Cactus grafting fun

I’ve been grafting cactus this summer, and made this:

grafted cactus

It is a seedling of the gorgeous hardy cactus Echinocereus reichenbachii, grafted onto Pereskiopsis spathulata, an odd, leafy cactus I wrote about earlier.

Why do this? Other than the fact that it is darn cool? Well, because that vigorous, fast growing rootstock pumps a lot of energy into the cactus grafted on top, making the grafted cactus grow a LOT faster than left on its own roots.

grafted cactus startThis is a (terrible, blurry) picture what the graft looked like when I first made it back in July. Just three months later it has grown to enormously, while the seedlings I left on their own roots look pretty much the same. I’ll let it grow on the graft for a while, then probably next year some time, cut it off, and move it into the garden, getting me to a reasonably sized plant in a reasonable amount of time.

So… if you want to speed up the growth of a pokey cactus, try grafting it. The process is crazy easy, lots of fun, and very thoroughly explained here.


Pretty in Pink

It’s October. Fall is such an underrated time in the garden, and much pink can be found. In fact, flashes of pink are everywhere!! Got my ma’ams grammed last week; thanks for the reminder, NFL.

Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingo’.
Aye yi yi. Alleged hybrid between M. capillaris and M. lindheimeri. Five feet tall and as wide, huge plumes of pink. Looks like nothing important the rest of the year, then, blammo!!! Sorry, folks north of Zone 6. Actually, it only works here  (Z. 6a) because of outstanding drainage; it’s planted in a pile of gravel. Mine has lived through two winters with -20 F days.  Place where the sun will rise or set behind it for maximum effect. Bunny the Whippet not included.


Salvia involucrata – Rosebud Salvia
Big ol’ gal that will not favor you with blossoms until September. Absolutely not hardy here, or anywhere north of Zone 8.  Take cuttings, ’cause baby she’s worth it. The furry, hot pink flowers will thrill any hummingbirds left zipping around (I read ours the riot act this weekend, they have GOT to hit the road soon). Note there is some hullabaloo as to S. puberula vs. S. involucrata vs. some hybrid amongst the two.  Will report back.


Chrysanthemum x whatever ‘Venus’ .
Am so tired of the taxonomic uncertainty. ChrysanthemumDendranthemum…  Whatever you call her, ‘Venus’ is a wonderful “real” garden mum (not those heinous meatball things) that brings the pink blooms in September, then fades to palest of pink, but not before every bee in the neighborhood visits.  Fairly compact (2-3’) and pretty darn hardy (Zone 5). Tuck Venus amongst things you know will be done before fall – bee balm, phlox, etc. to keep the show going!


So there you have it, some pink for our October gardens.  In loving memory of my sister Carlene.

Allelopathy Helps Black Walnuts Compete

A walk through the woods can be one of the most peaceful and calming experiences — a place where you can find quiet for reflection and marvel at the beauty of nature. Little do most people know that some plants, especially one specific tree, wage chemical warfare against other plants to keep away potential neighbors that would compete for nutrients and sunlight. In the Appalachian Mountains, the tree most skilled at chemical warfare is the black walnut.

The black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) is a useful, yet often misunderstood tree. Prized for its excellent wood qualities for lumber and furniture, the nuts it produces are either loved or reviled by those who try them.

The flavor of black walnuts is hard to describe. I would say that they have an almost astringent flavor, mainly due to the high level of tannins in them. They aren’t my favorite, but I don’t mind them either. I’ve learned to accept them, unlike during my childhood when you knew which church lady’s cake to avoid at the potluck because you knew that she put black walnuts in everything she baked.

My appreciation for black walnuts grew the year that I was the official nut judge (no joke) for the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, WV. It was quite an experience — examining and weighing all the entries with a team of high school FFA students who cracked more than a few inappropriate jokes about the situation.

You could tell when someone was picking or cracking black walnuts, thanks to the tannin stains on their hands that just wouldn’t wash off. Black walnuts are a tough nut to crack (literally), so I also remember my grandmother cracking them “the easy way.” She would just pile them up in the driveway and run over them a time or two with her behemoth of an Oldsmobile (you know, the one that had full seats front and back and could hold half the neighborhood).

Black walnut trees have the interesting ability to excrete a chemical called juglone, which makes it nearly impossible for a number of plants to grow anywhere in its root zone. Juglone works by damaging the tiny root hairs on roots that are responsible for taking up a great majority of the water and nutrients the plants use. Research shows that it also interferes with the interaction of the roots with mycorrhizal fungi that aid the plant in taking up nutrients.

This process is not just specific to black walnuts. There are several other plants that do this. The phenomenon, called allelopathy, occurs when an organism excretes something that inhibits the growth of other things around it. You could equate it to the Penicillium fungus excreting a chemical that kills bacteria around it. We harness that chemical to use as penicillin.

Some plants are especially sensitive to the chemical. Many vegetable plants, especially tomatoes, are sensitive. Some plants, mainly those that would grow wild in the woods, are not susceptible. Many grasses also have a hard time growing beneath black walnut trees (tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass being the exception, except during periods of drought).

Publication with lists of plants tolerant and damaged by juglone

All parts of the tree produce the juglone chemical, so the effects could spread beyond the perimeter of the tree from fallen leaves and branches. I would also suggest that you make sure any fresh woodchip mulch that you use (specifically that from local tree cutters) is free of black walnut. The juglone may break down after composting the wood chips for six months to a year, but I would still be cautious about its use. The wood will release the chemical, killing susceptible plants for a few years in the area where it is applied. Studies suggest that juglone will break down during the composting process, but I would check to make sure by starting a few tomato seeds on the batch of compost to see what happens.

—Garden Professor John Porter is a county extension agent for West Virginia University and writes the weekly Sunday garden column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail Newspaper.  This article was originally published October 2, 2015.

You can find John’s writing at and on Facebook and Twitter.

Top Ten Trees and Shrubs with Great Fall Color


Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in full fall color
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in full fall color

As promised in my Sept. 9 post of “The Science Behind Fall Color”, I would address trees and shrubs with outstanding fall color. It was hard limiting it to only ten trees and ten shrubs, so I cheated a bit and grouped the maples, oaks, etc. into one group so that my list was not entirely all maples.

'Robin Hill' apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Robin Hill')
‘Robin Hill’ apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’)

I have seen the below plants with reliable fall color in northern, southern and eastern landscapes. These plants “light” up the landscape in autumn. For outstanding, long lasting autumn color, plant the below trees and shrubs with herbaceous plants which bloom in fall such as asters, mums, sedums, monkshood, toad lilies, and Japanese anemones. Do not forget ornamental grasses with their showy seed heads extending the season of color and texture.

Sweet birch, cherry birch (Betula lenta)
Sweet birch, cherry birch (Betula lenta)

We used to recommend ash for fall color, but not any more due to emerald ash borer. Japanese barberry and burningbush are tops for fall color, but both species are highly invasive and not recommended. There are more plants with great fall color than the ones below. I would love to hear your favorites!


Top 10 Trees for Fall Color

1) Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), orange-red, scarlet to purple, outstanding

Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

2) Maples, especially:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), bright yellow to orange-red

Red maple (A. rubrum), yellow, orange-red to bright red

Freeman maple (A. × freemanii), yellow, orange-red, red to reddish-purple

Paperbark maple (A. griseum), dark red to bronze

Japanese maple (A. palmatum), orange, red to purplish-red

Korean maple (A. pseudosieboldianum), deep orange to reddish-purple

Three-flower maple (A. triflorum), orange

Full moon maple (A. japonicum), yellow-orange to scarlet-red

Moosewood, striped-bark maple (A. pensylvanicum), bright yellow

3) Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), bright golden-yellow

4) Thornless honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis), bright golden-yellow

5) Quaking aspen, trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), bright yellow

6) Oaks, especially:

White oak (Quercus alba), dark red to wine

Red oak (Q. rubra), red to russet

Scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), red to scarlet

Black oak (Q. velutina), dark red

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

7) Apple serviceberry (Amelanchier × grandiflora), yellowish-orange to red

8) Buckeyes, especially:

Yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), golden-yellow to orange

‘Autumn Splendor’ buckeye (A. × arnoldiana ‘Autumn Splendor’), deep, burgundy-red

‘Homestead’ buckeye (A. × marylandica ‘Homestead’), orange-red

9) Birch, especially:

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), bright yellow

Sweet birch, cherry birch (B. lenta), bright yellow

Paper birch, canoe birch (B. papyrifera), yellow

10) Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), bright yellow to gold


Top 10 Shrubs for Fall Color

1) Large and dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla major and F. gardenia), yellow-orange to red, outstanding

Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major)
Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major)

2) Common and vernal witchhazels (Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis), bright yellow to golden-yellow

Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis)

3) Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), dark reddish-purple

4) Black and red chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa and A. arbutifolia), red-orange, wine-red to purple

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)

5) Sumacs, especially:

Shining sumac, winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), bright red to scarlet

Prairie Flame® shining sumac (Rhus copallinum 'Morton')
Prairie Flame® shining sumac (Rhus copallinum ‘Morton’)

Staghorn sumac (R. typhina), orange to scarlet

Smooth sumac (R. glabra), orange to scarlet-purple

Fragrant sumac (R. aromatica), orange, red to purple

6) Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), reddish-orange to wine

7) ‘Tor’ birchleaf spirea (Spiraea betulifolia ‘Tor’), orange to reddish-purple

8) Viburnums, especially:

Withe-rod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides), orange-red, crimson to purple

Blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium), reddish-purple

Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum), depends on cultivar, yellow, red to purple

American cranberrybush viburnum (V. opulus var. americanum, formerly V. trilobum), yellow to reddish-purple

Doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum), wine-red

‘Wavecrest’ Siebold viburnum (V. sieboldii ‘Wavecrest’), red to burgundy

9) Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus), deep reddish-purple

Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)
Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)

10) Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), deep reddish-purple



Laura Jull, Ph.D.

a.k.a.: The “Lorax”

“Lazy” corn and gravitropism

Inspired by Linda’s post about thigmomorphogenesis, I decided today I would add the word gravitropism to your vocabulary. It simply means growth in response to gravity. Shoots of plants grow up, because they are negatively gravitropic, they grow against the pull of gravity, while roots are positively gravitropic and grow down towards the pull of gravity.

And why is that so important? Well… this is what happens when gravitropism is missing.


To the left is normal old corn. The plant to the right was not sat on by a raccoon or anything, it simply has a mutation in a gene called lazy plant1. I’m not kidding. That’s the official, scientific name for this gene. Geneticists have fun with their names, though fruit fly geneticists are for sure the kings of silly gene names. This gene got that name because, as you can see, without a functioning copy of that gene, the corn plant no longer can detect the pull of gravity and so flops down in a “lazy” manner.

This corn is just odd, of course, with no real value (though it was fun to grow) but similar mutations are what give us some of the “weeping” or trailing forms of popular ornamental trees and shrubs.

Your new word for the day: thigmomorphogenesis

I just finished reviewing 4 manuscripts for three different journals and boy is my brain fried. My private reactions ranged from “I can’t wait until this one is published!” to “If I were to use sheet mulch this manuscript would be my first choice.” Anyway, it was the latter manuscript that got me to thinking about what can go wrong with experimental design, which brings up today’s word: thigmomorphogenesis.

This is a great word for those who enjoy figuring out word meanings by deciphering the (usually) Greek or Latin roots. (This exercise also helps you figure out how to pronounce it.) We have “thigmo-” which means touch, “-morpho-” which means appearance, and “-genesis” which means beginning. String them all together and you get the phenomenon seen when plants respond to mechanical stimulation by changing their growth pattern and hence the way they look.

Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.
Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.

You can easily see examples of thigmomorphogenesis in everyday life. Look at a line of hedge plants where the plants on the end are more susceptible to wind movement and brushing by people, animals or vehicles. They are always shorter, aren’t they? Plants subjected to chronic thigmomorphogenic forces are generally shorter than their neighbors and thicker in girth. (For a longer discussion about how thigmorphogenesis works, you can read my online column.)

How does all of this relate to experimental design? Well, think about what happens if you are testing a product that requires applying it to the leaves of plants once a week. Your treatment plants are touched every week. How can you know that any changes in your experimental plants aren’t due to being touched? The way you eliminate this source of variability is by treating all of the plants the same way. When you are applying the product to the treatment leaves, you apply water (or whatever the solvent is for the product in question) to the control leaves. That way thigmomorphogenesis remains just an interesting tongue-twister and not a fatal design flaw in an experiment.

Mitchella repens … Partridge Berry … an Evergreen Native Groundcover for Shade


Partridge Berry in its Natural Setting

One of the questions that came up regularly when I was working the hotline at the local county Extension office, is a recommendation for an evergreen ground cover for shady spots.  I had the same issue when I created my own shade garden … something that would have year round interest, but complement my desire to emphasize native species, although that was only one consideration.

The solution was literally right next to me, as a walk in my woods revealed with the lovely plant Partridge Berry, or Mitchella repens.

Not only is Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens ) beautiful, evergreen, shade-loving, and native to Eastern North America, but there’s also a fascinating aspect about its flowers and fruit, from a botanical, and evolutionary point of view.

According to the U.S. Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers website, the “… genus name Mitchella was given to this plant by Linnaeus for his friend John Mitchell, a physician who developed a method of treating yellow fever. The species name repens refers to its trailing or creeping habit.”


Here’s the part I found fascinating: The plant is dimorphous, meaning “occurring in two forms”:

In late spring, two beautiful white flowers (with one calyx) each open their four petals to entice insects to collect their nectar. Each blossom has one pistil and four stamens. The pistil in one is short and the stamens are long. In the other it is just the opposite. … Because of this no flower can fertilize itself–all flowers must be cross-pollinated by insects, and both flowers must be pollinated to get a single healthy berry. A berry will stay on the vine until after the blooms appear in the spring unless a hungry bird finds it nestled among the fallen winter leaves.

How cool is that?  The twin flowers produce, together, only one berry.


Here’s a closeup, where you can see residual evidence of the fusion.  The berry is edible, and persists through the winter, assuming it is not consumed by “ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, sharp-tailed grouse, and prairie chicken.

The fruit is also “frequently eaten by raccoons and red fox” and it has been reported that “partridgeberry made up 2.9 to 3.4 percent (dry weight) of the summer and fall diets of white-tailed deer.”


Here’s a picture of the two flowers in bloom.

It’s easiest to spot the plant in its natural setting while hiking in late Fall, or early Winter before snowfall, or early Spring after snowmelt.

Back to the Forest Service article:

Some gardeners consider Partridge Berry a must for winter gardens. During the cold days of late winter Partridge Berry is a treat to the eyes with its deep, dark-green leaves and occasional scarlet berries. In a garden setting this evergreen prefers shade, accepting the morning sun. Partridge Berry is extremely difficult to propagate from seed.

The best way to introduce this native into your garden is through 1 year old cuttings or by division. In the garden situation they will form a thick, substantial ground cover. Once established they are relatively trouble free with the only required maintenance of keeping garden debris from covering the mats.

As always, do not wild collect plants from public lands and only from private lands when the landowner grants permission. Partridge Berry is a commonly available plant from native plant nurseries especially those who specialize in woodland plants.

I love the symmetrical variegation in the evergreen leaves, a bright, light yellow line bisecting each leaf, and the delicate, less visible veins.

It’s a great alternative to Vinca, an introduced species from Europe that appears on invasive species lists in our area.

A Google search will reveal many potential on-line sources for buying Partridge Berry plants, or check with a local nursery, or independent gardening center in the native plant section.