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One of the first flowers every child draws in kindergarten is the daisy. Perhaps because of the simplicity of the petals’ design or maybe because the daisy shape is the first recognized as a ‘flower.’ I think we love them as children because they are cheerful, it is easy to pick a handful, and no one seems to mind the picking.

Double shasta daisy ‘Aglaia’

There are many daisies and daisy-like flowers and all come from the huge Asteraceae family of sunflowers, mums, dandelions, dahlia, and coneflowers, to name a few. One of the most popular daisies is the roadside wildflower, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (also Leucanthemum vulgare), or the Oxeye daisy with its white petals and yellow centers.

This common daisy comes from Eurpose and the name derives from Anglo-Saxon for day’s eye. The botanical name is contradictory. Anthemum come from the Greek word ‘anthos’ meaning flower. Chrys comes from ‘chrysos,’ or gold, and leuc means white, so you have the white flowered gold flower. In some places this plant is considered a noxious weed, and although not poisonous, cows won’t eat it, so daisies in hay spells trouble for farmers.

Historically, the daisy was used as a medicine and cosmetic, most often as a soothing lotion. Another common name, Marguerite or Margaret daisy, comes from the 14th century when Margaret of Anjou married King Henry VI of England. Her wedding robes were embroidered with oxeye daisies.

The Shasta daisy is the white daisy most of us grow in our gardens. It’s flower is larger than the wild variety, and it is a bit better behaved. Luther Burbank hybridized this daisy. It used to be Chrysanthemum x superbum, but has been reclassified as Leucanthemum x superbum. As gardeners are the never satisfied with what they have, the hybridizers are developing pale yellow varieties.

Easy to obtain and easy to grow, Shasta daisies deserve their popularity. They also seem to like our Michigan climate. In soils that are very rich, Shastas grow tall and lanky, and the stems fall to the ground, but here they tend to stay more compact and well behaved all season long. They fit in with almost any style of garden from formal to more natural plantings. Their colors blend with many color schemes, and can even help harmonize less compatible colors.

All Shasta daisies need full sun and well-drained soil. They like moist soil, but thrive in less perfect conditions. There are many cultivars available, differing mostly in height, size of flower, and when they start blooming. There are both single and double flowered types available. ‘Polaris,’ and ‘Alaska’ are two of the oldest and most common single cultivars, and remains a great garden plants.
The 2003 Perennial of the Year as named by the Perennial Plant Association is the Shasta daisy cultivar ‘Becky.’ It has 3” flowers and blooms from July through September if the old flowers are removed.

If you don’t deadhead your flowers, or if they get lanky, cut back the stems to just above the bottom leaves. New leaves will quickly emerge from the plant’s base, and sometimes it resumes flowering. They like to be divided every two or three years, so you will soon have masses of daisies to pick. If you catch children picking your Shasta daisies, don’t scold; instead, take a moment to teach them the old divination game, picking petals to ‘he loves me, he loves me not.’

echinacea

Purple Coneflower

In 1980 I traveled down Highway 54 in Missouri. Wild purple coneflowers lined the roadside in waves of pink flowers that resembled shooting stars headed for the heavens. The long pink petals fell back from the orange seed head in wavy rays. The beautiful flowers seemed to float above the tall roadside grass. At the time I wondered why it was call purple rather than pink coneflower, but that’s just one of its mysteries.

Ten years later they were gone. The coneflower, or Echinacea, had become a ‘cure’ for weak immune systems and AIDS had become a prevalent disease. Coneflowers roots became a valuable commodity. A friend told me it took one year to empty the roadside of coneflowers. Diggers waited until the plants bloomed, then dug them wherever they spotted the flowers, filling trucks with plants taken from public property. At that time Missouri had no law against digging roadside wildflowers.

Coneflowers are vestige plants of the prairies that once stretched across America. They have a long history as medical plants. Native Americans used the roots of this wildflower for everything from snakebite to cleansing rites for ceremonial rituals. European settlers soon used the coneflower as a blood purifier to cure a wide variety of ailments such as unidentified infections and ailments.

As garden plants, the mid-to-late summer flowers of Purple Coneflower punctuate the border with large, vivid blossoms on three-foot stems. The orange cones contrast with the pink petals in an unusual color harmony among flowers. As prairie plants, coneflowers thrive where many plants fail. Coneflowers grow from zone 4 to zone 8 with equal ease. They withstand drought, love hot sunny sites, and don’t need regular applications of fertilizer.

They are easily grown from seed, but the plants take two years to reach flowering size. Most garden centers carry pot-grown plants, usually already in flower. Transplanting doesn’t seem to bother them anymore than the type of soil in which they are planted. Known as ‘clay busters,’ coneflowers grow in clay as well as sandy soils like mine.

Hybridizers produced a cultivar ‘Magnus’ with petals that extended nearly straight out from the cone rather than drooping, making the flower appear more daisy-like. Since ‘Magus,’ the hybridizers have gone wild with new cultivars in amazing colors like the orange petals of ‘Tiki Torch,’ the green, stubby petals of ‘Green Envy,’ and the yellow petals of ‘Sunrise,’ plus they have produced some blossom configurations that look like a mum flower on top of the regular coneflower like the cerise red ‘Razzmatazz,’ and the green ‘Coconut Lime.’

The foliage has never been as attractive as the flowers. The large leaves have serrated edges and are coated with fine hairs. They look coarse and can be attacked by mildew making them even more unattractive. If mildew is a problem in your area, try growing some of the mildew resistant cultivars available.

This is a great plant for any garden and although blooms throughout the summer sparkles especially in late summer and fall.

Bracken Fern

Bracken Fern

Imagine a time when dinosaurs had mysteriously disappeared, and only little rat-like mammals ruled the planet. Then imagine these small animals scurrying around under bracken fern. The same bracken fern that line our lightly shaded forest floors and edge our fields. Maybe their green fronds are what make our landscape seem so pristine and primeval. Bracken fern are one of the most common global-wide plants known, one species growing in the Northern hemisphere, another in the Southern hemisphere.

You can’t miss bracken fern. It has two fern-like fronds emerging from an upright single, frond-topped rigid stalk. When newly emerged, the fronds are soft and pliant. As they age, they toughen making a walk in shorts through a colony of bracken an unpleasant, scratchy experience. This large fern grows knee-high or taller, and is most often found in partial shade to sunny, dry locations. Matter of fact, you won’t find it in waterlogged soils or heavily shaded areas where you expect to find ferns.

Bracken is a pioneer plant. It can grow on many types of soils, and the soil’s acidity or alkalinity doesn’t seem to matter. Wind-born spores allow it to quickly inhabit newly disturbed soils. It will be one of the first to start growing after a fire has swept through an area. Its dried fronds cover the ground in fall. This dried material helps fuel incipient fires and insure bracken’s survival by burning away competition while its rhizome root enables it to survive the same fire. This rhizome also forms the stalk, which is not the hollow ‘stem’ of most herbaceous perennials plants.

During bracken’s long survival it has evolved methods to ensure its continued existence. These methods do not make it a garden friendly plant. It secretes chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of neighboring plants. Chemicals in its leaves kill or inhibit the growth of insects. The plant invades crop fields, competing for the soil’s nutrients and moisture. It can poison cows and horses grazing on its fronds. Research has shown eating bracken can produce tumors in animals; the only plant known to have this capability.

Resistant to many herbicides, the only reliable way to eradicate bracken from an area is to repeatedly cut the above ground growth. This weakens the rhizome and eventually kills it.

An important crop used to thatch roofs and fuel a quick fire in Medieval Europe, today bracken is a human food crop. The emerging tightly curled fronds, or fiddleheads, are considered a delicacy raw, cooked, salted or pickled. It has been used as an ingredient of beer, the ground rhizome dried and ground for flour, and it is still used in parts of the world as an herbal remedy. Yes, it is still eaten despite the carcinogenic results of tests on lab animals and ties to leukemia and cancers of various digestive organs in humans.

To its credit, with it’s poisonous traits, bracken may become the source for new insecticides.

Another benefit come from the bracken. Their rhizomes extract phosphorus and transmute it into a type more readily available to plants, so the presence of bracken can indicate a nutrient rich soil. The fronds are sensitive to acid rain and act as an indicator of air pollution.

Long ago someone thought this upright, triangular arrangement of fronds made this fern look like an eagle. Bracken’s botanical name Pteridium aquilinum reflects this, aquilinum meaning ‘eagle-like.’ The genus name ‘Pteridium,’ derives from the Greek word for fern, and bracken comes down from Old English for any fern, but the word applied in particular to this fern. Its survival is more certain than that of its namesake.

DandelionTheir yellow blossoms give dramatic proof of the dandelion’s presence in a well-manicured lawn. This plant inspires both appreciation and abomination. Four-year-olds pick the crayon-box colored disks to make sunny bouquets. Older children blow the silvery spherical seed heads to watch them shatter and send seeds floating through the air. Lawn purists spread herbicides to kill the hated weed. Gardeners dig them out, knowing how quickly they spread and how hard they are to eradicate. The trick is making sure to get the long taproot. Missing any segment will guarantee regrowth. I must admit I dig them out somewhat reverently, though, for I’ve come to see Dandelions as historical artifacts.

Dandelions settled in North America with European immigrants. Many of our common weeds arrived the same way. By 1748 observers already claimed they saw French Canadians digging dandelion roots, so they’ve been here a long time. Dandelions were a plant the colonist felt too valuable to be without. They remain an important food crop in Europe and other parts of the world. Originally they came from the Mediterranean regions and were mentioned by Theophrastus hundreds of years before Christ.

The name dandelion always rouses my curiosity. A Medieval German botanist for some unknown reason identified the plant as dens leonis or lion’s tooth. Through the ages it has been corrupted into its common English name, dandelion. Other common names include fairy clock, diente de leon, blowball, and Pee-the-Bed (probably due to it diuretic qualities). Its botanical name is Taraxacum offinale. The ‘offinale’ means the plant was an apothecary herb, important in health care. There are two accepted derivations for Taraxacum. Some believe it comes from the Greek taraxos for ‘disorder,’ and akos for ‘remedy.’ Others belief it is Persian in orgin, coming from tark hashgun meaning ‘wild endive.’

The colonists were right, dandelions are valuable plants. They contain high quantities of vitamins A, B, C and D and every part is edible. The tangy young leaves can be added to salads, or blanched and served like spinach (old leaves are bitter). Year-old roots can be cooked like parsnips or dried and brewed as a tea or added like chicory to coffee.

Historically, the plant was believed to heal health problems with everything from indigestion and constipation to blood disorders. My grandmother encouraged Dandelions greens as a spring tonic to cleanse winter blood. If you check the internet you will find many claims still made for herbal products featuring Taraxacum.

Dandelion was also used as a dye. The flowers provided a yellow color and the whole plant added magenta to the weavers’ craft.

Last, but not least, of its virtues, is dandelion wine. I’ve never had it, but it is claimed to taste somewhere between sherry and champagne. Feeling adventurous, I’ve decided I’m going to try making it. (Check out my blog at Night Writers. Pamela Jones, author of Just Weeds), claims the wine has “the most elusive, delicately fragrant flavors imaginable, the color pure liquid gold.” That makes me feel like picking Dandelion flowers.

Reference:
Jones, Pamela. Just Weeds, History, Myths, and Uses. Prentice Hall Press, New York, NY. 1991. Print. Page 217.

Wild Sorrel

Wild Sorrel

Good plant, bad weed. We pick and choose the plants we deem garden worthy, and call the rest weeds. One of the weeds you want to eliminate quickly before they become devilishly difficult is Wild sorrel.

Last week a new garden tool arrived in the mail that I’d purchased on line. I decided to try it out in the garden and started weeding the wild sorrel on the edges of my garden. It is a low growing weed with small lanceolate leaves with red touches on some of the leave’s edges.

A European transplant, Wild sorrel (Rumex acetoseela) (aka Sheep sorrel, Red sorrel, Field sorrel, Sour weed, Cow sorrel, Horse sorrel, Gentlemen’s sorrel, or Toad sorrel) is a cruising demon. It prefers soils like mine that are poor often sour, or acidic, types of soil.

These very prolific plants produce red stems that rise above the basal growth of leaves to produce reddish-green flowers that turn into tiny capsules holding hundreds of seeds. The real menace is the roots which travel great distances from the plant. I’ve carefully followed three foot long yellow roots from plants no larger than three inches in diameter. The roots not only spread out, but down. I’ll have to keep vigil, too, because each broken root will produce a new plant. However, Roundup wasn’t very effective, so I decided to dig them out.

According to Edwin Rollin Spencer in his book All About Weeds, Rumex is Latin for sorrel, and the acetosella means ‘the little vinegar plant.’ For centuries sour plants have generically been called sorrel (83). I think they have a lemony flavor. Yes, they are edible, and have been used in culinary arts since the Iron Age, the most famous use is in sorrel soup. You can find many recipes on line. The leaves are full of vitamin C, but need to be blanched to get rid of the oxalic acid. If you make the soup and fall in love with the taste, there is a another species, Rumex scutatus, that is better behaved garden plant. It’s leaves are larger and used like spinach.
For more information check out Wikipedia
Spencer, Edwin Rollin. All About Weeds. 1974. New York. Dover Publications.

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