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Photos & text

Creative Commons License
Photos & texts by Sabina Burrascano is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Italy License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at: info@plantsdontlie.com.

Guess where?

Sometimes the things plant can tell us are more than we think.

Knowing plants can allow for an interesting trip every time we cross a green patch. We can try to read the condition of the site, the amount of rain the plant gets, the soil within its roots develop, and the main events happened there…from fires to landslides or human intrusions.

But there are cases in which plants can also tell us with a high degree of accuracy where we are. I found this astonishing! The subject that brings you to play this game is biogeography and it is more than fascinating.

Pinus nugra laricio forestThis summer I was walking my way up to an alpine lake. Along the path I met several plants that shouted loud the place where they belong.

My walk started in a pine forest, along a river. The air was fresh and moist, more than you would expect in a pine forest. The pines had high straight trunks pointing the sky and some of their traits suggested a centuries-long  life. Those trees were European black pines, but they were generally higher than those I saw before; their needles displayed some differences too.

The branches that shaded my path belong to individuals of Pinus nigra subsp. laricio. During Quaternary ice ages, European black pines spread towards southern Europan peninsulas and islands. This determined processes of isolation and diversification within the species. The subspecies laricio is native in Calabria, Sicilia and Corsica, it is particularly adapted to siliceous rocks. Looking at a lithological map of Europe its distribution definitely makes sense.

The forest ended gradually while we hiked up to the lake. Around the altitude of 1700 meters large gaps occured among the last clusters of pines. In this gaps a dwarf, thorny shrub is rather abundant. Its dominance indicates that being thorny constitutes a great advantage in this site, that is subjected to grazing during most of the year. In deed young pines could develop only around a log that protected them from grazing and trampling. Besides telling us about grazing animals we could not see in that moment, the dwarf, thorny shrub gives us another key clue to undertsand our location. It is a cushion plant of the Fabaceae family with twisted branches that end up in thorns.Genista salzmanii

It is a broom of the genus Genista. Especially the species in the picture is Genista salzmanii, it constitutes dwarf shrublands on the Mountains of Sardinia and Corsica. This species together with the Pinus nigra laricio already told us we are walking in the wonderful island of Corsica. Indeed the common name of Pinus nigra laricio is Corsican pine, and it is one of the symbols of the largest French island.

Many other species reminded me the location of my hiking, during that day; and made me wonder about the incredible diversity of Mediterranean regions.

Berberis aethnensisWhen we left behind the last pines, another dwarf thorny shrub appeared beside the path. This still had fruits on. The fruits are oval berries, coloured in red shading into yellow. It belongs to the genus named Berberis. The species of this genus that displays the widest distribution is Berberis vulgaris. But the species we met on our path does not grow higher than one meters and has thorns. In fact it is Berberis aethnensis. In some floras it is considered as a subspecies of Berberis vulgaris. Whatever its taxonomic rank, its differences with the most common taxon are evident. Berberis aethnensis is limited to Sardinia, Corsica, and south-western Italy. therefore its distribution is rather similar to the one we mentioned for the Corsican Pine.Alnus viridis suaveolens

The occurrence of Berberis aethnensis is particularly striking on the Corsican mountains because it grows right next to another shrub that usually grows at far greater latitudes, Alnus viridis, or Green Alder. In fact, while Berberis aethnensis is particularly related to the Mediterranean context, Alnus viridis is distributed in the boreal emisphere in the northern-most regions, from Alaska to Greenland and Siberia.

Alnus viridis is a light-demanding, fast-growing shrub that grows well on poorer soils, which it enriches by means of its nitrogen-fixing nodules. In many areas, it is a highly characteristic colonist of avalanche chutes in mountains, where Alnus viridis survives through its ability to re-grow from the roots and broken stumps.

Different subspecies were recognized for Green Alder in different regions; the nominate subspecies being the one developing in Central Europe (Alnus viridis viridis).

The subspecies found in Corsica is endemic to this island, that represents the most southern region of the species distribution area. The Corsican Green Alder differs from the Central European subspecies by its rounded and scented leaves, in fact it is known as Alnus viridis suaveolens (latin word for sweet-smelling) and I took home its scent through my hiking pants.

Besides trees and shrubs other tiny plants, settled on the wonderful islands of Sardinia and Corsica, that became their exclusive lands. Among those I had the pleasure to see Helicrysum frigidum and Sagina pilifera. The first one is an incredibly tiny Helicrysum (3-10 cm in height). Before landing on Corsica I thought plants belonging to this genus (family Asteraceae) were small shrubs at least half meter high. But this species growing towards the highest altitudes chose a smaller size to better resist hard windy and snowy times.

The second species I mentioned belongs to the Caryophyllaceae family. It is very similar for ecological requirements, distribution and size to Helicrysum frigidum. In the case of Sagina all the species in the genus are tiny, reaching the size of 15 cm. I found these species one next to the other and I like to think that they are linked by a friendship that already lasted for generations.

Helichrysum frigidumSagina pilifera

 

 

Narcissus tazetta day by day

Day 1 - Surprise

Day 2 - Increasing expectations

Day 3 - Hold breathDay 4 - Hello world

Day 5 - Just some more patienceDay 6 - Enjoying

Day 7 - Enjoying

Day 8 - Goodbye

Analogies through the water surface

More than one year from now I remember myself fascinated by an inter-kingdom analogy in one of the smallest inhabited islands in the world, Gili Meno, not far from the island of Lombok (Indonesia).Floating synflorescence of Spinifex littoreus

During the days I was in Gili Meno, I spent part of my afternoons taking advantage of the low tide to watch starfishs and urchins while walking among the partly emerged corals. One of these afternoons I saw a strange urchin floating on the shallow water. Through a closer look I realised it was part of a grass belonging to the Poaceae family.

Floating synflorescence of Spinifex littoreus

The name of the genus is Spinifex and it is characterized by a stellate synflorescence, made of radiating racemes that closely resemble the shape of a sea urchin (see this page for an illustrated descritpion of different types of inflorescence and syninflorescence). This genus occurs in Temperate and  Tropical Asia, Australasia, and Pacific and is very important for the entire sand dune ecosystem as it helps stabilise the sand.

The species I had the chance to observe is Spinifex littoreus. This species in particular is characterized by female radiating racemes 8–15 cm long; with a scabrous rhachis terminating in a barren extension quill-like, spinous. Spinifex littoreus is the most spread species of the genus occurring from temperate Asia (China and eastern Asia) to tropical Asia (India, Indo-China, Malesia, and Papuasia), Australia and southwestern Pacific. You can find information on nearly 11000 species of grass of the world in an amazing section of the Kew garden website named GrassBase, while another blogpost on Spinifex littoreus can be found at this page.

Going back to Gili Meno, the similarity in shape among what was on and under the water surface was amazing. At a first glance I thought of an analogy, due to convergent evolution. In fact the pointed racemes of the Spinifex littoreus defend them against herbivory, as the spikes help the sea urchins defend them from predators, even if there is always a species that does not stop in front of such difensive strategies.

Big predator

I started thinking of other inter-kingdom convergences in shape between plants and animals. Many of them are developed by predators animal that mimic flowers or other parts of the plant to gain a short-distance attack; or by plants mimicking the female of an insect to be effectively impollinated; while a close similarity both in shape and function is not so common.

On the other hand the shape of Spinifex littoreus synflorescence has to be related not only to a difensive strategy, but also to the plant dispersal. Most of the species of the Poaceae family are dispersed by wind, but Spinifex special propagule is able to roll and tumble on the sandy beaches in fact its indonesian name is Rumput Lari, thet means running grass. This gives this species a special advantage with regards to other plants of the dunes. This type of movement is known for propagules of species belonging to other families, always developing in open habitats: Salsola iberica, Oenothera deltoides, Kochia scoparia. The unit blown by the wind may be an inflorescence, but also an entire (dead) plant. Usually in such species seeds fall off as they travel resulting in a dispersal along a long narrow band; indeed in open habitats these propagules can tumble for kilometers. For further information on this topic see this book.

So in the case of Spinifex a double analogy can be highlighted, the one with sea urchins concerning the protective function of a sphere of spiny ends. However sea urchins never move for kilometers in their adult shape, they disperse through floating eggs or swimming blastula; while Spinifex tumbles through open habitats as a way to disperse in analogy with other plants of different families.

s they help stabilise the sand, these grasses are an important part of the entire sand dune ecosystem.

All flowers are not in one garden

All flowers are not in one garden. This is one of the good reasons for travelling: see many different flowers and plants in amazingly diverse gardens accross the world.

Only a small percentage of plants can be found all over the world, and even in that case they are limited to one or few environments, according to their characteristics and requirements. Many others belong to specific continents, regions, islands or provinces.

When a plant is exclusively native to a place it is called an endemic. These plants are extremely significant for whom is interested in understanding how plants evolved and spread, at the same time these species are fascinating as they allow for a glimpse in the complexity of the interactions existing between organisms, and between these and the environment.

The more an environment is peculiar and unique, the more it is likely to host endemic plants.Mogote & poultry

I want to share some pictures and information I took in the National Park Valle de Viñales, in western Cuba.

The landscape of this area is is characterized by geomorphologic structures called mogotes, which are calcareous hills characterized by a rounded, tower-like structure 100 m or more tall, with extremely steep to overhanging lower slopes that sit in broad plains.

Tobacco plantation and MogotesSuch plains are covered by fertile red earth on which the best tobacco in the world is grown; Indeed this is the Cuban province from which most of the tobacco used for the Cuban cigars comes.

These structures are classified as tower karst. They were believed to be tropical landforms, but studies from Canada, have shattered this notion.

Karst evolution that leads to them appears to have begun with the opening of deep dolines at weak points along joints. Later, long and narrow gorges called karst streets formed, to be followed by a rectilinear network of deep gorges with other cross-cutting lines of erosion. In the final stage, the rock wall of the gorges suffered lateral planation (Huggett 2007 – Fundamentals of Geomorphology).

Gaussia princeps individuals on a mogote slopeThe Mogotes, despite their steep slopes, are covered by vegetation. Indeed they are the only place on earth where one species of palm with a funny-shaped trunk grows. This species is called Gaussia princeps. Its common name in Spanish is palma de sierra. It can grow until 10-15 meters in height and it is characterized by a whitish stem which is swollen at the base and tapering above. Its maximum diameter is in the lower part (about 30 cm). It has three to six pinnately compound leaves. Fruit are orange-red, 1 cm long and 7 millimetres in diameter, with one to three seeds.Gaussia princeps against the wind

The stems of this species growing tall on the steep mogotes are apparently fragile due to their thin tops and absolutely fascinating.

Nevertheless through a closer look they appear as shaped by the wind, in fact their reduced tops are likely to be less strongly hit by it; while their base is strongly rooted on the mogotes, insomuchas the latter are the only substratum this palm grows on.

Until a few years ago this was the only known species of the genus Gaussia, but recently another species of this genus, growing in a similar biotope (Sierra de Jatibonico – central Cuba) was described: Gassia spirituana, from the name of the province Sancti spíritus where it was found.

Season's greetings

Waiting for the white to turn green…plantsdontlie wishes  happy holidays to plant lovers of all kinds, from green thumbs to academics!

A view near Passo Godi (Abruzzo, Italy)

Homesick

When you think of Holland the clichè leads you to all-wooden clogs, cheese, coffeshops and…flowers.

This was one of the reasons why the flower salon was organized. In fact this exhibition was focused on holland’s top export commodities: flowers, but also on floral design  and related art. It opened the 14th of october and was staged on 10 locations in Amsterdam, among them the droog design gallery, where I had the chance to see it.

The exhibition brings some unusual plant shapes and colors in the hearth of the city and was absolutely refreshing.String garden using 'kokedama' technique

You can walk in the string garden, where plants moslty used to the understorey of tropical forests hang from strings and look astonished out of the windows. Most of them belong to the genus Philodendron of the Araceae family, it is a rich and complex genus, you can read this article for an revision of the main subgenus.

The string garden installation has been created by amsterdam based company fedor. The objective of these installations is to simply bring plants to eye level, using string wrapped around a plant bulb or root ball. This technique refers to ‘kokedama’, a japanese botanical style.

This lying sectioned tree is there to show how incredible tree structure is, both in its outside and inside. You can purchase part of a tree and in a few months time, you will be invited to a picnic with tea and cake, under one of the most prominent trees in holland…to see one of them alive and rooted in its environment.

Dissected tree lying on the droog floor

Achenes are used in this lamp to refract the light in a unique way. This kind of Achenes, very common in the Asteraceae family, have accessory hair-like structures that cause them to tumble in the wind, similar to a tumbleweed . Here they are pasted on the light-bulbs but I do not know how long glue can last, I am sure they will blow away soon or later, looking for somewhere where to germinate.

Achenes lamp

Homesick are also the flowers of several diverse plants that met on a table, showing their ephemeral beauty sprouting from flasks.

Finally just to underline how the cultivation of exotic plants is really rooted in dutch culture I show you the photographs of another Philodendron hanging in conditions that are not that similar to its habitat. It spreads its roots in the stairwell of a self-directed residency and looks for light out of a window of the Plantage Doklaan.

Self-directed Philodendron

Self-directed Philodendron

Thirsty beings

In the middle of autumn rains I would like to recall the memories of the One of the view you can get in Cabo de Gatawarmest and driest place I have ever visited.

Cabo de Gata in the province of Almeria (Andalucia), is a natural park that deserves your visit because it fills your eyes with a subdesertic landscape that you rarely have the chance see in Europe.

The few roads that cross this area are a bit scary, not only because of the steep slopes under you, but also for the twisted shapes of the volcanic cliffs, and in general for the remoteness of the area…never get around without a bottle of water in Cabo de Gata!

Concerning photosynthetic beings, it is rather evident that life here is not so easy and only the most tenacious species dare to live in this region that, besides being very dry, was exploited as much as possible for agriculture and farming.

Being tenacious is the first quality of what the spanish call ‘esparto’, its latin name is in fact Stipa tenacissima.Stipa tenacissima dominating the slopes behind Playa de los muertos

This species occurs in steppic vegetation of central and southern Spain, as well as in the Balearic Islands and northern Africa. A bread basket made of Stipa tenacissima leaves

Its tenacity is not only about its resistance to drought, in deed this species indicates areas that were subjected to frequent disturbances. Its leaves, thin and resistant are used to produce ropes, soles and baskets. Obviously I did not resist the temptation to keep my bread in a tiny and simple ‘esparto’ basket.

‘Esparto’ is not the only survivor in this area, one of its mates is the ‘cornicabra’ that is Periploca laevigata.

Its common name in spanish refers to the fruits that resemble goat horns. This species is rarer than the mentioned Stipa, in fact it occurs only in the province of Almeria, and in few islands: Sicily, Crete, and Canary islands.

Periploca laevigata fruits

dear friends or fighters?

Right next to the Periploca you can see one of the few green things you will have the chance to see in Cabo de Gata in August: ‘el palmito’ or Chamaerops humilis. Its distribution in the west Mediterranean is not as limited as the one of the Periploca, however it reaches only slightly higher latitudes than its mate does, in fact the northern-most site where Chamaerops humilis grows spontaneously is the Côte d’Azur, near Saint-Tropez.

The fact that this two plants are growing so close together shows how they are competing for a small patch of relatively deep soil, if compared to the rest of the slope, however being so close can also help them to keep some moisture among their branches in order to lose water less rapidly. In this case it seems that extreme conditions promoted a love-hate relationship.

Among rocky towers

This post is more about mountain landscape than plants.A tower made of rock

I strongly suggest the hike trail that crosses the Gran Sasso massif that I came to know thanks to a Roman hiking group. From the ‘Albergo di Campo Imperatore’ you can reach in 6-7 hours the town of Pietracamela on the opposite slope of the grat mountain feeling the real essence of it, its role in dividing in two this part of Italian peninsula through a series of steep slopes and rocky peaks.

The trail starts going up towards the ‘Sella di Monte Aquila’, after skipping the trail to go to the highest peak of Gran Sasso you can easily head north towards Rifugio Garibaldi.

The Gran Sasso peak

Entering Val MaoneAfter walking under ‘Pizzo Intermesoli’, you enter the long Val Maone that starts among the highest peaks of the Apennine, goes through a beatiful beech forest along the stream named ‘Rio Arno’, and finally reaches the town of Pietracamela.

The latter is as rocky as the peaks surrounding it, that unfortunately got his houses and churches damaged by the heartquake that hit this region about one year and a half ago.Wounded church in Pietracamela

Not so many plants were in bloom in September, when I faced this hike, however I got the chance to see the tidy flowers of Gentianella columnae and the hairy and messy fruits of Pulsatilla alpina.

Gentianella columnae flowersThe fruits of Pulsatilla alpina

Boreal and mediterranean plants shaking hands!

Silver birch (Betula pendula) is a tree tipical of the boreal region. It is spread widely in Northern Europe from Norway to Siberia and Kazakistan towards east, and to Basque region towards west. The southern most populations occur along Italian peninsula.

Betula pendula treesIn Italy this species is rather common in the Alps becoming rarer and along the peninsula, where it is limited to isolated patches characterized by particular microclimatic and edaphic conditions.

This distribution is related to the climatic history of the Quaternary period. Pollen analyses show how this species was widespread in the Italian peninsula just after the last glaciation. Then a more oceanic climate favoured other tree species, e.g. European beech (Fagus sylvatica).

One of this isolated patches with very peculiar conditions is the Caldara di Manziana. It is an ancient volcanic crater where in the lowest part air moisture compensates for Mediterranean summer drought and a patch of silver birch forest occurs.

On the slopes, just above this patch,  the deciduous oaks Quercus cerris and Q. frainetto give rise to a definitely more mediterranean community.

On the edge of the birch patch you can also see a strictly mediterranean shrub of the leguminosae family Adenocarpus complicatus that is not so common in central Italy for its preference for siliceous substrata. All of this is rather peculiar, just as seeing the birch white trunks just north of Rome!

Adenocarpus complicatus legume

Betula pendula bark

To make a fruit...you need a flower

The title is the translation of a very popular Italian children’s song used to teach the importance of plants in every day life.

Here are some pictures to help achieving the goal.

Bud of Fragaria vesca

Young flower of Fragaria vesca

Old flower of Fragaria vesca

Young fruit of Fragaria vesca

A strawberry...still green

All of you know the story (yummy) end!