Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why would an orchid want to smell like a person?


From GardenDrum...

Why would an orchid want to smell like a human? To attract a mosquito of course.
Orchids are one of nature’s canniest plants, disguising themselves as all sorts of ways to attract their pollinators. But what’s a blood-sucking mosquito going to get out of a plant?
Researchers from the University of Washington have discovered that Platanthera obtusata, a USA native orchid that grows in boggy areas, takes it to a new level, emitting an odour that smells just like humans. This smell attracts the local tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus).
Female mosquitos need more than just blood to feed them up ready to lay eggs, they also need carbohydrates as well, which they can get from a pollen feed. The orchid gets pollinated and the mosquito gets its carbs.
But it was the scent analysis that got the scientists excited, when they discovered that out of the cocktail of scent compounds the orchid was exuding, it was a human-like smell that was attracting the mosquitos. This open up possibilities for using this scent as bait in mosquito traps.
[Photo source http://www.forestryimages.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=5537299
Author Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org]

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Plants have evolved forgetfulness to wipe out memory of stress

NEW SCIENTIST

Posted originally: 19 February 2016


Being adapted to floods isn’t ideal if you’re growing in a dry place
Peter Crisp
Plants can teach us a thing or two about dealing with the ups and downs of life. They may have evolved the ability to forget stressful situations, as a way of dealing with highly unpredictable environments.
Some plants have “long-term memory”. For instance, Arrhenatherum elatius, a perennial grass species common in Europe, seems to remember drought and is better able to defend against damage from excessive sunlight than plants that haven’t been through an earlier drought.
Such experience helps prime plants to produce the necessary proteins and chemicals at short notice should stressful conditions recur.
Plants can preserve such memories across generations, at times via epigenetic mechanisms, which influence whether or not genes are expressed.
Better to forget?
But when Peter Crisp at the Australian National University in Canberra and his colleagues scoured the literature for examples of such memory of stressful events, they found that memory is more the exception rather than rule. “Generally plants are good at forgetting,” says Crisp.
The team argues that plants are making a trade-off. While being epigenetically primed against previously experienced stress can be beneficial, it also comes with costs.
“You could have an organism that’s spending way too much energy transcribing genes that really aren’t necessary at a specific time,” says team member Steven Eichten.
What’s more, such memory can be bad for future generations. For example, drought-stressed Polygonum hydropiper, a knotweed, passes on its stress response to seedlings, which become smaller, with slower-growing roots – even if they are grown in a drought-free environment.
Competing processes
Crisp and his team say that whether a plant forms a memory depends on what happens after a stressful experience. During this “recovery phase”, the plant can either consolidate its stress response and remain genetically primed, or reset itself to its prior state.
For a new memory to be formed, a plant has to make a protein that will affect its own DNA, affecting future behaviour.
This memory formation has to contend with a process called RNA decay. In cells, double-stranded DNA is transcribed into single-stranded RNA, before being translated into proteins.
RNA decay regulates the amount of RNA molecules that can be turned into proteins, and it can disrupt the RNA molecules related to the stress response, thus preventing memory formation, say Crisp and his colleagues.
Plants, it seems, would rather forget than hold grudges. “I like this idea very much,” says Frantisek Baluska, who studies plant intelligence and behaviour at the University of Bonn, Germany.
But he points out that plants also have “short-term memory”, which doesn’t depend on DNA and RNA. “This type of memory is not studied properly in plants,” he says.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501340



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cartoonist Michael Leunig's life as a guerrilla gardener on the curly and narrow

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

Cartoonist Michael Leunig's life as a guerrilla gardener on the curly and narrow

Friday 22 January 2016 1:53PM
Tim Entwisle
Whimsical cartoonist Michael Leunig has always had a connection with nature, even sneaking out as a young man to illegally plant gum trees in Melbourne's western suburbs. He joins Tim Entwisle to talk nature and his favourite trees.
Lines represent root and branch systems, fundamental to our belief systems.
MICHAEL LEUNIG, CARTOONIST
In October last year, cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig planted a tree in Melbourne Gardens, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (of which I'm director and chief executive). This was the second in a rebooted Commemorative Tree Program, following at a safe distance behind musician Nick Cave's planting of a Henry's lime the year before.
Like Cave, Leunig has a distinctive individual style and is a fitting representative of creative and liberal Melbourne. For 46 years he has been contributing his whimsy and wit to newspapers, and in July last year he celebrated his 70th birthday. As a bonus, he regularly references trees and nature in his pictures and writing.
I'll get back to that commemorative tree later, but when I chatted to Leunig for Talking Plants it was in a less orderly garden. We met near Rushall station, about five kilometres from the Melbourne CBD, to talk about a restoration project he has been involved with for the past five years.
Leunig was brought up in the largely treeless western suburbs of Melbourne, where he soon developed a 'yearning for plants'. He also acquired a passion for illegal planting, venturing out at night to plant eucalypts in nature strips. Some of his successes can still be seen today, where large spotted gums (Eucalyptus maculata) push up the pavement in Melbourne's west.
The restoration of native vegetation is a very grand gardening project. The Merri Creek scheme predates Leunig's time as a local resident, and converting this 'dumping ground' to a semblance of nature has depended on a huge community of volunteers. 'Anyone who has planted a tree has not acted in vain,' he says. 'Better that than the football, but that's just a personal preference.'
The creek forms a curved (or curly) line through a city otherwise defined by straight lines. In Leunig's view it is nature asserting itself: 'Lines represent root and branch systems, fundamental to our belief systems.'
Plants, according to Leunig, are taken in subconsciously. As a child you are enchanted by them and build fairy gardens. In the end, 'it's almost like you are married to plants'. He says an Aboriginal friend once told him she felt married to a tree, and that it drew its marks on her body, an act that strengthened that marriage bond.
When we sought a tree for Leunig to plant in the botanic gardens, we looked for a similar kind of connection. At first we sought to reference his love of curly people and plants with 'tortured' willows or hazels, but we settled in the end on a tree with just a hint of asymmetry, and one that should survive Melbourne's toughening climate—the Saharan cypress,Cupressus depreziana.
While not really curly, it does develop a curious habit. The Saharan cypress is, as you'd expect from the name, a rather drought-tolerant conifer. It's from the central Sahara Desert, growing above 1000 metres in eastern Algeria's Tassili n'Ajjer Mountains. It was brought to the attention of western scientists by Captain Duprez, the commander of a French army camp stationed nearby.
There are only 233 individual Saharan cypresses remaining in their native habitat. They are so long-lived—the oldest is dated at 2,300 years old—that each tree has its own name. In the local Tamashek language these names relate to location (The One Near The Flat Stones), use (To Hand Things On) or perhaps an important nearby feature (Pool Of Water At Its Roots).
Tamashek also provides an intriguing common name: taroutTarout is a butcher's term for the windpipe and attached lungs of an animal, which, due to its wonky top, our tree will eventually have a passing resemblance to: not curly, but a little off-centre perhaps. It's also a nod to Leunig, whose father was a slaughterman, and who himself worked in abattoirs in his early years.
Temperatures in the Algerian mountains are not unlike those in Melbourne, although it does get a little hotter here in summer. Annual rainfall is variable there but is often only 30 millimetres a year, compared to our current 650 in Melbourne. While we anticipate a more extreme climate over coming decades we don't expect rainfall to drop that much. On the other hand, we are always on the lookout for plants that need less water and are able to survive the occasional drought. We expect this species will do just fine in Melbourne Gardens.
Back at Merri Creek, admiring some of the trees that have lived through recent climatic changes, I ask Leunig to name his favourite tree. After saying he loves them all dearly, he does single out the red ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), with its black-furrowed bark, and the blackwood, a wattle with a more European form. But finally he settles on the ubiquitous river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).
'They have their ways ... and the bees love them. Maybe I've got a patriotic prejudice for these local trees. They are the land, the land expressing itself, and you just bond to them quite naturally. Gradually, over a lifetime, they become quite dear to you,' he says.
In many ways Leunig has retained his childhood enchantment with nature and trees. Age does bring wisdom though, and he concludes his paean to the river red gum with 'you don't sleep under them at night of course'.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

'Heaven on Earth'in a botanist's garden

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

'Heaven on Earth' in a botanist's garden

Friday 15 January 2016 2:10PM
Tim Entwisle
Following six years in London, botanist Steve Hopper returned to the granite coastline of south-western Australian to settle on the edge of a global biodiversity hotspot. He takesTim Entwisle on a tour of his garden.
King George Sound, in the far south-west corner of Australia, is where English explorer Captain George Vancouver landed in 1791. A decade later Matthew Flinders anchored in the same bay, along with botanist Robert Brown and gardener Peter Goode, who took the opportunity to collect 500 or so plants. It was their first taste of the exotic (to them) Australian flora.
Today King George Sound is where botanist Steve Hopper lives with his wife Chris, in a small hamlet behind Goode Beach, surrounded by peppermint woodland and within earshot of the surf.
We have a responsibility to look after plants in our gardens and stop them escaping.
STEVE HOPPER, BOTANIST
Hopper has only recently returned to Australia following a six-year stint as head of the best known botanic garden on the planet, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, in London.
Before that he was director of Kings Park and Botanic Garden in Perth. For 40 years, in between running botanic gardens and other roles, he has studied the diverse and spectacular flora of Western Australia.
He says it was the plants, country and family that drew him back to Western Australia. 'This is like heaven on Earth for someone interested in field biology,' he says. 'It sits on the edge of a global biodiversity hotspot.'
We are 400 kilometres south-west of Perth, on a granite coastline. Hopper likes granite, particularly the plants that grow in and around the ephemeral pools that form in large blocks of granitic rock. He also has a passion for understanding how Aboriginal people have lived in these landscapes, and what we might learn from them.
The garden and house at Goode Beach were already established when the Hoppers moved here a few years ago. Most of the garden plants were Australian natives, with a few exotics suited to the local climate, such as heathland plants from South Africa.
Natural coastal vegetation laps around the fence, including dense thickets of coast sword-sedge (Lepidosperma gladiatum) which the local Noongar people use to make twine for binding. 'If you pull gently on the leaves, it has a white leaf base that you can chew on,' Hopper says. 'It tastes like coconut.' Even a marshy sedgeland has its uses.
As in most parts of Australia, invasive plants are a problem. 'Parts of Albany look more like Cape Town than Australia,' he says. 'We have a responsibility to look after plants in our gardens and stop them escaping.'
In his own garden, a bright orange flowered plant from South Africa called soldier boys (Lachenalia) is 'quietly going feral' in his front yard. Steve is ready to suppress its expansion should it look like jumping the fence. Of the native plants, Hopper mentions the pin-cushion hakea (Hakea laurina), which birds and honey possums love. They have placed a bird bath nearby so the honey eaters, all 15 species, can feed, wash and feel secure when they visit the garden.
There's a local pigface (Carpobrotus edulis), endemic to the south-west, with purple-pink daisy-like flowers. Pigface is a fire suppressant and is easy to grow. Its common name is Hottentot fig, borrowed from a South African species, which in turn was labelled by Europeans who came up with Hottentot as their best attempt at a local language designation. If you peel back the skin from the mature red fruits, you find a fig-like inner core that tastes pleasantly sweet and salty.
'A million years ago or so, the ancestors of Carpobrotus edulis lobbed into Australia from South Africa, and we now have half a dozen endemic species here,' Hopper says.
It's the kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), however, that feed Hopper's mind. Soon after he arrived in Goode Beach he bought seven species from the Friends of Kings Park in Perth. He wanted to return to a conundrum he first tackled 40 years ago in his PhD study on the classification, biology and ecology of this genus.
It was relaxing science. Every morning for two months Hopper sat in his living room and recorded how and when the flowers were visited by local birds. There are two main types of Anigozanthos: those with short stems, often called cat's paw or catspaw, and those with long stems or scapes, the 'true' kangaroo paw. The Western Australian floral emblem is one of the tall ones, a red and green flowered kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos manglesii. All are visited and pollinated by honeyeaters, standing on the ground to feed from the cat's paw and perched on the stem to reach the kangaroo paw flowers.
Hopper found that the red wattlebirds flitter around almost exclusively at ground level when the cat's paws are peaking, then swap to perching on stems, hopping or flying to the next, when the species with taller stems are in full bloom.
In a sense, Hopper says, the plants have worked out how they can get as much of their pollen as possible to a flower of the same species. This means there is more cross-pollination and more chance to adapt and remain competitive in a changing environment. It also makes it easier for the wattlebirds to get food, saving energy by only having to stay at one level.
You get this same kind of pattern, and the mutual evolution of plants and animals, with prostrate banksias and grevilleas. So even though the number of different pollinators is limited in Western Australia, there can be mechanisms that encourage plant species to favour particular floral attributes.
That's just one reason why the flora is so diverse in south-west Western Australia. Another is that the south-west is what Steve calls an OCBIL—an old climatically buffered and infertile landscape. OCBILs are scattered around Australia and other parts of the world, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. Much of the Northern Hemisphere is post-glacial, with the plants and animals we see today only able to return 18,000 years or so ago.
Australia, on the other hand, has been mostly exposed and glacier-free for some 250 million years. The last volcanos were about 130 million years ago and oceans have surrounded the continent for 90 million years. Over many millions of years rain has left the soils infertile, placing another pressure on plants and animals to adapt and in the process evolve more species. This aggressive evolution continues around Goode Beach and elsewhere in Australia, but it's in the south-west corner where we find the greatest diversity of species.
Hopper says south-west Western Australia has such biodiversity not only because there are more species evolving, but because there are fewer being lost. In fact, there is good evidence that what we call 'speciation' (the generation of new species) occurs at the same rate in western and eastern Australia. In the east, for some reason, more go extinct. To understand why, perhaps we need to spend more time in our gardens.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

Succulents in the suburbs

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

Succulents in the suburbs

Monday 4 January 2016 2:05PM
Tim Entwisle
The director of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, Tim Entwisle, heads to Albion Park in NSW to meet Jayde Caldwell, supreme champion of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales, to get acquainted with some prickly plants.
Pulling up into the drive of Jayde Caldwell's home in an Albion Park subdivision, an hour inland from Wollongong, I found a house like any other. Yet there were already signs of something exotic going on behind the brick veneer.
Growing cacti can be very competitive but Caldwell comes from good stock.
On the front porch I see potted succulents, plants with fleshy stems and leaves that come from deserts and other dry parts of the world. Caldwell's parents meet me at the front door, but Caldwell, 30, soon takes over and guides me through the house to see his collection.
Caldwell is a gardener. His day job is managing a retail nursery in western Sydney, where he cares for plants of all kinds, but at home it's all about cacti and succulents. He's a prize-winning grower of these striking exotic plants, and was most recently crowned supreme champion of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales (after a brief period as novice cactus and succulent champion).
Growing cacti can be very competitive but Caldwell comes from good stock: his uncle Lester Myers is a legendary cactus grower in Gilgandra, in inland New South Wales, a place more suited—you would think—to these drought-loving plants. Albion Park gets very hot and very cold, and also wet and windy. So although most of Caldwell's plants survive outdoors, they are mostly protected by shade cloth and a transparent roof to keep out the rain.
A walk through Jayde's collection is a (quick) walk around the world. First we visit southern Africa, via so-called 'living stones' (Lithops) from the deserts of Namibia. They are tricky to grow but reward with a variety of colours, of which red (called 'rubra') is the prettiest.
We pass some sea urchin plants (Asterophytum), many of which also look like coral. It sounds very marine, but they actually live in North America, in places like Texas or Mexico. Some have attractive white flecks—Caldwell's narration is full of flecking, blotches and tactile textures.
Caldwell told me it was a pity I hadn't arrived a week earlier, when the flowers were spectacular (ah, to have a dollar or two for every time someone has said that to me). There's a sea urchin cultivar called 'super karbuto', bred in Japan and now one of the most popularly grown and shown—a prize-winner.
Still in America, down Mexico way, we turn to the mamillarias. These are popular and tough cacti, pretty easy to grow, and there are more than 200 species to choose from. The one we stop at is grey and soft, as many are. Although it's covered in spines you can pet it like cat or dog. This particular one is 14 years old and Caldwell grew it from seed. It has 60 balls of grey softness, and looks a bit like an exotic cauliflower. Caldwell confesses it is perhaps his favourite plant in the collection—or at least in the top five.
Again, it's not in flower but 'you should have seen it'. It blooms in winter, which is unusual, and the flowers have a very sweet perfume. Most cacti don't have perfumes, says Caldwell, and most flower in summer.
Then it's back across the Atlantic, to the other side of Africa, where in dry parts of the island of Madagascar you'll find not only lemurs but pachypodiums. You'll even find the two together. Apparently the endemic mammals enjoying climbing the thorny stems of pachypodiums (which have common names like elephant foot or trunk, a nod to the swollen base of the stem, which stores water and helps the plant survive in its desert home).
We see a cristate or fasciate specimen—a mutant growth form with crested tops, and apparently a big success in cactus shows. The next one's a prize-winner too and I suspect it helped Caldwell become supreme champion at last year's Royal Easter Show in Sydney.
There are many other cacti, many other succulents, and many other stories of arid lands and strange animals in Caldwell's backyard. He says cacti and succulents are becoming increasing popular as our climate changes and becomes dryer and hotter in many places. His neighbours are intrigued—one often looks over the fence to see how the cacti are faring. But, Caldwell admits, some people still hate them.
Me? I used to grow and admire them as a youth but strayed away during my young adult years. Now, I think I'm back! I'm not a dispassionate observer, though. While director of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust I was patron of the Cactus and Succulent Society of NSW. I'm now patron of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Australia, based in Melbourne.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

The other MCG: Milson Community Garden

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

The other MCG: Milson Community Garden

Wednesday 6 January 2016 2:10PM
Tim Entwisle
Though it's not as famous as its Melbourne namesake, the Milson Community Garden in the northern Sydney suburb of Kirribilli provides its volunteer gardeners with a place to interact with nature and get out of the house. Tim Entwislereports from a veggie patch with a view.
A few years ago we sold our family home and bought a small apartment on the more modest side of Kirribilli, an otherwise well-to-do suburb jutting into Sydney Harbour near that famous bridge. When we visit Sydney we walk to a small park nearby, Milson Park, on the waterfront.
[It's a place to] drift, muse, think about plants, or simply look at the sky and clouds.
BRUCE, COMMUNITY GARDENER
This 100-year-old park has beautifully lush lawns all year round, a small cluster of tall cotton palms, a couple of stately Moreton Bay figs and some lovely old frangipanis. But what has always intrigued me is the small vegetable plot on the sunny side of the park.
Granted, it's as neatly manicured as the rest of the park, but how and why is it there?
I visited on a Sunday morning, when a dozen or so volunteers—and their eager children—were hard at work watering, weeding and picking. It was a typical day in the Milson Community Garden, or MCG (a sacrilegious acronym in Melbourne but here either cheeky or oblivious, I'm not sure which). 
Six years ago a group of dog walkers met and mused about establishing a community garden in the area, daring to suggest it could become a part of this popular municipal park. To kick things off they planted herbs in some of the garden beds to see what local interest they could generate—today we'd call it guerrilla gardening.
They attracted interest all right, but from the council gardeners, who promptly removed these weedy plantings. The dog walkers replanted, the gardeners re-weeded. And so on.
To break the impasse, the fledgling community garden group approached the then mayor of North Sydney, Genia McCaffery, who responded enthusiastically. She and her fellow councillors suggested they put in a submission and, well, there is now a community garden in Milson Park.
As befits a garden in such a prestigious location, the design is very formal, almost medieval. There are also practical considerations. Beds are raised high to make it easier for the more mature volunteers to tend the garden—no bending and back straining here.
The plantings include the usual suspects—tomatoes, beans, lettuce and common herbs—along with a selection of exotic and heirloom varieties. It seems there is a strong Japanese influence, led perhaps by Yumi Sakauchi, the garden's operation coordinator.
One of the highlights on my visit was a small purple shrub called shiso (Perilla frutescens). Its leaves, green or purple, are used as a salad or sashimi garnish and as a flavouring for pickled plums (umeboshi).
Alongside the Asian greens (and purples), are heirloom varieties of more common vegetables, such as the impressive tromboncino, a type of zucchini that looks like its musical instrument namesake. Like your regular zucchini, the fruit is better eaten when young and small (Sakauchi does recall a 60 centimetre long tromboncino that was quite edible, but not in one sitting).
There are lots of pretty flowers as well, some deliberate companion plantings to discourage pest insects or, in the case of purple flowered plants, to attract bees. Others appear spontaneously from windblown seed or in fresh compost, and if they are pretty enough they stay.
I asked Sakauchi whether everyone has their own patch within the garden, as is the case with London allotments. The answer is no. Here everyone contributes to a common harvest and the work and produce are shared more or less equally. At the end of today's session—a sticky Sydney summer day—the ripe fruit or vegetables will be shared among everyone who's there at the end. Supporters can pick any herbs or leaves they want during the week.
The gate is always open, so some uninvited harvesting is inevitable. Thankfully, though, most visitors respect that volunteers are running this garden and the produce is part of their reward.
The other big attraction for volunteers is simply the chance to spend time outdoors, with friends and among plants. Bruce, a regular for four years, lives in unit without a garden. He says it's innate to want to grow things, and a few pot plants on the balcony are not enough.  
For Bruce, and for Sakauchi, the MCG is a place for interacting with nature in the middle of a vibrant city. As Bruce puts it, '[It's a place to] drift, muse, think about plants, or simply look at the sky and clouds.'

