I’m Saving Myself for Pollination

Let’s take a very brief respite from the socio-religious implications of science, soil testing, and compost tea to ponder a more lighthearted topic. I need a bit of a morale-boost.

You: “O.K. Holly, Spring’s allegedly coming…how about a closer look at some wildflowers?”

Me: “Done!” (fingers snapping)

For a short time in March, forest floors across Eastern North America can be absolutely littered with a multitude of sparkling white flowers.  This very cool little plant, Sanguinaria canadensis, is one of the first wildflowers to emerge in the spring and colonizes deciduous and mixed woodlands.

Flock of bloodroots, open for business at the fabulous Mt. Cuba Center.

A member of the Poppy family, Sanguinaria is a monotypic genus; that is, there’s only one species.  Commonly known as Bloodroot –  mostly.  However, S. canadensis is also known as (and I quote):   Bloodroot, Red Puccoon, King Root, Red Root, Red Indian Paint, Ochoon, Coonroot, Cornroot, Panson, Pauson, Snakebite, Sweet Slumber, Tetterwort. Large Leaved Sandwort, Large Leaved Bloodwort, plus whatever else Aunt Minnie “knowed it by”.

As one of the first wildflowers out of the ground, it’s still darn cold when the Bloodroot flower appears, and they’re quite protective of their private parts. The one leaf emerges at the same time and cups around the flower, helping to protect the fragile blossom from wind, rain, and snow. The petals also close up at night to save the pollen,since in most locations it’s so cold that few insects, save the occasional fly or beetle, are out and about. And as a last resort, they can just “do it themselves”, better described as self-pollination.

I have been pollinated! Victory is mine!

If you break off a stem or piece of the root, out will ooze a reddish-orange juice, hence the common name.  It’s been prescribed for myriad conditions by Native Americans and herbal practitioners.  One of the more interesting properties is that the sap is an escharotic – it kills tissue. Ironically, according to herbal lore, to draw love to you, wear or carry a piece of the rhizome. If attempting this bit of magic, maybe it’s best not carried in one’s pants pocket.

A Public Service Announcement (of sorts)

File this under “short-sighted acts of government”. What, that cabinet is full to overflowing? 

In the wild world of U.S. Land Grant Universities, faculty appointments can consist of varying ratios of “the three missions”:  Teaching, Research, and Outreach.  The Cooperative Extension Service is the formalized version of outreach.  Three of us Garden Professors (Linda, Jeff, and Bert) have Extension appointments. I personally do so much outreach with both gardeners and industry that everyone thinks I’m in Extension, so I’ll consider it an honorary appointment.  

Extension does so many fabulous things for so many people, space does not allow me to even get started.  It’s not “plows and cows” anymore – urban areas receive amazing benefits in terms of environmental education, programs for K-12 (e.g. 4-H), family and consumer services, and big push over the last decade in urban horticulture.

Among all the programs Extension administers (and there are loads), the program I’m most partial to is Master Gardeners (MGs for short). I instruct training sessions, and give gardening talks across the state.  Once trained, MGs provide gazillion volunteer hours at no charge to the state, in areas as diverse as consumer horticulture to school gardening. Our campus garden utilizes volunteer hours from MGs on nearly a weekly basis

Hang in there, I’m getting to the point.

Cooperative Extension has been prone to budget cuts for quite a while now – for most states, the fat was long ago cut away, and further cuts are going straight to the bone. Imagine the alarm when out of the blue yesterday came an email update on the state’s legislative issues and actions, most of which are actions on our huge budget shortfall:

Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) & Agriculture Research Stations
Introduced Budget: Reduction of $1.1 million in FY1; reduction of $4.5 million in FY2
House Budget: Mandates a restructuring of VCE: Closes offices in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Prince William, City of Richmond; Consolidates [an additional] 13 offices [moving to a nearby county]; Eliminates Family & Consumer Services, Community Vitality, and lawn/garden programs statewide leaving an emphasis on agriculture programs outside the urban corridor. Savings of $2.5 million in FY2.  Senate Budget: No change from introduced budget.

This proposed budget would effectively close down Extension in (by far) the most heavily populated areas of Virginia – Northern Virginia, the Richmond area, and the Virginia Beach area.  

From Dave Close, our Virginia MG Director, comes these figures:

“Statewide in 2009, our more than 5,000 VCE MG volunteers reported in excess of 334,000 volunteer hours (at a value of $6.76 million) and more than 577,000 contacts. We have right at 60 individual MG units that provide coverage of 85% or so of our counties and cities statewide.”

Dave goes on to note more good things that MGs are involved in:

1)      Environmental quality (air, water, and soil; rural-urban interface concerns such as wildland fire and how it can impact personal property and what to do to mitigate against the potential threat of wildland fire, etc.)

2)      Working with youth (school and community gardening programs for instance)

3)      Value of the landscape (economic returns from sustainably maintained landscapes – tax revenue from personal property, ecotourism, local economic development, personal savings realized from strategically planted trees in your landscape to reduce energy bills, etc.)

4)      Food safety and security (growing your own food, local food initiatives, farmer’s markets, knowing how to safely store and preserve the food you grow, biosecurity and dealing with invasive plants and pathogens, etc.)

5)      Quality of life improvement (working with populations with limited skills or abilities, working in detention centers for youth or adults giving them usable trade skills in the green industry, public health and safety issues such as mitigating against public health concerns such as west nile virus, etc.)

Now take a look at that House budget again – eliminating VCE in the most populated counties results in a one-time savings of $2.5 million.  2009 Statewide value of MG hours:
$6.76 million.

 I know many, many other sectors of public service and higher education are also in critical condition.  But cash strapped state or not, I’d call this cutting your nose off to spite your face.   

What Do Pork Products and Fruit Trees Have in Common?

This is one of those “random thoughts” posts…no professorial musings, plant geek gushings, or interpretations of useful research. And absolutely, positively, in no way, expressed or implied, intended to provoke a veg/carnivore controversy nor promote any particular product.

Just a simple question that occurred to me in the grocery store.

“WHERE is all this apple wood coming from?”

Google “apple wood smoked bacon” and get 689,000 results. Apple wood also frequently appears as “applewood”, orthographical conventions aside. We’ll just refer to it as AWSB for the duration of this post. Wendy’s is promoting their burger with AWSB all over the place. Kraft’s Oscar Mayer division recently released a new AWSB product nation-wide (according to the blog www.mrbaconpants.com) What used to be available only through specialty meat companies and at high-end grocery stores is now available everywhere.

Back to my question. That’s a lot of bacon to smoke.

Apples used to be an important part of the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern commodity mix. Arkansas had its own “Apple Belt”. These markets have experienced a fairly dramatic decline; much of U.S. production has shifted to Washington state. So are some of these out-of-production orchards the source of all this wood?

I may ask this question of some apple experts I know. Linda, I bet you’re up to your pits in pomologists at Washington State – see what they say (and I apologize in advance for the looks you’re going to get). Also – how much apple wood has to be used in the process to officially, legally, be considered AWSB? May have to pester a  food scientist.

The Glories of The Winter Greenhouse

I’m a Southerner. With a capital “S”.  Which is why I am Suffering, with another capital “S”. Here in the Blue Ridge mountains of western Virginia, we have officially surpassed Anchorage and Denver in total snowfall for the season. Today’s batch adds up to 24″ on the ground at our farm.

Blueberries in the snow. If one more person says “Probably good for all the insect problems,” I’m going to get violent.

The chickens are not happy. They’ve been cooped up (ha! I didn’t really mean to do that!) for 10 days straight. I myself suffer from cabin fever, limp hair, seasonal depression, and a persistent cough.

Hell no, we won’t go!

What keeps me from going totally nuts? Only the best $12,000 ever spent – no,no, not granite counter tops…it’s our very own greenhouse. This modest 24′ x 48′ polycarbonate sheet hoop house may not resemble a Victorian conservatory (you can get one of those beauties here), but it works like a champ.  Yes, we have greenhouses on campus for research and teaching, but that’s work; and pet plants are frowned upon.

Nothing beats your own private winter hideaway. My plant-diva-friend Elissa uses her crowded greenhouse for not only her immense plant collection, but also a festive (if cramped) happy hour.

As sleet pelts the roof, I’m surrounded by green: tropical plants dug up from the garden before frost and those “pets in pots” accumulated from hither and yon.  The humidity is wonderful – I can hear my skin go “aaahhhh” after a couple of hours.

Herd o’ Agaves and succulents. They’re perfectly happy with the cool temperatures – several are blooming.

I’ve dreamed of one for years; then finally took the jump 16 months ago. Again, it’s nothing a homeowner’s association would ever approve of; just a commercial-grade, heavy duty, Quonset-type production house. Stylistic concerns were sacrificed for square footage. The most common complaint from home greenhouse owners is “I wish I had built a bigger one.”

The other concern is heating costs. It has a propane heater, and propane’s not cheap, nor environmentally friendly. But we run it pretty darn cold – around 48 F night temperatures, which certainly helps. Are the tropicals thrilled? Not really, but they’re alive and hanging in there (however, the begonias are really grumpy right now).

