Monday, March 29, 2010

Coral Bells

At last… Spring! The weather has been blustery but balmy, leaving those of us who garden with perfect days to prepare the garden for the coming season. The perennials are making their appearance and among them is the fabulous Heuchera, commonly known to your great grandmother as ‘Coral Bells’. Exceedingly popular a century ago, they lost favor for a few years until their 1991 win as the Perennial Plant Association’s ‘Plant of the Year’; since then they have made a rollicking come-back. Reintroducing themselves in the latest finery, the spectrum of their foliage colors is indeed astonishing! Native to all of North America, Coral Bells were first discovered in woodlands and trails before making their way to the garden.

April through October the faithful habit of this hardy perennial sends forth delicate stalks which rise above the foliage to produce bright bell shaped flowers. In shades of coral, red, white or pink, these sweet flowers are half an inch in length with five petals.

The most attractive feature however is the Coral Bell’s spectacular foliage that provides a striking focal point in any garden setting. A wide array of leaf forms, either ruffled or wavy, are available in stunning colors which include green, pink, red, purple, bronze and silver. Never invasive, this lady can be trusted to know her place in the garden, staying in tidy clumps rather than wandering.

‘Amber Waves’ is among the most exquisite emerging with ruffled amber foliage that changes to burnt orange as the leaves age. With the addition of the rose colored flower, she is indeed a show stopper. Another is ’Black Beauty’ with deep purple-burgundy leaves of outstanding ruffling that stand slightly upright to catch the sun from all directions. ’Bronze Beauty’ is extremely heat tolerant and provides shades of creamy white flowers over the extremely large peach, orange and bronze leaves below. And although the list seems endless, 'Encore' must be mentioned as she starts out in the spring with deep rose purple colored leaves that have a light silvering on top, darker veins, with a vibrant burgundy on the underside. With maturity. the leaves turn lighter rose and produce a heavy silver overlay over deep smoky-purple veins.

Hummingbirds adore them and deer find them distasteful, which is part of the reason for their popularity. The Coral Bell adapts and thrives in almost any garden but prefers light shade and moist feet to sun and dust. Prized for longevity, they will last for decades with little care, a trait which is always appreciated by the gardener.

*Photo credit: My dear friend and horticultural specialist Mr. Jeremy Webber at Sunny Border Nurseries in Connecticut... Heuchera are one of his favorites. Also credited is Mr. Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries. One of his favorite creations, this beauty is 'Gypsy Dancer'.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Equinox

In the Garden

By Catherine Dougherty

The arrival of the Spring Equinox this year was highly unusual. The blizzard took everyone by surprise and the lovely Jonquils were no exception. As the sky began to darken and the winds began to howl, there was little time to rush to the garden to cut all of the current blooms to bring springtime inside as the snow accumulated outside. The advice of many gardeners in New England, where they receive winter weather well into spring, is to consider early Jonquils merely part of the cutting garden and not plan to keep them outside at all.

The emerging perennials will not be affected as they have a built in anti-freeze. And due to the cold temperatures of February, luck has prevailed and the fruit trees are not yet in bloom. Obviously the garden has taken a hit, but it has endured far worse and managed to survive. Recall the Spring of 2003 with the unusual high temperatures and lack of significant rain since August? Or perhaps the March 30th freeze of 2000 when all the fruit trees were in bloom? However for anyone who is a weather buff, the two blizzards in less than three months will make this winter season memorable for many years to come.

The arrival of spring, the Spring Equinox, has been held sacred for thousands of years and is one of the four great solar festivals of the year. Day and night are equal, poised and balanced, ready to tip to the point of light. The Equinox honors youth, dawn, the morning star and the east. The Saxton goddess Eostre, from whence we get the direction east and the holiday Easter, is a dawn goddess ushering in the time of new light and new life.

The Roman New Year began on March 15th (the Ides of March) and the month of March is named after the Roman god, Mars. Between the twelfth century and 1752, March 25th was New Years Day in England and Ireland where the custom was to celebrate the new beginning. In both Greek and Roman mythology, the beautiful young daughter of a goddess, banished and forced to reside with the King of the Underworld for half the year, is allowed to return to her mother. Their joyful reunion ushers in rebirth of the land. In Christianity, Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the celebration of rebirth as well. Passover is also the Jewish equivalent of a rebirth celebration.

Regardless of religious belief, the change of the seasons and ensuing celebrations, all rooted in the patterns of the moon, are universal and have been present for thousands of years. The Farmers Almanac has pages dedicated to the times in which to plant crops, all indicating the importance of the astrological signs. When planting below ground crops, (carrots, turnips, potatoes, beets, etc.) do so in the dark of the moon for they enjoy growing while sleeping in darkness. For plants which provide their produce above ground, plant the seeds in the light of the moon. The heavenly forces of the moon will call them forth so they may see the moonlight. Happy Spring!

