Friday, August 31, 2012

Damn good plants - Passiflora caerulea

If mother nature is the architect of the natural world, then she out did herself when she created Passion Flowers. There maybe no other flower that comes close to the complexity of the passion flower, just breath taking!


The hardy Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea), or Blue Crown Flower is an evergreen to semi evergreen vine, native to South America, ranging from Argentina to Brazil and all points in between.  Paraguay has adopted this beauty as its countries national flower, where it goes by the name of Jesus flower. Spanish Christian missionaries of the past, used the parts within the flower structure, as symbols of the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion.
  • Pointed tips of the leaves represent the Holy Lance.  
  • Tendrils represent the whips.  
  • Ten petals and sepals for the faithful apostle though excluding St. Peter.  
  • The flowers outer filaments for the crown of thorns.  
  • Chalice-shaped ovary for the holy grail. 
  • 3 Stigmas representing the 3 nails used and 5 anthers for the wounds (4 by nails and 1 by lance). 
  •  The blue and white colors also represent Heaven and Purity.

The vine climbs by twining tendrils that reach out and grab onto something, then recoil like a spring, pulling the vine close to its new anchor.  The dark green leaves are palmate or star shaped with five lobes reaching around 3 inches across.  Of course its major draw are the flowers, but following the blooms, orange, apricot like fruit are produced that contain numerous seed in a red pulp, that can persist through the winter.  I have read that the fruits are edible, but I haven't personally tried it myself, though its supposed to taste like blackberries.  I still prefer the true Passion Fruit, Passiflora edulis, a tropical vine that can be found from time to time in any good fresh produce stores.  Being a fast growing vine with seedy fruit it can have invasive tendencies, but its value as a food source for pollinating insects, mammals and birds is ecologically significant.

We are on the cusp of its growing range, so experimentation will be needed to find the best spot for its growth.  Out of all the Passion flowers this is best suited to our Northern Virginia gardens, zone 7,  or in a protected site with shelter from cold winds it may go down to to a zone 6.  Paghat's Garden (www.paghat.com) listed it root hardy to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees Celsius) making it a valuable resource for grafting more tender varieties too.

Regardless of the Passion Flowers mythology and symbolism, the sheer beauty of the bloom makes it an irresistible addition to any garden.    What better way to hide those ugly chain-linked fences or boring walls by draping this vine over it.  Everyone needs a little passion in their lives so why not say it with these flowers!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Body beautiful gardening

News just in.... Gardening is good for you!  Must be a slow news day, but regardless, someone has actually figured out just how good for you it really is.  Honestly, my waist line didn't get the memo but now I'm armed with these facts, Adonis watch out!

Who's been taking pictures of me?
In the article I read, they suggest cancelling the gym membership and making your gardening tools your gym equipment.  Good news for the budget stressed gardener, you just got a $90-100 a month raise for your enjoyment. Rakes, hoes, mowers, wheelbarrows, shovels and watering cans now become your new treadmill and dumb bells.  Using each one of these tools in repetition can burn up to 300 calories a day.  Just make sure you don't gulp down an icy cold soda, as many contain nearly the same amount of calories as you've just burnt off.

Gardening can even lower blood pressure and cholesterol or prevent diabetes, heart disease and depression if done on a regular basis.  All parts of your body are employed when weeding or digging holes for planting.  Mowing the grass with a push mower will elevate your heart rate and tone your body like a gardening gladiator.  The other side of this coin is our ability to grow are own produce.  Fresh and organic.  However, the health implication for me, come from running after the bloody squirrels steeling the apples off my tree.

Still, awareness needs to be exercised over our ability in the garden and what our level of exertion may be.  Picking up rocks and bending over for long periods will result in injuries.  Frequent breaks and remembering to stretch before working out will help reduce the risk, but knowing your limitations is key.  Someone even did a study that showed 10-15 minutes of exertion, followed by a break of the same duration is far more beneficial than longer periods of exertion.  Music to my ears, but I don't think this will fly at work.

It only works if you walk
Also well known, is the fact that gardening isn't just for your physical health but also your mental well being.  I find a have a great sense of accomplishment over what I achieve throughout the day, even if my body is telling me to lie down and surrender!  Regardless, it is a way to escape the hum drum of everyday live.  A day struck in constant gridlock can be cured by venting your frustrations while pushing the mower.  All's good again.

Of course, not everyone will achieve the same goals and therefore your garden shouldn't be considered the only form of exercise. Instead branch out into your neighbors yards as well or if you need to, my garden could do with a little work.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My prayers have been answered, kind of!

Ok, not every prayer gets answered, or at leased the one where P.Allen Smith doesn't have perfect hair anymore, and actual gets dirty when gardening!  The miracle I'm writing about, is that some clever genius has created  a watering watchdog that will tweet you if a warning when the plant it's monitoring gets dry.  Admittedly, its still a rare concept, and semi-inconvenient that you have to assemble it, but its a starting point.


