Fall Is Back: It’s Time To Get Out And Smell The Leaves

Fall arrives slowly here in Maryland. Just when you think the temperatures have cooled, they shoot up again along with the State’s oppressive humidity. Finally, though, there comes a morning when the air has turned crisp and the colors more vivid. That’s when I throw on a jacket and go outdoors to smell the leaves.

Aside from the beautiful show, I take pleasure in all the small details of the season: the delicate remains of the tooth-edged brown oak, the fiery red maple formed like a palm and the heart-shaped yellow linden. I love how the leaves float on the pungent air, fluttering down to weave crazy quilts on the still-warm soil. As they crackle beneath my feet, I savor their earthy aromas; fragrant cinnamon, orange spice and the powerful scent of dry foliage roasting in the autumn sun.

What is it about fall that summons up our deepest memories? How can one whiff of a decaying oak stir my reflection, catapulting me back into the giant leaf piles of my youth?

I think that the answer lies not only in fall’s colors, but also in something less tangible – its smell. Harder to pinpoint than hearing or seeing, the experience of smelling opens pathways to a deep-seated awareness that sleeps inside all of us. This awareness, once awakened, recalls the child we once used to be.

Floating upward through the annals of time, the distinctive aroma of autumn leaves reconnects us to this child, reminding us of our own colorful story, our unique pathway through life and our timeless link to the natural world.

Wishing all of you a very happy fall.

 

Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of ornamental gourds land at the grocery store, your mind whirls with possibilities. The cute little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. The problem is that once you get them home, the gourds are a bit lacking somehow. Sure, they look OK on their own in a bowl, but if you really want to get creative, design-wise, you’ll need to add some key seasonal ingredients.

Where did gourds come from, anyway?

Hard-shelled gourds have been around for a very long time. Archeological specimens indicate the bottle gourd (pictured below) was being grown as a domesticated plant in the Americas as far back as 10,000 years ago. It’s still a mystery as to how the gourds got to the New World from their native Africa. But a recent study indicates they may have floated here on ocean currents.

Bottle gourds growing in a garden

Today in the United States, there are three types of gourds that are typically grown: Lagenarias, or hard shells, that are mainly used in crafts; Luffas (also spelled loofah), most commonly used as sponges and Cucurbitas, a family of flowering plants that include the ones we call decorative or ornamental.

Cantine variety of ornamental gourds

A whole lot smaller than ordinary gourds, ornamental gourds are known for their curious forms. These include  bottle, kettle, pear, crown of thorns, egg and the popular cantine that looks like a miniature pumpkin. The unusual shapes result from the gourds’ tendency to cross-pollinate with each other as well as with larger pumpkins and squash. This allows for an endless supply of design possibilities.

Designing with ornamental gourds: Key elements

A good plan of action before getting started is to first assemble some seasonal items that will add color and interest to your ornamental gourds. If you’re considering a dry arrangement, leaves, twigs, nuts and feathers act as great accents. Try pheasant feathers, curly willow branches, walnuts or pinecones.

Pheasant feathers

Curly willow branches at amazon.com

Pinecones 

Walnuts’ large size make them the perfect accompaniment to gourds

Or, you can carve out your gourds to make mini vases for flowers, berries or vines. Try hypericum berries, orange bittersweet, purple, red or orange dahlias or yellow lilies.

Hypericum berries

Orange bittersweet

Assorted dahlias

Yellow lilies provide good color contrast

You can even add votive candles.

 

Putting it all together

Ready to get started? Here are some great sources of inspiration incorporating many of the items listed above. Click on the links for more detailed information about each idea.

1. Mini “pumpkin” and gourd wreath, Southern Living

Helen Norman for Southern Living

2. White gourds in dough bowl with cabbage and pine cones

3. Green gourd vase with red flower

4. Hollowed out gourds with votive candles

5. Purple and orange dahlias with bittersweet berries and leaves in acorn-shaped gourd vases

6. Orange and yellow gourds in a brown rustic basket

7. Minimalist sculpture with orange zinnias, flax leaf and feathery grass

8. Simply elegant: orange gourds in tall, thin vases with single branches of wild ivy

thrifttown.com

thrifttown.com

9. White gourd vase with pink gerbera daisies, magnolia leaves, mini green cantine gourds, ornamental cabbage and evergreen sprig

10. Stacked gourds in iron trellis with potted yellow mums

Happy designing!

 

 

Native Pawpaw: The Best American Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

Native pawpaw, Asimina triloba

They say if you’re mama don’t know, you should go ask your papa. But, it’s anyone’s guess why Americans aren’t growing and eating a delicious fruit known as pawpaw. The small-sized tree produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.

A taste of the tropics

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) brings a rare taste of the jungle to our temperate forests. The only local member of a mainly tropical genus, it grows wild in the eastern United States and Canada. The deciduous tree produces large, greenish-brown fruits that ripen in September and October.

Native pawpaw

Such unusual fruits make for an odd sight on a North American tree. Growing in clusters like coconuts, they look a lot like mangos (although some people compare them to potatoes.)  Fans agree, however, that the fruit’s sweet, tangy flavor is a rich tropical blend of mango with a note of banana, even pineapple. And although they make great ice creams, smoothies and desserts, pawpaws are best enjoyed raw when their creamy, custard-like flesh can be fully appreciated.

Pawpaw fruit

Although they form large groups, pawpaw trees are easy to overlook. That’s because their dull green leaves, modest height and multi-branching structure help them blend in with other understory shrubs in the forest. There’s one distinguishing feature, though, for those on the look-out: their foliage. Pawpaw leaves are wider at the tip than the bottom and hang 8 to 12 inches long, giving the plant a distinctive droopy look.

Pawpaw leaves

So why don’t most Americans know about them? There is evidence pawpaws have been growing in North America for millennia. Research shows Native Americans were growing them as far back as the 1500s and both Washington and Jefferson had pawpaw trees in their gardens. And in April 2014, Michelle Obama planted one in the White House Kitchen Garden.

But you won’t find pawpaws at your local grocery and unless your timing is right, you won’t find them at the farmer’s market either.

Why pawpaws are hard to find 

The good news is that deer avoid pawpaw like the plague, which has resulted in ever expanding pawpaw populations. But, here’s the rub. Fruit production suffers from poor pollination. Although their flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts, pawpaws are self-infertile, meaning they must be fertilized with pollen from a different variety of pawpaw to produce fruit.

And bees aren’t their primary pollinators, flies and beetles are. To attract them, pawpaw produces a stinky, meat-colored flower in the spring, (just like the Denver Botanical Garden’s corpse flower named ‘Stinky’ ) The color and smell of the flowers, coupled with the flies, can be a deal-breaker for many home gardeners.

Pawpaw flowers

Add to that the fact that cold, rainy weather can discourage fly activity (which can result in poor fruit set) and  growers often have little choice but to hand pollinate their pawpaws. To attract its preferred pollinators, others go so far as to hang spoiled meat, even roadkill, in the shrubs’ branches.

It’s enough to give you paws.

Where to buy pawpaws

Ready to sample one? Unless you attend a pawpaw growers’ festival, they are hard to come by. And as I mentioned above, you won’t find pawpaws in most grocery stores. This is partly due to the fact that their large size and soft skins make harvesting the fruits labor-intensive. And their shelf-life is short, just 2 to 3 days, making them impractical to ship.

But, having missed the 3rd annual pawpaw festival here in Maryland, I was anxious to try one. I compiled a list of local farm markets and co-ops that seemed most likely to carry the fruit and started calling. Reactions ranged from “What?”  to “Never heard of that,” or “Sorry, we don’t carry papayas.” It turns out I had missed the window for purchase. I had no choice but to go into the wild and search for my own.

Searching for pawpaws

According to the National Park Service, pawpaws are now one of the most common sapling species on the C&O Canal, GW Memorial Parkway and along the trails of Harpers Ferry (mostly due to deers’ lack of interest.) This was immediately apparent once I hit the C&O towpath. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see long drifts of pawpaw peeking out from under the forest canopy. I had never noticed them before.

Pawpaws line the banks of Maryland’s C&O canal

The challenge of searching for pawpaws can be tedious, but with a punster it’s worse. As we walked, keeping our eyes trained upward, my boyfriend kept up an endless refrain including such goodies as ‘Reminds me of the group mawmaws and pawpaws’ or ‘Did you ever see the photo of the dog with his leg in a sling? He says “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.’ All in all, we walked for 4 miles.

I wish I could tell you that we finally found the fruits, but though we passed literally hundreds of pawpaws, we didn’t run across a single one. Perhaps the raccoons had gotten them, or savvy hikers, or maybe this summer’s rainy weather had discouraged fruit set. We shook the smaller saplings to see if we could dislodge some we couldn’t see. And we scoured the beds of Japanese switchgrass for some that might have fallen. Sadly, we came up empty-handed.

I haven’t given up, though, and have a possible lead on some fruits in upper Maryland. I’ll keep you posted if I succeed in getting them. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading back to the canal in a month to see the pawpaw foliage, which turns a brilliant yellow in the fall.

* While there are numerous theories on line about how pawpaw got its name, I’m going with this one from the Arnold Arboretum at harvard.edu: the fruit was named by the members of Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the southeastern, United States, who upon noting the Native Americans growing and eating it, named it pawpaw for its resemblance to the tropical fruit papaya.

 

 

Why Leaves Change Color and Other Fun Fall Facts

shutterstock_85888030

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

-Albert Camus

I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective; that is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while the leaves ‘bloom’ above us.  And each year, nature unveils new surprises, dazzling us with colors and combinations so vivid and daring as to leave little doubt as to her ability to create designs far superior to our own.

While it’s generally believed that cold weather causes a tree’s leaves to change color, the process is in reality a bit more complex. Weather can affect the intensity and duration of color, but the color itself is a part of each tree’s biology. And just like flowers in a garden, every tree has its own colors and ‘bloom’ period that occur at different times during the fall season.

autumn-landscape

Nature’s garden

Why do leaves change color?

Leaves change color due to the process of photosynthesis. During the growing season, leaves act as food factories for the plant, capturing sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar. A chemical called chlorophyll, which absorbs light energy, is responsible for making this happen. It is also the reason why most leaves are green.

In fall, as temperatures cool and days grow shorter, leaves stop their food-making process. As the chlorophyll naturally breaks down, the green color disappears from the leaf surface. Yellow and orange, two colors which until now have been masked by the green, start to become visible.

sassafras

Orange-yellow sassafras leaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Some trees like maples, sourwoods and sweet gums, however, start making brand new pigments of their own as their chlorophyll breaks down. These trees produce brilliant shades of red, scarlet and purple. Often you’ll see these colors mixed in with the leaves’ underlying orange and yellow pigments, making for a dazzling show.

red-maple-tree

Maple tree in fall

As the season progresses and the temperatures drop further, the cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem weaken and the leaf starts to fall from the tree. The additional pigments begin to break down, the leaf dries up, and only a brown color remains. Some plants, like oaks, retain their brown foliage for a good part of the winter.

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Sycamore leaves turn shades of brown

Weather has a big effect on color

Weather conditions can effect leaves’ color and duration and are the reason why each year the landscape looks slightly different. These conditions include temperature, amount of sunlight and available water supply.

Lots of sunlight combined with low temperatures, for instance, produces brighter reds but shortens their duration. An early frost, however, spells the end of the show. And drought stress during the summer can result in early dropping of leaves before they have a chance to develop any color at all.

sugar-maple

Sugar maple leaf in process of changing color

Surprisingly, a combination of rain and overcast days tend to increase color intensity.

yellow-orange-leaf

The best and brightest show, however, usually follows a growing season with lots of rain followed by a dry spell.

sugar-maple-image

Looking for a great location to see fall foliage? Click here for my post on America’s 10 Best Places to See Spectacular Fall Foliage. It provides an overview of each area and places to stay. Happy fall!

 

 

Life At The Met: Nature Goes Cosmopolitan

Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket (see below)

Humans have gardened for centuries out of necessity and more recently for visual pleasure. But garden scenes and images of plant life have figured in decoration since the beginning of time. One need look no further than the first floor of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) to see that this is true. There, among the Egyptian, Greek, African and European sculptures and decorative art, I found enough images of flowers and natural scenes to brighten even the rainiest of days. Continue reading

The Secret To Creating Fabulous Fall Containers

Cool-season flowering plants

Listen up! Now is the perfect time to replace faded summer blooms with cool season annuals in your fall containers. With the sun lower in the sky, a whole new spectrum of colors suddenly looks fresh and appealing. And fall containers don’t have to be all about ornamental kale or mums. With a little ingenuity, you can dream up planters every bit as beautiful as their lush summer cousins. Continue reading

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The ornamental plant is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and spectacular rosette, it’s one of only a few species that actually thrives in cold weather. In fact, flowering kale likes cool temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter, making it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Giant Corpse Flower Unleashes Its Stinky Scent In Denver

corpse flower

Corpse flower

It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade. Continue reading

The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Eliminate Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I wrote a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets and how to tell the difference. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading