Friday, December 3, 2010

The Quad City Botanical Center, Part 1 of However Many

As I mentioned a while ago, there's a Botanical Center in the Quad Cities, the "Quad City Botanical Center." (Whimsical!) Somehow I'd never heard of it before the husband told me about it this past summer. And I know you would expect me to be bouncing off the walls until we were able to visit, but I actually forgot about it for several months, and only remembered I knew about the place when the husband raised the subject a couple weeks ago.

Botanical gardens are strange mixes of things I like and things I don't. On the one hand: plants. Plants are good. But then there's the part where you don't get to take home the ones you like. Even if you offer to pay for them. It took an enormous amount of focus and self-control, for example, not to leave the QCBC with a couple of Begonia leaves. Also, I'm fairly convinced that I will die, or at least become gravely ill, if I do not very soon get a variegated Callisia fragrans like the ones they have there.

Variegated Callisia fragrans.

Botanical centers are also weird places for me because I have so many plants, and have seen so many others, that my perspective is very warped about what counts as a cool plant. A gigantic, healthy Monstera deliciosa like this one --

Monstera deliciosa, split-leaf philodendron.

leaves me kind of cold. You know, big whoop, I have three of those at home. (Not as big or as nice. Not by a long shot. But a plant I'm very familiar with, even so.) I'm not saying this is desirable. It's just, you know, over time, it takes weirder and rarer things to get me excited.

So I don't know whether my opinion on the place can, or even ought to, matter to anybody, but having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by the QCBC. Part of the good thing about botanical centers, as opposed to retail, is that retail is fairly homogenized. No matter where you go, you find more or less the same set of plants over and over, and ordering is constrained by what's available and what will sell (jade plants, peace lilies, Dracaena marginata, pothos, lucky bamboo) than what the person doing the ordering finds interesting. On the other hand, botanical gardens, like home gardens, can cater a little more specifically to an individual's tastes and whims, which I suggest is a Good Thing, even if you aren't the individual being catered to.

So my guess is that someone at the QCBC has a special fondness for shrimp plants (Pachystachys, Justicia), plants in the Maranta family (Calathea, Ctenanthe), and . . . well, I'm not sure what you'd call the third category. We'll get to it.

I saw at least three shrimp plants, but only two were identified.

Pachystachys lutea, lollipop plant.

I was familiar with P. lutea from the garden center where I used to work. We never had any that were that big, though, and I was never that impressed with them. I get the appeal more now.

The second shrimp plant was one I hadn't heard of before.

Pachystachys coccinea.

Pachystachys coccinea inflorescence, close-up.

It might impress you more if it had been blooming as heavily as the P. lutea, but you get the idea from the close-up, I'm sure.

The picture of the third shrimp didn't turn out well; I was having to fight screwy afternoon light, shaky hands, and a lens that kept trying to fog up. So maybe next time on that one.

The Marantaceae plants were mostly Calatheas, with just one Ctenanthe I remember --

Ctenanthe lubbersiana.

-- but they made up for it by including two Calatheas I'd never seen or heard of. The QCBC gets big, big points for C. majestica:

Calathea majestica.

though they lose some points for making me look up the ID. (ID signs were sort of inconsistently placed, and often covered by the plants they were supposed to identify, which I suppose is the sort of problem botanical-garden-type places would have a lot.) There was also a large, sort of plain NOID, which didn't photograph well:

Calathea NOID.

And another one I had to look up, which I think is Calathea 'Wilson['s?] Princep.'

Calathea 'Wilson['s?] Princep.'

Unfortunately, there weren't any very large specimens of 'Wilson Princep,' and the ones that did exist were in weird, hard-to-photograph locations underneath lots of other plants, so I'll have to try again on this photo, maybe.

The final group of plants I want to cover for this post are all commercial plants, things I mainly knew from ingredient lists. The QCBC had several of them. They weren't nearly as pretty as the shrimps and the Calatheas, but I at least have mental images for some of these plants that I didn't have before.

First up, annatto (Bixa orellana). I realized while there that I knew the word, but had no idea what annatto actually is, or is used for. (Probably you know already, but if you're like I was: it's both a spice and a yellow to orange food coloring, particularly common in cheese, says Wikipedia.) The plant itself wasn't terribly impressive, though with a lot of these plants, I have no idea whether the specimen at the QCBC was particularly large or healthy.

Bixa orellana, annatto.

They also had vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), coffee (Coffea arabica), and sapodilla (Manilara zapota, which used to produce the base for chewing gum: gum is now, wikiposedly, mostly produced from artificial polymers), which I didn't take pictures of: I have a Coffea, the Vanilla wasn't that impressive and anyway I've seen them before, and for some reason it didn't occur to me to take a picture of the Manilara, though I remember thinking about it. Supposedly they had allspice (Pimenta dioica), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and bay (Laurus nobilis) too, though I don't remember seeing any of them.

I did get a picture of cacao (chocolate; Theobroma cacao), though I was a little let down; I expected more:

Theobroma cacao, cacao (chocolate) tree.

And the papaya (Carica papaya) was respectable, I guess. Only one I've ever seen in person, anyway.

Carica papaya, papaya.

