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GARDENERS - WATCH YOUR STEP . . .AND WHO YOU STEP WITH! : NOT-SO-BORING BOTANISTS SERIES

April 24, 2010: This is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of a plant hunter! (Alright! So I changed the topic a wee bit from last time! You gotta problem with that?). That plant hunter, gentle reader, was the Scot David Douglas, who introduced 240 species of Pacific Northwest, Californian and Hawaiian plants to European botany. (Native-American botany had already known them for a millennium or so). His name is preserved in the Douglas fir tree, 80 Latin botanical names, and a high school in Portland, OR.

David Douglas was a botanist and pretty interesting guy. He is said to be North America’s first mountaineer , someone who climbs a mountain just for the hell of it, by climbing Mt. Brown in the Canadian Rockies. His plant hunting journeys in the Pacific Northwest, 1824-1827, introduced Salal, Sitka spruce, Ponderosa pine, California poppy, grand fir, and numerous other native plants that we use in the landscape today.

Plant hunting, though, is not a vocation for shrinking violets. ( I believe that was pun). It’s dirty, long hours, devoid of any 4 star lodgings or Wi-fi connections, and dangerous and it was David Douglas that finally met his demise in pursuit of plants. It was a death that gardeners and plants people have had immortal dread of since time immemorial. . . . . being gored to death by a wild bull in a pit. To the gardener and plants person, the digging of a planting hole is like an act of birth, the beginning of a new life in a new location for our leafy friend. But just like that ying and yang symbol where’s there is black inside the white and white inside the black, that hole taken to the most horrible extreme could also be one’s grave. Poor David Douglas, while walking a trail in Hawaii (he was working and not on vacation), slipped and fell into a capture pit that already contained a wild bullock, which proceeded to gore him to death . . .or so the story goes. For years afterwards, people wondered how an experienced trekker like David Douglas could be so clumsy as to fall into a pit in broad daylight. There were no witnesses when it happened and the last person to see him was a wild bullock hunter and escaped convict he had had lunch with. Native Hawaiians, years afterwards, said it was the hunter, Ned Gurney, who had killed Douglas for his purse of gold and thrown him in the pit to cover up the murder. We will never know for sure.

As a landscaper, I dig many holes. The cautionary tale of David Douglas makes me ever wary around my planting holes. I either plant in them or cover them up. I live on the edge of the Coast Range and granted there have never been any wild bullocks sighted around here, there are other wild things, like beaver ,for one. I have two in my pond. The thought of walking out my house one dark night and accidently falling into a planting pit to find a rabid beaver there . . . .well, it’s too terrible a thought to share here.

That is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of David Douglas. And the moral of that tale, gentle gardener, is to never leave your planting pits open and choose your planting company wisely.

HOW A PALM TREE SAVED AMERICA

April 21, 2010: Hmmm. My very first business blog entry. My problem is I’m really not sure what a business blog is (as reader is warned above)! From what little I’ve garnered on the Internet, a business blog can be the personal face of the business, an extended advertisement, the inner thoughts and musings of the CEO, offer helpful and timely technical information, among other things. Well, I’m not sure even myself would be all that interested in reading my inner thoughts; there are a lot better researched and organized websites for technical information that this; I believe there are limits to how much you can batter a reader over the head with advertising; and a personal face to the business – well that is a worthy goal, but also a wee bit too ambiguous to get me started.

I have been blessed, at least many more times than cursed, as being a teacher whose subject matter was plants. The botanical world as one’s curriculum guide will never leave a teacher bereft of interesting anecdotes and curiosities to help illustrate biological concepts and principles. So that’s how I’ll start this blog. Amazing, Thrilling, Yet True Tales from the World of Plants!

HOW A PALM TREE SAVED AMERICA!

Once upon a time, there was a war, the American Revolution, and there was a tree, the palmetto, and there was a very pivotal location to that war, the port city of Charleston, South Carolina, and all three of these things came together in a serendipitous fashion to create one of those moments that the history of the world (. . . or with less hubris, just the USA) hinges on the outcome.

Early in the Revolutionary War, the British we still the favored winner and being somewhat tired of the pesky American rebels, they determined to make a decisive blow to end their troubles. They determined that blow would be the capture of the Southern coastal ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. Considering the rag-tag nature of the American army this would be a simple matter and once the ports were captured the South would be out of the war and the North would then quickly succumb to the British military. They sailed a fleet from Boston to the harbor outside Charleston to quickly capture the city. Alas, the British never even factored in the Americans secret military defense – the palmetto tree.

As the British were sailing to Charleston, the Americans began fortifying the entrances to the harbor at Sullivan’s Island. In command of the defenses was Colonel Moultrie, a Lowcountry planter. The fort he built on Sullivan’s Island, which was only half completed on June 28, 1776 when the British arrived, was considered by many to be a worthless defense. Rather than being built of stone or stout timber walls, the walls were constructed of palmetto trees, a local palm. I’m sure the British guffawed at the sad attempt the colonialists had made to stop their naval juggernaut . . .but the last laugh was on them!

The palmetto, a palm, is a monocot, one of the 2 large groups of flowering plants. It has more in common with a blade of grass or an onion anatomy-wise than an oak tree and it is that anatomical difference that saved the port of Charleston and our fair nation. Palmetto tree at Radford LandcarftYou see monocots have their vascular system, the xylem and phloem (think like veins and arteries in people) in bundles located throughout the trunk and surrounding those bundles are spongy fibers. In contrast, what we typically think of trees, oaks or Douglas fir , are dicots and they have their vascular system separated in rings around the trunk Much of the older vascular system turns into wood or bark eventually, but the result is a harder and stronger trunk in many respects.

Now, back to our shabby unfinished palmetto fort. As the British cannon fire found their mark on the logs of the fort a most curious thing happened. Rather than creating a shattering explosion that would eventually batter down the walls to rubble, the cannonballs harmlessly bounced off. Volley after volley proved ineffective to subduing the fort, while the Americans proved most effective in damaging the British fleet. Short on ammunition (only 28 cannonballs per cannon), Colonel Moultrie ordered his batteries to fire only 1 ball per 10 minutes. This gave lots of time to aim and proved quite deadly to the British fleet. They learned when you’re hiding behind palmetto logs, you’ve got time to do it right.

Eventually, a frustrated and demoralized British fleet, pulled up anchor and sailed away. Days later, Charlestonians learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The American victory turned the populace of the South to the Rebel cause. South Carolina flag at Radford Landcarft It wasn’t until 3 years later that the British returned and captured Charleston by land, but by then it was too late to be decisive.

And so, dear reader, the homely palmetto tree with its unique anatomy saved our fledgling nation when it was most vulnerable. The citizens of South Carolina in recognition and gratitude placed the palmetto front and center on its flag and nicknamed itself The Palmetto State. It’s the only state flag to have a tree on it. It is amazing, it is thrilling and yet it’s true!

F & P