Monday, March 15, 2010

El Niño

In the Garden
By Catherine Dougherty
It has been over a decade since we have had such winter weather. After many years we have finally received enough moisture to take us out of the drought category and in spite of the damage across the map, the severe weather has been a blessing for many. Atlanta, Georgia was running out of water and with El Niño, the reservoir is full once again.

The term El Niño is used daily on the weather reports and is simply a pattern of unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific. The opposite is La Niña, which characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures. These fluctuations of the ocean atmosphere in the tropical Pacific are the cause of drastic weather changes around the globe so observations of conditions there are essential for the prediction of short term climate variations.

This warm water, first noted by a fisherman off the coast of South America, was considered a religious phenomenon since it arrived around Christmas and thus El Niño means ‘The Little Boy’ or ‘Christ Child’ in Spanish.

During El Niño the trade winds relax in the central and western Pacific and the result of lengthy scientific research indicates there is a sharp rise in sea surface temperature with weakening winds. Among the consequences of this warm water is an increase in rainfall across the southern tier of the United States. However the eastward displacement of the atmospheric heat source overlaying the warmest water results in changes of global circulation, which in turn forces changes in weather in regions far removed from the tropical Pacific. Rainfall follows the warm water eastward causing flooding in Peru and lack of normal rain causes drought in Indonesia and Australia.

A moderate El Niño competing with a strong North Atlantic and Artic Oscillation tends to produce more than the usual number of polar and Arctic air masses, which in turn are partly responsible for the cold, snowy season in the Northeast.

Notable El Niño’s occurred in1986-1987 and I can recall the roads washing that year with unprecedented rains. The one of 1991-1992 flooded barns and homes and made Caddo and Canadian Counties disaster zones. The El Niño of 1997-1998 was the strongest and resulted in substantial nationwide flooding. The arrival of these weather phenomenon can not be predicted with accuracy. Each time we think we know where a piece fits into the climate puzzle, another piece turns up that needs to fit in as well.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Iris... The Bearded Beauties

Heirloom Iris, Snowballs, and Stars of Bethlehem

One of the most lovely spring beauties has arrived at the garden party this past week. The stunning Iris has entered, dressed in her finery with her accompanying fragrance that is both sweet and sultry. She comes to us with early, mid, and late blooming varieties; if all three are planted, the garden will embrace a splendid show for a month or more. Perfect as a cut flower, they will provide a dazzling arrangement which lasts a week or more. Since the small buds on a stem will open while vase-bound, simply remove the older ones as they become spent and thus increase the life span of your flowers.

The name Iris comes from the Greek word for rainbow. The unusual shape of the flower makes it easily recognizable; it has three sets of three petal-like parts. The lower set, called the 'falls', flare out and hang down and the fuzzy caterpillar-like appendage on the fall is called the beard. The three upper segments curve up forming a frilled dome. The three curved 'style branches' cover the stamens in the center. The entire structure is amazing.

The Iris appeared on the scepter of the Egyptian ruler in 1500 BC and it is also carved on the brow of the Sphinx. The design is the symbol for North on the compass. The Iris is sometimes called the Fleur-de-lis, French for 'Flower of the Lily'. It became the emblem for the Kings of France in the 1100's and King Charles V of France adopted three golden Fleurs-de-lis on a field of blue as his coat of arms in the 1300's.

The exact science of the medicinal value of the Iris, although known about, has been lost over the centuries. However the American Iris Society has actively promoted advancements in rediscovery of the ancient purposes of the flower. The dried rhizome of certain bearded Iris, called the 'orrisroot', is still used in medicines, powders, and perfumes.

Colors cover the spectrum and appear in countless variations. Many of the blooms have different colors in each of the three sections. From rich coffee and white, shades of deep blue and vibrant yellow, to purest white with a tinge of apricot…the combinations are breathtaking,

Our own Hugh Stout is a national treasure and important in Iris and gardening circles across the nation. Mr. Stout has scientifically created astonishing cultivars available at Dancingtree, located at 432 NE 70th St. in Oklahoma City. Plan to visit while the Iris are in bloom.

Oklahoma Pollen

By Catherine Dougherty

Spring is arriving right on schedule. The brilliance of the Sun and Moon is calling the seeds from the soil. The first jonquils have begun blooming, the buds on the trees are swelling, and the lovely Forsythia has a few spots of yellow appearing on bare branches. With these occurrences one can sit back and delight in the fact that spring is coming earlier than expected.

With the buds swelling on the Maple and Elm comes considerable pollen. Without going into intricate scientific explanations of the reproductive cycle of plants, it may be simply stated that the pollen of most trees, shrubs, and grasses is lighter than the pollen of flowers. It is carried by the wind as high as three miles up and as far as 100 miles from the original plant. Flowers generally have heavier pollen and require pollination by bees, hummingbirds, and other insects. A flower that is self-pollinating usually has no scent; scented flowers use their fragrance to attract external pollinators.

The light pollen is easily inhaled as it travels on the wind. It is the culprit of the condition called hay fever (or allergies) as it may irritate an individual's throat and nose. It is impossible to avoid pollen this time of year and Oklahoma is famous for the amount of pollen produced here. Remember our supply is so vast the illustrious Smithsonian Institution comes here to collect samples!

Due to the desert conditions, Arizona was once a haven for people with severe allergies. However as subhurbs grew and people began planting non-native species of trees and plants, establishing irrigated lawns and gardens, more irritating species of plants gained a foothold. Arizona lost its claim of freedom from hay fever and it was almost alone in that claim.

No matter where one goes this time of year, there is no escape from the irritants of pollen. It is necessary for the reproduction of plants and we must accommodate them while sneezing our way through spring.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Responsible Banking

Few of us think much about our bank, other than depositing our checks and then writing checks to shop or pay bills. However in Jeffrey Hollender's book ’How to Make the World a Better Place, A Guide to Doing Good’ he has written a chapter on socially responsible banking. I had never considered choosing a bank as social responsibility before and his position is thought provoking. He cautions that your money, however small the amount of time it is in a bank, is the base used by the bank to run itself, make loans, invest, etc. Since banks are allowed to loan out up to nine times the amount of deposit funds that they hold, this equates to nine times the actual consumer spending power of your money. Once in the hands of the bank... nine times the potential social, environmental, and even economic damage through their choices and activities.

Accordingly, we should all look at what our bank chooses to do with our (their collective) money. I changed banks once I began viewing the policies of my bank; it was racially and socially bigoted and even cruel to ’small’ people. The moral policies were much like those of the 'bad' teacher who only likes the football captain and the cheerleader. They chose to give 'special' lower interest loans to patrons who attended the 'right' church and who were members of the 'right' political party. As I looked further into their activities it was apparent that many of their chosen few were never out of funds, never foreclosed upon, and always granted easy signature loans. I suggest taking an unbiased look at your bank... it is your money after all.

*Get Jeffrey Hollander's book...How to Make the World a Better Place: 116 Ways You Can Make a Difference. It contains some wonderful ideas.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Crocus and Saffron

In the Garden
By Catherine Dougherty

At last February is over and since it is by far the most boring month for gardeners, saying good bye was easy. The lovely spring crocus are peeking above the ground, reminding us that the early arrivals will be punctual. Native to southern Asia, the Netherlands now control much of the market by producing hybrids of amazing breadth and color. The first crocus brought to the Netherlands were corms brought from the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in the 1560s. A few corms were forwarded to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden and by 1620 new garden varieties had been developed.

Hardy perennials, the plants grow from corms and are found naturally in a wide range of habitats, including woodland, scrub and meadows. However the most fascinating of all is the Crocus sativus, an autumn blooming species. Saffron, one of the most ancient and celebrated of all spices is produced from the scarlet stigmas. The origin of the word is Arabic for yellow, the color of the flower.

Research yields that Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric beasts in Iraq. Sumerians used wild saffron in remedies and magical potions. Ancient Persians cultivated saffron for personal use or trade and by the 10th century B.C. saffron threads were woven into textiles, offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander's troops mimicked the practice and brought saffron-bathing back to Greece.

European cultivation of saffron plummeted following the Roman Empire's fall however the spread of Islamic civilization allowed reintroduction in Spain, France, and Italy. So popular became saffron as a medicine that during the Black Plague of the 14th century, demand for saffron-based medicine exceeded local availability and much of it had to be imported by ships from southern Mediterranean lands. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week long "Saffron War". The conflict and resulting fear of piracy spurred significant saffron cultivation in Basel, which grew prosperous from saffron alone.

Cultivation and trade then spread to Germany where the price of the spice tempted many growers to add various ingredients such as beets to the mix. These epidemic levels of saffron corruption brought on the Safranschou code, under which those convicted of saffron adulteration
were fined, imprisoned, and even executed. Soon after, saffron cultivation spread throughout England with the Essex town of Saffron Walden emerging as England's prime saffron growing center. As more popular spices such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla were discovered, saffron production decreased and only southern France, Italy, and Spain, have continued significant cultivation. It takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound which explains the expense of this exotic spice made from the simple crocus.