Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy 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 keep 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.
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.
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.
Cerinthe major atropurpurea , featured at Sissinghurst Castle in England, is actually a native of the Greek Islands. This hard to find annual is definitely a much sought after easy to grow annual from seed. Not available as transplants, you can get the seed from Renee’s Garden Seeds.
An unusually colored flower with indigo-violet drooping flowers that dangle gracefully above gray-green leaves. A great plant for containers or for the border, it is easy to start from seed.
Pop in the seeds and a few days later, juicy succulent-like shoots appear above the soil and quickly grow into robust plants for transplanting. Wonderful as cuts for fresh flower arrangements, you can always spot them at Sissinghurst in the UK as their signature plant.
Also known as honeywort, the flowers attract bees and hummingbirds. The one inch long flowers produce honey-flavored nectar, probably leading to its common name. As the plant matures, the bracts change from green to purple to blue. Deadhead to encourage continued bloom. If you wish to use honeywort as a cut flower, the ends of the stem need to be either flamed or dipped in hot water.
Cerinthe is a good filler plant, with its blue-green foliage and succulent texture contrasting nicely with other greens in the garden. To bring out the other colors in the bracts, such as golds, yellows, bronzes, interplant cerinthe with plants that have purple or bronze leaves, such as Caramel Heuchera or Euphoriba ‘Chameleon’. Reseeding in my garden happens frequently which I encourage.
TO START OUTDOORS
In spring, once all danger of frost is past, sow seed directly where plants are to grow in ordinary well-drained soil in full sun. In mild climates, Cerinthe can also be sown in fall for spring blooms. Poke the large seeds into the soil about 3⁄4 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart and firm soil gently over them.
TO START EARLY INDOORS
Start seeds indoors in 4 inch pots about 4 to 6 weeks before last frost date. Keep moist, but not soggy and provide a strong light source. Once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, acclimate to outdoor conditions and transplant into a sunny spot, in well-drained garden soil. Thin or transplant seedlings 8 to 12 inches apart. Avoid disturbing seedling roots.
GROWING NOTES (from Renee’s Garden Seeds)
Cerinthe prefers full sun, but can take dappled shade, although plants will be more rangy in habit. Be patient; plants are undistinguished until they come into bloom. By late spring, the dramatic blue bracts will turn more purple at the tips, then the clusters of purple bells trimmed with a white edge unfurl. Grow near pastel cleome or cosmos for an exciting color contrast.
Today, it is not commonly offered commercially in the U.S. The plants are not particularly stunning from a distance unless plant in mass; the enchanting flowers are best appreciated up close as the coloring is subtle. The variety ‘Purpurascens’ is the most commonly available type and was selected for its stronger coloration than the species.
Looking like a butterfly bush on sterioids, Vitex agnus-castus, or Chaste Tree, is enjoying a comeback in gardens with some compact varieties that fit into smaller gardens. It’s easy to grow in well-drained soil and drought-tolerant and disease resistant.
Not the tidiest plant in the garden, the newer varieties, like ‘Shoal Creek’ will top off at 10-12′ tall and wide. But with cutback pruning in the early spring, you can keep it much smaller. I treat it like my butterfly bushes and cut it back to about 2 feet tall in the early spring/late winter. Winter hardy to zone 6, this beautiful large shrub or small tree blooms profusely and for a long period in July and August. Foliage is very aromatic- compound, palmate, grayish-green leaves with 5-7 lance-shaped leaflets-similar to marijuana!
Bumblebees adore this plant and cover the blossoms and will even spend the night on the flower. Deer resistance adds another attribute to this valuable late season sun-loving plant. Native to China and India, Vitex has been in the U.S. since the 1600’s and has a long history as a medicinal plant.
The common name of ‘chaste tree’ refer to the beliefs that parts of the plant reduce libido. Known as a spectacular, butterfly-attracting plant, the 12″ fragrant flower spikes are a beautiful deep lavender blue and very showy. ‘Shoal Creek’, the cultivar that I am growing, is a deeper more vibrant lavender color than the species and I would advise seeking out this variety.
Love-in-a-Mist, aka Ragged Lady, or Persian Jewels, is a hardy annual with fine, thread like leaves and intricate 1½ in. flowers at the end of each branch. An excellent cut flower, Love-in-a-Mist, Nigella damascena, forms interesting horned seed capsules surrounded by ferny mist-like foliage and are beautiful in dried arrangements. Plants grow to 1½ ft. tall and prefer cool weather. If you let the flowers go to seed, they will often self slow and come up the next year without any work on your part.
Aptly named, Love in a Mist, is only available by seeds, and has become one of my favorite cool weather flowers. For more on growing early spring cold loving flowers, go to my post on Cool Flowers. Direct sow the seeds and press into moist soil in early spring, and you are sure to have a nice clump of Love in a Mist.
Blue, mauve, pink, purple, and white blooms clothed in a lacy netting of greenery, this is an old-fashioned heirloom favorite for fresh or dried flowers.
Scattering the seed in a cleared area that has been raked to loosen the soil, is the easiest way to sow the seeds. I walk over the area to press the seeds firmly into the ground so there is good soil contact.
Where winters are mild, like USDA zones 8 or 9, seed can be sown in the late winter or fall, and by making successive sowings, you can ensure a continuous supply of cut flowers. Flowers are excellent for cutting, with the horned seed capsules highly decorative in dried arrangements. Deer tend to leave this little beauty alone.
The black chunky seeds contained in the seed capsule have a strong aroma and taste, and have notes of onion, oregano, and black pepper, thus are used in cooking. The seeds have many health benefits. They carry antioxidant properties helping with several inflammation issues, especially on the skin.
Love in a Mist seeds also have an antihistamine element and can aid in assisting with sore throats. Used in the traditional Naan bread of Indian cooking, they are also called black cumin. If you aren’t interested in using them in your culinary adventures, save some for sprinkling in the garden in the spring.
Sunny yellow blooms fringed with a green ruff green poking through snow is my first sign that spring has sprung. Eranthis hyamalis, in the buttercup family, is a spring ephemeral, which means that it is a short-lived plant above ground with a burst of blooms, then disappears, remaining under ground until next winter.
Beaming a golden light in the cloudy winter days, I welcome the appearance of this charming little bulbs that appear in the slightest bit of warmth in winter. Popping up when it is warm(above 40 degrees) with a little bit of sunshine, they retract back in the ground, if cold wintry weather returns, and wait. When everything else surrounding the bulbs looks dead and lifeless, these cheerful little splashes of sunshine appear.
Easily Grown in Shade or Sun
The plant takes advantage of the deciduous woodland canopy, flowering at the time of maximum sunlight reaching the forest floor, then completely dying back to its underground tuber after flowering. So, for about eight weeks starting in late February, I see the plant above ground, celebrate its arrival and the bees devour it! Flowering when little else is in bloom, the blossom is a very important nectar and pollen source for my honeybees. On a nice sunny day above 45 degrees in late winter, the bees are darting in and out of the blossoms, quickly taking advantage of the brief show of color.
I started my Winter Aconites with tubers which resemble a dried pea by planting them one to two inches deep and waiting to see how many emerged. Only about 25% of the corms sprouted but that was enough to start my stock going for years to come as they will seed in. I have read that the little flowers can become invasive by reseeding in odd places, but I welcome all comers! I also transplant the clumps when in flower or “in green” and separate them and scatter them in my planting beds to make future blankets of yellow.
Such a cheerful little flower that is attractive to all pollinators is welcome in my garden anytime. A good companion to Snowdrops, Winter Aconites will live for years without any disturbance. The flowers push up through a stand of Germander and other thick ground covers and stick around for weeks, opening when the sun comes out, and closing when nightfall comes. Even successful under large shade trees, like Sycamores, these little bulbs are tough and resilient once they get going.
Davidia involucrata, commonly called dove tree, is a tree that I have known about for twenty years, but rarely have seen in the U.S. On my travels through the UK, I have seen many beautiful specimens and am inspired to plant my own. Now I am ready to get one, if I can find one.
Native to woodlands in central China, Dove tree is a deciduous tree that typically grows 20-40’ tall with a broad pyramidal habit. Flowering in May, the white fluttery flowers look like handkerchiefs (it is also known as the handkerchief tree or ghost tree), this treasure is sure to draw a lot of attention when it blooms. Here are the facts from the Missouri Botanical Garden:
Common Name: Dove tree
Family: Nyssaceae Native Range: Southwestern China
Zone: 6 to 8
Height: 20.00 to 40.00 feet
Spread: 20.00 to 40.00 feet
Bloom Time: April to May
Bloom Description: Red (flowers) and white (bracts)
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Suggested Use: Shade Tree, Flowering Tree
Leaf: Good Fall
Grown in organically rich, consistently moist, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade, Davidia can take 10 years to flower from seed, and it may not flower regularly after that. I am sure that is a factor that stops it being more widely used, but there are newer cultivars, namely at Broken Arrow Nursery, that bloom much sooner. Some have variegated foliage, so I am tempted to try one of these.
