Monday, June 27, 2011

A weed only by name: Part IV

Today is the final installment of the 'A weed only in name' series; thus far we have covered two weeds per installment and today's two will bring that total to eight 'weeds'.  If it is requested, there is room for a second edition of this series, just email or comment up here on the blog that you want to know more and it'll go on the schedule. The 'weeds' today are Phytolacca americana and Asclepias tuberosa  which are commonly called Pokeweed and Milkweed respectively.  But as always before we get into blowing away the label of weed here is a garden fact.

What do Squash, Melons, Zucchini, Cucumbers, Gourds and, Pumpkins have in common?
All of these plants belong to the Cucurbitaceae family and are thus related. The major differences beside the physical characteristics of the fruiting bodies and flowers are the presence of tendrils on the vines. Also there is the overall habit of the plants in consideration.

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed
This is an immature pokeweed that surfaced in a top soil pile in the rear of the test gardens, to date there is no record of pokeweeds growing in this garden's location.

Poke weed is a commonly misunderstood perennial,  It's tall and somewhat awkward form seems entirely out of place in any given garden yet it has unique value to the forage gardener's menu.  Poke weed is a taprooted perennial, which means it is uniquely suited to dealing with poor or packed soils. Older specimens of pokeweed can have taproots upwards of 18" in diameter making the resulting plant quite robust to the poiont of being a weird yet useful shrub. The edible part  is the new shoots that arise from the taproot generally they will need to be cooked in three or four changes of water to remove any phytolaccin.  Phytolaccin is a cathartic and slightly narcotic substance that is used for treating rheumatism.
The berries which are a dark magenta-purple in color can be used to make a pink or reddish dye.  One can imagine the effect of a stand of pokeweed with voodoo lily, jack in the pulpit or even some may apples can make for one heck of a woodland display. For note this poke weed emerged absolutely as a volunteer. I plant to let it continue doing so for as long as it does not become a issue. The fact it emerged proves the longevity or fertility of pokeweed seeds and it's ease of growth if seed were to be collected from ripe berries.

Asclepias tuberosa/tuberosum - Milkweed (Plerurisy Root)
These milkweeds were first sown in 2009, and were thought to have failed last summer, yet they returned again despite excavations.

There is little else in the summer then a stand of Milkweed covered in pollinators each small flower in a bright shade of orange. Single handedly this perennial which reseeds readily can make the heat and humidity of the summer worth it.  For those readers not familiar with milkweed, this  is a herb with a few differing names, in some texts it's called Pleurisy Root, and yet in others it's called Butterflyweed. The former name comes form it's use in the treatment of respiratory ailments where as the latter derives from  the simple fact it's an ample source of pollen and nectar for many pollinators such as butterflies and bees. What is not known is that the roots when dried  can be used as an anti-inflammatory. Perhaps paired with Swamp sunflower Helianthus   the two could make for one heck of a full sun color display. I might add that the milkweed in the picture is from my own test gardens. As a cultural care note, I started this milkweed in 2009 from seed collected in 2007. It has yet to fail to emerge yearly though this year it has remained longer. I hesitate to transplant it due to this plant's noted taproot which is sensitive to disturbance.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Attack of the Cone Heads!

[Sorry for the delay blogspot was being weird yesterday about uploading photos and this post  really needs images to look right so I held off and the problem seems to have cleared up. - TC ]

Today we have a quadruple-header of plants, the title of this post just screamed 'do extra!' and so here we have four differing members of the Aster family whom all are referred to as a type of coneflower.  Given the number of plants to cover there wont be a garden fact in the normal fashion as each plant has a little fact included with their information. Without further delay the' Attack of the Coneheads' will begin.

Echinacea angustifolia - Narrow Leaf Coneflower
If you look really hard squint with your left eye you might just be able to see the plant.

Narrow-Leaf Echinacea is an interesting medicinal herb in the aster family. It may not be heavily cultivated, have the orderly looks nor the distribution range of the other cone flowers it is certainly no less important. First off it is a native plant to North America, it's range includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Kansas, missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and a very limited area of Canada. It's seeds are somewhat difficult to germinate as they require stratification and may need extra dormancy periods. Like most members of the aster family the seedling that results is spindly and barely of note for a year. In the second year the seedling finally really emerges and starts putting on real size. One of it's common names as noted by the USDA is Black Samson Echinacea while other sources list it as Western Coneflower or Kansas Snakeroot.  Since it is in the Aster family it's a given that the flowers attract pollinators but it's medicinal value is much greater then Purple Coneflower in all the same uses.

Echinacea paradoxa - Yellow Coneflower
This is typical of a first year plant, don't worry will be great next year!

Yellow coneflower got the specific epithet 'paradoxa' as a direct nod to the fact it looks like purple coneflower but has yellow flowers instead of purple. This coneflower can be bought at nurseries and garden centers and it's seed is readily available through seed catalogs. But be warned it's germination rate is low and may benefit from sanctification or dormancy treatments.  For those that emerge it is worth it, as the resulting plant is a real stunner in the landscape and worth every dime.Should you be growing both E. paradoxa and E. angustfolia side by side, you can tell them apart by the fact that E. angustifolia has little to no petiole on the leaf where as E. paradoxa has a very obvious petiole.

Echinacea purpurea - Purple Coneflower
Who needs fancy cultivars when the original looks this good?

Purple coneflower is the most prolific member of this coneflower quartet, it's seed is available in almost every seed rack in spring, and a lot of the seed catalogs offer it. You would be hard pressed to find a garden center that does not carry Purple coneflower. The reason is that it is a reliable and undemanding perennial, it tolerates poor soil, drought, and supports native pollinators with it's copious amounts of nectar and feeds the birds with it's heavy seed production. It also is easy to make cultivars with and thus a number of red, red-orange, pink, white and purple shades are available also.  This is definitely one of the black-thumb tolerant garden perennials. It is a little realized fact that echinacea once established can provide reliable color to a xeriscaping bed as long as it's given excellent soil. It will to be watered a little when hopelessly wilted but a liter of water will often suffice to bring this perennial back. For note the specimen in the picture above is about three feet tall, this is a common height for an purple coneflower that is sited well with decent care and good soil. It was grown from seed and this is it's third year in that spot undisturbed.

Rudbeckia lacinata - Cutleaf Coneflower
This specimen was collected with permission from a stream bed in North Carolina.

Also known as Tall Coneflower, Green-Headed Coneflower, Goldenglow and Thimbleweed, Cut-leaf Coneflower is quite adaptable as it's native range is noted by the USDA to be almost every state on the eastern side of the USA and  most of Canada.  Unlike the other conefloweres covered today Cut-Leaf Coneflower can tolerate clay soils with poor drainage and can even handle being submerged for brief periods.  Given the right conditions it will form dense colonies  in which mature plants can reach heights of four feet . What really sets this coneflower apart is the leaves, as the name suggests they are very deeply lobed and resemble some of the coarser ferns. In the south they also bear the potential to be evergreen which can compliment a good four-season garden design. Lastly, the foliage of Cutleaf Coneflower is entirely edible in a forage salad, which adds another wild green to the list.

As a final note, The three Echinaceas listed in this post all have herbal-Medicinal properties that are noted to come from the roots if not the foliage.  All three are noted to posses medicinal value as an antiviral, anti inflammatory, immune system boosting memory improving power house that just happens to look really good and still helps support the local pollinators and the birds.  There is also another noted species Echinacea Tenneseensis, which is noted to be another native. Unfortunately it's native habitat is being destroyed by reckless over development. For conservation sakes you may want to add it to your list of coneflowers if only to preserve it for future generations of gardeners to appreciate.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A weed only by name: Part III

T.C. Sorry for the delay with this post I got tied up on Sunday and could not get the photos edited nor the post posted.

Before I start with the third installment of the 'A weed only in name'  series I'd like to thank the Cumberland County Progressives for having me as their guest speaker at the meeting yesterday.  For those attending your questions were excellent, you covered  a great range of topics and even highlighted some concerns that will likely be addressed right here on LITFM in the coming days. Thank you for attending, and making the event a success. For those interested the Cumberland County Progressives website can be found at the address below, please check it out it's a good site and their TV show is really good!

Horticultural Field Trial 001-2011: "The Pod People"
The final results of the study were calculated and the stand of Taichung show peas surveyed produced 9.25 pounds of snow peas. The tallest vine reached 7' 1"  or 85 inches which is important because the stated average height for the variety is between 3 and 4 feet. Overall this variety has been added to the Verticulture Seed Bank. The entire list of Verticulture Compliant Plants will be published at year's end.

Without further delay here is the third installment of the 'A weed only in name' series where we take a good look at plants deemed weeds somewhat unfairly and why they should be cultivated. The two herbs in today's post are Impatiens capensis and Plantago major; their common names are Jewel weed and Broad-leaf Plantain respectively.

