Monthly Archives: May 2013

Iris – German or Dutch?

German Iris

German Iris

A couple of days ago a local garden center posted on their blog about transplanting iris. The information was good for those growing bearded German iris but the post included a picture that was all wrong. Instead of a German iris flower it showed the flowers of Dutch iris . While these two plants are both iris, the way they grow is completely different and the information was all wrong for Dutch iris. You would think a garden center and its “garden guy” would have caught this mistake!

There are almost 300 different species of the genus Iris. While most of these are wildflowers or non-cultivated varieties, there are a number of different iris species that can be grown in the garden. But when you get right down to it, there are basically two kinds of iris with which people are familiar – bearded German iris (Iris germanica) and Dutch iris (Iris tingitana x Iris xiphium).

Dutch Iris

Dutch Iris

Dutch iris aren’t grown a lot in gardens but if you ever get a flower arrangement from a florist that has iris in it, you’ll be getting Dutch iris. These spring-flowering plants come in white, yellow, blue, purple and various combinations of these colors and they grow from a bulb that’s planted in the fall like tulips and daffodils. Dutch iris blossom in the late spring and die down in the summer like other spring-flowering bulbs. Since this flower grows from a bulb, growers can plant and force them to bloom throughout the year to provide the floral  industry with iris. While I like these flowers, they’re often hard to find. I was lucky enough to locate some bulbs locally last year and they’re blooming now.

Iris Beard

Iris Beard

While Dutch iris are the iris florists know, when most people think of iris, they’re thinking of the bearded German iris. These large flowers typically have 6 petals, three of them are upright (standards) and three of them drape downwards (falls). This iris are called bearded because on the falls is a fuzzy caterpillar-like structure that points into the center of the flower. These beards have no specific function other than possibly directing bees to the pistil and stamens of the flower.

German iris come in all kinds of colors and variations. In some of the more interesting varieties (at least in my opinion!), the falls and standards are different color. While the Dutch iris is a spring bulb, the German iris is a spring-flowering perennial that grow from rhizomes, modified stems that serve as storage organs. In order for German iris to thrive, these rhizomes need to be at the surface of the soil and not buried in the ground.

While German iris are a great spring flower, more and more varieties of this iris are re-blooming. The main time for flowering is still spring for these re-bloomers. But if the conditions are right, the plant can also flower in the fall. The re-bloomers that I have blossom in the fall about every other year. While the show isn’t as impressive as in the spring, there’s something kind of amazing about seeing iris blooming with the chrysanthemums.

Well, I sent an email to the “garden guy” pointing out that the picture didn’t match the article – I’d want someone to point it out to me if I did this. But whether he changes the picture or not, there is a big difference between Dutch and German iris both in looks and culture. But they’re both great plants for the garden.


Weed du Jour – Poison Ivy

Whenever I go out into fields or a wooded area, I’m always keeping an eye out for leaves with three leaflets. I don’t want to have any encounter with poison ivy.


Poison Ivy in a Bed of English Ivy

Poison ivy (Rhus radicans) is a member of the Cashew family that’s native to North America. This perennial can grow as a vine along the ground, it can climb trees, shrubs and posts, reaching up to 100′ in the air and in full sun, it can take on a shrub-like characteristic. The most well know feature of this plant is that every leaf is made up of three leaflets, each about half as wide as they are long. These leaflets always have pointed tips but the edges may be wavy, smooth or with lobes. In addition the leaves grow from the stem in an alternating pattern. (This helps to distinguish poison ivy from the non-toxic box elder which has similar leaves with three leaflets but the leaves are in opposite pairs along the stem). Poison ivy is a dioecious plant, meaning that there are male plants and female plants. The male plant produces pollen which is spread by insects to the female flowers which produce berries.

Poison ivy is spread by birds that eat the berries and spread the seeds in their droppings. It also spreads by developing roots along its stem wherever it touches the soil.

Sometimes people confuse this weed with other “poison” plants, specifically poison oak and poison sumac. Here in Pennsylvania there is no poison oak – this plant grows to the south and west of the state. Poison sumac only grows in marshy areas so in most of the forests and fields of  PA, the only “poison” you’ll find is poison ivy.

What makes this weed so toxic is an oil that it produces called urushiol. The only parts of poison ivy plant that don’t have urushiol is the pollen and the inner wood of older stems. It isn’t only the leaves of poison ivy that can give you a rash; urushiol is also present in the stems, roots and sap of the plant. When urushiol makes contact with the skin, it binds to the outer layer and causes a rash in many people. It’s often said that washing after contact with poison ivy will prevent a rash from forming. Unfortunately, the urushiol binds almost immediately to the skin so washing quickly and very vigorously might limit the poison but is unlikely to remove all of it.

This oil is non-volatile but very stable. Because it’s non-volatile, the good news is that you can’t get poison ivy by being close to a plant; you have to touch it or come into direct contact with the urushiol. But since it’s so stable, the oil can be carried and remain active on garden tools, clothing and the fur of dogs and cats. Also it’s stability make burning poison ivy something that is warned against in every publication that I read. If you burn any part of a poison ivy plant, the urushiol becomes airborne and can settle on your skin and eyes and can even get into your lungs – yikes!

I was also shocked to see that one old wives’/woodsman’s tale is that to become immune to poison ivy you should eat a leaf of it. This won’t protect you from poison ivy but will pretty much guarantee a trip to either the ER or the morgue!

Since the reaction to the urushiol in poison ivy is an allergic reaction, just because you’ve never had it before doesn’t mean that your immune. Each exposure to poison ivy produces antibodies in the body so you can start getting poison ivy at any age after any number of exposures.

Fortunately poison ivy doesn’t generally grow in cultivated areas but it can be a problem in woodlots and undisturbed areas. If you have poison ivy growing on your property, getting rid of it is a difficult process. If you pull the plants – being sure to protect yourself from contact – any small pieces of root left in the soil will sprout and grow new plants. It’s said that mowing can control it but I wouldn’t touch poison ivy with a mower – think of the toxic clippings that would come flying out of it! There are herbicides that can control this weed but you have to remember that even if the plant is dead, the urushiol is still present in the dead tissue. If you have a poison ivy problem, I’d contact your local extension office to see what they’d recommend.

I think you can tell I really don’t like this weed. But the truth of the matter is that poison ivy does have some uses. It’s great for erosion control and the Dutch have actually planted it for this purpose. Some native Americans used it medicinally. Also a lot of animals eat poison ivy and others use it for protective cover. You see, we’re the only animal that’s affected by this weed!

After many encounters with poison ivy in my teens and twenties, I’ve gained a healthy respect for this weed. I’ve also developed a sixth sense that’s able to spot this weed before I come in contact with it. I’ve made that old adage my motto – leaves of three, let them be!

Phalaenopsis in Bloom

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One of my phalaenopsis orchids has decided to bloom. This orchid is becoming so common; you can pick up a plant at Wal-Mart, Home Depot and most grocery stores. It’s getting to the point where people hardly notice these flowers anymore.

But despite the market’s saturation with this plant, there’s something about a phalaenopsis that always amazes me. The flowers look nice on their own but I think that to really see the beauty of them, you have to look closely. The intricate structure of each flower is filled with colors, textures and detail.

They might be everywhere but I still love them!

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R.I.P. Curcuma


Last year I made a number of posts about the curcuma plants that I grew in a container. While this is an unusual plant, it grew great and the inflorescences lasted for a long time. Sometimes you try something new and it’s OK. Sometimes it’s a bust. And other times it’s a hit – that was the curcuma.

I was really looking forward to seeing what it would do this year after a year of growth and a chance to develop strong, healthy rhizomes. Unfortunately, the curcuma rhizomes are all dead.

At the end of the season I took the pot of curcuma and put it in an unheated garage, leaving the rhizomes in the soil that they’d grown in all summer. This way of overwintering plants has always worked for calla lilies, canna and even amaryllis. But I guess the curcuma is a little more sensitive to cold temperatures than these other plants.

img_3338 copyAfter putting the pot outside, I dug around a little to see how the rhizomes had overwintered. At first I’d thought they’d be OK but as time went on, they went from being firm to being little balls of mush.

It’s too late to order cucuma rhizomes now so I’ll  have to wait to grow them next year. When that season is over, I’ll leave the pot in the garage for a while but when the weather turns cold, it’ll be going into the basement for the rest of the winter.

I’m not one who gets sentimental when a plant dies but I am going to miss the curcuma. Oh well, at least I learned something about overwintering this amazing plant.

Cilantro – Skip the Plants and Buy the Seeds!

When you look around garden centers, there are lots of herbs for sale. I think people have started to understand the difference that fresh herbs can make in your cooking.

When I look at the herbs available as plants, most of them make sense to me. Perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and tarragon grow slowly from small seeds so garden size plants make growing these a lot easier.

I also understand parsley plants. This biennial can be a little tricky to germinate and you have to start the plants very early to have garden-sized plants in the spring. I’m not quite as convinced about basil plants because this annual herb is so easy to grow from seed. But if you’re not looking to load your freezer with pesto and only want one or two plants, I can understand buying them.

But there’s one herb in pots at every garden center that makes me shake my head when I see it – cilantro. If you buy a cilantro plant, I can guarantee that it’ll be dead within a few months. It inevitable demise has nothing to do with the quality of the plant or your gardening skills. Cilantro dies because cilantro is a short-lived annual herb.

Young Cilantro Plant

Young Cilantro Plant

A cilantro plant looks a lot like parsley. Both of these herbs grow in a rosette and have a single growing point of undifferentiated tissue (meristem) right around ground level. Before they go into reproductive mode, the meristem of these two plant keeps producing more and more leaves.

A parsley plant keeps producing new leaves all season long. Parsley does this because it’s a biennial – this means that the plant’s first year of life is vegetative and it won’t start to reproduce until the second year. Since almost all gardeners pull up their parsley after one year, they never see the transition from leaves to flowers and seeds.

But they see it when they grow cilantro! While the growth habit of  these two herbs is similar, there’s on big difference – cilantro is a cool season annual. An annual is a plant that completes its life cycle within one growing season. In the case of cilantro, it completes that cycle in a few months.

The cilantro plant that you buy is in vegetative mode and it will produce leaves for a while. But once the weather warms and the days get longer, the chemistry of the plant changes and that single growing point of meristematic tissue that’s been producing leaves changes and begins to grow a flower stalk instead of leaves. This change from vegetative to reproductive growth is called “bolting.”

Once cilantro has decided that it’s time to flower, you can’t stop it. The single growing point of the plant has changed and it won’t produce any more leaves. You can cut it back, you can fertilize it, you can do anything you want to renew the plant and it won’t help. Once cilantro bolts, there are two things you can do: throw it out or let the seeds develop and harvest your own coriander!

While cilantro is a short-lived herb, the good news is that it’s really easy to grow from seed. If you sprinkle a few seeds in a pot or in the garden, they’ll germinate easily. The best times to grow cilantro is in the spring and fall because it prefers cool temperatures. If you must have cilantro all season long, you could try growing it inside during the heat of summer on a sunny windowsill or under lights. Or you could freeze some cilantro pesto to add to salsa when it’s too hot to grow fresh cilantro.

There are so many herbs from which to choose. While most are perennial, biennial or long-lived annuals, cilantro is the only one I can think of that’s a short-lived, cool season annual. So if that cilantro plant the you bought dies in a month or two, remember, it’s not you, it’s the plant! And next year, skip the expense of a plant that’ll be long gone before July is over. Instead, buy a packet of seeds and grow your own cilantro in the spring and fall.

Some Saturday Photos from the Garden

Working in the garden today I saw that the first of the German iris had started to blossom. I also noticed that the sempervivum (hen and chicks) was beginning to show some buds. The fuzzy little buds have an “other worldly” look to them. The one plant that’s in full bloom right now is the centaurea, a perennial bachelor button. I especially like the close-up of the center of the centaurea flower.


German Iris

German Iris














The High Cost of Instant Gratification

A week ago I was picking up some plants for the container gardening that I do. As I strolled through the garden center, I realized something – plants are really expensive.

Wait, that’s not true. Let me try again – large plants that are in full bloom are really expensive.

I was amazed at some of the prices of annuals growing in quart size containers. If you have a large pot, you’ll need at least 4 or 5 of these and the container will end up costing a minimum of $30 with plants and soil.

I certainly don’t begrudge the garden centers for the prices they charge – it took very early planting and a lot of care to have a large annual in bloom for sale in May. I also understand the appeal of these plants. It feels good to take an empty pot and transform it into a blooming masterpiece all in one day – instant gratification at its best!

As I moved through the rows and rows of plants, I found myself picking up a couple of 6-pack containers of annuals and a few smaller single pots of calibrachoa, lantana, angel wing begonia and wave petunia. Between these plants, the seedlings of begonia, datura and hibiscus that I’d started from seed and some packets of seeds, I was able to fill the many containers that I have outside.



I’ll be the first to admit that the pots aren’t much to look at right now. The plants are small and the seeds are just starting to germinate. But when I look at these pots, I can envision what they’ll look like in a month or two. I can picture a pot of cosmos with calibrachoa spilling over the sides. There might only be 6 leaves on the datura but I can see the double blooms in purple, white and yellow already. The marigolds might be small but I know that after a few warm weeks they’ll be full and healthy.



I understand the appeal of instant gratification when it comes to container gardening. If I had only one pot, I’d embrace it. If I was making a pot for a gift, I’d want the instant gratification look.

But there’s also something nice about seeing a plant grow and watching it move through the different stages of its life. In a world of emails, downloads and video on demand (all things I dearly love!), gardening can provide an opportunity to slow down and embrace some delayed gratification. It won’t be long before those pots with seedlings and small transplants will look just as good – if not better – than the instant gratification containers.

Plus, they’re a lot less expensive! (And that means you can grow more!!!)