31 July 2012

Cycads at Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory

During the Jurassic Period, dinosaurs ate Cycads as part of their vegetarian diet. Today, many Cycads are on the verge of extinction. According to the Cycad Society, more than half of the 320+ species are threatened or endangered.

The Australian Cycad Pages point out that "Cycad plants are long-lived and slow-growing, with slow recruitment and population turnover. The fleshy and starch-rich stems are highly susceptible to fungal attack, and almost all species grow in well-drained soils or sites. Habitats range from closed tropical forests to semideserts, the majority in tropical or subtropical climates in regions of predominantly summer rainfall. Cycads often occur on or are restricted to specialised and/or localised sites, such as nutritionally deficient sites, limestone or serpentinite outcrops, beach dune deposits or precipitously steep sites."

One of the U.S. locations where you can enjoy them, is at Myriad Botanical Gardens, Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory in Oklahoma City.

Encephalartos Cycad at Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory

Cycad cones at the base of the plant
Jurrasic Gardens has these plants for sale.

Mexican Cycad is a popularly grown Cycad.

Soft, fuzzy new growth of critically endangered Mexican Cycad

Sharp needle-like mature fronds of Mexican Cycad

Arkive explains that cycad reproductive organs, the cones, are borne on separate plants - male cones on one and female on another. On the Mexican Cycad, D. caputoi, only one pale brown cone is produced on each stem.

29 July 2012

Lipstick Tree or Annato is Bixa orellana from S America

Top Tropicals has the shrub for sale.
Annato is often grown as an ornamental for its pretty, fragrant, pink flowers even though they last only one day. 
The seed pods that follow the flowers are covered with red hairs.

On a recent visit to Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory in Oklahoma City, Kenton Peters, the Education Coordinator, pointed out their Lipstick Tree and its unique features.

Lipstick Tree, Annato, is native to Central and South America, Brazil in particular but is grown in many tropical areas, including Florida in the U.S..

The name Bixa orellana is derived from Francisco de Orellana, a 16th century Spanish explorer.

Kenton Peters, shows the prickly outer shell of the Lipstick Tree seed pod.
The seeds have and orange-red coating that is used as a food dye and in cosmetics. Peters reminded us that we have seen Annato on the list of ingredients of cheese and he's right, of course.

The red color is also used in polishes, lipstick and other products. The Lipstick part of the name comes from the red color being used in pre-commercial face paint.

Filipino and Mexican foods use this safe coloring in their foods. Annato oil can be made at home.

The mature size of the shrub
is 30-feet tall and 15-feet wide.
The Lipstick Tree can be grown from seeds that take up to 4 months to germinate.
Tradewinds Fruit offers the seeds.

26 July 2012

Smarty Plants - "What a Plant Knows" by Daniel Chamovitz

When a plant is moved from one place to another in the house or in your garden, you are usually trying to place it where it will grow more successfully. Maybe the flowers were sparse or the stems were long and lanky or the leaves were becoming crisp. Whatever signs prompted the observant gardener to move it; the plant somehow signaled its need for different conditions and got what it needed.

Scientists think plants know more than we give them credit for and that our interactions with them would benefit from understanding what has been discovered over the past decades.

In a new book, “What a Plant Knows”, scientist Daniel Chamovitz explains how plants see, smell, feel, hear, understand where they are, and remember.   To help us understand the new science, Chamovitz compares each sense we think of as being human and animal with the counterpart senses of plants.

For example, plants use a set of genes to determine whether they are located in the light or in the dark. Those same genes are in human and animal DNA and serve the identical purpose – a response to light.

Chamovitz points out that plants have a more difficult survival situation than humans and animals: While we have the mobility to move away from undesirable circumstances, plants have to hold their ground and adapt to whatever comes their way, including changing weather, pests, and encroaching neighbor plants.

In response to their challenging environmental circumstances, over time, plants developed sensory and regulatory systems that they use to change their growth pattern in order to cope.

Plants see how much light they are in and the direction it is coming from. They do not have an animal’s biological eyes but gardeners know that when shaded, plants will move toward the light, even though they often have to lean and become long and lanky.

They also can smell when their fruit is ripe, when a plant nearby is being eaten by an insect and when someone has cut another plant’s stems. One study even found that plants could smell whether they were next to tomatoes or wheat.

Another example of plants’ ability to smell is that an avocado will ripen if put into a bag with a ripe banana and that tomatoes will ripen if put into a bag with an apple. Both apples and bananas emit ethylene gas. Plants’ use of ethylene developed as a way to protect themselves from drought, wounds, and aging.

Plants know when they are being touched, can tell the difference between hot and cold, and vines know when there is a nearby plant or fence to climb. The Venus Flytrap can feel the difference between wind blowing and a frog walking across the hairs that signal it to close. It even knows whether the prey is large enough to bother with, by the number of hairs that are disturbed and how many seconds there were between the triggering of the first and second hair.

Scientists found that plants do not particularly enjoy being touched by us and will stop growing if touched too often.

Despite a hundred years of scientific experiments to try to prove otherwise, Chamovitz concludes that plants cannot tell the difference between Bach and rock music.

They can tell up from down, though.  A plant whose pot falls over will continue to grow upward, even if that means completely reversing direction. Plants were sent to outer space to prove that it is gravity that makes roots grow down.
How Do Plants Know
Which Way Is Up And Which Way Is Down?

Loaded with fascinating information about plants:  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses” by Daniel Chamovitz, 177-pages, published 2012, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, www.fsgbooks.com. Chamovitz’s blog is www.thedailyplant.com.

24 July 2012

Bees - what's what?

Between the heat and the drought, it's a struggle for all the living things out there, including plants, birds, insects and whatever is digging all those holes in our back yard.

The Havahart SprayAway is set up to discourage the four-leggged problem and we water several hours a day to keep enough pollen for the insects. Bird baths (all 3) have to be filled daily to keep the birds happily splashing.

New this year is a bunch of blue jays. We've seen as many as 8 at a time around the birdbaths.

There are fewer butterflies this year, but plenty of other interesting insects to watch, including skippers, bees, wasps, etc.
Honey bee on Heliotrope

Bee and pollinator protection organizations:
Great Pollinator Project http://www.greatpollinatorproject.org/
Bee Guardian Foundation http://www.beeguardianfoundation.org/
Xerces U.K. http://www.xerces.org/
Step Project Worldwide http://step-project.net/
Pollinator Partnership http://www.pollinator.org/
Wings and Seeds http://wingsandseeds.org/2012/03/08/kinomaagewin-aki-teachings-from-the-earth/
North American Buddhists and Pollinator Protection
U. S. Forest Service Pollinator Protection http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/friendlypractices.shtml/
Public Radio International Living On Earth http://www.loe.org/index.html
Ohio State University Bees and Pollination http://osu.campusguides.com/agnic_bees_pollination
Beyond Pesticides http://www.beyondpesticides.org/pollinators/index.htm

Honey bee on Purple Heart

Joe Pye Weed attracts several insects seeking pollen - what's this one?

Carpenter or Bumble bee on Heliotrope
The vegetables and flowers may have disappointed, but there are other ways to enjoy the outdoors this summer. 
Skipper on Vitex flowers
Gardens With Wings can help identify skippers.

Oh, and if you are on Facebook, "like" http://www.facebook.com/#!/4wasps
They regularly post photos of bees, wasps and other Beneficials.

22 July 2012

Fall garden anyone?

Fall planted seeds include those put in during July and August such as bush beans, cowpeas, lettuce, cilantro, and cucumbers. Tomatoes are planted with new plants in July. And, remember to plant chard and kale so when temperatures cool, you will have those delicious leaves for salads and soups.

Flower seeds of annuals are not usually planted this late unless you think you can squeeze one more planting of zinnias in before your first hard frost. In another month, we'll be starting perennial seeds though.

Broccoli head from this spring's garden
It is time to get started on a fall garden if you are planting one this year.
Oklahoma State University Fact Sheet 6009 has a handy chart to help us know what goes in when.

Territorial Seed suggests that it is also time to plant overwintering onions and shallots.

Brent and Becky's Bulbs has native choices that can extend your flower garden's bloom. They sweeten the pot with a 10% discount on Allium, Calochortus, Camassia, and Triteleia.

A couple of things to remember, especially during this year's heat and drought:

Where you live and the current weather conditions have to be your guide.

In Colorado, broccoli, lettuce, chard and kale are in the ground now. Author (link on left), Linda Langelo of Colorado State University, also points out, "All the cole crops are intolerant of dry soils. They are shallow rooted and like moist, well-drained soil."

Mid-July is planting time in Michigan, too. Kenneth Sleight said, "Carrots, parsnips, and some other root vegetables taste even better when they are left in the ground at low temperatures. It is at this time that the starches in the roots turn into sugars and add a bit of sweetness to the vegetables."

In Galveston, fall garden broccoli is planted in October, according to Dr. William Johnson, horticulturist with the Galveston County Office of Texas AgriLife Extension Service, The Texas A&M System. Visit his Website at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston.

In Kentucky, beets are planted up to Aug. 1, according to the University of Kentucky fact sheet.

The Maine Master Gardeners say that August is the perfect time. Betty Jakum writes, " cool weather ...  leafy greens, root crops and various members of the cabbage family. Beets, carrots, peas, chard, endive, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, turnips, radishes, spinach, oriental vegetables like Chinese cabbage and bok choy and transplants of late cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts may be planted in early August for fall harvesting. My fall plantings of lettuce are healthier and better tasting than the ones I harvest in early spring."

Seed germination soil temperature - Use the chart at Tom Clothier's site so you put seeds in when they will germinate!

Try planting July/August seeds in a shallow trench lined with peat moss, compost or cottonseed hulls in the bottom. That extra protection against drying heat can really help hold moisture around the seeds and seedlings.

19 July 2012

Insect Habitat - build one for your garden

In the photo: YVC participants Zane Burleson, Kayla Russell, Catelynn Bradley, Mary Knack, Jaycee Gardner, Andrew Cunningham, Skye Dixon, Catherine Moses, Talon Watson, Bailey Tull, Dallas Juneil and staff  Sonya McJunkin, Lindsay Liszeski, Eileen VanKirk, Charley Walton.

Every spring gardeners find aphids on their plants. Some reach for a bottle of insecticide and others hope that lady bug beetles and parasitic wasps will fly in and dine on the aphids, eliminating the problem.

There are many other helpful insects. For example, ground beetles that hide in the weeds hunt insect eggs and caterpillars. Lacewings eat aphids, caterpillars, mealy bugs, leafhoppers, insect eggs, and whiteflies. Parasitic wasps attack aphids, beetles, caterpillars, flies, sawflies, scale insects and true bugs.

Insect Habitat ground floor
  With enough encouragement, beneficial insects can replace chemical and organic pest control methods.

Helpful insects include pollinators such as bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles, whose activity make fruit, vegetables and flowers possible by going from flower to flower to collect pollen and nectar.

In the spring, summer and fall, all these beneficial insects can be seen on flowers, in trees, on wet ground and around water sources. 

Gardens naturally attract helpful and harmful insects and gardeners can take a few steps to bring in more beneficials and keep them around.  Insect habitats can be created to provide a permanent home, ensuring the availability of predators to control potential problems. 

Last week, the students of Muskogee’s Youth Volunteer Corps built insect hotels to encourage insects to spend the winter close to the garden.  Insect hotels provides year-round shelter for lady bugs, frogs, toads, bees and other animals that help maintain a garden’s healthy biodiversity. And, the hotel makes a family-friendly, educational, nature-watching station.

  Building an insect hotel requires a level site in part-shade that is close to plants and water. The structure is basically several levels of wood or pallets separated by bricks and wood blocks. Each level is filled with insect habitat features such as leaves, sand, pine cones, flower pots, bundles of straws or bamboo canes, tree bark, straw, seed pods, twigs, and logs. The top can be covered with roofing tiles, plastic or roofing felt weighted down with crushed brick or hunks of concrete and drought tolerant plants.

