2021: Year of the Sunflower

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Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one edible plant, one shrub and one bulb to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.

Let’s look at the annual chosen for 2020, the sunflower.

Year of the Sunflower

Sunflower ‘Big Smile’

The common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is a tall annual native to North America. There are in fact some 70 different species of Helianthus, most of them perennials. One such perennial sunflower is the Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus), grown for its edible tubers, while other perennial species, such as Maximillan’s sunflower (H. maximiliani) and thinleaf sunflower (H. decapetalus), are grown as ornamentals for the perennial border. 

Only a few of the annual species, such as Italian white sunflower (a selection of H. debilis) and silverleaf sunflower (H. argophyllus) are grown at all and these are often confused with the much more widely grown common sunflower (H. annuus), the plant being honored this year. 

A Long History

A wild sunflower (Helianthus annuus) growing in New Mexico. Photo: golondrinas.org

The common sunflower is native to the center and southeast of the United States and to northeastern Mexico. Until recently, it was thought the sunflower was one of the rare crops to have been domesticated in the United States, but recent discoveries in Mexico show that it was probably domesticated there. 

That’s because the earliest signs of a domestication were found in Tabasco, Mexico, and have been dated back to around 2600 BC. Even so, the plant clearly moved north rapidly, as it was being grown at sites in Tennessee and eastern Kentucky by 2300 BC. And certainly, it was widely distributed throughout both North and South America by the time early Spanish explorers “discovered” it around 1510 and sent seeds to Europe.

Traditionally, Native American groups planted sunflowers on the north edges of their gardens as a “fourth sister” to the better known three sisters combination of corn, beans and squash.

Native Americans used sunflowers in very many ways. Photo: simplyappalachian.com

The sunflower was primarily grown for its edible seeds and the flour and oil that could be derived from them. Yellow dye obtained from the flowers and a black or dull blue dye from the seeds were also once important in Native American basketry and weaving. And the sunflower was also used as a medicinal plant, treating, among other things, snakebite.

Many indigenous American peoples also saw the sunflower as the symbol of their solar deity, including the Aztecs and the Otomi of Mexico and the Incas in South America.

Going International

In the centuries that followed the introduction of the sunflower in the Old World, sunflowers became an increasingly popular seed crop on the Eurasian continent.

The original wild sunflower was a fast-growing, thick-stemmed plant from 1 ½ to 8 feet (45 to 250 cm) tall, typically with a large terminal inflorescence and secondary branches of smaller blooms. It was in Russia that the large-seeded sunflower, with a massive unbranched stem up to 9–16 ft (3–5 m) tall and one single giant flower-head, was first developed. The capacity of all seeds on such plants to mature pretty much at once made harvesting more convenient. It has come to represent our idea of a sunflower.

Sunflowers are now grown all over the world. Countries in darkest yellow are major sunflower producers. Ill.: atlasbig.com

The agricultural sunflower was first commercially developed as a source of vegetable oil in the early 19th century and that remains the main use today, although it is still also grown for its edible seeds and flour, as well as for bird food, as livestock forage (as a meal or a silage plant), industrial applications and even as a beauty product. And of course, sunflowers are popular ornamental flowers for home gardens and cut flower use. 

Sunflowers today have a wide range of uses. Photo: youbeauty.com

Among other uses, sunflowers can be processed into sunflower butter, which is a common a peanut butter substitute for children with nut allergies. In German-speaking countries, hulled sunflower seeds are mixed with rye flour to make Sonnenblumenkernbrot (sunflower bread). And bee hives placed near fields of sunflowers produce delicious, golden sunflower honey.

A Flower Within a Flower

A sunflower is actually composed of numerous tiny flowers arranged in a complex spiral pattern. Photo: F. L. Shyamal, Wikimedia Commons

When we look at a sunflower, most of us see a flower. However, in reality, it’s not “a flower”, but an entire inflorescence. The sunflower is in the Asteraceae or daisy family, renowned for its composite flower heads. In other words, it’s a cluster of tiny flowers all packed tightly together. 

The 15 to 30 large, colorful “petals” of a sunflower are actually individual ray flowers forming a ring around the disc. They are sterile and only serve to attract pollinators.

The disc is composed of tiny fertile flowers—from 150 to more than 1,000 of them—, always arranged in a pattern of interconnecting spirals. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds mathematically possible within the flower head and is considered a true marvel of the world of plants.

‘Sunrich-Van Gogh’s Favorite’. Photo: Takii Europe

Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh famously painted a world-renowned still-life series of sunflowers. His sunflower paintings are so famous, the Van Gogh museum teamed up with the breeder Sunrich to create the ‘Sunrich-Van Gogh’s Favorite’ sunflower.

The Sunflower Today

There are well over 200 varieties of common sunflowers to choose from! Here are a few of the ways of distinguishing between them.

Single Stem vs. Branching

Field sunflowers are single-stemmed, each producing one giant inflorescence. This is the cultivar ‘Soraya’.

If tall, single-stemmed sunflowers are still the staple agricultural sunflower, ornamental varieties now dominate in home gardens. Most are not single-stem varieties, but produce flowers on multiple shorter stems throughout the summer, thus ensuring blooms all season long and that makes them ideal for cut flower production and garden display use.

Sunfinity is a branching variety, producing multiple flowers over a long season. Curiously, this cultivar is an interspecific hybrid and is sterile, producing no seeds. It is only reproducible by vegetatively.

Single-stem varieties are still used for decoration, but succession planting will be needed to ensure continuous blooms throughout the season.

Single stem: ProCut® Series, Sunrich™ Series and Vincent® Series
Branching:
 ‘Autumn Beauty Mix’, ‘Soraya’ (AAS Winner), ‘SunBuzz’, Suncredible®, Sunfinity™

Modern sunflowers come in a wide range of colors, forms and sizes. Photo: edenbrothers.com

The traditional sunflower bore a ring of sun-yellow ray flower (“petals”) around a central disc and indeed looked very much like a sun, whence the name sunflower. Today, though, they come in a wide range of colors, from gold to bronze, orange, burnished red, near black, pale yellow and ivory, often with a halo of a contrasting color. They can be single, with a brown, yellow or green disc, or double, in which case the entire center is filled in with colorful ray flowers. 

Pollen vs. Pollen-Free

Sunflowers produce abundant nectar, but also copious amounts of yellow pollen. Such pollen-bearing varieties are inexpensive, usually come true to type and make great garden plants. However, florists found the constantly shed of pollen objectionable. As a result, many modern sunflower varieties are bred to be male sterile or “pollen-free” and thus keep your table clean from pollen! This also helps to help extend the vase life from 1 to 2 weeks and gives a nice, clean appearance. 

Sunrich Orange is a pollen-free variety for use as a cut flower.

Pollen-free sunflowers are hybrids and require extra human manipulation, making them more expensive than pollen-bearing sunflowers.

Avoid growing pollen-free sunflower varieties if your goal is to attract bees and other pollen collectors, though. Such varieties still produce nectar bees can harvest, but the absence of pollen means they offer less food value to such pollinators, making life just a bit harder for them.

Luckily, there are many varieties of both pollen-bearing and pollen-free sunflowers to choose from:

Pollen-free: ‘Moulin Rouge’, ProCut Series, ‘Sunbuzz, Sunrich Series and Vincent Series
Pollen-bearing: ‘Soraya’ (AAS Winner), ‘Ring of Fire’ (AAS Winner) and ‘Valentine’

Recommendations for the best vase life

‘Holiday’ sunflower used as a cut flower.

If you’re growing sunflowers for cut flowers, here are some recommendations to extend the vase life of your flower.

  • Cut when the ray flowers just begin to open, before they have lifted off the disc completely. 
  • Harvest in the early morning before the heat of the day.
  • Remove lower leaves that will be below the water line.
  • Place the stem in fresh water or a properly measured fresh flower food solution.
  • Check water regularly; sunflowers are heavy drinkers and can empty a bucket or vase overnight.
  • Change water daily; sunflowers have what some call a dirty stem, as the water quickly turns cloudy with potential for bacterial issues.

Height/Size:

‘American Giant’ is one of the tallest sunflowers. Photo: gurneys.com

Another way to distinguish between sunflowers is by their height and size. Smaller, ornamental sunflower varieties, such as the Sunrich or ProCut series, are only a few feet tall (60 cm or so), while ‘American Giant’ sunflower can grow to be more than 15 feet (5 m). The very smallest is the cultivar ‘Elf’, only 16 inches (40 cm) tall. Shorter varieties tend to produce smaller inflorescences, taller varieties, the largest ones.

Tall: ‘American Giant’, ‘Kong’, ‘Mammoth’, ‘Sunforest’
Dwarf: ‘Smiley’, ‘Sunbuzz’, ‘Suntastic’, ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘Suntastic Yellow with Black Center’ (AAS Winner)

Sunflowers for Edible Seeds

Hulled (left) and unhulled sunflower seeds are popular snacks. Photo: Kaldari, Wikimedia Commons

Some varieties of sunflower have been bred to produce large, edible seeds that are great for snacking. The seeds are ready to harvest once the petals have withered and the seeds can be seen. Sunflower seeds are high in protein and healthy fats, as well as antioxidants that can lower your risk of developing serious health conditions. They’re also an excellent source of vitamins E, B1 and B6, iron, copper, selenium, magnesium and zinc. Additionally, the seeds contain phytosterols which can contribute toward lower levels of cholesterol.

Edible seed types: ‘Feed The Birds’, ‘Mongolian Giant’, ‘Skyscraper’, ‘Super Snack Mix’, ‘Titan’

How to Grow Sunflowers

Most gardeners sow their sunflowers directly in the garden, where they want them to bloom. Photo: gardenerspath

Sow sunflower seeds directly in the garden after the risk of frost has passed or start them indoors 2 to 3 weeks beforehand. Sow them ¼” to ½” (6 to 12 mm) deep and keep the soil moist. Taller, larger sunflower varieties have a large taproot to keep them rooted and do not do well when they are transplanted, so direct sowing of those varieties is recommended. 

Choose a site, or a container, in full sun, with average fertility and good drainage. Once started, sunflowers require next to no care, except for watering in cases of extreme drought.

Sunflowers Growing Wild

Birds often transport sunflower to open areas when they become established as wildflowers. Photo: TheOtherKev, pixabay.com

Sunflowers have escaped from culture and now grow as self-sowing annuals throughout much of the world. Like other unplanned plants, they may sometimes be considered weeds, but of course, one gardener’s weed is another’s wildflower! They’re a species of prairies and grasslands, old fields, roadsides, railways, rights-of-way, savannahs and forest edges. Today, they are so thoroughly naturalized that, in their native U.S. and Mexico, it’s hard to determine whether the plants are garden escapes or part of the original wild stock.

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Put some sunshine in your life and, in this Year of the Sunflower, grow some sunflowers in your own garden.

This article was inspired by the Year of the Sunflower fact sheet prepared by GardenTrends/Harris Seeds for the National Garden Bureau. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Interested in buying Sunflowers for your garden? Click the here to shop members of the National Garden Bureau.

Jumping Worms: The Upcoming Environmental Disaster

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Jumping worms: not your average passive earthworm! Click to see what I mean! Video: Wisconsin DNR 

In the recent blog article Earthworms are Bad News for North American Forests, I wrote about the problem of invasive European earthworms in North America and the damage they are doing to forests, but that may be only be the start. Ecologists are even more concerned about a co-invasion from three newer introductions: Asiatic jumping worms (Amynthas agrestisA. tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi), also called snake worms or crazy worms. 

map of jumping worm distribution in Northeastern North America
Fairly recent map of jumping worm distribution in Northeastern North America. Photo: http://www.eomf.on.ca

They seem to have been introduced accidentally into the southeast United States in the 19th century, probably through contaminated nursery stock imported from Japan or Korea. But they’re spread into the North seems recent, within the last 15 years. They’re already present in all Northeastern US states and lately seemed to have pushed across the Midwest showing up here and there and now across the Rockies into Oregon and to have jumped the border into Ontario, Canada, although their presence is still very sporadic throughout this vast territory. 

What Are They?

Single jumping worm on ground.
Jumping worm. Photo: Josef Gorres, University of Vermont

Jumping worms are large, plump earthworms, up to 8 inches (20 cm) in length, looking much like the common earthworm (Lombricus terrestris), also called nightcrawler or dew worm, but with a startling habit: they jump and thrash when disturbed! They’re very animated and tend to remain on the soil surface. Their subsequent movements are snakelike rather than wormlike, as they slither from side to side. As for why they’re called crazy worms, well, I think any earthworm that jumps when you bother it is likely just a bit crazy, don’t you? 

They’re not just present in northeastern North America. They’ve become established many other parts of the world. In the southeastern US, where they’ve been around for more than a century, they may be called Alabama jumpers or Georgia jumpers. In Europe, when they are also now present and spreading rapidly, a different series of Amynthas species seems involved.

How to Recognize Them

Comparison between nightcrawler and jumping worm.
The jumping worm has a smooth, light-coloured ring around its body compared to the raised, ridged, pink ring of a nightcrawler. Photo: EarthwormWatch.org

If jumping and thrashing isn’t enough warming that these are not your average earthworms, look at the clitellum, the “ring” earthworms have around their body. That of the jumping worm will be smooth and light-colored, sometimes almost white, not almost the same color as the rest of its skin as that of the nightcrawler, and almost flush with the skin rather than bulging and ridged. They’re dark worms, almost gray in color, with a glossy smooth skin. They will occasionally lose their tails as a defense mechanism to escape predators.

Jumping worm castings with single cocoon.
Jumping worm castings with a single cocoon. Photo: Marie Johnston

Jumping worms don’t dig tunnels, nor do they feed underground, but remain near the top of the soil, in the top few centimeters, feeding on leaf litter. Instead of leaving their excrements in little piles of castings as is typical of nightcrawlers, they cover the soil surface with dry, grainy, pellet like castings that look somewhat like dry coffee grounds, keeping seeds from sprouting and destabilizing soils.

They are best recognized in late August and September, when they have reached their full size.

Life Cycle

Unlike nightcrawlers, which can live 6 years or longer, jumping worms have an annual life cycle. The adults die in late fall, but leave tiny cocoons, difficult to spot, that overwinter. They have been known to survive temperatures as cold as -40˚F/C. They grow quickly in the spring, outcompeting and often eliminating other earthworms. Hermaphroditic, they can reproduce sexually, but also parthenogenetically, producing cocoons without fecundation, so it takes only one to start a new colony. There are two generations per year (three in mild climates).

One beacon of hope is that they seem to prefer neutral and alkaline soils to acidic ones, which could help slow their invasion some areas.

⚠️ Warning: Jumping worms are considered a prohibited invasive species in several US states and it is illegal to possess them with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport or introduce them. 

Damage Done

Forest floor damaged by jumping worms: almost nothing is growing.
Forest floor damaged by jumping worms. Photo: UVM

Jumping worms live in denser numbers than regular earthworms and thin the layer of forest litter (duff) at a speed unknown in other earthworm species, reducing it by 95% and leaving the soil essentially bare. The degradation of the litter is so rapid that the nutrients released cannot all be absorbed by the soil and plant roots. It’s like a fast-release fertilizer instead of a slow-release one and results in the impoverishment of the upper layers of soil, the compaction of lower layers and the pollution by nitrogen and phosphorous of nearby bodies of water.

Jumping worms also consume plant seeds and rob the soil seed bank of its reserves. As a result of that and of the environmental degradation they cause, the forest floor becomes depauperate in plant species. Native species, dependent on thick leaf litter are eliminated, mostly replaced by invasive exotic weeds. They are equally damaging in forest and prairie environments. 

Animals are likewise affected. Salamanders and many bird species will not eat jumping worms, spitting them out or avoiding them after an initial tasting. Ground-nesting birds disappear. However, moles will eat them, so can be helpful in controlling them.

How to Avoid Jumping Worms

Pamphlet on jumping worms.
In many areas, such as in Wisconsin, pamphlets are available to help gardeners identify the pest. Photo: hngnews.com

It is believed the current sporadic diffusion of jumping worms into northeastern North America has been largely caused by the transport of contaminated nursery stock and by their use in as fishing bait. For that reason, the following control methods can be helpful:

  • Pay careful attention when sharing and moving plants. Always check for worms. Buy bare root stock when possible. 
  • Clean compost, soil and debris from vehicles, personal gear (including boots and shoes), equipment and gardening tools before moving to new sites. 
  • Do not buy or use jumping worms for bait, vermicomposting or gardening. 
  • Only purchase compost that has been heated to appropriate temperatures for a sufficient duration. 
  • Dispose of any live worms in the trash or place them in a bag and leave them out in the sun for at least 10 minutes. Then throw the bag away. Likewise, dispose of any fishing bait responsibly.
You can used a mustard solution to check for crazy worms. Ill.: iMapInvasives
  • Check your property for earthworms using a mustard solution. (Don’t worry, it’s harmless to plants!) Mix a gallon (4 liters) of water with 1/3 cup (80 ml) of ground yellow mustard seed and pour slowly into the soil. This will drive any worms to the surface. If you discover jumping worms, avoid moving plants or soil from your yard. 

How to Control Jumping Worms

There is presently no viable control method for jumping worms, although studies are being carried out on possible repellents and pesticides, notably dousing the soil with products containing saponins, such are tea seed meal, and prescribed burning. Presently, the only effective control is preventing their spread.

You may not have jumping worms in your garden yet and, if so, that is a state you’ll want to maintain. Keep an eye out for this new invader!

Video: Wisconsin DNR


Earthworms Are Bad News for North American Forests

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Introduced earthworms are seriously harming North American forests. Ill.: static1.squarespace.com & pixers.uk

When I was a kid, my family used to spend part of every summer at Uncle Don’s cottage on Go Home Lake in Muskoka, Ontario. It was the highlight of our summer, a chance to go swimming, hiking, canoeing and generally just horse around with my cousins. We used to do a lot of fishing, but I can recall my uncle being perplexed by the lack of earthworms. We soon fixed that: we poured our leftover fishing worms onto the soil around the cottage. Within a few years, enough earthworms had settled in so we could harvest them for fishing, and we thought we had lent the environment a helping hand.

But we were wrong.

The Effect of European Earthworms on a North American Forest

Earthworms may be the friend of the backyard garden, but they seriously damage forests. Photo: dengarden.com

North American gardeners are so enthusiastic about earthworms it seems almost cruel to disillusion them, but it should be noted that earthworms also have a dark side.

Yes, as we were all taught when we were kids, earthworms are beneficial to gardens. That’s because they aerate the soil by digging tunnels, devour organic matter and transform it into excreta rich in minerals, promote root development and stimulate the germination of the seeds of many sun-loving plants. But a garden, with its neatly planted rows of plants and constantly tilled soil to which we regularly add amendments, is a hardly a natural environment. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more artificial one. And outside of our very Eurocentric vegetable beds, flower gardens, lawns and farm fields, the role of earthworms can be very different.

The sad fact is that none of the earthworms typically seen in North American gardens are actually native to North America. The best-known garden worm, Lombricus terrestris, known variously as the common earthworm, nightcrawler and dew worm, is a European species long ago introduced into North American fields for agricultural purposes and is now found just about everywhere. 

Map showing extent of last ice age in North America.
The last ice age wiped out all earthworms in northern North America. Photo: Dr. Ron Blakey, Paleogeography and Geologic History of North America

And the invading species are doing serious damage to the continent’s natural environment. Indeed, before the Europeans arrived, there were almost no earthworms north of the 45th parallel in North America, the species that once lived there having been eliminated by the glaciations during the last Ice Age. 

Even those species that survived the onslaught of cold by moving to the South and that have slowly been working their way back north since the ice sheets left were never as efficient detritivores (organisms that feed on and break down dead plant matter) as the European species that have been introduced everywhere. Today, it is estimated that of the 182 species of earthworms present in Canada and the United States, 60% come from Europe and Asia. In most northern North American gardens, all the worms you’re likely to run into are exotic invasive species.

Before and After

Forest free of earthworms with abundant forest plant and a forest invaded by eathworms and largely barren.
The forest to the left is free of earthworms and largely covered in native species. The forest to the right has been invaded by earthworms causing dramatic losses in native plants. Photos: Dr. Ron Blakey, Paleogeography and Geologic History of North America

North American temperate forests evolved largely without the presence of major detritivores like earthworms and one of their major characteristics is an especially thick layer of leaf litter, also called duff (the layer of decomposing leaves that covers the ground). The duff layer can be up to 10 cm (4 inches) thick in sites dominated by sugar maples: that’s pretty much a world record. As a result, the species that grow in these forests are specially adapted to deep leaf litter and many even require it for their survival.

When European or Asian earthworms are introduced to a North American forest, though, they quickly reduce the thickness of the forest litter. It is estimated that in a forest without earthworms, it takes about 5 years for a maple leaf to disappear completely; in a forest with earthworms, it takes less than 2 years. By redistributing nutrients, mixing soil layers and aerating the soil with their tunnels, earthworms completely change the characteristics of the forest’s soil. And they move a lot of the minerals resulting from decomposition deeper underground than normal, sometimes to depths over 6 feet (2 m).

Also, the changes caused have an impact not only on the plants, but on the microbial, fungal and mycorrhizal fauna necessary for the proper development of many plants. Also, the soil becomes more porous and drier, sensitive to erosion.

Damage done to forests by earthworms. Photo: Wisconsin DNR

The result is that many smaller native forest plants and young saplings, with their limited root systems, struggle to survive. Among the species that no longer seem able to regenerate as they once did are trilliums, ferns, Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) and even the jewel of eastern North American forest, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Instead, a maple introduced from Europe and which therefore evolved in the company of earthworms, the Norway maple (A. platanoides), appears poised to supplant the native sugar maple as the dominant tree in the “new North American forest”. 

Norway maple seedlings, helped by earthworms, now dominate in many North American forests. Photo: skaak.org

Certainly, this has been the case in most urban and suburban forests in eastern North America, where Norway maple seedlings completely dominate the undergrowth while almost no young sugar maples are seen. 

The effect on the animals of the forest, especially microbes, arthropods, salamanders, and small mammals, has also been disastrous. For example, there has been a decline in the abundance of some insects and mammals living in the undergrowth as well as ground-nesting forest birds. The populations of several species of salamanders are in free fall following the invasion of exotic earthworms, as the insects and other small invertebrates they live on need thick litter in order to thrive.

In addition, earthworms consume tree rootlets—up to a quarter of a tree’s supply per year!—and also break up the mycorrhizal relationship that roots have with beneficial fungi in the soil, increasing the stress to native trees. And the disappearance of leaf litter leaves tree roots exposed to the air and thus drought and sun damage, also weakening the tree’s structure.

No, earthworms don’t kill mature trees … but they weaken them.

And the damages aren’t just to forests: natural prairies also find their soil stripped of precious resources and their soil layers completely disrupted by invasive earthworms.

The Horse is Out of the Barn, But…

In many areas, the damage is already done. And there is no known way to eliminate invasive earthworms from a forest that has been infested. The best we can hope for is to slow their spread … but that, at least, shouldn’t be too difficult.

Left on their own, even invasive species of earthworms don’t seem to penetrate too deeply into forested areas, tending to concentrate on the outer fringes, near the disturbed soils of the artificial meadows created by agriculture and urban development they much prefer. And if they do begin to move deeper into the forest, they do so only very slowly, over decades.

After a fishing expedition, don’t release earthworms into the forest. Photo: tnfishing.overblog.com.

As gardeners, we can simply avoid purposely moving earthworms into forested areas. And fishermen, please don’t release your surplus earthworm in natural forests! Believe it or not, earthworms dumped by fishermen are still the major cause of the continuing expansion of invasive earthworms into forests in North America.

If you have a bit of natural forest in your backyard, you can still help thicken the forest duff even if the sector has been invaded by earthworms. Make a habit of picking up the fall leaves from your lawn, driveway, etc. and, instead of depositing them on the side of the road for the municipality to pick up, spread them in the forest. It may seem like a ridiculously simple gesture, but it can make a good difference in a severely impacted forest.

I still feel guilty about introducing earthworms to the cottage at Go Home Lake, but we didn’t know what we were doing. If you’ve read this far, you now do, so…

The Worst May Yet Be to Come!

The article above, originally published on February 24, 2016, although slightly updated here, is actually a prelude to tomorrow’s article: one about a new invasive earthworm: the Asiatic jumping worm. Shudder! More on that pest in the article Jumping Worms: The Upcoming Environmental Disaster

In 2021, Get Your Seed Orders in Early!

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Photo: thelivingfarm.org & cleanpng.com

Were you caught up in the COVID-19 seed crisis? When seed suppliers all over the world were suddenly overwhelmed by the massive newly awakened interest in gardening, especially food gardening, and found themselves unable to supply the requested seeds? 

I know I was. Yes, I usually order my vegetable and flower seed in January, but in 2020 I had dawdled. I’ve done so before and had still received lightning-fast service, generally, sending in my order and receiving the seed packs a few days later … and certainly no more than 10 days. So, I was stunned when I tried placing orders in late March, only to run into Web sites saying they were so overloaded they had temporarily closed down. Or others warning to expect considerable delays in shipping. Two of the orders I finally did receive came in mid-June: over 6 weeks later and too late for a 2020 sowing. That’s not such a big deal: I now have them on hand and they’ll still be good for the 2021 season.

When this happened, I of course rushed out to my local garden center as soon as it was de confined to try and complete my order, only to find their seed display almost empty. It had been fully picked over. Anything I personally might have really wanted was already gone.

As a result, I ended up not growing some of the plants I wanted. 

This Year’s Situation

Display of many different seed packets.
There’s a huge choice of seeds… when you order early! Photo: theprairiehomestead.com

My current concern is this year’s orders: seeds of either new plants (or plants new to me) that I want to try or older varieties I’ve run out of seeds for. And I think you should be too!

I’m sure that seed companies have gone out of their way to prepare extra seed packets this year, to ensure better mailing arrangements and think they are fully ready for the 2021 season. But what if the interest in gardening continues to mushroom? I mean, no one saw last year’s spike coming!

So, my recommendation is to go over those seed catalogs … now! A full two months before you’re likely to need to be sowing anything. Most seed 2021 seed catalogs are up and ready as we speak, with paper catalogs mostly mailed out late last year, while online catalogs are only a Google away. Prepare your orders and get them in as soon as you can.

I sent in my orders … yesterday! Just in case this little article starts another major run on the seed market: stranger things have happened!

Beaucarnea: January 2021 Houseplant of the Month

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Photo: Thejoyofplants.co.uk, styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties

Maybe you know this plant under the name ponytail palm for its long, ribbonlike, twisting leaves or perhaps elephant’s foot (or elephant-foot) because of its swollen base. I prefer simply beaucarnea, from its botanical name Beaucarnea recurvata (formerly Nolina recurvata). Whatever you call it, though, it’s fantastic to look at, easy to care for and tough as old boots. A beaucarnea doesn’t ask for much, but gives plenty in return.

The beaucarnea gets its name from Jean-Baptiste Beaucarne, a 19th-century Belgian plant collector, the first European to see the plant in bloom. 

Origin

Mature beau carne with thick base and multiples trunks, outdoors in tropics.
In tropical climates, the beaucarnea can turn into a sizeable tree! Photo: Gina1960, garden.org

Although the beaucarnea is often mistaken for a palm (Araceae), it’s actually a succulent member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae). The beaucarnea is native to the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosi in eastern Mexico, where it can eventually grow into a tree 30 feet (10 m high) with a base up to 3 feet (1 m) across. It has a healthy lust for life: there are beaucarneas in Mexico that are 350 years old! Although it rarely grows taller than 5 feet (1.5 m) indoors, it still makes for an impressive indoor tree. 

Growth Habit

Four small beaucarneas with a bulbous base planted in a single pot.
Young specimens have a bulbous base. Photo: thepalmroom.wordpress.com

You would have a hard time telling a beaucarnea from a grass plant when it first germinates: it has the same narrow, linear, mid-green leaves. But within a few months, it starts to form a thick bulbous, pale grayish brown, woody-looking base. This is called a caudex and it serves to store water for times of drought, as this succulent plant grows in very arid conditions in the wild, with a dry season often lasting 7 to 8 months. The caudex remains bulb-shaped for years, but eventually becomes a thick, woody trunk that tapers to a narrower stem as it grows, lifting the crown higher into the air, eventually it giving a palmlike appearance above and an elephant’s foot look at the base.

The trunk is normally solitary and never branches on its own, at least not indoors. However, you can force it to branch… More on that below under Culture.

Beaucarnea in clay pot with curving leaves.
Some specimens have curving leaves; others have leaves that are nearly straight. Photo: Amazon.ca

Leaves also lengthen over time. They’re upright at first, then arch out and downwards. They vary in length on mature specimens from 3 to 6 feet (90 cm to 180 cm). Sometimes they’re longer than the trunk is high, so the plant may appear more interesting when placed on a pedestal. As to curving of the leaves (the meaning of recurvata), they may twist slightly or massively: that will depend on the genetics of the plant you purchase.

When it comes to flowers, though, forget it. A beaucarnea almost never blooms indoors and when it does, only on very old specimens, as in botanical garden greenhouses, forming huge panicles of tiny white flowers.

Assortment

Nursery specimens of unpruned beaucarneas outdoors.
Nursery specimens in Hawaii, showing the typical single crown growth habit of a unpruned beaucarnea. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr

You can find this plant in garden centers at all stages of growth. Sometimes, it’s just a young plant with a round bulbous base and a few arching leaves. Or it may be much larger, with a swollen foot, thick stem and a single crown. You can also find it planted 2 or 3 to a pot. Other specimens have had their top chopped off and produce multiple crowns, each on its own thickened branch.

Variegated beaucarneas. These were sold under the name Beaucarnea recurvata variegata. Photo: plantslive.in

Occasionally, you may find a specimen with variegated leaves, each with a band of creamy white to yellow along either edge. Such a plant can be expensive and will likely be a bit fragile under less-than-perfect conditions: give it full sun indoors. There appears to be more than one variegated clone with various names as B. recurvata variegata, B. recurvata ‘Gold Star’ or similar.

Guatemala beaucarnea outdoors with reddish leaves.
Guatemala beaucarnea (Beaucarnea guatemalensis) looks just like the regular beaucarnea, except it reddens in full sun outdoors. Photo: palmbob, davesgarden.com

There is also a related plant on the market that masquerades under the name Beaucarnea recurvata: Guatemala beaucarnea (B. guatemalensis). The two are very hard to tell apart, but many plants sold today actually belong to the latter species, as it is faster growing and therefore more profitable to produce. One way to distinguish between them is that the foliage of B. guatemalensis will usually take on a reddish tinge if grown outdoors in full sun. If bought with reddish leaves (it may then be sold as red ponytail, B. recurvata ‘Red’ or B. guatemalensis ‘Guatemalan Red’), the color is usually soon lost when the plant is grown indoors under the necessarily weaker light found there. Some of the variegated clones probably belong under this species name.

Culture

This is one slow-growing houseplant! If you want a large specimen as an indoor tree, buy one of that size: a seedling can easily take 30 years to reach treelike dimensions indoors! 

Multistemmed beaucarnea in a white pot in a white decor
Although it prefers full sun, the beaucarnea will tolerate moderate light. Photo: Thejoyofplants.co.uk

For a plant that grows in full desert sun, the beaucarnea is surprisingly tolerant of moderate light, even low light, although in the latter case, it will likely decline over time. However, for good growth, intense light is required, with as much full sun as you can give it. It truly thrives outdoors over the summer, although you’ll have to reacclimatize it gradually to full outdoor sun each spring.

Water your beaucarnea regularly during the spring and summer, although letting the soil dry out between waterings. Fertilize it fairly generously at that season as well, with the fertilizer of your choice (it’s not picky). During the fall and winter, start allowing it to dry out thoroughly between waterings so as to prevent rot. It may, at that season, only need watering every 3 or 4 weeks, even less if you grow it at cool temperatures. 

💡Helpful Hint: If you have to travel for an extended period, you can actually just leave and not not worry about watering your beaucarnea for months on end. Although it will be rather parched upon your return, it will nevertheless recuperate.

The beaucarnea tolerates both hot and cold indoor temperatures and, outdoors, can theoretically take a few degrees frost if the cold doesn’t last long. Ideally, though, keep it above 50˚F (10˚C) at all times. 

It is not bothered by dry indoor air. 

Repot as needed into any well-draining potting soil, such as cactus mix, but ordinary potting mix is also fine.

Pulling dried leaves off a beaucarnea
Just pull off old, brown leaves. Photo: Nigel Saunders, The Bonsai Zone

Do make sure that the leaves can hang freely, because contact with a wall, cupboard or curtain can cause them to turn brown. If this does happen, you can just clip off the ends. As for grooming, older leaves eventually turn brown and readily come loose when you pull on them.

Big beaucarnea in a tight pot.
Underpotting will keep your plant more compact. Photo: gardenersdream.co.uk

For fastest growth, give your beaucarnea full sun, regular fertilizing and generous watering from spring through summer, plus repot regularly, every two years, into a larger pot. However, if you like your plant’s current size, you can slow it down considerably by doing pretty much the opposite: fertilizing little if at tall and watering very rarely. Underpotting, especially, will largely stop it in its tracks. Some people use underpotting to to maintain beaucarneas in small asiatic pots as bonsai specimens.

Beaucarnea stem cut short; new green sprouts appear all around.
Once the top is removed from the plant, new stems appear, slowly, over the following months. Photo: forums.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca

Branching can be induced by pruning, although given this plant’s extremely slow growth, it can be very intimidating to chop off its one and only crown. Don’t worry! After a few months, new growth will sprout and there will almost always be multiple stems: sometimes 6 or more! It will look a bit bare for a year or two, then really quite nice as the numerous leaf tufts fill in. You can cut it high or low: it will always resprout from dormant buds just below the cut. 

Mature specimen outdoors with massive clusters of white flowers.
Outdoors in a tropical climate, beaucarneas branch more readily and may eventually flower. Photo: World of Succulents

In tropical climates, the beaucarnea will grow outdoors year around. Excellent drainage will be vital in climates with a prolonged rainy season and it adapts to even the poorest, stoniest soils. Full sun will give the best and fastest results and can even result, many years on, in flowers being produced. It will grow attractively in partial shade as well, though it may not bloom there.

Enemies

Pale, floppy-leaved beaucarnea suffering from insufficient light.
Pale, floppy growth (etiolation) shows that this plant has been in the shade far too long. If something isn’t done, this plant may not have long to live. Photo: Arizona State University

In the unlikely case you lose a beaucarnea, it will likely be due to low light or overwatering. It simply can’t take low light forever and will eventually produce weak, pale green, etiolated leaves and may then slip into a decline it won’t recover from. 

Overwatering can lead to uncurable rot, in which case the decline is much faster. You just have to hold back on watering with this plant!

Mealybugs and scale insects are the mostly likely insect pests. Check plants before purchase and isolate newly purchased plants for a good 40 days before putting them near others. The pests on infested plants are almost impossible to eliminate: they can hide out in the leaf bases when no insecticide is likely to reach them. Unless, that is, you cut off the plant’s top so as to dispose of all green growth, then carefully clean the resulting stump in soapy water. That can work … sometimes.

Cats sometimes nibble on leaf tips, as they sometimes do to grass outdoors, but beaucarneas are nontoxic, harmless to pets and people. Still, for the plant’s sake, try to keep it out of their reach. Any damage can be neatly trimmed off.

Multiplication

This is probably not something you should consider unless you bought a pot with multiple plants you simply want to divide. Not that multiplying a beaucarnea isn’t doable, but the plant is just so frustratingly slow!

3 rooted beaucarnea cuttings.
Stem cuttings will root, although a rooting hormone may be necessary. Photo: semanticscholar.org

If you’re patient, you can take stem cuttings (let the cut end harden off in the open air for a few weeks before potting it up). Use a rooting hormone. Do not root in water.

Sometimes mature specimens produce offsets at the base that you can twist or cut free and pot up in the same way. 

As for growing a beaucarnea from seed…

Your beaucarnea is not likely to bloom … and even if it did, the plant is dioecious (male and female flowers are produced on separate plants), so to produce seed, you’d need both a male and female plant in bloom at the same time, plus a pollinator: fat chance that will happen! If you want to grow one from seed, therefore, you’ll have to buy some. 

Pack of beacarnea seeds with seed tray
Beaucarneas grow surprisingly well from seeds, but will be years from becoming specimen plants. Photo: Hub of Gardening

Seed is available from several seed catalogues. It germinates in as few as 10 days or can take up to 3 months (germination is fastest in spring). Sow and grow the seeds indoors under about the same conditions as you would flower or vegetable seeds, although since beaucarnea seedlings are slower growing, they’ll need less frequent watering. Keep the seedlings just moist (but not wet) until you can see a caudex forming, then you can treat them like an adult plant. 

__________________________

The beaucarnea: slow but steady, nearly unkillable, and yet with a strikingly decorative effect. I think your home décor needs one!

12 Gardening Trends for 2021

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Ill.: br.pinterest.com

What do I see in my crystal ball in the home gardening world for 2021? On this first day of the New Year, let’s take a lot.

  1. Gardening Will Be Huge

It grew by leaps and bounds in 2020 (see yesterday’s blog for more information on that subject). There is no sign it is even starting to decline. Everyone is gardening (and that’s only a slight exaggeration). I predict yet another banner year for home gardening in 2021.

2. Gardeners Will Shop More Online

Shipping plants in boxes
Plants delivered directly to your door: how wonderful! Photo: Territorial Seed Company

Shopping online, already a major trend in other fields for a few years, exploded with the COVID-19 confinement. The theory was that, if you can’t go out to shop, you can order online. However, even when the stores reopened, shopping online actually increased and then increased again as confinement began setting in again with the approach of Christmas. US consumers bought 29% of their retail goods online in April, but 36% when stores were open again in late May. The statistics aren’t yet in for the 4th quarter of 2020, but most online stores are already reporting record sales.

Gardening supplies are easy enough to order online and seed sales online went through the roof in 2021. Lagging behind are online plant purchases, but as consumers get used to online shopping and realize you can ship a plant just as easily as a vase and perhaps even more so, that will pick up too.

3. Houseplants Will Remain Hot

Houseplants in a home office
Houseplants are everywhere, especially in home officies. Photo: bloomscape.com

They were terribly trendy in 2020, boosted by the COVID-19 crisis, long periods of confinement and increased remote working. People want and need greenery in their environment and are discovering that houseplants are an easy way of getting it. Maybe we’ll start calling houseplants “home office plants,” as that is certainly one way they’re being used. And when you have that Zoom meeting, you’ll want to show you’re in on the trend by putting a houseplant or two in the background. You may be in your underwear from the waist down, but you’ll have that plant on view!

4. Parks and Gardens Will Be More Popular

Parks and gardens were once places you mostly went to on weekends or after work. Not any more. Not as many people are locked up in office buildings and factories for hours on end these days. With telecommuting, you don’t have to take that coffee break in the cafeteria: going outdoors, for a stroll a nearby park or to sit on a bench and breathe in some fresh air, will be big. Suddenly, there are yoga and Pilates classes, even dance lessons, outside in city parks and more and more people participate. Being outdoors is good for you and wouldn’t you rather be in a park or garden than standing on a sidewalk surrounded by concrete buildings? 

5. More New Gardeners

The 16 million new people who joined the gardening world in 2020 will be influencing their friends and family. They showed off their homegrown veggies and offered their surpluses to neighbors who are already more than a little jealous of the great, fresh, wholesome food that seemed to grow so easily next door. Many of them too will give gardening a try in 2020. 

6. Gardeners Become Influencers

Two women gardeners standing in front of a camera.
You might be the latest garden influencer! Photo: blog.jconnelly.com

Social influencers, often linked to pop culture, food and clothing, have been a trend for years now, but if you have garden experience, expect that you too may be seen as an influencer. People notice what you do and will be after you for information. Start a web site, offer consultations: there may well be a new and very different career in it for you. Edible-garden influencers have seen up to 400% growth on their channels and are being inundated with questions. That could be you!

7. Food Gardening Remains Ever So Trendy

raised bed of vegetables
Grow your own veggies: it’s just so trendy! Photo: The Home Depot

It’s the Victory Garden effect again (see yesterday’s blog): confinement, worries of food shortages due to COVID-19 border closures and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from supplying your own food are pushing people to want to grow their own veggies, herbs and fruits. Recent news that there will be major price increases in fresh produce in the coming year will also boost interest in growing your own food for economic reasons. 

8. Reducing Lawns

There is also a return to the backyard. It’s more and more the personal paradise of the owner, a place where you can have a confinement staycation … but a backyard is no longer just about lawns. According to a recent survey by the National Garden Bureau, 67% of respondents 35 and under may want some green lawn, but they also hope to see the rest of their yard planted with a wide variety of other plants: food plants, pollinator plants, native plants, flowers, etc. Creating a wildlife habitat for birds, bees and butterflies is seen as more desirable than a vast green space of mown lawn that, frankly, supports little life.

9. Mini-Plants Are Trending

‘Micro Tom’ mini-tomato plant in a pot
‘Micro Tom’ tomato. Photo: World Tomato Society

More people are gardening, true, but they don’t necessarily have huge yards to garden in. So, smaller but productive plants will be gaining ground. Here are some suggestions from Garden Media Group:

  • ‘Micro Tom’ tomato (the world’s tiniest tomato plant) 
  • Mini bell peppers 
  • ‘Dwarf Yellow Crookneck’ squash 
  • ‘Romeo’ and ‘Short Stuff’ carrots 
  • ‘Baby Ball’ beets 
  • Cucamelon
  • ‘Windowbox’ mini basil 
  • ‘Striped Guadeloupe’ eggplant 
  • ‘Hearts of Gold’ cantaloupe 
  • ‘Tom Thumb’ peas 
  • ‘Crunchkin’ pumpkins 
  • ‘Mini White’ cucumbers 
  • Sprouts and microgreens.

Mini-houseplants, too, are very trendy. You can now buy a miniature orchid for the cost of two cinnamon dolce lattes at Starbucks. And miniature succulents are so cute. And neither will take up much space on a corner of your desk. Miniature houseplants also fit easily under the currently ever-so-popular LED grow lights and some adapt wonderfully into even all but the smallest terrariums.

10. Container Gardening 

Container gardens on a deck
You can grow any plant in a container. Photo: eyeofthedaygdc.com

A trend carried over from previous years, but getting stronger all the time, what with condominium and apartment dwellers, ever more numerous, having no in-ground space to grow in. But even suburban homeowners, who have plenty of growing space (or will soon, as they cut back on lawns), are putting containers everywhere: decks, stoops, stairways, etc. Container gardening gives you the freedom to garden where you want to … and don’t we all need to feel a bit of freedom in our lives right now? Plus, containers that can move indoors and out are great for those exotic fruits (kumquats, dwarf avocados, bonsai olive trees, etc.) that are so in style these days. 

11. Instant Result Plants

As you may have guessed, this is closely linked with the horde of new gardeners moving into the market. They want instant results. Flowers need to be already in bloom when they buy them; herbs and vegetables, ideally, already producing the fruit and leaves they can harvest. Even berried shrubs, that old-fashioned gardeners like myself used to plant young and watch grow for a few years before even thinking of harvesting, are now being sold in larger containers and in full fruit. Even seed-grown plants need to be up and in production mode tout de suite. Patience is a virtue most gardeners only learn over time, so with so many new gardeners joining the league of home gardeners, expect to see lots of ready-to-harvest edible plants and heavy-blooming flowers in nurseries this spring. 

12. Going Green

The new wave of gardeners also wants solutions to gardening problems, but they want green solutions. Preferably home-made remedies, at that. After all, gardens these days are not just man-made structures you pop plants into, they’re “environments,” with living insects, birds and animals to consider. Organic is one way to express this, but just “green” often does the job. One or the other on a label can certainly boost interest … and sales.

Two smiling gardeners
Photo: goodtimes.ca

2020: What a Year in Gardening!

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All round, 2020 was a stupendous year in the gardening world! Photo: deanteamchicago.com

2020 was certainly a memorable year in gardening. Not that it started in a particularly surprising way, although even as early as January, seed companies and tool suppliers began noting a serious increase in sales. Then the “COVID-19 Crisis” hit and confinement began. After the initial shock of realizing that many of us wouldn’t be likely be going far from home in the coming months, a sort of garden panic set in. 

Experienced gardeners put in extra hours (about 2 additional hours per day hours a day in the garden during quarantine than before the outbreak began). And then there were all the newbies. All sorts of people who had never gardened before suddenly took up the hobby … many of them young people, under the age of 35. Some 16 million (yes, million) claimed to have started gardening in 2020 in the United States. That’s huge. And it’s well known that once people get the gardening bug, well … they’ll pretty much garden for the rest of their life.

balcony garden
People realized they could garden anywhere, even on a balcony or window ledge. Photo: tayloronhistory.com

Part of this upsurge was because gardening is something you can do at home. All you need is a little plot of land or just a pot on a balcony. It’s inexpensive to start, so anyone can do it, and costs even less as time goes on. However, there was also a concern about food security. If things started shutting down seriously, would it still be possible to buy fresh fruits and vegetables? Or would they be affordable? (The answer turned out to be “yes” in the first case, but increasingly “no” in the second, certainly not if the pandemic cost you your job.)

Young boy gardening, grandpa and ma looking on.
So many people got involved in gardening in 2020, many for the first time! Photo: homegardenandhomestead.com

The Victory Garden, originally developed during the two world wars as a means for people to contribute to the war effort by growing their own food and thus not draining the country of valuable resources that could go to the troops, was suddenly the byword for gardening in 2020. Victory Garden 2.0, the National Garden Bureau called it. Soon, “victory garden” was on everyone’s lips. And in everyone’s personal space.

It was (and is!) all about food gardening, mostly vegetables and herbs, the idea being to put fresh, healthy, homegrown food on the table. Some 67% of adults surveyed said they grew food plants this year. Wow! Even in my own family, the “grandkids who never garden” (about half of the brood) suddenly were growing vegetables and proudly featuring photos of their results on Instagram. 

Ornamental gardening seemed to be more on hold in 2020. Sure, people were doing it (especially on balconies), but it didn’t seem to be making waves.

Room with houseplants.
Houseplants: if you don’t grow them these days, people look at you strangely! Photo: society19.com

Except indoors. The houseplant craze (I think we can call it that) had been going strong among the younger set (students, new workers, young parents) for a few years now and suddenly, with working and even studying from home suddenly becoming a necessity for so many, having a few plants to share your working space with seemed like a extra good idea.

Garden Centers Made a Fortune

Garden nursery, employee with mask
During the early part of confinement, garden centers filled with stock, waiting to open… then sold out when they were able to! Photo: Randy Vazquez. Bay Area News Group

It’s hard to find a single supplier of plants, seeds and garden products who didn’t have a banner year in 2020. Although some were forced to confine for a short while, that didn’t generally last. And when they did open, most were taken by storm by crowds of avid plant shoppers: all those new gardeners mentioned above adding to the usual spring rush. Few merchants had ever seen anything like it! Everything seemed to sell out as soon as it was put on the shelf. 

