Monday, October 5, 2015

Soldiers on the Agastache!

These soldiers (OK, soldier beetles) like to make love, not war. Often, you'll see one (female?) beetle crawling around while another (male?) beetle hangs on its back (presumably) trying to mate.

The last couple of years, the soldier beetles did their loving on the 'Lemon Queen' sunflower, but when that plant suddenly and unexpectedly crashed this past spring (and was subsequently shovel-pruned), they moved on to other plants this year - primarily agastache (like this Agastache foeniculum), but also Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. When they are not getting it on,  I believe soldier beetles generally serve as important beneficial insects in the garden.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Trip Report -- London Kew Gardens (3 of 3)

And now the final batch of photographic highlights from my August trip to Kew Gardens. Enjoy!

Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'

This looks like variegation, but I think it is the beginning of a process by which leaves yellow and then drop prematurely from Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). I've seen the same thing in my garden, although it tends to happen much earlier in the year in Tennessee, perhaps due to heat and drought stress?

Sorghum bicolor 'Texas Black' -- this plant had some serious height, and I could see it working nicely as an attractive temporary screen.

Symphytum (comfrey) 'Hidcote Pink'
The bees were buzzing all around this Tilia kiusiana (Kyushu linden)

Other pollinators also joined the Tilia kiusiana banquet...

Love the fact that you can buy vegetables at Kew!

I was mighty impressed with this 'Cos Dixter' lettuce. Looks tasty!

Finally, here's a look at the variety and beauty of student vegetable plots at Kew. I think it would be great if more botanic gardens had these sorts of sections to show that gardening is something accessible and intimately connected to people, rather than just an abstract aesthetic exercise.

Thanks for joining me on this visit to Kew. We may be bidding Kew a fond farewell, but I'm not done yet with my travel posts. 

Stay tuned -- or better yet, sign up for a free email subscription -- to make sure you don't miss more posts on London gardens and a visit to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris!

Monday, September 28, 2015

I Love some October in September! :)

Aren't October Skies beautiful?

I love our native 'October Skies' aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) - and so do the many bees and other little pollinators that mob the profuse flowers.

Planning to add some more of these to the garden next spring...

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Boxwood Blight Rears its Head in Tennessee

Blight-striken boxwood in process of defoliating (photo via Oregon Department of Agriculture)

University of Tennessee has warned that boxwood blight - a fungal disease first spotted in the state in 2014 - could wipe out many of the boxwoods that are a mainstay in many residential landscapes.

I'll be honest. I've never liked boxwoods much. They seem boring and botanically 'inert' (except for the brief period in the spring when they flower and attract pollinators). If you prune a boxwood and leave the clippings on the ground, they turn an unsightly white/yellow but they don't actually decompose for many months. And boxwood foliage can get blasted here by winter sun and/or late freezes.

That said, it's a popular, tough evergreen mainstay in many residential gardens.

If the blight really does take its toll, what should home gardeners use as a replacement in Tennessee (and elsewhere)?

A dwarf version of our Southeast native Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly) could be a good option. It looks similar and it's evergreen, although not especially cold hardy. I think most yaupons are only rated to zone 7 and we're right on the zone 6/7 border.

Any other ideas? 

We need more than one replacement, because monocultures tend to encourage the emergence and spread of plant diseases. I'm hoping we can use this as an opportunity to add more native plants to the garden that have wildlife value... 

PS - Stay up-to-date on the conversation with a free email subscription to Garden of Aaron...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Trip Report - London Kew Gardens (2 of 3)

Building on last week's post, here are more highlights from my August visit to Kew...

Many of the bamboo specimens at Kew Gardens looked like they were raring to burst through the black plastic barriers holding them back. This specimen of Fargesia nitida, however, seemed like it would be much better behaved in a garden setting.

Geranium x riversleaianum 'Mavis Simpson'

Usually, I think dwarf Ginkgo biloba cultivars look ridiculous, but I have to admit that this adorable 'Troll' won me over!

Another floriferous border overflowing with Helenium 'Wesergold'

A Japanese gateway adorned with balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus)

Japanese rowan (Sorbus commixta)

Don't miss the final installment of my visit to Kew -- stay in the loop with a free email subscription to Garden of Aaron.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Weed Alert! Beefsteak Plant / Perilla frutescens

Perilla frutescens is a pretty weed, but apparently here in Tennessee, it's pretty toxic to cattle and other grazers. FYI, the shrub in the background is Viburnum dentatum 'Pearl Bleu'. The herbaceous plants covering the ground are mostly native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).

