On Spinosity and Stinging Affections ~ a note on the Cotton Thistle

Baruch Spinoza wasn’t far from the truth when he said “The investigation of Nature in general is the basis of philosophy”

I stood in the presence of giants today. The tallest cotton thistle (I have ever seen) and I, inhabited a moment of stillness, of biblical proportions. The company of plants is never boring and I love a challenge;  this non-native vigorous biennial with coarse, spiny leaves provoked me to write a poem.

Onopordum acanthium is from the family Asteraceae, with especially large populations of this flowering plant existing in the United States [1] Spiny bracts and globose flower heads sporting coloured ray and disc florets are simply beautiful.

The cotton thistle is considered a noxious invasive weed for it reduces the production of forage, prohibits land utilization for livestock and blocks access for people and wildlife. The dense stands of the large, spiny plants exclude animals from grazing as well as access to water [2] We pattern the presence of plants tailored to our own existence but this species is a great source of nectar for insects. In the time I stood next to a variety of wild flowers, all stinging insects made a beeline for the cotton thistle.

This variety of  plant tends to colonise disturbed pastures. In its native range, cotton thistle is weakly competitive and needs gaps to regenerate, to develop and maintain stands; populations of Cotton Thistle tend to retreat when disturbance ceases [1] So it is ironically a plant that grows in the absence of aggressive competitors, for a disturbed pasture is essentially one where the land is stripped of vegetation through man-made changes to the land surface, like clearing or excavation.

On Stings and Spines and Nails of Crosses
The land was disturbed 
in an upheaval of community,
crowns displaced, roots exiled.
When cotton thistle staked claim
to sodden earth bogged in tearful
commiserations, it resurrected like
the flower of Christ. Invasive,
émigré? What's Native ? No man
was ever a prophet in his own land.
And here, preaching a gospel
of love were a globulised community
of centripetal rays and centrifugal
discs, they turned the other cheek
and more. Bees with stingers went soft
on compassionate flowers unwrapping
sweetly, nectar or love.
They crossed stings and spines
and even nails, paled in comparison.
The flower lives to sweeten
the life of a bee and the bee
exists to ferry love to flowers.




An Ode To The Evergreen Magnolia

I discovered a fragrantly flowering Great Laurel Magnolia on my walk today. This plant blooms from late spring to early summer and can be found in the southeastern United States, from southeast Virginia to central Florida and then across to East Texas and Oklahoma and even as far North as Maine. Often growing on the edges of swamps or large bodies of water, this tree prefers moist soil but cannot tolerate inundation [1] Also known as Southern Magnolia, it has one of the most strongly scented flowers in the world [2] so I hovered a bit longer like a hummingbird.

Magnolia grandiflora as it is scientifically named, is the official state tree of Mississippi and its flowers are the official state flower of Louisiana. The generic name of Magnolia was in honour of the French botanist, Pierre Magnol, a professor of botany and medicine at Montpelier, who died in 1715. It is also called the Evergreen magnolia for it does not shed its leaves in the temperate climes.

Now imagine this genus Magnolia, the majority of which species occur in East and South East Asia, where a little over only one-quarter of the species are natives of the New World, from the North East United States (one species just extending into Canada) to northern parts of South America. More than half of the entire species are tropical, thus it should come as no surprise that the Flora of China published in 2008 (Xia et al. 2008) consists of a separate taxonomy for the genus Magnolia that the Chinese botanists adhere to [3]. Botanical nomenclature under the current International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) is quite an effective way of establishing plant identity and there’s a tremendous amount of effort that goes into identifying and naming plants, but classifying them taxonomically requires scientific consensus as the agreement on circumscriptions (or the content of a taxon) is not governed by the Codes of Botanical Nomenclature. The delimitations therefore or circumscriptions of many taxa that had been regarded as stable for decades, like in Magnolia for instance, are in a state of flux, given the rapid developments in molecular phylogenetics [4] This may be of interest to a plant enthusiast.

The use of Latin, for plant binomial nomenclature does well for academics, horticulturists and enthusiasts, but it is actually the vernacular names (which have no code of governing bodies to subscribe and adhere to) that add layers of charm to a plant. Now, Magnolia grandiflora is also called Bull bay because many broad-leaved evergreen trees are known as bays (many Magnolias for example), with this species thus named for its huge size of leaf and because cattle have been reported eating these. I couldn’t find any other literature than this reference in support for this reasoning. [5]

A paper I read, that makes the case for recording, preserving and documenting local names of plants says “local names play a very important role in the ethnobotanical study of a specific tribe or region. Local names given to plants by indigenous people in their local dialects often reflect a broad spectrum of information on their understanding of plants. Most often, the local names are given based on some salient features, e.g. appearance, shape, size, habit, habitat, smell, taste, colour, utility, and other peculiar characteristics of the plants.” [6] Common names help situate a plant in our immediate context and environment by adding layers of meaning to their existence and ours. It enables us to take ownership of the surrounds and become aware and protective towards plant habitats. Many Magnolias are threatened by deforestation and habitat degradation, that has been highlighted in ‘The Red List of Magnoliaceae’ (Cicuzza et al. 2007) in which it has been observed that 131 of the 245 members of Magnoliaceae – over half – are facing extinction in the wild.

This beautiful dense tree is not only a chaos of disconnected names but can also be a great understorey selection for a garden as I have already had the pleasure of seeing this year. The tree has stout twigs and branches which have a fuzz, known as tomentum, which can be a white to rusty red color and like in most species of Magnolia, the bark emits a pleasant aromatic odour when crushed. The lovely canopy forms a dome shape with dark green glossy leaves and brown velvety undersides. It is also an economically useful timber tree, not simply a dainty ornamental, in that the wood can actually be used to craft furniture and veneers. The plant even contains phenolic constituents shown to possess significant antimicrobial activity, against Gram-positive bacteria and Fungi.

I was very thrilled to discover this Southern beauty on my walk and here is an earlier post and poem about the Bigleaf Magnolia I encountered on a walk along the Highline in NYC. They say that “no group of exotic trees gives more distinction to a garden than a comprehensive collection of magnolias. There is not one that is not worthy of cultivation.” [3] I am therefore privileged to have seen two species in bloom this year, which I have now come to admire for their hardiness, dignified that they are with the largest leaves of all evergreens and a spectacular size of individual flowers. Magnolia they say, symbolise magnificence, dignity and perseverance and I should think hardiness and resilience too.

Process: I wrote the poem as a tribute to this garden divinity. I learned a lot about the Great Laurel Magnolia this evening so this will be a long poem, a botanical one that has each stanza initiated by a vowel. I also used the concept of a gonadal intersex in it since it would be incorrect to allude to the Magnolia grandiflora as feminine, considering the flowers are perfect and hermaphrodite with both reproductive structures creating a bulbous torus.

An Ode To The Evergreen Magnolia

A timber tree, dignified and espaliered to the light,
dispels any dark sentiment in fragrant blooms, amidst
a leafy dome in the glossy emerald sheen of soft resilience.

Early summer and it's warm, sometimes cold, but never old,
for time runs on evergreen and brown velvety undersides,
unravelling on fuzzy twigs; merely trestles for mammoth blossoms

Intending to sparkle in Eden of thick leafy grandeur.
What pantheon hosts this delightful Dionysus, tepals
around a torus, swathed in stamens and pistils*.

Orange arils** are pendulous drops of blood, revealing
blessed heart of a grand flower, fruiting compassion
in stigmata, in fluid meanings to florid fruit.

Understorey dapples countenance of noble beauty,
so shy under canopies of towering trees,
finally emerging transcendent towards sky.

And if any flagrant wind swaddles in dry demeanour
this acid hardy being that's loathe to argue with
the heated weather, it petulantly wears the loss of vigour.

Exemplary great laurel of life, wandering tomes in taxa,
stringing appellations in a shivaree, for while Systems Men
conjure and constellate, Bull Bay simply trek across the land.

Inciting wonder at their reluctance to seed the loam,
for when science speaks of bio-rhythms, sweet magnolia
wax dormant to the sound of a different drum.

Outstanding garden divinity, created when God planned
His own demise in this beautiful balance of soul
perfection sired by Hermes and Aphrodite.

Underscored by the need to umbellate the landscape,
this southern perennial spread to a whole New World
in diverse avatars of a strange hybrid philosophy.