Impatiens capensis - Jewelweed

Jewelweed is a native species of Impatiens and can often be found growing in the woods with poison ivy growing nearby. This proximity is  quite helpful because the juice of crushed jewelweed foliage can be used to soothe poison ivy rashes as well as insect stings and bites in general.  To the casual observer it looks like normal impatiens on steroids as the average plant can get up to four feet tall. The name jewelweed probably derives from the pale green translucent stems  and  the large bright orange flowers which are readily visible from a distance. In cultivation Jewel weed needs a soil that is rich with compost or leaf mold or to some degree effectively mimics the soil structure of a deciduous forest.  It is a good attractant to pollinators and will resow itself if it is happy as it is an annual.  If you want impatiens without all the maintenance or fertilization go for jewelweed  in both the north and the south you will be delighted with the stands of flowers and foliage as well as a free source of poison ivy relief.

[Photo Coming soon]
Plantago major - Broad Leaf Plantain
These plantains were harvested from a job-site and seemed to recover very rapidly 
from transplant shock becoming firmly rooted in their pots in less then a week.

Ah, the noble plantain, a much maligned herb that is often given a bad name by the herbicide companies and by a few garden experts with too narrow a view point.  For those not familiar with broad-leaf plantain,  it is a neat foliage plant with heavily ribbed leaves and spathe-type flowers. Broad-leaf plantain is more readily found up north though as the picture shows when you find one you are liable to find others close by. In cultivation Plantains are generally undemanding, in fact since they tolerate leeched soil with ease giving them better soil guarantees you good quality plants. For herbal uses plantains are noted to have astringent, diuretic and expectorant properties and is also noted to be valued for treating respiratory, gastrointestinal, bladder and ulcers. Also the juice from crushed plantain foliage is noted to relieve insect bites and stings. As a food young leaves can be used as a forage salad green or cooked like spinach and the ripe seed if ground is said to yield a flour substitute. Also it is said that the foliage of mature plants can yield a gold to tan colored dye.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What a heatwave we had  on the eastern coast, if your in North Carolina I'm sure your feeling pretty good after those major Thunderstorms broke up the oppressive weather! For all you gardeners out there welcome back to another edition of Lost In the Farmer's Market. Today we have a trio of plants that  can bring serious color to the dull foliage in your beds. Before we get into the plants I must state this disclaimer and then a  horticulture fact.
'LITFM is not responsible for any blindness or partial blindness caused by staring at the following photographs of  the topic plants of the day. All readers are strongly urged to wear sunglasses or a welder's mask not doing so could result in blindness, more different blindness and or the sudden urge to buy more plants for your garden.'

Did you know that a plant noted as a 'Native' on it's plant tag may not be native to your area at all? In fact there is little regulation of the truthfulness of the native plant craze, so plants tagged as natives may originate from a wide swathe of the continent. Furthermore it is common to find that these 'Natives'  have incorrect or incomplete care information. When considering a native plant for your garden it is recommended you do a bit of internet research at the USDA site using the plant's full Latin name to determine it's suitability for your garden.

Agastache foeniculum 'Golden Jubilee' - Golden Jubilee Anise-Hyssop

Brighter then bright, and still medicinal type Anise-Hyssop!  The flowers while not
exactly as flamboyant as the foliage are pale lavender and are borne in spikes atop
the plant in late spring.

I admit, golden jubilee is not a new variety but it certainly does not get the press it deserves.  This herb aside from being a true Anise-Hyssop has dramatic golden yellow foliage and a tall cylindrical form that draws the eye.  This variety of agastache bears ovate leaves with serrated margins that add texture to the almost neon foliage. When paired with herbs that have darker or finer textured foliage such as rosemary, echinacea, tansy or traditional evergreen germander this agastache really stands out.  Thankfully Golden Jubilee has not lost the expected Anise-hyssop toughness and will withstand full southern sun and doughty periods. As a perennial if your soil is good you can expect better displays year after year. Generally this anise hyssop can get by with limited watering, virtually no fertilization as long as the soil has good organic matter and drains well. Plain green agastache is more likely to survive reliably up north,  as golden jubilee was not available when the test garden was running in New Jersey I cannot say of it's survivability above Virginia. In North Carolina it has yet to disappoint.

Teucrium chamaedrys 'Summer Sunshine'  - Summer Sunshine Germander

The picture above was taken on a cloudy day so the flowers would 
be more visible against the bright foliage. Generally Summer Sunshine in 
early summer is covered in lavender flowers.

Check this one out!  This particular variety of germander is not for the knot garden unless you really want to scare some old gardeners. Summer Sunshine germander has all the fine qualities of traditional germander; the neat heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that stand out as almost being too formal. Like traditional germander summer sunshine is evergreen well behaved and looks especially good guessed it plants with darker or contrasting color foliage.  A few of these little guys inter-planted with green santolina with a backdrop of black potato vine is liable to cause a three-car pile-up in front of the house! Thankfully for all it's flashy color  summer sunshine is undemanding, it can tolerate average soils but will do better in soil that is enriched with compost. As a rule the germanders will not tolerate wet or waterlogged soils but are quite successful when nestled amongst the rocks of a rock garden or as part of a raised bed. Given that Summer Sunshine is evergreen you can expect to have a neon herb to cheer you up even in the most bleak days of winter. The T. chamedrys type of germander will survive as far north as New Jersey for sure. The one planted in the test gardens up there remained strong year after year.

Teucrium viscidum 'Lemon & Lime'   - Lemon & Lime Germander

 Lemon & Lime is bright in full sun and will bleach a little if left in full southern sun,
against finer foliage or darker colors it really illuminates a corner of a bed.

Finally we have Lemon & Lime Germander, the germander that delivers a swift kick to what you thought a germander should look like. It neither looks like nor in habit grows like a traditional germander and were one not wary it could be mistaken for a lantana or some odd tree seedling.  Seriously Lemon & Lime is unique among germanders because it is deciduous, that is it drops it's leaves in winter. Unlike other germanders this one will need a warmer spot during winter as it's a bit more cold sensitive and will probably not survive northern winters outside. Even despite this the elliptical leaves have a fine serrated margin and are a bright lime-green color with varied yellow and green variegation in the center. What is unique is that the variegation are somewhat angular, as if the plant was trying to make it's colors artistic. This variegation of course is very eye-catching, so much so that after a while you can recognize this plant from thirty paces with no problem. Paired with bronze Fennel and or Artemesia you can get a really eye-popping metallic effect. If you can imagine a row of this germander with  a mixed row of Powis castle artemesia and the bronze fennel  the foliage and colors blending to make a display distracting enough to possibly cause plane crashes. It is noted that this particular germander can survive with some protection as far north as some southern parts of Maine, while I personally have not tested this it may be possible with good planning. Also other possible common names for T. viscidum are Variegated germander and Caucasian germander.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A weed only by name: Part II

First off I'd like thank all of you who came out for the author's event at the Headquarters Library,  it was very interesting talking with all of you and you made the event a success.

Today we have part two of the 'A weed only by name' series, and the two plants  being covered are Chicory and Dandelions. Both of these perennial herbs get a lot of bad press mostly on the part of the producers of chemical herbicides*. But little attention is given to the uses for and advantages of cultivated varieties of these rather well-adapted herbs. Before we get into the raw details of both plants here is a verticulture fact.
Did you know that the average tomato grown in soil needs about five gallons of soil in order to have adequate root space?  For full size indeterminate tomatoes a 15" pot or a 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom is the bare minimum for optimal yields. Translated to a garden bed situation this is an area of about 1.5 cubic feet of loosened and preferably enriched soil. We tend to think of tomatoes as a upright vegetable like eggplant or peppers but the truth is they are one of the few true vines botanically. Every portion of the stem can root if mature, and in late season you can clone your tomatoes by taking 5 inch stem cuttings and rooting them in water. 

Chicorum intybus - Chicory

Without the tell tale flower stalk chicory is 
often hard to distinguish from wild dandelion.

Chicory is not a new herb in fact anthropological evidence indicates it was cultivated as an agricultural crop at least as far back as ancient Egypt. In more modern times Chicory played a important role in the war effort of the Confederacy as Union naval blockades cut off shipments of real coffee to southern ports.  During World War Two, coffee was needed for American troops at the battle front so chicory again became critical and was the most available coffee on the market. To this day in the south east Luzianne coffee still produces chicory-coffee blend and this may become more important with rising fuel costs.
Another side to this common perennial is that it has long-standing medicinal and chemical value that simply does not get the public attention it deserves. Firstly, Chicory is related to tansy and artemesia both of which are reputed for their ability to expel worms and bears toxicity parasites and chicory too is capable of the same. Chicory root contains a compound called Inulin, which is a source of soluble dietary fiber and it's base compounds can be converted to both glucose and fructose. Both fructose and glucose are easier on the body then sucrose. Further more; some brewers have used roasted chicory root to add flavor to their stouts which in turn may raise the nutritional value of said stout.
Biologically Endive and Radicchio are both related to Chicory with the former being C. endiva and the latter being a cultivated and blanched type of Chicory.  As far as cultivation goes, chicory is absolutely undemanding,  requiring decent soil with good drainage and preferably modest amounts of moisture and organic matter. Chicory is at it's best when you stack the deck however, if you provide excellent soil with good drainage a decent mulch and regular water you can expect rapid growth possible flowering the first year and a shorter time between sowing and harvest.  If you ever wondered what chicory looked like all you need do is drive down a interstate. If the plant growing through the cracks in the cement divider has sky blue flowers on wispy dark green stems it's probably chicory.  The fact is even grown as an ornamental chicory has attractive flowers is well-behaved and if you want to try it out you can order it from Richter's Herbs.

