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Flowers Above

27 Mar

Recently, when walking to and from work or through my garden or around my neighborhood, I have tended to keep my eyes at ground level, on the alert for early blooms and signs of spring. But this evening, in the magical hour before sunset, I looked up… and was immediately rewarded by the sight of emerging flowers on local trees, a glorious sight indeed–and a reminder that good things also come from above.


Red Maple flowers


Emerging Cornelian Cherry Dogwood flower cluster


Red Maple flower cluster, photographed on black table

The Remains of the Season

22 Mar

Last weekend, a stroll around the National Arboretum revealed that, yes, spring has arrived and may soon work its way a few miles north and visit my garden, too:


Dwarf Dutch Iris


Crocus

While I am waiting for Spring 2014 to put in an appearance in my garden and usher in the new , I wanted to give a shout out to the some of the remains of 2013, all beautiful in their own way:

  
Dried Pomegranates, US Botanic Garden


Rose of Sharon seed pod, my garden


Azalea seed pod, my garden


Dried Fruit of the Sweetgum tree, US National Arboretum

Witch Hazel: A Friend in the Garden

1 Mar

More snow is forecast for Sunday/Monday. Mother Nature has been toying with us this season; it has been a dreary, harsh winter for those of us living in the Washington DC area, where winter is not usually so bad. Long-suffering friends in colder climes scoff at our feeble complaints, but we are all well and truly tired of winter and are longing for spring.

Which is why it is so nice to have some Witch Hazel in the garden: it blooms just when you have had enough of winter, and gives you hope that spring is not too far away. At the moment, this lovely Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Birgit’  is the only bright spot  in my garden, which remains braced for more bad news. Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids are crosses between Japanese and Chinese witch hazels. ‘Birgit’ is one of the darkest red (actually, purplish red) cultivars; I bought it for its deep color and also because ‘Birgit’ is the name of an old friend. My Witch Hazel is still quite small, but already it is living up to its namesake; it is a great friend to have in the garden, especially at this time of year.

  

Cypress Knees

14 Dec

I’d heard of a bee’s knees, but not a tree’s knees. Turns out cypress trees have knees, as we discovered when walking through the gardens at Historic London Town last weekend. We rounded a corner and stumbled upon an eerie landscape: a tall Bald Cypress tree surrounded by what looked like little stumps or treelets poking up from a blanket of leaves.  It was almost as if we had been transported to the Island of Misfit Trees.

Turns out these little* woody projections are called cypress knees, and they are a bit of a mystery. The knees grow vertically from the tree’s roots, but no one quite agrees on what function they serve. Normally, they are found in swampy areas. This Bald Cypress and its knees were in Historic London Town’s Bog Garden–a very moist area, but not one that was under water (or at least not when we were there).  One theory is that the knees may help get oxygen to the tree’s roots, especially in the case of trees that are growing in several feet of water. But scientists who tested this theory found that the knees aren’t very good conveyors of oxygen, as one might expect from what is essentially a very woody stump. Another theory is that the knees provide the tree with stability. But no one really knows for sure; there is another school of thought suggesting that perhaps these knees serve no purpose at all…. Except to keep us wondering.


*These knees are still relatively little — but they can actually get quite tall.

Troopers in the Autumn Garden

23 Nov

I have sadly neglected the garden. I’d like to blame it on work and family obligations, but the real reason is that I find the autumn clean-up far less satisfying than the spring clean-up. In the spring, when I gather up the detritus from winter, I am delighted to see tiny new shoots pushing through the earth underneath. I love seeing new buds unfurling. The atmosphere in the garden is of one of eager anticipation. The prep work then is like priming a canvas before painting in order to set the stage for a masterpiece to emerge. It is a fantasy, I admit–but in June, when viewed at just the right angle in just the right light by someone who is squinting slightly, the garden does look somewhat like an Impressionist work of art.

In the autumn, the garden is a much sorrier sight (well, my garden is). And the clean-up then feels more like chore than delight. But there is no camouflage in the winter, so if anything, making sure the garden looks neat and tidy is even more important. So what did I do today? Did I spend hours pruning, deadheading, weeding, or transplanting? No, I procrastinated–I took photos of the few remaining spots of color and bits of interest, telling myself tomorrow is another day.

Here are a few autumnal troopers: Echinacea ‘Southern Belle,’ a Montauk Daisy featuring a slightly lethargic bee, and Hidcote Lavender. Plus, something to look forward to: buds on Witch Hazel ‘Birgit,’ ready to burst forth very early next year for some welcome late-winter color.

   

Fall Colors

24 Oct

It’s that time of year–a time where I am loath to leave the warmth of my bed in the dark and chill of the morning, a coat is becoming a necessity, and the thermostat beckons. It is fall. But this crispness in the air brings with it a relief from the hot, muggy, dog days of summer and, even better, it brings vivid autumnal colors.

Here are some photos from a recent walk around my neighborhood and Rock Creek Park.

Seed Transport: A Hairy Situation?

22 Oct

When I think of autumn, I think of brilliant, jewel-toned foliage: rich reds, oranges, and yellows. But fall is also a time for brown–and specifically, for really interesting seed pods that have dried up, split open, and offered up their treasures.

In a recent post, I wrote about wind dispersal of seeds via feathery parachutes. Seeds attached to or encased in balls of fluff can travel quite far on a good breeze. But there are other ways for seeds to get around. Catching a ride on a passing animal is one of them. And that is why some seeds are sticky — or hairy, as in the case of Rose of Sharon seeds, which are encircled by a fuzzy ring.

Despite this transport mechanism, however, Rose of Sharon plants are really, really good at self seeding, with dozens of seedlings springing up around the base of the parent plant each year. So while those seeds are designed for adventure, they are really homebodies at heart. And I’ll take a homebody any day, if it puts on a good show (see below).

Rose of Sharon seed pods

Rose of Sharon seeds

Rose of Sharon flower

Iris Seeds

28 Sep

Last weekend, I was ambling down a woody path at Brookside Gardens when I glanced to my left, and then glanced again. What I saw was a small patch of irises, blooms long gone, but with seed pods at the end of the stalks. And one of the pods had split open, revealing bright orange seeds.


Those of you who grow lots of irises may be very familiar with iris seeds, but I had never seen them before. After going home and doing a little research, I now know why: I only have two Japanese irises in my garden; one rarely flowers and the other produces just a couple blooms each year. So it isn’t surprising I haven’t seen any seed pods–my irises aren’t making it easy for bees to pollinate them, and there can’t be any seed pods without successful pollination.

There also can’t be any if each spent iris bloom is carefully removed, which is fairly common practice. Why would a gardener do this? To allow the plant to conserve all its energy for next year rather than spending some of it creating seed pods, which could lead to fewer future blooms on the parent plant. But those seeds could eventually lead to other blooms, and for me, part of the fun in gardening is encountering the occasional nice surprise.

So, assuming a miracle occurs and I do spot an iris seed pod in my garden one year, I would have two options (after letting the pod turn brown and split, harvesting the mature seeds, and drying them out):

  1. plant the seeds in the ground later in the fall (so they can chill throughout winter and so the rain and melting snow can help remove the seeds’ germination inhibitor), or
  2. soak the seeds in daily changes of water for up to two weeks (to get rid of the inhibitor), store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator (with damp peat moss or potting mix to keep them moist), start them in pots in early spring, and then plant the seedlings. This moist/cold process is known as stratification.

All things considered, I’ll go straight for Option 1. Either way, it may be a year or two before the irises bloom since it takes a while for them to form mature rhizomes. The resulting irises may not look like the parent plant at all, and they may not be quite as fine specimens as other irises–or they might. I like a good mystery.

Rudbeckia maxima: A Natural Bird Feeder

21 Sep

Last year I discovered that while my two bird feeders were quite popular, there was another very attractive source of seeds in the yard that was equally as appealing to certain birds: the Rudbeckia maxima (Giant Coneflowers) I had planted near a wrought-iron fence. I watched one day as a small bird flew by, grabbed a stalk in its little talon, pulled the stalk over to the fence, and perched there, nibbling seeds off the cone.

Since then, I have been happy to share the flowers with the birds. I can see the attraction; the Rudbeckia are stunning–they are tall (about 7 ft.) and cheerful, with clumps of silvery-blue foliage and lovely yellow ray flowers pointing down from the base of the cone. The cone starts off light green but then turns dark brown as the plant matures and the seeds come in. And then, it’s buffet time for finches, chickadees, and other birds. A self-service seed bar, courtesy of Mother Nature.
 
Even after the petals have dried up and fallen off, Rudbeckia maxima seed heads can play a striking role in the autumn garden: here is a whole one and a section in close-up.

    

Feathery Parachutes

8 Sep

There are a variety of ways unexpected plants can crop up in your garden, but often, you can thank the wind for it. If bees play a vital role in pollination, then wind plays a similar role when it comes to seed dispersal. Think of the dandelion, the bane of many gardeners’ existence. It has developed a perfect way of ensuring a next generation by encasing its seeds in balls of fluff. What the wind doesn’t carry away (or lawnmowers cut down and disperse), young children will happily blow into the air–all but guaranteeing a new crop of the ubiquitous yellow flowers right in the middle of your lawn, or your neighbors’.

The Butterfly Weed plant disperses seeds in a similar fashion, but its seeds reside in pods that dry out and then crack open, allowing the feathery parachutes to travel hither and yon (if the Milkweed Bugs that love the seeds and tissue of Butterfly Weed plants don’t get to all the seeds first…). Luckily, there are many, many seeds to go around. And then, it’s up to wind, luck, and Mother Nature. In the bottom two photos, the Butterfly Weed seed parachutes have gotten stuck on 1) a Verbena Bonariensis and 2) a spider web near our brick staircase. I hold out more hope for the former’s prospects than for the latter’s.