The YVC students said that they learned a lot by building insect hotels, including the role of pollinators in providing our food and the natural role of predator insects in providing natural, organic garden-pest control.

The students talked about building insect hotels as science projects and in local community gardens to help those gardeners manage pest problems.

To build your own insect hotel, start with 4 bricks on the bottom. Try to find bricks with holes and put them on their side with the holes facing outward. (Thank you to Boral Bricks for donating the bricks needed for the YVC project.) An “H” shape of bricks can be filled with sand for frog and toad homes on the bottom level. (Directions we used are at http://tiny.cc/kr5dhw)

Place a piece of plywood, a pallet, or strips of wood on top of the bricks, fill that hotel floor with materials, then continue to build more hotel floors the same way.

Insects spend the winter in all stages of development:  Egg, nymph, caterpillar/larva and adult.  During periods of hibernation, they need the protection of plant materials, including hollow stems, such as daylily or poppy stems and similar materials.

The habitat built by the YVC students included small bundles of bamboo and drinking straws for leafcutter and mason bees, rolled up cardboard for native bees, and tree bark for bumble bees. Solitary bees will use the abandoned beetle burrows for their nests.

  Experiment with whatever you have around: Ladybugs nest in straw and small sticks. Larger bugs will live in twigs. Pine cones and small logs will become homes for other insects.

16 July 2012

Basil walnut pesto - an illustrated how to prepare

The basil and garlic did well enough this year to make and can several jars of pesto. We skip a year sometimes if the basil is not abundant but most years this is one of the things we do to preserve the flavors of summer.
A sinkful of basil is washed, the stems are removed
and then the leaves are washed twice more.

This 1.5 pound hunk of Parmesan cheese was cut and put into the food processor and ground.

That hunk of cheese made 4 cups ground. Then, a 2 pound bag of walnuts went into the food processor, one pound at a time, with enough olive oil to make a walnut paste.

The walnut-olive oil paste was removed from the food processor, into the same bowl as the chopped cheese.

Garlic is a personal thing - we like lots. Remove the skins and put into the food processor bowl

On top of the garlic, we fill the food processor bowl with basil leaves and add a few tablespoonfuls of lemon juice and a teaspoon of salt.

The lemon juice and salt add the acid you need for safe canning.
Repeat until all the basil and garlic are ground with lemon juice and salt.

Combine all the ingredients and taste. Add salt as needed. We used  1-tablespoon salt for the entire batch.

Each clean, sterilized, jar is filled to below the rim and topped with a tablespoon of olive oil.

If you put too much pesto in the jars, they will not seal so be a little skimpy.

Boiling water bath is next. Since the pesto is not hot when it goes into the jars, put the filled jars into enough hot water to cover them and turn the water on high heat. It can take as much as 45 minutes for the water to come to a boil, depending on the amount of water and number of jars.

After the water boils, set a timer for 15 minutes.

When the canned pesto has been in boiling water for 15-minutes, remove the jars and set them aside to cool.

Wash the jars with soapy water, remove the rings and store in a cool, dark cabinet. If any of the jars did not seal (the tops are still not popped down) put them into the refrigerator and use them first.

14 July 2012

Old-fashioned flowers have the most butterfly nectar

If there is one thing we have all learned about attracting butterflies it is that the old-fashioned flower, vegetable and herb varieties provide the most nectar and attract the most pollinators.

 Some of these old-fashioned butterfly favorites have to be given to you by a gardener or found at a real gardeners' plant sale - a plant club of some kind where gardeners take extra plants from their own gardens to offer to the public.

Since they are available at garden sales and as passalong plants, you can assume that given the right amount of time and attention, yours will need to be divided and shared at a future time.
This tall, perennial phlox paniculata came from a neighbor down the road. After she joined our garden club, I stopped in and asked for a few roots - she had a quarter acre of the stuff and what a dramatic sight when it was all in bloom! 

A dozen swallowtail butterflies collecting nectar on one bed of phlox paniculata - in our side yard. Click on the photo to enlarge it so you can see them all.

 It's native range has spread from the eastern U.S. and now covers about half of North America.

Plant garden phlox out in the open with at least half a day of sun, where breezes can keep mildew problems away. Plan to water practically daily in these 100-degree temperatures, to keep it producing flowers and butterfly shows.

The Illinois wildflower page says small mammals can damage the plants, but even with 50 bunnies in our garden, we have not had that problem. Probably because there is yummy chard planted in the same place.

Cold hardy to zone 4. 
 Primrose Path, a commercial grower has a terrific page about all things phlox from a plant breeder's perspective.  HERE.

12 July 2012

Water your garden - how to keep it green in heat and drought

Water is critical to plants and nothing brings that home like a hot dry summer. Most gardeners use twice as much water as they need to keep their garden thriving.

Annuals, including everything from impatiens to cucumbers, need the most water. Sun loving plants in containers also can require daily, if not twice a day watering, to prevent stress.

Medium water use plants, such as shrubs, woody perennials, and trees planted within the past year or two, need to be watered during hot, dry, weather.

Mature trees and drought tolerant plants need less water than those listed above. Moisture-loving plants such as hydrangeas can become stressed and may need extra water to keep them looking their best.

Transpiration and evaporation are the processes that make the plants you watered this morning droop in the afternoon.  Water evaporates out of plants through the underside of the leaves, the stems and flower petals. It is challenging to keep some plants looking good no matter how much water they receive.

Shade can help. Pots can be moved under trees and arbors and other vulnerable plants such as tomatoes can be draped with shading cloth.

2012 USDA zone map
Since everyone’s weather is going to be hotter, consider replacing plants that struggle every year, with more heat and drought tolerant ones.  In general, annuals (plants that complete their life cycle in one growing season) have more shallow roots than woody perennials, so dividing and adding more perennials will help reduce next year’s water needs.

Adding organic matter increases the water-retention capacity of the soil structure, reducing future water needs. The best practice is to add 4-inches of organic material every year.

The more established a plant is when hot dry weather arrives, the more likely it is to thrive. Perennials are planted in the fall so they have time to develop deep roots before summer arrives.  
They still have to be watered regularly the first summer and for up to five years after planting.
One or two inches of water per week should be provided in any week there is no rainfall.
An easy way to measure the water falling from the sprinkler is to tuck a tuna can into the bed. When it is full, move the sprinkler.

Mulch is key to a healthy summer garden. It insulates the soil surface from becoming too hot, protects plant roots, prevents water-stealing weeds from growing, and reduces evaporation.

Mulch actually changes the structure of soil, leading to increased root growth, better oxygen movement, and more nutrients being available to plants.

Clemson Cooperative Ext.
Mulch that has not already decomposed promotes soil granulation which is the action of soil micro-organisms improving clay soil.

Organic mulches that nourish the soil include:  Shredded bark, shredded leaves, pine needles or pinestraw, sawdust, grass clippings, straw, hay, cottonseed and buckwheat hulls, pecan shells, cocoa hulls (do not use if you have dogs), peat moss, and compost. Water both before and after applying mulch.

Healthy plants tolerate heat and drought better. Avoid fertilizing drought spells when plants stop growing. It is better to fertilize in spring and fall when temperatures are cooler.

Cutting back and pruning helps reduce the amount of leaf surface. Avoid severe pruning but pinch and prune off up to one-third of the plant.

Our favorite waterer
  Watering methods that work include soakers, sprinklers that keep the water flow close to the ground, drip systems and similar soil-moistening methods. Watering 4 or 5 feet into the air evaporates up to 70% of the water. Irrigating in the morning allows time for the plants’ leaves to dry during the day. Watering in the evening can lead to mildew on zinnias and fungus on roses if the leaves remain wet overnight.

