Monthly Archives: June 2013

Some Late June Flowers

While some plants have stopped blooming for the season, others are just starting. The following pictures are of some of the flowers that are beginning to bloom and a few of the insects that are visiting them!

Wax Begonia

Wax Begonia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush

Unknown Beetle on Hydrangia

Hydrangea

Daylily

Daylily

Daylily Close Up

Daylily Close Up

Shasta Daisy

Shasta Daisy

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Prickly Pear Cactus

IMG_0956I often make deliveries to a dentist who has an interesting bed outside of his office. The location is hot and dry and receives full sun. Instead of growing annuals or perennials that need a lot of watering, he’s gone with a true xeriscape – gardening that either reduces or eliminates the need for watering. This bed is filled with yucca and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia hunifusa).

It amazes me to see a cactus that can grow here in PA. When the bed is in full bloom, it’s beautiful. One time when I was there I asked if I could cut a few of the prickly pear pads to root and grow for myself. They were happy to let me take some cutting though I was warned to be careful not to touch the plants because of the small spines.

Prickly Pear Pads

Prickly Pear Pads

They were right to warn me.  The prickly pear has two kinds of spines. The large, smooth, fixed spines are easy to see and avoid – also this variety doesn’t have too many of these spines. The real “danger” is the small, hairlike prickles called glochids, that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant. If you get some of these glochids in the skin of your finger, you’ll feel them but it’s often difficult to see them and even harder to remove them. That’s why I was warned about this cactus!

Potted Cuttings

Potted Cuttings

Once I got the cuttings home, I left them on a shelf for about a week, giving the wounds time to develop a callous that would protect the plant from bacteria and fungi. I made my own cactus potting mix by combining one part potting mix with one part sand. The cuttings were put into the mix so that about half of the pad was in the soil. I then put the pot in a bright window to allow the cutting to root.

I was shocked at how fast these cacti rooted. Within a couple of weeks I could feel that the cuttings had rooted and I moved the pot outside into full sun.

The cuttings that I took had some flower buds on them. I didn’t bother taking them off; I assumed that the stress of cutting and rooting would cause the plant to slough off the buds. The surprising thing is that the bud stayed healthy and have started to blossom!

I love the blossoms of this variety. The bright yellow petals with a fleshy pink color at their base makes for an interesting bloom. Like most cacti, the blossoms don’t last long but while they’re open, they look great. Later in the season these cacti put on another show, covering themselves with bright red fruit.

I’ve heard that prickly pears can become somewhat invasive so I’m debating about that to do with the plants. I’m thinking that I might put one plant in the garden in a hot, sunny spot and keep the other two in a pot. Time will tell which will be the best way to grow these cacti.

I look forward to learning more about how these plants grow. So far, I’m impressed with how easy they were to propagate and how great the blossoms look. I’m glad I asked the dentist about taking some cuttings – I got some free plants and the chance to bring some prickly pear cacti into the garden.

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cac1

My Rebel Thanksgiving Cactus

A number of months ago I did some research on what makes a Christmas cactus blossom. I learned that what I’ve been calling a Christmas cactus is really a Thanksgiving cactus and that while the length of day has some effect on when it blossoms, temperature can override photoperiodism. I wrote a post about what I’d learned and I thought I had this plant figured out.

Silly me! The minute you think you understand something about plant growth, that’s when the plant will show that it does its own thing and doesn’t follow any rules!

Thanksgiving Cactus in Bloom

Thanksgiving Cactus in Bloom

I’m learning this from one of my Thanksgiving cacti. I have a few plants of this cactus and most of them are “following the rules” of blooming once at the end of November. But I have one plant that’s the rebel of the group. It blossomed in November just like all the others. But then it blossomed in January, again around Easter and now it’s blooming again!

I can explain the blooms in January and March based on the cool temperatures in my house. But June blossoms? This one’s a mystery to me. I guess this plant just likes to blossom and isn’t going to follow any rules.

I’m thinking of propagating this cactus that won’t stop blooming and giving some of the plants to other people. It’d be interesting to find out if it blossoms at random times for them as well. If it does, this might be a variety that could be called an “everblooming Thanksgiving cactus!”

It makes no sense from a botanical perspective but it’s fun to look outside and see a Thanksgiving cactus in bloom in the heat of summer. I can’t wait to see when it’ll blossom next!

 

Summer Berries Yarrow

Last year I started some seeds of “Summer Berries” yarrow (Achillea millefolium) during the early summer. I planted the seedlings in the perennial bed during late August and this year I’m getting my first look at the flowers of this perennial.

Traditional yarrow plants bear yellow inflorescences that form a flat surface full of flowers that’s often the size of a saucer. The Summer Berries variety has smaller blossoms that are less dense and the colors are combinations and variations of red, pink, salmon and cream. I wasn’t sure if I’d have a nice mix of colors – that’s always the risk when you plants seeds of a mixed color plant. Fortunately the five plants that I have show a good representation of the color mix.

Whether you go with the standard yellow or try some of the other yarrow colors, this is one of the easiest perennials to grow. I grew it from seed but you can find plants for transplanting at any garden center. There are only two mistakes you can make when growing yarrow.

Planting this flower in the shade is a sure way to not have blooms; yarrow needs as much sun as possible. The other mistake is to fertilize it. Yarrow grows on marginal soil and too much fertilizer causes it to produce leaves instead of flowers. You could call yarrow one of those garden flowers that thrives on neglect!

Summer Berries is supposed to be a small yarrow but even with the shorter stem, I learned it still needs a little support to keep the stems upright. When the flowers fade, I’ll also be sure to dead-head the plants since that might encourage them to send up more blooms later in the season.

While the yellow yarrow is OK, I really like the Summer Berries variety. This is certainly a new plant that’s going to be a regular in the garden.

Summer Berries Yarrow

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yar4

Weed du Jour – Common Pokeweed

If there’s one weed that I should have under control, it’s common pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). This large weed is easily controlled with cultivation if you don’t allow it to become established. But there are two places where I’ve found this perennial weed growing – the raspberry bed and the asparagus bed.

Young Pokeweed in Asparagus Bed

Young Pokeweed in Asparagus Bed

It’s not surprising that these are the two places where pokeweed has established itself. I try my best to keep these beds free from weeds but when the raspberries are tall and the asparagus has reached its 5′ height, I tend to miss some of them. Pokeweed is one I missed.

Pokeweed is a huge plant, growing from 3-10′ tall, that tends to grow in hedgerows, by fences, along the edges of fields and in other places where it can grow undisturbed, i.e. asparagus and raspberry beds! The plant is propagated by seeds that can remain viable in the ground for 40 years. The seeds spout in spring and early summer and grow quickly into large plants. But what you don’t see is that the plants are also growing a large taproot that can be 4″ wide and 12″ long. The leaves of pokeweed are either egg or lance shaped, often with a reddish tint on the underside as they mature.

Pokeweed Inflorescence

Pokeweed Inflorescence

In the summer pokeweed developes inflorescences that are long and covered with small white flowers. These flowers develop into berries that are a dark purple/black when mature. Each one of these berries has about 10 seeds inside of it. Pokeweed is spread by birds eating the berries and leaving the undamaged seeds in their droppings.

What sets pokeweed apart from most other weeds is that all parts of the plant are poisonous. The root is the most poisonous, the leaves and stems are intermediary (the level of toxin increases with maturity) and the berries have the least toxicity. However, there are reports of children being poisoned by the berries so, while less toxic, they’re still dangerous. The primary toxic compounds are phytolaccine, formic acid, tannin, and resin acid which cause gastrointestinal irritation but may also cause mutations and birth defects. Since these chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, it’s a good idea to not pull the plants with bare hands.

While this is a poisonous plant, in the South the young shoots are often eaten as a green that’s said to taste like either asparagus or spinach. There are also some who make pies or jelly from the berries. Personally, I would never eat this weed and am not recommending that anyone try it given its poisonous nature!

The other interesting thing about pokeweed is that it appears as an herbal remedy and is said to treat rheumatoid arthritis, tonsillitis, mumps, swollen glands, bronchitis and constipation. Once again, I’m not going to ingest this weed no matter what cures it promises to deliver.

Apart from the folklore about pokeweed, scientist have isolated one protein in it called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP) which has shown anti-tumor effects on mice and antiviral effects on herpes and HIV in vitro and in animal studies. While this protein shows some possible medical uses, PAP is now made synthetically because the PAP extracted from pokeweed was often impure and contained the poisonous elements of this weed.

Common Pokeweed

Common Pokeweed

In the garden, pokeweed really isn’t a big problem unless you allow it to establish itself like I did. You can use a shovel and cut through the taproot of large plants to remove them; this will usually kill it. The one pokeweed I have right now is growing in the middle of an asparagus clump so I can’t dig it out. I figure I’ll keep pulling off new shoots as they develop. I also might cut the shoots and put a few drops of full-strength RoundUp into the hollow stems.

The best trick for controlling pokeweed is to keep up with the weed, pulling or cultivating it when you see it and not allowing the fruits to form. But given the fact that this weed grows all over the area, a few seeds will always end up in the garden and yard (thank you birds!). Pokeweed is something that’ll always be finding its way into the garden – I just need to keep a step ahead of it.

