monocots: a geeky theme for collecting plants and designing gardens, with ken druse

‘WHAT DO YOU want to talk about when we tape our next podcast segment, I asked Ken Druse the other day, and his answer was succinct.

“Monocots,” he said.

To which I said, “What?”

“I want to talk about monocotyledons,” he said, using the unabbreviated name of one of the two groups that all flowering plants fit into, the other being dicots. And so we did. And yes, it’s geeky, but also a lot more revealing than you’d imagine–and a hint that seemingly esoteric facts like the taxonomic relationships between plants can make for fun themes for a plant collection, or even a concept for a bed or border or display of grouped containers.

Ken Druse is an old friend and a garden writer with 20 books to his credit, and most recently, one about fragrance called “The Scentual Garden,” and another called “The New Shade Garden.” He made a visit the other day to Wave Hill, the renowned public garden in New York City, where they have a whole Monocot Border that was in its glory, and hence our topic today: plants that are monocots, and why to care. (Above, a red-leaf banana, canna in flower, and more at Wave Hill’s Monocot Border; photo by Sandy Schaller.)

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 18, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

monocots and more, with ken druse



Margaret Roach: Hello, Ken with the crazy ideas for segments.

Ken Druse: Margaret, you sent me… Talk about a rabbit hole [laughter]. I said “monocot” and now I know a whole lot about… Little more about monocots than I would like to have known, except the Monocot Border at Wave Hill [in New York City] is spectacular. [Above, a small portion of the border with grasses, elephant ears and bananas; photo by Sandy Schaller]

And I’m sure that most people who see this arrangement of plants, which we’ll try to describe, don’t realize that they have something in common in that they’re all monocots, but most people don’t even know… Not that I’m putting people down, it’s just that who teaches biology now anymore? Well, should I start talking about this?

Margaret: Yeah, yeah, but first I have a question about what’s going on in the garden, just to know, because I haven’t talked to you in a bit. Are you still warm and no frost and no nothing down there in New Jersey?

Ken: No frost. And the color has begun. And it’s funny because Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year is early because usually Indigenous Peoples’ Day is our peak of color, but it’s usually later in the month. So I imagine in a week the maples will have turned. They’re just beginning, the maples, the Liquidambar, I’ve got quite a few of those, and they’re bright green. They haven’t turned at all.

Margaret: Yeah, and up here, north a zone or so, similarly, a lot of the maples, the old maples especially in my area—a lot of them are just falling kind of crispy and tan-colored, like paper-bag colored from all the unpleasant weather, the lots of rain and fungal diseases and stuff like that. So I’m not sure what’s going to go on. But anyway, I just wanted to know, I just needed a perspective.

Ken: I’ve found in the past that the drought years have the most color. That’s of course an anecdotal generalism-

Margaret: And it’s supposed to be, I think, the opposite [laughter], but whatever.

Ken: Really?

Margaret: I think you need good water, but I don’t know.

Ken: Maybe it’s both [laughter].

Margaret: So Wave Hill and monocots. So you went on a visit, you saw the monocot border and like you said, most people think, “Oh, look at that beautiful arrangement of…” And those are all kind of tender plants. A lot of them are in pots or-

Ken: Well, I think they’re planted in the ground mostly, mostly.

But to start, what’s a monocot? I mean, there’s lots of different kinds of plants. There’s the conifers and things like that, which are gymnosperms. But the flowering plants are angiosperms, and there are two kinds. There are monocots and there are dicots.

And what makes a monocot a monocot? Well, the seed has one part, and a dicot has two parts or two cotyledons. You think of a peanut, when you have a roasted peanut, or a bean, if you soak a bean—a peanut splits and there’s two parts. That’s a dicot. And when these seeds germinate, not the roasted peanut [laughter], when the raw seed germinates, the monocot sends up a single leaf, which is like a blade, and the dicot sends up what are called two seed leaves. And it’s sort of like, I don’t know, angel wings. It’s symmetrical, and there are two parts. And it doesn’t really matter to us. It’s just happens to be that way.

And when they become adults, most monocots have parallel leaf veins and dicots have branched leaf veins, and the monocots often have three parts or divisions of three parts in their petals. I mean, really we’re getting super-esoteric here. [Above, the leaf veins in an ornamental banana at Wave Hill; photo by Sandy Schaller.]

Also, the fruits often have three parts. I know I’ve told you this before, but one of my favorite parlor tricks, which I almost never perform [laughter], is that you can take a banana, which is a monocot, and you can peel down the banana and you can stick your impeccably clean finger in the middle of the top of the banana and push it down, and the banana will split into three parts. And if you are with two friends, they will applaud, and you can share it. But it’s just an example of a monocot.

Margaret: So let’s just go back to the seed part, so-named because cotyledons—the “cot’” part—cotyledons are seed leaves. So most monocots… sometimes you don’t really see the seed leaves when a seed begins to sprout; I mean, it’s not always the telltale thing. But monocotyledons have the one seed leaf that comes up, theoretically. When you’re doing your seed starting, you might clue into this visually. And dicots have the two, like you talked about, the beans or whatever. You talked about those other things.

So corn would be monocot. Is that right? If we saw corn germinate?

Ken: If you think about the major food crops in the world, rice and wheat, they’re all monocots.

Margaret: All the grains and grasses and so forth. So that’s one moment in our gardener life where we might see this—and again, these are the two big groups of angiosperms, of flowering plants. So meaning that ferns and conifers are not included in this division of monocots and dicots. So that’s one moment when we might notice it.

And for me, the only other time I really think about it is if I’m trying to key out a plant. Like if I don’t know what something is like a weed or something, if you go to one of the online tools to figure out what a plant is, it asks you… It takes you through questions, like is it broad-leafed, or is it whatever. It asks you questions to eliminate and narrow your choices. And it often asks about one or more of the things that you just said. It asks you if the leaves have parallel veins or if they have branched veins. So when we say that, let’s visualize a little bit, like the leaf of a-

Ken: Iris.

Margaret: An iris is a good one. A bearded iris leaf versus the leaf of a begonia or a geranium. So monocot, the iris; dicot with the multi-branched not parallel-

Ken: Maples.

Margaret: Right, maples, dicots, right? So it helps you sometimes if you’re looking to ID a plant, it cuts it in half, not literally half. I think there’s like almost 60, like 55 or 60,000 species of monocots, isn’t that right, in the world or something like that?

Ken: Did you want me to know them all right now?

Margaret: Yes, and we’re going to have an alphabetical quiz in a minute [laughter].

But in other words, it doesn’t get you down to the narrowest-narrow, but it does cut it down a lot from all the flowering plants in the world, to a portion.

So the leaves may look different, not just the seed leaves, but when the plant is older. And even the roots can be different, I understand, of the monocots and the dicots. Monocot I think more inclined to have fibrous roots and dicots can have more tap, the roots coming from one central place. It’s really interesting and kooky, but it’s a really cool way also to make a collection like they did at Wave Hill and be teaching while also beautifying the garden.

Ken: It’s funny. I wanted to know how the Monocot Border at Wave Hill came about, and they had teaching gardens, they had a Monocot Border and they had another one that was vines. And I don’t exactly know what the different ones were, but the Monocot Border became so popular that they decided to keep it. And they don’t have the other teaching gardens, but the Monocot Border, because it’s so incredibly ornamental, and it’s mostly, as you said, tender plants. So it’s really a seasonal garden, but I think the stars of that garden are bananas—the are here are some cannas and stuff, but also the Alocasia and the Colocasia, which are, I guess… I guess they’re aroids.

Margaret: So the elephant ears. [Above, the large elephant ear leaves of Alocasia odora flank an entry; photo by Andrea Filippone.]

Ken: Right.

Margaret: Are there grasses as well because, grasses being monocot… Are there ornamental grasses and stuff?

Ken: Well, there’s ornamental grasses that are tender, because we’re talking about plants that are either tropical or subtropical. And there’s gingers—I mean real ginger not like the creeping American ginger, that just smells like ginger. I don’t want to get too esoteric here. But a lot of the grasses that are there are permanent, they’re hardy, but not all of them.

And also palms. And there aren’t a lot of palms in the border, although one of my favorite plants in the world, which I’ve only killed once, because it’s so hard. Oh, I can’t remember its Latin name.

You know, if you look at palms, they have fronds and different leaflets. But when they start to come out, those leaflets aren’t split. They come out as one thing and then they split because they have evolved to tolerate wind. So they split into these different parts. But this palm [laughter]... I’ll think of the name before we finish. It doesn’t split. So it’s got this big leaf that is… Well, it doesn’t split. It’s just incredible. And talk about parallel veins. You can really see what a monocot is when you see this palm whose name I can’t remember.

Margaret: So daffodils, onions-

Ken: Oh yeah, all the lilies. Asparagus.

Margaret: The whole lily… not just true lilies, but all the lily family. So that whole family, again, the grasses, the whole family of grasses, which includes the grains like rice, wheat, and corn. The orchid family, the whole orchid family.

Ken: All orchids. I once read that one out of every seven species in the world is an orchid, which is probably true. It doesn’t mean one out of every plant, but one out of every species. A lot of orchids. O.K., now I remember, it’s Licuala [Licuala peltata var. ‘Sumawongii.’ Photo below of a detail of its leaf by Sandy Schaller.]

Margaret: Well whatever. Who knows.

Margaret: So the lily family, the palm family, the irises, again, the grasses. All these are monocots.

When you said this, when you brought this up, it took me back to both a million years ago when I wanted to transition my journalism from what I was doing before to garden writing, my hobby, and I took some courses at New York Botanical Garden, and we learned things like this.

And again, it helped us to understand the order of things out there and the relationships and so forth and to identify plants and so forth.

But then also later I went traveling to England a number of times and what I found most fascinating, and it’s not the same thing as the Monocot Border dividing by these two big groups of flowering plants—but I loved Cambridge and Kew and Oxford, the botanical gardens with great history and so forth. They had a tradition of having these taxonomic beds, what they used to call “the order beds,” because they were… The taxonomic order was reflected. And related plants were grouped together, but they were beautiful.

It wasn’t just like a farm field with everything in order in rows, they were beautiful. So it was a conceit, just like the monocot border at Wave Hill, it was a conceit for designing or for creating, amassing a collection. And you like to collect things. So are you going to collect some monocots now, or maybe you already have a collection unknowingly of monocots?

Ken: Unknowingly is right [laughter]. Well, I’m always thinking of things like that because it’s so hard sometimes, especially after you’ve shopped, to know what to do with the plants. So maybe having… If you love hydrangeas, maybe you want to have a collection of hydrangeas, and that’s plants all in the same genus. There’s lots of different kinds of… Well, I know the Brooklyn Botanic Garden used to have what they called the systematic beds.

Margaret: And that’s the other name for taxonomic, yeah, systematic beds, right.

Ken: I don’t know what they’re called when they’re morphological. There’s some that… Like you said, the vines. So plants that have similar characteristics.

Margaret: Even though they’re not related, right. Wave Hill used to have… Besides that, maybe they still do, they had one that was the whole aster or daisy composite family. They had a garden of just composites, I believe, years ago.

Ken: I was thinking about that, because asters and artichokes [laughter], they don’t seem related, but those are both in the Asteraceae family, the composite or daisy family.

Margaret: So it’s kind of a fun… As we’re taking our gardens apart this fall, and as we’re thinking about what worked and what didn’t, and the hardest part is what were just referring to is sometimes like, “O.K., I got all these plants, but how do I make them the biggest impact and visually pleasing and so forth.” And sometimes if we’re flummoxed, sometimes following something like this, which was originally more for a teaching purpose, like at the Wave Hill example or the ones that I was speaking about or Brooklyn Botanic, it was to be not just beautiful, but to also instruct people about the plant world.

But even if we’re not trying to teach in our gardens, it informs us, and it gives us a hook. Do you know what I mean? And takes us off the hook of like, “Oh, I don’t know where to put anything.” It’s kind of fun.

Ken: Well, I always say every plant has a story, and boy, it’s so true and… In the Monocot Border, it’s the bananas that drive me wild.

Margaret: Yeah, you have a thing for bananas. You love those bananas.

Ken: You know, I think everybody does when they see these giant paddles-

Margaret: They are crazy.

Ken: …paddles, they’re like canoe paddles or something sticking up, and now there’s colors. There’s the green ones with the red streaks [top-of-page photo] and there’s hardy Musa basjoo, which you probably can’t grow, but in Zone 7 at Wave Hill, they can grow that outdoors. That’s the hardy fiber bamboo. And they do. That’s one of the biggest ones.

Margaret: You mean banana.

Ken: Oh, I’m sorry.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Bamboo, banana.

Ken: You say banana, I say banana. O.K. Sorry about that.

Margaret: Yeah, Musa, the… Now you’ve got me saying bamboo, but banana.

Ken: And now I’m going to say palm, and don’t even mean it. Banana. There’s sort of two genera that are the bananas, the Musa and the Ensete. There, I’ve got that out. But you know, I’m talking and thinking at the same time, which is hard-

Margaret: Dangerous, dangerous.

Ken: Because I can’t stop thinking about the Cavendish banana, which is the banana that we buy at the store, and I was reading today, 100 billion bananas were consumed last year. Can you imagine?

Margaret: That’s a lot of bananas.

Ken: It’s the most popular fruit in the United States, but I mean around the world. But someday when we have time, we could talk about how the Cavendish got its name.

Margaret: But what I love about, again, your idea, talking about this geeky thing, is that yeah, I can design a garden as, “Oh, I’m going to make a blue garden or a white garden or a red garden,” you know what I mean? But that’s hard to get right [laughter]. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like I can’t-

Ken: No, but I’m into this.

Margaret: But when it has this intellectual layer, when it has this layer of teaching, informing and learning, it gives us a guiding principle to collect plants, love those plants, assemble those plants, have fun with those plants. I love it. I know I’ve said that now 10 times, but that was what sort of intrigued me about your suggestion is that it gives us this other avenue.

And I’m always fascinated. Well, you’ve mentioned aroids, you mentioned some of the aroids like… You have the elephant ears, the Colocasia and Alocasia and so forth. And I’m always fascinated when I’m tucking my plants away at the end of the season to sort of… As I unearth tender bulbs out of the pots and put them in paper bags, put them in the cellar and things like that, I think, “Ooh, look at you. You’re a little bit like this guy over here, and you know what, you’re probably related in some crazy way.” I’m fascinated. Not that you can just infer from looking at things, but I love thinking about the relationships between all my little charges, all my little friends, my plant friends [laughter].

Ken: Well it’s fun to learn, especially when things are so esoteric, or I could use the word sexy. I know there’s a plant you like that I don’t [laughter].

Margaret: Uh-oh. Only one?

Ken: There’s one that is a monocot and it’s an aroid.

Margaret: Which is that?

Ken: I call it the voodoo lily or-

Margaret: Oh yeah, so it’s either Sauromatum or Amorphophallus, yes, or two genera of voodoo lilies. [Above, Sauromatum foliage, foreground center, and Amorphophallus foliage, foreground left, in pots at Margaret’s, with a yellow elephant ear behind.]

Ken: Or the Dracunculus.

Margaret: Yeah, I don’t have that, but I have a lot of Amorphophallus and a lot of Sauromatum.

Ken: One is too many.

Margaret: Oh, I love them. I just love them.

Ken: Well they have incredible leaves, and the Amorphophallus, I think, has the biggest single leaf of any plant. It’s one leaf.

Margaret: Yeah, crazy.

Ken: However, something happens, but you don’t seem to mind—with the Amorphophallus it always happens to me in January. I have to give the plant its own room for a week.

Margaret: Yes, they stink. And because they’re pollinated by, I don’t know, blowflies and other kinds of flies who like rotting meat, who like… That’s what they are attracted to, that sort of smell of dead stuff.

But I love them. And it is funny when I go down in the cellar where these are stored, sometimes someone will have woken up, like you say, like February or something, and it’s like, “Oops, somebody died in the basement.” And you think it’s a dead mouse for a minute. And then you’re like, “Oops, nope. One of those guys was blooming.” [Above, Sauromatum blooming in a pot at Margaret’s.]

Ken: I think it’s a dead cow.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s bigger than a mouse, yeah. But I love the foliage. And you know what, you could always just cut off the flowers. I love the foliage.

Ken: Cut off the flower? No way. I mean, as much as I’m complaining, as long as you give it its own room, so you can sample it at will, or in the basement, like you said.

Margaret: So beyond monocots, so let’s just wind down the last few minutes. Are you getting ready? I know you had the flood, and we talked about that the last time you were on the show, and you had to do a cleanup after that, of course. Are you getting ready, sort of waiting? I feel like I’m in the limbo time before cleanup begins. Are you getting ready?

Ken: I’m putting stuff away. I’m getting ready to. So I’m getting the sunroom together, ready, because the plants that don’t go completely to sleep go into the sunroom, which has lots of windows. And some of those plants we’ve been talking about go into a cool, pretty much dark spot, and they sleep through the winter like that Musella that I really like, and the Musa and the Ensete. Some of them get cut back if they’re too tall and they get put in a room. It’s really around 50 degrees—I was thinking about that. It can get colder, but they wanted about 50. And the most important thing is almost bone dry. I do just like sprinkle them a little bit, because they’ll rot if they’re moist, but they’re very easy… I mean, what could be easier than having plants sleeps through the winter? That’s pretty cool.

Margaret: And a lot of the things that I have lots of like cannas and so forth, and Eucomis, the pineapple lilies [above], I wait until they go to sleep on their own outside, they get frosted. And then I take up the bulbs and store them and so forth.

But I was thinking about just as a last thought for people, if they are beginning, maybe they’re a little cooler than we are or whatever, and they are beginning their cleanup, I went back to look at some advice from Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware and great garden author and so forth, the ecologist and entomologist.

We’ve been talking so much about leave the leaves, like don’t clean up too strenuously, don’t be too crazy with the rest of the garden cleanup, not the tender things we were just talking about.

And I found this quote that I just want us to like leave us with—haha, leave the leaves. Which is about how important it is not to clean up too strenuously, not to be too tidy, to be a little messy, and to encourage leaf litter, areas of natural leaf litter around the property to support all those little creatures who overwinter.

And he said this great thing to me not long ago, and I wrote it down, he said, “I like to think of leaves the same way we think of water these days. The practice is to keep all the water that falls on your property. Don’t let it run off. Same thing with the leaves.”

So I thought that was kind of a good guidance for the leave the leaves mantra for this fall, as we get ready for leaf drop and clean up, you know?

Ken: You remind me of something barely related. But when somebody asks me, “How could I like tropical plants when I’m so into native plants?” And I could think of nothing better to like than plants in pots if you’re into native plants.

Margaret: Exactly. Exactly. So those are our two last thoughts. Ken, thank you for a fun, geeky as I said thing to talk about—monocots, which led us to some other discussions, and I hope I’ll talk to you soon.

Ken: Thanks, Margaret.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 18, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Margaret Manzke says:

    I really enjoy your shows, especially when Ken is on. Those shows always sound like two friends just chatting. They’re great!

  2. Donna says:

    I have a question about fall clean up and the asian jumping worms. I always leave most of my leaves where they fall or heap them in a pile in a corner. I’ve been dealing with these invasive worms for several years now and they truly love the leaf litter that I leave behind. The worms have now completely invaded my garden, lawn and our very shady driveway. A solution of vinegar and water will kill the adult worms, but I can’t use that in the actual garden because it will kill the plants. My garden soil is now almost entirely made up of worm castings. My plan was to do a thorough garden clean up and remove as much of the castings as possible—I’m just wondering if you have any suggestions or new information on getting rid of these worms. Thank so much!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Donna. More and more, and so very quickly, these are spreading everywhere. This story I did in the NY Times talks about how scientists don’t know yet what to do, nor whether we should keep adding more organic matter to our soil (which would seem to be “feeding the worms”) or not — or let the soil just be degraded by then, with all the organic matter removed … really no good answer. An older story here on the website with a longtime researcher might alse be helpful. Again, though, there is no real answer. I think of it as our most terrifying invasive species, really.

  3. Sharon says:

    Love having a different plant filing system in my head, this duo-logue was especially interesting. Drats think I just found an Asian jumping worm and am taking pic to send to the VT ag authorities.

  4. Barb says:

    This was really interesting, as usual! Rather than by color, I’m finding that I’m tending toward planting like with like as you mentioned. I recently planted irises with my yuccas and sunflower like plants together. It seems to be a natural evolution for me. I’m somewhat trying to plant by color next to the house. It is a dark green with red window sashes. So I have been trying to match the red with dark red flowering shrubs. It is such an exciting journey!

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