Monday, August 29, 2016

My Mimosa... her parting gift

As I wrote in August of 2013, The Mimosa was introduced to the United States as an ornamental specimen in 1785 by Filippo Degli Albizzia, a Florentine nobleman. Arriving from Asia, it is also referred to as the Silk Tree for the texture of its flowers. The sweet scented flowers have long threadlike pink stamens which are white at the base. They bloom from June through July as stunning pink powder-puffs which drip with sweet nectar. Covering the trees, these blossoms attract hummingbirds, honeybees, and butterflies.

This species of tree likes it hot and dry and thrives in the southern regions of the United States with relative ease, growing up to three feet a year, and providing a lovely canopy of mottled shade allowing the grass to grow underneath the branches.

As with almost every plant and tree on the planet, the Mimosa has medicinal properties as well. The bark is a bitter and an astringent containing compounds which are used to shrink inflamed tissues. They are also used to relieve pain, and contain a sedative which was used to treat insomnia or anxiety. They increase blood circulation and thus treat heart palpations, and also act as a diuretic.


The lovely flowers were used to relieve a constrained liver and acted as an antitoxin providing a cleansing effect on the body. They have a sedative affect and were used for symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and poor memory. The concoctions made from flowers also relieved pressure in the chest and gastric pain. Apparently the spectacular Mimosa was a cure all for many ailments and it is truly a loss that the ‘recipes’ for its many uses have been lost over time.


The life span of the Mimosa is but 10 to 20 years and sadly, mine has developed a contagious and fatal disease which is rapidly spreading across the South. The disease is known as Mimosa wilt and although it begins as a fungus in the root system, external symptoms include leaf yellowing and wilt by early to midsummer. Some trees die within a few weeks after first wilting but most die slowly over a year, branch by branch.

Prior to death, trees ooze a frothy liquid from cracks and grow sprouts on trunks. It is this liquid that is her parting gift for it must be amazing in benefits. An abundance of insects have collected at the outside juice bar, all sharing in peaceful harmony... I have observed no squabbles. Butterflies, house and horse flies, many species of ants, shiny green June bugs, bees, three species of wasps, including the notorious and agressive red one have all gathered at dawn to take their fill of the marvelous juice.

May my Mimosa RIP...  I shall miss her.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Spiders on the Move


One of the earliest signs of Fall is the almost frantic actions of the spiders who seem in a rush to reproduce or prepare to hibernate. Spiders are a most interesting invertebrate in both appearance and habit. All are predators which make them valuable to the gardener as they will eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, and aphids. The habits differ among species with some making intricate webs to trap their prey while some lie in wait on flowers and some simply travel about on the ground.


Most spiders live one season, however some species live long lives and spend the winter in a semi-hibernation. The Fiddlebacks have hidden in the rafters, behind the books, under the bed, and in other out of the way places ready to begin winter hibernation. Over the Winter they will grow and shed last years 'shell' leaving behind the empty casing... the empty casing is a sign that a more mature one is lurking somewhere nearby. The gentle Tarantula has an extremely long life expectancy and will easily live up to 20 years in captivity. The record has been set by a female who resides in LA and although her age was unknown at the time of her capture, she is now fifty years old.

Spiders are found in every corner of the planet, making them one of the most common invertebrates and they alone have eight legs. True spiders (thin-waisted arachnids) evolved about 400 million years ago, and were among the first species to live on land. There are many references to the spider in popular culture, folklore and symbolism. The spider symbolizes patience for its hunting with web traps, and mischief and malice for its poison and the slow death they cause their prey. (Who could forget the pitiful death sequence in the movie ‘The Fly’?)

Though not all spiders spin gossamer webs, spiders have been attributed by numerous cultures with the origin of basket-weaving, knot work, weaving, spinning, and net making. Lovely pottery artifacts featuring spiders may be found in all ancient cultures, so respect for them is universal.

Any talk of spiders includes the two most dangerous in
North America and they must be addressed. All spiders have venom however the Black Widow and Brown Recluse (Fiddleback) are very dangerous species whose bite may have disastrous affects on humans. The Brown Recluse likes living in quiet corners of the house while the Black Widow universally resides outdoors. A member of the Tangleweb family, the Black Widow makes an untidy web as the name implies and will aggressively guard her egg sac. Tomato baskets are a favorite place for her nest... so collect carefully. Tangleweb spiders have thin legs and a fragile skeletal structure, making them easy to squish... do not hesitate to kill them. You will notice a trace of the deadly 'goo' afterwards. 


A favorite spider which comes to mind is the darling fuzzy black jumper.
One summer we had a black fuzzy with emerald green fangs who took up residence in the kitchen. Every morning as the household awoke and greeted her, she would lift her 'arm' and wave... a marvelous trick by any standard.


There is an entire psychological phobia named after fear of spiders called Arachnophobia. So popular is this fear that comic book creator Stan Lee embraced it, introducing an irresistible spider hero in 1962. Spiderman instantly became an all time favorite.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Collecting Seeds Plus and an Historical Footnote

My seeds in my French Market Bag     

Many of the flowers in the garden are seeding now so it is an ideal time to collect them for saving and sharing with other gardeners. The importance of collecting and saving seeds must not be underestimated for many species of plants have been lost over time. Also the seeds of flowers that have acclimated in your garden this year will fare better next for they created a
DNA memory of the conditions where they resided. For example the marigolds saved this year will double in size and require less watering than those fresh from a packet next summer.


Collect seeds when the sun has dried all the morning dew, which is mid-morning of late, and store them in a zip lock bag. Remember to keep the seeds at a constant temperature above freezing for optimum results; I often keep mine in a French Market bag hanging in the laundry room or stored in a cardboard box under my bed.

When you store your seeds place one of those silica packets that seem to be in every shoe box or pocket of anything we purchase. The silica will prevent any possible moisture from spoiling the seeds, keeping them pristine until next spring. And remember to include a slip of paper in the bag with information about color, height, heat tolerance, and where in the garden they performed well. By Spring you will have forgotten the details your notes will provide.


When the great pyramids were opened, archaeologists discovered caches of seeds among other artifacts. Upon planting some of these seeds, stored for thousands of years, germinated primarily because of the dry and warm temperature conditions within the pyramids where they were stored. There is also an amazing report of lupine (Lupinus articicus) seeds over 10,000 years old sprouting as well. Discovered in the Yukon of Alaska they were found deep within the burrows of ancient lemmings buried in permafrost silt dating to the Pleistocene epoch. The tenacity of Nature’s plan is always inspiring.

*An interesting bit of history for gardeners. Many heirloom varieties of seeds have been lost over time, and sometimes purposefully. From ancient times through the Greco/Roman days and beyond there existed many plant species that effectively acted as natural birth control. Although always a subject of religious discussion, birth control had been left in the hands of women and their midwives until authority over it was transferred to the Church. Within decades of the 1869 Church edict outlawing birth control most of these species of plants had become extinct.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Magical and Majestic Sunflower


The majestic Sunflower is a universally popular annual with great historical significance. Domesticated species have been found in South America dating back to 2600 BC with one discovered in our Tennessee Valley dating to 2300 BC. The Incas had selectively bred a magnificent single stemmed Sunflower from the small native wild flowers. With its center head and golden rays of petals it became the symbol of the Sun god in both the Inca and Mayan cultures, holding a sacred status. Their magnificent golden images of Sunflowers, as well as seeds, were among the items pilfered by the Conquistadors and brought home to Spain. By 1580 the Sunflower was a common sight in every Spanish village and from there it spread to Italy, India, Egypt, China, and Russia.

Native Americans grew the Sunflower as a food crop and almost every part of this gem has some practical use. The seeds, which are rich in calcium, are an easily stored snack, and a dye extracted from the petals was used in ceremonial body painting along with the oil. A light and lovely fiber was made from the stalks and the bloom time indicated the dates of the hunting calendar.

By the time it reached
Russia, the Sunflower was well recognized as a food source and produced the only oil not banned during Holy Orthodox Lent. In fact, Russia has such a long-held love affair with the Sunflower that it became their national flower. Russia also led the way in hybridization, developing the ‘Russian Mammoth’ that has been popular for over 130 years.

However the sunflower has more magic hidden inside her stem... she is one of select few flowers who harbor an intense love affair with the Sun. In a process discovered by plant biologist Winslow Briggs, the Sunflower uses photoreceptors (phototropism) to aid in her ability to align with the Sun. Her bright face follows the path of the sun from dawn until dusk and each evening, almost miraculously, the flower turns east to prepare to greet the morning sun again. As the flower ages, the ability to follow the sun vanishes and the flower faces east for the duration of her life. *I imagine an aged creaky stem reminiscent of  an elderly person hobbling along in need of a cane.

Since hybrid Sunflowers began to dominate, the small open pollinators were almost lost and by the 1950’s most of the varieties cultivated by Native tribes had nearly reached extinction. Mr. Charles Heiser, a dedicated retired botanist, made it his personal mission to save them and the seeds he collected rest in a repository which houses over 2,000 Sunflower varieties from around the world. Thank you Mr. Heiser!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Comfrey... Miraculous Medicine


An often overlooked plant that thrives in partial shade is Comfrey. Besides sporting delicate cascading pink blooms, the delightfully prickly deep green foliage make this addition striking beyond compare. Easily grown if root stock is taken from a Mother plant, this steadfast garden guest will last twenty years or more, faithfully providing a lovely focal point. Growing to the size of a large bushel basket and ever-blooming if cut back during the season, it is a welcome addition to the garden party.

Comfrey has been cultivated in the East since 400 BC as a healing herb. The word ‘comfrey’ is derived from the Latin meaning ‘grow together’ which reflects the early use of this lovely plant to aid in knitting broken bones. Both Greeks and Romans used it to stop heavy bleeding, treat bronchial problems, and heal wounds. Poultices were made for external wounds and a tea was consumed for internal ailments.

This handsome member of the Borge family, has also been used medicinally throughout the British Isles for centuries with the common name of Knit-bone or Boneset. A tea made from boiling the root in water or wine was used for all pulmonary complaints and could stop bleeding of the lungs. Taken every two hours the concoction was said to relieve hemorrhoids as well. The pounded roots applied to fresh wounds promoted healing almost instantly making Comfrey a necessary addition to every garden.

Often when reading about plants, it is difficult to imagine exactly how they were made into medicine. Coldpepper, the famed 18th century botanist, wrote that Comfrey was “so powerful to consolidate and knit together that if the roots be boiled together with dissevered pieces of flesh in a pot, they will join them together”. Further, he gave the recipe for making a poultice as follows, “The fresh roots of Comfrey beaten small and spread upon leather laid on any place troubled by gout presently gives ease. Applied in the same manner eases pain to joints, heals running ulcers, gangrenes, mortifications, for which hath often (through) experience been found helpful”. Although I am unsure what mortification is, it sounds quite serious and this little plant took care of it.
The concoction will last for months if refrigerated.  

I have used it medicinally for years and last fall made a series of poultices for my son's big toe that had broken in two places. I picked fresh leaves, stems, and roots and packed them in a food processor with a bit peanut oil to keep them tight. Once blended, I wrapped the concoction in small pieces of sheeting, making about thirty small poultices. He put the Comfrey on his toe for several hours twice a day and X-Rays before and after (to the doctor's amazement) showed it had healed within two weeks.

With the emergence of ‘green’ as the way of the future perhaps traditional use of some of these valuable plants may reemerge… a trip to the garden seems far more pleasant than a trip to the doctor.