Taraxicum officinale - Dandelion

As the picture attests there is great variety in the 
leaves of dandelion even the cultivated types.

Despite the bad rap given to dandelions by the Herbicide industry these perennial herbs are supremely adapted to surviving where little else can. A dandelion's taproot  can reach down more then a foot to find nutrient and to anchor the plant. It is thought by some that the legend of the hydra in mythology actually is derived from the dandelion's ability to recover from being top cut and that partially split or cut dandelion tap roots will often form multiple growing points and thus more 'heads'. Few realize that dandelions are an important and easily maintained source of nectar and pollen for  Bees of all types. Additionally a well maintained stand of Dandelions can produce ample greens and flowers for varied culinary recipes.  A dandelion's tap root when mature can be cleaned dried and roasted to make a coffee substitute. The numerous flowers can be used to make Dandelion wine or beer. Young dandelion leaves can be used in salads and resemble mesclun mix salad greens in flavor but are a bit more nutritious. According to the USDA, raw dandelion greens  an exceptionally high vitamin K (741%) and a particularly high vitamin C (58%) content as well as quite a bit of beta-carotene (54%) and vitamin A (56%) equivalents. Also it is worthwhile to note that dandelion greens are a reasonable source of Iron (25%), vitamin E (23%) and all this nutrient can be had in a small 3.5 ounce serving which as far as leaf greens go is rather efficient.
As for caring for your dandelions they are largely care free, you can buy dandelion seed from Richter's herbs and start them in jiffy 7 peat pellets just like any other garden plant. Given that dandelions are so well adapted to all but the hottest and driest or wettest sites you can actually get away with planting your dandelions in shade as much as full southern sun.  The trick to cultivating your dandelions for best results is to stack the proverbial deck. Just because dandelions have a taproot that can plow through poor soil doesn't mean they will necessarily  be the best they can be. What you want to do is provide or top-dress the planting site with a few inches of compost or high quality topsoil then put down a layer of mulch. Fertilization isn't necessary but may help.  If your dandelions are really happy you can expect possible flowers late in the first year. Otherwise it may take two or three years to get those cheery yellow disk flowers. Dandelions are largely pest free but may get aphids in a greenhouse situation, additionally Dandelions seem not to be competitive, a few can be clustered with little or no problems provided the soil is really good.

There is just one last thing to mention regarding chicory and dandelions, a mini-garden quiz.

What do Dandelions, Chicory, Lettuce, Endive, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Sunflower, Tansy, Feverfew, Zinnia, Santolina, Artemesia, Tarragon, Marigolds, Chrysanthemums, Pyrethrum, Asters and Cosmos all have in common?

Answer: All of these plants belong to the Aster Family commonly called Asteraceae or in older publications Compositae or the 'Disk-Flower' family. Asters are a critical nectar and pollen source for all species of moths, butterflies, bees, wasps, and even some types of ant.

*We mean you Ortho, You... Are... On... Notice!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This is a good way to get a death-threat from the Marlboro Cowboy.

Nicotinana rustica - Wild Tobacco
In contrast to smoking tobacco wild tobacco seems to 
have a more weed-like habit, with much smaller 
leaf area and a less formal appearance.

The origins of the tobacco some choose to smoke are some what unclear biologically speaking but modern tobacco is believed to have been hybridized from three parent species; Nicotiana sylvestris, Nicotiana tomentosiformis and possibly Nicotiana otophoroa. While it is difficult to verify this parentage when you think about it that is still one heck of a botanical three-some. It is clear through anthropological activities undertaken in the Americas that tobacco cultivation seems to date back as far as 5000 BC and there is strong evidence to support the assertion that Native and Meso-American civilizations were smoking tobacco leaves about two-thousand years ago. Though tobacco remained utterly unknown to Europe until 1561 the first plants were delivered to the French court by Jean Nicot. The plant's botanical Latin name is based of his last name and thus Nicotiana as a species was noted in the linnaean system. Tobacco would become so Important that it was valued equally or  better then actual currency and was used as legal tender in some parts of colonial America. The rise of tobacco as a cash crop grew greatly and a number of the fathers of the American revolution both owned plantations and slaves and were set upon producing tobacco. But while some in the late 1500's claimed tobacco cured migraines, coughs, warded off the plague and cured cancer (We call that irony!) others such as King James the first, in 1604 called it lothesome and stated it was dangerous to the lungs and brain.  His comments predicted the spiraling rise in nicotine addiction and lung cancer problems we face today.

Nicotiana alata - Flowering Tobacco

Flowering tobacco is a interesting ornamental that 
can be attractive to hummingbirds if a red or purple 
flowering type is selected. N. sylvestris and N. Langsdorffii 
are noted perennial flowering tobacco species.

The real issue with tobacco is that it is in the nightshade family which includes Belladonna, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Horse nettle, Brugmansia, all of which are very poisonous as is tobacco. The deadly chemical in tobacco is a Nicotine alkaloid, which is a heavily effective insecticide and as such it's an effective way to kill off a person too. Nicotine is in effect a neurotoxin, that is it goes to work on the brain triggering the release of pleasure chemicals with every puff so the brain chemistry becomes altered and cant go back. When you quit your brain chemistry goes a bit haywire and thus the withdrawal symptoms.  The only respite for smokers is that a large portion of the Nicotine is lost through the burning of a cigarette or cigar, but for you chewing tobacco folks you lack that sort of fortune. If you don't believe Tobacco is deadly consider this; were you to harvest a few mature leaves, make a tea out of them and, drink a single eight ounce cup you likely would suffer stomach cramps, profuse sweating, labored breathing, muscular weakness, seizures and death in short order. In fact two species of Tobacco stand out for their heightened toxicity, Nicotiana glauca or tree tobacco gets about twenty feet tall on average and is common in the southwest. Tree Tobacco in addition to nicotine bears a particularly nasty alkaloid called anabasine which when the foliage is eaten causes paralysis and  then death. The other nasty member of the family is Nicotiana rustica or wild tobacco from which Nicotine sulfate is produced. Nicotine sulfate is an especially powerful pesticide because the amount of nicotine is so much higher then smoking tobacco. You might be able to smoke this one but I don't suggest it, if you can make an insecticide out of it do you really want to put that in your body? 

Nicotiana tobacum - (Smoking) Tobacco

Smoking tobacco is a particularly vigorous plant and it's central stems are often recycled post-harvest as stakes for training other plants.

Here is another thought for all of you still reading; between 1980 and 1999 a major court battle occurred over an attempt by Brown & Williamson (a subsidy of British American tobacco* which would later merge with R.J. Reynolds to form Reynolds American inc.) to increase the nicotine content in their tobacco.  The attempt involved cross-breeding Smoking Tobacco (N. tobacum) with Wild Tobacco (N. rustica). The resulting Hybrid was called 'Y1' and was supposed to have had noticeably higher nicotine content and thus more addictive qualities. Imagine if the Tobacco companies had succeeded in producing and marketing 'Y1'. If you thought quitting was hard before, imagine being hooked on some super-tobacco! If you still do not believe that tobacco is deadly, look up a condition called "Green Tobacco Sickness" which is a common hazard of tobacco field workers who have to walk between rows of wet tobacco plants in summer.

As a final word on the subject consider this, tobacco is not an inherently bad group plants in fact biologically they are important as a food source for several species of butterfly and moth and provide nectar to several pollinators and hummingbird species.  What makes them problematic is how we have chosen to utilize the chemicals that occur naturally to this particular species.  Now, for those of you still here, here is how you grow tobacco.  Tobacco prefers a nutrient rich soil with good drainage and if you need to fertilize it is recommended that the fertilizer blend of 8-0-24 or some such similar mixture.  A good layer of mulch will aid in plant development by preventing weed competition and pine straw seems to work the best if only on a basis of economics and efficiency.  Tobacco for the most part is one of those plants that will tend to itself with the exception of needing to be watered regularly.  It is one particularly efficient plant for the purposes of vertical horticulture.

-Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart. (Solanum species)
-Richter's Herbs (info on N. Rustica)
-Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman (Solanum species)
-USDA (Smoking tobacco origins.)
-Carrrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte

*British American tobacco produces the following tobacco products: Barclay, Belair, Carlton (not in the USA), GPC, Kool, Laredo, Lucky Strike, Misty, North State, Pall Mall, Private Stock, Raleigh, Tareyton (not in USA), Viceroy, Wings.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A weed only by name: Part 1

Today's plants of note are the two Portulacas both of which are so closely related most garden books dont even bother to note the specific epithet. Before we delve into that murky gray area between weed and non-weed  there is a event announcement to be made I will be making public appearance at this venue

What: Local Authors' Showcase
Where: Headquarters Library, Pate room 300 Maiden Lane Fayetteville, NC 28301
When:  Saturday June 11, 2011 from 1:00 to 3:00pm

It would be really cool if those of you reading this blog came by, a portion of the proceedes fromt he event benefits the Friends of the Cumberland Public Library and thus by supporting local authors you too are supporting your local libraries. I look forward to seeing all of you, and feel free to have your garden questions ready not only will I be talking about the book but I'll be doing a mini-garden clinic. 

Portulaca grandiflora - Moss Rose

This Moss Rose is actually three plants from a 6-cell pack.

Portulaca oleracea - Purselane

To be fair this purselane is a single plant in a 1qt pot thus more foliage.

The portulaca group of plants are rather capable survivors of often tough environments and typically will prosper where many other plants with fail. Ironically because of this some of the uncultivated species are often unfairly labelled weeds when there are many other plants that more aptly deserve the title such as Japanese and Chinese Wisteria.  The first thing you should know about portulaca is the most common name, Purselane. Purselane is  an english corruption of the actual name; Porcelaine which originates in the French language. While I personally cannot say what the actual name means I would imagine it might be a reference to the often porcelain looking flowers that have their own unique sparkle. 
Portulaca Grandiflora or Moss Rose is a common annual in garden centers across the country and is a solid and prolific annual in most northern climates. It's seeds overwinter as far north as New Jersey and it might be a tender perennial further south then North Carolina. In the landscape Moss rose does what sedum does not as it is coated in blooms from early summer through a few frosts of early winter. What makes Moss rose so interesting is that it's blooms are disproportionately large, numerous and bright for such a restrained plant. It is not uncommon to see shades of pink, white, yellow, red, orange and, a variety of color blends all within a few inches. The foliage is often a glaucous green and is on par with Moss phlox and any of the needle-leaf type sedum.

Portulaca oleracea or Purselane in comparison is flat, sprawling and bears  succulent leaves that resemble those seen on most stonecrop-type sedum. The stems of purselane tend to be a rich shade of red which stands at odds with the green of the leaves. The real attraction are the disproportionately large blooms that are seen at the tips of stems.  Few garden center shoppers realize that this annual is actually edible and it's leaves bear the highest iron content of any leaf green you can get*. The foliage is somewhat bitter, but certainly no worse then broccoli rabe and typically can be used in small amounts to liven up salad along with arugula, radicchio and something like nasturtium leaves. Additionally the leaves  can be cooked like spinach with just  a a little garlic to make a unique pot of greens. Last on the list is the bloom; purselane has one heck of a display, recent cultivars can be found  in varying hues of yellow, orange, red, white, pink and bi color blends. The most recent varieties even have sharply contrasting pistil & stamen.

Now for those of you who aren't already making a run on the local garden cdenter where is one more reason why you should consider portulaca.  Moss rose is utterly indifferent to  the effects of drought or heat and is highly likely to return year after year from seed. Puselane is the ultimate hot & dry area potted plant.  Both Plants are negligence tolerant so if you think you have a black thumb, these forgiving annuals are for you! For everyone else, if you just have to keep that variety of Portulaca alive year after year you can! Both plants mentioned today can be maintained by way of cutting as houseplants for the winter. All you need is a 2-3 inch long cutting some decent potting soil and a plant to take cuttings from some time in August, September or October. You dont even need rooting hormone these little guys will root as long as their stem is in contact with soil for long enough. If that doesn't suit your fancy both plants produce copious amounts of seed and all you need to do is collect it from the seed capsules at the stem tips. Look for capsules that are fully formed and hold a small jar, vial or plastic baggie beneith the capsule, if it pops open when you rub the capsule with a finger the seed is ready. I do advise storing the seed with your container open for up to two weeks in a dry area so the seed can dry and there is less of a risk of mold.
 As a final note these other wild species of Purselane have been noted  as safe to eat as forage foods*: Portulaca neglecta and, Portulaca retusa.

*They are listed as such in 'Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants' by Tshomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Brothers In Arms

Welcome to LITFM, before we get into the plant stuff for this post I'd like to let you all know of two upcoming events:

Radio Interview: 107.7 FM  Jamz  Sunday, June 5th 2011,  11:00 AM

Public Appearance: CCP Meeting at the Bordeaux Library Saturday, June 18 2011, 2:00 PM
3711 Village Drive Fayetteville, NC 28304

The plants being discussed today are a pair I often refer to as 'Brothers in Arms' and no that's not Cacao and Marijuana, in fact it's a pair far more common and overlooked. Cotton and Okra have been a part of American agriculture for quite some time but their origins in agriculture go even further back. No two plants have been so deeply entwined in a social revolution, two wars and a slave trade that demolished a portion of the world population.  Both Cotton and Okra are in the Malvaceae family which is more commonly known as the Mallow or Hibiscus family. If there was any doubt of the fact one need only see the flowers of either and all doubts are cast aside.

Malvaceae Abelmoschus esculentus - Okra

It is surprisingly rare how few people know the actual originating country of Okra, as this is not a well circulated bit of information. Okra originates from Africa, the very name 'Okra' is a perversion of one of the original names for this agricultural favorite. Some of the original names for it are Ocro, Guiabo, Guimgombo, ngombo and, Nkru. Ngombo was found to be from the Bantu language southern Africa. The word Nkru in respect was found to come from the Ashanti Language of western Africa. The cultivation of okra was developed enough to have become a major staple of Egypt for centuries before it was spread to the far East and the European nations and finally the Americas.  In a medicinal light Okra is noted to have been used as a means of abortion by African slaves to prevent their children from being forced to live under slavery.

Malvaceae Gossypium hirsutum 'Nankeen' - Nankeen Cotton

Cotton in respects was a wide spread plant grown in several differing continents and climates but one the original varieties brought to the Americas Gossypium herbaceum is thought to have been originally cultivated in Ethiopia or southern Arabia.  Cotton was a major product of the southern American economy and became economically important with the mechanization of the industry and the rise and expansion of slave labor in the Americas.
The interesting thing about Cotton  is that during the American slave trade, slaves were prohibited from growing white cotton for themselves. Since white cotton was the major economic export  the slave owners plainly wanted to sell as much agricultural product as was possible.  The end result was that slaves were allowed to grow assorted colored varieties such as Nankeen, Mississippi brown and brown lint type cotton* this disparity in which cotton to grow became a symbol of the slave trade in America. When it comes to the harvesting of cotton few realize how much effort it takes. Typically the Cotton bolls are easy enough to identify, but the plants tended to bear them low. The actual pods from which the cotton fiber bursts often were hardened off sharp and dangerous to the unwary picker. If one were to add in the heat of the southern sun and the humid weather during harvest time harvesting cotton could be likened to a sampling of hell.  Finally it is important to note that on the medicinal front, some slaves were known to make a tonic of sorts from the root of G. herbaceum in the attempt to cause an abortion no doubt for the exact reason noted above in the information for Okra. The harvesting of Cotton may be one of the experiences that a lot of gardeners could use if only to get a feel for the weight of the history. When I say Okra and Cotton are brothers in arms they may as well be, they are related, and they have become opposite sides of a proverbial coin upon which an entire nation's future rested.

I must admit, the aforementioned is unusually dark by LITFM standards but American history is full of such things, even in the field of agriculture there are unpleasant things that get buried in the progress of the years. Now for those still wishing to grow Okra and Cotton here is how you grow each. Both Cotton and Okra are easy to grow, they require a well drained soil and can tolerate a variety of nutrient issues and soil structure problems. Okra is more tolerant of poor soil whereas Cotton is a heavy feeder and will require fertilizer in most cases.  The one thing neither will tolerate is being constantly wet, both get root or stem rot very rapidly if they are kept too wet. Both plants are transplant-sensitive and may appear to stop growing briefly when transplanted, the truth is both plants generally establish heavy networks of roots  and their top growth often lags behind.   Cotton is an attractive plant once mature as it forms a dense shrubby habit and it's mature leaves are glossy lobed and resemble giant Ivy leaves. The flower of cotton varies in color based on species but it is always quite pretty and large in typical mallow fashion. Okra is a strictly upright plant with a conical shape, depending on variety and climate it's height generally  tops off at about six feet. Okra typically has deeply lobed leaves and some heritage varieties come in hues of yellow, orange and red tones. Okra flowers are no less attractive then cotton flowers with the exception that they seem to only come in a cheery butter-yellow. The general time from flower to okra pod is usually about three days and okra pods ten to be ready for picking in less then a week after the flower fades.

*The Southern Exposure Catalog has a excellent variety of natural colored cotton.