Elisabeth C. Miller Library

Gardening Answers Knowledgebase

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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Catha, Medicinal plants

Recently I met an Ethiopian couple who were picking the reddened leaves on an otherwise green bush/tree in my front yard. The man explained this was a "cat" or "chat" tree, the leaves produce a drugged like state when ingested. He asked me if he could harvest the tree, and asked me not to tell any other Somalis, Ethiopians, or Eritreans in the neighborhood about my tree. He also told me that if I lived in Mogadishu, this tree would make me a wealthy man! He ate some leaves in front of me, and I tried a couple, but they were bitter and unpalatable to my palate. I experienced a feeling of empowerment, strength, and mental alertness. Obviously the "Chat Tree" has some relationship to the "Bongo" young Somalis chew.

During the worst of the Anarchy in the late 1990s in Mogadishu there was a lot of news footage of the street gangs, high on the plant they were chewing, and armed with machine guns and machetes, creating havoc.

Do you know the history of this tree?
What are the properties that cause the intoxication?
What is the tree`s botanical name?
Should I report the tree's existence to the authorities?
Can you tell me what I have here?

p.s.-These trees are common front garden bushes that were widely planted in Perth, Western Australia. Next time I see someone hanging out under one of them, I think I will know why!


The chat, or khat tree, is Catha edulis (Celastrus edulis), and the leaves and branchlets have properties that stimulate the central nervous system. In addition to the euphoric or inebriating properties, chewing the leaves can cause irritability, decreased appetite, gastric upset, constipation, and inflammation of the mouth. Habitual use can lead to periodontal disease, and increased risk of esophageal cancer. The active compounds are Alkaloid D-norpseudoephedrine, as well as other alkaloids, and tannins. (Source: Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Human Health by Walter H. Lewis; John Wiley & Sons, 2003, 2nd ed.)

The Handbook of Medicinal Herbs by James A. Duke (CRC Press, 2002, 2nd ed.) indicates that Catha edulis has been used medicinally to treat a great number of ailments, including asthma, depression, diarrhea, glaucoma, and low blood pressure. Use of khat is an ancient, socially acceptable tradition in the Afro-Arabian culture (and became known as a recreational drug in the USA after American soldiers were exposed to its use in Somalia. Khat is subject to legal restrictions in many countries. (Medicinal Plants of the World by Ben-Erik van Wyk; Timber Press, 2004).

As for whether to report the harvesting of leaves from your tree, that would depend on whether khat use is specifically prohibited by law in Australia.

Date 2019-10-04
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Potting soils, Herbs, Container gardening

I have a huge planter to fill but don't want to buy that much soil so I want to partially fill it with wood. I'm going to plant herbs in it but I wanted to know if the wood I have would make eating the herbs inadvisable. I have roots and branches from a snake bark elm and some large pieces of lilac. None of the wood is treated but I know some wood is poisonous and wasn't sure about these two.


Before you go ahead with using wood to fill in the planter, another trick you might try is to put an upended smaller pot inside the large pot, if the planter is too deep. What you are looking for is a potting medium with good drainage.

I am not familiar with snakebark elm (there is a snakebark maple, and a lacebark elm--might it be one of these?) so I can't give a conclusive answer about its wood or roots. The phenomenon of plants which are toxic to other plants is called allelopathy. The most famously allelopathic tree is the black walnut. Apparently, lilac wood (Syringa vulgaris) has the ability to raise the phenolics content in the soil, according to a 2004 scientific article I found, from the 2nd European Allelopathy Symposium.

To be on the safe side, I would avoid using the lilac and elm wood as filler in your planter, since there are better options.

