Leaf of the Day:The Blood Flower

One reason for the slight change of focus is that I have a small exhibition coming up in April (where else but at Leu Gardens) and although it will be mostly of the drawings and some of the blog posts too I need a few bigger pieces to give it some focus, here and there. So one plan is to make some larger paintings/drawing of some of my favourite leaves and also to make some extra studies of some of the most interesting plants. The theme of the exhibition is really my “diary” of a year of drawings from the Gardens, and I still have a couple of months to go before I have seen a full year there.
Planning an exhibition is a bit like developing a painting from sketches. There is an awful lot of culling to do and then yawning gaps to fill, to make it an interesting experience, even for those who are not completely fascinated by plants. There is no dedicated exhibition room at Leu just a hallway, and not too much space, so I will have to be choosy.
So which leaf will I decide to draw? and how big? and what medium? Oh.. the agonies of decision making..and I am spoilt for choice…

Meanwhile …… I found this seed pod yesterday. It just happened to be growing in a tub by the Irish bar we often visit, for an end of cycle reward, but this plant grows everywhere here including in the butterfly garden at Leu. I just had to draw it! It’s from the Blood-flower Asclepias curassavica , or Mexican Butterfly Weed, or Scarlet Milkweed, one of the milkweed family Asclepiadaceae which I have drawn before here.

The Milkweeds are really worth returning to again and again because they have played an important, if risky, part in folk medicine, food stuffs and are beneficial to insects. They form a large genus in the family Asclepiadaceae that contain over 140 known species. “Asclepias”, after the Greek god of healing, because of the many unreliable medicinal uses for the plants, and this particular plant’s species name “curassavica” refers to Curacao, where the first specimens were collected.
The reason the Butterfly Garden is full of them at Leu is that Milkweeds provide the only food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is another interesting case (as with the artistolochias) where, through eating a poisonous plant, the caterpillars themselves become toxic and unpalatable to birds. The flowers are also an important nectar source for bees, ants and humming birds too, and in the past were used as a source of sweetness by the Native Americans and early settlers.

The “milk” of milkweed is its milky sap, which contains alkaloids and can be irritant and toxic, but despite their general toxicity, the plants had many medicinal uses. One species Asclepias tuberosa was known in Europe as the “pleurisy root”, and was used to relieve bronchial and pulmonary trouble. Here is a short piece from the USA Department of agriculture relating to its use by the indigenous peoples here.
“Butterfly milkweed has many medicinal uses. The Omahas and Poncas ate the raw root of the butterfly milkweed for bronchial and pulmonary troubles. Butterfly milkweed root was also chewed and placed on wounds, or dried, pulverized, and blown into wounds. The Omaha tribe used butterfly milkweed medicine for rites belonging to the Shell Society. The Dakotas used the butterfly milkweed as an emetic. The Menominis considered the butterfly milkweed, which they called the “deceiver,” one of their most important medicines.
(Hmm? Another possibly useful spell for my book …)

These delicate floating seeds are arranged so neatly and beautifully in their seed case but managed to spread themselves all over my room before I could draw them.
I also read that milkweed floss is coated with a waxy substance and has better insulation qualities than down feathers and that, amazingly, during World War 2, over 11 million pounds of milkweed floss were collected in the USA for various stuffing uses, as a substitute for kapok. I can’t conceive of how much volume even 1lb of these fluffy things would be, never mind 11 million.

At some time I must gather all these various bits of information together into one coherent post because the milkweeds, like many others, have such a fascinating story.
My drawing is of the pod and the few remaining seeds. I think my studio maybe carpeted with little milkweed plants later this spring which will make Ant happy.( yes.. he/she/it is still here!)

Milkweed pod.

Leaf of the Day: Balloon Milkweed Seeds

Today I was going to have a day off but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to investigate yesterday’s pod of the Balloon Milkweed. It was completely fascinating. Inside the green soft hairy pod there is a central S shaped inner pod. As the whole thing started quickly drying out, the interior pod split along its length to reveal inside many little red brown seeds, very neatly packed around what looked like a shiny silky core. The seeds quickly fell away, one by one, each taking with it one layer of the core, which transformed itself into a fluffy floating parachute. It’s very hard to describe….so I can do no better than let Anna Botsford Comstock in her classic 1911 book “A Handbook of Nature Study” for elementary school children, explain in more poetic terms.

“On either side of the seam, (of the interior pod) which will sometime open, are three or four rows of projecting points rising from the felty surface of the pod in a way that suggests embossed embroidery. Below the opening is a line of white velvet at one end and with their heads all in one direction are the beautiful pale-rimmed brown overlapping seeds and at the other end we see the exquisite milkweed silk with the skein so polished that no human could give us a skein of such lustre.
No sooner is our treasure open to the air than the shining silk begins to separate into floss of fairy texture. But before one seed comes off, let us look at the beautiful pattern formed by the seeds overlapping, such patterns we may see in the mosaics of mosques. Pull off a seed and with it comes its own skein of floss shining like a pearl; but if we hold the seed in the hand a moment, the skein unwinds itself into a fluff of shining threads as fine as spider’s silk and each individual thread thrusts itself out and rests upon the air and altogether there are enough of the threads to float the seed, a balloon of the safest sort.

