Monday, November 8, 2010

Welcome to the flora files, floraphiles!

This is a blog about plants and their attendants, which means, well, everything since plants are the foundation of Earth’s biota.  Plants are at the base of every food chain, they produce oxygen, and humans have used them to make fiber, medicine, and a zillion other things.  I am a plant attendant in these ways, but also in the sense that a floraphile is a special kind of plant attendant, an adoring and permanently fascinated one.  But it is only recently that I have been able to fully indulge this fixation. 
Last year, that’s 2009, I moved from Eugene, Oregon, to Atlanta, Georgia.  Oregon was my home for 16 years, and before that California.  I am a West Coaster through and through, which gives me a particular perspective I thought I’d come clean about right at the start.  I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog, but any perspective comes with its lenses and its blinders.  The latter, for me, are pretty unattractive.
West rhymes with Best: No accident!
I am the worst kind of Californian, a Northern Californian.  If you aren’t, you may not know that we have an unbreakable sense of regional superiority.  Unless the Northern Californians you know are tactless, you will be unaware of this fact.  But get us in a room together and out comes our conceit, like the sun from behind a receding fog bank.   
Are those God's hands?
I recently had this experience at a dinner party.  Nearly all of us were from or had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I do not believe I have ever been a member of a more self-satisfied group of people.  We even gloried in our ignorance of most of the rest of the country’s geography.  We readily admitted that before moving to Atlanta, we had only the haziest notion of the Southeast.  Pressed to draw a map of the Eastern seaboard, we would have drawn a mighty horn representing New England, but from there the coastline is a vague and atrophied squiggle bookended more confidently by Florida.  That state provides a kind of physical symmetry to our Baja California, and a cultural corollary to the tackiness that is Southern California. 
Westerners in general also believe they have a lock on nature.  We have mountains: the Sierras, Rockies, and Cascades.  The Appalachians, what’s that?  Topographical acne?  You can’t film a Coors ad there!  And trees?  We’ve got giant sequoias you can drive a car through!  The Atlantic Ocean can’t even produce surfable waves.  Not really.  We have mountain lions, grizzly bears, and condors (some of them in the wild).  New York may have culture, but to live amid it you must share narrow quarters with roaches and rats, winged and terrestrial.  

Westerners view the east coast much as early Americans viewed Europe:  We have virtue and vigor, while your land is depleted and your people dissipated.  Look at our massive flora and fauna, our personal freedoms and unfettered thinking!  If Americans are exceptionalists, West coasters are exceptionally exceptionalist.  Manifestly so.  But perhaps this is not our fault, only our destiny.
Needless to say, when I told people that I was moving to Atlanta, they were baffled.  Some even said, “You don’t want to move there!”  To them, where I live now is a place people leave to move north or go west.  You are going in the wrong direction, they seemed to say.  The odd thing is that when I tell people here in Atlanta that I moved from Oregon, they too react with bafflement bordering on consternation.  It’s as if I’ve given up my apartment in Heaven.
The West, I must conclude, still has a kind of mystique.  And Oregon exists in the rest of the nation’s imagination pristine and evergreen.  There are some locations where this is really true.  On our honeymoon, John and I hiked a trail in an old growth forest with massive trees.  It was September and the beautifully maintained path was lined—literally lined—with chanterelle mushrooms.  It was like a storybook illustration.  I could not have carried away the quantity of mushrooms I might have picked without even leaving the trail.  
Do you see the fungal gold right there in the open?
 On the other hand, there are also great swaths of devastation.  The highway from Eugene to the coast is an example. When we make this trip, John always drives, refrains from listening to his usual “bummer music,” and I bring knitting or something to read.  Visible from the road are hillsides, vistas of repeating hillsides, bare but for stumps.  Without my precautions, by the time I arrive at the beach I am in a mood to fill my pockets with rocks and continue heading west.
Regional conceits aside, leaving Eugene, Oregon, has not been painless.  The charms of Eugene were not immediately apparent to me, but I had come to love it and was content to live the rest of my life in the Emerald Valley.  I had become intimate with the details of each season’s progressions: the fall and spring rains that brought mushrooms, the succession of wildflower blossoms, green green trees against a blue blue summer sky.  I left behind a backyard full of mature and maturing plants.  In with the usual exotic ornamentals were a profusion of native plants:  oceanspray; false Solomon’s seal; glacier lilies; both kinds of Oregon grape; bleeding heart; a pair of entwined vines, mock orange and Western white clematis; cow parsnip; snow berry; sword fern; licorice fern; maiden hair fern; Wood’s rose; Indian plum; Devil’s club; silk-tassel bush; Western trillium; and camas.  And arching above all it was the canopy of a massive Pacific myrtle.  To stand beneath that tree, to enjoy the cool of its shade on a hot summer day and hear the breeze stir its upper branches was to feel the embrace of grace.

