Keys Homes
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The immortal ambrosia plant is no food for the gods

By robin robinson

Key West Garden Club

During the Civil War, 35-year-old Francis Payre Porcher, MD was dispatched by the Confederate surgeon general to wander the southern landscapes and codify all of the native plants that could be used as medicines in order to augment supplies that may have been blockaded. (The Key West Navy played a great part in that blockade, some experts say, even winning the war for the North.)

Ambrosia hispida shows up in the "Southern Fields and Forests, Medical Botany of the Confederate States," published in 1863. It was used for fevers, as a substitute for quinine and as it was bitter, to be given with whiskey. Medicine was not always available but alcohol was. It is now used in medical and pharmaceutical research.

Its family, Asteraceae, is numerically the largest family in the flora of North America and is found from the Arctic tundra in the polar deserts to the Sonoran desert scrub. It's in the same family as the sunflower.

The ground cover is a whispery, silvery green and would add unusual pale accents to a garden. Once established, it does not require watering. This warrior will stand up to salt winds and stay on duty during brief saltwater inundations. Four days of Hurricane Ike left its beach front branches unscathed. It doesn't need much to eat, but likes well-drained soil and lots of sun.

We seldom call it by its popular name, preferring 'ambrosia' to the negative connotation of "beach ragweed." Ambrosia was the food of the Greek gods but its use in the naming of this plant is ironic. The name comes from the original Greek word meaning immortal. This plant is immortal in the sense that in many parts of the world it is impossible to get rid of it.

After flowering with both the yellowish-green male and whitish-green female flower forming a terminal spike on the same plant, small burrs form and the seeds can be transported by wildlife. Birds like to eat these seeds and it is a host plant for butterflies and moths. Electrostatically charged honey bees accumulate pollen as they collect nectar and it is frequently found as a component of raw honey.

Ambrosia flowers all year long, a negative for allergy-prone individuals. It is found in open coastal areas, but is rather rare. Interestingly, the pollen, which is disseminated by the breeze, does not spread if the humidity is higher than 70 percent. Here in Key West, the pollen clumps up and rarely blows away. That may be the reason why the plant is not found frequently in the wild coastal areas.

Use this plant in your garden to create texture and offset other darker greens or on your patio or balcony. As a container plant it cascades over the edges of the pot and forms falling vines. It spreads quickly on the ground through rooting rhizomes on its stems and can be easily clipped and propagated in that way. It has no serious diseases or pests.

The Key West Garden Club has an excellent specimen in the native plant area, which survived the ire of the gods in the winds of Ike quite splendidly. It has been propagated and is going to be on sale inexpensively at the Nov. 22-23 sale at West Martello.

Key West Garden Club's master gardener, Robin Robinson, was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated by Princeton Features. Her book "Peeling the Onion: Reversing the Ravages of Stroke" can be found on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club, www.keywestgardenclub.com.

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