Monday, October 31, 2011

Autumn... At Last!

Grandpa's Lake~

This year promises the most lovely Autumn in ages. The crisp mornings are delightful... perfect for outdoor coffee and a leisurely walk in the garden. The sunny days are a comfortable temperature and are calm and relaxing. With the rains and divine temperatures of late, gardeners all over Oklahoma have developed a sort of collective amnesia about last season‘s ‘difficulties‘; they are happily donning sweaters and getting outside again. We survived the Summer that broke all records!

As one tidies up the confusion of late garden overgrowth, the bones of the garden are once again visible. One may also see the tiny tips of the early spring bulbs emerging, sweetly reminding one that the garden is perpetual and ever-evolving.

The leaves have begun to change into their autumn finery. Their annual show, which is always breathtaking, has begun. As the foliage change evolves, each day provides a new wonder to behold as the play of light and shadows shimmers on colorful dancing leaves. When they complete their color change, they begin to fall, delicately swirling to the ground in crisp drifting patterns. Finally as they accumulate in colorful heaps, they are a joy to walk through…crackling and swishing with the sudden snap of the occasional acorn hidden beneath them. For an outdoor walk, this season has no match.

For the energetic gardener, the precious pansies are arriving in the nurseries and it is a wonderful time to plant them. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England they were cultivated by William Richardson, gardener to Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett I the early 1800’s. Despite his efforts, their first noted appearance was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, began to cross various viola species with a viola tricolor in an effort to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. In the late 1830s he found by chance a flower that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch instead; from this pansy came the future ‘flowers with a face’. Released to the public in 1839 with the name "Medora," this pansy and its progeny, including "Victoria", rapidly became popular with gardeners and breeders throughout Europe.

Pansies Peeking Through Leaves

If planted now, they will survive nicely over the winter and will have a head start in the Spring. Such a cheerful, adorable little flower is always a welcome guest at the garden party and the color options are positively stunning. Their little faces are delightfully amusing!

Pansies Have Precious "Faces"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Photo Credit: Watson Brown of Adelphia Plantation
See his photos at:

Sunday was the epitome of Autumn perfection. Basking in the glow of windless warm sunshine, enjoying the exquisite feel of the day, it is understandable why Fall is a favorite season for many... cherished all the more for its fleeting passage.

At this time it is interesting to review the origins of one of our most treasured and anticipated holidays… Halloween. As with most of our holidays, its origins are deeply rooted within the pagan beliefs of our ancestors, with their celebrations altered to adapt to Christian faith. The Celtics, a once powerful people of central and northern Europe, gathered for their New Years celebrations at end of harvest and their beliefs are included in Halloween as we know it. The celebration of their New Year, called Samhain (Irish-Gaelic for 'the Summer's end’) took place on October 31st, which is coincidentally our Halloween.

It was believed border between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on this night, allowing the souls of the deceased to enter the land of the living. So for this one night hearth fires were extinguished so their light could not be seen to either guide or frighten the returning souls. Gathered in celebratory groups, these tribal people lit huge bonfires of sacred oak branches to drive away evil spirits and warm the living. Costumes were worn so the Lord of Death could not recognize and then come claim one in the coming year. Often animals were sacrificed, fortunes were told, and at the end of the night with the safety of dawn, hearth fires were relit from the bonfire to ensure happiness and prosperity as the New Year began.

The Roman Church decided to make All Saint’s Day on November 1st to coincide with the Celtic festival. All Saints' Day was instituted as a holiday in the year 609 and it was moved from May to November in 834 after the Church discovered the importance of the Celtic rituals. On All Souls Day poor people went ‘a-souling’ (or begging) for ‘soulcakes’ in exchange for the promise they pray for the dead in purgatory and from this came our custom of ‘trick or treating’.

These beliefs arrived in Mexico directly from the Roman Church and are still celebrated with ‘The Day of the Dead’ as family members welcome deceased relatives home for the night. Their grave is surrounded by welcoming candles and a place at the table is set for them as their favorite foods are prepared. Generations gather and complimentary stories about the deceased are told as they are welcomed home for an evening with loved ones.

Any way it is viewed historically, the customs surrounding the death of summer also honor the dead, complete with the belief that mortal souls return to wander the earth. Autumn leaves, Jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, costumes, black cats, and fortune-telling all evolved from these pagan customs. It is amazing that these ancient Celtic rituals, which have become our Halloween, continue to be embraced and still flourish today.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Common Cockscomb

Now is the time when the fantastic Cockscomb appears as the rock star of the garden, taking center stage from now until frost. Of the Celosia family, it is universally grown and adored for its many attributes, not the least of which are the amazing clusters of tiny velvety flowers. The quite unusual flower heads are in swirling waves and twisted rows which resemble a roosters comb; they are the reason for the common name of the plant. The flowers come in shades of deep burgundy and red, orange or yellow and have been a garden staple for hundreds of years. Besides lasting well a cut flower, the heads dry well, and are often used in winter arrangements.

Cockscomb was introduced from Asia to Europe in the 16th century where it was highly cultivated and has since traveled globally. It was grown in our own Thomas Jefferson’s childhood garden at Shadwell and was mentioned in his writings from 1767. Peter Henderson, famed horticulturist, reported in 1890 that Cockscombs were "almost universally grown."

