In Praise of Redbud

Eastern redbud, Cercis Canadensis

I never fail to smile when the first magenta flowers of Eastern redbud appear in my area. Blooming with abandon at forest edges, along roadsides and in gardens, the showy tree produces a sharp color contrast that immediately distinguishes it from other trees in the landscape. One of my friends (a redbud-lover) always exclaims “Redbud!!” when her own specimen bursts into bloom. That seems to me the most fitting way to describe the flowering of this upbeat ornamental tree.

And cheery it is. Boldly inserting itself into the early spring landscape, redbud can hardly be ignored. Its purple-pink blossoms develop into oversized powder puffs, blooming thick and fluffy along the tree’s intricate bare branches. The effect is dazzling, although the flowers often appear where least expected. (One has only to witness the teeth-jarring combination of redbud’s magenta blooms alongside a red Japanese maple to see what I mean.) This carefree plant has a mind of its own.

 

About Eastern redbud

In the spring line-up of flowering trees, Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis) is one of the earliest, following close on the heels of cherries and just before American flowering dogwood (the latter with which it often overlaps.) The small tree is native to Eastern North America where it can found growing from Florida all the way to Ontario.

Redbud’s delicate pink flowers are considered one of the spring season’s most dramatic displays. Borne in tight clusters of four to ten, they bloom from April to May in the Maryland area. The blooms are edible and have a slightly nutty flavor.

The flowers are followed by flat, bean-shaped seedpods that mature to brown in the summer. When they are young and green, they are also edible and can be prepared like snow peas.

Photo credit: extension.iastate.edu

Not to be outdone, redbud’s leaves have their own attractions. Deep green and heart-shaped, they turn pale yellow in the fall.

Redbud leaves

Topping out at a height of 20-30’ with an equal spread, redbud is a perfect sized ornamental tree for the garden. Its short, twisted trunk, unique branch structure and wide, umbrella-like crown make it a stunning specimen even in winter. A notable quality is its dark, reddish-brown bark, which takes on deep scales and ridges as it ages.

Redbud bark

In the wild, eastern redbud is often found as a understory tree in mixed forests where it benefits from a little extra shade. When planted as an ornamental tree in the garden, part shade works best as well, especially in climates with hot summers. Plant redbud young and leave it alone. It doesn’t like to be moved.

 

For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Cascading forsythia hedge

My sister Cindy was born in late March and every spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. I can still remember my mother’s voice: these are for-Cynthia she would say. My little sister would puff up with pride and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that later on she naturally gravitated towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary yellow bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.

Although I was secretly envious that a flower bloomed specifically for my sister (or at least our mother led us to believe that was so), I grew to welcome the appearance of the sunny blooms each spring. Forsythia, for me, will be forever linked to my sister Cynthia, to March and the happy return of warmer weather.

 

It’s not the best choice for a martini

It may not taste good in a tapenade either, but forsythia is nonetheless a part of the olive (Oleaceae) family. Together with other showy members of the same family (most notably lilac, jasmine, privet and osmanthus), it is cultivated primarily for its beautiful and fragrant flowers. The genus is pretty small – just 7 species of mainly deciduous shrubs from Eastern Asia with one species from southeast Europe. Of these, a number of hybrids have been produced.

Flowering forsythia in botanic garden

 

It’s all about the flowers

Forysthia’s early spring flowers are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this deciduous shrub. Opening before the leaves unfurl, the abundant, bell-shaped blooms are produced in clusters of 2 to 6 on last year’s wood.

Forsythia buds

Forsythias flower on last year’s wood

Formed of four petals and joined at the base to form a tube, the flowers can range in tone from pale to deep yellow depending on the variety.

Close-up of a forsythia flower

The blooms are immediately followed by dark green foliage that sometimes turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall.

Leaves following the blooms on a forsythia shrub

Forsythia foliage follows blooms

Barring any unforeseen cold snap, forsythia flowers can last for between two to three weeks. Or if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to snap off a few branches, put them in a vase of water indoors and in a few weeks you’ll have sunny yellow blooms right smack in the middle of winter.

Forced early-spring blooms in a glass vase

Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors

Why isn’t my forsythia blooming?

This is a question I’m often asked as a garden designer. Since flowers are produced on the prior year’s growth, it’s important to prune the shrubs right after they flower. Otherwise you risk cutting off all of next spring’s blooms. Less frequently, unusually cold weather for prolonged periods of time can also negatively affect blooms for the coming season.

If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll trim off next year’s flowers

One drawback to some of the larger varieties is that forsythia can get large and unruly pretty quickly. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive with the pruning shears at the appropriate time. (I hack mine down by a third every year after bloom.) They’ll quickly push out new growth the following year.

I’ll never understand, though, why some people insist on pruning these shrubs into boxwood-or lightbulb-like shapes.

 

Why is it called forsythia?

The genus forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804) who was superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace and founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

William Forsyth (1737-1804)

What are the best cultivars to plant today?

Two native Chinese species, Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) and Greenstem forsythia (Forsythia viridissima) were the earliest species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. Each has played a role in the development of most modern garden species. Forsythia suspensa remains a popular plant and is still widely cultivated for its size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10- high. Its characteristic weeping form makes it a great hedge plant, especially on embankments where its cascading blooms can be fully enjoyed.

 

pale yellow-flowering Forsythia suspensa

Forsythia suspensa

But perhaps the most popular variety today is a cross between Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima called Forsythia x intermedia. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border Forsythia, the medium sized shrub has the golden yellow flowers most commonly associated with the plant and an upright habit (although as it matures it takes on more of an arching form.) Many hybrids have been selected from this cross including dwarf and compact forms.

Golden yellow-flowering Forsythia x intermedia

Forsythia x intermedia

Save the larger, deep-yellow cultivars like ‘Beatrix Farrand’ for hedges where the plants can grow unimpeded to 8- to 10- feet or more and plant the smaller, more compact varieties close to the house or in the flower border. Great cultivars like Golden Peep (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Courdijau’) and Goldilocks (Forsythia ‘Courtacour’) are dwarf varieties that grow to 24 to 36 inches tall and wide. Or try the slightly smaller Show Off brand Sugar Baby.

I’ve had experience with Gold Tide (Forsythia ‘Courtasol’), which is also considered a dwarf, but likes to be wider than tall, so beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.

 

Forsythia likes to put down roots 

Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not as desirable in a garden. Most springs, I mercilessly chop off these offspring from the parent plant to keep things under control.

Plant forsythia in full sun to part shade. To produce blooms, the shrub needs a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day, with the most flowers being produced in full sun. Like most plants, forsythia performs best in well-drained soil.

 

Butterfly Weed Tops Competitors To Win Perennial of the Year

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” – A.A. Milne

There’s something about the color orange that really appeals to my senses. Not nearly as aggressive as red, it nonetheless calls attention to itself in a cool, refreshing sort of way. So I was happy to hear that recently, an orange-flowering species received a perennial plant’s highest honor. In late November 2016, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was named 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

The designation Perennial Plant of the Year is awarded each winter by the Perennial Plant Association to the plant that outshines its competitors not only in appearance, but also in its noteworthy characteristics. In order to be considered, the perennial must be able to grow in a wide range of climates, require little maintenance, have multiple seasons of interest and be relatively pest and disease free.

That can be a tall order for a medium-sized plant like butterfly weed, but its unique qualities enabled it to more than rise to the occasion.

A milkweed relative

Native to much of the continental United States as well as Ontario and Quebec, butterfly weed grows wild in a variety of climatic conditions including dry forests, along roadsides and in open fields and prairies.

Butterfly weed in a northern Illinois prairie/Photo: Jason Patrick Ross 

A member of the milkweed family, it tops out at about 1 to 2 feet. Its preference for average to dry soil make it naturally drought-tolerant.

Butterfly weed’s large clusters of flowers are a brilliant orange-yellow, a beacon among other subtler-toned plants. Happily blooming from June through August, they produce copious amounts of nectar that attracts hordes of butterflies, birds (in particular, hummingbirds) and a wide assortments of insects throughout the growing season.

The distinctive flowers are actually composed of five petals that stand up and five petals that hang down. Called hoods, the petals that stand up enclose a single orange horn that when cross-pollinated, forms a follicle.

Later in the season, the follicle opens up along one side to disperse silky-tailed seeds.

Not to be outdone, butterfly weed’s foliage has its own attractions. Long and pointed, the 4″ leaves provide food for the larvae of native Monarch butterflies, while also lending a deep green backdrop to the brilliant flowers.

All in all, it’s like a shot of adrenaline for the garden.

 

Designing with butterfly weed

In order to flower, butterfly weed needs plenty of sun. Plant it in full sun in moderately dry soil.  Almost any soil type will do (remember it likes prairies), as long as there’s plenty of good drainage. If soil stays too wet, the plant can rot at the crown.

For an eye-catching composition, pair butterfly weed with other strong hued perennials like liatris spicata, echinacea ‘Double Scoop Raspberry’ and hemerocallis ‘Stella D’Oro’.

Or let its orange flowers provide a splash of color among subtler tones like lemon-yellow hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’, white phlox ‘David’ and apricot cosmos.

(By the way, butterfly weed makes excellent, long-lasting cut flowers.)

A word of caution: Left unattended, butterfly weed loves to spread. Deadhead it regularly to keep it from self-seeding. It’s best not to cut it back in the fall, but rather wait until early spring. The plant has a deep taproot, so it doesn’t like to be moved.

“Without butterflies, the world would soon have few flowers.” Trina Paulus

 

The Case for Living Large With Russian-Cut Roses

Russian-cut roses

I grow roses in my garden and would never think of cutting one before its prime. However, when it comes to buying roses locally, I opt for blooms that are still tight in the bud. Why the disconnect? It’s mainly habit, I suppose, and the fact that we Americans are only beginning to discover the perks of Russian-cut roses.

 

 

Russian-cut roses are not actually grown in Russia

Russian-cut roses are a common cut in Europe, but contrary to what their name implies, they were not grown in Russia. Rather, the term refers to roses that were harvested at the peak of their development; a time when their petals are more mature as opposed to the more common practice of cutting them when their buds are still tight. This makes for a rose with larger, more open blooms, longer stems and improved performance.

 

Why are they called Russian?

The term Russian-cut comes from the Russian tradition of giving a single, spectacular bloom as a token of appreciation. As an old Russian saying* goes,

“A saying is a flower, a proverb is a berry.”

 Angelica Privalihin “My Red Rose”

Of course this differs substantially from the American tradition of giving one-dozen roses. (By the way, in Russia giving a bouquet of flowers in even numbers is considered very bad luck and a major faux-pas.)

 

Why this method works

Evidence shows that roses that are left longer on the stem develop brighter colors and larger, more spectacular blooms than roses harvested in the tight-bud stage. This takes some patience to achieve. Growers must wait one to two weeks longer than normal before harvesting their roses. Doing this enables them to reap big rewards: the blooms typically average 50 % larger, and they last just as long or even longer than traditional, tight-cut flowers.

Why is this so? Because extending the growth period allows the flowers to absorb more nutrients that in turn allow them to continue to grow and develop. Longer nutrition and exposure to sunlight provides more sugars to the stems and leaves of the plant. The rose then uses this extra energy to produce bigger blossoms.

Nowadays these spectacular roses, which can feature 3 foot stems and blooms measuring 3.5 to 4 inches across are mostly grown high in the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia.

Rose harvest in Ecuador

Of course it costs growers more to wait the extra week and then package and ship larger flowers. There’s a premium for these larger blooms. But if you’re looking to make a big impact, you can’t do better.

So far, in the United States where Russian-cut roses are also known as European or Designer-cut, buyers are not entirely convinced, still holding on to the belief that normal, tight cut roses will last longer in the vase. They’re not entirely willing to pay the higher price for Russian cut roses, either. I’m guessing the exception to the rule is weddings, where a big impact is usually the goal. Perhaps we should begin applying that thinking to our everyday flower purchases.

*Mertvago, P. (1996). The comparative russian-english dictionary of russian proverbs & sayings. New York, NY: Hippocrene Books.

s ISBN: 0-7818-9424-8

 

 

Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.

A TRADING PLATFORM BUILT FOR SPEED

Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed (to accommodate flowers’ perishability) and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.

HOW THEY DO IT

When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: www.hollandfoto.net / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when placing your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.

 

New Hybrids Promise To Rock Your Poinsettia World

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The little yellow buds in the center of the poinsettia are the actual flowers.

Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become a symbol of the American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to marvel at the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were remarkable for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink and orange and even blue.

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Joel Roberts Poinsett

About poinsettias 

While they’re now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to Mexico where they grow wild in the mountain forests of the Pacific slope. In their natural habitat, poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like, often taking the form of shrubs or small trees.

WIld poinsettia/pinterest.com

Wild poinsettia/pinterest.com

Owing to their brilliant red color, poinsettias have been a part of Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600’s. But they were virtually unheard of in the United States until the early 1800’s. This is when Poinsett, who was the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, happened upon some while stationed in the tropical country.

Poinsett was so fascinated by the unusual-looking species that he began sending stems back to his family in South Carolina. When he later returned to his native State, Poinsett started propagating his own plants from stem cuttings, which he then introduced to botanical gardens and nurseries throughout America.

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Orange Spice’

As it grew in popularity owing mainly to efforts by Poinsett, the poinsettia became known in the United States as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ The plant’s scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter-blooming properties made it a colorful addition to holiday households. Following Poinsett’s death, the plant was renamed Poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.

 

The Ecke Family

The poinsettia industry really took off in the early 1900’s when a German immigrant named Albert Ecke started selling plants from a street stand on Sunset Boulevard in California. Given that the poinsettia was one of only a handful of plants known to bloom in the winter, Ecke soon convinced area growers of the advantages of propagating the plant to raise cash during the off-season.