Notes on the Magnolia grandiflora that may be of interest from a botanical perspective and have aspects featured in the poem:

Picture Credit: Catesby’s Laurel tree of Carolina by G.D. Ehret from Wikipedia

Magnolias are evergreen or deciduous trees or shrubs with alternate, entire, pinninerved leaves. Stipules are present and initially enclose the terminal bud, later falling leaving a scar; they are often called ‘perules’ when covering an overwintering flower bud, and are often attractively hairy. Magnolia flowers are solitary, hermaphrodite or rarely unisexual; they are terminal on long shoots or on short axillary shoots (brachy-blasts). The floral parts are arranged in turn along an elongated receptacle; the perianth is composed of six or more distinct petal-like tepals, and occasionally the outer three tepals may differ from the inner ones; stamens are numerous, spirally arranged and flattened and the anther is poorly differentiated from the filament. The pistillate part of the flower (gynoecium) may be sessile or stipitate (with a stalk). Carpels are numerous (rarely solitary) and spirally arranged; they may be free (apocarpous) or fused (syncarpous). Fruiting carpels (follicles) are usually dehiscent, and each produces one or more large seeds. The carpels may be fleshy, and can fuse together to form a berry-like fruit (the term ‘fruit’ will be used here to refer to the aggregate of follicles, whether fused together or not). After dehiscence, the follicles often become woody and persist on the tree. The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread (Chen & Nooteboom 1993). (https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/magnolia/)

Picture Credit: Yale Nature Walk [1] The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread. An aril, also called an arillus, is a specialized outgrowth from a seed that partly or completely covers the seed.

The leaves are alternate, simple and entire, with stipules that are free from the petiole in some species, in other adnate to it. Flowers bisexual, produced singly at the end of a shoot; peduncles with one or more spathe-like bracts. Perianth of six or nine (occasionally more) segments known as ‘tepals’, arranged in whorls. In some species the tepals of the outer whorl are small and sepal-like; in describing these species it is usual to term the outer whorl a calyx and the inner segments petals, but in no species of magnolia is there a complete differentiation of the perianth into calyx and corolla. The stamens are numerous, spirally arranged to the lower part of structure (the torus), the upper part of which bears numerous free carpels, also spirally arranged. In the fruiting stage the torus is much enlarged and the carpels split on their outer side to release one or two red, scarlet, or orange seeds, each of which is attached to the carpel by a silk-like thread. Seeds of magnolias are sometimes very long in germinating. It is interesting that a batch of about two hundred seeds of Magnolia wilsonii, ripened at Kew once, remained dormant after sowing for over two years, then germinated simultaneously with scarcely a failure. (https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/magnolia/)

In Greek mythology, Dionysus is best known as the god of wine, Dionysus was also the god of intersex and transgender people. But it is actually Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, the gods of male and female sexuality, who is the god of hermaphrodites [6] In humans, conditions that involve discrepancies between external genitalia and internal reproductive organs are described by the term intersex and such conditions are extremely rare in humans but in true gonadal intersex (or true hermaphroditism), an individual has both ovarian and testicular tissue [8] I used the gonadal intersex concept in the poem since it would be incorrect to allude to the Magnolia grandiflora as feminine, considering the flowers are perfect and hermaphrodite with both reproductive structures creating a bulbous torus.










*The stamens are numerous, spirally arranged to the lower part of structure (the torus), the upper part of which bears numerous free carpels, also spirally arranged.

**The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread. An aril, also called an arillus, is a specialized outgrowth from a seed that partly or completely covers the seed.

Cedar of God

They beheld the Cedar mountain, abode of the God,
Throne-seat of Irnini.
From the face of the mountain
The Cedars raise aloft their luxuriance.
Good is their shade,
full of delight.

                                           Epic of Gilgamesh [1]

There is a majestic Cedar of Lebanon in the Van Vleck Gardens at Montclair. This tree that could potentially attain a grand height of 140 feet and a diameter of 8 feet, has a rough scaly bark which is dark grey to blackish brown, marked by deep fissures. [2] The crown of this beauty, conical when young, now sports level branches. There were cones at the ends of the shoots when I saw it yesterday. 

I was quite disheartened to learn that these Cedars, native to Lebanon, barely survive in a vulnerable patch at Bsharri in Lebanon, in a copse a few hundred meters across, which in earlier times stretched hundreds of kilometers, as noted by Paleontologist  Mike Pole in 2016 [3]

Cedrus libani, a true Cedar that belongs to the family Pinaceae, is an evergreen, has medicinal uses and wood prized for its fine grain, attractive yellow colour, fragrance, exceptional durability and immunity to insect ravages [2].

In the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to the Lebanon Mountain to cut these Cedars (which can be traced back to 3 BC). I am not sure how heroic such an act of deforestation was, which included the killing of the radiant guardian of the Cedar forest, the giant demon Humbaba, renowned for his terrifying, supernatural powers, whose severed head was then affixed to a cedar door and sent to the temple of Enlil, king of the gods [4].

