Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Fascinating, Fancy, Phenomenal Foliage

By Donna Porter

While the flower has typically been the part of the plant that receives the most recognition, admiration and glory, I would like to take this opportunity to sing praise and pay homage to the precious and incredible… leaf.  Yes, those little products of nature that block gutters, disrupt pool pumps and cause unsightly messes around your homes.  Superficially, they appear to be such an oh-so-simple creation of nature, but, in reality, they perform highly complex chemical processes that serve a multitude of important and amazing functions.  A plant’s foliage conducts a variety of feats while coloring and cloaking a good percentage of our world a beautiful green, and to understand it, or to at least be aware of its complexities, is to truly appreciate it.  It may play second fiddle to the flower, but its significance to life on earth, alone, elevates it high above. Between its epidermal layers, intricate and essential processes occur.  Processes such as photosynthesis – a  natural phenomena that could be defined as something nearing… miraculous.

To refresh your memory (as briefly and as simply as possible) on this amazing plant process, photosynthesis occurs in the leaf of a plant in the chloroplasts which are filled with chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is green pigments that absorb red and green light rays from the natural light spectrum. Utilizing this light energy, photosynthesis occurs.

Plant absorbs Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the air (which is the by-product of human and animal respiration and the burning of fossil fuels) uptakes water (H20) from the soil, and transforms this, with the help of sunlight, into carbohydrates/sugars/ (C6H12O6) and oxygen (O2). These carbohydrates that are produced are stored within the plant and later utilized by the plant in another complex process called respiration.  These “carbs” are also used by other living organisms, especially humans and animals, when they consume plant products. The Oxygen (O2) that is also produced is released into the atmosphere and is the air that we breathe. This well known (simplified) formula that I am sure you learned in your elementary school science class or high school biology is

CO2 + H20 àsunlightà C6H12O6 + O2.  The inner layers of the leaf are not only the location on a plant where photosynthesis occurs, but also respiration and transpiration.

Plant foliage provides us human inhabitants of this earth with numerous benefits including shade from a scorching sun, edible and highly nutritious greens to eat, medicines for our ailments, organic matter to refurbish our soils, rustling music for our ears, pleasure for our eyes and filtered air to breathe.

Leaves have always fascinated me. One of my all time favorite crops to grow, sell, admire and to eat was loose-leaf lettuce.  I became very interested in growing lettuce after visiting a highly unusual greenhouse operation on Martha’s Vineyard back in the 80’s.  This greenhouse was rustic on the outside, yet state-of-the- art on the inside. A rainbow of lettuce varieties were grown in 4” PVC pipes filled with a special growing mix and suspended from the ceiling’s rafters.  This unique operation supplied many of the high-end restaurants in Boston, MA with lettuce – lettuce that was harvested and sold “by the leaf” (versus by the head) and was the key that made this a very profitable business venture.  The leaves were hand-picked, then thoroughly washed, inspected and neatly packed into beautiful rows in large shallow boxes. You  have never seen such a sight as a box packed-full and arranged with an array of colorful, edible lettuce leaves such as Oakleaf, Deer Tongue, Red Romaine, Bibb, Boston or Red Sails… to name a few.  It was all that was necessary to make any salad an award winning, picture-perfect gourmet creation.

Living and working in the tropics, I am now discovering a new and exciting plethora of ornamental leaves.  I have become quite enthralled with the extraordinary variety of shapes, colors, textures and especially the patterns of the tropical foliage.  Take Crotons/Crotos (in Spanish), Codiaeum variegatum, for example.  There are not many other plants on this planet (coleus would be close) that can rival the patterns, colors and forms of the foliage of a Croton.

It never ceases to amaze me along my plant buying excursions to find yet another variety of Croton, with even more bizarre and more outlandish variegation than the last.  My imagination conjures up images of a laboratory, with two wild-haired, plant-breeding scientists in white lab coats (under the influence of some mind-altering drug) developing these plants – one trying to outdo the other.  But, contrary to my imagination, these wild and crazy-looking plants are actually found in the wild, in other parts of the tropical world, and brought into cultivation.  These are called ‘cultivars’ (cultivated varieties).  Other Croton oddities that I have seen, especially on-line, are the result of human manipulation and called hybrids (cross-pollination of two desired parent plants). The Croton story, itself, is quite fascinating and warrants its own article in a future issue.

Yes, flowers have, historically, received all the fame and the romanticism throughout the ages while their counterparts, leaves, have served to sustain them and to frame them. Flowers do provide us with unmatched beauty, color and fragrances and a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables…..and I adore them as well. But, the simple leaf, unlike the flower, needs no sexual parts or connotations, to lure you in or perform its magic.  In fact, there are some plants whose foliage is so divinely spectacular that a flower, well….. it’s  a bonus prize.  Plants like Bromeliads, Marantas and Calatheas – these plants need no help being majestically handsome and alluring.

So stop, witness and delight in the exhibition of the phenomenal array of foliage that keeps us alive and colors our world.   Admire a new palm leaf making its grand opening, or the unfurling of a fern frond, or the swaying dance of tender banana leaves in the breeze, or the soft, velvety texture of a new-born cycad leaf or a smooth, leathery Tabacon, or fun-stripped bromeliads, or fanciful coleus, cordylines or philodendron. There are just too many beauties to list.  How easy and fun it is with our magnificent choices of leaves, especially here in the tropics, to create “leaf” arrangements that can stand alone and put on their own unique show.

A Fancy Foliage Garden at the future botanical  garden  will  showcase, admire and celebrate….. leaves.  This will be a garden within the garden that will  “leave”  you…breathless.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 6 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149