Remember how seed houses were so overwhelmed with the extra demands that many had to stop taking orders? Or shut down to rebuild their stock? (For more on that, read What Happened to Vegetable Seeds This Spring?) Well, exuberant sales continued right to the end of the year. Bulb sales, the last big sale opportunity of the year in most garden centers, were so up this year many sold out without 2 weeks of starting and suppliers had nothing left to ship them to help fill in the empty shelves, something never seen before.

So… if you’re a plant merchant, you almost certainly had a profitable year! 

Gardens Closed, Then Reopened

Sign of closure of garden.
Most public gardens around the world closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 confinement. Photo: france24.com

And then there was the closing of public gardens. Parks generally remained open (and indeed were often crowded), but most gardens closed for at least a while as they worked out how to make garden visits safe for all. And most succeeded. Certainly by summer’s end, almost all of the gardens I know were open to the public again, albeit with some restrictions. It was such a pleasure to be able to wander through them again, although many suffered serious financial setbacks from being closed for so long. Make sure you visit your local public garden extra often to help them through 2021.

My Case

Selfie of Larry Hodgson in his greenhouse
Yep, this is me, in my natural environment, my greenhouse, with my COVID-19 moustache.

In my own case, that is, Larry Hodgson, the man behind the Laidback Gardener blog, the COVID-19 crisis had multiple effects. 

You may not know this, but besides being a passionate garden blogger sharing plant-related information for free, I’m also a professional “garden communicator”. Indeed, a past president of Garden Communicators International (GardenComm). Sharing knowledge about gardening is how I make a living and brings in the money I need to keep the blog going. I have no regular salary, I have no paid holidays, I have no specific work schedule: I’m totally freelance and have been for nearly 40 years, give or take a few out-of-house jobs in the early years. 

Larry Hodgson giving lecture
Lectures? Canceled!

The first obvious COVID-19 change was that the in-person lectures I had been scheduled to give were all canceled. Tentatively at first, and just the upcoming ones, then as confinement and restrictions on group gatherings were installed and it became clear they would stick, massively. I had 64 lectures scheduled from mid-March to December 2020. All of them were canceled. But virtual lectures, as on Zoom, stepped in and helped save the day. I’d never even done a virtual lecture before; now I’ve done 12. Still, financially, it was a tough blow. 

Garden tours: also canceled.

And my garden tours… I’ve been leading garden tours, again for nearly 40 years, all over the world and had 8 reserved and 2 filling up when confinement began. Of course, they were all “canceled” (although my travel agency told me not to use that term for legal reasons). At any rate, not one of them took place. How could you even think of leading a tour that involved stuffing people repeatedly into airplanes and buses under current circumstances? 

Was I worried about my finances? You betcha! 

What’s left? I write articles under my name or no name at all for various magazines and websites. That held steady and even grew quite a bit. (With more people gardening, more people needed gardening information.) I also do horticultural translation. That too held steady.

I also make some money from the ads that appear this blog. I think you’d be surprised at how little, certainly well below the minimum wage if you count the hours I put into writing and preparing it (about 6 hours a day), but still, money is money and any revenue is highly appreciated. 

Larry Hodgson leading garden tour
Nope, I didn’t qualify for that! Ill.: Ontario 211

I also hit 65 in 2019. That means I get a government pension as a senior. So, I don’t need as much work revenue to survive on as I had in the past. The pension isn’t enough to maintain my current middle-class lifestyle that I just adore, but it sure helps. And no, I wasn’t eligible for any emergency response benefit, offered by the government to people who had stopped working due to due to COVID-19. I most definitively did not stop working!

And I had far fewer expenses. No gasoline (true enough, my car was one of the early hybrids, but still needed gas), no restaurant meals, no hotel rooms. I ended giving my car away. It was just sitting there in the driveway, doing nothing, anyway. And it was so old, rusty and tired (there was nearly 250,000 miles/400,000 km on the speedometer), selling it would have brought in very little. So, I helped out a friend in need.

Gardening books by Larry Hodgson
A few of the French-language books I’ve written over the years.

What saved me financially, though, were book sales. True enough, I haven’t written a gardening book in English for years, but I live in French Canada and still write books in French. (I have an editor who will take any book I write, no questions asked!) The two I published in 2020 sold out within 2 months. Yet, enough copies had theoretically been printed for a 5-year run. That’s never happened before. Also, two of my other books, already on the market, sold out as well. All are being reprinted and will be relaunched this winter or spring. And two of those books, plus a new one I have just finished, have been picked up by Costco (although just in the province of Québec) for 2021. That it is a very big thing! 

The Joy of Gardening

But for me, the real joy of 2020 was gardening. 

I have, obviously, always gardened, ever since I was a kid, but with lecturing and garden tours and TV shows to tape in various places, I just couldn’t be present enough to really take care of my own garden adequately. 

I mean, when you’re off on a 10-day tour, then have a 2-hour drive to a lecture the next day, you’re just not there to take care of watering and watch out for pests. This year, I was there. Every day. Several times a day. 

Larry Hodgson in garden
Me in my beloved garden this summer: I’m just so happy there!

It was such a pleasure being able to wander out into the garden whenever I felt like it. I’ve never taken coffee breaks, even when I worked in an office away from home. But I love taking gardening breaks. Sometimes, I even seriously garden when on such a break! Much of the time, though, I just wander about, pick a few veggies, maybe yank out a weed if I see one, stuff a wandering tomato stem back into its cage, lift a few leaves to check underneath, etc. And I spent my summer with the dirtiest index finger you’ve ever seen: always sinking it into the soil to see which plants needed watering.

Puttering around in the garden is just sooo relaxing.

Pollinating a squash flower
Pollinating a squash flower. Photo: sendjoelletter

In previous years, I used to sometimes hand pollinate my cucumbers and squashes, when I could and when I thought there were no bees about. This year, I think I pollinated every single one. I’m up before the bees at any rate and, to be honest, the little hummers can’t always be trusted. The old adage is true: if you want something done, it’s best to do it yourself. Even if that means outbeeing a bee.

As a result, we had too many vegetables this year. Not that I planted more than usual; it’s just that most produced so much more. My wife’s the cook and canner in the family and she literally filled up all the storage space we had. We gave lots away, too. And I didn’t even bother trying to ripen those last green tomatoes indoors this year. They’re never the best ones and besides, what would I have done with them?

If my plants loved the attention I showered on them; the bugs hated it! I don’t think I lost one plant to pests this year. In fact, scarcely a leaf! I was always there just as they were starting their attack. And I squished and I sprayed and I dropped creepy crawlers into cups of soapy water. It’s amazing how well you can control pests when you’re on them from the beginning.

So, this is going to sound strange, but for me, 2020 was an exceptional year, an excellent year. In spite of spending most of it in lockdown and only seeing the grandkids through the front window, plus coming close to financial catastrophe, it was one of the best of my life. Truly glorious! I hope yours was just as wonderful!

Ill.: wallpapercave.com

Thrips: The No-See-Sum Plant Pest

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Onion thrips (Thrips tabaci), top, and western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis), bottom are typical thrips, none to easy to tell apar! Photo: Thrips: http://www.gardentech.com

Thrips are tiny insects that are mainly active at night. As a result, you typically see the damage they cause well before seeing the insects themselves. 

Typical thrips damage to a tomato leaf
Typical thrips damage to a tomato leaf. Photo: badger.uvm.edu

They attack flowers and leaves, piercing their cells to suck out the liquid. The cells then fill with air, giving the damaged area a sort of silvery or bleached appearance. Since thrips tend to gather together, you’ll usually find irregular patches of silvery or beige tissue on broad leaves and flower petals and silvery stripes on lance-shaped leaves. The damaged parts look as if they have been rasped. You’ll also likely see their excrements before you see the insects themselves: small black deposits are readily visible on the affected parts. 

In addition to damaging the plant by sucking its sap, thrips can do even greater damage by transmitting plant viruses from one plant to another.

There are more than 6,000 species of thrips, the most common in homes and gardens being western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis), eastern flower thrips (Frankliniella tritici), greenhouse thrips (Heliothrips haemorrhoidalis), onion thrips (Thrips tabaci) and gladiolus thrips (Taeniothrips simplex). They can be very hard to tell apart and even experts are often fooled.

pollen spread over African violet flowers
If you see pollen spreading on African violet flowers, they likely have flower thrips. Photo: thehouseplantguru.com

Depending on the species, thrips may attack either foliage or flowers and flower buds. Some species harvest pollen (the sight of loose pollen on an African violet flower is usually a clear sign of a flower thrips infestation), while others attack roots and bulbs underground. 

There are also beneficial thrips that are predators on other insects, including other thrips, although plant-damaging thrips are far more numerous and better known.

💡 Helpful Hint
There is no such thing as a thrip: thrips, with an “s” at the end, is both singular and plural. So … one thrips, two thrips, red thrips, blue thrips.

Identifying the Culprit

Onion thrips damage to a leek leaf
Onion thrips damage to a leek leaf. Photo: koppert.com

Thrips are hard to see unless you have very good eyes, but try blowing on the infected plant part. This usually sends them scurrying about and you should be able to catch the movement. Why they react this way is a mystery: maybe they find humans have bad breath! This is certainly the best method of spotting flower thrips especially, as otherwise they often work sight unseen inside flowers and flower buds.

In spite of their wings, thrips are not great flyers, usually jumping from plant to plant or coasting with outstretched wings. Outdoors, they are carried far and wide by the wind.

Usually, thrips are more obvious and cause more damage when plants are already stressed something else: a chronic lack of water, low atmospheric humidity, hot temperatures, etc. On the other hand, rainy summer weather can seriously reduce their number.

