or divination rods, witching rods, or water-witching rods). Because hazel was a preferred dowsing rod in English, the American plant also became known as hazel. Dowsing is still practiced today but the preferred rods are reportedly made of brass.

Extracts and infusions of witch hazel bark, leaves, and stems have long been used for their high tannin content and astringent properties. I’m looking for more good documentation, but it was reportedly used by indigenous Americans as well as European colonists. There are numerous references on the internet to preparing your own extracts, tinctures, infusions, and distillations of H. virginiana, none of which I’ve personally tried or advocate. However, it’s one of the remaining herbal extracts that is approved as an over-the-counter drug (and not just an herbal supplement) by the [FDA] as a skin protectant and anorectal treatment.

whazelmedWhen I asked my mom about witch hazel, the first thing she said was, “Oh! I can smell it now.” She said her grandmother always had a bottle and they “put it on everything–witch hazel and calamine lotion.” This traditional remedy for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites is still sold in drug stores today. I’m on the younger end of my twenties so I think I may have missed witch hazel’s heyday. I went to the Rite Aid in Cameron Village to search out a bottle to apply to a mild burn on my hand. There was an 86% witch hazel extract in alcohol so I bought that. Witch hazel is also the active ingredient in Preparation H wipes but I didn’t require a hemorrhoid treatment (though it can be used to treat irritation from vaginosis as well).

whazelmed4Anyway, it seems to be soothing. There was an immediate cooling effect (probably from the evaporation of the alcohol) but the pain is noticeably duller. It may be psychosomatic but if the effect is the same it’s okay in my book. It’s also supposed to be good for perpetually oily skin (like mine) so I’ve applied some after washing my face. I’m worried about the alcohol over-drying my skin, but I used to love the now-discontinued Burt’s Bees Wild Lettuce Toner and that had similar proportions (what I bought is 86 per cent active, 14 per cent inert). At the very least it’ll temporarily minimize my pores.

I’ve also heard [rumors] of people using witch hazel Preparation H wipes on their faces to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and body builders using the wipes to temporarily tighten the appearance of their abs. Some women have also used wash clothes soaked in witch hazel to help minimize the appearance of varicose veins.

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J.C. Raulston Arboretum: Early Spring

February 21st, 2009

My cockatiel and I visited N.C. State’s J.C. Raulston Arboretum this Thursdy afternoon to see what’s going on. Besides being a public garden, the Arboretum is used to research, outreach, and plant trials (among other things). It’s free and open to the public and right behind the Waffle House on Hillsborough Street–and I can never say no to waffles and flowers.

Right now there are some showy winter plants and early spring bloomers adding color around the grounds–I took a ton of pictures! I also sought out some old favorites to track as they leaf out and set fruit. I spent I don’t know how many hours there as an undergrad. I’m planning to take pictures at fixed points around the Arboretum so I can see how it changes throughout the seasons.

So many things looked beautiful. Many of the hollies are in full berry and some of the trees (like [this flame willow]) have incredibly striking bark to show off. There are a bunch of pictures up in [this Flickr photoset] but here are some highlights:

<i>Prunus</i> 'First Lady'

Prunus 'First Lady' (flowering cherry)

<i>Pieris japonica</i>

Pieris japonica (Japanese andromeda)

<i>Ilex cornuta</i> 'D'Or'

Ilex cornuta 'D'Or' (yellow berry Chinese holly)

In the Winter Garden

In the Winter Garden

Xeriscape garden

Xeriscape garden

<i>Iris reticulata</i> 'Spring Time'

Iris reticulata 'Spring Time'

<i>Edgeworthia chrysantha</i> 'Winter Gold'

Edgeworthia chrysantha 'Winter Gold' (golden paperbush)

<i>Daphne odora</i>

Daphne odora (winter daphne)

<i>Poncirus trifoliata</i> 'Flying Dragon'

Poncirus trifoliata 'Flying Dragon' (hardy contorted orange)


April is going to be a fabulous month. I’m really excited for the annual trial beds to get into full swing–daisies, grasses, ornamental veggies… It’s a great place in Raleigh to get some new ideas.

February Flora Watch

February 12th, 2009

This is an aside, but I noticed a few of my favorite early spring bloomers are coming into flower over the last couple days.

This is a yellow crocus blooming in front of my boyfriend’s house. I planted a set of these in fall 2007 and adore them. Even when the brief flowers wither, the slender leaves persist like a delicate grass.Crocus species are in the iris family are not true bulbs–they overwinter as a specialized stem called a [corm]. The stigma (female reproductive structure) of Crocus sativus is dried to become the coveted spice saffron.