I certainly spilled heart’s blood to leave behind my yard and the Western ecology I was so familiar with, but the true transplantation trauma has been leaving behind my friends, an irreplaceable group of people I grew into, who shaped the way I live, think and see.  
Wish I had better photos of Grand Ole Myrtle.
The Here and Now
So with my Westerner’s ignorance, my new region endlessly surprises me.  Here are some of the highlights:
Who knew that Atlanta, this megalopolis, was so full of enormous trees?

And with all these trees come a proliferation of birds.  Cardinals, although common, still have the power to arrest me.  What a red bird, I observe for the umpteenth time.  It really is that red. 

A wintertime deciduous canopy, while sadly bare and drab, allows for excellent bird watching.  No obscuring leaves!

This region is geographically ancient.  The Appalachians I was so quick to sneer at are the Earths oldest mountains.  Though low and rolling now, were once peaks higher than the Himalayas. 

The biodiversity in the Southeast is far greater than out West.  Because this part of the world has been around for so long, the flora and fauna have had eons to evolve and diversify.

A long time a go (Miocene era, that’s 15 million years ago) North American and Asia shared a landmass.  As a result, there are over 65 plant genera of closely related species found in both eastern North American and east Asia. 

My favorite member of the “disjunct distribution” clan of plants is the ubiquitous tulip poplar or liriodendron tulipfera.  That tree shares a genus of two with the Chinese tulip tree, liriodendron chinense, native to China and Vietnam.  
Leaf of Liriodendron chinense, Ecological-Botanical Gardens in Bayreuth, Germany.  Source: El Grafo.

The tulip poplar is a kind of touchstone for me.  The first one I ever saw was actually In Eugene, Oregon, on the corner of Grant and 18th. I don’t think I would have noticed the tree if it hadn’t been in bloom.  First I saw its unusual blossom: green, orange, and cream, and then its distinctive leaf.  When he came to visit, I asked my father, a self-taught naturalist very knowledgeable about Pacific coast ecology, and he didn’t know what it was either.  At the time I was a harassed graduate student of English, so I didn’t pursue the tree’s identity.  It remained a mystery until I moved to Georgia.  And now liriodendron tulipfera graces the background of floraphile.  
Tulip poplar on Grant & 18th in Eugene, OR.


  1. FloriBUNDA! Love the blog. may be surprised to hear this, Greg and I were "discussing" whether your beloved 4th Avenue tree is the same as ours? We've always thought it a Bay Laurel? Greg was ready to correct you. I, of course, corrected him. Thus, my question. Any insights, o master gardener(ish)?

  2. Thanks, Tris. So here's what I have gathered: The trees that grew in both our yards were umbellularia californica, called California Bay Laurel in CA and Oregon Myrtle when in OR. It is not actually true Bay Laurel, which is laurus nobilis and hails from the Mediterranean. This I have growing in a pot on my front porch. There's a Pacific *wax* myrtle that's a shrub. So, you can tell Greg that my nomenclature needed correcting.

  3. Love the blog. Can you write a bit about your fantastic neighbors?

  4. Hi Hil:

    I really loved your pictures and your excellent writing style. I think you need to get a job teaching writing, spelling and vocabulary to today's young people. I read and hear the most outrageous mangling of our language in the NY Times, on NPR, etc.

    We thought your tree was a bay laurel, too. Can the leaves of the CA bay laurel/OR myrtle be used for seasoning?

    Much warm aloha.

  5. Dear Floraphile: Cool Blog. I am a ficusphile, but my ficus bit it--hard. The dried limbs cut to stumps it now sports stuffed animals that my tiny guy doesn't like anyway -- a sad, perverse xmas tree. So I keep thinking what to do, how to replace it? I'm reading today the NYT Hard to Kill article( about houseplants that even I might keep alive. But they're hardly ficus worthy. Any suggestions for something more inspired and hardy?

  6. Dear ficusphile: Did you notice that the NYT article was not high on ficus? I share their lack of enthusiasm. However, I noticed that those experts all live in little apartment, so they must have small plants in small containers, hence their recommendations. And I believe what you are missing is having an indoor tree, yes? Your ficus was that big, still is nearly that big in its desecrated form. You could try a less fussy ficus, the fiddle-leaf fig. But that could be asking for more heartbreak. There's the dracaena marginata (Madagascar dragon tree), which I've seen with the trunks braided. I know that was your beloved ficus' style. Rubber plants are pretty indestructible. I say, go to Ikea and see what they've got. That's right Ikea. I bought a number of Ikea houseplants that are still going strong 1 year later. You can get a cheap plant and an inoffensive pot in one place. And, take it from a friend: It's about time you moved on. Stop punishing yourself and that braided stump in your living room.