Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large spiny pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keeps it in check.
Here are some facts about this amazing plant:
Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
Nectar source for monarch butterflies
Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.
When all of my common Milkweeds are done, Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars. But be aware in colder climates, you need to start the seeds early.
Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers. I love watching the pods form!
For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweeds are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs.
Starting From Seed
I start my Hairy Balls from seed inside around mid-March to get a head start. The plants take a long time to form their wonderful seed capsules and I usually harvest from August on as they form.
Plant the seeds in good potting medium and cover about 1/4″ deep and the plants emerge in about 10 days. I keep them in the greenhouse until they reach about 4-5 inches high and the weather is warm enough- about the same time as tomatoes.
Once they are growing well in the garden, I usually pinch them to make them a little bit fuller and bushier. But if you don’t do this step, they still will grow fine.
When cutting the stems to use in arrangements, I torch the ends with my propane torch (or use matches) to stem the flow of milky sap.
A bulb that blooms in the fall? I get a lot of puzzled looks when I try to explain Autumn Crocus or Meadow saffron. Not really a crocus, but actually in the lily family, it resembles the spring flowering crocus but the flowers are larger and chalice-shaped instead of stiffly upright.
The similarity to a crocus leads to many confused people who see it and think it is a crocus out of sync, and blooming in the wrong season. An under-used bulb, Autumn Crocus deserves more recognition.
Many of my photos in this post were taken in September in Scotland, as you rarely see them grown here. But they can be grown quite successfully here, just as well as the UK, and I have grown them here in the mid-Atlantic for years.
Originating in Europe, its life cycle is quite unusual. Appearing in Autumn popping out of the ground like magic almost overnight, you forget that you have planted it, and then when it appears, you are quite excited. Appearing without any foliage, it is all flower with no obscuring leaves and is quite beautiful in garden beds or naturalized in the lawn.
Blooms lasting for 2 to 3 weeks and then lying dormant until the following spring, foot-long strappy leaves appear and remain until early summer. They can get tattered and ugly looking and I just snap them off and forget about them. After summer hibernation, the Autumn Crocus bloom emerges in a profusion of multi-petalled flowers for a show of color, when not much is happening in the garden, and you are hungry for some color. Fitting in quite well with the asters and chrysanthemums of the fall garden, they also come up the same time as fall cyclamens, another adorable fall blooming corm.
Easy as Pie to Grow
Developing from a corm (small bulb), you plant them in late summer or early fall about 2-3 inches deep in full sun to partial shade. The delicate flowers should be protected from wind, so I grow them among shrubs and perennials. Maintenance free, there are several varieties of Autumn Crocus in white, dark purple, and lavender pink. ‘Waterlily’ is a lovely mauve lilac with double petals.
The only downside to this bulb is price. They can set you back from $4 to $8 a bulb depending on supplier and variety. The doubles like ‘Waterlily’ are always more expensive. But I have invested in buying half a dozen a season now, and have a nice little stand of them as they multiply quite readily. And did I mention that deer and bunnies rarely bother them? Another reason to order some for planting this fall.
Violet flowering ‘Autumn Queen’ ‘Giant’ with white and mauve blooms
‘Waterlily’ with unique lilac double petals
“Lilac Wonder’ with lilac pink blooms Purplish mauve
‘Violet Queen’ with a white center
‘Albus’ a pure white
Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus), another fall Crocus, creates jewel-toned flowers in the fall garden in only 6-10 weeks (sometimes as little as 4-6 weeks) after being planted. Planted in zones 6-10, you can plant them in your garden beds, in containers, or even indoors. Harvesting the orange fuzzy stigmas of the saffron crocus is easy and you just snip them off and dry them on paper towels and use in your favorite dishes.
When To Plant Saffron Crocus Bulbs
Make sure to plant Saffron Crocus bulbs at least 6 weeks before chance of frost. The bulbs (corms) don’t store well and should be planted soon after you receive them. I just planted mine in the garden and expect to harvest the saffron threads in a couple of weeks.
If mulched well, Saffron Crocus can be winter hardy to USDA zone 6.
The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are moderating with some chilly nights. What does that mean?? Bulb time!!!
Planting bulbs around my house is a process. I add to my collection in the ground every year and also pot up containers with bulbs to strategically place around my yard for pops of color. This year, I am holding off on planting in the ground as we are in a drought here in the mid-Atlantic and the ground is hard as cement. Containers are the way to go right now and I am getting everything lined up.
Bulbs in Containers
So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy dry clay soil. Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:
You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture.
Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.
Potting Bulbs Made Easy
Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break if not insulated with bubble wrap); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside. This last winter, my pots stayed outside in a sheltered spot and they bloomed beautifully.
Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position. This would be in a unheated garage or shed or cold frame.
Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage or cold frame, until early spring growth appears is essential.
Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.
Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.
If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.
Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil- gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.
After Care-3 Ways
Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.
Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots
‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.
Fill your deepcontainer (at least 16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 6-7 inches deep
Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted; 1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)
Water your bulbs well after planting
Plant either pansies, moss, or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating help
Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
You love spring bulbs but have a huge deer and squirrel problem? Yes, this fall you can plant a number of bulbs that they will pass up! Most people know that daffodils are always ignored by deer and rodents, but don’t limit yourself to daffodils. There are many other deer/rodent resistant bulb varieties.
Deer and Rodents
Deer are a huge problem here in the mid-Atlantic and as a designer, I recommend planting bulbs that deer won’t devour-leucojum, hyacinths, alliums, snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, scilla, iris reticulata, chiondoxa, fritillaria, winter aconites, and grape hyacinths. So, don’t think your deer problem is going to stop you from planting bulbs and enjoying spring color. For deer resistant perennials, go to Fuzzy, Fragrant, and Ferny; Deer Proof Plants for the Garden.
Be careful about tulips even in protected areas. Deer love them and will jump fences to get at them!!
Crocus are deer resistant but the bulbs are cold weather delicacies to rodents. You could protect the bulbs by laying a piece of hardware cloth on top of the newly planted bulbs and fastening it down with soil staples. I do that for my lily bulbs which deer love but I grow anyway.
Hardware cloth is a metal mesh, much like chicken wire, except that it uses a smaller grid pattern, usually about 1/2 inch square. Alternatively you can cage the bulbs in hardware cloth before planting, but I find that laying cut pieces of it on top of the bulbs is much easier. Fasten down with soil staples or rocks. Just remove it in the early spring.
Be sure to avoid using smelly fertilizers while planting bulbs, like bone meal, blood meal, or fish emulsion. Attracting every animal in the neighborhood, your bulbs will definitely be dug up. I once placed a sealed bag of blood meal in my open car port and neighbor dogs came and devoured it!
Alliums-The King of Deer Resistance (And Rodents)
Alliums are one of the best bulbs for deer avoidance. They actually repel deer as they are in the onion family, and have an onion odor. Chase away garden nibblers with these bulbs! The combination of sulfides that make a great tomato sauce also repels deer and rodents. If you time it right, you can have alliums blooming all season long. Go to Longfield Gardens to see the large variety available.
Easy to grow and multiplying in number, I am sure to include alliums in my garden in ever greater numbers. Here is a brief listing of some varieties:
Allium christophii Christophii has a round flower head composed of 50 or so star-shaped lavender flowers with a silvery sheen. The leaves die back as the flowers fade; the remaining brown stems and seed heads can be snipped, but that dried look is becoming very chic in gardening circles and can be spray painted any color you choose.
Allium karataviense This is a low-growing plant, good for a rock garden or beside steps. Pleated foliage makes this a to-die-for plant and the flower is as large as a tennis ball.
Allium moly Probably the easiest of the small alliums, this one has a spray of bright yellow flowers and does well in the shade.
Allium sphaerocephalon Also known as “Drumstick” allium, this plant’s long name just means it has a round head. A tight little purple knob that never quite opens, this is one of my favorites.
Allium schubertii The Tumbleweed Onion. An heirloom that looks like spidery fireworks that has incredibly huge, airy, 12″-wide umbels of up to 100 purple florets extended on stems atop a straight, thick and sturdy stalk. When the bud first emerges from its papery sheath, A. schubertii looks like an upright, thick green paint brush. This one is my favorite alliums and the large dried seed heads come loose and roll around my garden-Fun!
Halloween is around the corner and people are starting to decorate with the many types of pumpkins available at the farmer’s market. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes of pumpkins, but I am in love with a diminutive one, which actually isn’t a real pumpkin, but an eggplant., specifically Ornamental Eggplant, (Solanum Integrifolium). For different types of real pumpkins, go to my Pumpkin Eye Candy post.
Ornamental or Food?
Falling in the eggplant family, the little pumpkins, Solanum integrifolium, are not really pumpkins, but an ornamental used in stir-fried Asian dishes. I grow this cute ornamental jack-o-lantern for jazzing up my Thanksgiving table and fall flower arrangements as it dries nicely and lasts a long time.
Native to Southeast Asia, it grows 3 to 4 feet tall with very large fuzzy leaves that grow from a purple thorny stem. It towers over other eggplants in my garden and the plant looks remarkably like Bed of Nails or Solanum quitoense, profiled in Plant Geek Alert.
Around for over 125 years which makes it an official heirloom vegetable, it has also been called Pumpkin Tree and Pumpkin Bush. Planted directly in full sun in your garden, the plant needs steady moisture and benefits from regular fertilizing as it grows large fast. Pretty soon, the insignificant blooms appear, followed by pale green nubby fruit that turn into their final pumpkin ribbed shape a few weeks later. Insects like to gnaw on the leaves as you can see but deer and rabbits leave it alone because of the wicked thorns.
In late summer, the fruit changes to a scarlet color and when frosts start to hit, the eggplants turn their final rich orange color. You can harvest up to a dozen pumpkins on one plant. When you pick a stem of pumpkins for fresh use, cut the stems and use as is. If you want to dry the pumpkins, hang the entire stalk upside down in a cool dry location, removing leaves. This treatment prevents the fruits from sagging. Fruits will shrivel and the orange color will intensify. For eating, pick the fruits when orange and use in stir-fries.
Flying under the radar for many people, Indian Pink, or Spigelia marilandica is coming into its own. A long-lived perennial that brings stunning colors to the summer garden, hummingbirds flock to these red and yellow tubular flowers arranged in clusters. Similar to firecrackers exploding in the garden, this unique flower stops people in their tracks when they see it in my garden.
Flowering in early summer, and then sporadically through the remainder of the growing season, Indian Pinks are highly sought after at perennial nurseries and they have trouble keeping them in stock. In fact many of the nurseries I talked to ship them to British clients instead of US, because they are mad for them! A southeastern US native hardy to zone 5b, it has been planted as a novelty, but is now reaching mainstream status.
Emerging in the spring, the plant can grow quickly to hold more than 75 of those colorful tubular (perfect for hummers) flowers that catch your eye as soon as you look at the garden.
The common name of Indian Pink refers to its medicinal properties. The dried roots are used as a hallucinogen and a de-wormer, nothing to fool around with! Use it horticulturally and not medicinally.
I grow my spigelia in mostly full sun, though all the culture information I see on line is that it liked partial shade to shade. I have grown it for about 5 years in full sun and have been very successful with it. The ones that I planted in partial shade haven’t been as floriferous.
Highly sought after by wildflower enthusiasts, I think that everyone should include this great native in their garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A new cultivar called ‘Little Redhead’ is now available which is reported to be much more compact and packed with flowers. I need to seek it out!
Late summer is Basil time around my house. After growing all summer in my veggie garden, it is full and bushy, even though I am using it regularly in cooking. Heat and sun loving, this summer has been both, and the Basil this year is loving it! The hydroponic stuff you buy in the grocery store doesn’t compare with sun warmed fresh cut Basil from the garden.
Basil, one of my top herb favorites, has become a little more difficult to grow in the mid-Atlantic region. Normally a cinch to grow, Basil has been plagued by fatal downy mildew, which makes it unsightly and unusable.
Appearing in the last couple of years, downy Mildew is sweeping through the country like wildfire. It starts with leaf yellowing, which looks like a nutritional deficiency and then spots appear and can make the entire plant inedible. Under the right weather conditions (wet, warm weather), Basildowny mildew can spread rapidly and result in complete loss of all your Basil plants. Although Peronospora belbahrii, the pathogen that causes Basil downy mildew, cannot survive our mid-Atlantic winters, it can be reintroduced on infected seed or transplants or by windblown spores. So, it is here to stay.
Disfiguring my Basil plants by late spring/early summer, I despaired of growing this stalwart of my kitchen for pesto ever again.