Red-anthered flowers in rounded clusters bloom in April-May. They really show off in a good wind and look exactly like fluttering handkerchiefs! Look at this video I took at Miserden Gardens in the UK in May.
The creamy white bracts flutter in the slightest breeze, and, from a distance, look like white doves sitting in the tree, hence the common name. Flowers are followed by round, golf ball-sized fruits on 2-3” hanging stems.
Fall color is variable ranging from dull to bright oranges and reds, depending on location. I wouldn’t depend on it for good fall color, as it is worth it alone for the spring flowering.
To complete this perfect little specimen tree, there are no serious insect or disease problems. I will keep you posted on whether I find a transplant of this tree in my travels.
No flower says Christmas like the beautiful Poinsettia. I was amazed to learn that the Poinsettia is the most popular potted plant by far in the U.S. and Canada. Here are some other interesting tidbits:
History & Legends
The Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “very beautiful”
The showy leaves or petals, called “bracts”, are not the actual flower. The flowers of the poinsettia are in the center of the bracts and are inconspicuous and contain a sweetly fragrant nectar
The cultivation of Poinsettias originated with the Aztecs hundreds of years ago in Mexico. Montezuma, the last Aztec king, would have Poinsettias brought into the city, which is now known as Mexico City, by caravans because he liked them so much
Aztecs used the bracts, the colored portion, as a dye, and the sap as a medicinal to control fevers
Joel Poinsett, a botanist and the first U.S. minister to Mexico in 1825, found the plant blooming on the side of the road, which the native people regarded as a weed, took cuttings, and sent some plants to his home in South Carolina
Poinsett shared his finds with other plant enthusiasts and that is how the poinsettia came to the United States
The Ecke family grew Poinsettias in southern California in the 1920’s, primarily as a cut flower and landscape plant and remain to this day, the largest producer of Poinsettias in the US
Grown as field grown potted plants for the cut flower trade, Poinsettias were shipped all over the country by train. Poinsettias really gained wide-spread recognition through media promotions on The Tonight Show and The Bob Hope Christmas Specials. This promotion ensured that Poinsettias were as much a part of the holiday tradition as Christmas evergreen trees
When the flowers or stems are cut, they ooze a milky sap that can cause people with latex sensitivities to have an allergic reaction.
Contrary to popular belief, Poinsettias are not poisonous. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.
Red is the most popular color, and the variety called “Prestige Red” tops the popularity list
Poinsettias are now the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada!
Breeding of the poinsettia began with the goal of improving cultivars that would retain their leaves and bracts for a longer period. The breeding also created stronger stems, multiple branching, earlier blooming, and the palette of colors that we recognize today. These modern cultivars last longer, bloom earlier, and are available in a vast array of colors from red to white, pink to burgundy, and with many variations including doubling of flowers and flecks of color on contrasting backgrounds.
Spraying of blues and purples and glitter is done to jazz up the color spectrum. It isn’t my favorite way to treat these plants, but recently at a local nursery, I heard people swoon over the purple Poinsettias!
Selecting a Healthy Poinsettia
Poinsettias do great in the home with proper care and will keep their coloration until mid-March. When choosing a healthy plant, look for dark green uniform foliage. But be aware, that lighter colored or mottled bracts typically sport lighter green foliage, and the darker colors like burgundy, will have very dark green foliage. Reject any plants that have dropping leaves, or ones that have pale green or yellowing foliage.
When purchasing, make sure that the plants are well wrapped or sleeved before transporting, as low temperatures, even for short periods, can damage the plant.
Care-5 Tips to Keep Poinsettias in Tip Top Shape Until April
Yes, you read that right-until April! The newer varieties will last until April, namely the Princettia varieties. These varieties branch more readily which produces more flowers, and are shorter- not so top heavy as older varieties. I brought home one of these pastel pink ones from my local nursery, Valley View Farms, as it was so different looking from the old mammoth flowered Poinsettias.
