Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fictional botany: Vestisperma acidophora

Note from Mr. Subjunctive: this plant was suggested, unseriously, by Mr. Brown Thumb, who said he'd mistakenly written "Mexican sour curtain" on a plant tag instead of "Mexican sour gherkin." He noted (via Twitter) that it sounded like something for my fictional botany series, so I tried writing it just to see how it would go, and below is what I came up with. How'd it work? It's at least not any weirder than any of the other fictional botany posts. In my head, actually, it's a really pretty plant, and I want one.

Your head may vary.

The Mexican sour curtain plant (Vestisperma acidophora), or cortina de vinagre (sometimes just cortina), is a tropical epiphytic plant in the family Vestispermaceae. Its native range extends from Southern Mexico, south into Guatemala and Honduras. It is a minor ornamental plant.

The plant is named for its seed heads: each flower produces from 7-20 seed "chains," which are flat, segmented, semi-transparent orange to pink pods. Dark black seeds are visible in the center of each segment. The segments are approximately 1.5 inches (4 cm) long and 0.5 to 0.75 inches (1 to 2 cm) wide. The chains are linked to one another by single, semi-flexible fibers, so the seed heads end up fan-shaped or folded like a piece of cloth, hence the common names. The terminal segment of each chain is somewhat sticky, and detaches on contact with animal fur or clothing, enabling it to hitchhike long distances from the parent plant. Within a matter of hours after the loss of a segment, the new end segment has become sticky, and its connection to the rest of its chain has loosened, so it may detach as well.

Seeds and seed pods are edible, though detached pods develop a strong, disagreeable vinegar odor after about 24 hours. Some ant species consume fallen pods. Contrary to popular belief, freshly collected seed pods are either odorless or have a very faint fruity smell. Seeds will only sprout in the rainforest canopy, not on the floor: it is thought that germination is triggered by chemicals in the bark of some types of tree, and possibly also by light levels.

When sprouted, the seeds quickly develop strong, thick whitish roots, which attach to the host tree. Vestisperma leaves are large (to 10 in / 25 cm long and 4 in / 10 cm wide), broad silvery ovals with the veins traced in dark green: they form loose upright rosettes which accumulate debris from the canopy, which nourishes the roots as it decomposes. The leaves are eaten by a number of caterpillars, slugs, snails, and beetles.

Flowering may occur at any time of year but is most common in fall. The flowers typically hang down slightly below the host tree's branch, well below the leaves and roots. Flowers entirely lack petals and sepals, and consist of clusters of very long (to 4 inches / 10 cm) orange or pink stamens and pistils, with each pistil being located in the center of a set of four stamens. A given inflorescence may contain up to thirty pistils. Flower color does not appear to correlate with seed pod color. The flowers have a peculiar, distinctive smell, described most precisely by a graduate student of the author's acquaintance as "a new car interior that's been rubbed with crushed raspberries." [I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it's dead-on. -Ed.] The flowers are believed to be pollinated by bats and moths.

Mexican sour curtain is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental tropical, or more rarely as a houseplant, due to its showy leaves and flowers. It does best in very warm, humid environments, with bright light but no direct sun. Cultivated plants are not ordinarily allowed to go to seed: this seems to encourage more frequent blooming. In its native range, the seed pods are sometimes collected in small quantity and used in cooking.

Related species:

V. acidophora is one of only four Vestisperma species known at this time. The other three, V. violacea, V. reticulata, and V. lithophila, are found further south than V. acidophora, and have smaller ranges. Though extremely rare in cultivation, V. violacea and lithophila have been hybridized with V. acidophora, and with one another. Only V. acidophora is known to have commercial applications at present.

V. violacea is larger than V. acidophora. Its leaves are solid silver with a green underside. Flowers and seed pods are violet or red-violet and reportedly smell strongly objectionable at all stages of development.

V. reticulata is extremely rare, and was designated an endangered species in 2005. Leaves are smaller than in V. acidophora, and are white or cream with a fine, netlike pattern of green veins. Seed pods are translucent, green, and much smaller than for V. acidophora. The flowers have not been described.

V. lithophila is a lithophyte, not an epiphyte, and grows at higher, cooler elevations than the other species. Its leaves are solid dark green, and much narrower relative to leaf length than other members of the genus. Flowers have the same form as V. acidophora and violacea, but are much smaller, reaching a maximum diameter of only 1.5 inches (4 cm). They are said to have a faint camphoraceous smell, and are orange. The red-orange, opaque seed pods are also small. Seed pods of V. lithophila are held erect above the plant, on sturdy stems, and are very sticky, though they do not stick to one another or to the leaves. Odor is reported as faintly vinegary.


RJ Flamingo said...

I want one, too! Sounds like the sort of thing that would flourish down here on my front porch... Shame there aren't any photos, but the description is very "visual". ;-)

Lance said...

I just picture the cat running around with sticky seeds stuck to her.

I do think you should find a good artist and develop a whole book around this series - with wonderful illustrations. I'd think it would sell very well.

mr_subjunctive said...

Someone out there has, within the last couple years, done a picture book of fictional plants, but I can't remember off the top of my head who it was or what the book was called. I would have gotten a copy, but they only accept Paypal, and Paypal and I were not getting along at the time. (Currently, we're not speaking to one another, but it's because we have nothing to say, not because we're angry.) If I run across it again, I'll post a link.

I'd love to have some pictures of these, too. I don't have any real talent for the drawing, or photoshop, even, so they'd have to come from someone else. If anybody reading this is interested and has some experience as a botanical artist, let me know.

mr_subjunctive said...

Much less difficult to find than I'd anticipated:

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Janet Chui and Jason Erik Lundberg, eds. July 2008. 76 pp.


Book trailer:

I think the "Adam's ribcage," in the trailer, is quite fetching. The overall impression I get is that their plants are a bit more implausible than mine, but it's clearly a similar sort of thing.

Lance said...

Yes it is - I saw that book, and also found an older one that sounds interesting -

but haven't found much about what it's illustrations might be like.

Kenneth Moore said...

I think this plant would be a popular import in India and surrounding countries--the semitransparent seeds can be used as eye veils for belly dancers! Just pluck and stick, no glue needed! A raging horticulture business would develop to try to cultivate different coloured seed curtains (I imagine the most popular variety as one with fused seed pods, maybe the V. acidophora var. showerii).

The flowers and seed pods sound beautiful, but I like dirt, so epiphytes aren't really my thing.

How about a nice new vegetable? Something viny?

Chicago Garden said...

Pretty cool description.

After I mentioned that it could be a post for you I started wondering what you would write. How did I know it would be a epiphyte?

I think I mentioned it when you started doing these poss but you should turn them into a book even if those two are somewhat "similar."


Sixwing said...

I want a V. lithophora. XD

But then, I want most of your fictional entries... or at least, pics of them. This sounds like it'd make a fantastic terrarium plant, though, if you could keep it from sticking to any living inhabitants.

Got no experience as a botanical artist, though, so.

mr_subjunctive said...

So far, of the fictional botany profiles I've done, this is probably the one I would want the most if it were real. Though I doubt I could keep it alive. Very close runner-up is probably the vampire begonia, though that's probably not one I could grow either.

Maybe I should try to come up with a tropical plant I might actually be capable of growing.

Frances said...

All stamens and pistals eh. I like all the different scents described. Dead on from the grad student, brilliant! Veining is always a desirable trait too, no wonder V. acidophora is the only commercially viable of the genus.