From vine to towering tree, in four steps

Morning visit to Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden, to stave off catatonic despair at the news of the day. One bed cleared out to make space for a pollinator garden. Lots of plants at the ends of their seasons, winter plants not yet going. But tons of cheery autumn-blooming anemones. Monarch butterflies. And four especially notable plants: hyacinth beans, ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia, a mountain cabbage tree, and a cucumber tree (a species of magnolia).

Hyacinth bean. Lablab purpurea. Very pretty: purple stems, purple flowers, even purple seed pods:



But don’t eat the beans off the vine. From Wikipedia:

Lablab purpureus is a species of bean in the family Fabaceae [the legumes]. It is native to Africa and it is cultivated throughout the tropics for food. English language common names include hyacinth bean, lablab-bean, bonavist bean/pea, dolichos bean, seim bean, lablab bean, Egyptian kidney bean, Indian bean, bataw and Australian pea. It is the only species in the monotypic genus Lablab.

… The hyacinth bean is an old domesticated pulse and multi-purpose crop. Due to seed availability of one forage cultivar (cv. Rongai), it is often grown as forage for livestock and as an ornamental plant. In addition, it is cited both as a medicinal plant and a poisonous plant.

The fruit and beans are edible if boiled well with several changes of the water. Otherwise, they are toxic due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides, glycosides that are converted to hydrogen cyanide when consumed. Signs of poisoning include weakness, vomiting, dyspnea, twitching, stupor, and convulsions. It has been shown that there is a wide range of cyanogenic potential among the varieties.

The leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. The flowers can be eaten raw or steamed. The root can be boiled or baked for food. The seeds are used to make tofu and tempeh.

(With such plants — and there are a great many of them — I always wonder how people discovered that they could be made edible.)

Contrast hyacinth beans with another colorful legume, scarlet runner beans. From my 9/9/17 posting “Runner ducks, runner beans, rubber ducks”, with a section on Phaseolus coccineus, known as runner bean, scarlet runner bean, or multiflora bean:


No special treatment required.

‘Soft Caress’ mahonia. Mahonia hybrid. Covered well in this blog last year, but this pretty, elegant low shrub was again in bloom this morning, so here’s a reprise. From my 10/17/17 posting “Mahonia, Berberis, Ilex”:


At first glance, [Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ is] not at all like the mahonia shrub my father grew in our garden when I was a teenager: this plant has bamboo-like foliage, but the mahonia in our Wyomissing Hills PA garden had leaves that looked like holly leaves, and my dad referred to it as an Oregon grape holly: grape for the blue berries on the plant during the winter, holly for the prickly Ilex-like leaves, and Oregon for its origin in the shady forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Now it turns out that the holly-leaved mahonia of my youth and the bamboo-leaved mahonia in Gamble Garden are shade-loving evergreen plants with similar yellow flowers and blue berries, and are in fact both in the genus Mahonia, very closely related to barberries (in the genus Berberis). Both Mahonia and Berberis are in the barberry family (Berberidaceae) — with nothing much taxonomically to do with either hollies (in their own plant family, Aquifoliaceae) or bamboos (in the grass family, Poaceae).

Mountain cabbage tree. Cussonia paniculata. Posted about briefly before. From my 8/26/15 posting “Vining invasives”, noting that this is “another plant in the aralia family” (along with porcelainberry, ivy, and aralias):


From the PlantZAfrica site on Cussonia paniculata:

This is a short, thick-set tree, rarely exceeding 5 m in height. It is sparsely branched with grey, longitudinal fissured, thick and corky bark. The stem is thick and squat. This plant is considered a pachycaul [with a disproportionately thick trunk for its height, and few branches] succulent on the basis of its swollen stem base or tuber which forms early in plants grown from seed.

… The large, digitately compound, cabbage blue leaves are one of its most distinctive features.

… these trees bear small, green, stalked flowers; in short dense spikes, making up a large, branched inflorescence at the end of the trunk or branches. Flowers are followed by fleshy and purple-maroon fruits, which mature in May to June [in the Southern Hemisphere].

The Gamble Garden plant, only a few feet high, is blooming right now, in branches of flower spikes like these:


Cucumber tree. Magnolia acuminata. From across the garden, I could see a tree towering over the parking lot. This turned out to be a magnolia species I hadn’t noticed before. From Wikipedia:

Magnolia acuminata, commonly called the cucumber tree (often spelled as a single word “cucumbertree”), cucumber magnolia or blue magnolia, is one of the largest magnolias, and one of the cold-hardiest. It is a large forest tree of the Eastern United States and Southern Ontario in Canada. It is a tree that tends to occur singly as scattered specimens, rather than in groves.

The cucumber tree is native primarily within the Appalachian belt, including the Allegheny Plateau and Cumberland Plateau, up to western Pennsylvania and New York. [So the Gamble Garden tree is way far from home.]

… Unlike most magnolias, the flowers are not showy. They are typically small, yellow-green, and borne high in the tree in April through June. The leaves of Magnolia acuminata are pointed at the tip and provide it with its name – ‘acuminate’ means tapering to a fine point. The name Cucumber Tree refers to the unripe fruit, which is green and often shaped like a small cucumber; the fruit matures to a dark red color and is 6–8 cm long and 4 cm broad, with the individual carpels splitting open to release the bright red seeds, 10-60 per fruit.

A green fruit, and a ripe one:



3 Responses to “From vine to towering tree, in four steps”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’?
    Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ struck me as an oxymoron, since Mahonia is one of the prickliest plants I know. (I’ts a minor invasive here in east Tennessee.)

  2. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky shares some beautiful pictures of flowers from a garden in Palo […]

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