Some PVC pipe + overhead misting + heating mat = broccoli spinach, and basil seedlings, happily germinating at a 75 F soil temperature, despite an air temperature below 50 F. Basil?! Yes, I realize I’m totally jumping the gun timing-wise here, made worse by the fact that I teach both greenhouse management and ornamental plant production (do as I say, not as I do!).

Yep, more fun than you can shake a shovel at!
I’ll take your questions, comments, and snowballs now…

All Right, Linda; I’ll See Your Paraheliotropism and Raise You a Nyctinasty

Amicia zygomeris is a cute little herbaceous thing I picked up on a visit to Plant Delights nursery back in October. For $13, I wanted to be sure it survived the winter, so it’s been in our kitchen garden window, just waiting for spring.

Soon after putting it in the window, I had an “oh no, I’ve killed it” moment one evening.  All the leaves were drooping, yet the soil was moist.  The next morning, it seemed to be back to normal.  The following night, droop city again.

Ah HA! Nyctinasty* at its finest – plant movements to the circadian rhythm.  Tropisms are growth responses, while nastic movements are just that  – reversible movements.  There are other “nasties” out there – photonasty is movement in response to light, hydronasty –  water, etc.   The classic example is Mimosa pudica – sensitive plant – the little leaves fold to the touch (thigmonasty).

Legumes are particularly prone to this – check out the bean plant flapping its leaves in time-lapse video at the “Plants in Motion” website (U. of Indiana Biology Department).  The movement comes from changes in turgor of the cells that attach the leaf petiole to the stem. This spot’s called the pulvinus – think of it as the leaf’s armpit.  What do plants gain from this daily spreading then folding of leaves? Folks have been pondering this for centuries. Darwin wrote about it in “The Power of Movement in Plants” (1880).  Though the biochemical mechanism has been discovered, I don’t believe any conclusions have been reached as to "why".  


Amicia zygomeris in the evening. The common name, courtesy of Tony Avent, is  “Gotta Pea". I am not making that up.

*BTW, Nyctinasty is also the name of a pop band from Manila. Must be a biologist or two in the bunch.

Mistaken Identity, or The Truth?

In the wake of The Garden Professors’ sudden notoriety (see Linda’s Jan. 26 post), my department head sent out a very kind e-mail announcement to our faculty, staff, and grad students. 

However, he referred to us as the "Hort Professors" blog, sans hyperlink. 

A curious staff member (the lovely and talented Pris Sears) searched that title, resulting in the following:

Hort Professors, Hot Professors…kind of the same thing. Thanks, Google! 

Learning to Grow

The best part of my job is teaching, especially the plant production course (kind of Floriculture and Nursery management rolled into one). Today all the students are back on campus, and it’s an energy infusion for me, after weeks of quiet and mountains of paperwork.  I made copies of the syllabus, and walked in to a class full of unsuspecting and slightly stand-offish students. They stared at the list of plants I handed them for the "crop lottery", where they draw for what they will be growing for the semester – from classic red geraniums to cutting-edge Colocasia (bartering is allowed for 5 minutes). They’re faced with the daunting responsibility of bringing a crop from propagation stage to market in a mere 14 weeks, on top of all the other work their class schedules throw at them. I must say, the indifference exuded by 19- and 20-year-olds can be palpable.

What I already know is that by the end of the semester, they will have…bonded over stacks of pots and wheelbarrows full of growing media; made 34 extra trips to the greenhouse to water and fertilize; critiqued each other’s growing skills and resultant products; quibbled over pricing their plants for the Hort Club Plant Sale; fretted over bud removal and pinching timing; freaked out over fungus gnats; and pleaded for another gorgeous hanging basket to take home to their family.  The joy of growing plants; of having a tangible, living, breathing (transpiring) thing to show for your academic efforts, is indisputably gratifying, as well as a hell of a lot of fun – especially when compared to chemistry lab. But I’ll let them figure that out.

Alicain Carlson of the 2008 class shows off her tropicals grown from tissue culture starts, all ready for the Big Plant Sale. She’s now a graduate student in Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University and hopes to pass all this on to her future students.

Baptisia: Beyond the Blue

The Perennial Plant Association recently released the identity of the PPA Plant of the Year – for 2010 it is Baptisia australis (False Blue Indigo).  Various blogs have noted this (including Garden Professor fave Garden Rant) and I’ve read some interesting comments, both pro and con.

True story: I asked for Baptisia at a small rural garden center years ago; the owner said “Don’t have any; but I think I have a Methodist running around here somewheres…”  Badda-bump.

Me? I think it is a truly wonderful native perennial. I’ve had great success with it in both Zone 7b and 6a and teach it as a “bread and butter” component plant for the mixed border. As a PPA member, it certainly got my vote on the last ballot (beats the hell out of last year’s Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ – hard to say and even harder to grow in the Southeast).

