Flowers Without Foliage

Colchicum sp.

The genus Colchicum gets its name from an early kingdom (sixth to first century B.C.) of what is now western Georgia along the east end of the Black Sea. Colchis was home of Medea and a destination of Jason and the Argonauts. The old kingdom represents the eastern boundary of the geographic distribution of Colchis autumnale, which receives its scientific binomial in 1753 from Linneaus himself.

Most Americans know the plant as the “autumn crocus” for its crocus-like flowers and odd habit of sending up a flower from the tuber-like corm between August and November and then sending the leaves up later. Many members of the Colchicaceae family have this habit. To make matters somewhat confusing some actual crocus species flower in the fall as well. (Furthermore some Colchicum species send up leaves in the spring and flower in the fall, and some flower and send up leaves and flowers at the same time.) The Crocus and Colchicum are quite unrelated, however; real croci are members of the order Aspargales, while Colchicaceae is in the order Liliales. It is a reasonably good example of convergent evolution; two unrelated taxa develop similar appearances.

Colchicum foliage with seed pods at the center.

It is perhaps not coincidental that Medea is usually represented as a sorceress, helping Jason to kill various monsters and people with her potions, and the leaves, seeds and corms of Colchicum are laced with the alkaloid colchicine, which at higher dosages is poisonous, but has been used in folk and modern medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including gout. It has even been investigated as an anti-cancer drug (but what hasn’t?).

Another fascinating use of colchicine is in the production of new plant varieties. Prof. T. Ombrello of Union County Community College in New Jersey writes:

Another major use of colchicine is based on the chemical’s effect on cell division in animals and plants. It interrupts the cell division process of mitosis, and as a result some treated cells become polyploids (having some multiple of their normal compliment of genetic information). Plant breeders have found this to be particularly useful in the development of new cultivated varieties of plants. Numerous plants available to the consumer today are the result of colchicine treatments to induce polyploidy. Interestingly enough, the polyploid inducing and anti-inflammatory effects of colchicine may have a common denominator: the chemical’s disruption of a cellular component called the microtubules.

Colchicum‘s beauty and exotic, leafless appearance has contributed to its long-lasting popularity as an ornamental. There are many, many cultivars of C. autumnale alone, but only a few other species out the 45 in the genus – C. speciosum, C. album, C. corsicum and C. agrippinum – have attracted horticulturalists. There are about 15 genera in the family, which distributed through Europe into west Asia and then down through eastern Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. (According to the USDA, over the years C. autumnale has been naturalized in a few areas in the U.S. and Canada.)

Colchicum in the lawn

Growing Colchicum from corms is apparently very easy as long as they are planted in well-drained areas in dappled shade (under large trees with high canopies). They can forced by simply leaving them on the windowsill. Growing them from seed, however, requires soaking them for a few days prior to sowing them, and they should scattered in a grit mixture. One horticulturalist recommended sowing C. speciosum seeds in a pots in a cold frame, predicting that they may take as long as 18 months to germinate (they require a summer drought and a winter cooling period). Once these seedlings have germinated they make take three to six years to send up their first flowers.

I have seen isolated bunches of Colchicum planted and found them to be startlingly beautiful because they are such are surprise at this time of the year and because they are often under over hanging branches, which adds to a sense of mystery. However, professionals recommend planting hundreds or thousands of them in wide drifts across open areas under large trees (your classic “park-like setting’ a la Olmsted). The petals of the flowers are translucent, so on a bright autumn day the ground can appear to be glowing with lavender light.

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Childhood Memory Thickens

I’m not sure what made me think of tapioca recently. My mother would make what we called “tapioca” and most of the world apparently called “tapioca pudding” at irregular intervals through my childhood. We had Jell-O far more often and what we referred to as “pudding” (chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch, in that order of frequency) nearly as much. There wasn’t much to the preparation of these desserts; they came in a box, warm water was added and then for a maddening length of time (for a child) we had to wait for them to “set.”

Tapioca pudding; pearls visible

Tapioca appeared less often. The reason, not surprisingly, is that it takes a little more effort to make tapioca. Elise at SimplyRecipes.com took me right back when she said that her parents (plural!) did not make it often because it required continuous stirring. Looking at her recipe I can see that my mother might not have wanted to spring for all the milk and eggs that go into it.

As a child I had no idea where tapioca came from, although as an adult I became vaguely aware that it was ultimately derived from a plant. That plant is the cassava (Manihot esculenta) and more specifically the cassava root. While it is native to the Caribbean and northern South America, the cassava was brought all over the world by the Spanish and the Portugese after they noticed that the tribal peoples of the New World depended heavily on the root as a source of carbohydrates (there is nearly nothing else in it). It has long since been integrated into the cuisines of Africa, south Asia, southeast Asia, and the Phillipines.

Cassava tubers and leaves

The cassava is a small shrub that has either green or red branches. The green-branched variety harbors high levels of a glucoside that metabolizes to cyanide, and the tubers of the red-branched variety, while more benign, must also be processed before being used as food. The name, originally tipi ‘oca, is from the Tupi language of Brazil. It combines three words in that language that describe the process by which the starch is extracted from the root: ty means “juice,” pya means “heart,” and oca is the verb “to remove.”

Once the starch is isolated from the root it is made into flakes, sticks, or “pearls.” My mother bought the pearls, and they didn’t entirely dissolve away in process of making the pudding, which gave it a characteristically (and to me appealingly) lumpy texture. (I was and remain across-the-boards consistent in this textural preference, opting for lumpinesss of oatmeal over the smooth of Cream of Wheat every time.) The sticks are actually four-sided, short and stubby. Traditionally they were brown, but they now are available in all kinds of bright colors, as are the pearls.

Multi-colored tapioca pearls

I think what made me think of tapioca as an adult was seeing it occcasionally in the list of ingredients in some processed foods. It is frequently used as a thickening agent in pie fillings to prevent the fruit from collapsing out of a slice when the pie is still warm. EverythingPies.com notes that while cornstarch or arrowroot are usually adequate, if a lot of sugar is added to the pie this will introduce more moisture and you might want to replace half the added cornstarch with tapioca. The cassava root extract is apparently the thickener to use when you really serious about thickening.

Another common tapioca based “food” is bubble tea, a fad that I confess has completely passed me by. Originally a Taiwanese confection made from black tea, milk, large tapioca pearls, and honey, it has since diversified to include green instead of black tea and a pretty much infinite variety of sweeteners. Although I havn’t seen it stated anywhere, it would seem that “bubble” tea is a corruption of boba tea. Boba is one of the Chinese words used to describe the tapioca pearls.