You may find the information below useful:

Local gardener Mary Preus's book, The Northwest Herb Lover's Handbook (Sasquatch Books, 2000) offers a recipe for potting soil for herbs grown in containers:

  • 8 quarts compost, earthworm castings and/or composted chicken or steer manure
  • 4 quarts sphagnum peat moss
  • 4 quarts perlite
  • 4 quarts builder's sand
  • 1 cup all-purpose fertilizer mix (she has another recipe for this*)
  • 3 tablespoons ground dolomitic limestone

    *all-purpose fertilizer recipe:
  • 2 pounds fish meal or crab meal
  • 1/2 pound greensand
  • 1/2 pound steamed bonemeal
  • 1 pound rock phosphate
  • 1 pound kelp meal

Virginia CooperativeExtension also has information on soil mixes for growing edible crops in containers:

"A fairly lightweight mix is needed for container gardening. Soil straight from the garden usually cannot be used in a container because it is too heavy, unless your garden has sandy loam or sandy soil. Clay soil consists of extremely small (microscopic) particles. In a container, the bad qualities of clay are exaggerated. It holds too much moisture when wet, resulting in too little air for the roots. Also, it pulls away from the sides of the pot when dry.

"Container medium must be porous in order to support plants, because roots require both air and water. Packaged potting soil available at local garden centers is relatively lightweight and may make a good container medium.

"For a large container garden, the expense of prepackaged or soil- less mixes may be quite high. Try mixing your own with one part peat moss, one part garden loam, and one part clean coarse (builder's) sand, and a slow-release fertilizer (14-14-14) added according to container size. Lime may also be needed to bring the pH to around 6.5. In any case, a soil test is helpful in determining nutrient and pH needs, just as in a large garden."

Date 2019-08-02
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ulmus, Quirky, Allergies

Can the sap from an elm tree be poisonous to humans? The power company recently cut down an old elm in my garden and I brushed my hand against the stump and got a splinter. Within about twenty minutes my hand was swollen at least twice its normal size, was very painful, quite hot to the touch and itching like crazy. I ended up in the emergency room, and had to take antibiotics, but the doctor never indicated whether the extreme reaction had anything specifically to do with the type of tree.


We have an older book on plant-induced dermatitis, Botanical Dermatology by Mitchell and Rook (Greengrass, 1979) which includes elm among the trees which can cause "woodcutter's eczema." However, it may not be the sap of the tree itself which is the problem, but perhaps the lichens and liverworts which may be growing on the tree (some of which contain usnic acid and other substances which irritate human skin). Here is an abstract of an article which describes this:
Frullania liverwort phytodermatitis

If one were to saw elm wood which was covered in lichen or liverwort, the dust could be an irritant. You may have gotten a splinter which had dust on it. I'm not a medical professional, so I couldn't say with any authority what may have happened. However, a splinter of any kind can cause inflammation, and if you happen to be especially sensitive to a particular substance, whether it is the wood or sap of the elm, or traces of dust from lichens and liverworts that were on the tree's bark when it was sawed, then there might be a connection with the severe reaction you had.

Here is a link to an article about splinters from American Family Physician (June 15, 2003). It does mention wood splinters as a source of severe inflammatory reactions, due to the oils and resins they contain.

A chart which originally appeared in June 1990 issue of the journal American Woodturner lists different types of wood and their toxicity. Elm is included because its dust can be an eye and skin irritant.

Date 2019-10-31
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Daemonorops draco, Medicinal plants

Someone told me about an herbal remedy called Dragon's Blood which is made of the resin of Daemonorops draco. It's supposed to be good for relief from pain and headaches. Can you tell me more about the plant, including its medicinal uses?


The plant in question, Daemonorops draco, is a type of palm (Family: Arecaceae). Here is the USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network page about this plant.

The common name Dragon's Blood can refer to a number of different plant resins (such as those derived from Dracaena cinnabari, Dracaena draco, and Croton). The product you mention says it is derived from the palm Daemonorops draco. The resin of this plant has a history of use in folk medicine. Some of the plants are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Dracaena cinnabari is listed as vulnerable, as of 2009). This may be of interest to you because often the products you find for sale are not well-regulated, and there may be no way of verifying that the list of plant ingredients is either valid or complete.
Here is an excerpt:
"Few commodity dealers properly distinguish the various botanical origins of Dragon's Blood items, and over-exploitation is starting to threaten some sources."

