Plant Lust – Cerinthe,Pride of Gibralter

Cerinthe

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.

Cerinthe available at Renees Seeds
Cerinthe available at 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.

Cerinthe
Cerinthe

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.

Seen at Sissinghurst
Seen at Sissinghurst

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.

Used here as a great edger at Sissinghurst
Used here as a great edger/spiller at Sissinghurst

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.

Cerinthe changes color as it ages
Cerinthe changes color as it ages

TSTART 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.

About a week old, Cerinthe makes a robust seedling
About a week old, Cerinthe makes a robust seedling

TSTART 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.

Next to a purple flower, Cerinthe shows up best
Next to a purple flower, Cerinthe shows up best

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.

 

 

Know and Grow: Deer Resistant Vitex

Bees flock to the beautiful spiky flowers

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.

Available locally in Maryland at Valley View Farms
Available locally in Maryland at Valley View Farms

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.

 

Plant Lust-Love in a Mist

There is a white and pink 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.

Seedlings emerge in early spring
Seedlings emerge in early spring
Love in a Mist
Love in a Mist

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.

The seed pods are as attractive as the flowers
The seed pods are as attractive as the flowers

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.

Nigella
Nigella or Love in a Mist

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.

Attractive seed pods form after flowers are done
Attractive seed pods form after flowers are done
There is a white and pink variety
There is a white and pink variety

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.

Love in a Mist available at the Monticello Shop

 

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.

Use as a cut flower
Use as a cut flower

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.

Intricate flower of Love in a Mist
Intricate flower of Love in a Mist

Winter Aconite-The Bulb That Keeps Giving

Winter aconites pushing up through the snow

 

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.

From a few corms, I have many
From a few corms, I have many

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.

They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower
They have lovely frilled foliage surrounding the golden flower; here the flower is finished and the foliage remains for several weeks, before disappearing

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.

Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower
Winter Aconites have a pretty green ruff surrounding the flower

 

Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen
Bees flock to the early offerings of nectar and pollen

Starting/Transplanting 

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.

Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Easily transplanted while green is done in early March to increase my stock
Bees bathe in the pollen
Bees bathe in the pollen

Pollinator Friendly

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.

Aconites are good companions to snowdrops, photo by Patricia Reynolds

 

Plant Lust-Dove Tree

Dove tree in full bloom
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.
Creamy white flowers flutter in the breeze
Creamy white flowers flutter in the breeze
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
Type: 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
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Suggested Use: Shade Tree, Flowering Tree
Flower: Showy
Leaf: Good Fall
Fruit: Showy
Dove tree in full bloom
Dove tree in full bloom at Hidcote

Culture

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.

Flowers litter the ground when finished blooming
Flowers litter the ground when finished blooming

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.

Golf ball sized fruits form on the tree
Golf ball sized fruits form on the tree

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.

Dove tree in the landscape at Miserden Gardens in the UK
Dove tree in the landscape at Miserden Gardens in the UK

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.

Dove tree flower
Dove tree flower

 

‘Tis the Season for Poinsettias

Princettia Poinsettias branch more and produce more flowers
Poinsettia, Sparkling Punch
Poinsettia ‘Sparkling Punch’
The newer white Poinsettias are really beautiful
The newer white Poinsettias are really beautiful

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:

Lime Green is a new color in Poinsettias

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 center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
The center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
  • 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
Poinsettia Valentine
Poinsettia ‘Valentine’, a double ruffled flower
  • 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!
Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas
Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas at Longwood Gardens

Color Palette

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.

Purple is very popular, but is sprayed on
Purple is very popular, but is sprayed on

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!

 

Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket
Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket

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.

Jingle Bells Poinsettia-the actual flower is in the center of the bracts
‘Jingle Bells’ Poinsettia is one of the top selling Poinsettias
Visions of Grandeur Poinsettia with Orchids
‘Visions of Grandeur’ Poinsettia with Orchids at Longwood Gardens

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.

Sleeved poinsettias
Sleeved Poinsettias

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.

Princettia Poinsettia sign at Valley View Farms
Princettia Poinsettia sign at Valley View Farms
Princettia Poinsettias branch more and produce more flowers
Princettia Poinsettias branch more which produces more flowers
  • 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
A white double poinsettia
A white double poinsettia

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.

Peach Poinsettia
Peach Poinsettia
Monet Poinsettia
‘Monet’ Poinsettia

Poisonous??

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.

Princettia Poinsettias

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.

Decorating with Poinsettias
Decorating with Poinsettias
Use your poinsettias in groups
Group your Poinsettias for bigger impact

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!

Poinsettias used as a cut flower
Poinsettias used as a cut flower

 

Plant Oddity – Pumpkin On A Stick

Use pumpkin on a stick in fall displays

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.

Pumpkin on a Stick seed packet at Botanical Interests

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.

Bed of Nails

Culture

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.

Started from seed in my greenhouse, by early spring, the plants (with stakes) grow quickly and are ready to plant in the garden as soon as we are frost free
Pumpkin on a Stick growing in my veggie garden has thorns and can get tall (3-4 ft tall)

Harvesting

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.

Cutting my pumpkin on a stick plants
Remove all the leaves and hang to dry
Available in the fall at trader Joe’s

Pumpkin on a stick at the wholesale florist
Pumpkin on a Stick used in a seasonal arrangement

Butterfly and Bee Magnet, Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Flower with a Monarch

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.

A patch of ‘Little Joe’
My poster available in my Etsy Shop includes other butterfly and bee magnets
I have a nice clump of Joe Pye right in front of my greenhouse

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.

The burgundy stems of ‘Little Joe’ look fantastic against a brick wall
This is a mid-September garden border with the Joe Pye placed towards the back; shorter flowers in front keep it upright

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!

Swallowtails on Joe Pye; this is the full size one that towers over me!

‘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!

Dried seed head of Joe Pye

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.

Available in my Etsy Shop, my plan for a pollinator garden includes Joe Pye Weed
Count the bees!

Ailanthus Webworm moth on Joe Pye
Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' Plant
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cool Flowers-Early Spring Bloomers

Nigella damascena or "Love-in-the-Mist"
Nigella or “Love in the Mist”
Love in the Mist is an apt name for these blue jewels held in a green mist of foliage
Beautiful poppy, photographed by Pam Corckran
Beautiful poppy, photographed by Pam Corckran
Honey Bees love poppies

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.

Bells of Ireland
Calendula comes in both yellow and orange

Calendula seen at Great Dixter, UK

Calendula seed packet on wooden stake
Calendula seed packet on wooden stake

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.

Blue Poppy at Longwood Gardens
‘Lauren’s Grape’ Poppy
Annual poppy, I don’t know the variety
Lady Bird Poppy at Great Dixter
Lady Bird Poppy
An annual poppy blooming in June
An annual double poppy blooming in June

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.

 

‘Love in the Mist’ seed head catching the rain drops

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.

Striped seed head of Love in the Mist

Sowing seeds with my favorite rake

 

Sowing seeds with my favorite rake

Raking the soil
Sprinkle straw loosely over the planting bed to hold in moisture and hide seeds from birds

Beautiful form of Love in the Mist

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.

Poppy seed heads are great dried and used in arrangements
Poppy seed heads are great dried and used in arrangements
Nigella or Love-in-the-Mist seed pods are beautiful
Nigella or Love-in-the-Mist seed pods are beautiful
Double fringed peony
Double fringed poppy

Fore a great video on planting cool flowers, go to Cool Flowers, a great website by Lisa Ziegler.

Mistletoe – A Sprig of Romance and Legend

Mistletoe clumps perch high in a tree

Have you ever been in the check out line at the grocery store and seen packaged Mistletoe with white plastic berries? A familiar sight around Christmas, I was always intrigued about this plant but never knew much about it.

A recent trip to the coast of North Carolina opened my eyes to the stomping grounds of this interesting parasitic plant. Driving along the highway in December from the coast of North Carolina to Asheville on a long drive, I had plenty of opportunity to notice the native vegetation and I noticed large green clumps held high up in deciduous trees. Once the leaves drop, you are able to see large birds nests and other debris caught up in the bare branches and these leafy green balls stood out to me. I realized immediately that they must be Mistletoe and soon saw many of the evergreen balls dotted throughout the forest.

Botanically, Mistletoe  is especially interesting because it is a partial parasite, a “hemiparasite”. Being a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But like any other plant, it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. There are two types of Mistletoe. The Mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens), is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees in the west in central California, and the east coast. The other type of Mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin and very different from the North American, as it is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are poisonous like the American cousin.

Bunches of mistletoe for sale at $3 a bunch at a farmers market in North Carolina

One of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore, Mistletoe was believed to bestow life and fertility,  a protection against poison, as well as an aphrodisiac. Sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids, it was used in symbolic ceremonies. Gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, the custom of using Mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions and has become associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits and over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. These customs were brought to the new world with the immigration of Europeans and native Mistletoe, though a different variety, was here in abundance.

A bunch of Mistletoe  in a tree

Mistletoe is found in a variety of deciduous trees throughout the U.S., in plant hardiness zone 6b through 11. I live in zone 6b in Maryland, so Mistletoe could be found here! And in fact, according to the Washington Post, in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, an 18″ diameter ball of Mistletoe lives in a tree only four-foot high off the ground! Hardy as far north as New Jersey, its preferred habitat is tidewater areas, thus my sightings on the North Carolina coast. Most of the Mistletoe sold on the East Coast during the holidays is collected from North Carolina. Botanists have noticed a march northwards as well as more abundant specimens which they attribute to climate change or global warming.

The glistening white berries each contain a seed

Bright green oval leaves approximately 1 inch long and one-half inch across line waxy bright green stems up to 20 inches long, make Mistletoe an attractive plant. Bright green male or female flowers bloom in fall, followed by white berries in winter. Containing oxalic acid, Mistletoe can be toxic to some animals, including humans. Birds consume the berries, excrete the seeds which fall onto other suitable host trees. Once germinated, root tendrils penetrate the bark and start forming the typical clump of evergreen foliage. These clumps can reach five feet in diameter and weigh up to 50 pounds. Since Mistletoe is a parasite, a large population of Mistletoe plants on a tree will weaken it and hasten its demise.

But the plants are important to wildlife and as well as to humans. Extracts from Mistletoe are used to combat colon cancer that are more effective than chemotherapy. Mistletoe-killed trees provide nesting sites for cavity dwelling mammals and birds. And the living clumps of Mistletoe provide shelter for many birds. Three kinds of U.S. butterflies depend on mistletoe for survival: the great purple hairstreak, the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson’s hairstreak. These butterflies lay eggs on Mistletoe, and their young eat the leaves. The adults of all three species feed on Mistletoe nectar, as do some species of native bees.

Johnson’s Hairstreak, photo from Wikipedia, Alan Schmierer

The kissing custom may date to at least the 1500s in Europe. It was practiced in the early United States and each time a couple kissed under a Mistletoe sprig, they removed one of the white berries. When the berries were all gone, so was the sprig’s kissing power.

Finding Mistletoe at a local North Carolina farmers market, I snatched several bunches to take home with me for decorations. I asked the farmer who was selling the bunches how he could harvest the clumps high in the tree and he told me that he shoots them down with a shotgun!  Thinking he was joking, I talked with others at the market and they confirmed this. Rarely is Mistletoe found at an accessible height and I had no idea shooting was an option.

Making a Kissable Mistletoe Ball

Start with a moss-covered ball of oasis

Snip your branches into smaller pieces that contain both foliage and berries
Using fern pins, U-shaped pins, insert pins into stems and attach to base
Fern pins are used to attached the sprigs of Mistletoe
Finish it off with a bow and hang with fishing line

For more Christmas decorating posts, try Williamsburg Christmas, Christmas Wreath-Ordinary to Extraordinary, Holly Love, Boxwood Christmas,  Mantel Magic,  Succulent Christmas.