An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

October 25, 2008

A Little Wild Around The Edges

I live in a very urban and largely democratic neighborhood, but I am not speaking of our collective political persuasion, which by historic voting trends does tend to be Democratic. Despite the fact that John McCain lived in the neighborhood for a while as a child, and not without a valiant signage effort by my Republican neighbors - this area will likely vote for Obama in overwhelming numbers.

The democratic word that I am referring to is spelled with a lower case "d". We are one of the few residential neighborhoods in Norfolk where everyone has equal access to the waterfront. In most other areas these prime pieces of real estate are on private property, but our neighborhood is surrounded by a narrow strip of public green space that lets anyone enjoy the views. Most of public space is encompassed by a sea wall which protects the shore line from falling back into the river and limits flooding (sometimes). This seawall is a great benefit to the human residents of the area, but wildlife suffers. In the few remaining areas where there is no seawall, wild things grow. There is a diversity of plants that provide homes for marine and terrestrial animals, and it is not uncommon to see several species of heron, egrets and other water birds grazing in the shallows for a meal.

At this time of year one our most prolific, but often unnoticed natives is at its showiest. Baccharis halimifolia (called Saltbush here) has previously flowered and is now about to send forth its fruits which are the showy white parts. Much like dandelion seeds, Saltbush will be creating floating clouds around the water's edge in the next few weeks. This plant is well at home on the edge and can tolerate a great deal of salt flooding, and is one of the first species to reclaim disturbed wetlands. It is semi-evergreen, gets about 10' tall or more, and I like its craggy bark as well. This a a sure sign that fall is coming to Tidewater.

In the following pictures you can see some of the other species trying to live in this narrow tidal zone. Enlarging the first picture will give you a closer look at a "salt meadow". This was some sort of Golden Rod, but I do not know what species. The unusual little Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) has no true leaves, just green fleshy stems that go red in the winter. It is a halophyte and several species of Salicornia are not only edible, but are being evaluated for use in biodiesel production. This could be an interesting possibility for former agricultural lands that have become salinated, or for areas with limited quantities of fresh water, but with abundant salt water.
I would guess that this little flower is an Aster relative, but what I found interesting was that there were many of them growing in an area that frequently gets flooded with salt water.Another one of our under apprecieated natives is Celtis occidentalis or Common Hackberry. The best feature of this tree is its ability to grow where other trees wither. It is tolerant of salt, wind, cold and hot weather, pollution and poor soil. I won't say it is "pretty", but the fall color is a fair yellow, however the bark is fantastic. There are close ups of this bark in one of my previous blog posts, for which I need to apologize for its weird bent (not sure what I was thinking).

The reed growing under the Hackberry is the scourge of the mid-Atlantic coast - Phragmites australis. This plant is rapidly colonizing wetland areas, choking out native species and turning diversity into monoculture. Like many scourges, this one is man-made. A common misconception is that this plant is an introduced non-native species. This plant is indeed native, but in the late 1800's, genetically superior Phragmites australis was introduced to North America. Disturbing wetland soils encourage this plant to grow, and unfortunately there is no easy way to eradicate it. Maybe we could return it to its traditional use and make thatched roofs with it - lots of thatched roofs.
When introduced plants take over, or when these wild areas at our fringes are not preserved, little guys like these Periwinkle Snails have no place to live, and crabs and fish that like to eat them go elsewhere or go hungry. What happens in wild places not only has an effect on the food chain, but on the quality of our lives as well.

October 22, 2008

The Grim Land o' Cotton

I passed a cotton field ready for harvest the other day and unable to stop, made a mental note to come back for some pictures; I like the way it looks at this time of year. Cotton was not common in the area until recently, perhaps the disappearing farm subsidies for peanuts have compelled more farmers to grow it. I have learned something about cotton by attending pesticide re-certification programs. Why I have to sit through these programs mainly geared to commercial farmers makes no sense to me, but it is the only way I can keep my ornamental pestacide certification. Ironically the name of our local extension agent who coordinates these programs is Rex Cotton (Rex is Latin for king, King Cotton). Anyway, what little I have learned about cotton is that in spite of being pretty, I would not want to live next door to a field of it.