As for medicinal and other uses of substances called Dragon's Blood, here is more information from Cropwatch.org:
"The term 'Dragons Blood' refers to a product obtained from the resin layer consisting of diterpene acids found on the surface of fruits of the climbing palms of the Daemonorops genus found in SE Asia, and often sold out of Sumatra, Malaya & Borneo. These reddish resinous products (usually encountered as granules, powder, lumps ('cakes'), or sticks ('reed') used in folk medicine as an astringent and for wound healing etc., and in other applications for colouring essential oils red to dark brown, in varnishes, staining marble, for jewelry and enameling work, and for photo-engraving. Mabberley (1998) suggests Dragons Blood was produced originally from Dracaena cinnabari, later from D. draco and more recently from Daemonorops spp.; Zheng et al. (2004) confirm this view and suggest substitutes for Dracaena spp. include Pterocarpus spp., Daemonorops draco and Croton spp."

There is also an article by Jane Pearson published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (2002) on the uses of Dragon's Blood.
"The term 'Dragons Blood' is interchangeably used to refer to plants from three quite different families: Dracaena cinnabari (Socotra) and Dracaena draco (Canary Islands) in the Dracaenaceae family; the palm genus Daemonorops (Malaysia), and the genus Croton (South America) in the Euphorbiaceae family. [...] Although Daemonorops resin is similar in appearance, its origin and preparation are different to Dracaena resin. The fruits are covered in small imbricate scales through which the resin exudes, forming a brittle, red resinous layer on the outside of the fruits. Collection occurs just before the fruit is fully ripe. [...] Although used in the same way as Dracaena, the powdered form of Daemonorops was used extensively, especially in America, as an acid resist by photo-engravers up until the 1930s. It also appears to be used in both traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese herbal folk medicine. Daemonorops is traditionally used to stimulate the circulation, promote tissue regeneration by aiding the healing of fractures, sprains and ulcers and to control bleeding and pain." [My note: Daemonorops draco is referred to as Xue Jie in Chinese medicine.]

Please note that we are not medical professionals, so if you are considering using a substance which claims to contain Daemonorops draco, you should consult your healthcare provider. However, I can tell you that there are ongoing concerns about contamination of patented herbal remedies. University of Minnesota has information on traditional Chinese herbal medicine and related safety concerns.

Date 2019-08-07
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Honeybees and pollinators, Hummingbirds, Animal-plant relationships

I would like to know how the hummingbird's feeding affects the level of nectar in flowers. I already know about which flowers produce nectar that will attract hummingbirds. My main concern is whether hummingbirds can use up a plant's supply of nectar.


There has been some research which suggests that a plant's production of nectar is regulated by hormones. Sometimes the hormone attracts one creature in order to repel another. The article excerpted below suggests that rapeseed plants produce nectar to attract ants that will defend them against caterpillars. Source: Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (March 29,2010):
"Jasmonic acid and related molecules are constituents of molecular signal transduction chains in plant tissues. These compounds - generally referred to as jasmonates - are synthesized when caterpillars feed on plants; they are signalling substances and belong to the group of plant hormones. By producing jasmonates the plant regulates its defence against herbivores e.g. by stimulating the synthesis of toxins. Moreover, previous studies have shown that jasmonates regulate the production of "extrafloral nectar". This particular nectar, which is produced by special glands called "extrafloral nectaries", has nothing to do with pollination, but attracts ants to the herbivore-attacked plants as defenders against their pests. The sugars in the nectar reward the ants for defending the plant. The same principle applies to floral nectar: nectar production in the flowers attracts and rewards pollinators which in turn contribute substantially to the seed yield. However, up to now, it has not been clear how nectar production is regulated in the flowers."

In the book The Biology of Nectaries edited by Barbara Bentley and Thomas Elias (Columbia University Press, 1983), there is an essay called "Patterns of nectar production and plant-pollinator co-evolution" (by Robert William Cruden et al.) which states that "flowers pollinated by high-energy requiring animals [this would include hummingbirds] produce significantly more nectar than flowers pollinated by low-energy requiring animals, such as butterflies, bees, and flies."

Similarly, plants whose pollinators are active in the day produce more nectar during the day, and plants pollinated by nocturnal creatures will make more nectar at night. So clearly there is an intricate system of response between the needs of the plants and the needs of the hummingbirds, and the biology of individual plants has evolved to serve the plants' interests which are tied to those of pollinators. In effect, the hummingbird can't exhaust the nectar supply of the flowers, because the plant has adapted to meet its needs.