Since I don't put mulch heavily or put down any weed-suppressing chemicals, I tend to have a lot of plants pop up in my garden beds.

Some of them are the usual weedy scourges (crabgrass, spurge, clover, oxalis, etc.), but sometimes there are plants I don't recognize and have never seen before.

Sometimes, these unknown seedlings can be exciting volunteers -- like my discovery of a Sassafras albidum seedling this summer! And I'm pretty sure that my Viburnum dentatum (arrowwood) shrubs have produced a seedling, which I'll try transplanting in the weeks ahead.

But then there are discoveries that initially seem exciting, but ultimately turn to disappointment.

Such is the case with the plant shown above. I thought it might be one of the Scutellaria (skullcap) native wildflowers. I've only seen photos of those plants online, so I wasn't sure what would look like in person.

Anyway, I had my doubts (the flowers from the Scutellaria photos looked much bigger than the blooms on my mystery plant), so I checked with an extremely helpful local expert (Amy Dismukes, UT/TSU Williamson County Extension Agent) and she identified the seedling as Perilla frutescens (beefsteak plant).

Now Perilla is native to Asia and unfortunately, it turns out that it is invasive in parts of the U.S., including Tennessee (according to the National Park Service).

So I ripped it out.

A closer look at Perilla frutescens (beefsteak plant, shiso) before it met an untimely demise at my hands

Could I have eaten it? I'm not sure. In parts of Eastern Asia (e.g., Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam), I believe that Perilla frutescens is used as an herb/seasoning. I'm pretty sure that I've eaten  the occasional shiso leaf (as Perilla is called in Japanese cuisine) as an accompaniment to sashimi or chirashi. It had a very strong, distinctive flavor - not unpleasant, but I can't imagine eating more than a few leaves at a time.

On the other hand, I presume/suspect that I was eating a Perilla cultivar that had been bred for edibility. University of Tennessee says that the plant is highly toxic to cows and horses, and in fact causes more cattle deaths in the state than any other plant.

Meanwhile, a Purdue University paper cites research showing that a chemical compound called a ketone (Perilla ketone, to be specific) may be the culprit as far as the toxicity is concerned. Interestingly, Purdue notes that this ketone was found in P. frutescens samples from Tennessee, but not in seed from Oklahoma plants nor in commercial samples from Japan.

What does this all mean? As I see it, there might be at least a few plausible interpretations of this data:

1) P. frutescens is evolving new chemical defenses here in North America.

2) Perhaps wild P. frutescens has always had chemical defenses, and the cultivated versions grown in East Asia had those defenses bred out of them by humans over a period of hundreds or thousands of years? In that case, perhaps the presence of the ketone in the Tennessee specimens is a reversion to a defense that had been lost? Wikipedia notes that wild North American shiso often has lost the fragrance that makes it a desirable herb and that these wild, weedy plants are not suitable for eating (due to the presence of the Perilla ketone).

3) Perhaps there is great variability in the species (the fact that seeds from wild P. frutescens plants in Oklahoma did not seem to contain this ketone lends credibility to this hypothesis) and it's luck-of-the-draw as to whether a given P. frutescens plant contains Perilla ketone or not.

So, would I personally nibble a wild Perilla frutescens plant growing in Tennessee?

No, I would not.

And since this is a weedy, exotic invasive plant in at least some parts of the U.S., should you (North American readers) come across it growing in your yard, field or garden, I'd encourage you to remove it.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Trip Report -- London Kew Gardens (1 of 3)

Kew Gardens surely is one of the most famous botanic gardens in the world.

The gardens live up to their sterling reputation. In particular, I was impressed by the holly collection, which included specimens I'd never seen anywhere else, such as Farges's holly (Ilex fargesii subsp. fargesii).

Ilex fargesii subsp. fargesii
Ilex fargesii subsp. fargesii

Close-up on the marvelous berries clustered around the stems of Ilex fargesii subsp. fargesii

Honestly, the only thing that detracts from the experience is the fact that Kew is right under the path that airplanes take on their way to nearby Heathrow airport. Since Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world, that means that planes thunder close overhead constantly. It's a shame, because it shatters the peace of what would otherwise be a bucolic setting.

Noise pollution aside, Kew contains marvelous horticultural treasures. Here are some of my favorites. (Because there are so many photos, I'm splitting up this Trip Report into 3 batches, just as I did with the Giverny posts...)

You see healthy hedges of Aucuba japonica (Japanese aucuba) throughout London, but this specimen at Kew Gardens looked particularly lush and impressive.

Eurasian magpie, not only beautiful, but reportedly also very intelligent.

An herbaceous bed bursting with flowers and colors - how exuberant!

It's quite hard to see (like a "Where's Waldo?" book), but if you look closely, you may be able to spot some of the bees (lower left portion of this photo) that were buzzing about this Bupleurum frutescens subsp spinosum (apparently, the common name is "spiny hare's ears")

Another Bupleurum - easier to spot the bee on this one (Bupleurum fruticosum)

Kew has a Treetop Walkway - an elevated walkway among the treetops - that sounded really exciting, but was actually sort of underwhelming and scary at the same time. Underwhelming, because the canopy walk mostly was surrounded by the same sort of trees (chestnuts). I would have preferred to see different sorts of trees up close. Scary, because the flooring material was a see-through metal mesh that seemed to be one step up from chicken wire. It flexed and made banging sounds as people walked over it. Yikes. We hurried gingerly through the canopy and then I took a glass elevator down (fun!) while my wife opted for the stairs.

Speaking of chestnuts, here is a sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) loaded with seeds.

Chasmanthium latifolium (northern sea oats
Rosa tomentosa (downy rose) -- look at those hips!

Echinopsis huascha, a cactus from Argentina. This one was growing indoors in a desert greenhouse.

The spines are no joke on the rose cactus (Pereskia grandifolia)

Yucca queretaroensis (Queretaro yucca)

What else caught my eye at Kew? Find out with a free email subscription to Garden of Aaron.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ah, to Bee in Paris!

This is the beehive that sits on a balcony on the 7th floor of the Hyatt Paris Madeleine. The hotel conceptualized and created a mascot called Maddie the Bee to try to make bees seem less intimidating to children. As you can see, Maddie is very French -- she is even wearing a beret. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt Paris Madeleine)

Ah, Paris.

City of Love.

City of Light.

City of honeybees on 7th floor hotel balconies.

Well, perhaps the last description is not so well-known, but it is accurate, at least in the case of the Hyatt Paris Madeleine, a charming boutique hotel with its very own honeybee hive right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever I travel, I always try to stay someplace that demonstrates some commitment to the environment.

The Hyatt Paris Madeleine recognizes that honeybees are in trouble and so it has installed and maintains this hive to show support for the bees.

I also like the fact that the hotel hosts an event where local elementary schoolchildren can watch a beekeeper harvest the honey and ask any questions they may have about bees or beekeeping.

The beekeeper at the Hyatt Paris Madeleine makes a point during the honey harvest. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt Paris Madeleine)

Laura, who works in communications at the Hyatt, very kindly gave me a tour of the beehive area. Although she assured me that these are sweet-natured bees, I got to suit up in the white pullover and helmet that beekeepers wear. (Sorry I forgot to ask for a blogger-as-beekeeper photo.) Then we stepped gingerly out on the small balcony and I shot this video of the bees buzzing in and out of their hive.

(The suit seemed unnecessary. The bees did not seem at all perturbed by presence. In fact, they ignored me entirely.)

Later on, I got a chance to sample some of the latest crop of honey and was very impressed. I have to say that it's among the most floral and 'perfumed' honeys I've ever tasted. I'd even go so far as to call it a 'romantic' honey -- the bees have managed to imbue it with the spirit of Paris!

A jar of the 2015 honey crop from the hive Hyatt Paris Madeleine. This little information card in all the rooms not only gives guests a chance to save water and detergent (by refraining from having their sheets laundered every day), it also makes sure they learn about the hotel's beekeeping program and hopefully sparks a conversation on the rationale and importance of such an initiative.

Laura mentioned that the chef in the Hyatt's on-site restaurants, Cafe M and Chinoiserie, incorporates the hotel's honey each year into a special dish/dishes. Last year, the honey showed up in a poached peach desert alongside lime blossoms and red currants. This year, the chef incorporated the honey into a sorbet (shown below).

This seasonal sorbet incorporated honey from the Hyatt Paris Madeleine's own beehives.

Beyond the bees and the honey, the Hyatt Paris Madeleine is still a pretty sweet hotel. The rooms are modern and spacious (for Paris). There's even a little spa in the basement with steam room (they call it a 'hammam') and dry sauna, plus a small relaxation room for chilling out with ambient music.

And I got a kick out of learning that the glass ceiling in the hotel atrium was designed by the workshops of Gustave Eiffel.

This is a view from the lobby looking toward the atrium. You can glimpse the glass roof designed by Mr. Eiffel's studio. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt Paris Madeleine)

You may have heard of Mr. Eiffel. He's well-known for a certain eponymous tower (visible from certain rooms at the Hyatt)...

Mr. Eiffel is actually better known for his tower (seen here in the distance from a room at the Hyatt Paris Madeleine) than for the hotel's atrium. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt Paris Madeleine)

From a practical standpoint, I should note that the Hyatt Paris Madeleine is very well-situated. It's near to several Metro stations (especially the Madeleine and Saint-Augustin stops) and I had no trouble walking from the hotel to the Tuileries garden, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay or the Opera Garnier.

Disclosure: Hyatt Paris Madeleine arranged for a press visit so that I could gather material for this review. That said, the opinions expressed here are my own.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cutest. Caterpillar. Ever.

My, what big eye spots you have, Papilio troilus!

Remember a little while ago when I posted about a mystery seedling that had popped up next to my house?

I thought it looked a little like a sassafras (Sassafras albidum), but I couldn't be sure because the leaves were simple/entire, whereas sassafras usually has lobed, mitten-shape leaves.

One wise gardener (shout out to Laurrie!) who commented on my original post thought the mystery plant could be a spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which did seem like a reasonable possibility.

Well, I happened to go outside one day about a week ago and spot this large, adorable caterpillar resting on a leaf.

"Ah ha!," I thought. "This is a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. Which means, this must be a spicebush."

(Yeah, Sherlock Holmes ain't got nothing on me.)

Except, of course, that I was wrong. When I looked more deeply on the WWW, I found that the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar munches not just on spicebush leaves, but also feeds on other species including sassafras!!

So, I was back to square one in terms of not knowing the identity of my seedling, except that when I kept a close eye on it, I noticed that it had started producing lobed mitten-shaped leaves.

Here you can see all three types of sassafras leaves - three-lobed, mitten-shaped and entire/simple (no lobes). Mystery solved!

Yep, mystery (truly) solved -- I'm ready to call it as Sassafras albidum.  (So that means Laura Bigbee-Fott was right with her plant ID. Thanks Laura!)

Which means, I will need to transplant it, because having a tree that can grow 30 to 40 feet tall growing 6 inches from your house is Not a Good Idea.

Will it survive transplantation? I don't know, but I've got nothing to lose by trying and a nice native tree to gain for the landscape if it works out.

PS - I'm a little worried about sassfras' reported tendency to sucker, but I think I'll take that risk and try keeping it anyway. It's supposed to be a beautiful tree and I'd love to see more of those caterpillars and the beautiful swallowtail butterflies they become.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar all grown up (photo by Elizabeth Nicodemus)

What other amazing discoveries could I make in the garden? Find out with a free email subscription to Garden of Aaron.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trip Report - Giverny, France - Back to Monet's Garden (3 of 3)

Welcome to the final installment of an August visit to Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France.

(In case you missed, the first two posts, you can find them here and here.)

Without further ado...

Some type of Begonia, I believe...

(Update - Holly's Folly has suggested this could be B. grandis)

Lovely use of Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle) as edging in an herbaceous border.

I believe this is some sort of milkweed mixed in with some kind of marigold. (Very specific, I know.)

Update -- Holly's Folly has suggested this (and the next photo) are Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow'

New Update: Giverny gardener Enrico has kindly informed me that this is actually Asclepias curassavica 'Silky Gold'

It's a beautiful plant -- but please note that there are some potential concerns in warmer parts of the U.S. around the effect this non-native milkweed may have monarch butterflies and their migration. I think Monarch Butterfly Garden provides a good overview of the issue.

A close-up shot of the Asclepias curassavica 'Silky Gold'

I believe this is some kind of Datura, a poisonous genus with the incongruously pretty common name if 'Angel's trumpets'

Update - Holly's Folly has suggested that this flower - and the next two - could be Brugmansia species...

New Update: Gardener Enrico has kindly informed me that the flower in this photo and the one below is Datura metel ‘Oeschberg Violet’. Thanks for the info, Enrico!

Datura metel ‘Oeschberg Violet’, side view

A different kind of Datura

The view of the garden in Giverny from an upper room in Monet's house

Finally, a view of the lily pond. I tried to capture the horizon-less feeling from Monet's famous series of waterlily paintings at the Orangerie museum in Paris. This photo (and the paintings) also make me think of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e, often translated into English as 'pictures of the floating world'

Thank you for joining me on this tour of Giverny. I'll be publishing more posts in the coming weeks based on some recent travels in England and France. If you'd like to be among the first to hear of these posts, you can sign up for a free email subscription here.