The last two winters have been pretty brutal on my citrus trees. Their winter home is the enclosed, but unheated, south facing entrance foyer. Usually, this is a perfect spot. Sunny, and with temperatures usually in 45-60 degree range. But when the polar vortex brought record cold to the Mid Atlantic region back in February, they were hit hard, and I had my doubts that this 13 year old specimen would survive.
But it bounced back pretty well, after a season in the sun, so I figured it should be rewarded … I’d give it a new home, replacing its split container … and document the process here.
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.
I admit it. I can’t keep up … I’m not as industrious as most of my gardening friends are when it comes to the effort necessary to manage my 6 acre landscape.
It can get overwhelming, especially when there are previous beds that came with the property that had been neglected for 10 years or more by the elderly lady who owned the property before us, and where perennial weeds are well established.
I make a valiant effort in the Spring, with all the enthusiasm of the new season to clean them up … dig the perennial weeds … plant something new (usually a division, or a naturally layered specimen, from elsewhere, or one shared from friends), but by mid-July or so, I have to redirect my efforts to the places that I’ve created … the shade garden … the rock (mostly sedum) garden … mulching the new trees and shrubs, and of course my tomatoes, so these previous places don’t get the attention they deserve.
But then again, some surprisingly beautiful, and beneficial results can happen in spite of (because of?) the neglect …
The Goldenrod (Solidago) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissimaI think) now dominate, along with Sweet Autumn Clematis (C. terniflora), a non-native introduction that appears on watch lists as an invasive species in our area.
Yet look at the insect life. Scads of hoverflies (some species of Syrphid), who in addition to their role as pollinators as adults, are voracious consumers of aphids in their larval stage.
Garden Gem is a new hybrid, poised to take the fresh market grocery store tomatoes on. Same disease resistance, same shipping quality, but with much improved flavor. Dr. Klee describes the research at his site:
The first step in a flavor improvement program starts with a simple question: what do people like and what’s in the varieties that people do like? In order to answer this question, we took a giant step back to “heirloom” tomatoes.
Blush has been around for a few years, an open pollinated variety with a great history of breeding, since 8 year old Alex was instrumental in choosing its parent lines.
The year that the cross that created Blush was made, Alex participated in setting up crosses for our annual winter crossing list. He chose 3 of the 19 crosses to be made that year, after the other 16 had been established (by a PhD-holding plant breeder with big plans). The striking outcome is that about 90% of the value from that year came from Alex’s 3 crosses. The progeny from his crosses continue to permeate most everything we are doing.
Both have something in common in that one of the progenitors for each is a variety called Maglia Rosa.
Note also the meatiness of Garden Gem … I think it will make a great all-purpose variety for the home gardener for canning and sauces, as well as fresh eating.
Another aspect, which you can’t tell very well from the picture of Garden Gem, is the faint yellow striping in the skin, and some later fruits that have a hint of a nipple on the blossom end.
Next up, another Garden Gem, followed by Maglia Rosa, and then Green Tiger. See hints of vestigal “nipple” alluded to earlier in the Garden Gem.
Cute little feller … a Currant Tomato. Actually, a different, but very close relative, and source of much research and study, since it still grows wild in the Andean mountains … PITA to pick, but great “conversation piece” when used as a garnish. Solanum pimpinellifolium
We grew these as part of a variety trial a few years back … more for the novelty. But when we did a Brix test that year, it was the highest recorded.
A little odd, since the flavor is not in the least “sweet” … coulda been just more concentrated. Dunno, really.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green. One of my long term favorites. It’s a more tangy than sweet heirloom variety that stays green when ripe.
Green Zebra … an open pollinated variety bred by Tom Wagner and introduced in 1983 according to Wikipedia.
Green when ripe, and with yellow striping. Dunno why most of mine this year are exhibiting a lobed shape, rather than perfectly round.
I may have to buy new seeds next year.
Another hybrid from the research lab of Dr. Harry Klee of the University of Florida. This one is named Garden Treasure.
I don’t have any information about its progenitors, like its companion Garden Gem.
Beautiful, baseball-sized fruit. Very slight indication of green shoulders, and with the same faint yellow stripe as Garden Gem. Also a heavy fruit, very meaty.
And very good flavor. Pretty good balance between tart and sweet. I can see these being popular with fresh market growers.
I sourced the seeds from Dr. Klee’s efforts by making a small donation to his research program at the University of Florida. The idea was brought to my attention by his colleague, Dr. Kevin Folta in this blog post.
We can look forward to new, satisfying varieties that merge the best of production traits with the historical successes that delighted the senses. These are new heirlooms, and they open an exciting peek of what is coming in plant genetic improvement.
Here are more details of the story and the individual varieties! I hope you order some seeds and give your feedback to Dr. Klee so he can build your ideas into the future of tomatoes!
I often complained about the flavorless red things that you find in grocery stores, so here was a way to support researchers working to overcome that.
And Dr. Klee is not alone. Rutgers University went about restoring the old fresh market hybrid varieties that gave “Jersey Tomatoes” their deserved reputation.
Unfortunately, at that time, honeybees were being devastated by an invasive species … the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), and the amount of effort needed to keep colonies free from them discouraged me, and the message I was getting from experienced hobby beekeepers was one of “be prepared”, and “I’m, regretfully, giving it up because of the effort involved.”
Basically … too much work … not something I was willing to commit to.
But I never lost my fascination with them (and other bees and wasps, for that matter.)
Then in 2006, I started hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it was while researching it, that I found the site of Randy Oliver, a biologist who also made his living beekeeping.
I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology. In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings.
In 1993, the varroa mite arrived in California, and after it wiped out my operation for the second time in 1999, I decided to “hit the books” and use my scientific background to learn to fight back.
The site is not a beginner’s “how to”, but a way to share what he has learned with others:
What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper.
(If you’ve been following my blog posts here, then you’ll probably recognize the pattern of places that rise quickly in my judgment, as ones I like)
The site has become my “go to” source for all things related to honeybees, and I recommend it to others who want to stay abreast of the subject.
The subject of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, first came to my attention sometime in the fall of 2009, not long after I started following the Garden Professors Blog.
I stumbled across a site called Biofortified, run (at the time) by a couple of grad students in the field, who were trying to accomplish the same thing that the GPs were, combatting myths and misconceptions about a subject, with research based information.
I spent about 2 years lurking there, because much of the information at the time was over my head, and seemed to be targeted to fellow scientists to help with getting the information out.
So I’m incredibly pleased to introduce you to the blog of Dr. Layla Katiraee, a scientist in a related field, but with little to no experience at all with the topic of GMOs, so spent time learning about it and sharing what she learned with the public.
So, the spouse has often complained that I don’t have a post with an overview of what transgenesis means and the transgenic (GMO) crops themselves. They’re scattered throughout the history of this blog, but not in a single place.
What does this mean? To explain, I have to go to the beginning: the working units within any cell are proteins. Proteins are made up by linking together amino acids in a given sequence. The exact amino acid sequence is defined in the cell’s DNA; the DNA blueprint for a specific protein is known as a gene for that protein. In general, one gene encodes for one protein (of course, there are exceptions). Since there are thousands of proteins, there are thousands of genes. We’re still figuring out what different genes/proteins accomplish.
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to safety. In our example, we have to select an aspect of water safety that we want to examine: health impact, water transportation, water treatment, proper water storage, etc. For our example, we’re going to select “health impact”.
Then, we have to come up with a null hypothesis. Spouse, I know that it’s counter-intuitive and the double negatives in these statements suck, but unfortunately, it’s a key aspect of this whole article. The baseline for much of research is that there’s no impact or no difference. It’s the researcher’s responsibility to disprove that hypothesis, ie. to show that there is a difference or that there is an impact. So for our exercise, our hypothesis will be “Drinking water does not cause cancer”.
So follow her blog, FrankenFoodFacts, or follow her articles elsewhere on Biofortified, or her Twitter feed, and gain some better understanding about the science behind GMOs.
Sometime in the last twenty years or so, the word “chemical” has become a dirty word. Hard to pronounce words. Unnatural synthesized substances. Mad scientist concoctions brewed in a laboratory.
I used to try to introduce some perspective when I facilitated pesticide workshops for the general public by teaching how scientists and regulators determined toxicity, so comparisons between familiar substances, like caffeine, aspirin, or detergents could be made, to varying degrees of success.
It was the “unnatural synthesized substances” part that I had the most difficulty overcoming.
James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia noticed the same problem, and started a blog and outreach effort, using infographics to illustrate the chemical make up of familiar fruits and vegetables.
As a high-school chemistry teacher, I made these posters for my students as a visual introduction to our organic chemistry course. I want to erode the fear that many people have of ‘chemicals’, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab.
The success of the basic chemical makeup posters led further to include the evolutionary history of fruits and vegetables from their wild ancestors, as explained in this Brad Plumer article at Vox.
Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago, as generation after generation of farmers artificially bred crops to select for more desirable traits like size and taste.
But that change can be hard to visualize. So James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, created some terrific infographics to show just how drastic the evolution has been.