The jade vine blooms!

Orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden's orchid show.

Cattleya orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show (March 9, 2014).

“So, what’s your vote? What’s the most amazing flower here?” a father asked his two young children. He sat on the knee-high edge of a long reflecting pool that ran the length of a stately glasshouse. There was no answer as his children were too busy trailing their hands among the water lilies. It was the second weekend of The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary being held at the New York Botanical Garden (March 1- April 21, 2014). I was there with my son and grandson, just two.

Son and grandson in a conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden:  son pointing finger one way and grandson pointing  finger the other way.

My son and grandson pointing to different routes in the conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden. The two year old led the way.

“I vote for the jade vine,” the father said, looking up.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

I answered the man. “Yes, I agree. The jade vine wins.” After college, I worked for a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, as a work-study student. There I met my first jade vine, and came home with a botanical drawing by Margaret Stones that I have carried with me ever since.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone's rendering of the jade vine.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone’s rendering of the jade vine.

To a budding botanist, Kew Gardens was heaven, but my entry into heaven was rough—and the ordeal was orchid related. I arrived in September for my first day of work with a terrible head cold contracted in the dry air of the British Airways flight over. I still remember the skimpy navy blue blanket I huddled under and how cold I was the entire trip. Mr. Pemberton, the director of students, had said he would put me “under glass” in the orchid house for the first three months because (it was clear during my interview that he didn’t like Americans) he assumed that I was a pampered sort I suppose. (I proved him wrong.) We have heard about orchid thieves and orchid addicts, but has anyone heard the story of a naive, young preparer of orchid potting medium? The supervisor of the orchid house set me to work making orchid “soil.” In my botanizing in Highland County, Virginia as a child I had met a number of orchids, beautiful species like the slender ladies’ tresses, which were terrestrial and hid sweetly among the meadow grasses. I was shocked when I saw how tropical orchids were arranged in the propagating house, attached to little gravestone-like boards, hanging row on row, on the side walls of the greenhouse. The “public” never entered this greenhouse. In the jungle these tropical orchids live as epiphytes high up on tree branches on leaf litter, absorbing nutrients through their peculiar spongy roots that protrude like branches into the air. They don’t live on the ground in soil. However, there were a number of tropical orchids that resided in clay pots on waist-high benches in the central part of the greenhouse. They didn’t need “normal” potting soil, but rather a special nutrient-poor potting medium.

Photograph of drawings of ladies' tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny's A Field Guide to Wildflowers.

Photograph of drawings of ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers (p. 18). The slender ladies’ tress grows in Vinegar Hollow, Highland, County, Virginia.

Making orchid compost with a bad head cold proved to be a nightmare. First, I snipped clumps of dried sphagnum moss into smaller pieces with scissors. Sphagnum moss is a wonderful vehicle for water retention when it is moist, but dry, it’s like fiberglass insulation. Luckily I didn’t know about sporotrichosis, the rose-gardener’s disease, but maybe that’s why I suffered so. Bits and pieces flew around and went up my nose where they tickled and prickled, causing profound irritation. Then I had to separate clumps of charcoal into smaller pieces using sieves the size of dinner plates. Clouds of charcoal dust surrounded me, invading my nostrils and sinuses.  The final step was to mix the chopped sphagnum and charcoal chunks with shredded bark. Hooray for shredded bark, a relatively “quiet” substance. After mixing, voila, a suitable substrate to anchor the orchid in its pot where it never wanted to be! I made orchid potting medium for a month and got sicker and sicker. I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t sleep at night for the coughing and snuffling and expectorating of greeny black effluent. Each day when I got on the tube to go to my flat, I looked like a chimney sweep, blackened snot dripping from my nose, my hair gray, my eyes red.

Another treasured moment from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Another treasured momento from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the wild squirting cucumber (Momordica [Ecballium]  elaterium), a copy of an 1842 Burnett botanical print). I met the squirting cucumber in the order beds, where species were arranged by family, and  watched fruits explode.

