My Two Favorite Plants at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden by Dr. Lee Foote

As a parent I know that it is verboten to ever select favorites, but I have to confess, there are two plants at the botanic garden that move me each year for very different reasons.   The first is a gnarled and beaver-chewed Red Oak (Quercus rubra).  This formerly pathetic specimen really shouldn’t be here at all.  It is mostly a US species that drifts into that sliver of Ontario and Quebec’s Carolinian forest. It attains its best growth and most towering cathedral stature, however, in the Mississippi River Valley where I grew up.  Many nights I spent with the glowing coals of a red oak campfire from wood I had split myself. When seasoned, its wood produces about twice the BTU heat units of our more common trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) and it is a favorite barbeque grilling wood.   As a teen, I spent many days stalking through the bottomlands hunting fox squirrels as they cut open acorns for the bitter orange contents.  It was a familiar leviathan of columnar trunks and swishing fall leaves and the brittle leaves persist until late fall producing a dry rattling sound that crackles in my ears.

Canadian Newcomer

I had given up on our struggling little oak because it was at the epicentre of earth moving, cement pouring, landscaping and road construction for the new garden developments, but somehow, miraculously, it has been spared. Its roots were just east of the clearing line so it may well grace our new garden.  Earlier, it had survived the beavers that knocked it down to a stump; it has survived -40C which no southern organism should have to endure (DAMHIK!) and maybe, it will be one of the beneficiaries of climate change to grace us.  I love that it is thriving despite adversity and out of its range. The building construction may also shield and warm it slightly to enhance its growth.   There is some metaphor for Canada being a welcoming location for newcomers and I share that experience with this red oak.

A Real Stinker

My second favorite plant is a real stinker.  The mighty Konjac!  Even the name sounds like a detective but wait, there are more cool names for this plant; devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, and snake palm.  How can you not like it already?  The proper name is Amorphophallus konjac and it is a tropical to semi-tropical plant native to Indonesia and many far-east islands.  It is also a food plant because it produces an edible tuber that is made into jellies and candies, some so densely gelatinous that they have caused choking deaths.  Devil’s tongue indeed!  The root can be burned to ash to produce a slightly salty taste for cooking too.

A Love Story

At UABG the plant starts its bloom cycle in late January with a very innocuous single spear-like spike rising to waist height before unfurling to produce a shrouded spiky spathe that looks not unlike a baby ear of corn. The shroud or spadix is a purply red cape that surrounds the spathe that looks slightly angry and not terribly flower-like.  That is not the best part however; the plant single-handedly converts our temperate house from a fragrant room of orange and cedar scents into a place that smells like a rotting muskrat. It is in the same family as the giant carrion flower (Amorphophallus titanum). These are both pollinated by carrion beetles, flesh flies and others so it is just advertising itself with rotten smells. Love is in the air indeed!   Whew!   Unfortunately, Alberta carrion flies are rare in February so the plant may be a little frustrated.  Maybe we can assist with pollination this year.

A Gift All Year

After the spathe dies back, the feathery green leaves appear and provide a nice deep green foliage for the remainder of the season.   Our Konjac is a wonderful February gift that I look forward to each winter and the red oak is a summer and fall treat.