Even if there are fewer Cedars of God at Bsharri [5], the tree survives as the national emblem of Lebanon and in the logo of Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier. It also graciously lent its support to Lebanon’s ‘Cedar Revolution’ of 2005 [2]

Widely used as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens, I have always admired this magnificent specimen at Montclair and figured it deserved a poem.

Cedar of God

The grand soliloquy of a stately tree
is simply an intifada* of shoots and leaves.

The grenades explode someplace loamy 
or sandy clay, as scaly cones germinate 

the Earth, in a sparkling resistance against
the vagaries of once divine deforestation.

A Cedar in Lebanon disappears like time,
in a crown lost to Gilgamesh and then to

rainbow revolutions. Needles spiral forth
marking the epoch in severed limbs and souls

knowing nothing is lost to fate except the 
omnipotence of man. Simply immortal, is the tree.


Intifada ~ Arabic intifāḍa, literally, the act of shaking off, rebellion, uprising (Merriam-Webster)








It was on a walk along the Lenape trail earlier today, through Mills Reservation in Essex County, that we spotted this mushroom.

As most of us know, a mushroom is only the fruiting body of the fungal mycelium that runs subterranean. And here in this forest were a variety of trees with roots that branched beneath the surface. As Robert Kourik in his work ‘Roots Demystified’ mentions [1] “While one rule of limb has been that a tree’s roots are one and one-half to three times wider than the foliage, other investigators estimate an irregular root pattern four to seven times the crown area; and, still other researchers maintain that the root extension can be four to eight times wider than the dripline of the tree, but only under certain conditions.” 

Leafy excess

This evening, something triggered me to compare the subterranean systems to John Gray’s idea of atheists as inverted believers. It may have simply been the word ‘inverted’ or the pessimistic philosopher himself that struck me, whose work I read with keen interest a few years ago. Terry Eagleton wrote of Gray’s book ‘Seven Types of Atheism’ in 2018 [2], that according to Gray, most humanists are atheists and have substituted humanity for God and that the  popular belief of atheism and religion as opposites, is a mistake. Religions are not theories of the world but forms of life and are less systems of belief than acts of faith and therefore he considered many fanatical atheists as no more than inverted believers. I am curious about this idea just as I am about a tree or a mushroom. I find a tree to be that sort of organism that has its lungs on the outside while the being itself remains embedded in the Earth, just like the mushroom emerges from its subterranean mycelium.


Well, my poem is not about John Gray or mushrooms or the Lenape or atheists, it is actually on the concept of inversion in trees. I must thank John Gray for inspiring this thought, though.

A seed lay buried to fate in a copse of stately Oak / Leafy susurrations in the crown above, seem to ruffle a verdant cloak / like wind subdued grasses in a glade //

Germination is but an adventitious murmur / seeking the depth of a dark silence / in roots swaddling the Earth like it would have simply crumbled otherwise //

The tree of life is scattershot / hidden from the eye of the Sun / It bends whichever way in seeking baptismal waters / sunk in the innards of the Globe //

There then, where roots are girdled / they chase around themselves in sacred enclosures until / they have choked the trunk to their aerial lung // 

In such viridescence resides poetry / a glint and shimmer until the flicker of Fall / but the trees themselves remain embedded in the mythology of loam //
Speckled in light, unfortunately


[1]Roots Demystified, Chapter 9,  Robert Kourik, 2008. (He did his research for this chapter at the UC Agricultural Libraries at Berkeley and Davis in the late 1980s)~https://www.deeproot.com/blog/blog-entries/how-wide-do-tree-roots-spread


Strobile Science

I pass this dwarf mountain pine on my walk often and the cones brought to mind a poem I posted in August last year, about the logarithmic spiral in ‘The Order of the Spiral’. [1] This species of Pine is a very adaptable sort, it survives in full sun and well drained loamy soil. It is also tolerant of clay and sandy soils which are quite extreme for a Gymnosperm like this. Although it thrives in regions of high elevation, it can survive maritime exposure and grows in coastal areas. One wouldn’t think much of this unassuming Pine that cries in terpene every time the rain washes over its needles that can also stain green. The turpentine that can be distilled from its oleo-resin has antiseptic properties. The essential oils in its branches are of medicinal value in a wide variety of respiratory ailments. The substance left from the resin after the extraction of turpentine is called Rosin and I never knew it was a component of sealing wax and varnish. The next time I pass this plant, I ought to express some gratitude for I love working varnish onto wood.

Pinecones are quite strange in that they can stay on pine trees for up to ten years before falling off. The seeds are enclosed within the scales and they remain tightly shut in inhospitable weather i.e. when it’s cold and damp. It is only in hot and dry weather that they will open to allow the release of seeds to seek new ground to germinate in [3].