The great thing about the PPA “Plant of the Year” program is not just in the promotion of that particular species, but that it opens the door for other cultivars and hybrids.  Two of my favorites:  Baptisia x ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ [sic] and B. x ‘Solar Flare’. Both were bred and/or selected by that delightful genius Dr.Jim Ault, of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and introduced through the Chicagoland Grows program.  Pictured are plants that are have only one full year of growth after purchase and planting (nice full gallons to start with; from Saunders Brothers nursery, located in the greater metropolitan area of Piney River, Virginia).

x ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ is a cross between B. australis (our PPA winner) and B. sphaerocarpa – a shrubby, tough little guy with yellow flowers. This fortuitous romance yielded quite a jaw-dropping color combination of dusky violet with a yellow keel petal. These puppies are in our campus horticulture garden.

Now take a gander at B. ‘Solar Flare’ – a “complex hybrid, probably open-pollinated” of B. alba (white-flowered), B. tinctoria (yellow-flowered), and B. australis. This is what can happen when a whole bunch of species and hybrids are planted close together (cocktails and/or bees are usually involved). From my own garden:

Buttercup-yellow fades to warm apricot, then to plum – the thing absolutely glows in the late afternoon sunshine.  Gosh, I miss summer…


Post-holiday Poinsettia Fatigue

You’ve seen them. The saddest thing ever – a poinsettia, still in its little foil sleeve, tucked into the corner of the doctor’s office/bank/etc. In June. 
Photo courtesy of Beth Bonini http://beedrunken.blogspot.com
So iconic, there’s even a rock band in St. Paul called “Dead Poinsettia.”

Every year about this time, I get asked “how do I care for my poinsettia so it will bloom next year?” by friends, students, random callers, and random newspaper writers. 

Two words: Chuck it.

Four reasons:
1) Unless you have a greenhouse, you probably can’t replicate the growing conditions that resulted in that lovely, leafy, perfect plant. That poinsettia has been grown under optimal temperature, humidity, fertilizer, and high light conditions.  It’s also been sprayed with plant growth regulators – often multiple times, to keep the internodes from elongating.  Even with all the breeding for a compact habit, they still want to streeeeetch to be the shrubs/small trees their forefathers were back in Mexico.

2) Day length. Poinsettias are obligate short-day plants, which means they require a long dark period (yes, I know, why don’t they call them obligate long night plants) to become reproductive, resulting in red (or pink or cream) bracts and the little yellow flower-thingy in the center (the cyathia).  You can, of course, stick it in a dark room at 5:00 p.m. and remove it to a lighted area at 8:00 a.m., every day for the months of October and November.  Until you forget over that long weekend and leave it in the dark for three days…

3) Help stimulate the local “grower” economy.  Consumerist, I know, but wholesale and retail greenhouses grow poinsettias to keep their full–time employees working during what is otherwise a very dead time in the ol’ floriculture business.  Seldom do these businesses make much of a profit on poinsettia; the plan is to keep everyone busy and generate a little cash flow.  Now, some growers/garden centers go above and beyond the usual 6” red point, with unusual cultivars in a range of colors and sizes, hanging baskets, poinsettia “trees”, etc.  This has proven to be a great strategy for some enterprising growers.

4) Poinsettia = total whitefly magnet.

In light of the above, I recommend enjoying your poinsettia until the leaves start dropping…then once it reaches the “less than fresh” stage, add it to the compost pile. Next season, go to your local independent greenhouse or garden center and buy a new one.  Finally, if you are one of the hard-core, stick-with-it types that has been successfully reblooming the same poinsettia for three years running, congratulations! You have much, much more patience than I do.

Disclaimer:  My Master’s research was on poinsettia and the effects of nitrate- N:ammonium- N ratio on growth thereof.  Five treatments x 6 replications x 3 cultivars = 90 poinsettias, off of which I picked every leaf and bract to run through a leaf area meter. The latex oozing from the petioles made for a gloppy mess and the whole process took five days.  Even 15 years later, I can barely look at a poinsettia without cringing. Pleh.


The Garden Professors Take a Holiday Break

Linda, Jeff, Bert, and Holly are taking a break.  We shall return full-force January 4th. Note that there MAY be sporadic, interim postings if one of us gets significantly riled up. Subscribers to our RSS feed will be duly alerted.

My “greeting card” below was inspired by Jeff’s post on the insulating powers of snow.  We here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virgina have about 14″ of insulation at the moment!

Finally, thank you to all our wonderful Garden Professors readers and commenters – you made our first six months so fun and rewarding!