  Fortunately things just got better (no, I forgot about the horrible, horrible episode of potting up practically an entire greenhouse of Primula obconica, one of the woolly primroses, from which I got a gargantuan [not quite the right word here, but I am trying to make the overall point clear] case of hives that drove me insane). For my last “tour of duty” at Kew, I spent three months in the great Palm House, doing this and that (other stories…).  It was full of palms, obviously,  historic cycads, tall gingers, and many other wonderful tropical plants that dazzled me. There were vines too, dripping from the rafters of the greenhouse. I was lucky. For the first time in many years the jade vine flowered when I was there. Just one raceme in late winter that dangled to the top of my head in the North end of the glasshouse, as I yelled “Closing Time” in my best British accent. Just as stuffy as Mr. Pemberton in my own way, I didn’t think it proper that an American should be doing the honors at such an important moment. When the jade vine puts on a show in the conservatory of a botanic garden, it usually makes headlines in the local newspapers. On April 7, 2003, The Oxford Times ran a piece with the headline “Our vine isn’t jaded” and quoted curator Louise Allen who said “It’s incredibly difficult to grow and you can never guarantee it is going to flower.” They were proud to have 60 flowers “spikes” according to the newspaper. The more proper term is raceme to describe the huge pendant clusters of wisteria-like flowers. The headline in The Hindu Times on July 2, 2005 included the words “as precious as jade.”

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

I would say the specimen at NYBG is growing like topsy, as “rampant” and “rank” and “aggressive” (all words applied to the growth habit of the jade vine) as it can get in the still relatively confined space of a conservatory. In the wild of its native Philippines, it can grow to 80 feet and each raceme can carry 100 flowers. But it’s the color that makes you stop dead in your tracks.  I think it safe to say that there is no other flower in the plant kingdom so strangely, alluringly, and bizarrely colored. It is like jade, but the hue in plant tissue takes on a startling iridescent sheen. I picked up a blossom that had fallen to the floor and put it in a small plastic address box I carry. By evening the blossom was shot through with the colors of the northern lights– pinkish, pale bluish, lavenderish, pale jadish.

Close-up of Margaret Stones' botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Close-up of Margaret Stones’ botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Its shade has been scrupulously characterized in a lovely book published in 1976, Flowering Tropical Climbers by Geoffrey Herklots.  The author, botanist and ornithologist, developed a hobby of cataloguing sightings of the great tropical vines of the world and drawing them, beautifully, both in color and in line drawings. For the jade vine, he names three colors with numbers, probably in reference to an artist’s color chart that apply—Jade Green HCC 54/1 and 54/2, Viridian Green HCC 55/1, and Chrysocolla Green HCC 56/1. Interestingly, jade, viridian, and chrysocolla are all mineral stones. There is something mysteriously unplantlike about the color of the jade vine, as if it’s the result of being crossed with a lizard or a chameleon or rare gemstone.

Rampant, "agressive" growth of jade vine.

Display of jade vine’s vigorous growth.

The shape of the each blossom adds to the intrigue. A member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) or Pea Family, the blossoms have the characteristic architecture of pea flowers, but on a grand scale. The jade vine’s awkward-sounding Latin name derives from the Greek “strongylodon” meaning spherical and “botrys” meaning raceme or cluster.  Grouped en masse, the blossoms’ “claws” or “keels” zigzag swingingly down the stalks, sultry scimitars just looking for a fight. The flowers are the opposite of flimsy, often described as “fleshy” or “waxy.”

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us "no plants, no people!"

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us “no plants, no people!”

The jade vine is losing its place in the wild, although a recent expedition of botanists to Palanan Point in the Philippines has found locations where it still climbs freely. Known to be bat pollinated, specimens have not been happy setting seed in the conservatory setting, but researchers at Kew Gardens have recently enabled a plant to set fruit. A few years ago their website showed a heavy pod attached to the vine with a little help from a supporting macramé like mesh. In Puerto Rico, bees are vigorous pollinators, tearing apart the flowers for nectar in the process. So what is the world’s most beautiful flower? The question is unanswerable. Is it one of the orchids– the voluptuous cattleya?  the delicate slender ladies’ tresses? or is it the sea-foam green jade vine flower? (Or is it the peacock’s tail?)

