Robin-Lee

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Posts Tagged ‘plants

And the PHS Gardening and Greening Contest Award goes to…

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Not us!

Two months ago, I entered our front and backyard spaces in PHS’s Gardening and Greening Contest, which so exists to celebrate “the accomplishments of gardeners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.”

Alleyway before & after. Even some of the dirt in the before picture was added — this was originally a garbage pit and was spanned by broken-down wooden slats, which my roommate cleverly used to make our existing vegetable-garden planter. In this plot, we have growing Ipomoea sloteri, purple Salvia, stonecrop, coneflower, Cleome, Shepherd’s needles, and other wildflowers.

Contenders could win in one of several categories, including Children’s Garden (we have far too many poisonous plants and far too few children to be considered, it seems), Combination Garden, Container Garden, Flower & Specialty Garden, Garden Block, Public Space: Plantings/Parks, Urban Farm (ineligible as we do not sell our fruits of labor…yet), and Vegetable Garden.

Gods alive! Our leafy friends have really thrived in this humid summer. In the left-hand corner, my ace-in-the-hole Mucuna Pruriens is hopefully vining, twining, and waiting for the right timing until its big show… Bottom left-hand corner: Mothra

While I’ve listed the categories now, I didn’t take it upon myself when entering the contest to read the fine print of the rules, regulations, and possible winning categories. Had there been an “Entirely Green Foliage” or “Drunk Garden Design” category, we would have surely won. That being said, we did our damnedest, and I’m proud that my roommate and I worked together to put some green against the otherwise bleached concrete of 1109 Mercy Street. I’m also chuffed that we managed to keep most plants alive throughout a week of scorching sun and some strange man who our neighbor informed us was peeing in a particular plant at four in the morning (which, incidentally, is now dead).

Lesson learned: Borage deserves a bigger bed

While we’ve been busy with our own green space, I’d been meaning to take a stroll around South Philadelphia to show off some of our neighbor’s beautiful front-porch/yard/patio green spaces. I’ve met a few of them, and they certainly know their plants. First up…

Christ, this place. The owners looked down on me from their upper deck veranda — sitting in white, Victorian chairs, drinking wine out of marble goblets and savoring cheeses and capers — and told me to scamper off like a good little urchin, before I had a brief glimpse of a nude Minerva with water arching from her teats into a pool of porcelain koi.

No. Not right. I didn’t see these people at all, and I’m betting they’re absolutely lovely. At the least, they take extraordinary care of their magical courtyard, and it must have been years of attention to train the now-bursting grape vine and some careful thought into establishing the soft-colored pines that preside over their unbelievably Spring-green lawn.

You’ll see from the photos of our own front green space that I’m partial to purples, pinks, blues, and greens. I am not a fan of yellows, reds, and oranges. Yet, this house just up 11th street has some definite interest and a well-thought-out plan (heat- and sun-tolerant varieties) with its cascading Lysimachia, well-matched Coleus, and Amaranthus tricolor, a striking red-yellow-orange pigweed I’ve never seen before.

 

Again with the orange hues in the photo above, but these owners have cleverly used an elevated tub and a smart, symmetrical arrangement as well as some interest in the right, lower-hand corner with a blue oat grass and an unknown vine.

Not far from the red-yellow-orange house, this front appeals to me with its old-fashioned street lamp and entirely red-green theme with Elephant Ear plants and mandevilla.

 

I imagine this neighbor vied for the container competition. He’s also the one who gifted me the purpletop vervain and bronze fennel (now sadly passed) on my walk with the dog a month ago. And I can never resist a good use of pines and Lantana.

We met our neighbor on the corner a few nights ago as we were arranging our own front yard green space. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, odd curlers still in hair, she said she had been training her clematis and ivy for over 10 years. The stunning double clematis variety which she disdains, as it takes on a rather ragged and dried appearance after a short flowering period, peeps out from the pink roses and Japanese stone fountain hidden below the trellis.

So there we have the finest of South Central Philly, and it narrows down both the possible PHS winner and whose plants on which I’ll be increasing the pH balance.

 

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Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

July 23, 2017 at 5:19 pm

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.

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…

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 12, 2017 at 6:15 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

Week 5 Under the Greenhouse: Story in a Nutshell

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This gorgeous little blue ball poking out of the soil is a genuine seed. NOT a tiny bouncy ball to buoy the plant in the soggy medium, though I love the fantastical idea. The seed is that of one of the hardiest, most beautiful, and most botanically interesting plants, the canna lily.

When I put some pressure on the seed between my fingers to test its

Rough, bumpy-skinned seeds of Prickly Ash

Rough, bumpy-skinned seeds of Prickly Ash

strength, I remembered a short story I had read in National Geographic about the true account of a rattle found by archaeologists in a tomb in Argentina. The rattle was made from a walnut, and inside the walnut was a still-viable 600-year-old canna seed.

And while the canna itself is fascinating, seeds across the board are absolutely amazing, being unique in size, shape, viability/longevity, color, and chemistry. Take, for instance, the peppery, mouth-numbing Prickly Ash seed, or the pleasing circular-disc shaped seeds of Malva sylvestris. There are the miniscule seeds of pansies and the larger seeds of Impatiens capensis (jewelweed), both of which fling their seeds by a stupendous mechanism far from the mother plant.

For those interested in reading more about seeds and their astounding capabilities and backstories, I highly recommend “The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History” by Thor Hanson.

This short story, though, still has a cliffhanger, which hopefully will be answered by a reader or someone in the greenhouse: Why are the canna lily seeds blue?

Impatiens capensis flower with seed dangling above, in Crum Woods

Impatiens capensis flower with seed dangling above, in Crum Woods

 

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

February 9, 2017 at 6:41 pm

Posted in Botanical, History

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Week One Under the Greenhouse

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Last month, I managed to wheedle my way into a greenhouse job north of Philadelphia, and, following my first week on the job, I can report that week one was nowhere near great nor promising. On that same note, I’ve learned a tremendous amount in a short time, and, on a separate note, joined a community band.

My new job is in the cuttings department of the greenhouse operation – it’s here where cuttings are received and planted in trays to be carted out to specific sections of the greenhouses to be misted and grown under special lighting for specific amounts of levels and time, treated with pesticides and hormones as necessary, sent to hoop houses to be subjected to some cold treatment for hardiness, then shipped out to retailers and private buyers.

The job is both simple and complex, simple in the fact that the process is exactly described as above and complex in the way that anyone just walking into the greenhouse would have to quickly become familiar with rooting hormones, specific designated areas within the greenhouses, specific order of processing incoming shipments (in addition to temperature recording, tray-size assignments and pre-setup of trays to be placed on conveyor belts), handling surpluses, detriments, and damaged incoming shipments of cuttings, and, lastly, working with both individuals with either a long employment at the greenhouses, those with a deeper background in horticulture, and Cambodian seasonal workers with little a lick of English.

As someone just walking into the greenhouse, I have not exactly cottoned on quickly enough to assure my supervisor of six years’ greenhouse savvy that I was the best candidate for the job.

In spite of what could be a very short career stint and my first firing ever, I’ve had the pleasure of “sticking” (planting cuttings in a soil medium in specific-sized, plastic growing trays) everything from fuchsia (actually nearly pronounced the way you want to say it) and New Guinea impatiens to Scaevola and Thunbergia. There are also the more needy types requiring rooting hormone before sticking such herbs as Rosemary and Lavender.

It’s all very fascinating, and so long as I last there and ending on a positive note, you can also come to see me perform in the Southampton Community Band after I relearn my trumpet scales.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 8, 2017 at 8:17 pm

The Prickly & Pawpaw Patch of Pennypack Park

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Pennypack Park map

Pennypack Park map

The alliteration is back, as is my voracious weight gain.