When Albert’s son, Paul Ecke Jr. took over the business in the 1960’s, he began an intense marketing campaign, sending fresh plants to TV stations at Christmas and making personal appearances to promote the plant’s many benefits. His efforts landed the poinsettia in many popular women’s magazines and vastly increased the poinsettia’s overall visibility.

poinsettia

During the same period, Ecke Sr. came up with a technique that greatly improved the appearance of the often spindly-looking plant. By grafting two varieties of poinsettias together, he was able to create a fuller, more compact plant with many more blooms; a precursor to the specimens we purchase today. Until the technique was finally revealed, the Eckes maintained a 90 % share of the American poinsettia market.

Ecke family/Ecke Ranch

Ecke family/Ecke Ranch

 

The leaf is the flower

Poinsettias’ bright red leaves are often mistaken for flowers when in fact they are bracts. The plant’s actual flowers are the tiny cluster of yellow orbs in the poinsettia’s center. In order to produce the colored bracts, poinsettias require a daily regimen of at least 12 hours of darkness followed by bright sun (a long process undertaken by the grower.)

Although the plant originated as a red-leaved species, you can now find poinsettias in every shade of salmon, pink, creamy yellow and white. Modern hybrids, created by a cross between the traditional Euphorbia pulcherrima and Euphorbia cornastra, include varieties with reduced central flowers. Still other varieties are marbled or striped.

(All photos taken at the United States Botanic Garden holiday exhibition.)

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Autumn Leaves 2016’

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bells’

poinsettia white

Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Hot Pink’

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Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Max White’

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Euphorbia hybrid ‘Luv U Pink’

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bell Rock’

 

How to pick a poinsettia

When shopping for a poinsettia, make sure to look for a plant that has dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line. Choose plants that have fully-colored bracts and no green around the bract edges. Greened edges are a sign that the plant is older and won’t last as long. Never buy plants with yellowed leaves, which are sure signs of plant stress.

 

poinsettia in foil

Although bred to be compact, poinsettia branches break easily. Check to make sure no cracked branches are being held up by the foil sleeve. And always remove the sleeve after purchasing. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to survive.

Water well and allow the plant to dry out before re-watering. Avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts. Expose the poinsettia to plenty of sunlight to keep its bright color.

Toxicity

Although the sap and latex of the poinsettia leaves can cause a mild allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals, the plants themselves are not poisonous. As for the commonly-held belief that the plants are toxic to pets, the Pet Poison Helpline confirms that while poinsettias are listed as toxic to dogs and cats, they are only mildly irritating to the mouth and stomach if swallowed.

 

Fun fact

Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized since it is named after a person. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is pronounced poin-set-ee-ah.

 

 

 

Ten Really Great (Almost) Black Flowers To Plant In Your Garden

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Black bat flower

In painting, black is the darkest hue, achieved by bringing any color to its darkest value. Black gives structure to a composition, creating the illusion of depth by drawing the eye. And in the garden, black (or almost black) flowers perform the same function, placing other colors in dramatic contrast while adding volume to the composition. I’m already planning gardens for my clients for next spring. And, included in many are a whole host of these elegant, almost-black plants and flowers. Continue reading

Ten Minor Bulbs to Plant Now for A Big Bang In the Spring

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Winter aconites blooming in the snow

One of my favorite places to visit in the early spring is Delaware’s historic Winterthur Gardens. The estate’s stunning 60-acre naturalistic garden has one of the finest displays of early spring bulbs around, all staged to flower successively in a colorful quilt woven of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and whites. And every year when the show begins on the garden’s famous March Bank, I vow that I will plant hundreds of these tiny bulbs the coming fall so that I, too, can bask in their miniature early-spring glory. Continue reading

Scientists Uncover Key To Helping Plants Cope With Drought

drought-cover

Have you ever driven by a cornfield during a prolonged period of drought and asked yourself ‘How do these plants survive?’ Well it turns out scientists have uncovered a protein in plants that holds the key to why some survive and others don’t. It’s called ABA INSENSITIVE GROWTH 1 (ABIG1) and it may determine the future of plant growth in an increasingly waterless world.

Continue reading

How To Turn Ornamental Gourds Into Beautiful Fall Arrangements

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If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of ornamental gourds arrive at the grocery store, your mind whirls with design possibilities. The colorful and odd little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. Sure, you can just toss them into a bowl, but if you really want them to shine you need to spice up the mix. Here’s how to turn them into beautiful arrangements with a little help from some other seasonal ingredients. Continue reading