Clawback from the Grave

Though the Swedish East India Company folded in 1813, one of its earlier Directors, Magnus von Lagerström, made a handsome investment through funneling plants to Carl Linnaeus. Lagerström was something of a plant fanatic, especially regarding the potential of plants from the East. According to Emil Bretschneider (1898, History of European Botanical Discoveries in China) “Linnaeus received first from him the beautiful Chinese plant, which he named, in honour of his friend, Lagerstroemia indica…. Odhello mentions a Botanicon Chinense, written in Chinese characters, in 36 volumes, which was in the possession of Lagerstroem. Strindberg… has proved that this is the well known Chinese Materia Medica “Pen tsao kang mu”. – Lagerstroem had moreover received from China a collection of about 1000 Chinese drugs.”

Sealing that relationship and the benefits thus derived, as we read in Bretschneider’s report, Linnaeus named the genus Lagerstroemia for his friend. The common temperate tree, Lagerstroemia indica, was brought into Western gardens from China and Korea, but origins were not always so evident, thus the specific epithet “indica”. If you visit tropical zones, you’ll encounter Lagerstroemia speciosa, a native to tropical Indian, a heftier, more exuberant version of the one we can grow.

Check out Wikipedia to learn more about the fortunes and failures of the Swedish East India Company.

We call plants in this group Crepe Myrtles (also Crape Myrtle), because the flower petals have a beautiful crepe texture and the leaves are somewhat opposite, like myrtles. Individual flowers develop in rather handsome inflorescences, altogether making a brilliant display. When you check out flowers, up close, they seem incredibly delicate. Each petal is the very definition of the botanical term “clawed” – which means the expanded surface of a petal is attached to the flower by a linear strap of tissue that looks like a claw.

Check out the linear claw that attaches a petal to its base in the floral cup.

What we have discovered at The Huntington is that these are tough plants, almost possessing the power to return from the grave. When we were constructing the visitors’ center, an area along the Eastern perimeter lost its irrigation. In mid-summer, we noticed a grove of larger Lagerstroemias that had never leafed-out. For all the world, they looked stone dead. But scraping the bark, there was some green…, some life. So we soaked the soil well. Within two weeks, the trees sprung to life, and went on to leaf out and flower, catching up with others that had not gone through a near-death experience. And that isn’t the end to resilience. On 6 July, 2018, Southern California experienced a powerful heatwave, early in the summer. Temperatures reached 118 °F, but Crepe myrtles were among plants unfazed by the heat.

Lagerstroemia flower, style and stigma at 5 o’clock position, with a windmill array of long infertile stamens (staminodia) and a tighter cluster of fertile stamens at the center.

See also: Crepe Murder, and Neglect, a post by Stephen Forbes, Adelaide.

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