Finally, they had a couple smallish ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) plants. Fairly nondescript,

Canana odorata, ylang-ylang.

though there was one flower. (I think it may have dropped off the stem already, and just happened to catch in part of the plant, but if it was a dead flower, it still looked pretty. I couldn't detect a smell, which supports the dead-flower theory.)

Cananga odorata flower.

In the next couple posts, I'll take a look at the really big plants they had, some oddities which pleased me, and a few really impressive specimens of plants I already knew about. I'm tentatively planning Part 2 for 7 December, though that depends on me being able to write and sort pictures and etc. a bit more quickly than usual, so try not to be too disappointed with me if I make you wait a few days longer than that.


Pat said...

Papaya is very easy to grow from the seeds inside the fruit bought from a grocer. All of them germinated for me with a little bottom heat. They grow rapidly if given heat and light, up to six feet in one year. Then you throw them out when you remember you don't like pawpaws, if you're like me. Very impressive plant if you have the room.

Cocoa looks much more interesting with flowers and pods, though that one looks a little small for that. Anyway, it produces chocolate! How much more amazing does it have to be?!!! I must visit Kew again soon. That does look like an ylang ylang flower. Annatto used to be the main colouring used in margarine to make it yellow. Cardamom is spelt Elettaria cardamomum botanically.

I forget which post it was where you suggested that ginger is an unhappy houseplant but as you are talking economic plants. I now have instructions for a very happy ginger. Three-quarters perlite with one-quarter coco or other high-organic compost. Northern window or in from a southern one, not too much light. Around the beginning of November stop watering entirely and allow the plant to die back. Start watering in February/March or when your room gets warm and it soon sprouts again. My friend's plant got one metre-long shoot the first year then five the next. Very graceful. It is now bending the pot outwards with its big rhizome.

Paul said...

I really thought that papaya was a castor plant at a glance. The leaves are deceiving unless you examine.

Also, is that where the Quad City DJs come from? I love their work.

mr_subjunctive said...


According to Wikipedia, the Quad City DJs are from Jacksonville, FL. No explanation given there for where the name came from.

NotSoAngryRedHead said...

I'm also disappointed at times by botanical gardens having plants that I own as well, but generally their plants look better than mine which is a source of irritation and awe. I try to comfort myself by thinking that, if given the right resources and time, mine would look just as good, but I have my doubts. I'm constantly disappointed at plant shows where spectacular plants are overlooked because they're common while poor/average-looking plants are goggled because they're more unusual. What's the awe inspiring trade off between the skill of the gardener and the rarity/unfamiliarity of the plant?

Eliza said...

I love shrimp plants! Sometimes I wonder if I'm just a total sucker for plants named after animals. It looks like your trip was absolutely packed with gorgeous tropicals. :)

Karen715 said...

As a frequent botanic garden visitor, I can say yes, Pachystachys and Justicia are popular choices for public conservatories. I'm guessing that it is because once they are nicely established, they bloom reliably in conservatory conditions. (I don't think I've ever posted pictures of Pachystachys in my CBG posts, probably because they just don't appeal to me. I do like the variegated Justicia they have, though.) There are also plenty in the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago, and in the New York Botanical Gardens, and probably in the Garfield Park Conservatory (Chicago) and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens as well. I only say probably because it has been years since I've visited either, and my memory could be faulty. The Marantacea are popular in all those places, too.

The QCBC looks like a nice place. I'm looking forward to further posts.

mr_subjunctive said...


You make an interesting point, about valuing novelty over beauty, and I'm not sure how to reply to it. Familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

The papaya looks pretty small in your picture. I am unreasonably attracted to plants with complicated-looking leaf shapes, so I have grown a couple from grocery-store seeds. One actually began to fruit, which looks cool because the stems come directly out of the central stalk. They end up sort of like water balloons tied to a stick.

Tom said...

Karen715 - Garfield Park does indeed have lots of shrimp plants. You should check it out, it's a pretty spectacular conservatory if you've never been. The fern room is breathtaking (at least in my opinion).

Mr S - Bixa is actually a really pretty plant when its podded up. The seed pods are kind of strange red fuzzy beaked looking things.

Ivynettle said...

I'm jealous - it's been such a long time since I got to visit a botanical garden other than the little one where I live. Two and a half years, I think. Something must be done about this as soon as I've got money again.

And I agree, not being able/allowed to buy plants is annoying! You'd think they'd make an exception for you! (I'm now imagining a QCBC employee reading this post and going, 'OMG, Mr_S was here and we didn't know! We should have given him plants!''s been a long day, my imagination is hard to control.)
I've sometimes been tempted to find one of the employees at the local botanical garden that I sort of know and beg for cuttings. Never actually done it, though.

Tom said...

You know if you really want cuttings try seeing if they need volunteers. When I interned at a botanic garden out east I got a ton of cuttings of stuff (and I know volunteers did too). I have no idea if you even have the time for this but it's a thought?

mr_subjunctive said...


It's not so much a matter of not having time (though I probably don't) as that it's too far away to visit that often: Google Maps says the most direct route is 54 miles.

Tom said...

Ah. That would be a hefty little hike just to try and mooch some free cuttings.