09 July 2012

Feeding adult butterflies and their offspring

Our garden attracts many varieties of butterflies, skippers and moths. Among the most dramatic, though common, butterflies are the swallowtails. At this time of year we see dozens and dozens of tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucas) on the tall perennial phlox late in the afternoon.
In this hot dry weather, many butterflies need supplemental water, sugar and minerals.
To feed adult butterflies, fruit and Gatorade are replenished almost daily.
Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar about to make a chrysalis.
If you want a LOT of butterflies, it helps to provide the plants where they lay their eggs. Many butterflies are host specific and will lay eggs only on one type of plant.

Many types of swallowtail caterpillars look similar. Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes asterius Stoll) hang out, dance around and mate on the perennial phlox so this could be one of their caterpillars.

Swallowtail caterpillar eating dill, a favorite food.
This year the garden has a dozen parsley plants, 8 fennel plants, and plenty of dill. We are being rewarded with plenty of caterpillars.

Our view of the butterfly feeder from the kitchen window.

Giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes Cramer caterpillar

Giant swallowtail butterflies are the largest of the species with wings that span 6-inches and more. To bring them to the garden, we grow rue. We started with one plant given to us by another butterfly grower, then I started several plants from seed. Now our mature plants are making seed.
Rue for Giant Swallowtail larvae - can you see the eggs?

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio troilus

Here's a link to a website that chronicles bringing butterfly eggs and caterpillars into the house to enjoy watching the entire process up close. The site is Berkeleys Anise Swallowtails. By the way the butterflies called Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) looks a lot like the Western Tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).

What's that Bug, "If you live in the central to eastern states, the you have Black Swallowtails. If you are west of the Rocky Mountains, they are Anise Swallowtails."

Joyful Butterfly's site provides a list of host plants
Anise Swallowtailanise, parsley, carrot, dill, fennel, rue
Eastern Black Swallowtailparsley, carrot, dill, fennel, rue
Giant Swallowtailcitrus, hop tree, prickly ash, rue
Pipevine Swallowtaildutchman's pipe, pipevines (not the exotics), Virginia snakeroot
Spicebush Swallowtailspicebush, sassafras, camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtailmany broadleaf trees and shrubs, lilac, willow, birch, tuliptree, cherry
Zebra Swallowtailpawpaw
MonarchMilkweed (Asclepias)
Viceroywillow, poplar, aspen, apple, cherry, plum
Red-Spotted Purpleapple, aspen, cherry, hawthorn, hornbeam, poplar, willow
Great Spangled Fritillaryviolets, (Viola tricolor)
Variegated FritillaryViolets, (Viola tricolor), pansies, stonecrops, passionflowers, plantains
Meadow Fritillaryviolets (Viola sororia, Viola pallens)
Mourning Cloakelm, poplar, willow
Question Markelm, hackberry, hop, nettle
Green Commarhododendron, azalea, birch, willow
Red Admiralnettle, false nettle, hop
Painted Ladymembers of the mallow family, Malva sylvestris, Tree mallow (Lavatera)
American Painted Ladydaisies, everlastings, other composites, Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Buckeyeplantain, snapdragon, stonecrop, verbena, (Verbena bonariensis)
Baltimore Checkerspotturtlehead, false foxglove, plantain, white ash
Pearly Crescentspotasters New England Aster (A. novae-angliae)
Great Purple Hairstreakmistletoes
Gray Hairstreakcotton, mallows, strawberry, legumes, mints
American Coppersheep sorrel, curly dock, mountain sorrel
Tailed Blueclovers, beans, peas
Spring Azureblueberry, California lilac, dogwoods, meadowsweet, viburnums
Cloudless Sulphursenna, clovers, other legumes
Clouded Sulphurclovers and other legumes
Orange Sulphurwhite clover, alfalfa, vetch, lupine
Dogfacefalse indigo, clovers, lupine, vetch, leadplant
Checkered Whitecrucifers, Cleome
Cabbage WhiteCabbage, Mustards, other crucifers, nasturtium
Zebra Longwingpassionflowers
Gulf Fritillarypassionflowers, (Passiflora caerulea)