The Manscape: Origin Stories of Super Plants
In comic books a hero’s origin story is one of the most important aspects of their character. It’s the essence of their being. It sculpts who they become and defines their underlying superhero traits. Much like the superheroes of DC and Marvel, there’s some compelling evidence to prove that the simple house plant might not have come from such humble origins.
In fact I’d argue the entire botanical societies of the 18th and 19th centuries drew on primeval powers to pursue their quests to discover exotic and rare plants. In the early days, botanists and botanical illustrators were cut from a different cloth. They were no mere desk jockeys. They were manly men, actual adventurers putting their lives at risk for new plant discoveries. Take Sydney Parkinson for example. He was a botanical illustrator on the First Fleet that invaded Australia and he actually died at sea. An illustrator that died while at work! The cause of death was nothing mundane either: he died at sea from a disease contracted in a far off land called Batavia!
This article explores my Top 3 super plant origin stories. Plants that, despite the odds, broke free from their roots to conquer the world and become recognised as some of the toughest plants on the planet.
No. 1 Howea foresteriana
Howea foresteriana or Kentia Palm (as it’s known in the trade) was forged on a rugged mountain side on the wind swept lands of the remote, boomerang shaped Lord Howe Island.
Seeds of the Howea forsteriana were first collected in 1870 by botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Besides his villainous sounding name and despite mistakenly placing the new species in the genus Kentia rather than Howea (a distinct genus endemic to the island), his intentions proved good and the ‘Kentia Palm’ became a virtual diamond in the rough for the Lord Howe Islanders. Not only did this majestic palm provide shade for the locals, it has also been the driving force behind the small Pacific island’s economy for almost a century.
The Palm’s kryptonite and its near undoing appeared in the early 1900s when an enemy vessel grounded itself on the island, sending in a plague of rats that almost put a halt to its trade.
As a house plant, the Kentia has found itself possessed with amazing physical powers. Growing faster and taller. Able to endure direct sunlight and sustain long periods pot bound. Considering its true hero traits, the infant seedling from Lord Howe should really go by the name ‘Palm of Steel’.
No. 2 Ceropegia woodii
You might know the Bushman’s Pipe or Ceropegia woodii by a more romantic title, the ‘Chain of Hearts’.
Despite its soft moniker this plant is as tough as nails. It was born on the dry, stoney hillsides of southern Africa. It’s pollinated by flies that become captured in its specially-designed tubular flowers; flowers uniquely adapted to capture pollinators. Inside the tubes are a series of hairs that point inwards and when a pollinator enters the hairs force the insect deeper into the flower. Once inside, the flower pollen sacks are attached to the insect and after a fews days the flower’s job is done and it releases the hostage.
The Bushman’s Pipe first went global in the late 1900s when young John Medley Wood sent a live specimen to Kew Gardens. Wood, a magnificently bearded botanist from Durban, South Africa, is the name sake of this species. Although it’s the botanical name Ceropegia woodii that refers to him rather than the name commonly used in Africa, Bushman’s Pipe. Wood’s other interests included collecting ferns, mosses and fungi. By all accounts he had a pretty spectacular collection of mosses, which is something we men could all do with more of.
At the pinnacle of its fame Ceropegia woodii received the prestigious ‘Award for Garden Merit’ from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Today this everyday hero saves people’s green integrity everywhere. By virtue of its hands-off needs, this plant can single-handedly restore people’s belief that they actually are a top gardener.
No. 3 Chlorophytum comosum aka Spider Plant
While this plant did not receive its name after being bitten by a radioactive spider, it does share some qualities with Peter Parker. Its shoots of long inflorescence which branch from the main plant are somewhat reminiscent of Parker’s webs. Like the stuff of science fiction these shoots actually spray out from the main plants allowing it multiple itself many times over.
Another native African species, the plant is know as a protector amongst the Nguni people of Southern Africa. It is said to work as a charm to protect pregnant mothers and infant children.
First collected by a man known as the Father of African Botany, Carl Thunberg, Chlorophytum comosum has also had an illustrious career. It’s another house plant to have piqued the interest of the Royal Horticultural Society, with an ‘Award for Garden Merit’.
NASA has named it as one of the top plants to reduce indoor air pollution. It zaps volatile organic compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and xylene by simply existing.
By the 1990s Chlorophytum comosum had become a global super plant, demonstrating an innate ability to thrive in most soil types, tolerate both direct sun and shade. And its tendency to propagate itself makes it a true gift to indoor gardeners.
Charlie Lawler is an interior landscaper (or ‘manscaper’ as we like to say) and co-founder of Loose Leaf, Melbourne.