Try Resistant Amazel Basil
I was delighted to find a new cultivar of Basilcalled Amazel, a game changing plant, which is resistant to Downy Mildew. Amazel is a hunky vigorous plant and I am back in the green with Amazel Basil from Proven Winners.
Amazel has excellent resistance to Downy Mildew, which will keep plants growing and producing for home gardeners throughout the entire season. Unlike typical Basil, Amazel is seed sterile and therefore continues to produce leaves and shoots even after starting to flower unlike other Basilvarieties that focus most or all of their energy into seed production.
Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea this tasty herb was so good for you!
For simple Pesto to use up all that extra basil:
Place in your food processor or blender, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup raw pine nuts, 3 cloves of garlic, chopped coarsely, and 4 cups of basil leaves, 1 cup of parsley, chopped coarsely and packed lightly into the measuring cup.
Blend well, stirring large bits back into the mixture and re-blending as needed. Transfer the mixture into a bowl and stir in 3/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Add a sprinkling of grated black pepper.
And sit back and enjoy this concoction on your pasta or my favorite- grilled salmon ! You can keep this in the fridge with a layer of olive oil on top for a couple of weeks or freeze it. I freeze it in ice-cube containers for ease of removing throughout the winter.
As a landscape designer, a frequent request from clients is getting rid of their lawn and replacing with more natural alternatives. Water hogging and pesticide laden lawns are being replaced nowadays with different varieties of grasses, meadows, and other perennials that form a low growing mat, like thyme or mazus.
Ubiquitous American Lawns
Today lawns cover more than 63,000 square miles- almost the size of Texas! And Americans are still in love with their lawns, but this is gradually changing. Turfgrass is mostly made up of non-native grass species and requires a huge amount of water, pesticides, fertilizer, labor, and fuel. There are definitely areas where lawns are useful, like in playing fields, but lawns are way over-planted. The bio-diversity of a lawn is extremely low compared to meadows and other garden plantings, and cost billions of dollars each year to maintain, as well as contribute to water pollution. More and more botanic gardens such as Longwood Gardens and the new Delaware Botanic Gardens are establishing flourishing beautiful expanses of meadow to showcase the beauty of natives in a natural setting.
The decline of our native pollinators has been traced to more lawn installation, roundup spraying, big agriculture, and less wild plantings with “weeds”.
For one client, I removed an area of 500 square feet of turf by tilling and raking out, then planting with 1100 thyme plugs (tiny plants). Irrigated with a drip hose until the plants take root, thyme can form a thick mat of creeping foliage that blooms a sea of pink flowers in the spring. Thyme is not native to North America, but works quite well here in the right conditions. There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, but I stick with the low creeping ones.
Mazus reptans is another creeping plant that does well in partial shade to shade that spreads quickly to form a mass of creeping foliage with white or purple flowers in the spring.
Change in Attitudes
More and more, I am seeing lawns disappearing and being replaced with perennial grass alternatives like Carex or Sedges and even more radical with meadow plants, like goldenrods and other native wildflowers.
The UK is way ahead of us and establishes meadows everywhere they can, like graveyards.I have seen graveyards in England being replaced with meadow grasses instead of the buzz cuts around gravestones that you would normally see.
But how to get rid of lawns? I suggest gradually turn your property into alternative plantings. Don’t expect it to be done overnight and be cognizant of your neighbors and Home Owners Associations (HOA). Get permission and if that is not forthcoming, then try to educate others about the alternatives. I am a beekeeper and wanted to make a meadow around my beehives to increase bee foraging opportunities, and created a meadow around my beehives.
One alternative to consider are Carex’s or Sedges to replace turfgrass. Carex pennsylvanica, commonly called Pensylvania Sedge, is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to dry woodland in Eastern North America. Semi-evergreen in cold winter areas, this makes a great lawn substitute for dry shady areas, where you might have had trouble growing regular turfgrass. Never needing to be mown, it grows about a foot high, spreading by rhizomes to cover large areas.
Thyme Lawn for Sunny Areas
Creeping or spreading thymes are an alternative in a sunny location with good drainage. Remove your grass by either spraying with an herbicide, tilling it under, or killing with black plastic.
What makes a meadow? An open habitat or field covered by vegetation, usually grasses and other non-woody plants providing areas for nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and shelter for small animals. Many people wish to replace their lawn with a meadow but think by sprinkling seeds out of a can they can get that look.
