You’re pretty good at investigating myths having something to do with plants and here’s one that I’m pretty sure isn’t true.
I saw on a Facebook page that apple seeds are poisonous. I don’t know how that could be possible. All my life, I’ve had the habit of sucking on an apple seed or two after eating an apple, much like some people chew on gum, then I swallow them. I’m 38 years old and in fine health.
So, what’s the truth behind that?
Answer: That actually isn’t a myth! Apple seeds are poisonous. It’s just that sucking on the seeds or swallowing them isn’t releasing the poison.
Apple seeds (and seeds of many fruit trees in the Rose family: cherries, peaches, plums, etc.) contain a compound called amygdalin. It isn’t harmful in itself, but breaks down into cyanide when crushed or chewed on. And cyanide can be deadly.
The poisonous content of the apple seed (or pip) is designed by nature to protect it from predators. It’s part of the apple tree’s distribution system. The tree “wants” animals to eat its fruit, which why it is so sweet and tasty, but not to destroy its seeds. Either the animal doesn’t eat the core (humans) or doesn’t chew the seeds (frugivorous animals) and the pips are either thrown away or passed intact through the digestive system. The idea is that encourages the distribution of seeds far from the mother tree (the animal might pick up the fruit and eat or defecate it elsewhere) and that allows apple trees to spread in the wild.
Besides releasing poison, chewing on apple seeds releases a very bitter taste: a warning not to go any further. We may not notice it too much, but birds and small animals will.
Frugivorous animals that don’t learn not to chew on the seeds would be made ill and weakened or killed, thus eliminated, and only those that leave the pips intact would survive. Such is natural selection. And that’s how apples get around.
Any Danger to Humans?
Sucking or swallowing apple pits is harmless, since the pits remains intact. They go right through your digestive system and come out the other end in one piece. It’s probably best, though, not to teach toddlers to put apple seeds in their mouths, as they might chew them.
Even if you occasionally chew on an apple pit, the amount of poison in one seed won’t hurt you. You’d need to chew on hundreds to make yourself sick and thousands to ingest a lethal number.
What About Pets?
Cats usually have little interest in apple cores, but dogs often love them and like to chew on them. They probably do manage to break the skin of a few pips as they chew, but don’t do this often enough to poison themselves. One estimate suggests that a medium-size dog would have to thoroughly chew the pips of some 200 apples to be seriously poisoned. That’s just not going to happen.
Do be aware that smaller animals like guinea pigs and rabbits and chewing birds like parrots can be fed apples, but it’s best to remove the core first. Their smaller bodies mean a lethal dose is more easily reached. Poisoning under such circumstances is still exceedingly rare (a small rabbit would have to chew 50 or so apple pits at one sitting!), but it could still theoretically happen and so is best avoided.
But what about the cumulative effect of cyanide? Doesn’t it build up in the system over time?
That’s a common belief … but a false one. The body (human or pet) breaks down cyanide quite rapidly, in mere hours. Cyanide does not build up over time and is quickly removed by the liver and kidney.
So, yes, apple seeds are indeed poisonous, but no, they’re not likely to poison anyone. But don’t make a habit of munching on them!
Quick! What is the name of the plant in the photo above? I’ll bet 9 gardeners out of 10 said “geranium,” but they’re sorta, kinda wrong. It’s actually a pelargonium: a zonal pelargonium (Pelargonium × hortorum), to be exact. But we’ve been calling it by the wrong name for a long time now.
The confusion dates back over 250 years. In 1753, Linnaeus, busily classifying the plants of the world according to his new system of binomial botanical names, figured that the new-fangled semi-succulents with attractive flowers and odoriferous leaves just arriving from South Africa were very close relatives of the better-known geraniums (Geranium spp.) and lumped them into the same genus, under the name Geranium. Other taxonomists had already named the South African plants Pelargonium, but either Linnaeus was unaware of that or chose to ignore it.
It took 35 years before someone corrected the error. Charles L’Héritier officially separated them into two different genera in 1789, putting the (mostly) Northern Hemisphere plants into the genus Geranium and the (mostly) Southern Hemisphere ones back into the genus Pelargonium. And that separation has held true over the centuries.
That means your garden variety “zonal geranium” is actually a pelargonium—(Pelargonium × hortorum)—, which you should call a zonal pelargonium. This is also true of all the other South African imports, plants you may have been calling ivy geraniums, scented geraniums or regal geraniums, but which should by rights be called ivy pelargoniums (P. peltatum), scented pelargoniums (P.graveolens and others) and regal pelargoniums (P. × domesticum).
That wasn’t so much of an issue back when gardeners grew mostly pelargoniums (the frost-tender South African types). If you used the word “geranium,” everyone understood you. But for the last 50 years or so, true geraniums (Geranium spp.) have become widely popular in temperate climate gardens. I mean, who doesn’t grow either Geranium Rozanne® or G. ‘Johnson’s Blue’? To distinguish them from the tender (half-hardy) pelargoniums, few of which can survive the winter in temperate climates, we took to calling the latter “hardy geraniums.”
To Beak or Not to Beak?
Of course, the two plant genera, Pelargonium and Geranium are closely related. Both belong to the same plant family, the Geraniaceae, and both have the same long, narrow, beak-shaped seed capsule that springs open when ripe and casts the seeds far and wide. In fact, the botanical names both refer to this same phenomenon.
Pelargonium is derived from the Greek word for stork, because the seed capsule is said to resemble a stork’s bill, while Geranium means crane, because it’s supposed to look like a crane’s bill. Honestly, you’d have to be a fairly serious ornithologist to be able to tell a stork’s beak from a crane’s beak … especially if you removed the rest of the bird! The seed capsules, therefore, are essentially identical.
Other than that, though, they’re very different. Certainly, you can’t grow them the same way and you can’t cross them together.
Time to Change
It’s time to stop pussyfooting around. Why not call a Geranium a geranium and a Pelargonium a pelargonium?
This should be easy. It’s not as if I’m springing something new on you: after all, the names were changed over 250 years ago!
Plus, most gardeners already know the difference and are familiar with the term “pelargonium,” even if they don’t always use it. For example, if I use the term “zonal pelargonium” in a lecture, there are no confused faces: everyone gets it right away.
And this correction had become all the more necessary in that an increasing number of varieties in both genera are now being grown.
When someone tells me about a new “geranium” they are growing, I’m always confused at first and I’m sure you are too. Are they referring to a geranium (hardy) or a pelargonium (tender)? A plant to grow permanently in the outdoor garden (geranium) or to bring indoors in winter (pelargonium)? And confusion is never a good thing.
For those who don’t quite get the difference, here’s a quick summary:
Pelargoniums (Pelargonium spp.)
Tender plants (not cold resistant), mostly from South Africa;
Grown as annuals or brought indoors for the winter;
Most have sturdy stems, often upright, that survive from one year to the next;
Originally, all pelargoniums had asymmetric flowers, with two upper petals quite distinct from the three lower petals, but that characteristic has been bred out of many modern pelargoniums. The average zonal pelargonium (Pelargonium × hortorum) of today, for example, now has symmetrical flowers, with all five petals being identical.
Geraniums (Geranium spp.):
Cold hardy (there are a very few exceptions) and mostly native to the Northern Hemisphere;
Grown outdoors year-round, almost never indoors;
Herbaceous perennials (they usually die to the ground or to creeping rhizomes in the winter, then sprout again in the spring).
Always have symmetric flowers: 5 petals of approximately equal size and shape.
So, there you go. You may say po-TAE-to and I may say po-TAH-to, but let’s all say geranium when we mean Geranium and pelargonium when we mean Pelargonium.
Article adapted from one published on August 23, 2015.
When I first started growing plants of all kinds, I only did so by sowing seeds. I continued that way for many years. And I didn’t start having problems with insect pests (mealybugs, aphids, etc.) until I started buying plants in nurseries instead of buying seeds.
So, starting plants from seed helps prevent importing pests!
And thank you, Patrick, for your comment, which hereby I’m sharing with my readers.
You’re absolutely right: seeds in seed packets are naturally pest-free, a major plus for any gardener!
When you’re shopping for biodegradable pots with permeable sides for seed-sowing, something you might well need in order to transplant fragile seedlings into the garden without disturbing their roots, you can, of course, easily find models made from peat or coir (coconut fiber) … but there is also another possibility: pots made from cow manure.
Yep, I’m not kidding; cow pat pots! The brand name is CowPots.
Just fill the fibrous-looking brown pots with moist soil and sow your seeds in the center. When the time comes to transplant them to the garden, you just “plant the pot rather than the plant.” In other words, you bury the pot in the ground, leaving the young plant’s root system undisturbed inside. No more transplanting stress!
The porous nature of the CowPots sides allows the roots to grow through the pot and expand into the soil all around it. In addition, CowPots naturally contain minerals useful for seedling growth, including nitrogen.
Moreover, the nitrogen contained in the pot sides promotes their natural decomposition. Less than 3 or 4 weeks after planting them out, they’ll start to disappear. At the end of the season, they are no longer there!
Safe and Ecological!
CowPots give off no unpleasant odors and are perfectly safe to handle, since heat treatment has destroyed all possibly noxious germs (and also weed seeds). And all this is done ecologically: a biodigester dries the manure and the resulting methane is used to run the manufacturing facility!
In Canada, EcoCert Canada has approved CowPots for organic agriculture.
History of CowPots
CowPots are the creation of brothers Matt and Ben Freund, second-generation dairy farmers in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Matt started experimenting with manure fibers on the kitchen table, drying the pots in his wife’s toaster oven. This didn’t do much for his marriage, but it allowed him the ability to share his vision with other people. Since 1997, they are one of only a few farms across the United States to have continuously run a methane digester.
After many trials and tribulations, the brothers found an economical way to mass-produce pots of limitless sizes and shapes. CowPots has since evolved in production capacity and become a state-of-the-art facility that can create energy for the farm, fertilizer for the fields and CowPots.
Where to Find Them?
In Canada and the US, you can probably find CowPots in a garden center near you or even a hardware store. Otherwise, look for them online at TrueValue.com and Amazon.com in the US and W.H. Perron and Veseys in Canada. In Europe, where the product has only recently been introduced, you probably will have to order them on the Internet. Amazon is one likely source. And you can find them on eBay in Australia.
On this Valentine’s Day, the celebration of love and affection, I thought it would be interesting to dedicate the blog to plants whose name evokes love … and there are actually quite a few of them.
How could I not start with the forget-me-not. This is the common name for Myosotis sylvatica, the charming little biennial plant with sky-blue, white-eyed spring flowers. The legend behind the name is absolutely charming. Here’s how it goes.
A French knight was walking along a river with his lady. He bent down to pick her a pretty little blue flower, but his heavy armor caused him to lose his balance and he fell into the current. Before sinking forever, he tossed the flower to his ladylove, shouting “ne m’oubliez pas” (forget me not)! And that was how the forget-me-not got its name.
The name lives on not only in English and the original French, but in other European languages as well: Vergissmeinnicht in German, no-me-olvides in Spanish, nontiscordardimé in Italian, gleym mér ei in Icelandic, etc.
There is also another legend that explains how the forget-me-not received its name … but it’s not nearly so romantic.
It is said that God had assembled all the flowers in order to give each one a name until there was only one tiny plant that remained. Then God turned as if to leave, causing the little plant to cry out: “Forget me not, O Lord!” “That shall be your name,” he decided.
The most common variety of our gardens and fields is the forest forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica), of European origin, but it long ago escaped from culture in temperate regions all over the world where it is seen as either a beautiful wildflower or an annoying weed. Most seed catalogs carry it and it is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8. It grows best in humid locations, in the sun or in partial shade.
There are about 75 other species of forget-me-not, both of temperate and tropical origin, so no matter where you live, there is probably at least one species you can grow, at least, if you have a spot with that isn’t overly dry.
The common bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis, now Laprocapnos spectabilis) is a big perennial well known to most gardeners—and lovers!—because its flowers really do look like little hearts, with two upper rounded lobes fitting snugly together. The flowers dangle prettily from an arching stem on a thin pedicel, giving a most charming effect. The normal form has pink flowers, but you can also find ‘Alba’, with white hearts and ‘Valentine’, with red hearts, as well as ‘Goldheart’, with pink hearts and golden foliage.
Perfectly suited to temperate gardens except in the most arid climates, the common bleeding heart is a long-lived perennial that our grandparents knew well. It’s hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. Plus, there are many other bleeding hearts to try in the genus Dicentra, many being low-growing groundcovers … and all with heart-shaped flowers.
String of hearts (Ceropegia woodii)
This is a popular houseplant, also called hearts-on-a-string and rosary vine (for the small hanging tubers it produces). It’s grown for its long, drooping stems and its small, succulent, clearly heart-shaped leaves. The leaves are very decorative, purple underneath and green with silvery veins on top. And it has curious little lantern-shaped flowers as well. It’s a succulent plant well adapted to dry conditions and grows with little care other than the occasional watering, although it does require a sunny location.
Passion Flower (Passiflora spp.)
Although the name might seem to invoke the passion of carnal love, in fact, the name passion flower comes from the passion of Christ. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish missionaries in South and Central America used the bloom of the native passion flowers to teach the crucifixion of Jesus to the local peoples.
The 10 petals and sepals were said to represent the 10 faithful apostles (minus Peter the denier and Judas the betrayer), the filaments symbolize the crown of thorns, the ovary evokes a hammer and the 3 stigmas are nails, while the 5 anthers are supposed to represent the 5 wounds Jesus received. If flower parts aren’t enough for you, the pointed leaf tips are said to be lances while the tendrils … well, what else could they be, other than the whips that flagellated Christ? I find the whole description that rather horrifying, but apparently it was a great help in converting pagans!
In spite of its strictly religious origin, the name passion flower remains very evocative and thus it has since become the symbol of passionate love. And the fruit of the passion flower, called, of course, passion fruit, has long been considered an aphrodisiac.
There are over 500 species of passion flower, generally climbing plants. Most are strictly tropical, but you can grow them in temperate climates as houseplants or annuals. There are, however, a few fairly hardy varieties, like maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and P. ‘Incense’, adapted to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 10.
Love-in-a-Cage (Physalis alkekengi)
This perennial with a papery orange inflated seed capsule has a profusion of common names: Chinese lantern, Japanese lantern, winter cherry and several others, but I like love-in-a-cage best. It’s a popular dried flower, used in many indoor arrangements, but it can be quite invasive in the garden, spreading through numerous suckers that pop up from its creeping roots. The name “love-in-a-cage” comes from the fact that, if you don’t harvest the stalk for drying while the capsule is intact, its papery outside will gradually disintegrate, leaving only thin netting like bars of a cage through which you can see the little red fruit inside; the “love” of the name.
It’s a tough and easy plant to grow for sunny spots in hardiness zones 3 to 9.
Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
In the language of flowers, love-lies-bleeding stands for hopeless love. Sigh!
What a striking plant! And what a tragically romantic name! The name comes from the long dangling flower stalks that can trail downward for over a meter (4 ft). The effect lasts all summer, as the red flowers give way to red seed capsules. It makes a great dried flower and pretty much all parts of the plant are edible, including the leaves and seeds, the latter used to make amaranth flour. An easy-to-grow annual, vegetable and cereal grain, sow it outdoors (warm climates) or start it indoors (colder ones). It likes warm temperatures, so wait until the soil and the air have thoroughly warmed up before sowing it or planting it out.
Love apple (Lycopersicum esculentum)
This is another name for the tomato. Legend has it that the designation dates back to when a Spanish sailor brought back the first tomato seeds from the Caribbean to offer them to his fiancée, the love of his life, hence the name. Another belief, however, claims the name “love apple” comes from the aphrodisiac powers of the fruit. And indeed, the Catholic Church tried to banish this fruit in the 16h century for fear that its consumption would lead to debauchery.
That said, it’s most likely that the name “love apple” is in fact due to a long-ago misunderstanding. At the time, the Italians called the tomato “pomo d’Mori” (apple of the Moors, although they now call it pomodoro, “golden apple”), because the fruit came from a distant land. A visitor to Italy, hearing the name for this new fruit, apparently misunderstood and heard not pomo d’Mori, but “pomo de amor” or love apple.
What can I say about love apples except that we all grow and eat them … as tomatoes.
Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
The botanical name says it all … if you understand Greek, that is! Agrostis means grass and I think we all know the sense of eros. Put it together and you get “love grass.” It’s one of the most diverse and widespread genera of grasses in the world, with over 350 species, including both annuals and perennials, ornamental plants, grasses grown for animal fodder and, well, weeds.
Purple love grass is of the ornamental category, a perennial mounding grass with narrow green leaves turning reddish in the fall and with airy, hazy purplish panicles rising above the plant in summer. Its hardy from USDA zones 5 to 9.
Purple Heart (Tradescantia pallida)
Yes, the leaves are purple and maybe, with a bit of imagination, you could seem them as heart-shaped, although a very long, narrow heart! It’s a kind of extra-large-leaved spiderwort or wandering jew, which you may know better under its former botanical name, Setcreasea purpurea. It makes a great houseplant and basket plant when placed outdoors for the summer, or a groundcover in milder climates: zones 8 to 10.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)
This delightful old-fashioned annual has very airy threadlike foliage with blue flowers (or red, pink or white ones in more modern cultivars) nestled in a ring of deeply cut, lacy bracts: the “mist” of the plant’s name. Just sow this easy-to-grow annual in a sunny spot where you want it to grow and it will do the rest. The dried flower capsules are often used in arrangements.
Sweetheart Vine (Philodendron hederaceum)
Well, that’s what some people call it. I’ve always known it as heartleaf philodendron … also appropriate for Valentine’s Day. It has changed botanical names so often that it’s hard to keep track (P. cordadum, P. oxycardium, P. scandens), but apparently P. hederaceum is the right one!
Probably the easiest of all the houseplants, this oh-so-common climbing plant is most often used in hanging baskets. It will grow under almost any combination of indoor conditions that don’t involve cold temperatures. Just keep it watered and it will survive, even in those shady spots where nothing else sill grow.
Love-in-a-Puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum)
Also called balloon flower and heartseed vine, this is a fast-growing climbing plant sold as an annual in cooler climates. The flowers are barely noticeable, but the puffball like seed capsules are quite striking. Inside, once you decorticate the seed shell, is a perfectly heart-shaped seed. Grow it in full sun. Be careful in the tropics, zones 9 to 11, where it can become invasive.
Sweetheart Hoya (Hoya kerrii)
The sweetheart hoya, also called the Valentine hoya, is a tropical climbing plant grown as a houseplant with thick, tough leaves that are distinctly heart-shaped, and it is definitely catching on as a Valentine’s plant. The plant is easy to care for, at least if you have a relatively well-lit window, although it’s very slow-growing.
Some merchants even sell sweetheart hoya leaves in pots as a Valentine’s gift. These leaves do take root, but are “blind” and will never produce an actual plant (or only very, very rarely!). So, as long as you water them a bit, they just sit around and collect dust for a few years until they finally die. You can call a rooted leaf that never grows or changes a houseplant if you want (and some really desperate people with black thumbs probably do!), but I think it’s a very sad and desperate life for any plant to live.
Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Well, there’s nothing truly romantic about that name, because it’s merely descriptive. The leaf of this perennial native to northeastern North America simply has leaves in the shape of a heart. And the botanical name says so: that’s what cordifolia means. In fact, there is a whole long list of plants with cordifolia or cordata (heart-like) as part of their botanical name: heartleaf (Houttuynia cordata), heartleaf bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia), heartleaf peppervine (Ampelopsis cordata), heartleaf hornbeam (Carpinus cordata), etc.
Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers all over the world!
A typical vegetable seed packet. Lots of useful information, but nowhere does it show the plant’s height! Photo: http://www.frugalupstate.com
I’ve received many of my seed packets by now (I usually send in my seed orders in January), so I was going through them the other day, putting a bit of order into the chaos. I group mine by seed-sowing dates: which ones I sow indoors early (early March where I live), mid-season (April) and late (May), which I sow outdoors when the ground is cold and which only when the ground has warmed up. And all the special cases (you always find a least one seed variety that will need some sort of special treatment).
And I was also vaguely planning my garden, trying to work out an acceptable crop rotation plan for the summer.
And I ran into my usual problem when it comes to vegetable seeds: the seed packet almost never gives the plant’s height. They give all other information I want: when to sow, seed depth, recommended spacing, days to harvest, etc. But how tall is that darn plant going to become? I need to know that, as tall plants shade out shorter ones and I want to put those towards the back of the garden, but also because I try to make my vegetable garden look good and it won’t look so hot if some ginormous plant is jutting out, visually squashing the little guys just below!
This isn’t the 1950s, when gardeners obediently planted all their veggies in neat little rows in a perfectly rectangular vegetable bed. We design with our vegetables, choosing some at least as much for their appearance as their taste, and we need to know their height. Everyone tells me that foodscaping is a trend… well, just try foodscaping when you don’t know how big the plant will become!
If They Can Do It for Flowers…
If I look at flower seed packets, even from the same company, bang: there it is! Height! In inches or centimeters or both. Flower seed packets always tell how tall the plant will be. Why can’t that same simple bit of information appear on vegetable seed packets as well?
I especially need to know for the taller vegetables. Like, do I need a big tomato cage for that tomato or a small one? Or maybe it’s one of the short determinate ones that don’t need a cage? And some of those seed amaranths (both gorgeous and delicious) may be short and stocky, but others are monsters.
So, I spent about 40 minutes yesterday digging around on the Internet, looking for the height of each vegetable. I had to check each by cultivar name, because, yes, each variety is different, and by thorough searching, I found most of the heights and wrote them on the seed pack. Some, though, I had to guessimate. So much effort for something that should be so simple!
Come on, seed companies: share the info! Gardeners need to know the dimensions of their vegetables as much as those of their flowers.
Stepping stones set in a garden allow you easy access. Photo: ediblelandscapingmadeeasy.com
It’s best not to put your feet in your flower beds. Not on the soil there at any rate. Yes, I know you’ve just lost 20 pounds and are as light as a feather, but walking or standing on soil compacts it, causing it to harden if it contains any clay particles at all and, even it if doesn’t, reducing the space available for oxygen and water to reach plant roots. The more you walk through a garden, the worse the soil becomes. And this, of course, impacts the plants that grow there: they do much better in well-aerated, uncompacted soil.
Since there will be times when you’ll have to get into any flower bed (to plant, weed, chase that darn groundhog, etc.), the simple solution is to provide stepping stones: flat stones or slabs where you always put your feet when you’re in the garden. Each should be large enough for two of your feet (guys with size 14 feet will need rather large stones!), as you may need to put both feet on them when you’re crouching down to weed. The stepping stones don’t have to form an in-your-face path or even lead anywhere in particular: they just need to be placed where they can allow access to the bed, everywhere in the bed.
In most flower beds, your stepping stone path will quickly be hidden by dense plant growth, but the important thing is that you, the gardener, know where the steps are and can stick to them whenever you need to set your feet in the garden!
From now on, then, don’t tiptoe through the tulips, but place your feet on something solid!
Adapted from an article published on March 7, 2015.