Date 2019-07-17
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Myxomycetes, Wood chips

Please help me identify a killing substance in my garden that just appeared this year. I noticed it about a month ago, thinking it was animal barf. I cleared away the material and disposed of it along with the soil around it. A few weeks later I discovered yet another spot with this same substance. Upon closer inspection I found it had totally rotted my primrose and was continuing into the garden. It appears almost like a spreading mushroom with vents around it, hardens into something resembling cement, grayish white to an off yellow color. When I picked it up (with a sheet of plastic) it became brittle and released some sort of powder. Thinking it might be spores and could easily become airborne, I again bagged the material and kept it. I do not know how to contain it, or if it is hazardous to the rest of the garden. I have no idea where it came from but I do want to be rid of it.


What you are describing sounds very much like dog vomit slime mold, Fuligo septica. See if the links below are depicting the same thing you have observed:

Do you have wood chips or other wood-based mulch in your garden? This slime mold thrives on decaying wood. I've never heard of it harming plants, unless the plant matter is already decaying from other causes. I imagine it would be next to impossible to eradicate, unless you want to remove any woody material around your plants. It's possible that extreme heat (such as fire) might kill some of the spores, but it wouldn't be too good for your plants!

If you can tolerate it, it really is not known to devour and kill plants. Your primroses may have succumbed to something else, and the slime mold was just being opportunistic. See the following article by Kathryn Richardson, from Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum publication, Arnoldia:
"Dog vomit slime mold is motile, but moves quite slowly. It is not harmful to animals or plants and usually vanishes in a short period of time. This species and similar slime molds feed on bacteria, fungal spores, and smaller protozoa found on wood chips. Slime molds feed much like an amoeba feeds; they ingest their food and then digest it (unlike fungi, which digest and then ingest). If conditions are favorable, these slime molds will produce reproductive structures (sporangia) that produce spores. When conditions are unfavorable (loss of food, dry conditions), the plasmodium will form hard, dormant, protective structures called sclerotia. Inside the sclerotia the plasmodium will divide into cells containing up to four nuclei. When conditions become favorable each cell will form a new plasmodium. Dog vomit slime mold is primarily an aesthetic problem in mulched garden beds. It can be physically removed, but more is likely to return. So, before panicking and taking your dog to the veterinarian, take a closer look and consider that that stuff is likely just Fuligo septica working away at cleaning the mulch."

Date 2019-04-27
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Solanum melongena, Quirky, Plant reproduction

I read on a cooking blog that it's important to be able to distinguish between male and female eggplants, because males are less seedy and therefore less bitter. Supposedly, the difference can be detected by looking at the indentation at the bottom of the vegetable. Females have long, deep, dash-shaped dents, and males have round, shallow ones. This is the first time I've ever heard of such a thing, and I'm wondering if you can confirm it.


There is no sex difference among eggplant fruits. The confusion may have come from the fact that eggplant flowers have male and female parts. Mary Keith, a nutrition educator with University of Florida Extension says:
"Please, don't waste any sleep over trying to remember which one is which. There are not 'male' or 'female' eggplants. They all come from the female organs of the flower, but eggplant flowers have both male and female organs. The seeds they contain will grow into plants that make flowers with both male and female parts.[...] The shape of the scar where the flower fell off doesn't tell you whether the fruit is a boy or a girl."
Keith goes on to explain the best way to select an eggplant for cooking purposes:
"The best place to start is what you can see, the skin. There should be a little bit of the stem still attached to one end. A ripe eggplant will have a smooth, bright, shiny skin. It should be firm, not hard but not soft and soggy either. Whether it is purple, green, white or striped, if the skin is dull the fruit has been picked for too long. When you press on the skin it should spring right back at you. If it's too hard to press in, then the fruit is too green and underripe. If it goes in and stays in, the fruit is too old. The texture is getting soft and it is more likely to be bitter. In general the smaller ones are usually better. Probably the best way to decide which ones to buy is to weigh them. [...] The heavier one will be the better one. Some people say they can tell by knocking on an eggplant as they do a watermelon. In this case though, you do not want to buy one that sounds hollow. These will be dry and punky inside."

Similar information comes from University of Illinois Extension:
"There is long-standing controversy about male and female eggplants, which is an inaccurate approach considering the fact that fruits are the product of sex and do not have it. However, it is folk wisdom worth some attention. Eggplants have a dimple at the blossom end. The dimple can be very round or oval in shape. The round ones seem to have more seeds and tend to be less meaty, so select the oval dimpled eggplant."

Date 2020-01-16
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, bioluminescence

I live in Nigeria. There is a plant, I don't know the name, but I know some of its characteristics: mostly it grows near rivers or rocky areas, sometimes it flashes light in the night like a firefly, and there are red ants that climb it. Can you tell me what plant this is?


We certainly aren't experts on the flora of Nigeria, but what you are describing could be bioluminescence. There are definitely fungi which are bioluminescent, and it's possible the plant you are describing is host to a fungus (such as Armillaria, Omphalotus, Tricholomopsis, or Clitocybe) which does glow or emit light in the dark. The less scientific name for this phenomenon is 'foxfire.' The University of California, Santa Barbara maintains a web page on bioluminescence, and answers commonly asked questions about it. Here is an excerpt:

"There are not any luminous 'flowering' plants which have been discovered. (That would be neat if rainforests glowed, but I think it is only likely to happen if they have something else on the vegetation in there making the light). Fungi, some of which do luminesce, are not plants, and so they don't qualify. The only 'plants' which do make light are the dinoflagellates, single-celled marine algae, and they are not plants strictly speaking."

Although I seriously doubt this is what you are seeing, there is some work being done currently on developing artificially luminescent trees (using nanotechnology and genetic engineering: ). As mentioned above, plants are not naturally luminescent themselves, though they may be host to luminescent fungi and bacteria.

Another plant that I thought of is Dictamnus, which is referred to as the 'gas plant,' because it exudes a volatile oil which is flammable and can be ignited with a match. Although I haven't heard of ants being interested in this plant, it would make some sense, because ants would probably be attracted to plant oils (just as they are attracted to nectar, or to 'honeydew' secreted by other insects on plants).

If you could send pictures of the plant you have noticed, include close-ups so that any fungal presence on the plant would be visible. That might be helpful in identifying it and determining the cause of the firefly-like flashes of light. The other consideration is that Nigeria has a high number of gas flares in the river delta which could also look like flashes of light at night.

Date 2019-10-10
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Cercis, cauliflory

I've noticed a tree in my neighborhood that has rosy-red blossoms that seem to be sprouting right out of the tree trunk. Is this normal?


I can't be sure about what tree you saw without more information, but it sounds as if you may have seen a redbud, or Cercis. This tree does produce flowers that may grow from the tree's trunk. (It also flowers in the more expected way on branches.) This phenomenon is called "cauliflory," well-illustrated by the website of Wayne's Word. Carob and cacao trees also have this attribute.

Wisconsin Master Gardener Program website also has an article by Susan Mahr (posted December 17, 2007) about this trait. Contrary to what one might think, cauliflower is not cauliflorous. The article explores possible advantages of cauliflory, such as the ability to bear heavy fruit (on a stout trunk instead of weak new growth), and enhanced cross-pollination potential.

Date 2019-10-31
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Seeds, Salvia hispanica, Quirky

Chia seeds: what are they, and what are they good for, besides sprouting on clay animals (Chia Pets!)? Lately, I'm seeing them promoted everywhere for their health benefits. Is there any validity to this?


The common name Chia refers to several species of Salvia, and to Hyptis suaveolens. The species that is imported into the United States is usually Salvia hispanica. Purdue University's New Crops database has information about the uses of chia seeds:
"The seeds of chias have been eaten for centuries by native North Americans, either raw or parched. They are used in sauces and as thickening agents. When soaked in water the seed envelops itself in a copious mucilaginous polysaccharide, excellent for digestion, and together with the grain itself forms a nutritious food. Mixed with orange juice the gel-like seeds make a nutritious breakfast and can help to control excess weight. Users report that a glass full of orange juice with a teaspoon of presoaked seeds leaves one feeling full and without hunger until noon. The plant explorer Edward Palmer wrote (1871): 'In preparing chia for use the seeds are roasted and ground, and the addition of water makes a mucilaginous mass several times the original bulk, sugar to taste is added, and the result is the much prized semi-fluid pinole of Indians and others, and to me one of the best and most nutritive foods while traveling over the deserts.'"