It is important to first remove the existing turfgrass by tilling or killing it with black plastic, cardboard, or newspaper covered with mulch or soil. You can then plant with selected native and non-native plants that do well in your location to form a dense covering of perennials that will crowd out weeds.
Try using at least 80-85% native plants in your mix. Alternatively, you can use a good wildflower mix and spread the seeds after preparing your ground by raking it out, sprinkling, and raking the seeds into the soil. Firm the soil with a tool to make sure you have good contact and keep moist until the seeds sprout and get established. Don’t think you can sprinkle seeds from a can directly onto the ground and expect the meadow to appear that is pictured on the wildflower canister! There is work involved in establishing a meadow that looks picture perfect.
Maintenance is still required to weed out undesirables that pop up which will happen less frequently as the plants knit together to form a weed killing mat. And your meadow will need to be mown down in early spring. Here is a great list from Longwood Gardens of meadow wildflowers that they recommend.
Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is an herb I remember from the seventies and eighties. Intensely fragrant smelling green herb wreaths were made up in the fall from the branches and I would see them everywhere for sale at craft fairs and outdoor festivals.
I kind of forgot about Sweet Annie for a long time until a volunteer plant emerged from my asparagus patch this summer and shot up all summer long, until by September it towered over 6 foot high with many sweet smelling branches ready to be harvested. Deciding to let it remain in my asparagus patch, I watched it all season long until I accidentally brushed against it to release the intense sweet fragrance. Once you smell it, you will never forget it! Lingering on my hands and clothing long after brushing into it, the fragrance is hard to describe with an almost fruity fragrance.
Classified as an annual weed, Sweet Annie has escaped cultivation and is a favorite of crafters for its versatility and sweet fragrance and to floral arrangers as an aromatic filler. Slow to germinate, and late to bloom (mine just started to bloom in early to mid-September here in zone 6b), it readily self-seeds, so I know I will have more next year and will probably have to pull some out. Not a beautiful plant, more weed-like than ornamental, it was fine relegated to my vegetable patch.
Growing like a well-branched Christmas tree, I waited until yellow beads appeared on the branches arranged in panicles, which are the buds of the flowers. This is the perfect time to harvest it and I cut the woody trunk down with loppers and then cut off each individual branch for drying. If you harvest it earlier, the branches will kind of shrivel up. Some I bunched up with a rubber band and hung up in my basement for 1-2 weeks, for straight trusses. Other branches, I curled up in a trug for drying. That way, the branches will dry in a rounded form, perfect for making into sweet smelling wreaths.
A sun lover, my Sweet Annie plant required no care and it loved our drier weather this season.
Sweet Annie’s Uses
Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever for hundreds of years. Fruity, astringent, aromatic, Sweet Annie has been used as an air freshener and pest deterrent. You can crumble some into your carpet before vacuuming for a long lasting fragrance to linger long after you have finished cleaning.
Commonly used in crafts as a base for wreaths and swags, and a filler for arrangements, the dried plumes can be used in a variety of ways. Break up the large branches into smaller pieces for different projects. More pronounced in humid weather, the fragrance can waft on the breeze into my house. If you hang a branch in a bathroom, the damp air will release the fragrance. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Sweet Annie, with bouts of sneezing and sometimes skin irritation. I find that the sneezing happens if I work with it too much, so limit my time with it. I enjoy Sweet Annie from a distance!
Quick breads are old fashioned and retro, but so delicious! Since I haven’t made one for ages, I was inspired to create some savory loaves when my squash harvest started to take over the refrigerator. Who hasn’t been inundated with dozens of squash when they are at their peak? Even with two or three plants, I can pick half a dozen small ones a day!
Not wanting a cinnamony sugary bread, I searched recipes on-line for some ideas. Cheese…..check, bacon……check, lots of shredded squash…..check, a spicy bite….check, and easy to put together…….check – those were my requirements. But after searching in vain for the perfect recipe, I created my own. The results after making four of these in a week, will stay in my summer repertoire for years to come. The finishing touch was a hint of spice in the bread, delivered by adding shredded fresh Poblano pepper, a mild chili pepper-my favorite. Using only a quarter of the pepper was plenty for me, but if you like spicy, add some more.
Since Zucchini is just my term for summer squash, you can use any in this recipe – yellow, patty pan, green striped, or the classic Zucchini.