Botanicalls have developed a 30 piece micro controller that with some soldering skills, is assembled onto a leaf shaped board and mounted on sensors.  Through an Ethernet cable, the unit will post updates to twitter, letting you know when your plant is thirsty.  It will even post a thank you once it is satisfied.  Unfortunately, the unit isn't weather proofed and has to be connected to a power source and a network connection to be operational.  However, the first cell phone came with a suitcase that needed to be carried in a car.  Technology has grown in leaps and bounds, so to think that this gadget could revolutionize the way we garden is exciting.

Wake up, your gardens calling you!
Lets face it, not everyone is great at maintaining plants, even I have moments when I let one slip past my normally astute observations.  Having a tool that monitors the root zone of a plant, coupled with the ability to warn you before things go south is wonderful.  Maybe one day, all plants will come with diagnostic sensors that monitor everything that's happening to your plant.  Still, if you don't get off your lazy backside and water it then there's no point.  At least customers wouldn't be able to bring the dead plant back to the nursery it came from and plead ignorance!

Anyone interested can buy them through sparkfun.com for $99.95, a little more expensive than sticking your figure in the soil to check, but some people like their gadgets!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Apocalypse now for Impatiens?

Just when you think you're getting ahead in the garden, along comes the next big epidemic.  I was first alerted to this new plague by numerous articles beginning to appear in the UK's Royal Horticultural Society's magazine, ' The Garden'.  This time the target is one of our beloved little summer annuals, often referred to in England as 'Busy Lizzies', or Impatiens walleriana.


Downy Mildew has always been a minor problem of Impatiens, but had remained at low levels for quite sometime.  Chemical sprays had always kept Downy Mildew in check, but the frequency of the pathogen increased through Britain in 2007 and 2008.  In 2011, things took a turn for the worse as the pathogen developed resistance to chemical treatments and more outbreaks occurred without a means to curb the spread.

This strain of Mildew is related to phytophthora, found in both Tomato and Potato blights, but not however related to common powdery mildew.  The spores that spread this disease develop on the underside of the Impatiens leaf, traveling from plant to plant by water splashing or even longer distances via wind.  It becomes particularly bad in wet summers where the pathogen requires extended periods of leaf wetness to produce spores.  The double whammy comes from the ability of the spore to survive in the soil for several years, causing reinfection to subsequent plantings.  

Symptoms include, white undersides of leaves where the spores are produced, few or no flowers and leaf drop, revealing only bear branches with tufts of yellowed leaves and flower buds.  Inevitably the plant cannot sustain itself and succumbs to the disease.  Unfortunately there is no treatment available to home gardeners and infected plants should be securely bagged and discarded in the trash, but never composted.  


Confirmed cases of Impatiens Downy Mildew have been reported in 25 states, up and down eastern North America.  Greenhouse Grower  magazine reported in February 2012, that in North America, Impatiens sales rank 4th in total sales of bedding plants sold across the nation.  From the article, a 2010 Floriculture Crops Summary reported that 8,676,000 were sold in flats; 2,338,000 in hanging baskets and a further 26,371,000 as potted plants across USDA's 15-state sample.  With such high numbers of Impatiens being sold, an outbreak could spread across the U.S. just as quickly as it did in Europe.

So what can be done?  Routine inspections followed by quick removal, avoiding overhead irrigation, increasing air flow and avoiding replanting in known infected areas will help reduce the risk.  Despite best efforts, many nurseries and garden retailers in Britain, including the big box stores are stopping the sale of Impatiens walleriana.  It's a bold move when you consider that the total industry sales is estimated at up to 40 million pounds sterling ($63 million).  Perhaps we should follow suit by begining to promote alternatives, that way, when the inevitable happens, substitutes are ready to go.  All members of the Balsam family may be at risk, although New Guinea Impatiens do not seem to be affected by this pathogen.  Work is being carried out on a new line called  'Sunpatiens'  that have trialed successfully in the same beds where Downy Mildew was found. However, there still remains a risk that the disease could adapt again, and until the SunPatiens have been exposed to higher levels of the disease for longer periods of time, it's impossible to tell how robust it will be.

SunPatiens, a new Impatien for full sun and so far resistant to Downy Mildew


Friday, August 10, 2012

The Three amigos

Do you have a hot and dry yard? Have problems with growing plants? Then I have a solution for you, the Three Amigos. Wherever there is garden injustice, you'll find them. Wherever there is suffering, they'll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find..... well not quite! If summer is your 'El Guapo', then these "three amigos" are here to help.


Yucca's are an extremely versatile plant that many only think of seeing in the dry lands of the southwest and into Mexico.  Surprisingly, they grow well for us in Northern Virginia, and really begin to shine when the temperature goes up.  However, one word of warning, many types have a sharp spine on the tip of the leaf that will stick you like a bayonet. Be able to look past this and you'll have a plant with a touch of the exotic with the ruggedness of the wild west for the garden.  Here's my top picks for, of course, the lesser known cultivars that you might want to try out:

1. Yucca 'Color Guard'.  This one is from the Adam Needle types (Y. filamentosa), one of the most commonly found in the trade.  Variegated versions have been around for awhile, this cultivar is truly the most exceptional gold-centered yucca on the market.  The evergreen foliage is covered in filament hairs that curl off the edge of a bladed leaf, but can be cleaned off if preferred.  Over time it forms an upright and arching mound that increases its beauty in the border, year after year.  In summer, the creamy white bell shaped flowers hang from a tall, sturdy spike and open at different intervals, keeping the flowers fresh for many weeks.  Eventually, the rosette where the flowering spike came from will die (monocarpic), but is replaced by young shoots that are produced around the base of the 'mother' rosette to replace its loss.  Clumps can reach up to 3ft across, but can be lifted and divided, with little effort if needed.  Zones 5 - 10.


2. Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies' - Beaked Yucca.  Collected from northern Mexico by Sean Hogan, founder of Cistus Gardens in Oregon, is named in honor of its powder blue foliage.  It's very different from the standard Y.filimotosa types mentioned above by having thin, flexible leaves to give a fine texture.  Over time it will grow to 4ft, producing an un-branched trunk, making a strong focal point in any garden.  Plant it in a hot, sun baked site with exceptional drainage, and keep it sheltered from cold winter winds.  It is a bit more particular in its conditions to ensure overwintering success, but I think you'd agree it's worth the investment to improve conditions to grow one of these specimens. Zone 6 - 10


3. Yucca aloifolia 'Purpurea' - Purple Aloe Yucca.  A uniquely different yucca coming out of the desserts of the southwest.  This one is new to me and is already on my wish list for trial.  Rigid icy gray leaves are flushed with purple that only intensify as the temperature heats up.  Drought, moisture and humidity tolerant makes this a viable player in many gardens.  Zone 6

Yuccas make excellent container plants or planted as to create a strong architectural focal points in the garden.  Successful once established, in the harshest parts of the garden, from droughts to prolonged sun exposure, and fully deer resistant. In the wise words of Steve Martin character, 'Lucky Day', "In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face.  For some, shyness might be their El Guapo.  For Others, a lack of eduction might be their El Guapo.  For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us."  We gardeners can conquer our El Guapo and produce a beautiful garden in summer by planting wisely and selecting any one of these "three amigos"!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Show report - Euscaphis japonica, Asian Sweetheart tree

I recently returned from the PANTS show, not for trousers but rather the acronym for Pennsylvania (PA) Nursery Trade Show.  PANTS is one of a few summer trade shows to be held around here, but dwindling numbers is threatening its existence for the future. Though the scope of plant material was limited one tree did capture my attention and I wouldn't doubt that it was the show stopper for the whole event.  That tree was Euscaphis japonica, or otherwise known as the Asian Sweetheart tree.


This was my first encounter with Euscaphis and it was love at first sight.  I found that I kept returning to the tree, looping around the whole convention center, just to have another look.  We have the late JC Raulston to thank again for its introduction into North America.  He discovered it on the Korean Peninsula in 1985 and brought it back to North Carolina for assessment, where it has flourished since.  Another famous tree man, Don Shadow penned the common name 'Sweetheart Tree' in recognition of its heart shaped red berries that pop open to display shiny black seeds, similar to Euonymus or spindle bush, but not related.


Due to the tree being rare in cultivation little is known about its hardiness, but it has survived into zone 6, with the possibility of going lower.  The durability of the tree seems to be endless, taking full sun to shade, droughts, floods and every soil condition you can think of.  The long fruit show (possibly up to 3 to 4 months) against the dark glossy foliage and the striped bark coloration increases its desirability for use in the garden.  In warmer climates the fruit is more pink in coloration but for us in Virginia, we can expect the bright cherry red color to come through.  Glossy foliage is neatly tiered on the branches and the overall the tree has shown no known pest or disease problems.

So why don't we see this tree everywhere?  Propagation is a long and complex process. So far it has only been successful from seed that appears to have a double dormancy before germination.  This requires the seed to go through 3 months of cold moist temperatures, followed by 3 months of warm moist conditions, then repeated again. Once this conditioning is done, you should have a good germination rate.  Vegetative propagation from stem cuttings have little to no success rate and I haven't heard of anyone grafting as an option.  Seeing as seed is the only successful way to reproduce the tree, it opens up the possibility for variants to appear amongst the population, an exciting prospect for any patient gardener!  From germination, it is said to grow vigorously and responds well to heavy fertilization in containers to further speed up the growth.


If the propagation nut could be cracked we could be looking at a viable alternative to the over-planted Crape Myrtles in our landscape, but theirs room for both.  I've myself have track down a source for small seedling sized trees and already have placed an order for late summer, once the heat of summer breaks its grip over the garden.  The only problem is now telling my wife that another Sweetheart is coming to live with us!  Wish me luck!