Sometimes you just have to laugh at what Mother Nature’s accomplishments. I mean, just look at the photo of this strange fruit. It just looks ridiculous! But the nipplefruit or nipplefruit nightshade (Solanum mammosum)is not just some figment of a deranged artist’s imagination. It really exists. And you can grow one, pretty much anywhere, if you want to.
To point out the obvious, the central part of yellow fruit resembles a human breast, at fact clearly not lost on the botanists who named it (what do you think mammosum means if not “bearing big breasts”?). However, it also has satellite fruits, usually 5 in number, giving the effect of a cow’s udder. This has led to a wide range of common names: not just nipplefruit, but also cow’s udder, titty fruit, love apple and apple of Sodom. I have to confess that, in my mind, it will always be a titty fruit … but then, I’ve always remained an easily titillated 8-year-old deep down inside.
And that’s only in English. This plant has a slew of names in languages all over the world. Nursemaid (chichigua) in Central America; fox face (フォックスフェイス) in Japan, pig face fruit in South Africa, for example. And whatever the local vulgar word for breast is, you can be sure someone is applying to this plant.
Chinese New Year display in Hong Kong featuring nipple fruit. The pyramidal arrangements represent trees. Photo: gardenofeaden.blogspot.com
In China, the nipplefruit also has a less suggestive denomination. It’s best known as five fingered eggplant (五指茄). There, and throughout much of Asia, the nipplefruit seen as a good luck charm. The golden color of fruit is considered very auspicious, assuring wealth and riches, while the five “fingers” on the fruit represent the longevity of the family: five generations of young and old all living together in good health. The nipplefruit is grown by the millions in China as a decoration for Chinese New Year celebrations, notably pyramidal arrangements covered in fruits and looking rather like orange Christmas trees.
The nipplefruit is a short-lived perennial or annual native to South America and well established as a weed throughout Central America, the Caribbean and Asia. It’s in the nightshade family or Solanaceae, along with the tomato, potato, pepper and eggplant.
The plant itself can become quite imposting in tropical climates, much like a shrub. It will be shorter in cool summer areas. Photo: garden.org
It’s a branching, shrublike plant, up to about 2 to 6 feet (60 cm to 2 m) tall and wide, with serious spines on its stems and petioles. There are sometimes even spines jutting straight out of the broad, dentate leaves! The leaves can be quite large: up to 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm). Both leaves and stem are hairy, sometimes with whitish fuzz, sometimes with a distinctly purple tinge.
The flowers look much like tomato blossoms, only larger. Photo: KENPEI, Wikimedia Commons
The 1 1/2 inch (3.75 cm) flowers bear five light purple, back-arching petals and a prominent yellow stamen tube. They look just like an overgrown tomato flower and appear in clusters along the branches in late spring or early summer. The strange waxy, 1 1/2 to 4 inch (4 to 10 cm) long fruits ripen in late summer or fall.
The fruit contains a central core of greenish pulp in which the brown seeds are found. They can be harvested, cleaned and dried to produce future generations of the plant.
Edible and Medicinal Uses
The mature fruit is poisonous, but in some areas, the immature fruit is eaten after cooking and contains vitamin B, calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Even the leaves are sometimes consumed.
Although this plant is also used medicinally, I wouldn’t recommend trying it. True enough, it’s employed all over the world to treat a whole range of disorders from asthma to althlete’s foot, but there is no consensus on what good it actually does, so it sounds more folkloric than verifiable.
The soapy juice of the fruit has also been used to wash clothes.
The plant’s toxic nature can also make it useful. In many countries, it’s used as an insecticide and also as a fish stupefying plant.
How to Grow Your Own Nipplefruit
I just know you’re all dying to grow this fascinating plant (how could anyone resist a plant with such a titillating name?) and it turns out to be easy to grow. Think “tomato” and you’ve pretty much got a handle on it.
In temperate climates, start it indoors 6 weeks before the last frost, barely covering seeds. In tropical areas or areas with a long growing season, just sow outdoors. It can be helpful to soak the seed overnight in a thermos of hot water to stimulate faster germination. Keep the soil moist and warm (it germinates best at about 77˚F/25˚C) until germination, which can take 3 to 14 days. After, expose the seedlings to plenty of sun or set them under a grow lamp and give them 12 to 16 hours of light per day. Keep moist. Acclimatize and plant out only when there is no danger of frost and nights are warm.
For best results, grow the nipplefruit in rich, moist soil. No fussy pinching and pruning is required, but it sometimes needs staking. It is moderately drought tolerant, but letting it dry out too often leads to leaf loss and reduces productivity. Many insects seem to chew on its leaves, so the plant is rarely perfectly intact, but it usually manages to produce plenty of fruit anyway.
Fruit cut open to show the seeds inside. Photo: Muoi Health
Harvest the stems when the fruits turn golden. Typically, the leaves are then removed and the fruits left on the stem for use in floral arrangements of all sorts. The fruits last many months.
Usually, the plant dies after fruiting, but it can sometimes be coached back into life by harsh pruning … well, at least outdoors in the tropics (hardiness zones 11 to 12).
Where to Find It?
Although seed packs or even plants may occasionally show up in garden centers or farmers markets, you’d be mostly like to find seeds of this plant at one of the many international seed houses that sell it, like Plant World Seeds or Rare Exotic Seeds … or on eBay, Amazon or similar.
The nipplefruit: not your average garden plant, but then, you’re not the average gardener, are you?
You can readily fit a small vegetable bed into a wheelbarrow. Photo: garden.com
It sounds like a crazy idea at first, but sure you can grow vegetables in a wheelbarrow. An old one, logically, having outlived its original usefulness. Call it “meals on wheels” if you like.
There are plenty of photos on the Internet showing people gardening in wheelbarrows, both with flowers and vegetables. Even creating mini-landscapes in them. It could be kinda neat in a rustic or shabby chic décor … or maybe you could use it to annoy a neighbor with highfaluting landscape ideas, knocking the overall neighborhood look down a notch or two?
Aging wheelbarrows are easy to find. You probably have one already! Photo: Cjp24, Wikimedia Commons
You might have a rusty wheelbarrow lying about already (mine’s getting close to that stage). If not, check out a flea market or garage sale. I mean, you’d want to upcycle, right? Not punch holes for drainage in a perfectly good one.
Whether you want to let the rust show through (although so many wheelbarrows are plastic these days) or gussy it up with a coat of bright paint is totally up to you.
Follow the Sun
Whither the sun goes, the wheelbarrow garden shall follow. Photo: clipartmax.com,computerclipart.com & illustoon.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog
Where this project might be especially interesting is in spots where sun is lacking. As shade from that big tree or house wall engulfs one part the garden over the day, just move it to a sunnier spot. Vegetables do appreciate their sunlight!
Not terribly laidback as a technique, though, is it: wheeling a garden hither and thither over the day? And this is not going to work if you’re not home to do the deed (sometimes COVID confinement can be a good thing!) But when most of your garden is in shade much of the day, you might just be desperate enough for the intense sunlight you need to grow the best vegetables that you might be willing to get up off your tush once or twice day and move the garden to a better spot.
A robot wheelbarrow garden would be able to follow the sun’s movements. Photo: clipartmax.com,computerclipart.com & illustoon.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog
Now, if I were an inventor, I’d robotize the wheelbarrow. Put in a solar panel, a motor and a little computer, then program it to follow the sun. That would be interesting, totally laidback … and really creepy. In fact, you could have a whole slew of robotic wheelbarrows meandering about, seeking the sun. Rather like the War of the Worlds, but hopefully with less carnage.
Well, skipping the robot aspect (although in my increasingly shady yard, that really would be the way to go!), preparing a wheelbarrow garden is a simple project anyone can carry out.
Essentially, all you need to do is to drill holes in the bottom of an old wheelbarrow to ensure drainage. (And yes, good drainage is going to be an absolute necessity: you don’t want your plants to drown on the first rainy day!)
Try holes of say about ½ inch (1.3 cm) in diameter about 8 inches (20 cm) apart. Then, cover the bottom with a sheet of newspaper or an old cloth—which will let excess water drain through, but keep the soil in place—just to make sure your precious soil doesn’t drip out when you water.
If the bottom has partly rusted through, just cover the open section with a piece of fine window screen … and that will give you your drainage; you probably wouldn’t have to drill any further holes.
Next, fill the tray with top-quality soil to about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) of the brim, adding compost and slow-release all-purpose organic fertilizer as you see fit. (Veggies are needier than the average plant when it comes to minerals.) There is no need for a “drainage layer.”
Then plant or sow your favorite vegetables and herbs, just as you would in the ground, and water well, adding a few inches (7 or 8 cm) of mulch to keep the soil moister and the weeds down once the plants are tall enough.
Maintenance is just going to be watering when the soil starts to dry out … and that can be quite frequently, possibly even daily in hot, dry weather: a wheelbarrow tray won’t hold enough soil mass to remain moist for a week at a time. And probably adding further fertilizer to maintain healthy growth as the summer wears on.
A wheelbarrow herb garden. Photo: balconydecoration.com
Move your wheelbarrow garden to the sunniest spot possible that offers a flat surface. And wherever necessary if you’re having it follow the sun.
A wheelbarrow garden: odd but doable. And when you get the robotic bit worked out, send me a video and I’ll feature it in this blog!
A typical modern African violet hybrid. Photo: Pennsylvania State University
I’ve been growing African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha*) since pretty much forever. My first one came from a leaf my great aunt gave me when I was a very young boy. I grew it on the window ledge of my parents’ house for years, wild and unkempt, with a long, creeping swan’s neck, propped up with rocks to keep it from falling over, but it did keep on blooming. And that’s what people appreciate about African violets: they manage to bloom off and on throughout the entire year, even if you neglect them a bit.
*The African violet has undergone a major taxonomic revision and is now officially called Streptocarpus ionanthus rather than Saintpaulia ionantha. More information the change and the reason for it here.
I’ve learned more about African violets since then and have grown literally hundreds of them. I even used to participate in African violet shows and bring home ribbons. I’m no longer into that, but still like to have them around and now know better how to keep them clean and symmetrical … and usually get mine to bloom pretty much all year long.
Let me share what I know about them with you here.
The Origins of a Houseplant Star
Despite its popular name, the African violet is not a true violet (Viola, from the Violaceae family), but rather belongs to the Gesneriaceae, the plant family that includes the florist gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) and the Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.).
Its common name comes from the shape and color of the flowers of wild African violets: with their five petals, two smaller ones on top and three large ones below and their purplish blue coloration, there really was a resemblance with a wild violet (Viola spp.). That’s even clear from the plant’s botanical name: ionantha means “with flowers like a violet.”
Modern African violets bear little resemblance to wild violets, though. Thanks to 100 years plus of hybridization, their petals are generally larger and more symmetrical and their flowers are often double or semi-double, sometimes with attractive wavy margins. The color range has greatly expanded since its origins: all shades of violet and purple are possible, of course, plus pink, red, white, green, and—yes!—even yellow! Many varieties are bicolor or even tricolor.
The plant’s form—originally a flat rosette composed of spoon-shaped leaves—has also seen a few changes over the years and you now see some very attractive trailing African violets with multiple creeping stems. Leaves can be flat or undulating, green or red underneath and variously variegated.
As for size, expect to see violets almost 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter and others smaller than a teacup.
There are currently more than 40,000 different varieties of African violets, so take your pick!
Tips on Growing Violets
I’d be the last person to say that the African violet is difficult to grow, but it is true that it can be a bit finicky, especially if you want to grow it to perfection. So here are some tips to help you achieve success with this popular plant.
Fluorescent lights help bring on constant bloom. Photo: agardenforthehouse.com
The main secret of a happy AV that flowers profusely most of the year remains adequate lighting. Forget the warning you may have heard that African violets can’t take direct sun. No, they don’t like hot sun for hours on end, but a bit of direct sun is highly appreciated, especially during the winter months. In fact, if you live north of the 40th parallel, don’t be afraid to give them full sun between November and early March, when days are short and the sun is particularly weak.
The rest of the year, an east window is an ideal choice: it gets some direct sun early in the morning, when temperatures are coolest, and bright light for the rest of the day. If your windows face south or west, where the sun can be brutally hot in summer, try moving the plant back from the window or drawing a sheer curtain between the plant and the sun during the heat of the afternoon.
Like many African violet enthusiasts, I grow my plants under artificial lights, moving them into regular light only when they are in full bloom and I want to put them on display in my living or dining room. By setting my plants with their top about 6 to 12 inches (15–30 cm) below a two-tube fluorescent lamp (one Cool White tube, one Warm White) and lighting them 14–16 hours a day, I can assure my violets summerlike conditions at all times and in return get more or less nonstop bloom. LED lights give equally good results.
The potting mix of AVs should be kept relatively moist at all times. So, just follow the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry out before watering again. Thus, there is no specific watering frequency you need to learn. Simply sink a finger into the soil every 3 or 4 days. If it appears dry, water the plant; if it doesn’t, don’t. Could anything be simpler?
You may have heard that saintpaulias must be watered from below rather than from above. That isn’t actually true, but there is a reason for that recommendation.
Traditionally, African violets are watered from below… but that’s really only one possibility. Ill.: redbubble.com, png.com & Claire Tourigny. Montage: laidbackgardener.blog
African violet leaves are easily stained when water is inadvertently spilled on them and such stains are hard to remove. So, if you water from below, filling the plant’s saucer with tepid water and letting it drink its fill, the watering can will be nowhere near the leaves and you’re much less likely to spill water on them.
If you want to water from above, though, that’s easy enough to arrange. Just lift the leaves on one side of the plant with one hand and direct the spout of the watering can directly onto the soil with the other. That way you water the plant’s roots from above without wetting its leaves. Just don’t pour water over the top of the plant. That will cause staining!
The African violet is a tropical plant and doesn’t like cool conditions. Keep temperatures above 60 °F (16° C) throughout the year. And be careful: a spot too close to a cold window, even in a well-heated room, can be cold enough to harm the plant.
Extreme heat is not to their liking either. At temperatures much about 80 °F (27 °C), they may weaken and stop blooming.
You can’t really see the damage dry air does to an African violet, as it has thick hairy leaves that are quite resistant to dry air. You can’t say as much for its flower buds: they often abort when the air is too dry. As a result, the plant seems to stop blooming and you might figure it’s resting, while in fact, it’s trying to bloom, but its blooms are being killed by the dry air. For best bloom, try to keep the relative humidity above 55%.
To achieve that, you may want to place your African violets on a humidity tray, also called a pebble tray, especially during the winter months. As the name suggests, it raises the humidity to more interesting levels.
There are fertilizers designed specifically for African violets you can use if you prefer, but pretty much any fertilizer will give good results. Ideally, for good symmetry and bloom, consider adding soluble fertilizer each time you water, diluting it to one eighth the recommended monthly dose. If your plant is in a situation where it lacks light in the winter (often the case with plants grown on a windowsill), it is best not to fertilize during that season.
If left to grow at will, your African violet will slowly increase in height, producing new leaves at the top, but losing its older, lower leaves over time. That leaves a bare stem (neck) that eventually bends over … and there goes your plant’s symmetry! This is easy to prevent: just get into the habit of repotting your African violet annually.
When you do so, cut a slice off the bottom of the root ball equal to the height of the plant’s bare neck. So, if your plant has, say, a ½ inch (1 cm) bare section at its base, you’ll need cut off a ½ inch (1 cm) section of root ball. Now place the shortened root ball in the bottom of a clean pot (you don’t necessarily need to increase the size of the pot) and add fresh potting mix to the top, covering the neck. New roots will soon grow from the covered stem and will replace those you cut off. Presto! Your plant is symmetrical again!
By the way, although African violet potting mixes are often offered in garden centers, just about any houseplant potting mix will do.
There are several ways to multiply an African violet (seed, stem cuttings, rooting suckers, tissue culture, etc.), but leaf cuttings are the best known and easiest to carry out at home.
Starting an Africann violet from a cutting is as simple as sticking a healthy leaf in moist soil and covering it with a plastic bag. Ill.: Claire Tourigny
Remove a healthy leaf with its petiole (stem), simply snapping it off near its base. Now recut the petiole with a sharp knife so the wound surface will be even. Although you may have been told that you have to cut the petiole at a 45°angle, that is actually of little importance. A 90° cut will give equally good results.
Insert the petiole into a pot of moist soil. It may be useful to cover the cutting with an inverted clear plastic cup or a clear plastic bag: this will help maintain high humidity during the rooting process.
Repot the babies into separate pots. Ill.: Claire Tourigny
After a month or so (cuttings root faster in spring and summer than in the fall or winter), small plants will appear at the base of the leaf. When they were about 2 inches (5 cm high), separate them and repot each one in its own small pot. This step is very important: if you let all the baby plants grow around the mother leaf, they’ll compete with each other as they grow, leading to a crowded pot and poor flowering.
For Further Information
I’ll stop here, yet there is so much more to say about growing African violets: using wick watering, removing suckers, multiplying chimera violets, controlling insect pests, etc.
For further information, why not join an African violet club? Their experts will be able to answer all your questions. There are local African violet clubs all over the world and quite probably one in a city near you. Even if you’re not yet ready to join, you’ll certainly want to go and see their annual show!
There are also national and international African violet societies you’ll want to consider joining as well. Here are a few:
Are overly dim or dry rooms getting in the way of your dreams to become an at-home horticulturist? Especially in the case of apartment dwellers, these things may have hindered you from pursuing your dream of being a plant parent. And true enough, there may be many plants that require a paradisiacal living arrangement with abundant light, humid air and constant attention. Yet, there is also an array of other plants that will survive just about any kind of tough or marginal conditions.
Here are some of the different types of indoor plants that you can choose from to beautify your home and which you can be sure will positively thrive!
Philodendron ‘Jungle Boogie’ (Philodendron ‘Jungle Boogie’)—With its long, narrow leaves with a strikingly tooth margin, it’s a stunner and sooo original! Like all philodendrons, it will put up with just about anything you throw at it. Just take care not to overwater it. Only give it a drink when the soil is getting quite dry. As for light, it likes things bright, medium or indirect.
Lipstick Plant (Aeschynanthus pulcher, syn. Aeschynanthus lobbianus)—With its curious tubular flowers, it’s easy to see where this plant got its name. It thrives in bright indirect light, but will also do fine in filtered light. Make sure to not overexpose it to direct sun, because that can burn its leaves and dry the plant out. Keep the soil a bit moist, but never wet. For balanced growth, rotate it a minimum of once a month.
Hoya ‘Krimson Princess’ (Hoya carnosa ‘Rubra’)—This hoya with charming tricolor leaves—pink, cream and green—is, like other hoyas, a trailing charmer ideal for displaying in a window that gets bright but indirect light. It thrives on neglect, so don’t worry about letting the soil dry out between waterings. Repot during the spring or summer when the roots start peeking out of the drainage hole.
Rubber Tree ‘Burgundy’ (Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’)—Also called ‘Black Prince’, this ever-so-dark leafed rubber tree is a popular choice among ficus trees. It’s less finicky than its popular cousin, the fiddle-leaf fig (F. lyrata), and if you have room for it, it can grow to 25 feet (7.5 m) tall indoors: a true and stalwart indoor tree. As for light needs, bright or indirect light would be perfect, even full sun in the winter. Keep the soil evenly moist during the summer growing season. In the winter, the soil needs less moisture.
Aralia ‘Fabian’ (Polyscias scutellaria ‘Fabian’) — Aralia ‘Fabian’ looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Its beauty and weirdness come from its thick burly trunk, thin speckled petioles and pancake-shaped foliage that’s a dark shade of green on top and deep violet on the bottom. To look after it, place your plant in a pot with a drainage hole and water thoroughly until water begins to flow into the saucer below. Repeat only when the upper two inches (5 cm) of soil are completely dry to the touch. Aralia ‘Fabian’ will appreciate a home in a warm spot in bright indirect light. If you don’t have that, dappled light throughout the day will also work well.
Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides)—This widely loved plant has many other endearing nicknames like UFO plant, missionary plant, pancake plant and Chinese honesty. Its love of humidity makes it an excellent choice for a bit of color in the bathroom! Its curious leafy disks would also add interest to any space with bright indirect light. Let the soil dry out between waterings to avoid disease problems. When its leaves droop a bit, it’s telling you it’s thirsty.
Variegated Hoya (Hoya carnosa ‘Variegata’)—This cutie with waxy white and green leaves will do best in a spot of your home that receives bright indirect light. Avoid direct sunlight in the summer: that could kill the plant over time. You only need to water the plant when the soil turns quite dry. It grows slowly but surely and may one day surprise with balls of scented pink flowers!
Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)—This plant with a thick stem and chubby leaves is a favorite among people who like keeping succulents indoors. Unlike most foliage plants, it survives direct sunlight without a complaint. In fact, the more sun you give it, the happier it is! It doesn’t like being kept wet, so place it in a pot with a drainage hole and let it dry thoroughly before watering it again. Here’s tip: insert your finger into the potting fix to the second joint and only water when it feels dry way down there.
Photo: Hernán Conejeros
Variegated Arrowhead Vine (Syngonium podophyllum ‘Albo-Variegatum’)—Just like other variegated plants, it draws its surprising beauty from its bicolor foliage. Its soil needs to remain evenly moist, so you’ll need to water it more frequently during the spring and summer. And don’t ever let the soil dry out completely. Although it does very well in dry air, it positively thrives in high humidity. So, run a humidifier during the winter months when the air is often desert dry: it’s good for the plant … and good for your own health! Like most foliage houseplants, the arrowhead vine likes bright indirect light, but can also tolerate low light.
Banana-Leaf Fig (Ficus maclellandii ‘Alii’ , syn. F. binnenbijkii)—With its amazing long green saber-shaped leaves that make it stand out from the rest of the ficus trees, this is a true statement plant. Plus, it’s more durable and less susceptible to losing its leaves than the better known weeping fig (F. benjamina). It needs bright indirect sunlight and won’t survive in low light. Keep the soil consistently moist, only letting the uppermost inch (2.5 cm) dry before watering.
Zz Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)—You’ll be able to take a lot of Zzs if you invest in a ZZ plant, also known as Zanzibar gem and aroid palm, as it’s one of the lowest maintenance options on the market. It only needs watering a few times a month, doesn’t require tons of sunshine and doesn’t attract bugs or other pests. Simple … and yet so elegant!
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittatum’) — If you take off for the weekend and forget to assign a friend plant-sitting duties, your spider plant won’t punish you for neglecting it: it’s tough as nails! The plant is self-propagating, it cleans the air naturally, is totally bewitching in shape and form and will grow in anything from low to bright indirect light, making it an excellent option for apartment dwellers or first-time plant parents.
Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa)—With its thick, heart-shaped leaves with a distinct tropical look and feel, plus Swiss cheese-like holes and notches, the monstera is a perfectly bold plant that will truly thrive in an apartment. It tolerates many levels of sunlight and will even grow under fluorescent lights. While you ought to water your monstera regularly, it can survive a missed watering every now then.
Zebra Haworthia (Haworthiopsis attenuata, syn. Haworthia attenuata)—The zebra haworthia, or simply haworthia, is one of the simplest succulents to grow. Its maximum height is just 8-inches (20 cm) tall and, unlike most other succulents, doesn’t need intense light. In fact, it will do perfectly well in very low to moderate light. Plus, it needs only minimal watering. The zebra haworthia is often placed in both open spaces like a living room and small, more contained ones like a bathroom. Add to that are the plant’s very striking white-striped leaves, perfect complementing just about any design style.
Now that we’ve shared enough about the types of indoor plants you could opt for, why not take care of other sections of your house as well? Here are some fireplace decor ideas that could really amp up your decor game and give your visitors a WOW moment!
The garland chrysanthemum can be a leaf green, a garden annual … or even an edible flower! Photos: amazon.ca & teline.fr
Botanical Name:Glebionis coronata, syn. Chrysanthemum coronarium Common Names: Garland chrysanthemum, chrysanthemum greens, edible chrysanthemum, chop suey greens, crown daisy, Japanese greens, shungiku Chinese names: Tong ho, tong choy, tónghāo Family: Asteraceae Type of Plant: Annual Height: 30–120 cm. Location: Sun to light shade. Soil: Well drained, moderately moist to dry, acidic to alkaline. Multiplication: Seed. Seed Depth: 1/8 inch (3 mm) Spacing for Seeds: 1–2 inches (2–5 cm) Thin to (vegetable): 4 inches (10 cm) Thin to (flower): 1 to 1½ feet (30–45 cm) Germination: 7 to 18 days at 60–70 °F (15–21 °C) Availability: Seed, transplants occasionally available. Flowering Season: Various according to climate; early to late summer in temperate regions. Uses: Edible leaves and flowers, medicinal plant, flower borders, container gardening, flower meadows, naturalization.
Wild garland chrysanthemums around a pond in Israel. Photo: MathKnight, Wikimedia Commons
If you visit the Mediterranean region at the right time of year, you’ll often see garland chrysanthemums by the thousands, if not the millions, lining roads and filling abandoned fields, especially under fairly arid conditions. They’re charming plants, with daisylike flowers about 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm) in diameter. I once saw endless fields of them in Tunisia in late February: not something you quickly forget!
The white, yellow or bicolor flowers look much like daisies. Photo: ville-ge.ch
The flowers appear above the plant on individual stems. They always bear a golden central disc and a circle of ray flowers with indented tips. The latter can be either white or yellow (concolor variety) or two-tone: white at the tip with a yellow base (discolor variety), thus forming a golden halo around the disc.
Young plant just coming into bloom. Photo: Dalgial, Wikimedia Commons
The plant has an erect habit. It can be sparsely branched if crowded, but full and bushy with numerous stems when given sufficient space. It’s heavily covered with deeply cut medium green or grayish-green leaves that always remind me somewhat of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), in appearance if not texture.
Garland chrysanthemum is an annual, adapted to a wide range of climatic conditions, and grows quickly from seed to full flower. It flowers according to local conditions, starting in late winter or early spring in the mildest climates and as late as August in the coldest ones. It’s rather ephemeral in hot summer areas, quickly going to seed, but can bloom for 3 months in cooler, more humid climates.
The leaves of the garland chrysanthemum are often used in Asian cooking. Photo: finishthedish.com
But this plant is not just a wildflower. It is also cultivated … mostly as a vegetable! Indeed, under the Song Dynasty (960-1279), this plant was introduced into China where it was quickly adopted as a leaf vegetable and is a very commonly used throughout Asia, from India to Japan. In the West, you often find it in Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants and markets, often under the chop suey greens or skungiku (the latter being its Japanese name). If you ever wondered what that dark green, thin-leaved vegetable you see in your chop suey when you order in Chinese food was; well, now you know!
When cooked, garland chrysanthemum leaves are dark green and mushy, about the color and texture of spinach, although narrower and deeply cut. Photo: 행복한 초록개구리, Wikimedia Commons
The leaves have a pungent, herbal taste, definitely bitter, although the bitterness is reduced by light cooking. Don’t overcook them, though, or the bitterness returns.
Garland chrysanthemum is also used in stews, broths, sautéing and salads in international cuisine.
And that’s not all! Because gardeners also grow this chrysanthemum as an ornamental for the beauty of its flowers … or for eating, as the flowers, too, are edible. They have a more intense taste than the leaves and may not be your thing if you’re not a lover of bitter vegetables, although the ray flowers are milder than the disc (center of the flower).
Crown chrysanthemum is also an easy-to-grow annual that can be sown directly outdoors where you want it to grow. Photo: Photo2222, Wikimedia Commons
The plant is also grown as an ornamental, precisely for its beautiful blooms. Because of its ease of care and rapid flowering, it is often used in flowering meadows and wildflower seed mixes.
Garland chrysanthemums seeds are often included in wildflower mixtures such as this one. Photo: bbc.com
I’ve grown this plant since I was a child. I first ran across it in a seed pack labeled “Children’s Garden” that my father gave me to start my first flower bed when I was 7 or 8 years old. It took me years to discover the name of the mystery daisy that kept coming back year after year, self-sowing prettily in my little flower patch! One of my father’s Japanese friends finally identified it for me as shungiku, the name I’ve always personally used.
A Name Change: Until 1999, this plant was classified in the genus Chrysanthemum, but the genus has been split into several new ones, and it’s now included in the tiny genus of two species Glebionis, under the name G. coronata. The botanical name Glebionis comes from the Latin word gleba for “cultivated soil,” because it sometimes grows as a weed in fields, and coronata for “crowned,” referring to the flower head in the shape of a royal crown.
The garland chrysanthemum is essentially a full sun plant, although some afternoon shade is highly appreciated in the warmer months. It adapts to almost any well-drained soil, even dry ones, but if you’re growing it as a vegetable, it’s best not to stress it out with excessive drought. You’ll find the leaves more tender and tastier when it grows in rich, well aerated, relatively moist soil. When it comes to blooming, it performs longest in areas with cool summers.
Garland chrysanthemums seedlings in a vegetable garden. Photo: spicegarden.eu
The seeds can theoretically be sown in late fall. After all, that’s how things work in the wild! The seeds are very hardy and tolerate extreme cold. However, most gardeners sow them in early in spring, outdoors where they are to bloom. Ideally, this would be when the soil is still cool, but there is little risk of frost.
You can either scatter seed lightly or sow them more precisely about 1 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) apart, barely covering with soil. Germination will vary according notably to temperature. In case of nights below 40° C (4° C) after the seedlings are up, cover them with floating row cover or a cloche until warmth returns. Garland chrysanthemum is actually a bit frost tolerant once it’s past the emergent seedling stage, but too much cold will still seriously slow down its growth.
After germination, water when the soil begins to dry out. Also weed as necessary.
💡 Helpful Hint
For an extra-early harvest, you can sow seeds indoors 6 weeks before the last frost. Provide normal indoor temperatures and good lighting, then, when there is no further risk of frost, acclimatize the seedlings to outdoor conditions before transplanting into the garden.
Before going any further, you now have a decision to make. Are you growing garland chrysanthemum as a leafy green vegetable or for its flowers, either for decoration or as a source of edible blooms? You need to choose, because, as the plant get close to flowering, the foliage will become too bitter and tough for culinary use. So, you have to harvest early for greens, but late for flowers.
So, what’s your choice: leaves or flowers? You decide!
The Leafy Choice
So, you’ve made up your mind and want to produce a harvest of edible leaves? Perfect! Here’s what to do:
Continue basic care, as described above, especially ensuring thorough, even watering.
When the leaves of the plants begin to touch, that means they’ll begin to compete with each other and production will drop. So, it’s time to thin out the plants. Thin to about 4 inches (10 cm), cutting them at the base. Where possible, keep the strongest ones. Thinning costs you nothing and gives you a lot, because it becomes your first harvest. That’s because the plants you thin are edible! So, bring them inside and cook’em up!
Then thin again later if the plants start to get seriously crowded again.
Garland chrysanthemums leaves ready to harvest. Photo: johnnyseeds.com
After about 6–8 weeks of growth, when the plants are 4 to 8 inches (10–20 cm) tall, but the leaves are still tender, it’s time to move on to the main harvest. Simply cut the plant off at the base. If possible, water well, then harvest the next morning: that way the leaves will be fully hydrated.
You can store bunches of stems and leaves in the refrigerator for about a week, placing them in a plastic bag to maintain high humidity. If they start to wilt, slice off ½ inch (1 cm) from the base of the stems and stand them up upright in a bowl of water in water for an hour or so to rehydrate them.
Extending the Leaf Harvest
The above is, in fact, all you need to do: when the leaves are ready, you simply harvest and use them. However, it’s also possible to prolong the harvest and there are, in fact, two methods of doing so.
One way of prolonging the harvest is succession sowing. Photo: fansshare.com
The first is simply to carry out succession sowing. Just sow a few seeds in an empty spot in the vegetable garden about every 3 weeks until late summer, stopping about 10 weeks before the first fall frost. This is the best method in areas where the summer temperatures are high, above 77 °F (25 °C) most days, as the seedlings tolerate heat reasonably well during the first weeks of their existence, while even slightly more mature plants will quickly start to bolt (grow excessively tall and start to bloom), causing their leaves will lose any culinary interest. So, you just harvest early and often.
The other method is to grow your garland chrysanthemum as a cut-and-come-again green. Instead of cutting the plant to the ground when you harvest the leaves and thus kill it, cut leaving a stub about 2 inches (5 cm) high, so the base of the plant remains intact. This will allow it to regenerate from dormant buds. Thus, it will soon start producing a new batch of leaves again. When these are ready to harvest in their turn, cut again in the same way for a third harvest. Depending on growing conditions, it may even have strength and time for a fourth cut-and-come-again harvest, thus giving you leafy greens for nearly the full summer.
The cut-and-come-again method works especially well in areas where summers are relatively cool. Heat-stressed plants aren’t as likely to regrow well after a harsh pruning.
In areas with hot summers, where daily temperatures over 77° F (25° C) are the norm, garland chrysanthemum is not nearly so malleable. It quickly bolts and goes to seed if it’s not harvested fairly young, say about 4 inches (10 cm) high, and once it approaches bloom, it will no longer be recuperable and will soon dry out and die. Under such conditions, it’s best to limit yourself to one or two spring crops, with perhaps another try in early fall in areas with a long growing season.
Finally, garland chrysanthemum, although certainly not a heat-loving plant, can often be grown in the tropics when the right conditions are available. Usually that means growing at high altitudes where the temperatures remain relatively cool or sowing in the fall for a winter harvest in those areas where winter temperatures are more moderate.
💡 Helpful Hint
To obtain garland chrysanthemum seeds for the next season, always let at least one plant go to seed and harvest said seeds when the flowers turn brown. Or let the seeds fall to the ground so they can self-sow, which this species will usually do only modestly. At least, it will self-sow as long as there is a bare spot in the soil nearby the sun can reach.
The Flowery Choice
So, you instead opted for a profusion of beautiful flowers rather than leaves? Great! Here’s how to handle that:
The garland chrysanthemum blooms profusely in the garden with minimal care. Photo: pikist.com
To obtain an abundance of flowers, whether for human consumption or for their decorative effect in the garden—or indeed colorful bouquets to bring indoors—, start in the same way as for the production of edible leaves, as per The Leafy Choice above, but this time, when thinning, leave 1 to 1 ½ feet (30 to 45 cm) between the plants so they can spread out to their full extent and branch abundantly. Flowering usually begins in about 10 weeks.
For a strictly ornamental effect, you can simply let the flowers bloom as they please. You don’t even have to deadhead: where conditions are good, the plant will bloom on and on.
If you want edible flowers, though, harvest them when they are relatively young, as the central disc becomes tougher as it matures.
When the flowers turn brown, harvest and dry them for future use as a healthy herbal tea. Photo: healthbenefitstimes.com
When the blooms do fade and turn brown, they can still be useful, and not only as a source of seed. You can harvest them for medicinal purposes.
To do so, cut the flower heads off and allow them to dry thoroughly in a dry, well-aerated spot, then store until needed. In Asia, where garland chrysanthemum is a popular remedy, they’re often used as an infusion called chrysanthemum tea, with calming and antiseptic properties, useful in particular in combating symptoms related to high blood pressure. It can also be daubed on the eye to calm irritation.
Finally, the bright flowers help attract pollinators (bees, hoverflies, butterflies, etc.) to other plants in the vegetable garden.
Pests and Diseases
Most annoying are slugs early in the season when the plants are young and you may need to try and control them. Flea beetles can be very damaging. Sometimes you may need to exclude them with a floating row cover barrier.
This plant rarely suffers major disease problems.
Where to Find Garland Chrysanthemums
Sometimes you find starts of garland chrysanthemums in garden centers in the spring, especially when there is an Asian population in the neighborhood, but it’s still enormously more profitable to start them yourself from seeds. Seed packs are readily available from mail-order seed specialists and some garden centers also carry them.
The garland chrysanthemum: a beautiful and useful plant that awaits your discovery.
Ill.: Dirt Divas And Dudes LLC & HiClipart, montage: laidbackgardener.blog
When you’re shopping for fertilizer, beware of ready-to-use liquids, also called “pour and feeds”. They’re designed to be poured directly onto the soil of your plants, with some to be sprayed on leaves as foliar fertilizer. “No mixing required!” the label proudly claims… but have you thought about what that means?
If you’re not mixing it yourself, someone else has already done it for you. In fact, you have essentially just bought water! Okay, there is a tiny amount of fertilizer in the container (about one part fertilizer to 50 parts water in most cases), but that’s pretty much water, wouldn’t you say? So, if you have running water at home (and so many people do these days), or even in a rain barrel or a creek out back, you’ve just spent about 50 times too much. A concentrated fertilizer – be it granules, a powder, a spike or a concentrated liquid – at the same price or even several times more is actually much, much less expensive.
I may be a laidback gardener, but I’m laidback and penny-pinching. It only takes a few seconds to drop a teaspoonful of concentrated fertilizer into a watering can… and where I come from, tap water is dirt cheap.
To get the right dilution, follow the instructions indicated on the label (be careful if you change brands: dosage can easily vary from one brand of fertilizer to another). Personally, I further dilute the concentrated fertilizer to 1/4 or even 1/8th of the recommended dose. My experience is that plants rarely need as much fertilizer as the supplier claims… and the more I dilute while still getting excellent growth, the more I save!
Great results for less money? I’d call that a win-win situation!
Text based on an article originally published on March 13, 2016
There are enough coffee seedlings (Coffee arabica) in this pot to start a small coffee plantation! Photo: mydomaine.com
You often find attractive clumps of leafy houseplants in garden centers: seven or eight small stems, or even more, all crowded together at the base. Whether you know it or not, you’re looking not at one plant, but rather a pot of seedlings all jammed in together. Or sometimes a cluster of plantlets issuing from tissue culture.
The clumps of seedling parlor palms make for a denser appearance than individual plantlets would have. Photo: gardenbeast.com
They’re certainly pretty enough and it’s hard to resist buying one or two. The problem is, when you get them home, they soon stop growing or at least most of them do.
You see, they’re not happy plants. They’re very crowded, with no room to grow much further. Each plant is competing for vital growing space with its brethren: for room for their roots to expand, fertilizer for growth, adequate moisture and adequate space for their leaves to trap sunlight. Watering will become more and more difficult as time goes on, as there are far more roots than normal, all desperately trying to get their share of the moisture you apply. You’ll soon find they’ll dry out very rapidly, often only 2 or 3 days after a good soaking. It’s a true battle for survival of the fittest taking place on your own windowsill!
Some of these plants do eventually overcome this constraint … by eliminating the competition. One or two will manage to outgrow the others and then take over, continuing to develop while the others slowly die out.
A few manage to keep the battle raging and will actually live together for years as they duke it out. Mostly, though, after a few months, they decline and begin to die. Or you check them one morning to find they have dried to a crisp overnight and nothing will bring them back!
Common Potted Seedling Varieties
Ardisia (Ardisia humilis) is almost always sold as a clump, yet fills in wonderfully if you grow it on its own. Photo: Wekiva Foliage
The following plants are among many houseplants often offered as clumps of seedlings in garden centers.
Monstera or Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa, syn. Philodendron pertusum)
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
Parlor palm or neanthe bella palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
Schefflera or umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla)
Tree philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum, syn. P selloum)
Seedling tree philodendrons (Philodendron bipinnatifidum), with heart-shaped leaves, look nothing like the mature plant. Photos: tropicalseeds.com & Ikea.com
Interestingly, some of these plants won’t look much like their more mature selves. A seeding schefflera, for example, will have only simple leaves at first, then trifoliate ones, nothing like its umbrellalike adult leaves. Monstera seedlings have oval, uncut leaves and look so much like a philodendron many nurserymen often call them Philodendron pertusum, while the tree philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) will have heart-shaped leaves then arrow-shaped ones, nothing like its huge lacy adult leaves.
Each lucky bean plant (Castanospermum australe) seedling still has a pit at its base when you bring it home. Photo: logees.com
A few of these plants will even still have pits or seeds at their base when you first buy them and their stems may still carry their cotyledons (seed leaves), especially if you catch them shortly after they’ve arrived in the garden center, straight from the wholesale nursery that started them.
Why Offer Plantings So Crowded?
With its spreading, deeply cut leaves, a China doll (Radermachera sinica) looks quite nice in spite of the crowding. Photo: youridahoflorist.com
You have to wonder why nurseries offer such planned obsolescence plantings … and the answer is, mostly, because they look quite nice that way. A single seedling in a pot, although healthier in the long run, would have looked rather wimpy and forlorn on its own at that early stage of its existence. In a dense cluster, most of these clumps tend to take on an attractive rounded shape, all the plants blending together so you can’t really tell one from the other.
Seeds of these plants are densely sown in plug trays, then transplanted into more saleable 4 to 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) pots shortly before shipping to garden centers, thus a lot of plants can be grown in very little space. This photo shows parlor palms. Photo: tropicalseeds.com
Another reason wholesale houseplant nurseries do this is that seeds are very inexpensive compared to starting plants from cuttings and the ones used are chosen from among plants that grow quite quickly. Most reach the stage of a saleable potted plant in just 6 months or so. So, they’re very profitable for the grower.
This seriously crowded grevillea (Grevillea robusta) will soon decline if not given more space to grow. Photo: theeveryspace.com
That the long-term results are likely to be disappointing to the end buyer doesn’t bother the growers in the slightest. The attitude in the horticultural industry has long been that houseplants are expendable, true throwaway items, and are only expected to last about 8 weeks in the home. (Read The Life Expectancy of Houseplants for more information on this subject.) If they die after that, you’re assumed to have gotten your money’s worth. Yet every one of the plants mentioned in this article could actually live for decades … if given space and reasonable care.
Can I Save Them?
Sure! Their main problem is overcrowding, so simply “un-overcrowd” them and all these plants will do just fine! In fact, there are three options for doing so:
Clipped back to 3 trunks instead of the original 7, this Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) will be able to live a healthier life… but would have done even better if there was just one tree per pot. Photo: img.thrfun.com
The easiest way to fix the problem is to thin them out. Just take a pair of pruning shears and—snip, snip, snip!—clip off the excess plants at their base. For most of them, like coffee plants (Coffea arabica), neanthe bella (Chamaedorea elegans) or China dolls (Radermachera sinica), leave two or three plants in the pot (but no more) to still have a bit of density, but others, like Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla), scheffleras (Schefflera actinophylla) and lucky bean plants (Castanospermum australe), will eventually grow to be sizable indoor trees and yet others, like tree philodendron (Philodendrum bipinnatifidum) and monstera (Monstera deliciosa) into massive plants as wide as they are tall, and will really grow much more handsomely on their own, especially in the long term.
If clipping the little plants down upsets your moral code (the goal being to kill them so the survivors can grow more healthily), consider rooting the cut stems in a small pot of soil set inside a mini-greenhouse. You won’t be able to root the neanthe bella palm (Chamaedorea elegans), though: it doesn’t take root from stem cuttings.
Divide to Conquer … While They’re Young!
Young schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla) freshly repotted. Now that it has room to grow, it will turn into quite the indoor tree! Photo: plantsam.com
Or you can separate the plantlets and pot them up individually or by groups of two or three. This is a more delicate operation, as their roots will be intricately entwined and there is a real danger of losing a few. But if you’re careful, you ought to be able to pull most of them through.
💡Helpful hint: Consider using some of the smaller seedlings as terrarium plants. They’ll eventually become too tall, but most can be trimmed back and kept tiny for a number of years.
You could simply unpot them and pull the plants apart, or cut between them with a sharp knife to separate them, but there is also a softer way. Unpot them again, but this time, set the shared root ball in a bowl of water and leave it to soak for a few hours, even overnight. Much of the soil will fall away, helping to free the roots. Very often the plantlets will begin to come apart all on their own or at least will be easier to separate, slipping apart if you just tug lightly on them.
Then pot them, probably putting each division into a pot about the same size as the original one, making sure you set them so they’re at the same level in soil of the new pot as they were in the original pot; certainly no deeper. Just use regular potting mix.
You have to do this while the plants are still young, though. If you wait too long, their root systems become so entwined it may be impossible to get them apart without damaging them.
You can also simply replant the clump of seedlings into a larger pot. Photo: stylist.co.uk
The third possibility is to simply repot the whole clump into a larger pot. They’ll still be crowded and their growth will likely remain considerably inhibited, but at least the peripheral roots will have room to grow and that will allow them to grow somewhat. Over time the weaker ones will likely die, though, but then you can just cut them out.
You’ll discover crowded plantings like this will need to be repotted quite frequently, probably every year. Whenever you start noticing the soil drying out too quickly after a thorough watering, it will be time to move them into a pot a size or two larger. And they’ll always remain fragile to underwatering.
Caring for Houseplant Clumps
In this cluster of buddhist pines (Podocarpus macrophylla), a few of the plants are starting to take over and the others will likely die. Photo: interiorplants.ca
Houseplants sold as clumps of freshly germinated seedlings are of widely different species and you wouldn’t think they’d have much in common, but in fact, they’re mostly in the “average care” group. They need bright to medium light, even full sun in winter, high air humidity (you may need a room humidifier to help them through the winter months), moderate fertilizing spring through early fall and normal indoor temperatures.
Until you’ve given them a decent mass of soil to grow in, they’ll need careful monitoring when it comes to watering. Whenever the soil begins to dry on the surface, you’ll need to water them well with tepid to room temperature water. That can easily be more than once a week, especially if they grow in intense light and dry air.
These freshly repotted divisions of asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) seedlings will make nice great gifts once they’ve settled in. Photo: Crèche Do Ré Mi
When all is said and done, you’ll likely have half a dozen or so pots of cute little, happy, healthy plants to share with friends and family. Not a bad accomplishment, wouldn’t you agree?
Think twice about trusting the hardiness zones printed on plant labels these days! They’re often way off! Ill.: Clipart Panda, berserkon.com, PinClipart.com & PikPng, montage aidbackgardener.blog
I’m a big fan of truth in advertising in the gardening world. I mean, a home gardener should be able to get what they pay for, don’t you think?
Well, if you’re counting on finding accurate information on the label that accompanies new plants, you’re probably in for a disappointment, especially when it comes to the hardiness zones listed. Yes, there are serious nurseries who label their plants correctly as to how much winter cold they can take, but there’s a whole slew of them who, to be frank, are just out for your money and are consciously lying to you.
How the Dirty Little Secret Came Out
Coreopsis ‘Limerock Ruby’: the plant that taught many gardeners not to trust plant hardiness zones on plant labels. Photo: geraniumrozanne.com
In 2002, I, like thousands of other gardeners across North America, bought a beautiful coreopsis with red flowers, ‘Limerock Ruby’ (Coreopsis ‘Limerock Ruby’). It was the first time I’d ever seen a truly red coreopsis (yellow is the usual color for the genus) and I was very satisfied with the results throughout the summer: the plant didn’t stop blooming, producing a cloud of dark-red flowers from July to September.
Since the plant bore a label indicating it was hardy in zones 4 to 9 and I live in zone 4, I expected it to reappear the following spring. But it didn’t grow back. Well, I thought, maybe that the spot where I planted it was a little too humid or maybe it wasn’t quite sunny enough … or maybe I should have cut it back in September to force to rest after such a long season of bloom. In other words, I blamed myself for losing it.
But ‘Limerock Ruby’ quickly became the horticultural Watergate of the summer of 2003. Negative comments started appearing on websites all over North America. It turned out that it wasn’t just me: the vast majority of gardeners had lost their plants of ‘Limerock Ruby’!
The truth came out pretty quickly: no one had bothered checking the hardiness of this plant before launching it. The suppliers had simply assumed that it was a zone 4 plant because the hybrid was largely derived from the species C. rosea, considered hardy to about that: zone 4.
Today we know that Coreopsis ‘Limerock Ruby’ was actually developed from a very frost-tender strain of the species, one from the extreme south of its range, and is only hardy in zones 8 to 10. Yes, it’s practically subtropical and it can only be used as an annual in most temperate climates.
Would you believe, though, that, although some nurseries now do give the right hardiness zones for this plant, others haven’t bothered updating their information and still offer it as a zone 4 to 9 plant. That’s nearly 20 years after the news broke!
This one incident taught a lot of gardeners they can no longer trust the hardiness zones listed on plant labels … but that was a long time. Not only is there a whole new generation of people gardening today, but a lot of us older folks have had time to forget.
Plants Released With No Hardiness Testing Whatsoever
To be honest, the ‘Limerock Ruby’ incident was rather extreme. Rarely is there so much difference between the hardiness zones listed on a label and the real ones. It did, however, reveal a dirty little secret that the horticultural industry has been trying to hide from home gardeners for years now: that cold hardiness of new plants is simply no longer being routinely tested.
The Way Things Were
Not so long ago, plants were only released after they had been thoroughly tested. Photo from The Complete Garden by Albert David Taylor
It hasn’t always been that way.
First, there was a sort of hybridizer’s code of ethics that had been applied for almost since hybridizing new plants first became big business in the mid-19th century.
It called for plants to be thoroughly vetted before they were released. How long to trial them depended on the plant, but often 4 or 5 years for fairly fast-growing perennials and 10 years or more for slower growing perennials, trees and shrubs. During that time, the plant had to prove it was stable and not given to reversions and mutations. And that also left enough time to test it in other gardens under various climatic conditions, as typically nurseries all over the world would trial the plants on their grounds as they built up stock. So, when the plant was finally launched, all its main characteristics, including its cold hardiness, were pretty well known.
This wasn’t much of a constraint for hybridizers: they were used to long waits. At the time, no one expected a new plant to reach the market for years at any rate, because multiplying large quantities of them was such a slow process. At the time, new hybrids of hardy ornamental plants (perennials, shrubs, trees, conifers, etc.) could only be produced by division, cuttings or grafting. Perhaps you could make 10 cuttings from a plant one year, then take cuttings from cuttings to develop 100 the next. And so on. Since thousands were needed for a proper launch, years passed. With divisions, usually fewer per plant, the process was even slower.
That meant years went by between the moment the new plant was judged interesting enough to be produced commercially and the moment it first appeared in the average garden center. In the case of a hosta hybrid, for example, it could easily take 20 years between its original development and it becoming widely available.
The Situation Today
Most new introductions these days are produced by the thousands by tissue culture laboratories: one plant can even become millions of plants in just a few short months! Photo: Красноштан Василь Ігорович, Wikimedia Commons
Nowadays, most new plants are produced by tissue culture, in which tens of thousands, even millions, of identical plants can be produced from a single cell in only a few months. It’s now therefore possible to produce massive quantities of a plant long before anyone understands its true behavior … and that’s quite a change from the old method.
Logically, in such a situation, you’d thoroughly vet the plant first, then multiply it. That does happen to a certain extent, but there are a lot of nurseries that don’t bother. They create a new plant through hybridizing or selection. It looks good. It holds up well in a pot. If so, it’s good to go. Wham, bam: within two years, there are 10,000 clones in garden centers.
But what about its garden performance? Well, as long as it sells well, is that really important? At least, that seems to be the attitude.
What About Trial Gardens?
Of course, there are still trial gardens, indeed all over North America and Europe. Surely they’re testing for hardiness? But no, or only very rarely
Today’s trial gardens seem to see their main role is to feature the new plants that will be launched the following season, a sort of outdoor, summer long garden show highlighting upcoming varieties. The new plants are simply popped into the trial garden in the spring, displayed, enjoyed, compared and commented on, then removed before winter.
That’s fine for annuals, designed for one-season use anyway, but what about plants that are supposed to live for years in the garden? You’d think a 3-year trial would be a minimum, because surviving winter is a challenge for plants and after 3 different winters in trial gardens everywhere, there’d be at least idea of its resistance to cold. But that’s not what happens. The only aspect of interest today seems to be how the plants looks when grown for one single season, as if it were an annual.
There are a few trial gardens that do carrying on multi-year trials of hardy plants… but usually ones already on the market. Photo: Rick J. Lewandowski, Mt. Cuba Center
The few trial gardens that still test perennials and shrubs for more than 1 season generally spotlight plants already on the market, when the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. How nice to learn from a report from such a trial garden that the plant you bought was a total dud … two years after you had already discovered that from personal experience!
Today, a new hosta, echinacea or spirea often reaches to market with only 2 years of experience behind it. Usually straight from the hybridizer’s nursery, and thus only tested, at best, in one zone. However, many have never spent even a single winter outdoors in any climate, cold or not, but have lived their entire short existence within the protective enclosure of a greenhouse! Only a very few of the new plant introductions that we see show up each spring in garden centers have been tested adequately, especially when it comes to their ability to survive tough winter conditions.
The Rush to Release
Industrial spying and plant thievery are becoming the rule rather than the exception in the horticulture industry. Victor Kerlow, choppedintwo.blogspot.ca
The pressure to launch new plant products is intense these days. There’s big money to be made if you have an attractive and novel plant you think the gardening public will like, yet if a nursery lingers too long, competing nurseries, who carefully eye each other’s progress, can copy the cross, and, with tissue culture to help them out, quickly bring out their own version. There have even been cases where plants or cuttings of new hybrids have been stolen and the thief launched the plant under a different name before the more cautious originator was even able to react. (The world of new plant introductions is a dog eat dog one!) A lot of old-time hybridizers have simply left the business, discouraged by the backstabbing and unscrupulousness of today’s gardening world.
Plant hardiness? Who Cares?
Because of this, many wholesale nurseries now simply wipe their hands of hardiness issues. They can’t be bothered to even consider it. To protect themselves from any criticism, they simply slap “Zones 5 to 8” on all the new plants they produce they think ought to be hardy, a sort of middle-of-the-road hardiness zone range that most hardy plants would be likely to grow in. And if they suspect the plant might be a bit iffy in zone 5, they’ll simply label it zones 6 to 8.
This is very discouraging for gardeners like myself who live in regions colder than zone 5, because if you were to trust what the label says, almost no new introductions would appear to be hardy where I live (zone 4).
Even when a plant has been on the market for 4 or 5 years, long enough for there now to be at least a decent idea of its hardiness, its label will probably continue to lie, especially when the plant turns out, as it often does since the ‘Limerock Ruby’ incident, to be hardier than the label says.
Yes, many of the untested plants labeled zone 5 or 6 turn out to be much hardier than that: hardy to zones 2 or 3 in some cases. Yet once a plant is released with a false hardiness zone rating, that misinformation unlikely to ever be corrected.
This is mostly due to inertia: someone at the wholesale nursery that supplies the plant has to really feel this detail is important enough to be worth doing something about it. The new info has to be added to the computer, new labels have to be printed, clients have to be advised to change their own labeling, etc.
This garden phlox has proven itself hardy well into zone 3, but the label still says zone 5. Photo: Emerald Coast Growers
But in reality, who in the industry gives a hoot about catering to the small number of gardeners who live beyond zone 5? So what if the label says zones 5 to 8 and the plant is really hardy to zone 3? That’s only of interest to maybe one gardener in 50, likely from some climatically challenged region in Canada or Siberia of limited importance to suppliers! It’s so much easier just to leave the label alone.
Of course, changing a label would also be expensive. What to do with the thousands of labels already printed?
Thus, even years after nurseries have discovered that a plant they offer is clearly hardier than previously thought, the label usually continues to underestimate its hardiness.
The dimensions of ninebark ‘Diabolo’ (Physocarpus opulifolius Monlo) as printed on the label (left). Its true dimensions (right), are twice that. Ill.: Hydro-Québec, montage: laidbackgardener.blog
And it’s not only the plant’s hardiness that is often incorrect on the label, by the way. Any information about the plant that was unknown when it was launched will tend to continue to appear on the label of the plant pretty much forever. For example, how many labels of the oh-so-popular ninebark ‘Diabolo’ (Physocarpus opulifolius Monlo) continue to show mature dimensions of 5 feet × 5 feet (1.5 m × 1.5 m)? Yet any home gardener knows from experience that it easily reaches twice that: 10 feet × 10 feet (3 m × 3 m)!
Do you honestly think that suppliers don’t know that? They do and have known it for 20 years now (‘Diabolo’ was launched in 2000), but … changing the label would be inconvenient. Some growers have updated their labels (thank you!), but many haven’t.
That’s horticultural inertia at work!
Hardiness Zones: Not Worth the Label They are Printed On
This whole situation is so sad! The very hardiness zones that are meant to help gardeners make a reasoned choice of plants can no longer be trusted. Instead, each gardener becomes a sort of horticultural guinea pig when it comes to trialling new plants.
Personally, when I shop for new plants, I have learned to ignore the zone on the label and trust my gut instinct … but then I’ve been gardening for over 50 years. And I confess to sometimes getting things wrong.
Beginning gardeners, especially those in colder climates, would probably do best to either trust a neighbor with good gardening knowledge or see what other gardeners are saying about new plants on the Internet. What can I say when it comes to plant hardiness labeling, but caveat emptor!
Garden Communicators Also at Fault
It pains me to also point out that garden communicators (writers, lecturers, bloggers, etc.) are also at fault. I’m one, so I should know.
I try hard to get correct information to home gardeners. Not all garden communicators do. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog
When writing about a plant, they should do due diligence: going to more than one source for information and doing a bit of digging. They should not just be parroting what the nursery selling the plant has been pushing as pertinent information. After all, that nursery has everything to gain from making the plant seem as desirable as possible, even if that means lying about it. There are almost certainly people in the horticultural industry who do have pertinent information about the plant, often something from personal experience. All the garden communicator has to do is check around … but so many don’t.
When I write about a plant, I do a lot of digging into its behavior and talk to a lot of people. True enough, I admit I have a special interest in making sure I give the appropriate plant hardiness zone, given that I live on the outer edge of what many conceive to be the gardenable world and share information with gardeners in even colder climates. That makes for a lot of research, but, I dare to hope, a more honest piece of writing. Yet, I see a lot of garden communicators who just repeat the supplier’s information as it were the word of God. Shame on them!
And shame on the entire industry of horticulture for not being honest with a major end client, the home gardener. They’ve taken a valuable piece of gardening information—the hardiness zone—the degree to which a plant can adapt to cold—and made it essentially useless.
Such sad situation!
Text based on an article originally published on December 28, 2015.
Sweet woodruff is attractive, fast-growing and so easy to grow … and that’s only the beginning! Photo: vanberkumnurserycom
Botanical name:Galium odoratum, syn. Asperula odorata Common names: sweet woodruff, sweet-scented bedstraw, fragrant bedstraw, wild baby’s breath, master of the woods Family: Rubiaceae Height: 6 to 8 inches (15–20 cm), occasionally 1 foot (30 cm) Spread: almost unlimited Spacing for Groundcover Use: 10 inches (25 cm) Exposure: partial shade, shade; sun in cooler summer areas Soil: any soil acid to alkaline, preferably moist Flowering: May, June Foot Traffic: intolerant Hardiness Zones: USDA zones 2 to 8, AgCan zones 3 to 8
One of my favorite ground covers is sweet woodruff. I just love the way it forms a nice uniform carpet even in the most shaded areas and stays green until the snow hits. And that sprinkling of tiny white flowers is just sublime.
However, its use as an ornamental ground cover remains relatively recent. Previous generations knew it better as a culinary and medicinal herb. Even in my local garden center, it’s still sold in the herb section … much, I’m sure, to the surprise of many gardeners who would have no idea of how to use it for herbal purposes.
Origin: Sweet woodruff is a small herbaceous perennial found in shady or humid environments throughout temperate Eurasia from Spain and Ireland to Japan, and also Algeria. It has sometimes escaped from culture in the United States and Canada, although only very locally.
The botanical name Galium odoratum comes from the Greek gala (milk), as certain species of bedstraw were once used to curdle milk, while odoratum, from Latin, obviously refers its attractive yet rather unusual scent: the leaves, stems and rhizomes smell of freshly mown hay. The flowers do as well, but to a lesser degree. That’s because they’re rich in coumarin, an aromatic organic chemical compound.
Despite the “sweet” in its name, the plant is not strikingly fragrant … well, at least not in the garden. It’s when it has been dried that it best emits its pleasant fragance.
As for the origin of its numerous common names, woodruff refers to the plant’s habit of growing in woodlands as well as its whorls of leaves that look rather like ruffs (pleated collars). As for bedstraw, the dried leaves (straw) were once used to stuff pillows and mattresses (beds) where they offered not often comfort and a pleasant scent, but were believed to repel lice and bedbugs.
Description: Sweet woodruff is actually a very simple little plant. Each consists of an erect stem, several tiers of dark green, narrow leaves placed in a whorl (attached to the stem like the spokes of a wheel) and, in late spring or early summer, depending on the local climate, a cluster of small white 4-petaled flowers.
At least that’s what you see above the ground. Below, it reaches out to a whole colony of other plants through a series of thin rhizomes running horizontally just below the surface and it’s these rhizomes that produce this dense groundcover effect that has come to be its main ornamental feature.
The plant makes a very dense and very even groundcover … and a very attractive one, too. In fact, you really have to grow this plant en masse to appreciate its appearance: even without flowers, a carpet of sweet woodruffs is absolutely charming.
The foliage is semi-evergreen: in mild climates, it may persist all winter. In cold climates, it remains fully green until a seriously hard frost or the first snowfall, then dies back. It greens up quite quickly in the spring.
💰 Money-Saving Tip
Since every stem already has a root system and even a small pot of sweet woodruff will normally have at least six or seven stems, you already have enough plants to start a little colony! Divide them at planting time and save big on the purchase cost!
Cultivation: Prefer a semi-shaded to shaded location, with preferably rich and fairly moist soil. That said, it seems perfectly adapted to the dry shade caused by shallow tree roots. It will, though, object to severe drought, especially when planted in full sun. Under arid conditions, it tends to go summer dormant and turn yellow, so is not a good choice. It can, though, be grown in full sun in areas with relatively cool summers or spots where the soil stays evenly moist.
This plant is much hardier than it’s often given credit for being. Many otherwise serious gardening sites suggest USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, yet it seems perfectly fine in zone 2 (AgCan Zone 3). In fact, it seems to need a cool to cold winter to thrive and won’t be happy in outside of temperate regions.
Do be forewarned that this plant really is a groundcover, with the accent on the word cover: given a chance, it will spread quite fast. That’s interesting when you first plant it, as it fills in at a rapid rate, but it may not stop where you had planned. It can easily push out from the original planting at a rate of up to 18 inches (45 cm) a year, at least where conditions are to its liking.
Make sure you control it with a barrier of some sort to keep it under control. Even simple lawn edging will suffice: just make sure you allowing the top of the barrier to protrude about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the soil so it can’t creep over top.
If you ever plant it without a barrier and it “jumps the fence”, you’ll discover it’s actually fairly easy to control. It’s simple to pull out or hoe into submission and will be killed outright if you cut it to the ground in early summer. Intolerant of low mowing, it rarely invades lawns.
However, it also doesn’t tolerate foot traffic. Like, don’t walk on it at all if you can help doing so. You can plant it between stepping stones as long as you keep to the pavers, but you certainly can’t walk on it regularly.
Other than watering in times of drought, this plant needs no maintenance, not even fertilizing.
Harvesting: For culinary, aromatic or medicinal purposes, harvest sweet woodruff during or just before flowering, when its somewhat bitter flavor and its aroma are at their most intense. Don’t cut whole swathes to the ground, though, as that will impede the groundcover’s ability to photosynthesize and recover, leaving bare patches. Instead, pick only of one stem out of 4 or 5. That will be hardly noticeable and besides, neighboring plants will soon fill in the gap with new plants from rhizomes.
Sweet woodruff is used both fresh and dried, but tends to turn black under humid conditions. So, dry it rapidly. To do so, tie stems it into small bunches and hang them upside down indoors in a dark, cool, dry spot with good air circulation so they can dry without delay.
Propagation: Usually done by division in spring or fall, or by stem cuttings after flowering. Also, by seed which germinates without any special treatment. Interestingly, the seeds bear tiny hooks and are spread by sticking to the fur of animals.
Horticultural Uses: Sweet woodruff is an excellent groundcover for forest and shaded environments, growing especially well in the dry shade at the base of deciduous trees. You may, however, find it too invasive for very orderly flower beds.
Medicinal Uses: The pleasant “freshly cut hay” scent of sweet woodruff comes, as mentioned above, from coumarin which has several medicinal properties, used among others in antispasmodic, cardiac, diuretic and sedative treatments. The plant is also slightly toxic (as are most medicinal plants) and should only be used at low doses. Avoid use entirely during pregnancy and lactation.
Culinary uses: Sweet woodruff can be used fresh or dried to flavor cakes, cookies, jellies and also drinks, both alcoholic and not. Among others, it’s used to produce Maitrank, a popular aperitif in Germany and parts of Belgium and Luxembourg. The name means “May drink” for the month it which it’s produced and is prepared by macerating the flowering stems in white wine.
Other Uses: As mentioned above, sweet woodruff was once used to stuff pillows and mattresses and was also a strewing herb, that is, it was spread over dirt floors to hide unpleasant odors. Today, it is still used to aromatize potpourris and sachets and as a moth deterrent.
Plant Groupings: Sweet woodruff is a superb ground cover for use with early spring bulbs, such as Siberian squills (Scilla siberica) and crocuses (Crocus spp.), as it begins to grow back just as their flowering ends, hiding their yellowing foliage from sight. It also works well as a living mulch around medium to tall perennials and shrubs, surrounding them with an attractive green carpet, but can shade out lower-growing varieties. It also offers a charming green carpet effect to park woodlands and is unharmed by moderate accumulations of fall leaves. In fact, they tend to work their way to the base of the plants and disappear from sight.
💡Helpful Hint: Sweet woodruff seems to grow well under walnut trees (Juglans spp.), known to be hostile to many other plants.
Problems: No serious insect or disease problems. Its fragrance, which we find pleasant, is in fact a natural insect repellant. Also, herbivorous mammals, such as deer, hares and rabbits, don’t seem to bother it either. Chicken, though, apparently love it and need to be kept out of the sweet woodruff patch.
Other Galiums: The cosmopolitan genus Galium (most species are called bedstraws) includes more than 700 different species … but unfortunately many are weeds!
Where to Find Sweet Woodruff? In season, almost all garden centers carry it, at least in areas where it grows well. Many mail order nurseries that specialize in perennials, groundcovers or herb also offer it.
Sweet woodruff: yet another living tool for low maintenance landscaping!