Saturday, November 28, 2009

Energizer Bunny Borage

"There remaineth one necessary thing...
which in my Opinion makes as much for Ornament, as either flowers, or forme, or cleanness...which is Bees, well ordered."
~ William Lawson,
New Orchard and Garden 1618

I’ve mentioned in my profile that I am a beekeeper. I have one hive in my urban garden.  I love seeing honey bees buzzing around and pollinating my flowers, but mostly I have to walk a few houses down the street to find legions of my bees gathering nectar and pollen in my neighbor’s yard. I’m happy to share so I don’t intend to duplicate her garden in mine, but one day she mentioned my bees had been all over her Borage for weeks. Well, I knew nothing about Borage but I just had to get some of that!

So I looked it up. Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual that grows to two feet tall. It comes to us from Corsica, N. Africa and Europe. It is speculated that the name borago came from the Latin burra meaning “a hairy garment”. Hmmm….I wonder what it means by that? It reportedly grows in sun or shade, wet or dry conditions, and tolerates poor soil. Sounds pretty fool proof to me. The leaves are supposedly slightly cucumber tasting and flowers can be used as edible garnish. Even better! I like to be able to eat what I grow.

So I ordered a seed packet from along with my vegetable seeds order. I planted 4 seeds in March indoors in 4 small pots. All four came up and three survived. I planted the seedlings outdoors, one in the sun, two in semi-shade. They grew quickly and began flowering, beautiful true blue single flowers. And sure enough the bumblebees and my honey bees found the flower’s sweet nectar in no time. The taller the plants got the more leggy they seemed, but the one in the full sun was better. Then they needed staking…I very much dislike staking, but did it anyway, for the sake of the bees of course. Then after a wind blew through a few of the stems broke down. More staking and trimming, grrr. And on and on it went till I gave up the tiresome staking and just let them break down. I figured I’d be ripping them out when I got around to it but the bees still came to the flowers, even the flowering branches lying on the ground. As I removed the damaged stems I noticed lots of fresh new shoots coming from just below any damaged area. The plants just kept going and going and going, rejuvenating themselves!

Since I just left them alone, they have become nice and full and still blooming even now in November. That’s one energized annual! I wonder when they’ll quit. The few hard frosts we’ve had haven’t fazed them at all. Last month I noticed a humming bird sipping from the flowers too.  And I gave up trying to save all the seeds this plant produces, so I’ll be hoeing seedlings for sure. It is a prolific self seeder!

Were you wondering still about that “a hairy garment” comment? Be forewarned, the leaves do taste cucumber-ish but are so furry, they are unpleasant to chew on. Every bit of the plant except the flowers are covered with soft spines.  The flowers are a true blue color, a rare find in garden plants. Mostly ‘blue’ plants are on the purpley side, and some gardeners search high and low to include true blue in their garden scheme. Give borage a try.

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Photo's courtesy of Pat Chissus

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Day For Cannas

It takes a while to grasp that not all failures are self-imposed, the result of ignorance, carelessness or inexperience. It takes a while to grasp that a garden isn't a testing ground for character and to stop asking, what did I do wrong? Maybe nothing.
~Eleanor Perényi, Green Thoughts, 1981

I spend some of my time volunteering at my local municipal greenhouse. There they grow the plants for the city’s park gardens, conservatory and create the huge hanging baskets that line some of the main streets. At the greenhouse this was Canna week.

Cannas are native to the tropical and sub-tropical Americas and West Indies. South Americans reportedly used the rootstock for food. They are grown for their fantastic foliage and flowers and some species can grow to over 6 feet tall. Leaf color can be green, bronze, maroon, orangey, solid or striped.

Three to four weeks ago the cannas that jazzed our city parks were dug up to make way for fall plantings. They were then piled up outdoors and covered with permeable cloth at the greenhouse. We’ve had a few hard frosts here which blackened the leaves, so the time was right to prepare them for winter storage. They’ll be replanted in spring when the gardens are designed for summer color.

While others tended the poinsettias, my task was to cut off all the Canna’s foliage down to the rhizomes (tuberous rootstocks) and place them on wire racks to dry out for winter storage. It was pouring buckets that day, so I was a muddy mess pronto.

Around here, Cannas are normally hardy. Most people leave them in the ground or pots. Last year was my first year to plant Canna in my garden. I bought Canna indica from Their catalog reports it is a Canna from the Indies introduced to Europe 400 years ago. The leaves were reason enough to have it…bright green and looked just like a banana leaf, but the red flowers intrigued me more. Indica’s flowers look so delicate, unlike the typical Canna and are reportedly a hummingbird magnet. Planted in late April, it came up too late in the spring for the flowers to form but the leaves were fabulous! A must have for the leaves alone, I am hooked. What a statement they made in my garden which has mostly medium to small leafed perennials.

To get it safely though winter in the ground, after cutting down the leaf stalks, I filled a small garbage can with leaves and turned the whole lot upside down over the rhizome. It worked great, as in the spring I could easily find the firm, white rhizome. So I waited…and waited…till June and it never came up! I dug around and found a rotted brown mass of fiber where the rhizome had been. Somehow it had disappeared. Boo hoo! I was so looking forward to having it again and seeing the flowers this time.

So I bought another, this time Canna ‘Ermine’ pictured here.  It also has big stately green leaves but with a white flower and butter yellow throat. It was wonderful too. Last week I dug it up after frost blackened the leaves. This winter I’m storing the rhizome in the garage so it won’t freeze, but cold enough to become dormant and I will plant again in spring. I don’t know anyone around here who dig or lose their Cannas over the winter but I don’t want to lose mine again. It’s been a long time since I considered anything worth digging, storing and replanting, but I’d like Canna back again next year.

Do you grow Canna? Are your winter temps not optimal for its survival? Do you dig it to save it or plant new every year? If you’ve never tried one I encourage you to give it a go next spring. If you mail order you’ll want to get your orders in now for best selection.

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photo

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are You Latin-o-phobic?

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
-- Cicero, 106-43 BC

Do your eyes glaze over when gardener-geeks use those mind numbing Latin sounding names for plants? Believe me, I know that look. I’ve received it many times. Do you prefer names like creeping jenny, candy tuft or love-in-a-mist (aka love-in-a-puff)? Ok, well I agree the common names may be easier, cute and even historically quaint, but they are not really all that helpful in a plant search since common names do not usually jump regional lines. Even within the USA, ‘star creeper’ can be the name for several different plants, depending on your locale. And when your friend in the UK just raves about the delightful Busy Lizzie in her shady garden borders “and you’ve just got to get some luv”, unless she can identify them by their botanical name you’ll be hard pressed to find American nursery staff who can lead you to the Impatiens. Busy Lizzie, Policeman’s Helmet and the like are just not helpful names if you are trying to find at the nursery exactly what your long-distance friends rave about in their gardens. More helpful is to use the scientific names which are recognized world wide, no matter what language you speak.

Lest you think me a plant snob and immediately jump to another blog, please understand I’m not calling for an end to common names. I’ve read many an article defending their use and historical significance. I’d simply like to see them used in tandem with their scientific universal counterparts. In my opinion, any gardening magazine and catalog worth its salt will identify plants with both the botanical name and the common name together.

Scientific botanical names are referred to as “Latin” but really are mostly comprised of Greek and Latin, with some from other languages and some personal names of those who ‘discovered’ the plant or hybridized it. Greek and Latin, in the 16th and 17th centuries were the languages of the educated and intellectuals of Europe, so it was the language of choice when the universal classification and naming of plants became serious business. You don’t have to become fluent in Latin, just understanding how the system works is a step in the right direction. The scientific botanical nomenclature is simply a system of various levels of classification. Not so simple is understanding it in its entirety, but here’s the basic idea.

Each plant, based on structural characteristics is assigned to a family. For example the Lily family is Liliaceae. You don’t see the family name very often so don’t be too concerned about it.

Within the Liliaceae family are further divisions called genus, narrowing down the similarities even more. The genus is the first Latin name of the plant that you usually see on a plant’s tag or in a magazine. It is always capitalized and is treated as a noun. In the Liliaceae family we find the genus Hosta, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Convallaria (Lily of the Valley) and many others. All three of these plants belong to the Lily family, but they are so different from each other, you can see why they have been separated into their own genus.

The genus is followed by a second word, the species name. It is not capitalized and is in the form of an adjective to describe the noun or explain a property of the plant. Species names may tell us where the plant originated, or what the leaf or flower looks like, or which conditions it likes to grow in, or the shape the plant will grow into and more. For instance lancifolia means lance shaped leaf (long, narrow and pointy). So my Hosta lancifolia (lance-i-fo-lee-a) is a hosta with lance shaped leaves, not ovoid leaves. Or the second word can be the name of the person who created it through hybridization, or ‘discovered’ the plant in it’s native habitat and brought home it’s seeds, divisions or cuttings. For example Viburnum carlesii (karlz-ee-eye) is a Viburnum that was discovered and developed by plantsman W. R. Carles.

Sometimes there is a third name denoting a subspecies or variety, further describing a property of the plant. And finally a fourth name would be a cultivar name. A cultivar name will be in quote marks, is capitalized and is a variety that has been cultured or produced by human hybridization. For example, the shrub Ceanothus gloriosus exaltatus ‘Emily Brown’ is a Ceanothus that is superb (gloriosus), grows very tall (exaltatus), and is the cultivar Emily Brown. Ceanothus horizontalis is a low growing species. The Ceanothus dentatus  has toothed leaves.

Isn’t that cool? See how descriptive the species names are? Once you get used to seeing and deciphering them, they can be really informative. And for us English speakers, much of our language has its roots in Latin and Greek so many of these words are not too hard to figure out. What do you suppose tardiflora means? Late flowering!

Gardener’s Latin, A Lexicon by Bill Neal and Barbara Damrosch is a book that has taken much of the confusion out of trying to make sense of botanical Latin for me. Like a dictionary, it is an alphabetical list defining many of the species names you’ll see on plant tags, and is also full of humorous and interesting botanical facts and folk lore. Sadly for gardeners everywhere this book is now out of print but used copies are available. I found mine at or your local bookseller may be able to find a copy for you.

Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes is another gotta have book that lists the Latin family, genus and species names, their meaning and pronunciation. I think both are indispensable.

To audibly hear pronunciation you can go to and find their link there.

I hope this has taken the intimidation factor out of botanical Latin for you. There is truly a wealth of information in it. Give it a try!

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Coreopsis, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum
 Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photos

Thursday, November 12, 2009

World Wide Gardening

It’s important to take care of your little patch of earth no matter where you are.
-Jamie Durie

“The Victory Garden”

I have great news! My garden has gone global!

I have many visitors to my garden blog from USA’s coast to coast, which is so cool in and of its self. My visitors garden in cities in New York, California, Colorado, Michigan and Washington State to name some, and recently from Shiraz, Iran! I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have all of you as my gardening friends. It feels like all of our gardens combined create one extended global garden.

Having a visitor from Iran started me thinking about gardens around the world and I wondered how far Shiraz is from the site of the Garden of Eden. So off to my atlas I went and found that Shiraz seems to be close to the vicinity, at least from my perspective which is oceans away. What a spectacular garden Eden must have been. Genesis documents its location to an area encompassing a river that branches off to feed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This would put it in modern day Iraq, near the Persian Gulf. What is gardening like where you are in Shiraz? Do you have moist, tropical conditions like Hawaii and other Pacific islands? Or do you have dry conditions where Palms, Agaves, Cactus and Salvias thrive like our southern states and Mexico and Central America? Does Bougainvillea cover your walls in glorious color? Do you have Jasmine fragrance wafting in your breezes? Is it too dry there for native orchids? Perhaps you have an abundance of aromatic herbs and grasses. What kinds of vegetables do you grow in your family gardens?

Many of the plants we enjoy in North American gardens have come from the Middle Eastern region. For instance, Tulipa turkestanica is a native of Turkey (note the second word, ‘descriptive’ name), likewise the ‘fall crocus’ Colchicum autumnalis, pictured above in my garden, come to us from the Greek and Turkish regions.
Many of our drought resistant herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender come from the dry, sandy Mediterranean Sea coastlines. I read articles relating how these shrubby herbs are prolific on rocky cliffs and sandy shores.

I also am reminded of the many botanical explorers and plant collectors, past and present who travel the globe for intriguing plant species compatible to their own regions. They make the world a little smaller, allowing us to enjoy flowers and plants in our gardens that come from far away places. You may have met some of these plant collectors at the nurseries when reading the tags of the plants you pick up. For instance, if you picked up a pot of Camellia williamsii, you held in your hand not just any Camellia, but an effort and passion of the plantsman Williams. Many of us know a Camellia, but here the second word is the name of the person who either ‘discovered’ the plant in its native habitat and brought home seeds or cuttings, or it’s the name of the person who created it through hybridization. This particular Camillia was created by a plantsman named Mr. Williams who crossed Camellia japonica (‘japonica’ = originally found in Japan) with Camellia saluenensis. That word ‘williamsii’ (pronounced william-see-eye) is like his signature on his piece of art. I’ll write more explaining Latin botanical names in a future post because once studied it becomes really informative.

In reading this blog we all have an opportunity to share our gardens with each other around the globe. So let’s grow this garden blog into one vast global place of beauty. Visit me often, write to me your thoughts, tell your friends about it. The world may not be at peace, but we can create peace in our own world through our gardens. By planting in our individual outdoor spaces, or volunteering at our local botanical gardens, we can create places of serene beauty for ourselves and those who visit. Are you with me?

In bloom in my garden today: Abyssinian Gladiola, Borage, Eupatorium ‘chocolate’, Daphne, Coreopsis, Rose, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum, Gauara, Fushia, Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis, Alyssum.

Food ready for the birds: Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photo