Mystery Botany Theater

A fellow by the name of Joshua Siskin who writes a great greenery column for the Daily News solved a couple plant mysteries of mine last year. I accidentally stumbled upon an article of his last May detailing bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis), which happens to grow in our front yard and which I’d spent years wondering what it was. Having crossed that weird plant of my “WTF Is This” list thanks to him I then wrote him directly with a photo of another even stranger thing growing on the north side of the house about which I’d had an equally clueless

Almost right away he wrote back that it was rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyriferus), and I responded with my profuse appreciation for allowing me to exploit his encyclopedia botanical knowledge.

Which brings us to the tree centrally located in our backyard whose species I’ve always scratched my head about, and which when talking or writing about I never fail to identify as “the tree centrally located in our backyard.”

Since the tree is in the midst of blooming at the moment and festooned with hundreds of thousands of tiny blossoms that combine to provide the air with a lovely light scent (while also hosting the nesting hummingbird I’ve written about previously), I decided to bother Mr. Siskin again with a photo in hopes he’d know what it is.

He didn’t. Well, he thought he did, but he was wrong.

“It’s probably Michelia,” he wrote. And of course I bellyflopped into the internet and swam through all sorts of stuff on the estimated 50 species of Michelia trees… none of which looked at all like the tree centrally located in our backyard.

So I wrote him back wondering if he might be able to narrow it down to a specific member of that branch of the magnolia family.

He wrote back that it could be “chamaqua,” referring to it as one the most commonly grown.

Trouble was I googled “Michelia chamaqua” and google came back with the numerical equivalent of such a thing not existist: zero hits. Goose egg. Closest to “chamaqua” was a species called “champaca” but I’d already known that wasn’t this tree.

So I wrote him back one final time thanking him for his, but that it was time for me to throw in the trowel because “chamaqua” was a dead end.

He responded with a request for a photo of the flowers. So I sent him this macro I’d shot and advised him that they are reeeeeeally small; each blossom is no more than a half-inch across (click to biggify):

“An apology is in order,” he wrote back. “I believe the tree in question is a Victorian box (Pittosporum undulatum).”

Diving into the Google pool again I found he indeed nailed it, and I wrote him back again thanking him and dismissing the need for any apology.