The New York Times published an article (11/24/2012) on the current trend for consuming chia seeds as a nutritional supplement (purportedly high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids). More studies are needed to substantiate the health claims, as this information from Columbia University's "Go Ask Alice" website points out:
"People eat chia seeds for diabetes, high blood pressure, and to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, there is currently no good evidence to support chia consumption for these uses. People have also tried using chia seeds as a weight loss aid, as the high fiber content is thought to suppress appetite and ultimately help with weight loss. There's not much support for this claim. One study found that eating chia seeds had no effects on body weight, body fat, or changes in appetite over a 12-week period. However, studies have shown that a particular variety of chia seeds, marketed under Salba, can reduce certain risk factors for heart disease such as blood pressure, clotting factors, and inflammation."

Date 2020-03-12
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Helianthus tuberosus

Is Jerusalem artichoke native in our region? What is its connection to Jerusalem? Did local Native American tribes have uses for it? I grow it, and friends have suggested that it is a good alternative to potatoes for people with diabetes because it has a lower glycemic index. Have you heard anything about that?


Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is commonly found across most of North America, according to its plant profile on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The plant's common name mistakenly suggests it might be from Jerusalem, but the name probably evolved through faulty hearing, either of the Italian word for sunflower [girasol] or of Ter-Neusen [now spelled Terneuzen], where a 17th century Dutch gardener began distributing the plant throughout Europe. Another theory is that pilgrims in North America believed this would be a wonderful new food source in their "New Jerusalem." [source: D. R. Cosgrove et al. Jerusalem Artichoke in Alternative Feed Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota Extension, accessed online November 1, 2014). For an in-depth exploration of the plant's name and its uses, see the chapter in The Sunflower by Charles Heiser (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976).

The book Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press, 2010) mentions uses of the plant's tubers by numerous tribes, but not ones in the Pacific Northwest. Some tribes, such as the Chippewa, traditionally used the tubers raw, while others like the Dakota boiled them (and noted that their overuse caused flatulence, about which more later!). Several tribes (Huron, Lakota) only used the tubers during periods of famine to fend off starvation. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database says that Helianthus tuberosus "was cultivated by Native Americans of the Great Plains and has spread eastward. The edible tuber is highly nutritious and, unlike potatoes, contains no starch, but rather carbohydrate in a form that is metabolized into natural sugar. In 1805 Lewis and Clark dined on the tubers, prepared by a native woman, in what is now North Dakota."

We recommend consulting a healthcare professional to find out if Jerusalem artichokes would be a better choice than potatoes (which contain starch) for someone with diabetes. Helianthus tuberosus, like other sunflowers, is in the Family Asteraceae. It contains a polysaccharide (a type of carbohydrate) called inulin. The American Diabetes Association says that it's not necessarily true that potatoes or other starches are problematic--it is more about portion size and developing a balanced diet.

Another thing to consider is that not everyone has an easy time digesting the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes. Although culinary use of sunchokes has become quite a trend lately, some chefs will not serve it in their restaurants, according to Bon Appetit magazine (article by Andrew Knowlton, February 19, 2013) and the tubers have acquired the unhappy nickname 'fartichoke.' The Plants for a Future online database (www.pfaf.org) refers somewhat more delicately to inulin intolerance (which may be genetic): "[inulin] tends to ferment in their guts and can cause quite severe wind."

As you probably know, Helianthus tuberosus prefers sun, and can reach ten feet in height. You can plant small tubers in early to late spring. It is an easy plant to grow, and in some cases it proliferates like a weed. It might be good to confine it to one part of your garden if you can.

Date 2019-04-27
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, bats, Attracting wildlife

I have a couple of questions. Are there plants I can grow that will attract bats, and are there plants that are bat-like in appearance?


The organization Bats Northwest recommends providing habitat (such as hollow trees and snags). The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has information on bat houses you can build or purchase. More information can be found at Bat Conservation International.