Keep in indirect, natural daylight
Water when soil is dry to the touch-overwatering is the biggest cause of leaf drop and death
Keep in temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees
Make sure the pot drains, removing the foil wrapper if necessary
Fertilization is not necessary
Reflowering-Tough But Not Impossible
It is possible to get your poinsettia to “rebloom” next year, but you need to follow strict requirements for light, temperature, and fertilization. Following all these rules is way too much trouble for me, so I consider this plant a “throwaway”. Poinsettias are very inexpensive and I leave the growing of them to experts who have the right equipment to make this happen. If you really want to get your Poinsettia to bloom again, go to University of Illinois for detailed instructions.
Contrary to popular opinion, Poinsettias are not poisonous, but neither are they edible. There was a study done that determined that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500 leaves to get really sick! And the leaves supposedly taste awful. The Poinsettia plant is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family of plants, which includes the rubber tree, where natural latex comes from. So, If you are allergic to latex, and ingest this plant, you may have some degree of discomfort, but not fatal. Likewise, if you handle the plant, you could develop a rash. Poinsettias are not harmful to pets either, unless they ingest leaves or bracts in very large quantities. Cats who chew on the leaves may salivate and can vomit if the leaves are swallowed, but it will not kill them.
Decorating With Poinsettias
Rather than scattering Poinsettias around the house, try grouping them together for bigger impact. I also like to place Poinsettias in baskets along with other plants, pods, and cones, to add interest.
As cut flowers, Poinsettias are great, but you rarely see them used this way. The plants are so inexpensive, that I don’t feel guilty buying one, and cutting the flowers off for arrangements. You can get an entirely different look by using them as cut flowers and they last a long time in a vase, over a week!
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.
If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed. When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet. After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.
In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.
‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate. Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.
Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house. It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen. But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.
Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!
‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop. The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!
The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.
Winter is the time to sow your Cool Season Annuals as soon as the soil can be “worked”. This term is gardening slang for soil with a texture that is neither mud nor frozen! After determining that my soil was ready by drawing a rake through it, I gathered my cool season annual seeds together with plant stakes, sharpie for marking, and my favorite multi-bladed sowing rake. On the menu for sowing was Poppies, Bells of Ireland, Love-in-the-Mist, and Calendula.
Cool Season Annuals differ from annuals that you sow after the danger of frost is past because the seeds need cold temperatures to germinate and cool temps to grow well in the garden. When hot weather hits, they are history and I pull them out to make way for annuals that relish the hot weather. Poppies are one of my all-time favorite flowers and I make sure to plant plenty. If you are into blue poppies, go to my post on Blue Poppies.
My honey bees love the poppies and go into a frenzy when they are blooming.
Growing quickly in the cool temperatures of late winter and early spring, the cool season annuals are old-fashioned flowers that you would find scattered in an English cottage garden. Best sown outdoors, these flowers are frost tolerant and grow quickly to give you a much-needed dose of color after the long winter. If you want to plant edibles like brassicas, go to pegplant who writes an excellent blog on gardening and is a fellow GWA member.
Raking the soil with my sowing rake is the only preparation needed. I broadcast sprinkle the seeds as evenly as possible, using dry hands, then tamp down the soil firmly with the rake, not adding any additional soil. Sprinkling the surface with bits of straw or leaves helps keep the soil moist and hopefully hides the seed from wandering birds. I spray a light mist of water on top to moisten the surface and wait with anticipation.
Sowing seeds with my favorite rake
Popping up quickly through the leaf litter, weeding and sprinkling with water is necessary if we hit a dry spell. Then it is time for the color show! Cutting flowers from these early blooms make great arrangements in the house.
Fore a great video on planting cool flowers, go to Cool Flowers, a great website by Lisa Ziegler.
Striped seed head of Love in the Mist
Love in the Mist
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Pink fringed poppy
Love in the Mist
Calendula comes in both yellow and orange
Calendula Simplicity Mix, from National Garden Bureau
‘Love in the Mist’ seed head catching the rain drops
‘Lauren’s Grape’ Poppy
Annual poppy, I don’t know the variety
I love the fringed poppies
Nigella or “Love in the Mist”
Beautiful form of Love in the Mist
Lauren’s Grape Poppy
Poppy seed heads are great dried and used in arrangements