A Dual Purpose Hummingbird Feeder


First, let me warn my readers from outside of the Americas that there are no hummingbirds where they live. And little use comes of installing a feeder to attract a bird that doesn’t exist. But for bird lovers who do live in North or South America, here’s a new product you might want to consider.

The Humm-Yumm Protein Plus Nectar Hummingbird Feeder offers the possibility for hummingbirds not only to slurp nectar, like any other hummingbird feeder, but to gather the proteins they need as well. 

You see, when hummingbirds visit real flowers, they not only feed on the nectar, but also catch spiders and small insects present in the flower. And they need protein for their health, doubly so when the mother hummingbird has a brood to feed. With traditional hummingbird feeders, only nectar is offered: the birds need to look for protein elsewhere, but not anymore! 

Video: hummyummfeeders.com

The idea with the Humm-Yumm feeder is that the top part contains the usual nectar and sipping holes, but you add a sliced banana to the bottom part. As it rots, it attracts fruit flies, a hummingbird staple. The tiny flies feed and reproduce on the fruit, then, after a week or so, start to buzz about the feeder where the hummers can get them. Protein and nectar in one feeder!

Install your Humm-Yumm feeder early in the season, as hummingbirds are creatures of habit and won’t always react to a new feeder added to their territory later in the year. And in dry climates, you may need to add some water to the sliced banana so it will rot rather than dry to a crisp. 

One Caveat

Now, contrary to the video and photo seen above, you will not likely have 4 or 5 hummers visiting your feeder all at once. That only occurs under very special circumstances, such as when they are migrating and hordes of them are in town at once. You’ll likely have only one hummingbird at time or, if two show up at once, they’ll madly chase after each other. Hummingbirds are very territorial!

Do note that you’ll want the “Humm-Yumm” feeder, the dual-purpose one, not the “Humm-Bug” feeder, with only bananas. Since the latter lacks nectar, hummingbirds don’t visit it as regularly, unless, of course, it is placed near a regular hummingbird feeder, one with nectar.

If you can’t find this product locally (it is new after all), try ordering it online from the manufacturer (hummyummfeeders.com) or from any one of a number of other sources.


Old-Fashioned Annuals


Forgotten Annuals Our Grandmas Used to Grow

If you could travel back in time to your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s time, you’d probably be surprised at what she grew in her flower garden. 

Annuals were the most popular ornamental plants in home gardens from the 1830s until after the Second World War, but you wouldn’t have found grandma growing today’s ankle-high impatiens or begonias. She grew her rather rangy impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) as windowsill plants, calling them Busy Lizzies, and never thought of planting them outdoors, while the wax or bedding begonia (Begonia sempervirens-cultorum) was indeed popular in public flower beds at the time, but not in home gardens (few homes had the heated greenhouse needed to grow them from seed). 

Tall, scented snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) were classics in pre-WWII gardens. Photo: http://www.crocus.co.uk

She did grow snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana spp.), but not the neat little dwarf scentless varieties of today, but rather tall, often gangly back-of-the-border types with strong perfumes. Her pelargoniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), which she called geraniums, were not the compact border plants we know, but shrubs she would have overwintered in a cold room. Her pansies (Viola wittrockiana) had small flowers, not big ones, and she probably called them heartsease rather than pansy. 

Cosmos ‘Sensation’ (Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sensation’), still widely available, was a All America Selections winner back in 1936! Photo: silverfallsseed.com.

Of course, there are some annuals we grow today that she’d recognize in a flash. Modern cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), zinnias (Zinnia spp.) and marigolds (Tagetes patula and T. erecta) may be longer-bloomed than the old-fashioned varieties or produce more flowers, but they’re still much as she knew them. And petunias (Petunia x atkinsiana) of all sizes and shapes were already widely available by the early 1900s.

Scent Matters

If the post-WWII effort in hybridizing annuals seems to be mostly dedicated at getting bigger flowers on shorter plants, pre-WWII, scent still mattered.

Old-fashioned sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) were climbers and actually had a scent! Photo: http://www.beansandherbs.co.uk

We’ve all pretty much forgotten that the sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) got its name from its delicious fragrance, since most modern sweet peas have no scent it all, but the sweet peas of grandma’s time were all highly scented. Less ruffled and smaller than those of today, they still came in the full range of colours we now expect: reds, pinks, whites, purples and much more. There were no bush-type sweet peas back then, they were all climbing plants, using tendrils to grip trellis supports. And Grandma grew them differently than we do now. The general advice at the time was to sow them outdoors in the fall for early bloom in spring, then to cut them back severely after their first flush of bloom to stimulate a second flush in the fall.

With heliotropes (Heliotropium arborescens), the duller the colour, the more intense the perfume! Photo: Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons

Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) was highly popular in grandma’s day under the curious name of cherry pie. Its perfume was known by all and remains today the scent used in baby powder. It was not the most beautiful of annuals, with its clusters of wishy-washy lavender-blue flowers, but oh, what a fragrance! It was hard to grow from seed, so Grandma would overwinter a plant or two in a barely heated room, then take cuttings for her summer garden in spring. Modern cultivars are more compact and have attractive dark purple flowers, but practically no scent.

Mignonette (Reseda odorata) creates just about no visual impact, but what a powerful fragrance… if you can find an old-fashioned clone! Photo: http://www.impecta.se

Mignonette (Reseda odorata), as your grandmother knew it, had insignificant greenish flowers, but was incredibly fragrant: a plant or two in a flower bed would stop passersby in their tracks. Sadly, most modern cultivars have little or no scent.

The Name Game

Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientale) is a garden giant. Photo: http://www.frozenseeds.com

Modern gardeners have become rather matter-of-fact about plant names and prefer few-syllabled ones our spell checkers won’t mangle, but in the past, romantic or amusing names held great sway. Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientale, formerly Polygonum orientale), for example, won’t even fit on most plant labels, but you’ve got to admit it is charming. This giant of an annual, from 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m) high, bears weeping strands of bright pink flowers. It was sown outdoors in the fall for bloom the following summer. 

The light and lacy foliage of love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) practically surrounds its flowers. Photo: Wildfeuer, Wikimedia Commons

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) is a fast-growing annual with blue, pink or white flowers in a “mist” of fine filagree foliage. After it blooms, it produces an inflated seed capsule that can be included in dried arrangements. 

The purplish red tassels of love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) drip right down to the ground. Photo: Tubifex, Wikimedia Commons 

Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is a big shrubby annual that produces long ropes of purplish-red flowers that sometimes dangle to the ground. Grandma knew the secret to growing it: start in indoors only 3 to 4 weeks before planting out time. This gives a young plant that will burst into growth when planted out in the garden.

The flowers of the four o’clock (Jalapa mirabilis) only open at the end of the afternoon. Photo: C T Johansson, Wikimedia Commons

Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) got its name from its flowers that pop open quite quickly at around 4 pm (5 pm under daylight saving time). The trumpet-shaped blooms, white, magenta red or yellow, often splashed with a secondary color, perfume the night, but close before noon the next morning.

Bachelor’s buttons or cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) is an easy-to-grow old-fashioned annual. Just rake the seeds into the soil and water once: it will do the rest. Photo: silverfallsseed.com

Bachelor’s buttons or cornflower (Centaurea cyan’s) has blue (in the original form) to white, pink, red or purple flowers and blooms in just weeks from spring-sown seed. 

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is both ornamental and edible. Photo: theherbarium.wordpress.com

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is the original marigold: the word “pot” was only added after the French marigold (Tagetes patula) usurped its name. Grandma grew this as a dual-purpose plant, as its flowers were ornamental, but could also be added to soups and other recipes to replace saffron. It too grows quickly from seed sown in situ. 

Perfidious Poppy

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) produces beautiful flowers, edible seeds and attractive seedpods. Photo: worldoffloweringplants.com 

I’m sure Grandma never realized that those big gaudy poppies she loved to grow were the source of opium, laudanum, heroin and other drugs. In fact, she loved to sprinkle seeds from the beautiful opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) on cakes and biscuits and—my!—didn’t you feel nice and relaxed and sleepy after eating them? The opium poppy, then as now, comes in a wide range of colours and in single and double forms (the latter often called P. paeoniflorum). Sow outdoors just once and it will self-sow annually. The seed capsule is great in dried arrangements.