Isn’t that lovely..

Soon the outside of the pod had shrivelled and the fluffy white seeds had exploded out onto the table and were busy drifting off around the room.
It was all so quick that I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

So today just my sketchbook drawing and these two photos I took of the seeds.. you can now see why it’s also called the Swan plant. Very pretty and, as always with nature, beautifully designed with some superb engineering.

Balloon Milkweed Seeds

Leaf of the Day: Balloon Plant and a Good Bug

After 6 months of visiting Leu Gardens and recording my haphazard finds, I have written about and sketched over 120 of the different plants, flowers and trees. However if I were ever to feel at all pleased with what I have done, the amount still to do, see, discover and record is overwhelming. Sometimes I forget there are 50 acres of land ranging from neat and tidy rose garden to the gloriously unruly, tropical jungle.
My trip to Leu on Thursday took me to areas of the garden I don’t often visit. The South Woods are very quiet and secluded with tall majestic oaks, pines, sweet gums, hickories and scores of camellias The gardens are well known for their camellias, over 2000 species. There is nothing obviously showy here at this time of year but it is a lovely place to wander and on Thursday I saw 7 different oaks, discovered the second Sausage tree, watched the squirrels and woodpeckers busy in the tree tops, and I even found a Butcher’s Broom plant (see post here) which was a complete surprise. The perimeter paths are the least busy and I must have walked for an hour without seeing one other person. Here two ancient Live oaks arch over one of the South Woods paths.

I then revisited the Horror Tree to see if there was evidence of the “bones”. There were quite a few old leaf stalks around and I even found the soggy and rotting remains of 2 pods which I brought back with me. They are outside drying, in the hopes that one or two seeds may be still intact.

The Butterfly Garden is always on my rounds too at some point. It is more or less at the heart of the garden and a pretty place to sit for a while and watch the many different fluttering beauties which are attracted there. Very often I meet Joel who looks after this particular garden and takes care of the caterpillars which as gardeners know are something of a mixed blessing. But, when I say “takes care” I mean very much in the caring sense. On Thursday he walked past with a handful of passion flower leaves and I saw bouncing around on the back of his cart half a dozen big stripy caterpillars.”Gotta get these little fellas off to the nursery”, he said.
The pretty Balloon Milkweed Asclepias physocarpa grows in the butterfly garden too. Its unfortunate green hairy pods will ensure giggles and have secured it some blunt but fair colloquial names, Devils balls, Family jewels etc. In a vain attempt to deflect attention from its obvious attributes it is also optimistically called the Swan plant. The pods are a light as, well.. a balloon, and contain fine downy seeds which float round the garden and self seed, so it can be found popping up almost anywhere.

It is much loved by the Monarch butterfly caterpillar, but also it seems, by the delightful red and black assassin bugs. I have seen them before on the other Asclepias flower I drew, the beautiful Crown Flower here. They come under the category of beneficial bugs patrolling the garden to keep down the insect pests including aphids, and mosquitoes. They also eat caterpillars, so I guess Joel has divided loyalties. nothing in the garden is straightforward is it!
If you like bugs, Whats that Bug site here is fascinating and some particularly gruesome photographs.
The actual milkweed flowers have a very unusual structure and pollination method which I will return to another time as I intend to go back to the crown flower to make a colour study.


Balloon Milkweed and Bug

Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower

Today’s drawing is a study of the very beautiful Crown Flower, calotropis gigantea, or giant milkweed. After a day of frustrating computer, phone and general technological horrors it was lovely to sit down and look at the exquisite structure of this flower which has waited patiently in the fridge for 4 days. Actually these little flowers are rather good at surviving as they are one of the flowers used for Hawaiian Leis and were said to be amongst the favourite flowers of Queen Liliuokalani who was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian islands.

Another Hawaii beauty from www.dakinedecor.com

Asclepias are named after Asklepios, the god of medicine in ancient Greece who professed to be able to raise the dead. It’s not entirely clear if he did this with Milkweeds as some are extremely toxic!
The God Hades, fearing an alarming loss of souls for his underworld kingdom, persuaded Zeus kill Asklepios. To cut a long and complicated story short, involving snakes, cyclops, Apollo and a host of other luminaries, Zeus eventually regretted his actions and immortalised Asklepios in the starry constellation known as the “serpent-bearer,” hence the serpent twined round the staff which is still the symbol of the medical profession.

The “design” of this flower is just beautiful, as is Rene Binet’s famous design for the entrance to the World Exposition in Paris, 1900. Binet had based his design on a drawing from the bologist Ernst Haeckel’s wonderful “Art Forms in Nature” which I am sure I will be returning to very soon.


Crown Flower