Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating; this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity.

The story goes that King Nebuchadnessar II built the gardens for his homesick wife who found the flat, desert terrain of Mesopotamia depressing.  To please her, he created an artificial mountain out of red clay bricks and embellished it with an ascending series of tiered gardens. The plants, which included trees, shrubs and vines, cascaded from the many terraces, giving the very real impression that they were floating.

Artist’s rendering of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon/Photo: unmuseum.org.

By some accounts, the gardens measured 400 feet wide by 400 feet long and towered as high as 80 feet in the air. A stairway led to the uppermost level. Beside the stairway were a series of mechanical screws through which water was continually pumped from the Euphrates to the top of the garden from where it then trickled down. Historians estimate the gardens may have used up to 8,200 gallons of water day to irrigate the plants in this way.

Whether or not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon every existed, I later learned that hanging gardens do flourish in many parts of the world, and just as in Babylon, they often take root in desert environments. Unlike King Nebuchadnessar’s garden masterpiece, however, they are naturally generated and need no help from man. But don’t discount them; they are every bit as grand a feat of landscape engineering.

About Hanging Gardens

Of the many beautiful hanging gardens to be found around the world, Zion National Park lays claim to some of the most unusual. This is largely due to the rock formations that make up the park. These formations, known in geology as the Navajo Formation, provide the perfect environment for hanging gardens to develop.

Unlike their more pampered cousins, hanging gardens are composed of plant communities with a singular ability: they are able to establish themselves in rock, often in desert environments that are hostile to their very survival.

In Zion, we have the Navajo sandstone to thank for these suspended treasures. The deep red sedimentary rock, while by all appearances solid, is highly porous. This allows it to soak up rainwater like a sponge, creating a unique habitat for water-loving plants to thrive in places they would normally never be able to grow.

The combination of this porous sandstone and adjacent levels of impervious (Kaibab) limestone, create the perfect conditions for hanging gardens of all sorts of varieties to develop. As water seeps down through the sandstone, it pools in places where it hits the impenetrable stone. Then, as gravity does its magic, the water fishes its way downward through joints and cracks in the impervious strata, slowly nourishing the hanging gardens that cling to its rocky walls.

Water ‘seeps’ can range from small moist patches on stone to short-lived trickles to full-fledged gushing streams or pools that weep all year. A true hanging garden forms where there is constant seep as well as shade during much of the day to keep plants lush and moist. Plants like ferns, wildflowers, grasses and mosses are often found in these well-watered areas.

It’s a lot like a vertical garden.

 

The Phenomenon of Weeping Rock

Zion’s most famous hanging garden is called Weeping Rock. It is reached by a short but steep trail up a rocky hillside. As the path clears the final rise, dry sand and gravel give way to moss and slippery rocks fed by long ribbons of water oozing from a canyon above. Formed of impermeable shale, the canyon floor sheds the water down through the porous rock until it finally finds a place where it can penetrate.

At Weeping Rock, the permeable layer has eroded further than the impermeable layer of rock, forming a shelf where water can collect. The water streams down the sandstone walls and across the terrace, eventually cascading over the edge into a pool below.

Weeping Rock at Zion National Park

Pool where water collects under Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock is best viewed from beneath its natural arch, which features a garland of mosses and ferns. The seeping walls of the crescent-shaped stone terrace are home to lush green vegetation, which includes wildflowers, ferns, grasses and orchids, all of which can be found growing right out of the rock. Some are even growing upside down.

Aquilegia grahamii columbine

The columbine Aquilegia grahamii, known to grow in extremely fragile environments, is also found growing throughout the park. Its brilliant yellow and mango blooms add a bright touch to the red stone walls.

Orchid and columbine growing out of the rock walls of Zion

As do orchids, monkey flowers and other beautiful plant specimens.

For more information on Zion National Park and its hanging gardens, click here for the National Park Service website.

Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

Allium giganteum, also known as Giant Onion 

They look like they’re right out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on naked green stems. I love to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they encounter the colorful spheres for the very first time. Drought tolerant and virtually disease and pest-free, alliums (also known as ornamental onions) are a sure bet if you’re looking to liven up your garden. Continue reading

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

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Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis. Continue reading

Lily of the Valley: The Official May Day Flower

The bells of lily of the valley

It was the beginning of May and I can still recall the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. This was Paris in the 1980s, and I had just received my first brin de muguet. The sweet-smelling blooms were none other than lily of the valley; a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.