Know Thy Enemy

The life cycle of a thrips depends on the species as well as the host plant, the weather and lots of other factors, but it’s still possible to draw a portrait of a typical situation. 

life cycle of a thrips
The life cycle of one species of thrips, but most follow the same pattern. Ill.: hortinews.co.ke

Outdoors, adult thrips generally overwinter in plant debris, bark or other material. They become active in early spring and can lay 60–300 eggs over several weeks, most often in plant tissue they pierce for that purpose. There may be female and males, but some species are parthenogenic, so females don’t require fecundation to produce viable eggs.

These eggs hatch after 3 to 5 days, and the nymphs then feed for 1 to 3 weeks before descending into the soil or leaf litter. There they molt and become prepupae, then pupae, a stage that lasts 1 to 2 weeks. During this period, they cause no damage. The adults then climb back up to the vegetation above to feed and reproduce. Adults rarely live more than a month.

As you can imagine, these leads to multiple stages being present at once on the same plant. There can be up to 15 generations per year in the open air; even more indoors where there is no off-season.

Host Plants

gladiolus flowers with mottling due to thrips damage
Silvery splotches on gladiolus flowers indicate gladiolus thrips are present. Photo: gardenguyhawaii.com

Many thrips are very picky about what they eat, but, other than the extremely specific gladiolus thrips, the ones most gardeners have to worry about have a wide host range. Here are some of the plants they are most likely to infect:

Houseplants: African violet, avocado, azalea, begonia, brugmansia, chrysanthemum, croton, crassula, cyclamen, dieffenbachia, dracaena, ficus, fuchsia, gerbera, gloxinia, hibiscus, impatiens, orchid, peace lily, pelargonium, poinsettia, streptocarpus, syngonium, yucca.

Edible plants: apple, asparagus, basil, bean, blueberry, carrot, cherry, cabbage, corn, cucumber, garlic, grape vine, leek, onion, pea, pear, pepper, potato, raspberry, strawberry, tomato.

Annuals, perennials and bulbs: aster, carnation, chrysanthemum, dahlia, datura, gladiolus, impatiens, iris, lily, peony, petunia, pelargonium, snapdragon, sweet pea, squash, verbena, zinnia.

Woody plants: aralia, birch, citrus, hydrangea, linden, maple, privet, rhododendron, rose, willow.

The only groups of plants that rarely seem to serve as hosts for thrips in home plantings are ferns and conifers.

Control

Controlling thrips is made extra difficult in that they are not accessible to pesticides throughout their entire cycle. At any given time, part of the population will be well sheltered in the tissues of the host plant as eggs while another part will be pupating in the soil where insecticides can’t reach them either. So, even if you carefully spray an infected plant from top to bottom with an appropriate product, there will always 2 generations that are out of reach. That’s why thrips always seem to pop out of nowhere just when you think you have them licked. 

You’ll therefore have to repeat your applications (insecticidal soap, neem oil, horticultural oil, pyrethrin or just about any other insecticide will do) every 5 to 7 days until you see no more of them … and that can sometimes take months!

African violet growers find they can eliminate flower thrips by systematically removing all flowers and flower buds … for a full 3 months.

Yellow and blue sticky traps.
A yellow sticky trap for whiteflies and a blue one for thrips. Photo: sustainablelifeandhealth.com

You can also use commercial or home-made sticky traps to catch adults. Usually, these traps come in yellow and that color will work, but thrips are even more attracted to blue. Online and in bigger garden centers, you can often find blue sticky traps designed specifically for thrips. Thrips are also attracted to light and readily enter lighted insect traps.

Floating row cover on potatoes.
Floating row cover makes a great thrips barrier. Photo: Lee Valley Tools

Or practice exclusion. A floating row cover, combined with crop rotation, can serve as a thrips barrier in the garden. Indoors, isolate new plants for at least 40 days, then inspect them carefully before placing them with other plants. 

Plantes growing in reflective mulch
Reflective mulch will help keep thrips away. Photo: Photo: Lee Valley Tools

Covering the soil with a reflective mulch, usually a thin sheet of silver, gray or white plastic with a shiny surface, also seems to be effective in keeping thrips off. It has be installed beforehand, then punch holes into it so you can transplant seedlings. Since reflective mulch is aesthetically somewhat questionable, it’s usually reserved for gardens where appearance is of little importance, such as a vegetable garden.

Also, gladiolus thrips overwinter on gladiolus corms stored indoors. Storing the corms in an extra-cool place (between 35 and 40˚F/2 to 4˚C) for at least 6 weeks will help eliminate them, as they can only tolerate cold temperatures for short periods.

The Enemies of Our Enemies…

In outdoor gardens, beneficial insects often help to control thrips. Earwigs, ladybugs, lacewings and pirate bugs are efficient thrips predators as are several mites. Certain species of soil nematode are also known to attack thrips while they pupate underground. The presence of predators explains why thrips infestations outdoors sometimes seem to sputter out all on their own.

beneficial mite on a leaf
Amblyseius cucumeris is just one of many beneficial mites that can control thrips. Photo: bioplanet.eu

There are also thrips predators that can be released in a garden or greenhouse environment, including the beneficial mite Amblyseius cucumeris, but they generally adapt poorly to use on houseplants raised in typical homes, largely because the air there is too dry for their taste.

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Thrips: they may be tiny, but they can cause a lot of damage. The faster you react to them, they easier they are to control.

Planned Obsolescence: A Sad Trend in Orchid Sales

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“Just throw away your old orchid! I can offer you a new one at an unbeatable price!” Ill.: iclipart.com & pngtree.com, montage: laidbackgardener.com

Comment: I bought 5 orchids last year. They were cute enough at first, but I soon found one had mealybugs and it’s been in isolation ever since. And all were planted in densely compacted moss and in transparent soft plastic pots with just one drainage hole in the bottom! As can be expected, the roots eventually started to rot. The leaves also started rotting, so I cleaned the plants up, trimmed off all the rot and repotted them into larger orchid pots using a bark and styrofoam mix designed for orchids. They seem to be recovering, so I think I’ve been able to save them!

But my question is: why do merchants sell orchids in such a state? 

G. Prevost

Answer: Because they think they can get away with it!

It’s sad to see that orchids, once considered to be the queen of flowers and truly treated with respect, are now regarded as little more than a disposable commodity by some merchants, like lettuce or melons. “Just buy them and toss them when they’re no longer attractive,” they suggest.

Orchid crammed into a small pot of sphagnum.
Orchids are often crammed so tightly into small pots that the roots have no room to grow. Photo: elephantschild.typepad.com

Let me make it clear, though, that not all orchid growers treat their customers like ignoramuses by selling them orchids that are destined for the compost pile: some do have credibility and offer a quality product. But others—too many!—have taken the bait and work at producing orchids in such as way as they won’t be likely to live long. Then the consumer buys a new one … and that increases the possibilities for the merchant to make a good profit.

This throwaway orchid culture is therefore essentially planned obsolescence, that is, deliberately reducing the lifespan of a product in order to increase its replacement rate. By the definition of this type of merchant, if an orchid lasts at least 4 weeks, you got your money’s worth. It’s time to throw it away and buy a new one.

Yet any self-respecting orchid lover will tell you that a well cared for phalaenopsis (and almost any other orchid) can last for years – 5, 10, 15, even 35 and more—and bloom annually, or even more than once per year. What a difference in attitude!

I touched on this topic previously in a blog a few years back, The Life Expectancy of Houseplants, although the comments then weren’t specific to orchids.

How Merchants Ensure an Orchid Dies Slowly

Watering orchids with ice cubes
There are several ways to help ensure an orchid goes downhill once it leaves the store, including watering it with ice cubes. Photo: accionph.com

Here are a few methods that profiteering nurserymen apply to reduce the long-term survivability of orchids:

  • Plant them in a pot with limited ventilation, typically a single drainage hole at the bottom. The majority of indoor orchids are epiphytes and would prefer pots with multiple perforations, even on the sides of the pot.
  • Use a fast decaying (and inexpensive) growing mix such as plain sphagnum moss, rather than a durable, quality orchid mix.
  • Pack the growing mix around the roots to prevent them from breathing properly and being able to continue their development.
  • Advise watering with ice cubes, which leaves the plant constantly on the verge of dehydration. To learn more about this, read Should You Really Water Orchids with Ice Cubes?.
  • Suggesting on the label that phalaenopsis grow well in the shade when in truth, except in the tropics, they do best in good light with, preferably, a few hours of sunlight per day. They will hold in the shade for some time; what they won’t do is to grow well or rebloom there.

How to Recognize a Quality Orchid?

Before discussing this aspect, we have put aside the size, color and quantity of the flowers an orchid bears, as they are more a question of the buyer’s taste than a sign of quality. Even the condition of said flowers can’t really be taken as an element of the plant’s overall quality, as even an excellent phalaenopsis doesn’t bloom forever and will therefore at some point stop blooming for a while. Just because a plant is between blooming sessions doesn’t make it of poor quality.

So, what should you really look for in an orchid?

First, a quality orchid probably won’t be dirt cheap! Quality comes at a price! Not necessarily a huge price, but certainly double what bargain-basement orchids sell for.

Sales area in a specialist orchid greenhouse
The very best quality orchids are usually sold by orchid specialists. Photo: http://www.leparadisdesorchidees.com

The place of sale matters too. Typically, the lowest quality orchids are those sold through supermarkets, hardware stores, box stores and other non-specialist dealers. Garden centers, since they have to build up repeat business for plant sales of all kinds, can’t afford to sell junk plants and usually offer at least medium-quality orchids, as do florists. However, it’s nurseries specializing in orchids that sell the highest quality ones.

