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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
South Shore News

Brandies: Botany lesson for young, old


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I’ve never put a glossary in any of my books or my column, mostly because I try to use words that anyone would recognize. But I do have a book with a glossary, and I have to check things in it every so often.

The last time was when I couldn’t remember the word “catkins” for flowers that don’t look like flowers at all. Such flowers hide on a slim, cylindrical cluster, with many tiny inconspicuous flowers. Some examples would be the pussy willow, the mulberry and the blooms on the black pepper vine. In many of these plants only the male flowers form catkins, and the female flowers are single (such as in a hazel or oak), a cone (an alder) or other types. Others have both male and female catkins.

By now I can tell you it’s much easier to look up the meaning of a word than to look for the word when you only know the meaning. I’ve found my glossary often describes unknown words with many more unknown words. But with the help of Google, I’ll try to make this simple.

If you’re trying to find the name of an unknown plant, it helps be able to describe the leaves. Simple leaves have one leaf on one stem. Compound leaves have many leaflets to a stem. There are three on poison ivy, five on the Buckeye tree, for example.

These are often called palmate-compound leaves because they’re like fingers from the palm of a hand. Compound leaves are called pinnate when there are small leaves on either side of the main stem or bipinnate if there are stems of small leaflets on either side of the main stems. Some of them can be quite large – two or three feet – and when they fall off the tree, all those little leaflets stick to the stem.

It helps to identify a plant if you notice if the leaves are arranged on the stems in alternate fashion, one on one side, the next a few inches away on the other side. Opposite leaves come off the branch or twig two at the same place, one going one way and one going the other.

One term I’ve often used is that a tree is deciduous, which simply means that it drops all its leaves and goes naked through part of the winter. The opposite is the evergreen tree or shrub that drops its leaves little by little and is always green. These two differences were very clear up North but can be confusing in Florida, including some deciduous trees in north Florida and evergreens in south Florida.

When I was in college and learning all these things, we were promised that we’d soon learn about the broadleaf evergreens. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. All the evergreens I knew had needles. In Florida, though, we have mostly broadleaf evergreens: oaks, magnolias and citrus.

I’m feeling like I’m back in college or putting pieces into the puzzle of my brain. Actually, this was all brought about by a senior moment.

Today’s pick

Today’s pick is the black pepper vine, Piper nigrum. I started one from a cutting and it has grown for years on the gate below the big oak tree without any care whatsoever. It was in a pot and by now has certainly grown through into the ground. It has also spread quite a bit, but it’s not a rampant vine.

I can pull up starts to give to anyone who visits. I’ll try to remember to have some ready at my next open garden later in the spring. Mine has had blooms that are catkins and not showy but interesting. Unfortunately, we don’t have whatever causes pollination, so I’ve never had fruit. But this is the plant from which our black table pepper comes.

Now is the time ... to tell you that black pepper is the oldest trade item from the Orient and was used in Greek and Roman times as both a medicine and spice. It was used for a wide range of illnesses: gout, smallpox, scarlet fever, rheumatism, bubonic plague, typhus and cholera. A pinch of pepper helps to stanch bleeding and also has antiseptic properties. It’s also recommended for some digestive problems, such as nausea and flatulence.

Upcoming events

The Tampa Bay Orchid Society will meet Thursday at Christ the King Catholic Church, 821 S. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. The doors open at 6 p.m.; the meeting starts at 6:30. Dave Junka of the Manatee River Orchid Society will present “Divide and Conquer,” how, when and why to divide orchids. He will also have plants for sale, payable by cash or check. Refreshments will be provided by members, and there will be plants for sale and a plant raffle

The meeting is free and open to the public. For more information and directions, call (813) 839 4959 or visit the group’s website.

The Tampa African Violet Society will meet at 10 a.m. Friday at the Seffner-Mango Library’s Public Meeting Room, 410 N. Kingsway Road. Award-winning grower Lynne Wilson will present a program on African violet plant recovery and show what to do with plants with long necks, suckers and baby leaves. A plant raffle will be held and growing tips offered. Visitors are welcome; the admission and parking are free. For more information contact, Jim Boyer at (727) 871-2014 or Mina Menish at (813) 681-1910.

Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at monicabrandies@yahoo.com. You also can visit her website here.

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