Now that I’m not breathing through Jell-O and the cool season’s moving in, I thought it’d be good to do some trail running and seed collecting (I grandiosely tell my colleagues I’m “botanizing”) in some of the parks of the Philadelphia environs.

Adjacent to the free parking lot across from Fox Chase Farm and off of Pine Road, there’s a quaint paved trail running along the West side of Pennypack Creek and which apparently runs the nine-mile length of the rising smoke—like sliver slicing through Northeast Philadelphia.

Had I seen this, I wouldn’t have crossed the creek onto the east side and wouldn’t have run into a recreation of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin and – worst of all – wouldn’t have had my first taste of Passionflower, Pawpaw, and Prickly Ash at an unlikely gem that was the Pennypack Environmental Center.

With the exception of Prickly Ash, which has its own unique appearance, it seems odd that Pawpaw and Passionflower thrive as far north as they do, especially given the latter’s exotic look.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

As with any plant, I’ve found in my readings and researchings that Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, has been used for everything from anti-anxiety and cough medicines to the ever-perplexing treatment for both constipation and diarrhea. While I didn’t have the need to relieve either that day, the Environmental Center’s ranger – I’ll call him Pete, as that’s what he said he was called by his wife at least on Thursdays – shared with me a swelled, papery-skinned Passionflower fruit, inside of which was a gooey mass of seeds held together like frog spawn. The flavor was sweet, but the gelatinous substance was difficult to separate from the seeds. A lot of effort, but a sweet, grapey reward.

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket

The Pawpaw fruit is one of the more unusual berries to see dangling from above, and, while sweet, it has a more custardy, banana-y flavor. In “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations”, the authors claim that the pawpaw – derived from the Spanish word “papaya” (another flavor of the pawpaw fruit noted by some) – was grown by a number of American Indian tribes and was then later rediscovered by my favorite Philadelphian botanist, John Bartram, who then sent some species to his horticultural pen pal Peter Collinson in Britain.

With all the problems over the years with banana cultivation, it’s surprising that this fruit isn’t more prevalent in the market (maybe due to its short shelf life once off the tree?), but people like Pete are bringing it back – the park ranger’s stand towers over the Environmental Center’s entrance and still has at the time of this posting plenty of berries ready to drop. Even a recent posting claims that Bartrams Gardens has a stand of pawpaws made possible by the Philadelphia Orchard Project and used as an ingredient in an ice cream brand promoted by the Gardens.

The Gardens has also promoted the attempt of Philadelphia Distilling (claiming to be the first craft distillery in the state of Pennsylvania since prohibition) to recreate John Bartram’s Bitters. One of the ingredients of this “cocktail additive” happened to be growing just in back of the Environmental Center. The ranger took a small red seed from a branch of thorny-trunked tree and told me to put it in my mouth, bite down – but not too hard – and not to swallow.

Prickly Ash berries

I’m fairly certain he was a park ranger.

Pricky Ash, or Zanthoxylum americanum, is of the same family as Sichuan pepper. Upon crushing the seed and releasing the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecules, the tongue experiences paresthesia – another damn good P word – or, in other words, a numbing and tingling sensation. I had my unwitting colleagues try the seeds: one experienced paresthesia but not the changing flavors from spicy to minty to sweet that I had experienced, while the other accidentally swallowed the seed.

Again, herbalists have used the plant’s various parts to quell their farts and for other excretorial purposes, but one I can readily accept is its role in Native American life in alleviating toothaches – the park ranger did, in fact, initially introduce the tree as the “toothache plant”. It’s also a boon for Giant Swallowtail butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plant’s leaves. All the more reason to encourage more plantings.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

For those who’d like to attempt propagating Passionflower and Pawpaw by seed as I am, I found the following sites to be helpful so far:

While I’ve not found a trustworthy online guide or text for growing Prickly Ash from seed, Pete suggested a month in cold peat moss storage and then planting in any soil (as it’s a hardy plant that tolerates a range). I’ll trust Pete – his name, after all, does start with a P.

 

My meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway