One of my favorite places to visit in the spring is the March Bank at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum. The estate’s stunning 60-acre naturalistic garden has one of the finest displays of minor bulbs around. Blooming in succession over a span of a few months, the bulbs weave a thick carpet of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and whites beneath the property’s centuries’ old trees. Faced with all that beauty, I vow each year to plant a few minor bulbs of my own. Continue reading →
In mid-summer, daffodils are rarely top-of-mind. But this is exactly the time when you need to be ordering them. And this is especially true for the more sought-after, unusual varieties. Why stick with yellow trumpets when daffodils come in so many other colors, shapes and sizes? See below if one or more of these different types of daffodils wouldn’t be the perfect fit for your spring garden. Continue reading →
Sunflowers are known for their unique tracking ability. As they grow, young sunflowers follow the sun from east to west across the sky. Come nightfall, the flowers pivot back from west to east, only to begin the cycle all over again at dawn. Continue reading →
To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked.
“Never,” she replied with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”
It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood. Continue reading →
Even bad boys can have a good side; and so it goes with an unwanted inhabitant of many a garden, poison ivy. The native plant sure knows how to take over a room. For humans, its ornamental qualities are less than desirable. That being said, poison ivy does have its uses. See below.
WHAT IT IS
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison ivy is one of the most common poisonous plant species found throughout the continental United States. A native of North America, it grows mostly in the eastern and midwestern states where it tends to inhabit forests, fields, and shorelines. More worrisomely, it’s also come to love urban/suburban environments such as road sides and parks. This in turn has led to it taking up residence in many of our backyards.
Poison ivy is a member of the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which comprises over 860 known species. Along with poison sumac and poison oak, it is part of the genus toxicodendron, whose toxic properties produce contact dermatitis in affected individuals.
A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP
So what makes toxicodendron so toxic? The culprit is urushiol, an oily resin with allergenic properties. Urushiol is found in every part of toxicodendron, including dead or dormant plants. When poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac are bumped, damaged or even burned, they release urushiol as a means of protection.
In fact, research shows that only a small amount of exposure can cause an allergic rash. And by small amount, that means just 1 nanogram or one billionth of a gram. There is even evidence that urushiol can remain on a surface for up to five years. The take-away? I’d say avoid these plants altogether.
On a good note, apparently about 10 to 15 percent of the human population is immune to poison ivy and its cousins, and therefore will never experience the rash. And poison ivy is less common outside the U.S., although it can still be found here and there around the globe.
HOW TO IDENTIFY POISON IVY
A common adage says ‘Leaves of three, let it be’, while another counsels ‘Leaves of three, run and flee’. I prefer the latter, having suffered from major breakouts throughout my lifetime in the garden. That being said, poison ivy is a chameleon when it comes to appearance. it can be downright hard to identify. Compare the photo below to the two above. You’ll see what I mean.
The truth is poison ivy has so many variations it can baffle even the most seasoned horticulturalist. Take for instance its make-up. It can be a creeping groundcover, or a woody vine (referred to as a liane) which, once it scales a tree, can put on 20 feet of growth in just one season. And full sun can cause it to take on a shrub form.
And while most of us know to look out for a plant with three leaves, from that point on, things can get murky. Poison ivy has a compound leaf, which means that what presents as a single leaf is actually three. Additionally, its leaves can be shiny or dull, and their size and shape can vary greatly. Some leaves are toothed, while others are deeply lobed. And in some rare instances, poison ivy can have five leaves instead of three.
Poison ivy taking on fall color
Look for bright green leaves during the growing season and bright red ones in the fall.
HERE’S THE RUB
The good news is that, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), poison ivy rashes are not contagious and therefore cannot be spread from person to person. However, it is possible to pick up the rash from toxins stuck to clothing, tools or other items including pets (see below.) And contrary to common thought, the rash occurs only where the oil has touched the skin. So rubbing or scratching won’t spread it. What may seem like a spreading rash is actually the toxin’s effects appearing gradually over time.
Always wash your skin and clothes after coming into contact with poison ivy. This is essential to removing all traces of urushiol. And use cold water, not hot. Hot water thins the oil and helps it dissipate more quickly.
CAN ANIMALS GET POISON IVY?
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the answer is rarely. Usually, their long protective coats prevent the plant oils from ever reaching their skin. However, animals can carry the toxin on top of their fur, so don’t let your pet rub against you if you think he or she’s been in contact. Try bathing yours with a colloidal oatmeal shampoo while wearing gloves to eliminate the urushiol.
My cat, Squeaky
IT’S GOOD FOR SOMETHING
Before you decide to remove that patch on your slope, you might want to think again. Like kudzu, poison ivy is great at erosion control, especially on coastlines where it acts as a stabilizer for sandy soil. (It’s a big player along the Eastern coastline.) Moreover, it provides valuable food for many species of wildlife, who eat its fruit, stems and leaves. And it also functions as a protective shelter for small mammals.
Small animals like rabbits like to feed on poison ivy
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
As with most unwanted plants, the best way to eliminate them is to get to know their seedlings and start early. As poison ivy matures, however, it may require years of patient digging to totally eliminate its root structure. You can apply an herbicide like glyphosate to the plant’s roots, leaves or vines. However, be sure to wear eye protection and gloves when chopping down vines. And never use a chain saw, which can spread the toxins by air.
For those of you who think Mother’s Day was created by Hallmark, the real story is much more touching. It all sprang from a daughter’s love for her mother, the trials of war and a gift of 500 white carnations.