Caveat Emptor

That old Latin phrase still applies today – caveat emptor… let the buyer beware!

Southern Belle Hibiscus

Young Southern Belle Hibiscus Plant

I thought of this recently when I was searching to find Southern Belle hibiscus seeds. I have a few of these plants along a fence and I need to fill in one spot. As I was checking with various seed companies, I found out that Southern Belle hibiscus is slowly being replaced by other varieties. When it was first introduced it was all the rage – a perennial hibiscus that could be grown from seed and blossom the first year. But over the ensuing decades, other varieties, particularly Disco Belle and Luna, have taken over the market. These newer varieties are smaller and better in containers.

Since the other varieties of hibiscus are half the size of Southern Belle, I couldn’t use them along the fence. When I started to think I’d never find Southern Belle seeds, I tried eBay since you can get anything there!

A few people had seeds of Southern Belle hibiscus for sale but one of the listings stopped me cold in my tracks. In clear type the seller said that these seeds were collected from their Southern Belle plants. Now this might not be a problem except for the fact that Southern Belle hibiscus is an F1 hybrid.

To create an F1 hybrid, two separate plants, each with a different but stable genetic makeup are crossed and the seeds that develop and the plants that grow from those seeds are a combination of the two parental lines. F1 stands for “filial 1,” meaning the first  generation of a cross between two parents.

F1 hybrids are very uniform in their growth and habit because their genetic “blueprint” is the same. But if you collect seeds from these plants, who knows what the next generation will look like? Genes that were specifically combined to provide the characteristics of the F1 generation get shuffled and the seeds from that plant could produce offspring with all different sizes and colors. Add to this that hibiscus are insect pollinated and there’s no way to even guess what pollen pollinated the plant. It might be fun to grow these seeds and see what happens but I can guarantee that they won’t be Southern Belle hibiscus plants. True Southern Belle seeds can only be produced by breeders who have the two parental lines and carefully cross-pollinate the two plants.

Reading that listing scared me and kept me from buying any hibiscus seeds from eBay. Who knows where the other sellers got their seeds?! Fortunately Stoke’s Seeds still is offering Southern Belle hibiscus. Since this is a company that been around for a long time I knew I could trust that their seeds would be true F1 hybrid seeds.

Even when you’re buying seeds, the ancient Roman principle is still true – caveat emptor – let the buyer beware!

Weed du Jour – Scarlet Pimpernel

Scarlet Pimpernel

Scarlet Pimpernel

Yesterday I was doing some weeding in the garden. Whenever I weed I keep a close eye on what kind of weeds I’m removing. As I was working though a patch of yellow woodsorrel, I saw a weed that I’ve never seen before. It grew low to the ground and had the prettiest salmon/orange blossoms. I grabbed the weed, took it up to the house and got a few pictures of it before it wilted. While I wasn’t certain, I had a hunch that I’d discovered scarlet pimpernel growing in the vegetable garden.

While I’ve never seen this weed before, I’d seen pictures of it in the book Weeds of the Northeast. It’s name had caught my eye since I’ve seen the musical by the same name a number of times. Sure enough, when I checked, this new weed was easy to ID – scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis).

Note the Square Stems and Spots on the Underside of the Leaves

Note the Square Stems and Spots on the Underside of the Leaves

Scarlet pimpernel was introduced into the US from Europe and now grows throughout the states, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and the Pacific coast. This low growing annual has a shallow root system. The leaves are small (<1″), opposite one another and oval or triangular in shape. Any petiole that is present is very small. The underside of the leaves of scarlet pimpernel have small purple spots which help to identify this weed. The other identifying characteristic is the square stems of the plant.

Scarlet pimpernel has salmon to brick-red flowers (I know, they should be scarlet but I didn’t name this plant!) each with five petals that appear from June to August. The fertilized flowers produce a small fruit which contain 30-40 seeds each. A large plant can produce more that 12,000 seeds in one season – this is probably why it’s considered a weed.

Given its low profile and shallow root system, scarlet pimpernel isn’t a problem to control. Cultivation will easily limit this weed’s growth and if it’s growing in turf, any broadleaf herbicide should control it. Here in the Northeast, this weed isn’t very common. I’ve been gardening since the ’60’s and this is the first time I’ve ever seen scarlet pimpernel in the garden. It certainly isn’t a major concern.

While I will call scarlet pimpernel a weed, I have to say that this is a really pretty weed. I can understand why it was brought to the US from Europe. But despite its appeal, I’ll be pulling it up whenever I see it in the garden. Pretty or not, I don’t want it competing with the plants that I’m growing. I’m just glad to know what it is and to have finally spotted a scarlet pimpernel!