Many More

Once popular, the easy-to-grow garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina) is now rarely seen in home gardens. Photo: http://www.caribbeangardenseed.com

Of course, there are many more old-fashioned annuals, including garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina), crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium), Joseph’s coat (Amaranthus tricolor), spider flower (Cleome hassleriana), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), flower-of-an-hour (Hibiscus trionum), mournful widow (Scabiosa atropurpurea) and sweet sultan (Centaurea moschata). (Don’t you just love those old-fashioned names?)

While you may rarely see these flowers in nurseries these days, they’re all still available by mail from seed houses … which is exactly how your grandma ordered them! So take a trip down memory lane and grow some old-fashioned annuals this summer. Grandma would be thrilled!

Topdress Annually for a Top Quality Lawn


For a beautiful lawn like you see in home and garden magazines, topdress annually with 1 inch (2 cm) of compost. It will work its way into the soil and enrich and decompact it. Take the opportunity to fill in any depressions with a little more compost so the surface is equal all over. Then, overseed with a top-quality low maintenance blend of grass seed (one containing endophytes). There are beneficial fungi living inside the grass seed that make the grass that sprouts unpalatable to leaf-eating insects.

You can topdress and overseed in the spring, but results are even better when you do it early in the fall.

With soil enriched and aerated by compost and grass thickened by the arrival of healthy new arrivals—and by repeating this restoration annually—your lawn will never have looked so beautiful!

Polyploidy—or How Do We Get Seedless Fruit?


By Christine Bradish, Ashland Inc.

It’s quite possible that you have seen a commercial for “23 and Me”, advertising an ancestral DNA test. The “23” represents the DNA in a human being, contained in 23 chromosomes. Now this number is misleading, because humans have two sets of chromosomes, one from their mother, and one from their father. However, “46 and Me” doesn’t have the same ring to it. With few exceptions, most animals have two sets of chromosomes, and we refer to them as diploid (di = two, ploidy = sets of chromosomes in a cell). Physical size isn’t a factor: in comparison to humans (46), mice have 40, elephants have 56, and dogs have 78 chromosomes.

It should come as no surprise that plants are weird and different, even when it comes to their chromosomes. Plants can have multiple sets of chromosomes, which is called polyploidy. Many of your favorite fruits and vegetables are polyploids, and this makes them even more delicious. Polyploidy can occur naturally, where wild species “add together” their DNA. Two good examples of this are wheat and strawberries. Wheat is a hexaploid, which means it has six sets of chromosomes, and strawberries are octoploids—you guessed it—eight sets!

Plant breeders intentionally develop polyploids with desirable traits—for example, seedless watermelons. Normally, watermelons are diploid, and have seeds. By using natural chemicals, such as colchicine, plant breeders can double the number of chromosomes in a plant. Then, the tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes) watermelons are crossed with a standard diploid watermelon to make triploid watermelon seeds.

These triploid watermelon seeds are sterile, because you need pairs of chromosomes to form seeds—this is why animals and plants always have multiples of two chromosomes. You need to plant at least one regular seeded watermelon in your garden as a pollen source for the sterile seedless watermelon seeds. Seedless watermelon seeds are more expensive because it costs a lot of money to maintain tetraploid lines and produce triploid seeds every year.

Bananas are a triploid fruit—having three sets of chromosomes. The tiny seeds in their interior are sterile. Source: Morguefile

In addition to seedless watermelons, bananas are probably the most common triploid food you eat. The next time you eat a banana, look for the small black specks in the middle of the fruit—these are the sterile seeds. Farmers do not have to buy new banana seed every year because the banana fruit grows on a plant that sends up a new shoot each season.

Polyploidy is one more tool that scientists can use to learn about the genetics of crop plants. Plant breeders use traditional plant breeding methods to change polyploidy to make improved crops faster and more efficiently. Polyploidy can be challenging because there are so many more chromosomes to work with, but it is another ‘tool’ in our plant breeding toolbox that we use to grow the most healthy, delicious plants!

This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America.

A Beluga in My Garden


Actually, the lower lump of dirty white in the photo is not a beluga, although I think it looks like one, but is actually melting snow. And the upper snow bank might be a half-submerged baby beluga. And I took that photo this afternoon, May 12, 2019, Mother’s Day.

