Monday, October 20, 2014

Energizer Flowers in the October Garden of Aaron - Balloon Flower, Rozanne Geranium, October Skies Aster, Chaste Tree and more!

I'm probably revealing my age here, but do you remember the Energizer battery commercials from years past with a battery-powered bunny drummer that kept going and going and going?

That's just the sort of plant I admire in the garden, one that flowers for months and months without much (or any) external intervention.

I actually went away for a few weeks in September and left my garden to its own devices. We had a warm September here in Tennessee -- meaning plenty of days with temps in the 80s and practically no rain whatsoever (0.25 inches for the whole month).

And while the grass got some water from the sprinkler, the garden had to fend for itself without any irrigation. Here's how things looked when I got home:

Red berries on the Aronia arbutifolia, Red Chokeberry

Bunches of black berries on the Aronia melanocarpa, Black Chokeberry.
In prior years, these had some nice fall color. More recently, they seem to get defoliated (perhaps by lacebugs) every year, which doesn't seem to damage the plant much, but certainly eliminates any autumn color.

Autumn Fern (a.k.a. Japanese Shield Fern), Dryopteris erythrosora, I installed two of these in April in a partial shade setting. They seemed to struggle at first, but have since settled in nicely. Yep, it turns out there are ferns such as this that are remarkably drought tolerant once established. In fact, UGA recommends it as a groundcover for Georgia, which tells you it can take the heat (though it's also cold hardy to USDA zone 5). No flowers of course, but the new fronds have a beautiful copper color.

This is Platycodon grandiflora, the Balloon Flower. It had a nice long flowering period in the early summer, after which it formed seeds. Last year, I let the seeds mature and fall to the ground, which resulted in some self-sowing. This year, I trimmed back the plant by about one-third, which prompted it to rebloom vigorously. I've also noticed some bees visiting the flowers this year, which is nice.

Baptisia australis, Blue False Indigo, this has pretty flowers in the spring, but it certainly doesn't fall into the Energizer flower category (the flowers only last a couple of weeks at most), But it's a trouble-free tough native perennial with lovely foliage that stays attractive all year. It is also apparently a host plant for the Clouded Sulphur butterfly, which I have seen in my garden this year for the first time. I just planted some new Baptisias from Prairie Nursery, so hopefully I'll have more Baptisia foliage next year upon which the Clouded Sulphurs can dine.

I planted three small Spicy Globe basil plants in the spring. I hae to say this was not necessarily my favorite basil from a taste perspective. But they formed nice bushy plants (perhaps 8 inches high by 12 inches wide) that were covered with flowers for months and months. As you may be able to see in the left middle section of the photo, the flowers do a great job of attracting bees. So if you're looking to attract pollinators to your garden, a few basil plants could work wonders. And unlike some herbs, they seem to grow perfectly well (at least in Tennessee) in partial shade. Since these got so much attention from pollinators and since I never cut them back, I'm very curious to see whether they will self sow next year.

The Camellia sasanqua by the front porch has started blooming. You can't see it here, but the flowers attract a steady stream of honeybee visitors.

Even though I did not do any deadheading or pruning, the young Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree) began reblooming in early September and was still going strong in early October. These flower spikes almost always have large bees hanging on them from dawn to dusk. They also attract some butterflies, as you can see from the small tawny skipper butterfly in the upper section of this photo.

More big bees on Chaste Tree flower spike

Practically all the cosmos have fallen over, but they usually are tough enough to keep blooming even while lying prone on the ground. And as you can see here, the (slightly out-of-focus) small bees will keep visiting regardless.

You may not be able to tell from this photo, but this (self-sown) cosmos plant has actually fallen across the path, but it is still blooming its heart out. No deadheading required for weeks and weeks (sometimes months and months) of blooms!

I'm not a huge fan of daylilies, but I do have some in my garden that I inherited and more that I added before I decided I didn't like them much. One thing I truly dislike is staring at the dead, dying and damaged daylily foliage after the plants flower. So after doing some research online, I read it's possible to cut the daylilies to the ground and have them resprout fresh foliage (aquilegia will do the same). So I gave it a try and - voila! - it worked! This clean foliage is much nicer to look at from late summer into autumn.

Another clump of daylilies that was cut back to the ground in mid-summer and has since resprouted vigorously with clean light green foliage.

A feather found in the grass. Perhaps from a hawk?

I tried to remove the Ajuga reptans from part of the front border. Clearly I did not get it all. Meanwhile, I had planted an Athyrium nipponicum, Japanese Painted Fern. Again, this is a fern that some sources will list as being drought tolerant (in partial to full shade) once established. This particular fern is called "Ghost" and it's actually a hybrid between the Japanese fern and a native American fern called Athyrium filix-femina. The name seems appropriate, since I thought it was a goner when something (rabbits?) ate it to the ground twice over the summer. Nonetheless, it has popped back to life each time! Clearly tougher than it looks...

My three Hidcote lavender plants (Lavandula angustifolia, also called Lavandula officinalis) have all grown nicely this year, although they haven't flowered much. I fear I may have cited them in too much shade, or perhaps they are just getting settled. The big challenge with growing in Lavender in Tennessee (as I understand it) is not so much the cold - these are after all supposed to be hardy to zone 5. No, the real challenge is our heavy clay soil and winter rains. Lavender apparently cannot tolerate wet winter soils. That said, Hidcote is supposed to be one of the tougher lavenders, so I'll hope these guys can defy the odds and survive until springtime.

At first, I thought my lavender plants would not flower at all this year, but sometime in September they did produce a few tall flower spikes. Since this is my first year growing lavender, I'm not sure when I'm supposed to harvest it for dried flowers / potpourri. 

One of my favorite plants just keeps on giving. Lonicera sempervirens, the native Coral Honeysuckle, produces non-stop orange-red hummingbird-attracting flowers from very early spring to autumn. The flower production has slowed dramatically now, but all those hummingbird (and butterfly) visits have clearly produced results, as the plant is now covered in berries at various stages of ripening. This photo shows all three stages of berries ripening from green to light orange to bright orange-red. I haven't noticed any birds feeding on the berries yet, but American Beauties says that bluebirds, waxwings and many other birds will eat the fruit. 

There are some Aronia berries in this photo, but the intended focus is the lush mass of Melissa officinalis, a.k.a. Lemon Balm, that grew from three tiny sprigs that I planted in April. As you can see, the Lemon Balm has formed a thick weed-suppressing groundcover. And the foliage is darn pretty. The leaves have a nice lemony scent, and I've tried them in a salad and as "lemonade", but alas I could not detect much of a lemon taste. Lemon Balm did not flower this year, but it's supposed to have late spring or early summer flowers that are a big hit with the bees, so I'm hoping it will put on a nice flowering show next year if it feels suitably happy and established. Of course, the real question is how far it will spread and whether I will someday regret having planted it. Only time will tell...

You can see where October Skies aster (Aster oblongifolius) gets its name. These plants are absolutely covered with sky-blue flowers in September and October. And the flowers are visited by clouds of little bees and wasps. It's a delightful plant that has been trouble-free so far for me this year. The dense foliage also does a great job of suppressing weeds. This was my first year growing asters, so I'm excited to see how they perform next year (presuming of course that they survive the winter without any problems).

Just another photo to show how floriferous all three October Skies asters have been. Charming, lovely plants. Unlike some other asters (I'm looking at you, New England asters), that can grow tall and gangly with defoliated lower stems, the October Skies aster stays dense and bushy. And at least this year, it probably topped out at about 12 inches high with perhaps a 14-18 inches spread. Definitely a lovely foreground plant.

Finally, a definite contender in the Energizer bunny category, this is Rozanne Cranesbill Geranium which has flowered for at least four months (early June through early-to-mid October) and will probably keep going until a hard frost with no deadheading or pruning required. (It accepts pruning if it rambles out of bounds, but no pruning is necessary to stimulate flowering.) What's more, I think the foliage quality actually improved on Rozanne throughout the summer and into autumn. One of the first plants I added to my garden, Rozanne has survived a couple of transplants and given me so much joy over the years. I think anyone who can grow Rozanne (hardy to zone 5), should give her a try.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Shots from Bernheim Arboretum - Abelia and a Pink Mystery Plant

Happy October!

Last week, I shared a slew of photos from a trip I took to Yew Dell Botanic Garden back in late August.

Around that same time (September 1st) to be exact, I stopped at the Bernheim Arboretum, also in the Louisville vicinity, on my way back south toward Tennessee.

I didn't take nearly as many photos at Bernheim, but I did have two snaps that I wanted to share:

I saw a number of Glossy Abelia shrubs (Abelia x grandiflora) at Bernheim. Covered with small flowers, the Abelias were attracting several butterflies, including this gorgeous Monarch that kindly held still long enough to permit this photo.

OK, all you Horticultural Gurus, would you care to hazard a guess on this (unlabeled) plant with pretty pink flowers that clearly has a bumble bee fan base? I'm thinking it might be some sort of Japanese anemone?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

An August Visit to Yew Dell - Pomegranate, Banana, Pineapple Lily and Bamboo in Kentucky!

Late last month, my wife and I were passing through Louisville, Kentucky and took the time for a quick visit to Yew Dell Botanical Gardens.

It's not the biggest garden by a long stretch, but I have to say I was mighty impressed and surprised with some of the plants I saw there. Here are some of the highlights:

Aster divaricatus, White Wood Aster, pristine foliage in August plus a carpet of starry flowers. What could be nicer?

Not blooming yet, but looking incredibly robust and healthy, here's another aster - A. oblongifolius "Raydon's Favorite," which wins rave reviews from Mt. Cuba Center

OK, this is not so pretty, but botanic gardens are useful in part to see the brownouts you'll rarely find in a gardening magazine or nursery catalog. This is Coreopsis verticillata Golden Gain.  

More proof that Firewitch Dianthus can make a beautiful groundcover

The sign said Ensete montevidensis, although I've seen usually seen this listed as Ensete ventricosum, cultivar "Maurelii". The common name is Red Abyssinian Banana. Unfortunately, it's only hardy to zone 9, so I imagine Yew Dell planted it as an annual, where it adds some bold and striking tropical ambiance.

I was excited to see what appears to be a thriving specimen of Eucomis comosa, the Pineapple Lily. What beautiful foliage! And even past its prime, the flowerhead is still attractive. I've often seen Pineapple Lilies labeled as hardy only to zone 7 or even zone 8, so it was a real treat to see it growing well in zone 6. (I suppose it's possible that the gardeners lift the bulb for overwintering...I'll have to make inquiries...)

I was surprised to see some Fargesia rufa "Green Panda" clumping bamboo growing happily in the shade at Yew Dell. Later I realized that Green Panda is supposed to be cold hardy to zone 5, so it should be able to handle Louisville winters without any problems. 

This was my first time seeing Green Panda in person and I have to say I think it looks pretty good in the flesh (so to speak). I'm not sure that I have enough shade at this point to keep it happy during a hot Southern summer, but it's tempting to give it a try anyway...

Splish! We heard some splashing sounds as we passed a tiny pond. Close examination revealed this fella.

Peeking through the greenery, we spotted another frog sheltering in the pond

Tragic, but beautiful.  Not sure what kind of bird this is. Maybe a Pine Warbler?
Some sort of Lantana camara. Such cheerful candy colors! Definitely planning to add some Lantana to my garden in 2015.

Anyone know what this is? It looks like a really nice groundcover. Maybe some type of sedum? There was a sign nearby that said Manfreda virginica, but clearly that's not this plant

Here's your trusty blogger leaping into the photo to selflessly serve as a yardstick in measuring this 10-12 ft tall banana plant. Maybe Musa basjoo? No sign here either. If it is M. basjoo (or another Musa), I'd be very interested to hear how the garden overwinters them (although they do seem to be located in a protected spot at the edge of a stone wall that presumably absorbs some heat in the wintertime and helps create a warm microclimate).

I've seen Nepeta x faassenii "Walker's Low" Catmint recommended by numerous sources, but it wasn't looking so hot at Yew Dell when I visited in last August 

Here's an (unlabeled) Oakleaf Hydrangea looking kind of crispy and stressed in a bright partial shade location

Sorry for the overexposure in this photo, but trust me when I say that this Oakleaf Hydrangea was growing in significantly more shade - high dappled shade, but shade nonetheless - and it looked much happier than the Oakleaf Hydrangea that was forced to cope with more sunshine. Seeing these two plants nearby reinforced my suspicion that Oakleaf Hydrangea probably prefers mostly shady conditions in hot summer climates. (Well they probably can tolerate a fair bit of sun with lots of supplemental water, but if left to their own devices with minimal extra watering, I suspect they only look their best in the Southeast with lots of shade.)

A pomegranate growing cheerfully in zone 6 Louisville?!
Blew. My. Mind.
True, it is a dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum Pleniflora), but still I did not know that pomegranates could survive north of zone 7. (I've actually been under the impression that even zone 7 was iffy.)
Seeing this pomegranate seemingly growing happily here has forced me to reexamine my assumptions!

The foliage on this hybrid Witch Hazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "Westerstede" - had seen better days.
Sedum reflexum, Stonecrop, looks like it can make a great groundcover. (I don't think I saw a cultivar name listed, but this looks like photos of Blue Spruce that I've seen online.)

Some kind of tall sedum (not sure which -- I thought it was S. spurium Voodoo, but that's clearly wrong). Whatever it was, there were loads of honey bees buzzing about happily all over the copious flowerheads.

Silphium laciniatum, Compass Plant, a U.S. prairie native with beautiful compound leaves and soaring stems (8-10 feet tall?) that - as shown here - can topple to Earth in dramatic splaying fashion

Solidago rugosa "Fireworks", the top-rated goldenrod in a Chicago Botanic Garden trial, simply stunning en masse as shown here. Solidago reportedly provides bees with an important late-summer source of pollen and nectar.
No tag on this, but I suspect it might be Lespedeza thunbergii. It's a pretty shrub / large perennial, but I don't have any plans to add it to my TN garden and I'm a little surprised (if my identification is accurate) that Yew Dell still has it, given that concerns over its invasiveness have landed it in the Significant Threat category of the Kentucky's Exotic Plant Pest Council

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pretty Dangerous

The attractive but toxic Stinging Rose (Parasa indetermina) caterpillar enjoying lunch in a crabapple tree
Stinging Rose (Parasa indetermina) caterpillar enjoying lunch in a crabapple tree on a hot August afternoon

Pretty + Dangerous = Stinging Rose Caterpillar (Parasa indetermina).

I found not one but TWO of these beauties on our Sugar Tyme Crabapple a couple of weeks ago. (The other one was smaller and wedged between two leaves, which made it harder to take a good photo of it.)

I had a devil of a time trying to ID the caterpillar, but ultimately found success through Google+ member Garden Experiments, who confirmed some of my own Internet research.

The Featured Creature blog has some great photos and description of this caterpillar.

The University of Arkansas Arthropod Museum describes how the Stinging Rose can deliver a severe venomous punch through its spines to any creature foolish enough to attack it.

The adult moth form of the Stinging Rose may not be as flamboyant as the caterpillar, but I think it has a soft, elegant beauty all its own.

In 2005, the USDA noted that the Stinging Rose has been found in many Eastern and Midwestern states, but that it is "considered uncommon to rare" throughout its range and that "most states in its range contain only a few populations."

So I feel very, very fortunate to have spotted a couple of these in my own backyard!

As with many species, it seems that the Stinging Rose has suffered due to habitat loss caused by human land-use practices. One issue (if I'm reading the USDA report correctly) seems to be that caterpillars will overwinter in the leaf litter below a tree in forest settings. In a landscape situation like the one in my backyard, I don't see how the caterpillar will survive the winter since the tree is planted in the middle of a lawn. Not much leaf litter there.

I suppose that gives me another reason to minimize the lawn and create more landscape beds of trees, shrubs and perennials were the leaf litter can be left to decompose naturally over the winter and into the spring, and where any overwintering moth larvae have a better chance of surviving to emerge as moths, lay their eggs and start this whole miraculous cycle once more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fairchild Garden Breeds Better Jackfruit, Hosts a Jubilee!

Large fruit growing off the trunk of a Jackfruit tree.
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

This coming Saturday (September 13th), Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida will be hosting a Jackfruit Jubilee.

I had a chance to speak with Noris Ledesma, Fairchild's Curator of Tropical Fruit, about the amazing jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and the research that Fairchild has been doing on the plant.

Garden of Aaron: Tell me about the Jackfruit. It looks huge from the photos I've seen!

Noris Ledesma: Jackfruits can weigh anywhere from 30-70 lbs -- sometimes even more. And each tree, depending on its age, can bear from 20-60 fruits.

Such a large, heavy fruit can be intimidating. People think, "What will I do with this huge, spiny thing?" When we display jackfruits in the garden, people are always amazed. They want to touch them.

As for the flavor, it combines pineapple, banana and mango. Nobody is disappointed when they take a taste. And of course a single large fruit can feed many people.

Garden of Aaron: So what sort of research has Fairchild been doing with the jackfruit?

Noris Ledesma: We started a program back in the 1980s to introduce selected jackfruit specimens from Australia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. We use traditional plant breeding techniques to select fruits based on different characteristics. Then every two years we have festivals to introduce the "best" fruits.

Of course, not everyone agrees what makes a great jackfruit. Americans typically like their fruit to be crunchy,but other cultures, especially Vietnamese for instance, like very soft textures.

Noris Ledesma opens a Jackfruit
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Garden of Aaron: What is the history of the Jackfrut in Florida

Noris Ledesma: As long as a century ago, people were already planting Jackfruit from seeds and raising the trees in their backyards. Nowadays there is an industry in South Florida where growers will produce jackfruits primarily for the Asian community. These fruits will be shipped up to places like New York for weddings. When Indian people get married, they often feel it is important to have jackfruits at the table. It's a part of their culture.

On the other hand, for the average American consumer with a small immediate family, a 70 lb. fruit seems daunting. You'd have to invite the whole neighborhood to each such a fruit! These consumers are more interested in 1-2 lb. fruits, so we have focused some of our efforts on breeding smaller jackfruits that could appeal to a wider market.

Garden of Aaron: So what is this breeding program like?

Noris Ledesma: It's a very traditional breeding program. When we talk about breeding and plant genetics, some people get afraid. They imagine we are in a lab, breaking genes and playing God, but we are doing traditional breeding, just controlling the transfer of pollen from male to female plants. It's very easy to distinguish male and female jackfruit flowers, so you can move pollen from one plant to another using paintbrushes. That way we know the identity of the "mother" and "father" plants. When the female flowers set fruit, we bag it to ensure there is no insect contamination. When the fruit is mature, we harvest the fruit, process the seeds and create a new generation of plants. This type of breeding takes many years to get results, so this year we are excited to finally have the opportunity to distribute a new generation of smaller jackfruits to the public.

We have also selected jackfruit that are low in latex. We don't have time in our culture to clean a complicated fruit. The new jackfruits we have developed are low in latex so you can process the fruit quickly, and of course these fruits have very good flavor.

Garden of Aaron: How is jackfruit traditionally prepared?

Noris Ledesma: People use jackfruit in many different ways. In India, jackfruit actually is often used as a meat substitute! And since the seeds have high protein content, they are sometimes roasted like nuts or mashed to make a sort of multi-grain bread.

One exciting thing at the garden is when families of immigrants come to visit and see a tree like the jackfruit. The plant awakens memories and the parents or grandparents can start telling their families about how they used the fruit back in India or Vietnam or Thailand. They don't have to travel thousands of miles to encounter such a tree -- they can grow it in their own backyard here in South Florida.

(Editor's note - Fairchild has a webpage showing how to open and prepare jackfruit.)

Garden of Aaron: Would you say the jackfruit makes a nice ornamental plant in tropical areas?

Noris Ledesma: It can be a beautiful tree. The fruit is certainly eye-catching. And during long, hot summers, the tree's leaves stay shiny and beautiful. If people come to the Jubilee, we will have classes on propagating, fertilizing, pruning and training the tree. It's not difficult to grow in South Florida, but it probably will not grow in other parts of the United States, except in Hawaii.

Garden of Aaron: What about water needs?

Noris Ledesma: It does need some irrigation for its first year or two. After that, it can survive on regular rainfall. Of course, humidity in South Florida is quite high. In terms of nutrition, we do recommend mulching. Our soils in South Florida can be very rocky, so mulch can help the tree's development. And an application of nitrogen fertilizer can help give the tree the energy it needs to produce such large fruit.

Garden of Aaron: Do you think that more people will try jackfruit in the future thanks to the breeding program at Fairchild?

Noris Ledesma: It is our hope that these smaller fruits will show up throughout American supermarkets. Of course, there will still be some cultural issues to overcome. For instance, since a ripe jackfruit still has a green color on the outside, some people who are unfamiliar with it may not be able to tell whether it's ripe or they may think it looks like a vegetable. Probably, it will first win acceptance with second or third generation Asian-Americans who want to try eating jackfruit, but don't want to buy an enormous fruit.

Fairchild's website has a list of Curator's Choice Jackfruit being sold at the festival, including some of the new hybrids with smaller, lower latex fruit.