It was an unusual theme to the poem today, that unfolded thus in bracts and spiralled in the fashion of pine cones. The glow bugs of the evening twinkled like stars on dusk grass and wove themselves right in.

The cone or strobile of Pinus mugo mugo or a Dwarf Mountain Pine
Strobile Science

An entropy of sorts, meanders
through a whimsy breeze
to blitz an yielding grass.
Newton never quite
pine cones falling,
for aren't they
wooden reliquaries
of passions enclosed
in bracts?
He sought solace under
the soft of an apple tree.
So, within rhyme, they reason
they are in opposition
to the gravitas of gravity, 
for their spirals are a golden ratio,
kissing earth.
It's strobile science,
bract within bract within bract,
hiding spirals in plain sight.
The needles of the trees
shed in virgules
to punctuate a funereal prosody.
The wind waves it past the marsh
wrinkling water steeped
in deathly leaves.
It is sublime.
I think it is sublime,
when spirit
seeks to unlock cosmic code
in evening stars that drip 
off evergreen trees
in a flickering urge
to urgently flick, the knell,
on ripened passions.
The star struck glow bugs
in this purposeful evening,
illumined that. which recessed
deep within the spirit,
lay bracted and spiralled -
those grave renunciations.
Cone or Strobile ~ scaly multiple fruit


[1]~The Order of the Spiral ~https://davinasolomon.com/2020/08/14/the-order-of-the-spiral/



For Angelica

I was struck by the leafy beauty of the Angelica tree [1] which I came across at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia half of Assateague Island that we visited recently.

The trunk and petioles bear spines, a stem modification in defence from foragers, that makes it also quite deer resistant. The spines also gave it the common name of ‘devil’s walking stick’ or ‘prickly ash’.

Here below, is a botanical poem.

[Angelica tree, also called devil’s walking stick, Hercules’ club, or prickly ash, (species Aralia spinosa), prickly-stemmed shrub or tree, of the ginseng family (Araliaceae) (Encyclopaedia Britannica)]
[The Angelica tree can reach a height of 15 m (about 50 feet). Its leaves are large, with leaflets arranged feather-fashion and often prickly. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)]
Sweet Angelica, 
An overwhelm of your leafy
ramifications, waxed verdure
affections for a wayward wind.
My eyes caught the emerald glint;
now they glisten green
in a poetic apotheosis.

Should I deem you guilty
that 'twas the devil's walking stick
that sired you,
as virid envelope,
so delicate that every leaflet
would blend to a fine herb repast.

So I brave your prickly defences
in my manner of white tailed deer
and nibble of your leafy poetry.
A half mouthed curse that you sting
but your arbour rose
where none grew and I thought
you bloomed especially for me.

Rhizomes spiralled for life,
and the taste of muddied rain.
Other wanderers tried pillage
those jejune early fronds and
you recoiled in thorny armament,
a conflicted poetry I read on you.

Look at you now ...
largest leaf than any other in a North wind,
towering panicles that draw
a chorus of winged angels, quills.
These be the battlements of love
that will shed for life, in beauty

for when Summer leaves, there'll be Fall,
then the long rest of seasons.


Devil’s walking stick ~ Aralia spinosa is commonly called devil’s walking stick and gets its common name from the stout, sharp spines found on its leaf stalks, stems and branches [2]

Prickly defences ~ The spines on the trunk are relatively stout, sharp and often arranged in curvilinear patterns around it’s  surface. In addition, large petiole-scars persist on it. The branches are rather stout, terete, spiny, and either light gray or light brown. Like the trunk, they also have persistent leaf-scars. The leaves are glabrous and sometimes spiny on their undersides.  [3]

Largest leaf ~ The tree is crowned at the top by umbrella-like canopies of huge compound leaves. Alternate, bipinnate to tripinnate, medium to dark green leaves grow 2-5 feet long and 2-4 feet wide, with individual leaflets (2-4” long) having toothed margins [4] The doubly or triply compound leaves are the largest of any temperate tree in the continental United States [5]

Panicles ~ The flowers are large, terminal, white panicles (loose branching cluster of flowers) that produce black berries in the fall. The flowers are attractive to may bee species and the fruits that are formed are important to birds as well. Not a plant for the garden, per se, but an interesting plant for naturalizing in woodlands or to grow in challenging locations [6]The inflorescences are compound panicles of floral umbellets. The abundant berries are eaten by such birds as the Cedar Waxwing, White-Throated Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, and Wood Thrush. [3]