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

Colour in a dead garden

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

Colour in a dead garden (inside the artist's studio)

Friday 8 January 2016 9:31AM
Tim Entwisle
Les Musgrave has won many accolades for his garden in the NSW Southern Highlands. Meanwhile, his wife Elaine, a botanical artist, has created something more unusual: an indoor garden populated entirely by dead and dying plants.Tim Entwisle takes a look inside her studio.
Elaine and Les Musgrave have a gorgeous garden in the Southern Highlands, about 100 kilometres south of Sydney. In a region with a reputation for beautiful gardens, Les has created something particularly attractive, with lots of colour, exotic perfumes and sweeping vistas.
But I was visiting for the other Musgrave garden, which is inside an artist's studio that used to be a horse stable. It's a garden full of dead plants.
I see something and I've just got to paint it.
ELAINE MUSGRAVE, BOTANICAL ARTIST
Elaine, a botanical artist with more than 20 years experience, attracts as many accolades for her paintings as Les gets for his garden landscape. They open their garden and studio to the public each year.
You'll be able to see some of Elaine's artworks in an upcoming florilegium—a collection of paintings of plants from a particular place, in this case Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. The project started 10 years ago, when I was executive director of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, and includes work by artists from Australia and overseas. A book will be published in March 2016, accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney.
Elaine's four contributions to the florilegium were all painted in the adapted stable. 'If you look around my studio, there are a lot of dead things,' she says. And indeed there are. Many of the plants arrive fresh from the living garden before slowly decaying as Elaine paints their particulars.
I look at one with curling brown leaves and Elaine explains she can still get vital information for her painting from this specimen.  The way she arranges the leaves and the general composition depends on botanical accuracy and a common reference point. She can always chase up a fresh leaf from outside for the finer detail.
Sometimes fresh material isn't needed at all. Artichoke flowers, says Elaine, become more beautiful as they dry. 'I didn't realise the seeds keep popping out,' she says. 'They fly around the studio.'
The individual seeds look like insects or spiders, and cling to any unswept surface. There are some on the bookcase, which Elaine says have been there three years. And she avoids dusting a shelf that is now home to an odd assortment of plant detritus: chestnuts from a garden across the road, banksia cones, and the seed heads of poppies and Formosa lilies.
'I love dead and dying subjects—anything to do with fungi and seed pods,' says Elaine. That said, she does paint in a whole variety of colours. 'I don't do a lot of yellow,' she confesses. 'I see something and I've just got to paint it.'
Elaine says she likes to paint fruits and vegetables. I ask her why. 'They don't move as much as flowers.'
I hadn't thought about it this way, but time moves at a different pace for a botanical artist. For us, a flower is pretty static and looks the same for at least as long as we look at it. The artist, staring at it minute by minute, day after day, sees it turn towards the light, flop over and lose petals one by one.
Elaine prefers to work on one plant, and one painting, at a time, but often has many on the brush. A couple of weeks ago, friends phoned to say they had a Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) in flower, so Elaine dropped everything (metaphorically) and started on this rare plant. She had a leaf and a flowering stem to work from, plus lots of photos and some quick colour charts prepared from the freshly picked blooms. The leaf has lasted well, but the flowers are now gone.
Interestingly (at least to me) the plant she had to 'drop' was the giant honey flower (Melianthus major), a common plant and a weed in New Zealand.
Through the studio window you can see her husband's living garden creations, all blue and white flowers. Les has also created a 'not green' garden with lots of burgundy and other coloured plants (he does allow a few of the lighter or softer greens in, but clearly enjoys playing with colour). Elaine herself prefers muted shades. She is particularly fond of trying to recreate the many kinds of green she sees in the plant world—something like the Inuit's many kinds of snow, I presume.
By the door are some dried hydrangea flowers, and next to them a large painting of the same but with more colour. Only slightly more, though: soft browns, mauves, purples and greens, all captured as the flowers dried. Elaine says she likes to watch and paint flowers as they fade. Odd perhaps, but I can see from her studio garden that there is plenty to like in dead and dying plants.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.