One of the things that most intrigues me about plants is that once in a while I’ll run across something for which I have no name. As a compulsive labeler, sometimes this bothers me to distraction. However, over the years, I’ve learned to cool my enthusiasm sometimes, in anticipation that someday I’ll find out what the plant in question is, and usually there’s an interesting story or application behind it. This was the case with what I called the Mystery Zoo Plant. (If you ever visit the Pittsburgh Zoo in the summer, I recommend taking notice of the flora they have as part of the landscaping there).
Sometimes things get as interesting as the Conservatory, and for the last few of my visits I had noticed this bold, olive-greenish tropical-looking plant growing on the steep slopes along the walkways, especially in the “Asian” and “African” areas. The leaves are very distinctive in shape; simple, sinuate and resembling a very large fig leaf, olive or yellow-green and silvery on the undersides. The pale yellow flowers, insignificant in comparison to the foliage, occur in panicles from the leaf axils and at the top of the stems, which often exceeded six feet in height.
Reasoning that these plants would have to be hardy in this area, and that they looked as if they required no fussy care, I set out to identify the species. I suspected the Poppy family as it somewhat resembled a giant Celandine Poppy (Chelindonium). It took me about three years to see the plant in a catalog with an identifying photo and I can now label it as Bocconia cordata, formerly known as Macleaya.
This giant contains yellow sap which was used as a dye and a disinfectant in its native China. It is best used, however, to control erosion on slopes, hide unattractive garden features and create a cool tropical not in sunny area. The smaller leaves, when press-dried, are an attractive addition to floral crafts. This hardy, vigorous and unusual plant deserves more attention in the sunny garden, and would make an interesting companion to tall grasses, bamboo, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatonum) and other tall or bold plants. (It also seems to go well with Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!)