Yes, while much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is well into spring, I’m still dealing with the end of winter. After an exceptionally cold March (with no snow melt worth mentioning), we moved into an exceptionally cold April when the snow did melt back considerably, but it’s only been in the last two weeks (May) that my garden has truly started to appear out of the snow. Snow at Mother’s Day! Who would have thought! 

That will be the last of the “snow stories” this year. The snow that’s left will be gone in two or three days. And garden life goes on. 

Photo: laidbackgardener.com

The Levitating Fern Certainly Spins, But Is It Alive?


Years ago, in the 1970s, a “plant” called the air fern was all the rage. It was said to thrive under household conditions, needing no water or fertilizer. That was, of course, a load of bunk, but a lot of people bought one and I’m sure many were thrilled with their instant green thumb… until the “fern” gathered so much dust it was no longer attractive.

Well, the air fern is back again, and this time it floats on the air! Yes, thanks to magnets and electronics, the pot hovers over the base, levitating and slowly spinning (as long as the base remains plugged in, that is). 

Give a click to watch de fake fern spin! Vidéo: http://www.sharperimage.com

The description of the various companies that sell it joyously claim it needs no soil or water, but remains lush and beautiful, drawing moisture from the air. One even claims, “It thrives on sunshine and happy thoughts.”

Behind the “Plant”

The air fern, also called Neptune plant, is not a plant at all and in fact is as dead as a doornail. It’s a dried sea animal called a sea fir (Sertularia argentea), a type of hydrozoan and therefore a close relative of corals and jellyfish. Green is not its original color: it has been dyed that shade. And it doesn’t thrive at all (dead animals rarely do). 

Since it is dead, you can, of course, put it in sun or shade, dry air or moist. The claim that it “draws enough moisture from the air to keep it looking lush and beautiful throughout the year” is just nonsense. If you could find some way of putting it in a vacuum, with no air or moisture at all, it would still remain green.

And don’t water it: that would wash the dye off.

The levitating fern is simply an expensive knick-knack, perhaps a gift for that person who has everything and is fascinated by oddities. It’s cute enough, and it will certainly impress your guests, but… I prefer my plants alive! And they don’t have to spin to make me happy. 

Peonies That Make Scents


Question: I have been looking for scented peonies for five years now. Every year, I go to the nursery, I smell the flowers, but they’re totally odorless. On the Internet, I see lots mail-order sources with descriptions of peonies, but they never seem to mention the flower’s scent. I can’t imagine ordering their peonies without knowing what they will smell like!

Last year, in the nursery, I came across new Canadian varieties. They were beautiful and had strong stems, but their smell was downright unpleasant!

Do you know of any fragrant varieties I could try? And where to find them? Scent is my main objective. True enough, I would prefer they have a strong stem that doesn’t require staking, but I’d rather have a floppy flower that smells good than an upright one with no fragrance.

I find it unfortunate that hybridizers today pay so little attention to floral perfumes.

Lee Langevin

Although many peonies have little or no fragrance, some are highly perfumed. Photo: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com

Answer: Floral fragrance, whether that of peonies, roses or other plants, is often difficult to classify. It depends not only on the genetics of the plant, but also on the temperature, the time in the day when you sniff them (most peonies are more fragrant early in the morning than at the middle or end of the day), wind or lack of wind and many other factors. And to add to the confusion, each person has their own preferences: some may find a variety deliciously fragrant while others can’t stand its perfume and yet another can barely detect any odor at all!

Moreover, the choice of peonies sold in many garden centers is generally very disappointing in ever so many ways. Typically, they sell the same old weak-stemmed peonies they’ve sold for generations, ones that are easy to multiply quickly and are produced on a massive scale in China for exportation around the world, but whose behavior in the garden is more than disappointing. And few have much of a perfume.

Truly Fragrant Peonies

Pale coloured peonies tend to be the most highly scented. This one is ‘Duchess of Nemours’. Photo: oaktree-nurseries.myshopify.com

In general, the most highly fragrant peonies are white or pink varieties. Reds are usually not scented. Also, varieties with double flowers are more likely to have an intense perfume than those with single flowers. But there are, of course, many exceptions to both rules.

And you are right to point out that hybridizers have often overlooked floral fragrance. They tend to work on beautifully shaped flowers in striking colors rather than with an intense and delicious scent. As a result, many hybrids of peonies, roses, sweet peas and other modern flowers have little to no perfume, while the wild plants these complex hybrids were derived from were often famous for their scent.

Fragrant Peonies You Might Enjoy

Here are some varieties renowned for their fragrance … and I only included those with strong stems as well (as a laidback gardener, I have no sympathy for floppy peonies!). But only you can decide if their scent is attractive or unpleasant. 

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Angel Cheeks’: large double pink flowers, sometimes with some red streaks. 80 to 90 cm × 90 cm.

Itoh peony ‘Bartzella’. Photo: blog.longfield-gardens.com

P. Itoh ‘Bartzella’: the most popular Itoh peony. Surprisingly fragrant for an intersectional hybrid. Huge yellow semi-double to double flowers with touches of red in the center. 90–120cm x 90–120 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’: Japanese peony with fuchsia pink petals and a center made up of narrow creamy white petaloids. Flowering: June. 90 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Catharina Fontjin’: Double pink flowers becoming lighter pink. Excellent cut flower. 100 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Cora Stubbs’: Japanese peony with pink outer petals and a domed center white. Intense fragrance. 80 to 85 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Duchess of Nemours’: One of the few 19th century peonies—that is, ones you can find in just about every garden center—that has strong stems. Abundance of double creamy-white flowers. 60–90 cm x 90 cm.

Peony ‘Eden’s Perfume’. Photo: http://www.cottagefarmsdirect.com

P. lactiflora‘Eden’s Perfume’: Large, very double flower (you could easily say triple!), light pink with darker pink hues and a halo of creamy-white petals around the middle. Rose scented. 90 cm × 90 cm.

P. Itoh ‘Garden Treasure’: Pale yellow semi-double flowers with red marks near the center. Long blooming. Lemony fragrance. Many secondary blooms, thus ensuring prolonged flowering. 90 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Hermione’: Huge double pink flower with a fringed margin. 60–90cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Honey Gold’: creamy-white Japanese peony with creamy yellow petaloids in the center. Prolonged blooming because of the numerous secondary buds. 90 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Madame de Verneville’: White flowers spotted red. They’re not the largest flowers, but they do have a strong rose scent. 60 to 90 cm × 90 cm.

Peony ‘Moon River’. Photo: purepeonies.com

P. lactiflora ‘Moon River’: large pinkish-white double, cup-shaped flower. Compact plant. 65 cm × 60 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Petite Elegance’: semi-double flower a bit on the small size, but their ever-changing color is quite unique: dark pink eventually becoming creamy white with red marks. 55 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Petite Porcelaine’: beautiful white semi-double flower with wavy petals. 55 cm × 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Philippe Rivoire’: beautiful red flower, small, but very double, with an excellent fragrance. 60 to 90 cm × 90 cm.

Peony ‘Philomele’. Photo: http://www.thetreefarm.com

P. lactiflora ‘Philomele’: anemone type with a row of lavender-pink petals around a central ball of pale yellow petaloids. 60–90cm x 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Spiffy’: Japanese peony reddish pink on the outside and dark pink with cream in the center. 70–75 cm x 90 cm.

P. lactiflora ‘Sea Shell’: superb light pink variety. Single flowers with a very yellow center. Long blooming. 100 cm × 90 cm.

There are many more where these came from, so I suggest going to a peony specialist in the late spring and early summer when the peonies are in bloom and smelling the peonies at their prime before making a selection. Write down the names of your favorites, but only order them for fall delivery: the best time of the year to plant peonies.

Mail Order Catalogs

One of the rare fragrant peonies that are red: ‘Philippe Rivoire’. Photo: bogront.se

I haven’t had the same experience as you did: I find that peony catalogs on the Internet usually do describe the fragrance of the varieties they sell … if it’s worth mentioning, that is. If the variety is scentless, they don’t highlight that fact. And most also tell you which peonies stand tall and proud without staking.

United States




Good plant hunting!