Besided being a water intensive crop, cotton also needs a great deal of pesticides in order to keep the insects off of it. In fact, cotton farming consumes 25% of all insecticides world-wide. If this was not bad enough, in order to harvest it without a lot of messy foliage getting in the fibers - it is often chemically defoliated prior to harvest. According to Mr. Cotton, this defoliation process causes a lot of farmer/non-farmer conflicts, as the chemical can often drift into neighboring trees and shrubs causing leaf drop. Since cotton is not a food crop, what can be legally sprayed on it is much stronger than what is used on other crops. One way agri-business has reduced the amount of pesticides used on cotton, is by developing genetically modified varieties, which contain Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Many gardeners may be familiar with Bt, as it is in a lot of organic pesticides. However, changing the DNA of cotton, or any other crop is not without consequences either.

So when you see those touchy-feely "fabric of our lives" ads, consider how cotton is grown, and keep in mind the dark history this plant has had in the American South, India and in other places. Maybe more of us can begin to look for and ask for organically grown, fair trade cotton. In the meantime I'll continue to enjoy how it looks, just not next door.

October 18, 2008

Bloom Day Delayed, Not Bloom Day Denied

The little conspiracies of life (family, occupation, weather, etc...) kept me from posting on Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, but tardy or not, I decided to post . The Queen of Garden Blogger's Bloom Day has shown her benevolence in the past for people who bend the rules, and I hope she will be kind this time. I thank her in advance.

I took these photos today during a break from the rain; it was NOT a rain from tropical storms, hurricanes or nor'easters. It was just good old fashioned, run of the mill rain, and it was most welcome.

Lets start with two fall classics, Toad Lily and...
...Salvia leucantha.
My 75% off Dahlias from two years ago are at their peak.
This is the near ubiquitous Knock Out Rose. I like them better in other people's yard, but when you get something for free, your opinion can change.
Abelia x 'Sunrise' was nice when I first got it, but I would now like to replace it with Abelia x 'Kaleidoscope' which was not on the market when this bed was planted.
This is Miss Huff Lantana with a fat spider in it, or rather it is a fat spider in a Miss Huff Lantana.
Now for some greens. Ajania pacifica use to be Chrysanthemum pacificum and it will take me a long time to remember this. It is nearly a weed, but I like the foliage so much, that I put up with its roamings.
No blooms, but the Fish Net Stockings Coleus has not looked good until the last month. My other coleus are monsters, but this one grew slowly like it was stunted or something. I don't think it is anything endemic with this cultivar; I think our supplier did something to it before it was sold to us, maybe growth regulator?
These are flowers on Sulphur Heart Persian Ivy, and the honeybees and house flies have been busy with it for several weeks. Today's rain gave them the day off.
Lastly, the first sign of fall in my garden is on the Cutleaf Sumac. It is still a little early for fall foliage here, but the Dogwoods in the area have turned which are the first trees to do so. It won't be long before the other trees start in their order.
Thank you Queen Carol!

Intoxicating Osmanthus

Years ago I lived outside of Charleston, SC and would frequently go into the city to escape island isolation. With lush gardens and sea breezes, Charleston is a city full of fragrances, but not all of these smells are good. An aging sea-level sewer system and teams of urinating horses (they wear diapers to catch the chunky bits) often force one into hand covered mouth breathing. However, one of the more common garden plants has an aroma strong enough to mask these odors. Osmanthus fragrans (Fragrant Teaolive) is an old southern favorite and when it blooms it is so intoxicatingly sweet and so strong, mal-odors disappear. The fragrance is hard to compare with other plant smells, it is more like a bottled perfume or a really sweet cake icing. My neighbors here in Norfolk use to have one that was about 10' tall, and when it was in bloom we could smell it on our front porch, 100' feet away. Unfortunately their house painter asked if he could trim some shrubs to get to the siding. He chopped it, and several camellias of equal size, to the ground - I would have sued.

We sell several varieties of Osmanthus at work, and this time of year when they are at peak flower, people buy them on impulse. The easiest variety to find is just the straight species Osmanthus fragrans, but several years ago we started selling the cultivar 'Fudingszhu' (syn. 'Nanjing's Beauty'). I most often recommend 'Fudingzhu' because it is much more florific than the species and the individual flowers are slightly larger. In this case more flowers and larger petals mean more fragrance. We also sell an orange flowered cultivar, Osmanthus f. 'Aurantiacus' that is just as fragrant as the others. It is hard to find this color flower on a large shrub. I get this plant and 'Fudhingzhu' from Nurseries Caroliniana, in North Augusta, SC. This retail/wholesale nursery sells many unusual plants and is run by Ted Stevens, a true planstman.
Most varieties of Osmanthus fragrans will get anywhere from 8 to 10' tall in the cooler part of its range or 20'+ in warmer areas. They are not hardy much below zone 7b, and are killed at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Although they will tolerate full sun, they are happiest in part shade, and will even bloom in heavy shade. Fall is the best season for their flowers, but they will bloom occasionally in spring and more rarely in summer.

There are many species of Osmanthus, but the only other one we carry on a regular basis is Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki'. Perhaps because it does not have the fragrant flowers of O. fragrans, it tries to make up for it with colorful foliage and a more garden friendly habit. Goshiki means "five colors" in Japanese and looking at the photo below, you can easily count five if not more in the foliage. This plant is also less demanding of space than O. fragrans getting only about 5-6' tall and wide, and it is more cold tolerant being able to go to zone 6. It does like the same part shade conditions, but can go sunnier or shadier without ill effects.
If you are interested in reading about the hunt for a red flowered Osmanthus fragrans I found an interesting article written by Dr. David Creech in the Stephen F. Austin Mast Arboretum newsletter. He mentioned that Osmanthus is revered in China where it is celebrated with several festivals. Dr. Creech also said that there is one specimen of O. fragrans at Shengshui temple that is an incredible 2100 years old. Now that is garden longevity!

October 11, 2008

Freakish Foliage From Florida

Back in September when Hurricane Ike's path was yet to be determined, we were asked by our houseplant broker to take our fall shipment early. Just about all of the houseplants sold east of the Mississippi start life in south Florida. He was worried that if we did not take it early, we may not get it at all. Hurricane Andrew's memories burn particularly intense among the Florida foliage industry.

Included in the shipment we received was Eurphorbia lactea 'Cristata'. I have never seen this plant before and they reminded me of some sort of nudibranch. They are grafted and come in several colors. What I have since read about this plant is that it is native to India where it is used medicinally, but yet it is listed as poisonous as well. It needs to be kept in a bright sunny window and should be allowed to go completely dry between waterings. We sold several the day they came in to people using employee discounts.

October 4, 2008

A Fine Fall Day

Today was day one of our annual Fall Festival at work, and the weather could not have been more cooperative. Although it was in the 50's this morning and I had to wear a jacket for the first time this season, it warmed into the 70's quickly and there was not a cloud in the humidity free skies. Perhaps because of the weather (and I'd like to think good planning on our part), we were extremely busy, and boy did we need it. I have become concerned over the downturn in traffic at the store over the past month, but I understand why it has been this way. Scary times make people hang on to their money, and I'm sure trying to be careful with mine.

Since it was so clear this morning, and everything was covered with dew - I took a few pictures to share. The first shot is one of the displays D.M. (the hand model from the previous post) put together.
An unknown Japanese Anenome (Anenome x)
Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus) is an annual for us, but I remember when I lived in Charleston what a weed it was, albeit a pretty one.
These are two of my favorite new plants, Kaleidoscope Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope') and Purple Pixie Loropetalum (Loropetalum chinensis 'Purple Pixie'). I am very impressed with Kaleidoscope, primarily because of its winter colors of orange, red and yellow. If you would like to see more, it has its own website. Purple Pixie is the lowest Loropetalum, getting only 1.5' tall by about 3' wide.
We have yet another new Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea 'Fragrant Angel', and it indeed has a light pleasant aroma. It has the largest flower I have seen on any Coneflower no matter the color. Here is the Ryder Cup of Euonymus with the American contender (Euonymus americanus) growing wild on the edge of the property...
... and the European entry (Euonymus europaeus 'Red Ace').
This is our native Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius).
I love the reflection of the pines in this fountain with the Purple Irisene.
Indian Magic Crabapple (Malus x 'Indian Magic')
The Muhlenbergia capillaris was covered in dew.
Sabal minor is one of the most cold hardy palms, being able to go well into zone 7, and maybe beyond. I have always thought that the seeds were attractive.

Golden Delicious Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious)
Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha)
Thanks to all of our customers for spending their disposable income with us. I hope all of you out there shop with your local independent retailers whenever possible.