💡 Helpful Hint: If the orchid label bears a varietal name (e.g., Phalaenopsis Pink Panda ‘Bellissima’) rather than just a generic orchid label, this is usually a sign of a merchant who knows their product and is committed to quality.

Also check that the foliage is healthy. For a phalaenopsis, it will likely be medium green, thick, leathery and relatively stiff (not soft and droopy), without wounds or dark, sunken marks.

Orchid in a transparent culture pot.
Before buying an orchid, take the grow pot out of the cachepot and inspect the roots. Photo: theraininspain.net

These days, almost all orchids are grown in a transparent grow pot (with drainage holes), placed inside an opaque cachepot, making it convenient and simple to remove the culture pot in order to inspect the roots before the purchase. They should be healthy, plump and either pale gray when dry and medium green when moist, with a long, shiny, pointed green tip. Avoid plants with dead roots, which will be brown when wet and whitish when dry. If a few aerial roots rise out of the pot, that’s okay—producing aerial roots is normal for a phalaenopsis and indeed most other epiphytic orchids.

Often, low-end orchids are simply planted in sphagnum moss, a kind of yellow-brown stringy moss. This is not inherently bad, but it is often too heavily compacted, which reduces air circulation to the roots; plus it decomposes too readily. In general, a quality orchid will be planted in a mix that includes more than one ingredient, including pieces of bark, sphagnum moss, coir, perlite, charcoal or even styrofoam beads or clay, a mix designed to keep it healthy for at least two years.

Also, inspect the plant from top to bottom for insects such as mealybugs and scale insects.

When You Get Your Orchid Home

Obviously, even a quality orchid can fail if not taken care of properly. You’ll find some tips on keeping orchids healthy here.

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May all your orchids live long and prosper!!

New Species Named by Kew Gardens in 2020

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Ill.: http://www.vecteezy.com

Researchers from the venerable Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, aka Kew Gardens, have been busy combing forests, jungles, mountain tops, scrublands and deserts all over the world for new plants. In 2020, they published, with their partners, the discovery of 156 plant and fungal species from all over the planet.

Here are some of them. 

Spectacular Hibiscus Discovered Online!

Hibiscus hareyae. Photo: Iain Darbyshire/RBG Kew

This new hibiscus with deeply cut petals, Hibiscus hareyae, was actually discovered online by the Australian hibiscus specialist, Lex Thompson. He was studying online images of historic herbarium specimens when he recognized that one shrub from the scrub vegetation of Southern Tanzania was actually mislabeled. It was not the well-known and commonly grown fringed hibiscus (H. schizopetalus), but had several different physical features, including broader deciduous leaves, a sturdier growth habit and a larger number of anthers. It grows in coastal thickets of much drier soils and has better tolerance of drought conditions than the usual fringed hibiscus. This added resilience to harsh conditions means it also has great horticultural potential. 

The plant was named for Dr Hareya Fassil who works on traditional plant-based medicines in Africa.

Possibly The World’s Ugliest Orchid

Gastrodia agnicellus
Gastrodia agnicellus: the world’s ugliest orchid. Photo: Rick Burian/RBG Kew

This tiny orchid, Gastrodia agnicellus, with oh-so-ugly flowers, was found growing on the forest floor in Madagascar. A curious terrestrial orchid, it is saprophytic, living off fungus from which it obtains all its nutrition. Indeed, it has no leaves or any other photosynthetic tissue. The flowers are small (11 mm, that is, less than ½ inch in diameter) and a very boring brown, hardly our image of what an orchid bloom should look like. It apparently doesn’t need brightly colored flowers to attract pollinating insects, as it is believed to largely self-pollinate. After pollination, the stalks grow taller, holding the fruits well above the forest floor to ensure better distribution of the dustlike seeds. 

Cliff-Dwelling Bromeliad

Acanthostachys calcicola, red flowers
Acanthostachys calcicola. Photo: Gabriel Mendes Marcusso/RBG Kew

A new species has been added to the bromeliad (pineapple) family: Acanthostachys calcicola, found growing on limestone cliffs in central Brazil by Brazilian botanists Pablo Hendrigo Alves de Melo and Gabriel Mendes Marcusso with the help of Kew scientist Alex Munro. Only 25 specimens were discovered and they’re threatened by the extraction of limestone for cement production. It is believed to be hummingbird pollinated.

Say Aloe to New Aloes

Aloe rakotonasoloi
Aloe rakotonasoloi. Photo: RBG Kew

A team of Kew botanists, led by Solofo Rakotoarisoa, has found two new aloes species, Aloe rakotonasoloi and A. vatovavensis in Madagascar. Since they weren’t in bloom at the time of discovery, they were grown on in a garden in the country’s capital, Antananarivo, until they did, confirming they were new species. Curiously, while aloes are usually found in sunny, open areas, both species were found in a forest.

A New Shrub Joins the Ericaceae

Diplycosia puradyatmikai, hairy orangey new growth
Diplycosia puradyatmikai. Photo: Wendy Mustaqim/RBG Kew

A new terrestrial shrub with stems covered in golden-brown bristles, rounded leathery leaves, drooping bell-shaped red-tinged flowers and red berries that turn black, Diplycosia puradyatmikai, was discovered in stunted montane forest near the top of Indonesian New Guinea’s highest mountain, Mount Jaya, by a group of Indonesian and Kew scientists led by Wendy A. Mustaqim. The 5-foot (1.5 m) shrub is in the Ericaceae family, along with blueberries and rhododendrons. It’s most closely related to wintergreen (Gaultheria spp.).

A Rare Plant with Medicinal Potential

Marsdenia chirindensis, cluster of small brown-striped greenish flowers.
Marsdenia chirindensis. Photo: Bart Wursten/RBG Kew

Kew scientist David Goyder discovered this new marsdenia (Marsdenia chirindensis) in the Chirinda forest of Zimbabwe on the border with Mozambique. Only one or two plants of the new species are known to exist. Closely related to the popular stephanotis or garland flower (once called Stephanotis floribunda, but now Marsdenia floribunda), the new species is one of some 150 in a genus that is widely known for plants with medicinal value, used in treating health issues such as flatulence, gonorrhoea, paralysis, burns and fungal skin infections. The medicinal efficacy of this new species has not yet been tested, but is potentially important.

New Orchids From New Guinea

Dendrobium aurifex with orange blooms
Dendrobium aurifex. Photo: Bala Kompalli/RBG Kew

With the help of partners Reza Saputra in Indonesia and Jaap Vermeulen in the Netherlands, Kew’s orchid specialist André Schuiteman named 19 new species of epiphytic orchids from New Guinea this year, including the brilliantly colored golden orange Dendrobium aurifex, which has been successfully bloomed in Kew’s greenhouses. All of these orchids are extremely rare and some were in fact described from a single preserved specimen gathered years ago. For that reason, some may already have gone extinct. This is hardly surprising, as 2 plants in 5 in the world are currently threatened with extinction.

A Frying Pan Shrub

Tiganophyton karasense, dwarf shrub
Tiganophyton karasense. Photo: W. Swanepoel

A very strange dwarf shrub, with bizarre scaly leaves, looking like no other plant on earth, was discovered in the semi-desert of the Karas region in southern Namibia by Wessel Swanepoel in 2010, but went unnamed, as no one could place it in any known genus. Well, Kew’s molecular expert, Felix Forest, discovered it was in the cabbage order (Brassicales), but didn’t belong to any current genus. So, Tiganophyton karasense is not only a new species, but belongs to a new genus and a new monotypic family (a family composed of only one species): the Tiganophytaceae. This is unique, as though some 2,000 new species of plants are named every year, the naming of new family is a very rare occurrence indeed.

The plant grows in extremely hot natural salt pans, hence its name Tiganophyton, which was derived from the Greek word “tigani” (frying pan), and “phyton” (plant). The area is the hottest in all of Namibia, with daytime temperatures averaging 97 °F (36 °C) during January and February. And it receives only 4–6 inches (10–15 cm) of rain per year. A frying pan shrub indeed!

An Edible and Beauty Morning Glory

Yura (Ipomoea noemana) with pink flowers
Yura (Ipomoea noemana). Photo: Enoc Jara/RBG Kew

Move over, sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas): you might just have a competitor from your own genus. The newly named tuberous morning glory, I. noemana, with beautiful pink flowers, is not however really that new to locals, but had remained unnoticed by botanists until recently. It has been harvested by humans in the Andes of Peru for centuries where it is known as “yura”. The sweet 4-inch (10-cm) purple tubers grow among cactus at high altitudes. It has yet to be evaluated for nutritional value and agricultural potential, but it sure is pretty!

The plant was named for the Peruvian philanthropist Noema Cano by a team of Peruvian and Kew researchers led by Enoc Jara, of the National University of San Marcos in Lima.

An Airport Toadstool

Heathrow Airport toadstool
Heathrow Airport toadstool (Cortinarius heatherae). Photo: Andy Overall/RBG Kew

Well, Kew researchers didn’t have to look far for this one! The Heathrow Airport toadstool (Cortinarius heatherae) was found on the grounds of London’s Heathrow Airport, scarcely 8 miles (12 km) from Kew Gardens, by field mycologist Andy Overall and named after his wife Heather. It’s a beneficial mycorrhizal fungus that plays a key role in the carbon cycling of woodlands and providing nitrogen to trees such as oaks, pines, birches and beeches. With a plain brown top and creamy stem, it can only be distinguished from similar fungi through laboratory testing.

Information adapted from an article by Dr. Martin Cheek that appeared on the Kew Gardens website.