Plants for winter interest: Going for the Gold

Winter appears to have a death grip on the eastern half of the U.S. for the second year in a row. The thermometer on my car read -6 F on my way into work this morning; with lows of -5, -11, and -2 predicted for the latter half of the week. And to my Northwest friends that have been out mowing their grass already, may the bird of paradise fly up your nose. At this point I don’t even remember what my lawn looks like.

Evergreen conifers provide one horticultural escape from the winter blahs. But evergreens don’t have to be green. One group of conifers that can brighten up a winter landscape are yellow or golden conifers. I will acknowledge these plants are not for everyone. But when sited properly (avoid winter sun is a common admonition among conifer buffs) and used judiciously (a little yellow goes a long ways) these conifers can add a contrasting element that can set off a garden. Note: Hardiness zone and size based on the American Conifers Society Conifer database.

pice orietnalis skylannds2
Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ (Skylands Oriental spruce) Zone 4. Size: Large (> 12” per year). This tree is a guaranteed show stopper. The combination of the narrow upright form and golden needles is tough to beat.

picea orientalis firefly
Picea orientalis ‘Firefly’ (Firefly Oriental spruce) Zone 4. Size: Intermediate (6’-12” per year). Firefly was selected as a sport off of ‘Skylands’ and is a recent introduction from Iseli nursery. So if you like Skylands but don’t have room for large conifer, this could be for you.

Chamaecyparis pisifera   'Flilifera Aurea  '
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’ (Golden thread false cypress) Zone 5. Size: Intermediate (6”-12” per year). This a tough plant that can make a good contrast specimen or can also serve as a foundation plant.

C.p.f.a. as a foundation plant MBG
Golden thread false cypress as a foundation planting at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Picea pungens lutea
Picea pungens ‘Lutea’ (Golden Colorado spruce) Zone 4. Who says blue spruce have to be blue? Lots of concerns with blue spruce in the Midwest these days (more on that in later posts), but if you’re in an area where blue spruce are still doing well, this is an option for a winter bright spot.

Pinus contorta  'Taylor sunburst'
Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s sunburst’ (Taylor’s sunburst lodgepole pine) Zone 3. Ok, I’m cheating a bit here – the yellow comes on the new growth in the spring and then turns green. ACS database lists as a large conifer but I think they are referring to the straight species. When I have seen this plant it’s more in the intermediate range (6” – 12” per year).

Organic insecticides that will get you high

papaversgetyouhigh

Plants are crazy chemical factories, synthesizing a whole host of compounds that we use for flavoring and dye and medicine and… getting high. And why are they making all these chemicals? They’re certainly aren’t doing it for our sake… no, quite often they’re trying to kill something – usually insects — and it just so happens that sometimes our brains and bodies react differently enough that instead of killing us, they make us high. Well, and sometimes they kill us too.

Nicotine, the addictive force behind cigarettes, is a potent natural insecticide. if you’ve heard of neonicotinoids, the pesticides that some are concerned with in relation to honey bee health, they’re synthetic insectides based on the chemistry of nicotine, and like it, they effectively kill insects. No word on if anyone has tried smoking them yet.

Opium poppies are full of a thick latex loaded with chemicals like morphine and codeine, to name a few, which are obviously used as pain killers, and of course opium is taken directly or processed into more potent forms like heroin. The research on these chemicals indicates multiple possible functions, acting to prevent damage by herbivores (like insects), and possibly also acting to prevent pathogen damage and maybe even a more structural function in strengthening cell walls in response to damage  (see: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/np020583l) I didn’t find any research looking directly at opium’s ability to kill insect pests. Probably because that type of research is usually aimed at a practical solution to pest problems, and even if heroin proves to be a potent insecticide, I doubt anyone would issue and extension bulletin recommending you use it to control your whitefly…

But that lack of practical application didn’t stop a researcher from publishing a paper titled  Cocaine as a Naturally Occurring Pesticide in which they found that cocaine was highly effective in killing tomato hornworm! Organic growers, take note! Maybe THAT’S why organic tomatoes are so expensive at the farmers market…

In any case, it is fascinating to note all the interesting, sometimes useful, often dangerous chemicals that have evolved thanks to the on-going chemical arms race between plants and the things that try to eat them. We’re the accidental beneficiaries – and sometimes victims – of that very, very old battle.

You CAN grow it, but is it worth it?

As winter sets in here in Michigan, I’m seeing gardeners deploying winter protection. Like this, which I saw on a visit to Hidden Lake Gardens with some friends recently:

pinus contorta Chief joseph covered

Well. Isn’t that attractive? Come around to the far side, and you see this:

pinus contorta Chief joseph

Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ which is a stunningly beautiful conifer, green in the summer, this brilliant shade of gold in the winter. Sadly, those gold needles are also incredibly prone to turning a less brilliant shade of brown if exposed to too much winter sun and wind. Hence the ever-so-attractive sun-and-wind shade they’ve installed here.

Call me old-fashioned, but the point of a garden is to be pretty, and though you CAN wrap delicate shrubs in burlap or upend styrofoam cones over tender roses or even (yes, I’ve seen it) put little roofs over your hardy succulents to keep excess rain off of them, but is it really worth it? For me, if I have to put something ugly on my plants to keep them healthy, it isn’t worth it. In my garden, I’d lean towards something else I also saw on that visit:

Chamaecyparis obtusa Crippsii

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’ No, it isn’t quite as stunning as the pine… but it will grow and not turn brown, with no fuss.

What about you? Are there plants you are willing to make your garden ugly to keep happy?

 

Cool plant of the day: Canary Bellflower

I’m such a plant nerd that a few years ago I actually decided to get Canarina canariensis, the Canary Bellflower, for no other reason than that it is one of the very few members of  the campanula family that has red-orange flowers instead of the usual purple-blue ones.

canarina 2
Canarina canariensis
A Platycodon showing much more typical coloration for this family
A Platycodon showing much more typical coloration for this family

Okay. Maybe that isn’t the most normal reason to add a plant to one’s garden, but I am VERY happy I did.

Canarina canariensis
Canarina canariensis

That color!

I’ll admit, it isn’t a plant that is particularly well adapted to life here in Michigan… as the latin name suggests (twice!) it is native to the Canary Islands off the West coast of Africa, where the climate is consistently dry, fairly cool, but never freezes. The summers are extremely dry, with a short rainy season in the winter. And the Canary bellflower has adapted to that by dying back to the thick fleshy roots in the summer, and then sending up the long trailing stems and flowers in the winter when the rains come.

That isn’t ideal for growing here in Michigan, but I’ve found I can get it to grow here pretty easily, actually. It is growing and blooming like crazy right now, and once it gets cold, I’ll move it inside, and let it dry out. As the soil dries, the plant goes dormant, so it can sit there patiently until spring and more settled weather when I can water and set it off into growth again. It works, and though it is a bit more work than most of the other plants I grow, it is worth it. I like looking at the lovely flowers, and speculating about the unique evolutionary path that caused this one genus to develop orange flowers while the rest of the family largely stuck with the tried-and-true purple.

A Little Woodland Wonder

What’s that bit of green poking through the fallen leaves and forest duff? You’ll have to crouch down to get a good look at Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). A mere 3-5″ tall, this teensy shrublet from the Ericaceae family (blueberry, azalea) has little oval leathery leaves, often mottled with purple or brown. A few urn-shaped pink to white flowers appear in early summer are followed by bright red berries. The berries persist well into the winter and help to distinguish it from similar-looking seedlings of mountain laurel or deerberry. When in doubt (or to clear your sinuses), break a leaf in half and inhale deeply. Yes, this humble little plant is the source of methyl salicylate – wintergreen oil – one of the active (though now synthetic) ingredients in IcyHot, Ben Gay, and other lifesaving remedies. Though non-scented versions are now available, that distinctive aroma alerts those nearby that you are an ATHLETE. Or perhaps just getting older*. Another common name is “teaberry” – hence the name of Clark’s chewing gum, flavored by the same compound.

Wintergreen is native throughout the Appalachians from north to south (USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8). Despite the pungent scent, when the acorn supply is low, deer will turn to wintergreen as forage. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and others snack on the little red wintergreen berries, also redolent with the oil, and presumably have the freshest breath in the animal kingdom. In the garden, wintergreen does best in the shade of deciduous trees in acidic soil rich with leaf mold. Add wintergreen to the long list of N. American natives that have become wildly popular overseas but are under-appreciated here — it’s one of the top-selling nursery plants in Europe. Mix it up with Hellebores and hardy cyclamen to add some wildlife-friendly winter interest in the woodland perennial garden.

I can't find my own darn photo at the moment, but here's Gaultheria procumbens courtesy of Hedwig Storch and Wikipedia Commons.
I can’t find my own darn photo at the moment, but here’s Gaultheria procumbens courtesy of Hedwig Storch and Wikipedia Commons.

*Speaking of older, honk if you remember the “Teaberry Shuffle.”

We’re baaaaaaack…scary plants and all!

ouch!

Just a quick post to try out the new system. Very exciting
Here’s a Halloween-week treat: Solanum pyracanthum – porcupine tomato. Not hardy, very poke-y. Deer don’t mess with it. Native to Madagascar and available through Annie’s Annuals or by seed from several sources. Photo taken in my friend Elissa’s fabulous garden, right before frost last week.

Neon continued!

I’ll follow Bert’s highly informative, thought-inducing post with something not statistically significant. Hey, it’s summer.

My last post on ultra-bright “neon” plants had a comment from Sarah…

“I saw some iresine in a local garden center the other day, sun coming
through it at just the right angle, and the shade of blazing pink that
came through was basically every Barbie accessory I ever had. It just
seemed wrong somehow. Took a picture of it with my phone.” 

Aside from a hilarious (and insightful) comment, she included a URL to her photo.

It’s so good I had to post it. The pink plastic-y glow is amazing.


Fab photo by Commenter Sarah of Iresine herbstii – chicken gizzard plant

I had to greatly lower the resolution so that the system would let me post it. At full size and resolution, it almost hurts to look at it.

Incidentally, I’ve always thought “chicken gizzard plant” was a bit of a misnomer. I’ve seen really fresh chicken gizzards, and Barbie would NOT want accessories in that particular shade.

 

Neon for your garden

Was wandering through Target on Monday for the first time in months.

Helloooo!? The 80’s called and wants its neon crap back.

Didn’t care for it then and certainly don’t care for it now. Though there is the increased safety factor of being highly visible at all times, whether in sunglasses or underwear.

But never mind my lack of style.

It made me think about a few plants that, if the light is right, certainly display that glowing, saturated color, found in the “Astro-Brite” pack of copy paper usually reserved for yard sales and such.

Close to dusk, the Kniphofia uvaria ‘Echo Mango’ in our garden stands out from 100 yards away.  Bred and selected by Richard Saul of Atlanta’s ItSaul Plants Inc., it is one tough perennial, taking heat and humidity with aplomb.

My experience has been one big early summer flush of blooms, with some significant reblooming until frost.  Best in full sun, it’s also drought tolerant and cold hardy to USDA Zone 5. It doesn’t get whopping huge like some other Kniphofia do – stays a nice manageble size, topping out at 3′ to 4′ tall.  ‘Echo Mango’ (or any other Red Hot Poker) adds a terrific bit of vertical interest to an otherwise mound-y mixed border.  Best with fellow warm colors. Pink, not so much.


‘Echo Mango’ = glowsticks!
Achillea ‘Paprika’ doesn’t go so well with it.  Mental note to relocate it in fall.


You can almost hear the sound of space lasers…
Eeee-yoooooo-eeeee-yoooooo…or maybe that’s just me.

 

 

Sheep-eating flowers?!

I was planning to follow up on Jeff’s phosphorus post with a bit more “phun with phosphorous.” However, I was completely derailed by Ray Eckhart’s message and link left for me on our GP facebook page with this headline:

RHS ‘sheep-eating’ plant about to bloom in Surrey

“The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) at Wisley said the Puya
chilensis
, a native of Chile, would bloom in the next few days and last
about a week.

In the Andes it uses its sharp spines to snare and trap sheep and other animals, which slowly starve to death.”

“The animals then decay at the base of the plant, acting as a fertiliser.”

[Dear BBC News: “Snare” and “Eat” are not really interchangeable]

How…have I not heard of this before.

I’ve posted previously on my Puya fixation. I asked readers to bet on how long it would take for me to kill my wee Puya bertoniana, mail-ordered from Annie’s Annuals.  I am happy to report that it made through the winter (greenhouse) and is now sunning itself on our deck.

Now this really ups the ante – it captures sheep!  Maybe P. bertoniana isn’t as robust as P. chilensis though. Perhaps…a vole or rabbit?