Friday’s freaky flower

Having now depressed my Michigan colleague with my earlier post, here’s a little lighthearted fun for the long weekend:

This photo is from Brandi at Fine Gardening.  Can you figure out (1) what it is and (2) why it looks like this?

Monday’s photo will reveal more, and we’ll discuss the second question in more detail.

Have a great holiday – enjoy yourselves!

Hues of hydrangeas

Hydrangeas are in full bloom this time of year.  I snapped these photos yesterday of several hydrangeas, all planted along the same strip of land.  Just look at the different colors:

Why so many colors? Most of you probably know that genetics play a role, as does soil pH.  But there’s much more to it than simple soil chemistry and genes.

1. pH:  Strongly acidic soils produce blue hydrangeas, while slightly acid to slightly alkaline soils favor pink or red flowers.  Soil pH can be modified by adding lime to raise soil pH or ammonium sulfate to acidify the soil.

2. Aluminum: Aluminum, a toxic heavy metal, is required for blue hydrangeas. Like other metallic elements, aluminum binds tightly to clay particles under alkaline conditions. As the pH becomes more acidic, aluminum becomes soluble and can be taken up by plant roots.

3. Nutrients: Relative concentrations of phosphate, nitrogen, and potassium have significant impacts on the uptake and activity of aluminum.

4. Pigments: Blue hydrangea flowers depend on the formation of a complex among three partners: an anthocyanin called delphinidin with a sugar attachment, a phenolic acid co-pigment, and aluminum. Co-pigment differences among species and cultivars will influence flower color.

And here’s an interesting factoid about hydrangeas: ever notice that they are rarely bothered by insects or other animals? Accumulation of a toxin like aluminum in their tissues may be the reason.

Lamb’s Ears Revisited

A bit more on my recent travels to the big floriculture conference in Columbus, Ohio.  I always try to make it out to the Chadwick Arboretum & Learning Gardens, on the campus of THE Ohio State University. There are several components, including trials, a large arboretum, and several small gardens.  My favorite is the Steven Still Perennial Garden. It’s a lovely mixed garden, designed by Adrian Bloom (Blooms of Bressingham), and was installed in ONE DAY by their garden volunteers – 2005, I think.

Watching it grow has been fun. I noted [ with pleasure] that they’ve already had to start cutting back and removing some things. This makes me feel better because I am The Queen of Planting Too Close

A few highlights:

I thought of y’all when I saw
this…remember our conversation about Stachys the other day? Here’s a
new one on me: Stachys byzantina ‘Silky Fleece’.   What teeny, tiny
little leaves! And seemed to be limiting itself to a small area on the
edge of the border. Introduced in 2006 by German seedmeisters Jelitto
Perennial Seeds. They missed the boat on naming it…could have all kind
of fun with ‘Little Lamb’ or even ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’ as the director
for their North American office is Mary Vaananen. Heh.

My foot is just in there for scale – I’m really not that inept a


A gorgeous flock of Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’.  Hardy to Zone 4, the foliage is golden in summer, blazing apricot in fall, a wonderful shrub accent in any garden… What? Hang on a sec.

That’s Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ PP16,185. Trade name is First Editions® Tiger Eyes® Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac. Well, that took all the fun out of it.

Moving on…

Belamcanda chinensis – Blackberry or Leopard
Lily.  A tough cookie, this midseason bloomer takes drought and even
reseeds a little bit in my home garden. The pods burst open to
reveal a cluster of seeds that look exactly like a blackberry. These
weren’t quite that far along, but in between flowering and seed setting, they
do something else interesting..

The petals twist up into these hilarious
little bundles. I have no idea why or what for. Just kind of neat

All for now!

What’s New?!

Just back from OFA – my discipline’s humongous tradeshow and conference in Columbus, Ohio. All things Floriculture – new perennials, annuals, and seasonal plants, technology, structures, and equipment for greenhouses, and plants and products for floral designers. The bulk of the show and educational sessions is focused on growers, but garden center owners and florists are also targeted.  I was part of two team talks for growers on “Perennial Production Problems and Solutions”.

Aside from the thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, it’s like a big family reunion for floriculture faculty involved in teaching, research, and Extension. We introduce our latest graduate student to our own back-in-the-day classmates and our “old” major advisors. Beers are consumed. We’ve come to determine that we’re quite inbred; most floriculture researchers and educators received degrees and/or are employed by Michigan State, North Carolina State, Purdue, U. Florida, Cornell, or Minnesota. Many of our collegues have left academia to R&D positions in the horticultural corporate world, the conference also gives us a chance to catch up with them.

One of the highlights of OFA is the amazing array of new plant introductions from industry leaders such a Ball, Ecke, Syngenta, Dummen, Proven Winners, etc. Most of these names are not familiar to gardeners – they are wholesale (business-to-business) brands that provide growers with seeds, plugs, and liners, to be grown on and sold at retail. Proven Winners is one of the few vertically-integrated brands that market throughout the supply chain, from grower all the way to the consumer.

‘Gryphon’ – an exciting new begonia from PanAmerican Seed.

There are a slew of begonias out there – so what’s so special about this one (besides reaching almost 2′ in height and width)? Most fancy-leaf begonias are propagated by rooting vegetative cuttings that wholesale for $0.50 to $1.25 per liner.  This one’s grown from seed ($0.05 per), enabling the grower to produce a beautiful plant yet still make a decent profit margin.  The margin in our industry is ridiculously miniscule – wholesalers seem to constantly undervalue their product compared to all the costs involved in growing and shipping.

But I digress. I’ll post more from the “hot and new” front in ornamental plants on my next installment!

The Other Lamb’s Ears

I’m assuming even you tree people (aka other
Garden Professors) are familiar with the soft, silvery leaves of Stachys
or Lamb’s Ear (variously Lamb Ears and Lamb’s Ears).  Not to
disparage S. byzantina, but in our part of the world it looks like a
pile of wet dryer lint in the winter; and can become similarly
disfigured during a hot, wet summer.  Spring brings bright,
pet-able new ears, followed by woolly flower spikes that could serve as
Q-tips for Shrek. Runs/reseeds like a banshee in my home garden.
Dr. Allan Armitage notes, “We’ve been lamb-eared to death.”

But there are several other species of
garden-worthy Stachys, one of which is garnering lots of attention in
our campus garden at the moment. Behold, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ – Wood Betony or Alpine

Also sold under S.
and S. densiflora. Most nurseries seemed to have settled on
S. monieri
, but that specific epithet does not appear in the ITIS
(Integrated Taxonomic Information Systems) database. Armitage lists it as a cultivar
of S. officinalis and then has S. monieri as a separate species.

Regardless of pedigree, ‘Hummelo’ is a terrific perennial.
Clumps of glossy green scallop-edged foliage are topped with
spikes of rosy-lavender flowers throughout the summer. Heat- and
cold-tolerant; it’s hardy from Zones 4 to 8. Full sun or part shade,
drought tolerant, deer resistant…what’s not to like?

Back to the ubiquitous version of lamb’s ear…we
have a superior selection of S. byzantina with the fabulous cultivar
name of ‘Countess Helene von Stein’. Rarely flowers, and has bigger, tougher leaves that hang in there regardless of humidity. Very effective
when barked at students with a Teutonic accent: “Countess Helene von
Shtein! You vill learn dis plahnt!”  You may find this in
the U.S. under the comparatively boring ‘Big Ears’.

Flower demystification

As Paul suspected, this is a Phalaenoposis flower.  Here it is again, shown next to another flower on the same plant (but different stalk):


As to the second question – why does it look this way – there could be a number of reasons.  I’m leaning toward environmental.  This particular flower stalk is an old one – after it had bloomed initially (with normal flowers), we left it on after the flowers fell.  As often happens, new flower buds appeared, but all of them have been abnormal.  Some were completely fused and never opened.  This one is missing most of its petals.

Other reasons could include viral infection (as Sheila suggested) or somaclonal variation (common in tissue cultured plants, which is how many orchids are propagated).  But this flower stalk is perpetually colder than the rest of the plant as it’s closest to the window.  And since its first crop of flowers were normal, I think this variation is due to cold temperature interference during flower development.

If you have other ideas, be sure to post them!

Every survivor has a story

It’s been suggested, not unfairly, that the Garden Professors are sometimes a little ‘Tree-Centric’.  As a forester and tree physiologist by training, I’m probably the guiltiest among my co-conspirators on that count.  But occasionally I do notice things less than 10’ tall and lacking a single, woody trunk.


When weather permits I like to take my lunch down to the MSU annual trial gardens behind my office here at the Plant and Soil Science Building.  Every summer the annual gardens are awash with the color of impatiens, geraniums, petunias, and other annuals.  This time of year, however, it’s bulbs that steal the show.  This spring there was a display of bright pink tulips that was especially striking.  Wandering by the beds recently I noticed a tag in one corner; ‘Susan Komen mix’.  For those that aren’t aware, Susan Komen lost a long, brave battle with breast cancer in 1980. The foundation founded by her sister, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is the leading advocacy and fundraising group for breast cancer awareness and research in the US.  Komen for the Cure also provides services and advocates for our country’s two and half million breast cancer survivors.

In many ways, tulips are a fitting symbol for breast cancer survivors and the brilliant pink show made me think of a cancer survivor I know, my college girlfriend, Lisa.  I remember learning about her cancer nearly two years ago.  We had followed our own paths after our undergrad days and contact was sporadic as we each set out on careers and started families.  I missed her at our 30th high school reunion but found her number in the reunion directory and rang her up. The words hit like a punch in the stomach, “I underwent breast cancer surgery and treatment this past winter.”  I was stunned but in the next instant knew her trademark grace and humor were still intact.  “Yeah, when the reunion notice came out I had just lost both my boobs and all my hair.  Ya know, I just wasn’t up for all the ‘Hi, how are ya’s?’”  Today, Lisa remains cancer-free though after-effects of radiation treatments linger.  Through the wonder of Facebook we now keep up on each other’s awesome and talented kids.  She’s looking forward to two year’s cancer-free in July and then the all-important 5-year mark beyond that.

So, what does all this have to with landscape horticulture?   My friend and colleague Art Cameron concluded a talk at our Master Gardener College last Saturday with a quote: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”  So much of what we in do horticulture is an expression of our faith in the future.  When we plant tulips in the fall we know they must endure dark, cold days each winter in order to bloom the next spring.  Breast cancer survivors and their families have to endure more than their share of darkness to see brighter days. We’ve become a society obsessed with instant gratification and the old cliché ‘stop and smell the roses’ seems trite and shopworn to a lot of folks.  But gardens connect us to the earth and to each other and provide the perfect place to take time and reflect on things that really matter.

According to the American Cancer Society nearly one in eight women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime.  To learn more, read breast cancer survivor stories, and to support breast cancer research go to

Visiting Professor guest post: Native wildflowers

Recently I have been fascinated by the native wildflower field I planted last fall.  Although I seeded it with the same mixture of seeds (mixed with sand to spread them evenly), you can see that we have clumps of different flowers throughout the area.

Figure 1. Descanso Gardens, California

The area where the wildflowers were planted had several 1-2 foot raised mounds; some were in the shape of keyholes.  These were built with silty sand from a nearby seasonal stream that had some erosion problems in a rainy year.

Small differences between the temperature, moisture, light and soil on the different parts of each mound have favored different species of wildflowers.  In one of the keyholes, I even found some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), a species I had not seeded that favors wetter areas.  If I sampled for insects, I bet I might find a similar patchy distribution as well.

As an ecologist/biologist, I am really fascinated by the way that species diversity can be affected by topography, climate, moisture, and soils.  As a gardener, I like that I could create conditions that favor different plants just by moving soil around.  Plus I think that the waves of color are lovely as well.

Rachel Young is the head of the California Garden at Descanso Gardens, just outside Los Angeles.  She has an MS degree in Ecology and Evolutionary biology from UCLA and lectures on various garden and horticulture related topics.

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…