It Started in West Virginia
It all began in 1905 when Anna Jarvis lost her mother. She and her mother had been very close friends. Consumed by grief, Anna made a solemn vow. She pledged to establish a national day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.
Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had raised her family in the mid 1800’s and had suffered great hardship. Of the 12 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid and diphtheria.
MOTHERS HELPING MOTHERS
Yet despite having endured so much loss, Anna’s mother remained stout-hearted. In the 1850s, she began organizing coalitions of mothers from across West Virginia to combat childhood illness. The women raised money for medicines, inspected food and milk and nursed those who were sick.
The coalitions became known as the Mothers Day Work Clubs.
Ann Reeves Jarvis
When in 1861 the Civil War broke out, the mothers also became volunteer nurses, caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers.
Mother’s Day Work Club members took care of all soldiers
Even after the war, the clubs continued to be a unifying force. In 1868, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day, which brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.
ANN JARVIS LOVED CARNATIONS
Shortly after Ann’s death, her daughter Anna organized a memorial at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. With this unofficial inauguration, Anna began writing letters to national, state and local politicians to gain their support for a Mother’s Day movement.
And unbelievably, a decade later, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day celebrations!
Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day as A public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.
Letter signed by President Woodrow Wilson establishing Mother’s Day
The second Sunday in May became the official day of celebration. And the wearing of a white carnation, Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower, became a tradition.
THE CONTROVERSY OVER MOTHER’S DAY CARDS
Anna Jarvis’ originally intended for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and write hand written notes expressing their love and affection.
Vintage Mother’s Day card
With the official recognition of the holiday, however, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more enraged as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. Nothing upset her more than the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.
By 1920, Jarvis had become so angered over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop others from profiting off of the day.
In 1923, she even filed suit against the Governor of New York over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.
Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She is buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.
THE ROLE OF CARNATIONS
Yet a century later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day celebration. And there’s no doubt that carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower. In her day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red colors have also become popular.
In fact, today it is generally believed that pink carnations represent gratitude while red ones signify admiration. And white carnations are now reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.
Red carnations signify admiration
Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)
On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.
Years ago, I was living in Paris when there was a knock on the door followed by the sound of running footsteps. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. Little did I know, I had just received a gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.
In France, lily of the valley (or muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom began on May 1, 1561 when King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck.
The King liked the idea so much that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward on the first of May, he presented a bouquet of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. And thus began the Fête du Muguet, otherwise known as May Day in France.
Portrait of King Charles IX
MAY’S MOST CELEBRATED FLOWER
Over the centuries, lily of the valley has become one of May’s most celebrated flowers. And for good reason. Depending on climate, it typically blossoms in April and stays in bloom for most of May. Averaging just around 6 inches, each plant is composed of a pair of leaves and a single stalk of bell-shaped flowers that have a sweet, jasmine-like scent.
Still, for what it lacks in size, lily of the valley rapidly makes up for in numbers. When given ample shade, plants will form low, thick masses of bright green color, making them the perfect complement to other shade-loving perennials.
THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Legend has it that the very first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night, the nightingale would come to her garden to sing. However, the lily of the valley was shy and hid herself from the bird. So after a while, he grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. Eventually, she grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She started flowering again only after the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.
SYMBOL OF LOVE
In early 20th century France, men often gave bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. French people still practice the card-sending ritual today.
A vintage Fête du Muguet card
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN FRANCE
In modern-day France, the first of May coincides with National Labor Day. As a result, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday. In the days leading up to the event, lilies of the valley are sold from roadside stands that pop up all over the country. And while it’s normally forbidden to sell flowers on public streets, the ban is lifted on May 1 in honor of this long-standing tradition.
HOW TO GROW LILY OF THE VALLEY
Easy-to-grow lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate climates. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize easily and can quickly become invasive. Unless you’re up for continually digging them out to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard.
And like most shade-loving plants, lilies of the valley prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Never plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn ugly shades of brown.
DON’T EAT THEM
Finally, you may be surprised to learn that all parts of the lily of the valley are toxic if eaten. So when handling the flowers, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.
When it comes to stunning, early-flowering trees, it’s hard to beat the star magnolia. Every spring, it lights up the landscape in a flash of bright white. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stature. I love how the blossoms hang like fallen stars from the tree’s smooth, bare branches.
THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA
Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! What’s more, a star magnolia is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, it makes an excellent specimen tree while also providing a great backdrop to any mixed shrub border.
And who can resist those early-spring blossoms? Typically flowering in early March, star magnolia is heavy with blooms when most other trees are scarcely beginning to bud. Moreover, the flowers are long-lasting and fragrant; each composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals, with some cultivars boasting as many as 30.
White flowers not your thing? There are also a number of pink varieties. All are magnets for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.
FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS
But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, then bronze, providing an interesting complement to other fall colors.
Moreover, star magnolia’s pleasing, multi-branched form provides great winter interest. Twiggy, shiny brown branches contrast beautifully with a gray trunk that turns silver with age. And masses of fat, fuzzy buds appear in late winter.
TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY
Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular varieties that offer reliable, low-maintenance early-spring color. Deciduous magnolias are best planted when dormant, typically in late fall.
‘Centennial’produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals.
Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’
‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.
Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’
‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species.
Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’
‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April.
Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’
HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT
Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil.
Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’ Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, ‘Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.
Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas contain powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before opening the medicine cabinet, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading →
These days, we could all use a little extra luck in our lives. And happily, a money tree can set the ball rolling. According to Feng Shui principles, the plant could ensure a prosperous year ahead. Continue reading →