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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


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

A Symphony of Orchids

22 Feb

If I have a green thumb at all, it is mostly due to luck. But that luck always runs out when it comes to orchids, with my green thumb (and the orchids) turning a dreadful brown. My mother, on the other hand, is an orchid whisperer. She has only one orchid at the moment, but it is lovingly tended and reciprocates in kind. When she is away, it is my task to water it, and I live in fear of killing it. Thus far, that hasn’t happened. But I can’t help but think it is aware of (and does not appreciate) my inferior ministrations.

Despite my ineptitude, I very much appreciate the ethereal beauty of orchids. So today, my mother and I headed to the opening day of a two-month exhibit, Orchid Symphony, at the U.S. Botanic Garden. It features a dazzling array of orchids in the Garden Court, set against a backdrop of classical music and the sounds of water cascading from fountains. Combined with the fragrant smell emitted by many of the orchids, it is a feast for the senses. But the exhibit goes beyond the Garden Court, with different types of orchids (jungle orchids, desert orchids, and orchids used for medicinal and gastronomic purposes) scattered throughout the Conservatory. Yes, that’s right: orchids are used gastronomically–or at least, one type is used very widely: vanilla is a member of the orchid family!

Altogether, there are more than 20,000 species of orchids (they outnumber birds 2 to 1, and mammals 4 to 1). Here are just 10 of them (hover over the photos to see the names):





Wintery Visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

15 Feb

There are all sorts of reasons people visit gardens, from learning more about the plants themselves, to getting ideas for home gardens, to simply being in a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing space that allows them to recharge while communing with Nature.

Botanic gardens are indoor/outdoor museums, and I love visiting them–for all of the reasons above. I like to explore wide and far, taking advantage of the brief respite these beautiful gardens can provide while seeing and learning something new. But in the winter, it becomes a bit more challenging to visit gardens–it is cold and many plants are in their dormant phases. There is great beauty in a winter garden, but there is also great joy in being able to leave the cold behind and enter a warm conservatory full of tropical plants. That is one of the great attractions of a botanic garden in the winter.

During a recent trip to New York City (just after a major snowfall), we made a point of stopping by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It looked like a white wonderland…

… with snow and ice, and

frozen crabapple fruits.

The conservatory beckoned, with its various houses and pavilions. We entered shortly before the gardens closed for the day, but were able to appreciate some very welcome sights: a Cape Aloe flower and a Cardinal’s Guard flower (above), as well as the lovely leaf of a Garden Croton (below). For a moment, we forgot all about the storm outside.

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.

Historic London Town, Maryland

11 Dec

Last weekend, we had to drop our daughter off at an event in Edgewater, Maryland. The name Edgewater stirred something in the deep recesses of my memory (but alas, the stirring failed to produce anything that my brain could actually retrieve on its own). Thankfully, Google provided the answer:  Historic London Town, a bustling colonial-era settlement on the South River. Today, the current 23-acre complex known as  Historic London Town & Gardens covers just a small part of the original town, but features original and reconstructed buildings, an archaeological area, learning activities, and gardens. (It was the garden part that had sparked my original interest.)

December isn’t always the ideal time to visit open-air gardens in the Northern Hemisphere, but duty called. And we were rewarded for our efforts:

Holiday window decoration, William Brown House

American Holly

Cut end of old log, Tobacco Barn, built in 1700s

Lord Mayor’s Tenement                      Posts near Pier, South River  

Red-Twig Dogwood                               Roundleaf Greenbrier

Photo of the Month: September 2013 (Velvet Plant)

30 Sep

There are all sorts of reasons a photo may catch someone’s eye: the lighting, the composition, the subject, the colors. I liked the way this one showed texture.

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.

Of Water Lilies and Butterflies

1 Sep

I belatedly saw the BBC’s Ten North American gardens worth travelling for this morning (thanks to my husband, who suggested we should try to make it to all the gardens on the list!)–and was very pleasantly surprised to find the first garden featured was the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. I was just there less than two weeks ago–as a way to distract myself.

I had just taken our third son to university for his first semester and was acutely aware that the chatter and noise and laughter (and yes, chaos) that has been a hallmark of our family life is now giving way to a quieter, calmer modus vivendi. This has its pluses, but also its downsides, as it becomes clear that our family is soon to be permanently dispersed and the supply of teenaged dish washers is about to vanish. We are not empty nesters quite yet–our daughter does not leave for college until next year. But then we are in for various adjustments. Perhaps that is when we will start visiting the North American gardens on the BBC’s list. Though apparently, that sort of thing is a sure sign someone is middle aged. And I appear to have been middle-aged for a long time now, since I’ve been doing some of the things on the list since my 20s!

But, back to gardens. After dropping my son off, I headed straight to Lewis Ginter, and it was the perfect antidote. It is a gorgeous garden in many respects, but I was particularly taken by two things: the Butterfly Exhibit in the Conservatory and the water lilies in the ponds right outside the Conservatory. I don’t often come across water lilies except in botanical gardens, and even then I don’t always catch them in bloom. But on this visit, a Hardy Water Lily was in its full glory:

The ponds also featured Santa Cruz water lily pads. I have never seen such big water lily pads (at their largest, they can support a small adult). What must it be like to actually float on a lily pad? Perhaps the reality is not as nice as the fantasy, but I did engage in some wishful thinking. Here are two photos: a full pad, and a close-up showing the pattern along one side.

As for the butterflies, they were everywhere–the exhibit was a misty, moist, magical place. You had to watch where you stepped and be prepared to serve as a butterfly landing pad. Turns out those butterflies can move pretty quickly when they want to, so here are the three best photos I ended up with: a Melinaea Butterfly with nectar in its proboscis, a black and white Paper Kite Butterfly, and an orange Julia Butterfly.

Bay Area 4: Tilden Botanic Garden, Berkeley Rose Garden

24 Aug

Gardening enthusiasts and plant lovers are spoiled for choice in Berkeley. Not only can visitors spend days wandering through the UC Botanical Garden, but the city is also home to the Regional Parks Botanic Garden at Tilden, and the famous Rose Garden. What joy!

I wrote about my lovely perambulation through the UC Garden, complete with a “Secret Paths” tour.  It was magical. And while the garden at Tilden is smaller and is solely devoted to plants native to California, it is no less enchanting. Here are just a few of the plants that captured my attention: the towering Humboldt Lily (I have never seen lilies that grow so tall–I had to aim upward and zoom in to take the photo), the aptly named Fried Egg Flower (Romneya), and an unknown fern.

We passed by the Berkeley Rose Garden right around lunch time–a hard time of day to take photographs unless there is a bit of shade somewhere–but here is a lovely magenta rose whose name I never discovered, and an overview of the garden itself, which is set amphitheater style into the hillside:

Photo of the Month: July 2013 (Japanese Holly Fern)

31 Jul

Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum). Bright green foliage against a dark background, from the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley.