Robin-Lee

It's up for debate

Plants of the New Jersey Pine Barrens

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The Rival of Longwood Gardens

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…and all of the world’s botanical gardens.

It’s been over a month since I made my daring move to South Philadelphia — which is actually not bad despite my bullet-riddled body — and I’ve been going gangbusters on my front- and backyard botanical collection. Soon, I’ll be able to charge five quid for entry. No friend and family discounts.

And now that I have some more space and I’m feeling far too confident in my ability to garden, I’ve tried out some species that I’ve seen abroad or on Amazon, which reminds me that I need to stop drinking while looking at plants on Amazon.

I’ve found borage to be ridiculously easy to germinate, though it droops promptly in the blasting sun; Safflower pops up readily and sturdily, although I think that might be ivy; a boxed Thalictrum can survive a lob across the room from a buffoon of a coworker who can’t read “Fragile” on the cover; quinoa seedlings just look like leggy weeds; and bleeding heart leaves are just downright gorgeous and look great next to anything. On the other hand, Mucuna pruriens takes its sweet time growing and has attracted every thug slug in the block to come and chomp on it and our basil. (Though beer traps have proved pretty successful.) And the Canna lily cutting I’ve had since my doomed job at the greenhouse just keeps hanging on, mocking me for my poor horticultural skills. Sort of like my former boss at that greenhouse, only more attractive.

I’ve even guerrilla gardened our good-looking neighbors’ front-window flower box with some striking white and purple salvia interspersed with silver mound Artemisia. My efforts have proved beneficial on two fronts: I can enter our street into the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s green street competition, and the neighbors never close their curtains.

Zing.

The real beauties — and biggest challenges — that are newcomers to our Mercy Lee Botanical Garden are Hoya ‘Strawberries & Cream’, Gloriosa superba, and Daphne odora ‘Maejima’. I smelled the latter before I saw it in Koriyama, Japan, and it’s one of the most attractive and beautifully fragrant plants I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, I’ve read that it’s one of the most difficult to transplant and care for. Gloriosa happens to be an incredibly toxic plant, so I’ll need to keep it in a Beauty-and-the-Beast bell jar.

As of 10 minutes ago, the botanical garden had 74 confirmed species. Since then, the collection has increased by two, after taking a quick break to walk Nico (pictured on the right, taking a piss) and meeting a neighbor who was ecstatic that someone knew about purpletop vervain and bronze fennel and on the spot uprooted a few and put them in a pot for me to take home.

Longwood Gardens, look out…

Exploring FDR Park

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One massive donger: The Liberty Bell entrance of the Sesqui Expo

A good many things existing in Philadelphia came to be in 1926, thanks to the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition, a large fair held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. Much like its predecessor celebrating 100 years of throwing off the British yoke, the 1876 Centennial Exposition, both left their mark on Philadelphia’s landscape in its ornate, structurally unique (for their time) buildings and parks.

One such park is FDR Park, once part of a large tract of south Philadelphia land known as League Island Park. While its dominated today by sports stadiums, the park’s 80-foot, illuminated replica of the Liberty Bell must have been quite an impressive sight for fair goers. Among some other notable legacies from the fair still around today are the 11,000-pipe Curtis Organ — now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium — and The Fountain of the Seahorses, a gift from our good chum Benito Mussolini and which now sits behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Russian Tea House overlooking Meadow Lake was among other points of interest during the Exposition, including some delightfully named pavilions like Persia, Public Welfare, and Nuremberg.

But before the Sesqui, before the Centennial International Exhibition, before the signing of the Declaration and all the hullabaloo leading up to it, and before the settlement of the Swedes, the area appears to have been mostly underwater.

From the Philadelphia Water Department:

“The entire “Neck” (as South Philadelphia was once known) historically encompassed thousands of acres of tidal marsh, and was therefore a single drainage area…Much of the area remained marshy until the 20th century; one major filling project was undertaken to make land for the Sesquicentennial Exposition, held at League Island Park in 1926.”

A diversity of freshwater plants and wildlife and 12,000 years of Lenape inhabitance in these marshy lands was broken up by the property divisions among the sworn subjects of Penn, the diking and draining and filling of the estuaries, and the deforestation and transformation of marshes to meadows.

Tennis, children of the corn style

A swimming pool came and went (and swimming has now been banned in Meadow Lake), “picturesque” structures were built and remained behind from the Exposition, and an interstate rose over the lower portion of the park, the noise from which is the loudest I’ve ever heard standing underneath in the abandoned, derelict tennis courts.

Since the late 90s, however, and possibly stemming from (or at least influenced by) a very excellent and thorough plan (if you’re into this kind of thing) put together by the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, the Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program, and the Philadelphia Water Department, the park has seen a comeback of native species.

“[The marshes] have been shown to support diverse plants and animals including Heteranthera multiflora and Echinochloa walteri, two endangered wetland species in Pennsylvania.” There are also thriving cattail (Typha latifolia) populations thriving in the park.

The amazingly named Red-Bellied Cooter, who popped out to say hello during my exploring

Efforts have been made to remove purple loosestrife, and, while I did spot a troubling amount of mile-a-minute, I didn’t spot a stalk of Japanese knotweed, previously known to be a nasty invasive in the park. The above-mentioned trifecta’s plan called for some thought-provoking if not difficult means of complete park restoration:

*Foresting of uplands: open fields may present an opportunity for invasives/exotics like my favorite edible, garlic mustard. Foresting will also help prevent erosion and flooding, already a problem in a city of pavement and overflowing sewers.

“Areas which are not presently used for recreation, but are being mowed could be managed as meadows by mowing infrequently and possibly burning the area to promote plant diversity. Replanting of these areas is also recommended to establish native species and deter exotic species.”

Who’s ready for a swim?

*Well-managed edge habitats: Edge habitats, or the line along forest edges, are a playground for non-natives such as tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and wild rose (Rosa multiflora). Managing these and eradicating such edge-advantageous species may help maintain the park’s diversity.

The master plan is packed full of other fascinating insights into water composition, quality, and management, but I didn’t read these because I had to pee.

 

Exploring Bartram’s Mile & Beyond

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City skyscrapers seen from the new expansion, Bartram’s Mile

For the past year, I’ve been biking to Bartram’s Garden nearly every week or every other week, taking Washington Avenue to Gray’s Ferry Avenue, the bridge along which crosses the Schuylkill River and takes you into West Philadelphia. Immediately after crossing the nail- and bolts-strewn bridge, the road briefly connects to Woodland Avenue via a dangerous, somehow-rhomboid intersection. A sharp turn onto 49th which suddenly becomes another apostropheless Grays Avenue around a curve and a slight left onto Lindbergh Boulevard after a nail-/bolts-/garbage-strewn uphill stretch will take you to

Monument dedicated to the Newkirk Viaduct

the entrance of Bartram’s Garden.

It’s not ideal, nor very picturesque, so I couldn’t be happier when they unveiled the new Bartram’s Mile over a week ago. The new expansion eliminates a portion of the usual route and runs along the west-side of the river, abruptly ending below the Grays Ferry Bridge.

Paulownia trees, with their tuberous, brilliant purple flowers, line the trail that leads up to the Newkirk Viaduct monument, dedicated to the 1838 completion of the Newkirk Viaduct over the Schuylkill River. The bridge was not replaced by other bridges until 1902.

Old abandoned truss bridge dating from 1901

If you venture past the terminus of the path, which of course would be considered trespassing and is certainly not condoned by yours truly, you’d find the cleaver- and wild rose-covered railroad tracks leading to a rusting, abandoned truss swing bridge, once grandiosly known as Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Bridge No. 1. If you stand still along the path leading to the boat rentals at Bartram’s Garden, you can hear the old spanner groan as it swings slightly in the breeze.

Beneath the Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge

Farther inland, the path empties out underneath the Grays Ferry overpass, of graffitied columns and rough soil carpeted with Sweet Annie and a field of sumacs and mullein.

Somehow, this area will be reconstructed to continue the trail across the Schuylkill, “via a new bridge constructed with portions of an old abandoned swing bridge.”

 

Meanwhile, according to the article linked above, more trails and connections are being added, which is all very promising for a more bicycle-friendly city. Let’s hope this translates into fewer vehicles and buses and more bike rentals and maps from the Visitor Center…*

*(Stop by at 6th and Market for some advice on getting around Philly by bike!)

Knees of the Mysterious Trees & Bees

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Bloodroot poking out at Bartram’s Garden

Green has returned to Philadelphia, which means I’ve been setting out to Bartram’s Garden, amongst other places, to see if my Sweet Annie’s returned as well. Sadly, my lovely lass is inexplicably nowhere to be seen amongst the dead stalks of yesteryear, but there’s plenty of other curiosities to seek out in the Garden, particularly alongside the planked boardwalk leading to the Schuylkill River’s edge — the more interesting, at least botanically, forested acre of the Bartram property.

At first glance, they could be taken as new tree growths — albeit flared, sometimes chunky, and more dead than alive in  appearance — rising from the waters that swell into the swampland that supports other hydrophilic plants such as jewelweed.

Pointed, gnarly knees rising up around a bald cypress
Source: Wikipedia

But they’re not quite new growths and definitely not saplings. Bald cypress trees have been known for their unusual “knees”, woody extensions arising from underground roots both near and well out from the tree’s base. In 1819, Francois Andre Michaux, the same man who around 1790 gifted the now-gnarled yellowwood tree on the property to William Bartram, wrote, “No cause can be assigned for their existence.”

Farther along in the history of botanical studies, cypress knees were thought to have a role in retrieving more oxygen for the oft swamp-submerged tree. Yet, other scientists found that even cypresses in year-round dry conditions produced these mysterious structures. Moreso, the knees lacked lenticels and inner structures necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the tree’s interior – lenticels being the slits or holes we see in other species like silver birch and cherry tree varieties, respectively.

Other theories came about, my favorite (as in interesting, not feasible) being nutrient acquisition in which various above-ground cypress structures might snag dead tree matter and digest the degrading biomatter (sort of like the mechanism used by pitcher plants). One tauntingly puts forward the idea that these knees once served a purpose that is no longer required, much like how the hardness of avocado pits was specific to the able, crushing power of the teeth of a now-extinct mammal.

A very attractive plant, Fothergilla, in Bartram’s Gardens. The “flowers” actually lack petals and are really a cluster of aromatic stamens (the male fertilizing organ of a flower). Many of this species appear throughout Philadelphia.

A stronger theory has held on: the knees are providing better anchorage and stabilization for the tree, which tends to grow thin and tall in aquatic environments, which also happen to be places of strong and damaging winds.

Further buttressing the argument, a report by Arnoldia Arboretum states that “researchers have agreed that it is average water depth that determines the height of knees, and one observer, Mattoon, reported that the knees on trees growing in softer soils were larger than those produced by trees growing on firmer land.

The report goes on to say, incredibly, that “the tallest on record is a knee fourteen feet in height seen on a tree growing along the Suwannee River, which flows through Georgia and Florida”

So, if you’re ever wandering the meandering the riverside wooded areas of Bartram’s Garden, take some time to admire and wonder about these knees poking out of the soggy earth – having been around since at least the Upper Cretaceous period, there could be more than meets the eye and current climactic situation.

Another aromatic plant, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum). This one in Bartram’s Garden had a scent twice as strong as other mints.

Farther up the slope of the garden on drier land, bees swarm the bottle brush plant (Fothergilla) and other herbs in the Bartram’s garden plot (sans, sadly, Sweet Annie), and what perfect time to have received my order of bee-friendly seeds from Cheerios, which recently promoted a “Bring Back the Bees” campaign. It seems most of the mix really does contain native, bee-friendly species such as purple cone flower, bergamot, sweet alyssum, New England aster, and corn poppy.

I’ll be putting down my own roots – knees with a contractual year-long signed lease promising ruthless financial ruin for premature leave of premises – in South Philly in May and which includes what metropolis folk call a “yard”. For my rural family, consult Craigslist’s apartment ad section and type this in the search function. Then laugh, while imagining how much I’m shelling out for rent.

Still, the bees will be happy in my small patio garden, and I’ll hopefully see you at Bartram’s Garden*, where I’ll be leading tours of this ever-fascinating historical, botanical site. And bygod, there’ll be Sweet Annie if I have anything to do with it.

*Or at the opening of Bartram’s Mile, a greenway running along the west bank of the Schuylkill River between Grays Ferry Avenue and 56th Street), on Saturday, April 22nd, at 11 a.m.

A pesky intruder that’s prolific in more than just Bartram’s gardens, Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). NPS recommends planting other ephemeral plants, such as bloodroot!

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

April 20, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Shades of Red: New Trials & the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show

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Verbena x hybrida Lanai Twister Red
(Image from FleuroSelect)

The California Spring Trials, an annual week-long event featuring the newest and improved additions to the horticulture industry, will take place pretty soon in several locations near Santa Cruz. Sneak peaks are reflecting what’s been passing through the greenhouse recently, and I’ve been seeing quite a few shades of red.

The usual dizzying array of petunias (Petunia Good and Plenty Red) and calibrachoas (Calibrachoa Pomegranate Punch) have come through our cuttings room and more and more salvias (Salvia Grandstand Red Lipstick Pink). Then there’s the proven winners that have been around since the 2013 trials, such as the bold and endlessly blooming geraniums.

Some of my favorites have included the unique red hues and patterns on begonias, the streaked and more subtle scarlet waves on cannas, and the usual eye-catching Verbenas, especially the new Lanai Twister series.

While varying concentrations and cycles of naturally occurring chemicals within these plants are responsible for the colors perceived by different species (bees cannot sense wavelengths in the red spectrum and so they see flowers very differently from humans), some colors and especially variegation are caused by viruses.

Commonly seen are the leaves effected by the tobacco mosaic virus, which produces a mosaic of light and dark colors. Or perhaps you visited the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show and learned about the virus responsible for the beautiful tulips that were all the craze in the early-mid 1600s. The white streaks in these tulips are simply an absence of functioning chloroplasts (cells responsible for photosynthesis and reflecting the middle range of the visible color spectrum, thus appearing green to us) caused by the tulip breaking virus in cells in development and early growth of the plant’s organs.

The virus, while producing gorgeous specimens that were all the rage for some time in Europe (and absurdly valuable), actually weakened the plant, and so you would’ve seen similar, genetically bred tulips at the Flower Show but not those of Dutch Golden Age fame.

And not all streaks and spots are caused by viruses, but that’s a post for another day. For now, enjoy the photos I didn’t take (all photos taken by Mom Dunlap).

Philadelphia Flower Show 2017: Just a Peek

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“There’s no shortage of art in this city or in there.”

My tour guide friend’s words as he came out of the Flower Show are no exaggeration, and I can definitely say that this year’s Flower Show easily beats out last year’s rather lackluster national parks–themed displays.

I tried my hand at identifying the varieties of tulip — sources often break down Tulipa into 15 or so main categories. The following I tentatively ID’d, the Fringed variety being my absolute favorite. See if you can find them all at the Flower Show!

Of course, you won’t find the original “Rembrandt” variety of Tulipa, those tulips that looked as though they had been artfully painted by…well, not Rembrandt, because he didn’t paint flowers. But let’s say Monet.

The breath-taking, streaked tulips we see in paintings of old were a result of a virus, which, although it made beautiful and valuable, sought-after bulbs during the height of Tulipmania, made the flower’s stem weak and stunted and is now no longer commercially available. (But thanks to genetic modification and cultivation, a similar kind is available.)

While I went around and tried to identify the main varieties of tulips, I was also excited to see in real life plants I’ve only seen in pictures, such as Gaura lindheimeri, Snakeshead Fritillary, Trifolium repens, some beautiful California cedars, and more.

Later this week, I’ll explore more with my family the educational exhibits, such as the “Ecodome” and smaller terrarium and sculpture displays. In the meantime, if you’re in need of something indoors and with a burst of color, head to the Convention Center before the show ends this Sunday (and stop at the Independence Visitor Center to get discounted tickets!).

 

 

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

March 14, 2017 at 6:43 pm