When the Weather Outside is Frightful …

Shimmer Surprise cultivar

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Shimmer Surprise cultivar. Photo by Vicky Earle

Plan a visit to the Bloedel Conservatory!

It’s a warm and lush tropical get away to relax, recharge and reinvigorate the whole family during the holidays! Plus, the antics of all the birds are sure to bring a smile to everyone’s face. Currently there are hundreds of poinsettias – over a dozen different cultivars – on display for the festive season!

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Yellow Snow cultivar.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Yellow Snow cultivar. Photo by Vicky Earle

Poinsettias are right at home at the Conservatory. While they are the most popular of all Christmas houseplants, poinsettias are actually indigenous to the tropical climates of Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs called poinsettias “Cuetlaxochitl” (from cuitlatl, for residue, and xochitl, for flower). They used the plant for its medicinal properties to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye for fabrics. Legend has it that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, had poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravans because this beautiful plant could not be grown at high altitudes. Today the poinsettia is known in Mexico and Guatemala as “La Flor de la Nochebuena” (Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve). In Chile and Peru, it is called the “Crown of the Andes”.

Winter Rose Red Poinsettia

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Winter Rose Red cultivar. Photo by Vicky Earle

The botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima (meaning ‘very beautiful’) was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow, because he was dazzled by its brilliant color. The poinsettia was introduced to North America in 1825 when the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, sent several plants back to his home in Greenville, South Carolina. William Prescott, historian and horticulturist, renamed the plant ‘Poinsettia’ in honour of Poinsett.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Monet Twilight cultivar

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), Monet Twilight cultivar. Photo by Vicky Earle

The poinsettia grows in the wild as a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 0.6–5 metres (2–16.5 feet). Typically, the plant has dark green leaves that measure 7–16 centimetres (2.8–6.3 in) in length. The colored bracts — which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled— are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but they are actually leaves. The flowers of the poinsettia are unassuming and do not attract pollinators. They are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and are called cyathia.

Bloedel 45th Anniversary cake

Bloedel Conservatory 45th Anniversary Cake

 

Once again, we send a big thank you to all who came out on December 6th to celebrate Bloedel’s 45th Anniversary! It was a fantastic party with Hawaiian Dancers, rhythms of Soul Survivors Steel Drum Band, a Professional Face Painter, Sven and Jens the whimsical and talented Scandinavian Gnomes and of course hot chocolate and cake. The party would not have been possible without the backing and organization from the Vancouver Park Board, the support of the VanDusen Botanical Garden Association, Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary and all of the fantastic Bloedel staff and volunteers. Thank you to all. We look forward to many more years and exciting things to come!

Happy Holidays!

 

Plant of the Month

Papaya (Carica papaya)

Papaya tree and fruit at the Bloedel Conservatory.

Native to tropical America, Carica papaya is a semi-woody, short-lived perennial with a hollow, unbranched stem. The Papaya grows to a height of approximately 9 meters (30 feet) and a width of one to two meters (three to six feet) at the top. Leaves are large, broad, fanlike, and deeply lobed on two-foot stalks arranged in a crown atop the stem. Carica papaya reaches maturity within a year, but typically lives only five to six years. As plants are typically male or female, both sexes will are required for pollination and fruit. Fruit is produced throughout the year, but take six to ten months to ripen. Full sun and year-round warmth are a necessity.

Carica papaya blossom. Photo courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

While there are several varieties of papaya, the most common are the Hawaiian and Mexican varieties. The fruit of the Hawaiian variety is pear-shaped, weighs one to two pounds, with a yellow skin and orange or pinkish flesh when ripe. Mexican papayas bear much larger fruit – up to 10 pounds in weight and a foot long, with yellow, orange or pink flesh and a milder flavour. The black seeds of the fruit are edible, and have a bitter, peppery flavour.

Carica papaya fruit. Photo courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

The first written reference to papayas dates back to the early 16th century. Breton’s Dictionaire Caraibe records the name as ”ababai”; Fernández de Oviedo, official chronicler to the Spanish crown, noted papaya as the official name in Hispaniola. The name stuck as the plant was carried west to the Philippines, then across Asia and into Africa in the 16th century. It is now assumed that “papaw” or “pawpaw” was a corruption of papaya. The tree made its way to Brazil where Portuguese colonists, seeing a resemblance in the fruit’s shape to that of a woman’s breast, called it “mamão”; maybe this is where the name “mummy apple” originated.
The Carica papaya contains a watery-white sap that, in turn, contains two important enzymes – one that partially breaks protein down to peptone, a water soluble substance, and the other that further breaks proteins down to their building blocks, amino acids. As a result, papayas have had multiple uses throughout the ages and the world.

A few interesting facts and assorted trivia:
• Natives have used papayas as a remedy for indigestion and digestive problems for centuries.
• South American aboriginals have used the juice of the fruit as a meat tenderizer for hundreds of years.
• The unripe fruit has been historically used in India and Pakistan to induce abortion and provide contraception. Modern research has confirmed these properties; pregnant women are now advised against consuming large amounts of unripe papaya. (Ripe fruit is safe, causing no problems.)
• During the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Harrison Ford was treated for a ruptured disc by having papain (one of the enzymes discussed above) injected into his back.
• In Guinea, tanners will rub the hide of a freshly-killed animal with wood ash, then wrap it in papaya leaves, then leave it overnight. In the morning, hair is easily removed from the hide.
• Leaves are used as a soap-substitute for laundry, and as effective bleach for soaking clothes. Ash of the burned plant is used to make soap.
For a more exhaustive listing of uses throughout the world, see http://plants.jstor.org/upwta/1_655

References:
1. Brenzel, K. N. (2007). Sunset Western Garden Book. Menlo Park, California: Sunset Publishing Corporation.
2. Entry for Carica papaya Linn [family CARICACEAE]. JSTOR Plant Science.  http://plants.jstor.org/upwta/1_655
3. Chia et al. (1989). Papaya. Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service Commodity Fact Sheet PA-3(A).  www.extento.hawaii.edu/kbase/crop/crops/i_papa.htm
4. History of Papayas. (2007). Papayalovers.com http://www.papayalovers.com/papayas/History+of+Papayas/
5. Papaya Facts and Trivia. (2007). Papayalovers.com  http://www.papayalovers.com/papayas/Papaya+Facts+and+Trivia/

Plant of the Month

Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium)

The Tea Tree, or Manuka Tree (Leptospermum scoparium), is now in blossom at the Bloedel Conservatory! These tiny unassuming flowers are quite extraordinary. Not only are they beautiful, they also have tremendous healing properties!

The Tea Tree is a shrub or small tree in the Myrtle (Myrtaceae family). It is native to New Zealand, but can also be found in Tasmania and southeast Australia. The Māori people discovered long ago that this plant is beneficial for a number of digestive and respiratory ailments. The word manuka is derived from the Māori language ‘mānuka’. The Manuka flower nectar contains a particular chemical that, when mixed with an enzyme from pollinating bees, produces Manuka Honey back at the beehive.

Honey (in general) was originally used for medical purposes due to its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, but was replaced by antibiotics and other forms of traditional medicine in the 1940s and 1950s. Recent studies have shown that wounds heal more rapidly with dressings that contained Manuka honey because of its high level of non-peroxide antibacterial components.

In January 2008 Professor Thomas Henle from the University of Dresden in Germany, identified methylglyoxal methylglyoxal (or MGO) as the active compound.1,2  This is now shown on products as MGO Manuka honey. What is unique about Manuka is that unlike prescription antibiotics, it is effective on a very wide range of bacterial and fungal infections. Research shows that Manuka does not damage cells, but actually stimulates the growth of cells to repair wounds!3

Manuka honey is also edible. It is darker and richer than clover honey and has a distinctive sweet taste. Manuka can be used for sore throats, indigestion, heartburn, peptic ulcers and other stomach/intestinal problems as well as to boost the immune system. Similar properties led the Māori of New Zealand to use parts of this plant as natural medicine. The Tohunga, or Maori medicine man, used the parts of the Manuka bush for treating fevers, colds, flu, stomach aches and as a sedative.4

Leptospermum scoparium flowers, photo Creative Commons

An interesting story was found in the journals of Captain Cook.5,6 Apparently, he used the leaves of these trees to make tea (and beer), and so named this tree: ‘Tea Tree’.  The name stuck! It was later found that it was effective against scurvy due to its high vitamin C content. There is another tree called a Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), from which the leaves are used to make Tea Tree oil. This is gaining popularity for its antiseptic, antibacterial, anti fungal and antiviral properties. It is believed Cook also used the leaves from this tree when he journeyed to Australia, and also dubbed the Melaleuca as the “Tea Tree”.

Wood from the Manuka tree is very strong and is often used to make handles for tools, while the sawdust delivers a delicious flavour when used to smoke meats and fish.6 One last interesting fact about this incredible tree is that New Zealand parakeets or Kakariki (Cyanoramphus) have been known to use the leaves and bark of Manuka tree to rid themselves of parasites. Apart from ingesting the material, they also chew it, mix it with preen gland oil and apply it to their feather.4,6

Be sure to stop by the Conservatory and see this amazing little tree in blossom for yourself!

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References:

1. Mavric, E., Wittmann, S., Barth, G., Henle, T., (2008). Identification and quantification of methylglyoxal as the dominant antibacterial constituent of Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honeys from New Zealand. University Dresden, Germany 2008-01-21. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mnfr.200700282/abstract

2. The University of Waikato, Department of Biological Sciences, (2006). Waikato Honey Research Unit. http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/honey_intro.shtml

3. Biotechnology Learning Lab, (2007). Mānuka honey for wounds. http://www.biotechlearn.org.nz/focus_stories/honey_to_heal/video_clips/manuka_honey_for_wounds_v0314

4. Grace, T. (2011). Healing Manuka Honey. http://hubpages.com/hub/Active-Manuka-Honey

5. Wikipedia.org (2011). Leptospermum scoparium. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leptospermum_scoparium – cite_note-0

6. Shop New Zealand, (2010). Active Manuka Honey. http://www.shopnewzealand.co.nz/en/cp/Manuka_Honey_Product_Information