Cover of NYBG's Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Cover of NYBG’s Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Who is the fairest of us all? That is not a good question, and the young father did not ask that question. He asked, “What is the most amazing flower here?” Yes, the jade vine. It was then in early March, and still now, the most amazing flower at the orchid show at NYBG and the most amazing flower I saw during my year at Kew Gardens. The fairest?  Each organism is the fairest of us all. We need every speck of diversity, as E. O. Wilson, the great naturalist has said over and over. Working with plants, in horticulture–sowing seeds, digging, planting, weeding, mulching–has always made me feel grounded, literally and spiritually. Plants have been for me, from a young age, a lifeline to sanity (except for those few experiences mentioned above). I look at each individual plant and feel rooted in partnership as his or her neighbor on the Earth. Support your local botanic garden. Take classes. Draw plants. Write about plants. Grow plants. Weed, yes, but place the weeded gently in the compost. Remember the words on NYBG’s display sign: “After all, plants make life on Earth possible–no plants, no people.” If we are what we need, then people are plants, and, why not consider the reverse,  plants are people.

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Tending foxes: real and imaginary

A few days ago I drove past a dead fox on a road I travel frequently. I stopped and backed up carefully. I feared it was my fox.

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The tail of my fox.

The fox lay a short distance from the entrance to a small parcel of land, 9/10ths of an acre that my husband and I recently purchased from a Ms. Fox (a real person) as a writing/gardening retreat (this writer needs to be close to the land in order to write). Ms. Fox told me that a fox was living under the garden shed and that she would block the entrance because of the musty smell. I could see the scooped out place at the entrance to the shed and imagined a fluffy red tail disappearing into a safe hiding place under my writing desk. I said that I didn’t mind the smell (because in fact I couldn’t smell anything unusual) and I would like to share the shed with the fox, and I came to think of Ms. Fox’s fox as my fox. Ms. Fox told me that the garden “wants to be wild” but she had wrested, with her pruning shears, weed wacker, and true grit, sinuous beds for hardy, tough perennials. My husband and I planted three different kinds of foxgloves (Digitalis)  (the woolly foxglove, the salmon-pink Foxglove ‘Glory of Roundway,’ and the golden-apricot Foxglove ‘Goldcrest’) to attract pollinators and glove the fox.

So when I saw the dead fox near the entrance to the secret garden, I felt a sense of loss and a need to take responsibility for the body. I got out of the car, put on my gloves, and went to the fox. She (he?) was in perfect condition. There was no blood nor any visible external blemish. I picked her up, she had stiffened in rigor mortis, and brought her inside the entrance, set her on a patch of clean snow behind the gate, and admired her beauty. The tail was magnificent, bushy, long, and full. The ears were lovely, delicate, pointed, furry. The tip of a pink tongue peaked out from her mouth. Dainty feet! What whiskers! Gray or red fox? I thought gray because  each tawny hair was white tipped. From a distance it looked like a dusting of snow covered the body. A perfect way to be gray.

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The fur of my fox.

Ithaca was in the grips of another polar vortex, so the body remained frozen, and the ground as well, so that we could not bury her. My husband and I decided that nature’s way was best, that letting vultures or coyotes nourish themselves upon her body was beneficial to the ecosystem. That was the decision—but nothing happened. I kept visiting my fox. After 48 hours she lay there as pristine as ever, though I had seen signs of  winter creatures eating other winter creatures everywhere.

Blood, fur, and pawprint:  a meal has been eaten in the forest.

Still life of blood, fur, and pawprint: a meal has been eaten in the forest.

At Seven Fields my husband and I observed a frozen deer carcass be eaten to the bone over several days. I worried about my dog becoming interested  in my fox if a thaw set in and decomposers had not found the body.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Meanwhile, at the same time, on a completely different tangent, hunting for a poem to memorize, I opened Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994.

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Botanical illustration of foxgloves on cover  of Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2002).

The first poem in the volume  is “The Thought-Fox,” which I read many times with my writing-as-a-naturalist students in a different book, Hughes’ superb Poetry in the Making: An Anthology. It is a collection of informal talks he gave for the BBC designed for interesting children in poetry.  In the essay called “Capturing Animals,” he describes his youthful interest in animals, how sometimes as a boy he stuffed 30-40 live mice in his pocket that he had plucked from sheaves at threshing time, and the genesis of his poem  “The Thought-Fox.”

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

Hughes writes: “An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive is the fox. I was always frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. Years after these events I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night I got the idea I might write something and I wrote in a few minutes the following poem: the first ‘animal’ poem I ever wrote. ”

So as I was visiting my fox I was thinking of Ted Hughes’ “thought-fox.” I completely agree with Hughes that immortalizing an animal in a poem has many advantages, but I had a body to think about.

My fox as I found her.

My fox as I found her.

I agonized, checked the yellow pages, made a phone call, and then made a decision on the third day. I drove back out to the secret garden a few hours after my morning visit, wrapped my fox in a blanket, put her in the back of my car, and took her to a taxidermist.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

I was apprehensive about my decision, but happily a positive adventure ensued. I handed my fox over to a lovely couple in their ‘70s who run a retirement business in taxidermy. He, tall, bright-blue-eyed, youthful baseball cap on his head, and she, beautiful, gracious, and friendly, gave me a complete explanation of the processes involved in taxidermy, which I will omit here for the sake of brevity. Their ranch house looked unremarkable from the outside, but soon my head whirled, as I found myself nose-to-nose with several elk, a turkey vulture, crow, huge mountain goat, and numerous deer. These taxidermists work terribly hard. After a career in construction he retired to taxidermy and championship archery, and she, after 39 years working for the local trust company retired to be his indispensable helpmate and companion in the taxidermy business. They know a lot about animals of all kinds, well, mostly the furred and feathered. He told me that the grey fox (Urocyron cinereoargenteus) is a creature of the brush and has the footprint of a cat. Coyotes tolerate this most  ancient member of the dog family (Canidae), which can climb trees to escape predators.  He said the red fox has the footprint of a small dog and favors wooded areas.

Taxidermy was a critical job skill that helped Charles Darwin gain his position as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. In Edinburgh, when he was studying (unhappily) as a medical student at the university, Darwin had lodgings two doors away from those of a freed Guyanan slave named John Edmonstone, whom Darwin hired for a guinea a week to teach him the art of taxidermy. Darwin and Edmonstone formed a congenial friendship, based on mutual natural history interests, that Darwin remembered all his life (see his Autobiography). In the process of rewilding, a movement whose aim is to bring extinct animals back to life (see Nathaniel Rich’s “The Mammoth Commeth” in the New York Times, Feb. 27th, 2014),  taxidermied specimens may offer the DNA fragments that will allow geneticists to reconstruct the original genome of the extinct animal. Thus, Darwin’s specimen of the now-extinct Floreana mockingbird may sire descendents one day.

In his BBC talk, Hughes tells children,  “in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it.”  Hughes wanted children to understand that poets are pacifists, but there is a paradox in his words. There would never have been a thought-fox without the real fox, which first appeared 3.6 million years ago.

Taxidermy has been called the art of death.  I cannot offer a rational explanation for why I took my fox to the taxidermists. However, in a few months, a fox, more than a thought but less than real, will keep me company in the shed as I think about the lovely taxidermists and the poet, thought-foxes and real foxes,  and mortality and extinction.

I want lots of foxes and foxgloves in my garden, all real. I want to see fluffy tails disappearing into tangles and thickets, and spires of speckled peach and rose colored foxglove flowers. Like Hughes, I want foxes of all kinds to live forever. One problem with extinction is how barren human imaginations will become if we destroy all the models for our flights of fancy.

Winter leaf lies quietly.

Oak leaf on snow, holding out against decomposition.