Carolina yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a climbing vine that is also the state flower of South Carolina. Its yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers are fragrant and abundant, contrasting with the slightly glossy, dark green leaves. Once you know what it is, you’ll see it everywhere (and I hope you will). This clump was planted near the corner of North and Glenwood Streets in downtown Raleigh. There’s also a really stunning planting of jessamine on the arbor in front of Withers Hall on the N.C. State campus.

The flowering cherries/almonds/apricots (Prunus species) are coming out! Most of the flowering apricots (Prunus mume) just finished their flowering cycle so I hope to have some pictures of their fruit set later in the season. Either way, I saw some beautiful cherry trees (either Prunus campanulata ‘Okame’ or Prunus ‘First Lady’) when I was in Cameron Village Tuesday. The pears, peaches, and crabapples should start showing signs of flower soon as well. I can’t wait for the kwanzan cherry (Prunus serrulata) my boyfriend and I planted together to come into its own in a few months.


February 10th, 2009

The common garden hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis and cultivars) is just starting to come up here in the Triangle, so be on the look out for blooming in the next few weeks. It’s also a highly perfumed flower so planting it near your doors, windows, and walkways can have huge impact for the nose as well as a splash of color for the eyes.

In flower, the plant itself is around eight to ten inches tall with the inflorescence rising above the glossy, green leaves. The spread of each individual plant is about five inches, making them ideal for clumping. The most common flower color is a medium bluish purple, but it comes in a range of pinks, whites, yellows, and even some burgundy cultivars.

hyacinthus_orientalis_white_festival_march2009“Hyacinth” corresponds to the name of a Spartan youth and hero whose name anglicizes to Hyacinthus. The version retold in Ovid’s [Metamorphoses] boils down to Hyacinthus a horrible discus accident with his lover Apollo. Apollo threw the discus and Hyacinthus, hoping to impress his deity bro, tried to go catch it. It went terribly awry and struck him in the head, killing him. Apollo, in his grief, created a flower from Hyacinthus’ spilled blood. I prefer the more salacious story from [Encyclopedia Mythica]: Apollo and Zephyr, god of the west wind, were rivals for Hyacinthus’ affections. When Hyacinthus chose Apollo, it was Zephyr that blew the errant discus into Hyacinthus’ head in vengeance.

A good time to plant most spring flowering bulbs like hyacinth and daffodils in the warm Southeastern climate is November. Hyacinth bulbs are widely available from bulb distributors, garden centers, and the usual large chains. The leaves should not be cut back after the plant flowers so that the bulb can gather and store energy to bloom the next season. If the leftover leaves don’t fit in with your landscape, try planting them interspersed with summer blooming flowers like day lilies.

If you’d like blooming hyacinth indoors in pots or to use as cut flowers they can be easily forced indoors. Plant your bulbs in pots and then store them in the refrigerator for about three months. Don’t forget to water them during this period! After that, the bulbs can be moved to a sunny window to warm up and bloom.


January 21st, 2009

Vitex Vitex angus-castus is often simply called “vitex” but it has a number of more colorful common names: chaste tree/chasteberry or monk’s pepper. This shrubby tree is also a common home and commercial landscape plant, dotting yards and parking lots throughout the Southeastern U.S. It can grow to heights of eight to ten feet but can be kept in a desired shape with spring pruning according to [Dirr]. The flowers appear in summer in the anthocyanin color ranges (but commonly some shade of lilac) on spiky racemes about three to six inches long. The palmate leaves are dark green in color with a fine, wrinkled texture and slightly silvery on their undersides due to fine hairs.

Traditionally, the berries and aromatic foliage of this shrub were recognized as an anaphrodisiac. The common name “monk’s pepper” refers to the use of the small berries (botanically they are actually [drupes]) as a libido suppressant in the early Christian church. Dr. John Riddle, an authority on ancient and medieval pharmacology, reports many interesting uses in his very approachable book [Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West] (I can’t recommend it enough!). Besides being an ancient abortifacient, vitex was used in pre-Christian fertility or purity rituals and also to treat priapism.

VitexThere is some modern research about how compounds derived from vitex species affect mammalian fertility: vitex was shown to prevent nearly one hundred per cent of egg implantation in [mice] as well as decrease sperm production in male [dogs]. There are also current clinical trials using vitex to treat PMS symptoms. You can even buy vitex herbal supplements in the forms of tinctures or teas, or make your own.

I don’t advocate self-prescribed alternative medicine, but vitex is not regarded as poisonous and if your plants are pesticide- and disease-free you can make your own vitex preparations at home. Pregnant women should not use vitex-containing products because of the potential for complications for both the baby and the mother. Vitex can also react with hormone therapies and hormonal birth control and even some other medications.

Neat how a plant so powerful and rich in folklore could be sitting in your front yard, yes?