Many years ago, I was in a college dorm where I could have only a plant or two. However, before I went to college, I had a small tropical garden in Maryland long before it was fashionable to have a tropical garden up north, so what I was suffering from was severe plant withdrawal. This malady was not assuaged by having just a couple of plants, and I was desperate to find an outlet for my botanical creativity. What I've written here is the first in a series of articles that will share with you the journey of imagination I embarked upon. . .
The Portal to Aroidia
Aroids have been a part of my plant life for nearly my whole life. I remember when I was 10 years old, and in Puerto Rico, where I saw a big Xanthosoma for the first time. I was almost beside myself, it was so exotic, mysterious, and tropical. I had never seen or imagined plants like that. Even then, a part of me knew that, somehow, I was going to be involved with these plants for many years to come. Little did I know that my fascination with aroids would lead me to a "portal" of sorts, a gateway to another "world", where imagination was my only limit.
From Zamioculcas to Pinnatidendron
While in college, I was introduced to an aroid called Zamioculcas zamiifolia, now known as the "ZZ plant". Back then it wasn't available on the market, and could be found only in plant collections. I was able to obtain a leaflet, having been told that I could grow an entire plant from it! This fired my imagination, as I had never seen an adult Zamioculcas, so I knew it would be a surprise when the little plant finally grew from this leaf (which it did). What I saw in my imagination before the fact, though, I knew I needed to illustrate on paper. This first vision of Aroidia was a young plant that I named Pinnatidendron altissimum (pinnati = pinnate; dendron = tree, altissimum = very tall). It wasn't too long before I "saw" what the adult version of this plant was, and the landscape of what I came to call Aroidia began unfolding before me. Serendipitously, I was taking a botanical illustration course at the time; what better environment could there have been for me to illustrate the landscape of Aroidia for the first time?
The biological archipelago takes shape
The thumbnail picture here is a portion of my original and first landscape drawing of Aroidia. Right in the middle of the picture, on the opposite bank of the waterway, is a large Pinnatidendron altissimum. The one you see there is about 200 feet tall, not yet mature in size. I came to imagine that these plants formed the "infrastructure", as it were, for what I was to envision werebiological archipelagos. These pseudo-landmasses floated lazily on the planetary ocean of Aroidia, moved around continually by ocean currents and ambient winds. I concluded then that mapping Aroidia would be an exercise in futility.
Curiously, I was never able to imagine the Pinnatidendron in bloom, but I later visualized why; the towering pinnate-leaved titan had a symbiotic relationship with a relatively diminutive shrubby plant called the Bead Tree, or what literally translated as "tree of the bead". This adorable shrub is so named because at every leaf axil is a bloom which yields bead-like red berries. The Bead Tree assumed the entire propagation function for the Pinnatidendron! Groves of Bead Trees were always in association with Pinnatidendron plants, and always at the waters' edge. The better to spread the seed abroad! And, knowing what I knew about the biological archipelagos, this made perfect sense. The discovery of the Bead Tree and the relationship it had with the Pinnatidendron was the briefest of introductions into the extensive mutualistic symbiosis on Aroidia. However, I was in for a LOT of surprises to come.
Movement everywhere, but not an animal in sight
My first really big surprise was the discovery that animal life was absent on Aroidia. This was vexing at first, as imagining animals that don't exist on Earth was easy for me, but I just couldn't imagine any existing on Aroidia. So my next question concerned how flowers got pollinated there. It wasn't long before I "saw" what appeared to be insects, but these were like no insects I knew of on Earth. These were active, motile lifeforms that were produced by various Aroidian plants, and they carried the pollen of their producer to a receptive inflorescence on another plant. What they represented was the gametophyte manifested at a level of prominence in the Aroidian plant life cycle. I named these frisky fertility agents pollenoids and began imagining what types of pollenoids each Aroidian plant would produce. Some were really bizarre, looking more like strange kinds of monstrous microorganisms, while others appeared almost like bees or flies on Earth. A few plants gave off radio frequency radiation when receptive, and their pollenoids used this both as an energy source and as a signal guiding them to the location of the receptive pistilloids!
As interesting as all this was, it was totally eclipsed during one of my musings about the Pinnatidendron. At that time I perceived a different sort of leaflets on a few of the leaves of certain specimens. Of course, leaflets is a relative term here as these "leaflets" were 5 to 10 feet long each! The unusual leaflets always came in pairs, and they appeared to emerge from the underside of the rachis, unlike the regular leaflets, which emerged from the upper side of the rachis. They also curved towards the tip of the leaf rather than straight out from the leaf as the regular leaflets did, and furthermore, they had a markedly different veination pattern.
Imagine my shock and amazement when, on one occasion, I visualized a pair of these leaflets detaching from the host leaf and gliding down slowly and deliberately as one, landing near to where I stood. I realized then that what I had seen wasn't a pair of leaflets at all. It was a living, moving creature, and it wasn't an animal.
LariAnn has been gardening and working with plants since her teenage years growing up in Maryland. Her intense interest in plants led her to college at the University of Florida, where she obtained her Bachelor's degree in Botany and Master of Agriculture in Plant Physiology. In the late 1970s she began hybridizing Alocasias, and that work has expanded to Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Caladiums as well. She lives in south Florida with her partner and son and is research director at Aroidia Research, her privately funded organization devoted to the study and breeding of new, hardier, and more interesting aroid plants.