I did not find specific lists of bat-attracting plants, but providing a diverse tree canopy which includes trees that attract moths (for bats to eat) may make your landscape more bat-friendly. The British Bat Conservation Trust suggests that you leave some wild areas in the garden, add a pond if you can (as a place for bats to drink and forage on insects and their larvae), and plant night-scented flowers. Plant diversity seems to be the key: you can try growing flowers of different shapes, sizes, and fragrances, pale single flowers, and flowers which are good "landing platforms" for insects (such as daisy and carrot family plants).

There are several plants that resemble bats. Here are a few suggestions:

Date 2020-03-12
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Poisonous plants, Brugmansia

I know that Brugmansia has toxic and intoxicating properties. I heard a story about a railway carriage in Europe that was filled with the Brugmansia flowers. When the doors to the carriage were closed, the fragrance of the blooms caused the passengers to lose consciousness, and their valuables were stolen. Plausible, or urban legend?


Brugmansia, like the related solanaceous plant Datura, contains tropane alkaloids throughout the plant, including the seeds and flowers. One of these alkaloids is scopolamine. There are many tales of "Devil’s Breath," a processed form of scopolamine (as powder), or scopolamine-rich seeds being used by criminals in various parts of the world to drug their victims into unconsciousness. There is an article in The Guardian (September 2, 2015) which suggests it's unlikely that this substance would have been used to "zombify" travelers in Europe. There are, however, travel security warnings from the U.S. State Department about its use by criminals in Ecuador and Colombia.

A scientific article, "Volatile compounds emitted from flowers and leaves of Brugmansia X candida (Solanaceae)" (G.C. Kite and C. Leon, in Phytochemistry, 1995) states that volatile tropane alkaloids could not be detected in the fragrance of either flowers or leaves; the main volatile organic compounds emitted by the flowers are terpenoids, benzenoids, and indole. Those compounds can cause headaches but it seems unlikely they would act like a sedative.

The book Plant Intoxicants by Baron Ernst von Bibra (Healing Arts Press,1995) describes use of Datura seeds by criminals in India to knock out their victims. There are many traditional medicinal uses of Brugmansia among the indigenous tribes of Colombia, but the hallucinogenic effects are especially frightening. One tribe describes the pleasant scent of the flowers but warns that the plant is inhabited by an evil spirit and all who sit at the foot of the tree "will forget everything." (Source: Plants of the Gods, Richard Evans Schultes, Healing Arts Press, 2001). However I cannot find any confirmation for your colorful story of a train carriage full of drugged passengers among the Brugmansia flowers.

Date 2020-01-16
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Plants--Symbolic aspects, Faidherbia, Bible plants, Acacia

Can you tell me if Acacia trees grow in Seattle? Could I obtain a small cut branch from one? I am a funeral director, and the last wishes of the deceased we will be burying were to have a sprig of acacia placed inside the casket. This man was very active in the Freemasons, and evidently the acacia is an important symbol for them.


Most Acacia species are marginally hardy in our area. According to local tree expert Arthur Lee Jacobson, most gardeners who plant Acacia end up with a large pile of exotic firewood once the trees have died off during a serious winter. Therefore, your most likely source for a cut sprig would be to ask local florists, who obtain this plant regularly for use in flower arrangements. You can also contact the source the florists use, Seattle Wholesale Growers Market (where they will order it from California).

In Freemasonry, acacia symbolizes the soul's immortality, perhaps because of the evergreen foliage. The book of Exodus in the Hebrew bible seems to have been the inspiration for choosing this tree, called shitta [singular] or shittim [plural]. According to the text, the wood was the raw material for the Tabernacle and its contents, the Ark of the Covenant, the Altar and the Table and the Pillars of the Curtain. Biblical botany scholar Lytton Musselman speculates in his book Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh (Timber Press, 2007) that the species might have been Acacia albida, now renamed Faidherbia albida. However, the masonic texts have another view. According to Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, "It is the acacia vera of Tournefort [refers to 17th century French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort], and the mimosa nilotica of Linnæus. It grew abundantly in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where it is still to be found, and is familiar to us all, in its modern uses at least, as the tree from which the gum arabic of commerce is obtained."

Date 2020-03-12
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Wood, smoked foods, Quirky, brewing

I had a fig tree that fell over due to fast growth after prolonged heavy rains. Some of the wood has been saved, and is seasoning, for possible use in smoking meats and/or conditioning of home-brewed beer. Are there potential toxins I should be concerned about? What flavors and/or aromas might I expect?


None other than the New York Times has an article by Florence Fabricant (May 23, 2001) about the aromatic properties of fig wood (including using it to flavor meats):
"Chefs love hardwoods for grilling. Fig wood, which burns hot and fast and sends a heady, almost sweetly floral aroma into the air, is the latest one gaining their favor."

Pascal Baudar's book, The Wildcrafting Brewer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018), has a section on the use of bark and wood in making beer. He suggests using wood chips, toasted and added to fermenting beer (or soda, or mead). Fig is among the woods he recommends for its "mild and nutty qualities." (Other wood chips he mentions as worthy additions are manzanita, maple, mesquite, olive, white ash, and yellow birch).

The only toxicity I can think of would be the sap (latex) that is in the leaves, stems, and unripe fruit, and can cause skin irritation. Here is additional information from Purdue University's New Crop Resource Online.

Date 2019-10-31
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Compost

My pet cockatiel died, and I want to know how long it will take to compost the bird in the soil before I can dig up the skeleton and save it.


I am sorry for the loss of your cockatiel. I think that you can either put the body in the compost or find a way to salvage the skeleton, but not both. Bird bones have hollow cavities, and would likely break down quickly in the soil. Some permaculture discussion groups online suggest not burying birds, but instead storing them in the freezer until there are active ant nests, and then leaving them exposed for the ants to clean. I was not sure if this would work, so I consulted Dennis Paulson, Director Emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

He says that "putting something as small as a cockatiel in the ground isn't the best idea, as their smaller bones would probably suffer. Putting it near an ant nest might not be much better, as the ants could carry off those small smaller bones. To make a good skeleton, you need to skin the bird and remove a lot of the bigger muscles (in particular, the flight muscles on the breast) as well as the intestines and other organs from the body cavity." The Slater Museum of Natural History can skeletonize small birds by using their colony of dermestid beetles that eat all the soft tissues, which is the best way to skeletonize something of that size. The museum accepts donations of specimens, but they may also be willing to assist someone who wants to commemorate their pet bird in this way.

In general, dead animals that are not pets and weigh over fifteen pounds must be collected by Seattle Animal Control, but smaller animals that show no signs of disease may be double-bagged and put in the garbage. King County has similar guidelines. Dead wild birds (particularly crows and jays) that may have been affected by West Nile virus should be reported to the Public Health department at 206-205-4394.

Date 2019-12-18
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Dictamnus, Quirky, Firescaping

My "gas plant," Dictamnus albus, is finally flowering for the first summer ever, and I am starting to worry: can it spontaneously combust? It's planted close to the house. I remember stories from a couple of years ago about houses in Seattle catching fire because of sun or extreme heat igniting compost or soil in planters. Are there plants besides Dictamnus that are especially flammable?


Dictamnus is not called the gas plant or the burning bush for nothing. It is in the same family as citrus plants, and contains extremely volatile oils that can indeed reach a high enough temperature to ignite. In Defense of Plants blog describes this aspect of the plant, and asks why a plant might have this capability (to burn out competing vegetation, or merely an unintended consequence of oil production). Excerpt:
"If air temperatures get high enough or if someone takes a match to this plant on a hot day, the oils covering its tissues will ignite in a flash. The oils burn off so quickly that it is of no consequence to the plant. It goes on growing like nothing ever happened."
Some gardeners amuse themselves and amaze their friends by demonstrating this flare of flame, but I highly recommend you not try it if your plant is up against your house!

You can read more about the flammable properties (and garden merit) of Dictamnus in the June 1995 issue of American Horticulturist. See the article "Ignite the Night" by Robert L. Geneve.

There are other flammable plants. Areas that are accustomed to preparing for summer fire season (such as Grants Pass, Oregon) have information about which plants are most (and also which are least) likely to ignite. The flammable list includes ornamental juniper, Leyland cypress, Italian cypress, rosemary, arborvitae, eucalyptus, and some ornamental grasses.

If you are concerned about the proximity of this plant to your house, you might consider transplanting it elsewhere in fall, though be aware that Dictamnus has a taproot and is not fond of being moved.

Date 2019-07-26
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