Monday, February 11, 2013

Botanical Chinese Lanterns

Species name: Abutilon megapotamicum

Common name: trailing abutilon, Chinese lanterns

Location: UWO Greenhouse

When I first saw this plant (unlabelled in the greenhouse) I thought "what a neat plant! They look like little Chinese lanterns. I'm going to call this the Chinese lantern plant!" Turns out I'm just as good at naming plants with common names as those who have come before me decades (even centuries) before; one of the common names of this plant is indeed the Chinese lantern plant! Contrary to what you might think from the name, it is not native to China, or anywhere in Asia for that matter. It is native to South America, in the tropical forests of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. I'm not sure of the status of this species in its native range, but if it's going through what every other plant native to the Amazon is going through it will be at risk of becoming threatened if the rate of deforestation doesn't drastically decrease.

The way that this plant flowers is completely backwards from what you would guess based on the images, and completely backwards from what I thought in my mind. I thought that I could blog about how the fruit of this species was especially cool because they have paper-thin walls, and the walls of the fruit either are shaken open in the wind when the fruit is mature or they are auto-digested in order to release the seeds. In fact, that red fruit-like structure is the immature flower before it has opened up. Those red "fruit walls" are actually sepals, the bract-like structures that cover the developing flower in order to protect it. What I thought was the spent flower, the picture at the bottom, that was turning into the fruit is actually the flower growing out of the protecting bracts and eventually it will unfurl and be a bright yellow-orange. The plant sure stumped me! I was thinking it was very closely related to the bladder cherry (also called the Chinese lantern plant), but they're not at all related and not used at all for the same reasons. The bladder cherry is sometimes used as an edible plant, but I've only ever heard of it being used as a decorative plant. In fact, one of the uses my supervisor told me about the lantern plant I'm sure you can do with this one, too: literally turn them into lanterns. During the summer when these are ready to bloom, go out and catch lightning bugs (or fireflies; whatever you called them when you were a kid!). Gently squeeze the sides of the red sepals until they start to split open at the bottom. Stuff some lightning bugs in, and voila! Glowing botanical lanterns. Just remember to let the bugs back out after you've taken some photos.

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