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Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebell


One of the most beautiful May blooming flowers is Mertensia virginica or Viginia Bluebells. The pink buds elongate into clear blue tubular flowers that hang amid oversize ovate to round shaped leaves. The leaves often grow to fist size or larger. They are a wildflower native to this area, but according to DNR a threatened species since a 1999 survey.

Luckily, because they are so lovely, many nurseries carry Virginia Bluebells, so gardeners can purchase plants. Besides blue, a white and a pink variety are known. According to many horticulturists, the plants are a necessary addition for every garden. After growing them, I agree, but they can need maintenance.

They are part of the Boraginaceae, a plant family known for its glaucous, or hairy, leaves and stems. However, Virginia Bluebells are hairless. Their wide, fragile leaves show they are shade-loving plants. A few hours of early morning light or late afternoon light is fine, or just filtered shade.

Mertensia also need moist, humus, slightly acid soil. If they like their location, they readily spread and reseed themselves, gradually forming a colony of plants. Once in place, leave them alone as they do not like transplanting. They spread and seed readily, and most likely to right where you don’t particularly want them. The first time I planted them, they died in the middle of the summer. I thought I would have to replace them, but like daffodils, Virginia Bluebells are ephemeral and disappear before summer is over. If you watch, after the foliage yellows but just before the plant dies, you will find little seedpods. Spread the seeds in a spot you would like them to grow.

To prevent digging them up after they die back you need to mark where they grew in your garden. To cover the empty space left by their early departure, grow them near plants that will fill the space as they grow, like Hosta or ferns. Annuals can also be interplant among the bluebells while they are growing.

Here is what I find interesting about Virginia Bluebells. I could not find one single legend, piece of lore or historical anecdote about them, not even the name Native Americans had for them. They are not used for food, medicine, or dye, and are not poisonous. Although I found one reference the Cherokee might have used them in herbal medicine, I found no corroborative accounts. So here is a plant loved and grown solely for its fleeting beauty.

This year I planted ‘Van Gogh’s Mix’ but only one variety of the mix came up. They finally bloomed this past week. I expected short, but they’re seven feet at least, but shorter and have a more pure yellow petal than the golden yellow of the Russian Mammoth I grew last year. They still provide exceptionally lovely flowers for the end of the season.

Everything in the vegetable garden had a hard time this summer. I’ll have to do some reading to discover why. The tomatoes are finally coming in. This seems to be the norm this year as I’ve talked to other gardeners. Perhaps the nights were too cool and the days too warm. Don’t know.

Nice sunflowers although I expected a wider variety.

Nice sunflowers although I expected a wider variety.

Catharanthus roseus, or Rosy Periwinkle

Catharanthus roseus, or Rosy Periwinkle


As a thank-you gift for judging a flower show I received a pot of Catharanthus (clear or pure flower) roseus (rosy colored), or Madagascar periwinkle or rosy periwinkle. I grew these in St. Charles as an annual and loved them. I don’t run into them that often here in Northern Michigan, but maybe I’m going to the wrong nurseries or not paying attention to the annual departments. I usually shop for perennials. My gift made me think maybe I need to shop better. Hybridizers have worked with this plant and produced the beautiful varieties available today. Warning: the sap can be poisonous. This means when children are around, you need to be extra careful they do not pick or eat the flowers.

Catharanthus roseus makes a colorful display from summer to fall for border or container plantings; sun or lightly shaded areas suit them best, but they perhaps needs a longer growing season than available where I live. I’ve read where they are very slow developing from seed, so planting outdoors isn’t an option here. Rosy periwinkle likes moist soil, not wet, soil and will tolerate dry. This generally means the plant lives on dry sites but looks awful. I left mine in its container and may bring it in this fall to see how it overwinters (not crossing my fingers).

Actually, Rosy Periwinkle (it was originally Vinca rosea when named in 1794), or whatever common name you call it, is a shrubby perennial in tropical and subtropical climates and is widely naturalized from its home habitat of Madagascar. European colonist introduced the plant throughout their travels partly because of its medical uses. WebMD “Despite serious safety concerns, Madagascar periwinkle is used for diabetes, cancer, and sore throat. It is also used as a cough remedy, for easing lung congestion, and to reduce fluid retention by increasing urine production (as a diuretic).”

In colder climates it is grown as an annual for its abundant five petal flowers of pink, red, or white with a deeper pink star in the middle.

The Kew Gardens pages stated “In traditional medicine, the Madagascar periwinkle has been used to treat a variety of ailments in Madagascar as well as in other parts of the world where the plant has naturalised.” Dr. Ombrello of the Union County College Biology Department in Cranford, New Jersey gives this astounding information:

The plant’s therapeutic uses came to the attention of Canadian and American medical researchers during World War II when they learned that soldiers stationed in the Philippines used Madagascar Periwinkle leaves to substitute for unavailable insulin. During the 1950’s… the researchers found them to have no appreciable effect on blood sugar levels, but they did reduce the white blood cell count in laboratory animals without significant side effects. More recently, 2 alkaloids in Madagascar Periwinkle leaves, vinblastine and vincristine, were identified as active anti-cancer agents that could be used in chemotherapy. Vinblastine is used for patients with Hodgkin’s disease and vincristine is used for children with leukemia. With the introduction of vincristine, the survival rate for children with leukemia jumped from 20 to 80 percent.

They also mentioned that during WWII soldiers in the Philippines used the plant to control diabetes when insulin was in short supply. I had no idea anyone with diabetes would be inducted into the army, so there was a surprise.

While a beautiful plant, its potential as a medicine makes me think about our many different ecosystems and what grows there. If we destroy even one habitat, make one plant extinct, we might well be destroying a plant with great potential for human well-being.

My daylilies were just beautiful until I placed the last post on eating Hemerocallis buds. The deer took me up on my challenge and ate all the buds off all the stalks of all the daylilies along the drive. Such is gardening.

Have you eaten daylilies? To be clear this is Hemerocallis fulva and its kin, not lilies from the Lillium family. These ‘Ditch Lily’ daylilies have been very abundant in my garden this year.

H. fulva commonly called ditch lily, a wide spread non-native plant. Those buds in the background are what you want to harvest.

H. fulva commonly called ditch lily, a wide spread non-native plant, the buds in the background are what you want to harvest.


I sort of remember from a long time ago that they were edible, but never tried them and forgot the ‘fact.’ I ran across recipe information recently, and it came back to mind while I’ve been removing the spent blossoms on all of my daylilies. Standing there, sweating in the recent heat, I decided to go for it and nibbled some unopened blossoms. Didn’t drop dead or grab my stomach and moan. Nope. Hmmm; not bad. I thought my taste buds sensed a mild celery flavor without the harsh crunch or strings of that vegetable.
Although there is a definite texture, I thought it more radish like. I had some in my dinner salad. Tomorrow we may have sauteed buds: gently saute the buds in butter or olive oil, add salt an pepper to taste and put on the plate.

Anyone have other daylily recipes?

Daylilies in drive circle garden.

Daylilies in drive circle garden.

Narcissus 'Thalia'

Narcissus ‘Thalia’


Daffodils are another harbinger of spring flower; and as a symbol of hope and rebirth, the flowers are often used in Easter arrangements, but they’ve been used much longer than the Christian religious celebration. Archeologists have found Daffodils in ancient Egypt’s tombs and funerary wreaths. Is it any wonder so much lore surrounds these flowers?

The botanical name ‘Narcissus’ shows another symbol of the flower: unrequited love. In Greek myth, Narcissus was the vain young man who spurned the Nymph Echo; then while taking a drink from a pool of water, he saw himself and fell in love with his reflection – a lover who could never return his love.
thalia

Certainly many daffodils could represent the image of vain, self-indulgent youth, especially those with the look-at-me yellow flowers, or even those with more subtle colorings and shapes. Yet, if ever there were a Narcissus that represents the mythical young man of Greek lore, I would choose the daffodil ‘Thalia.’ The beautiful, pristine white flowers arch downward as if seeking their reflection and, according to Allan M. Armitage, are along with other daffodils in the triandus class, “Often called the angel’s tears daffodil” (Herbaceous Perennial Plants. Varsity Press, Athens, Georgia.1989. Page 421). Thalia’s scent is certainly heavenly, and the scent is noticeable from far down the garden path, no need to get your nose in the middle of these flowers. They are vigorous bulbs, increasing each year and making an ever more impressive display, and they are very hardy.

Another piece of lore claims that receiving a single daffodil brings bad luck. I received luck. While recovering in the hospital many years ago from a nearly fatal automobile accident, a co-worker brought me a 5# tin can filled with at least fifty bright yellow daffodils. For a depressed patient, her gift gave a piece of spring, sunshine to brighten a hospital room, and certainly hope for recovery. I did, and think of her with every daffodil I see.
yellow dafs

Snowdrops in bloom

Snowdrops in bloom


At this time of year I always keep watch for my Snowdrops, to bloom. Last year the first one bloomed on March 15th. That didn’t happen this year. I’m still waiting for them to show. This is actually far later than for most of the country because these harbingers of spring often bloom in February in more southerly places. Snowdrops botanical name, Galanthus, means milk flower in Greek, and the Common Snowdrop hardy to my area is G. nivalis, or covered in snow, so when my snow covered white flower emerges, icy fakes often do hang off them. The green markings on the inner flower add a bit of fay color to the otherwise all white, dainty flowers.

The plants are native to most of Europe from the south to the far north, but have spread widely around the world. This means the plants are very adaptable. While they like moist but well-drained soil in part shade, they survive in clay and can withstand full sun. They even grow under walnut trees which tend to poison the soil surrounding their trunk with juglone. Snowdrops are ephemeral, meaning the foliage sticks around long enough to build the bulb’s strength and then dies back before summer’s heat. While the little flowers give every snow-dejected spirit joy and hope, these are small, nearly insignificant flowers. Massive plantings are best for gardens, say at least twenty-five, but a hundred or more is better yet.

Most gardeners aren’t aware the bulbs are very poisonous, containing the alkaloids lycorine and galantamine. Lycorine is found in Amaryllidaceae family, that causes gastro intestinal distress. Galantamine on the other hand, has medical use in the treatment of mild Alzheimer’s. The bulbs also contain the glycoside scillaine, or scillitoxin, which affects the heart. So I guess the moral is beauty and hope come at a high price. No wonder deer don’t like them.

Update: 3/25 snow melted enough (not entirely gone!) to show my snowdrops blooming. Spring is here!

A few years ago, I was a member of a floral design club and needed to pick plant materials for a design. As always, I was late putting my design together. I cut some globeflowers (Trollius x cultorum) from my yard and some donkey’s tail sedum (Sedum morganianum) stems from a houseplant. The design designation that day was an underwater design and both plant materials held up very well. After eating the desert served at the meeting, my tongue felt like I’d eaten too much pepper. I didn’t think a thing about it except it was an unusual cake.

By the time I returned home a few hours later, my mouth and face had swollen. I could hardly see. The effects lasted for twelve hours. After some reflection and a call to the hostess, I realized I didn’t have an unknown food allergy but had reacted to the milky sap from the cut ends of the sedum used in my design.

Gardeners should remember that a plant they handle with impunity might cause someone else a health problem. Anyone can have sensitivity to any plant, and their reaction can range from mild to severe as with poison ivy and oak–some people severely react to the plant’s touch and some don’t react at all.

Most gardeners finding poison oak or ivy in their garden take special care not to touch it while eradicating it, yet they are often unaware of other potentially dangerous plants they grow. Since most gardeners enjoy showing their gardens to family and friends, and flowering or fruiting plants often attract very young children, it is wise to know the plants most likely to cause trouble.

Reactions from plants can vary from a mild skin irritation from casual contact, to death from ingesting plant parts. Leaves, stems, roots, rhizomes, tubers, berries, seeds, any part might cause harm, and some safe to eat ripe fruits come from plants with poisonous parts such as cherries and tomatoes.

In my area, the following plants are the most likely culprits to cause skin irritation, aggravate a skin allergy, or cause severe discomfort if eaten: Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), sap of milkweed including butterfly weed (Asclepias species),

Asclepias (milkweed)

Asclepias (milkweed)

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), Daphne (Daphne species–only a few are hardy in zones 4 and 5), bleeding-heart and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra species), cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma), ivy (Hedera species), sneezeweed (Helenium species).
Helleborus

Helleborus (Christmas Rose)

Christmas rose (Helleborus species), hyacinth bulbs (Hyacinthus species), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), iris rhizomes or roots (Iris species), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), lantana (Lantana species), privet (Ligustrum species), lobelia (Lobelia species), lupine (Lupinus species), daffodil bulbs (Narcissus species), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana species), star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), cherry leaves and twigs (Prunus species), oak leaves and acorns (Quercus species), buttercups (Ranunculus species), rhubarb leaves (Rheum species), Soloman’s seal (Polyhgonatum species), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) azaleas and rhododendron (Rhododendron species).
Sanguinaria

Sanguinaria (bloodroot)

The following plants can cause severe discomfort or death if eaten even in a small amount: Monkshood (Aconitum napellus), baneberry (Actaeca rubra or A. alba), jimsonweed and moonflower seeds (Datura species), delphinium and larkspur (Delphinium species), foxglove (Digitalis species), may apple except fully ripened fruit (Podophyllum peltatum), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), castor bean (Ricinus communis), yew (Taxus species).

Digitalis

Digitalis (foxglove)

This is by no means a comprehensive list and only meant to bring awareness, not to make you stop growing a particular plant. These dangers are true of houseplants also, so be careful. I’ve a related post on Seven Night Writers blog of the most deadly plants.

Good resource for poisonous plants: North Carolina State University’s Poisonous Plants

Warding off Halloween vampires did not spur my desire to grow garlic; no. A neighbor inspired me. Last August I visited her house and in her kitchen a braid of garlic led up one wall, crossed the ceiling, and descended the other wall. Wow, So much garlic! I love to cook with garlic. I had to try growing it.

This fall I ordered a pound of garlic from Burpee Seeds (along with a garden dibbler– a tool to push holes into the ground) and waited for my garlic to arrive. It seems the fall is a good time to plant garlic, which is perennial, but needs eight weeks of cold to chill the bulbs for proper growth. I don’t need to worry about that where I live! From the end of November to the middle of March I expect to see snow on the ground.

Since I had garlic coming, I read about what type of soil was needed. Recommendations stated loose, well-drained soil with a high organic matter. Check, I got that–Good ole’ sugar sand with several years of mulch decomposed in it. The package arrived last week along with thirty-six daffodil bulbs and twenty-five bluebell bulbs, but whenever I was free, the weather turned rainy–cats and dogs type rain.

However, some young men came over to spread mulch on my flower gardens Sunday, so it seemed like a good time to plants bulbs. After separating four large bulbs of garlic into cloves, I grabbed my new dibbler and trucked out to the vegetable garden. The directions said to make a hole two inches deep and drop the flat side (root end) of the garlic clove into the hole first. The dibbler worked great, not only making the fifty needed holes easily and to the proper depth, but I could also use it to measure the space between the holes. In about an hour I had garlic, daffodils, and bluebells planted. After I spent another half-hour on general garden chores, the boys were done, so I took them home. The weathermen promised rain for the next day, so all the bulbs would be set in place as the water drained through the soil; all done until next summer.

From Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (1987 edition, page 215) I learned many ancient herbalists thought garlic held magical properties that could ward off evil, so of course anyone needing protection wore a garlic amulet. They also believed that if eaten, garlic provided speed, strength, and endurance, and since it was the herb of Mars, the God of Battle, Roman soldiers ate garlic. This belief also made it a good food to feed slaves and serfs who did the hard manual labor through the next few centuries. Historical records also proved garlic prescribed for patients who suffered from many different ailments, including plague and intestinal worms. Okay, time to stop.

I use garlic for cooking many main dishes and sauces, but I’ll include my favorite garlic accompaniment: garlic toast. While toasting some bread-store bought bread slices, leftover French bread, hamburger or hotdog buns, whatever is on hand–mash one or two cloves of garlic and place in a quarter cup of butter. (Use more butter-garlic if six or more slices of bread are used.) Melt the butter with the garlic in a small pan and let cook on low for a couple minutes, not long enough to burn the butter, but long enough for the garlic to release its essence. Spread on the toasted bread coating it well while removing any large clumps of garlic. Sprinkle the bread with shredded Parmesans Cheese, stick under the broiler until lightly browned, and serve. Hopefully, by including this simple dish in your fall menus, no vampires will want to suck your life’s blood.

Sedum 'Autum Joy'

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’


One of my favorite, and one of the easiest perennials to grow, is Sedum ‘Autumn Joy.” It is well worth growing for its late season color– soft pink umbels that deepen to a deep russet-rose standing twelve to twenty-four inches tall. The honey bees love them, too, which trait I’ve used to check our bee population.

Autumn Joy is succulent hybrid of two sedum species created in 1955. The German nurserymen who hybridized this one must have been thrilled when this plant sprang up in their test fields since many of the sedums were low growing plants barely reaching six inches in height and the taller sedums were foliage plants without much to recommend as flowering plants.

For me, Autumn Joy is the near perfect plant. It is extremely hardy and grows just about anywhere but excessively damp locations. With the added characteristics of interesting foliage, easy propagation, and beautiful, long-lasting, and colorful flowers at the end of the growing season, it finishes the fall garden in high style. All through August and sometimes even earlier in the summer the plant carries immature umbels containing hundreds of tiny green florets. The leaves are fleshy scalloped ovals that have a fresh light green color.

The plant likes poor soil, doesn’t wilt in drought, and can be depended on season after season. Few pests or diseases bother Autumn Joy, and while it loves a sunny situation, it survives in shade. Grown in rich soil and a shaded locations, the flowers are often smaller and the stems long and floppy. If you must grow them in shade remember to cut them back in early June. The plants will put out more short stems that stay compact and sturdy.

This makes them an interesting color and texture contrast to mix with almost any flowering plant. I find them particularly stunning among daylilies and yarrows where the cool green of their flower heads sets off the other plants’ hot colors. They also look great with coneflowers, grasses, mums, lady’s mantle, artemisia, asters, and zinnias.

By the time their neighbors are finished flowering, Autumn Joy comes into its own vibrant coloring. Even if eaten by deer in early spring, they just grow more stems that will bear slightly smaller flower heads. If you want more plants, simply pluck a few stems from the mother plant in the spring and stick them in the soil. By the end of the season, you’ll have small new Autumn Joy plants. They keep their brown flower heads through the winter. This supposedly makes them interesting winter plants, but I never found them very attractive in this form, and I must admit it is a bit of a chore to cut old stems off in the spring. But that aside, what more can you ask from a garden plant?

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