The Original Mystery Plant
Last week I spent some time in New York City, mostly on the upper west side. One of several excursions led to the Waldorf= Astoria Hotel, which is on Park Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, the west entrance pictured here. (The “=” sign is the official way of writing the name, and speaks to the union of the two hotels.) The original hotel was built in 1893, some distance southwest on 5th Avenue at 33rd Street, then joined by the adjacent Astoria Hotel four years later, but the whole thing was torn down in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building.If you are ever in New York, this is one of the premier art–deco sights, both its exterior and interior. It’s not far from Rockefeller Center, just to the west. And if you walk that way across Park Avenue, anytime soon, you’re bound to see this little plant.
This plant belongs to a genus of about 22 different species, distributed mostly in southern Europe and the Mediterranean with some species in northern Africa. Several of these species are becoming rare in nature due to over–collecting, and are thus vulnerable. A number of them bloom in the winter months, into early spring. The genus is a member of the primrose family (primulaceae). The little plant seen here, planted in the garden median of Park Avenue, is of hybrid origin, and has been bred for quite some time now. It comes up from a fairly stout tuber, which is structurally similar to an Irish potato, and produces a shock of bright green, heart–shaped leaves. The flower stalks are leafless, and each stalk bears a single terminal bloom. The flowers may be white, pink, or reddish. Each flower has its five petals strongly recurved backwards, and the whole flower tends to hang, in pendant fashion. This flower architecture is actually very similar to that seen in a North one species of which, Dodecatheon media, grows here in woodlands of the eastern USA. There are plenty of varieties of this plant which are available as pot–plants for growing indoors, and they are commonly seen around Christmas time. Outside, they seem to do best in cool climates. There is some suggestion that the foliage might be a bit poisonous, so the plants should never be eaten…not even in a Waldorf salad.
Answer to last week’s mystery plant
Dr. John Nelson is the curator of the USC Herbarium.
To learn more about the Herbarium, call him at
777-8196. His department also offers free plant identification.