Another miraculous attribute of Cockscomb is the fact that every part of this plant has something to offer mankind. In East Africa, where parasites are widespread, it is medicinally used as a treatment for intestinal worms. It is utilized as a cure for mouth sores, blood diseases, with the seeds used for chest complaints and the flowers to treat dysentery. The leaves are boiled and used as dressings for wounds and sores. Even today it is frequently used as treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee in the United States.

Every part of this magnificent plant is utilized as a dietary staple worldwide. Cockscomb has been a dietary staple in Asia for as long as memory can recall and it is prevalent in South America, tropical Africa, the West Indies, Central and West Africa, and most of South America where it grows wild and is collected as a leafy green vegetable. The leaves, which resemble spinach, are eaten either boiled or fresh and are highly nutritious. Leaves are used are for stew and are also coupled with hot peppers, garlic, lime, and red palm and eaten as a side dish in Mexico.

This popular favorite is perhaps the most unsung hero of the garden for the plethora of gifts it offers. According to the World Health Organization, Cockscomb is among the plants included in their plan to prevent widespread starvation in third world nations. Since it likes it hot and dry and self-seeds easily, it is hoped it will widely expand in drought stricken nations and thus provide a valuable food source for people who have very few nutritious options in their diet. Cockscomb may save millions of lives!

*The infinite wisdom if the divine plan is often astounding… health is just outside the back door!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Millipedes on the Move~

A millipede in protective mode~

Over the weekend we were blessed with the most perfect rain… exactly the kind we have so desperately needed. It was gentle and lovely, quiet and welcomed with that unmistakable smell of fresh dampness. The garden has been patiently waiting since last October for this soothing rain; it has been a year since we experienced such a godsend.

This time of year the marvelous magical millipedes appear everywhere. Slow and steady, with their many legs moving in a tandem of perfect synchronization, they are truly an unsung hero of the garden. Their job is to take damp decaying leaves and mulch them into tiny pieces, making their work an ecological boon for the garden.

And they have been mulching away since prehistoric times. Mr. Mike Newman, a bus driver and amateur paleontologist from Aberdeen, Scotland found a fossil of a small millipede in a piece of sandstone. He said, “I had found millipedes there before, but this one had evidence of the holes that showed it actually breathed“. Experts from the National Museum of Scotland and Yale University studied it for months and concluded it lived 428 million years ago, making it the oldest land creature in existence. The millipede was the first to crawl from the sea and breathe air!

The millipede is a member of the arthropod family which account for over eighty percent of all known living species. A nasty cousin of the millipede is the centipede and the roly-poly is also related. The name ‘millipede’ comes from the Latin mille (thousand) and pes (foot) however no species has 1,000 feet; common species can have up to 400 with each segment bearing two pairs of legs.

Besides having wonderful translucent legs, millipedes possess the ability to curl in a fascinating cylindrical circle if disturbed. This habit developed possibly because they do not possess an ability to bite or sting so they are using their hard outer shell to protect their feet! I cannot resist gently poking one and watching it instantly coil and children are always amazed by the trick!

That this little species still exists in the garden today, looking exactly like the ancient fossil, is indeed a phenomenon. If you find one inside, please carry it outside to a damp leafy spot and release it... its ancestors are very important after all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Gardeners Will Garden

Jefferson's Gardens

The urge to dig in the soil and plant a seed is as old as civilized mankind for the thrill of watching a seedling emerge and reach fruition is unsurpassed. Every nation has appropriated sites for carefully tended public grounds, and their continued popularity is a testament to our love affair with gardens. According to space and circumstance gardens may be found on grand estates, in tiny cottage plots, or even in cheerful window boxes spilling with blooms. Each provide a living testament to our desire to nurture and surround ourselves with natural beauty.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon built by King Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 BC were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World… quite an honor for a garden! Many royal gardens in Europe have been cherished for generations and Prince Charles of Britain has restored many while pressing a national gardening agenda. Our own Thomas Jefferson was more pleased with his gardening innovations at Monticello than all of his diplomatic successes and even his Presidency. He avidly collected seeds, cuttings, and plants from his travels, bringing them home and carefully documenting their progress and success or failure. We have him to thank for introducing many of the species we now consider standard.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cramped and simple gardens belonging to poor laborers and factory workers in Europe were the birthplace of florist’s flowers as we now know them. A lovely example is the magnificent Carnation, once a quarter sized Dianthus, who grew to the proportions we now recognize as standard. Petals were doubled and redoubled as enthusiastic breeders toiled in their tiny spaces after working long hours at grueling jobs. Their joy is apparent in the creations they have bequeathed us and we are grateful for their efforts.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and former Communist countries were opened to the West for the first time in decades. The horticultural community was stunned at the advanced plant breeding that had occurred in impossible and suppressed conditions behind the Iron Curtain. With no laboratories, no conservatories, and little money, gardeners had persevered in their efforts to advance and improve many species and were honored by a grateful horticultural community.

Much of the hybridization we enjoy today occurred in the back yard Victory Gardens of WWII. At President Roosevelt’s request, everyone in the nation was asked to plant a garden to allow our surplus food to be sent to overseas to our troops. This program was enthusiastically adopted and petunias and marigolds were replaced by vegetables in an astonishing national effort. Most of the fresh produce consumed by the nation was grown in small garden plots and the success of this program remains unsurpassed today.

The realization that gardeners will garden regardless of hardship or circumstance is comforting. We are called to the soil for there is perpetual harmony in gardening and it knows no boundaries.