The Ideal Tree for Commemorating a Birth

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This ginkgo is over 100 years old.

In some families, there is a long tradition of planting a tree at the birth or adoption of a child. If not, why not start one? That way, 15, 30 or 60 years later, the child, now an adult, will always have “their” tree.

But what tree should you plant?

Where it will grow (hardiness zones 3 to 8), the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is perhaps the best choice. Its growth is slow but steady, it thrives in almost any well-drained soil, it is resistant to insects and diseases and, especially, it lives a long, long time: 1000 years or even more. So even if the newborn lives to be over 100 years old, their commemorative tree will always be there to remind them of their family.

When Lightning Strikes a Tree

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Trees are frequently struck by lightning.

Lightning often strikes the highest object of a given sector… and that is often a tree. Trees most likely to be hit are those that stand alone, rise about other trees or are close to water. Oaks, elms, pines, spruce, poplars, maples and ashes are considered most likely to receive a lightning hit.

This is in spite of the fact that wood is not good conductor of electricity. However, the sap just under the bark certainly is. Lightning then descends inside the trunk, from the top down and into the roots, carrying up to 100 million volts of electricity and  heating the sap until it vaporizes and literally explodes.

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Tree recently hit by lightning showing typical damage.

When a tree is struck by lightning, it may simply be blown apart when the sap expands, but generally the damage is much more discreet. You’ll often see a long strip of bark ripped off and maybe an equally long split in the trunk, but sometimes there is no outward sign of damage except a few branches whose leaves wilt over the following days… unless the tree simply dies, which case all the leaves will wilt and dry up.

Some trees recover from a lightning strike, but most do die, sometimes directly, but often from “secondary trauma”. The open wound becomes infested with fungi or insects (borers are attracted in large numbers when a tree is struck by lightning), which can lead to a slow death that can take several years.

If Your Tree is Struck

If you realize one of your trees has been struck by lightning, get a certified arborist over within a few days to determine the best treatment. You need to act fast, as the tree will start to react to its new state within a week or so. Sadly, the expert often will suggest cutting it down, but sometimes, especially if less than 20% of the roots are damaged, it is worthwhile trying to saving it.

The treatment is actually fairly simple. The wound needs to be cleaned of shards and torn bark so it can compartmentalize well, some damaged branches may need to be removed and fertilizer should be applied to stimulate root regeneration. Do not apply a pruning sealer (paint, paste or wax): it will just make things worse.

Preventing Lightning

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Lightning rod placed on a valuable tree.

In the case of a tree of great value, such as a historical tree or a tree of symbolic or sentimental value, it may be worthwhile protecting it by installing a lightning rod… before lightning strikes, of course! This is a fairly expensive treatment that should be performed by an expert in lightning rod installation, but if the tree is “priceless”, the investment will be worthwhile.

You often see trees thus protected in major parks. For example, Longwood Gardens, in Pennsylvania, protects several of its trees, some of which are centuries old.

3 Hardy Plants with Umbrella Leaves

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The peltate leaf of Astilboides tabularis.

Round, umbrellalike leaves are pretty rare in the wild, even more so in temperate climates. They share a curious leaf shape: a petiole fixed right in the center of the leaf, on its underside, much like a shield. The botanical term for these leaves is “peltate”… but I bet the average gardener would probably instead say they have umbrella leaves, because they do look so much like an umbrella or parasol.

There are quite a few umbrella plants that grow in tropical climates, but three really stand out when it comes to temperate gardens: astilboides, darmera and Japanese butterbur or fuki. Because of their large size, you could almost use any of them as an umbrella!

Although each of these plants is actually quite different, gardeners often confuse them. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Astilboides
Astilboides tabularis

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The huge table-shaped leaves and fuzzy white blooms of Astilboides tabularis.

I’ve sometimes seen the name shield-leaf or shield-leaf rodgersia used for this plant (it used to be called Rodgersia tabularis), but only in publications. Gardeners who grow it all seem to call it by its botanical name, astilboides. So if you want to make yourself understood, therefore, learn to pronounce it. It’s not that hard: a-stil-BOY-dees.

Of the three hardy umbrella plants, this is the one that could be most easily used as an actual umbrella, because its leaves are not only large (up to 3 ft/90 cm in diameter), but almost perfectly round, exactly like an umbrella. The leaves are toothed along the edges,  rather pale green in color and a bit fuzzy to the touch, which gives them a matte texture. The petiole (stem) can easily reach 3 feet (90 cm) tall. The epithet tabularis means table, nicely describing the leaf’s shape.

As for the genus name, Astilboides, it means “looks like an astilbe”, a reference to the fluffy white flowers borne on 4- to 5-foot stems (1,2-1,5 m) that do indeed look like astilbe (Astilbe) blooms. The flowers, produced in June and early July, are however definitely secondary to the foliage where garden impact is concerned.

The plant usually grows as a single clump from a short, thick rhizome. Despite its stalwart appearance, astilboides is actually the trickiest of the three umbrella plants to grow well. To succeed, it needs a moist location and protection from the wind, preferably in partial shade.

For the largest possible leaves, give it a rich, humusy soil that never dries out. It will “hang on” under normal garden conditions, but tends to shrink in size over time if you let it dry out too often. A thick mulch and regular waterings will keep it happiest. It is very slow to spread and, in fact, in most gardens, it will pretty much stay where you plant it. Only under somewhat swampy, shady conditions will it eventually spread to the point where you may need to control it and even then it can take decades to reach that size.

As with all the plants presented here, it’s a hardy perennial, surviving well into zone 3. It is best in cool summer areas, usually zone 7 or less.

Darmera or Umbrella Plant
Darmera peltata (Peltiphyllum peltata)

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Darmera peltata

Smaller than astilboides, to which they are very distantly related (both are in the Saxifrage family), darmeras have leaves that are very similar in shape, although considerably smaller. The nearly round leaf with toothed edges is peltate (its petiole is fixed to the underside of the leaf near its center), hence the epithet peltata.

Typically the leaf measures about 1 foot (30 cm in diameter), but can be twice as large in a sufficiently moist environment. It is slightly reddish in the spring, then medium green in summer, and takes various red hues in fall when it is perhaps at its most beautiful. Unlike astilboides leaves, with their fuzzy matte texture, darmera leaves are smooth and shiny.

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Rhizomes of Darmera peltata in earliest spring.

The leaves grow individually from a creeping rhizome. In the wild, the rhizome grows partially exposed, but is often out of sight under a layer of mulch in home gardens. Although it may be a bit slow to get started, darmeras are more robust plants than astilboides under most garden conditions and eventually form quite a colony. They are not really invasive (their progress is too slow to meet that definition!), but they will keep spreading if you don’t stop them. You can control their expansion with an ax or shovel if ever they go too far. Their dense roots makes them an excellent choice for erosion control along rivers and lakes.

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Darmera peltata blooms without foliage on stems of varying height.

Darmeras have very unusual blooms. They appear in early in the spring, well before the leaves, on erect purplish stems of variable height. You’ll see them blooming on 1-foot (30 cm) stems and up to 5-feet (150 cm) ones under the same conditions! The stem is topped by a dome of five-petaled flowers in various shades of pink or, very rarely white, always with a darker pink center. Altogether this makes them look vaguely like a fairytale mushroom appearance: one almost expects to see little smurfs setting up shop at their base.

As with astilboides, darmeras prefers damp to moist soils, but are even more comfortable in soggy areas than the former. Indeed, they’ll grow with their rhizomes slightly covered in water. They’re a good choice for sites that are flooded in the spring, but drier in the summer. They do like moisture though: not necessarily soggy soils, but ones that remain a bit moist at all times, such as those at the bottom of a slope, in a depression, or at the edge of a water garden. They do fine enough in more typical “barely moist” garden soils, but their leaves remain smaller under those conditions. Mulch them profusely in such a situation and water it if possible in times of drought.

You can grow darmeras in full sun (as long as the soil is always moist) or in deep shade. In the latter case, it will want a spot that gets some spring sun. Most gardeners will find they do best in partial shade.

Finally darmeras are much hardier than they are usually given credit for. A lot of sources say zone 4 or 5, yet I’ve seem superb colonies of D. peltata that that have thrived in zone 2 for decades! As with the other plants described here, it is mostly a cool-climate plant, for zone 7 or less.

Japanese Butterbur or Fuki
Petasites japonica

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Huge leaves like a tractor seat define Japanese butterbur.

The leaves of Japanese butterbur are not really round, but rather kidney-shaped, nor is the leaf truly peltate. Instead the petiole is attached to the top of the leaf. Even so, people get it confused with the two previous umbrella plants. To readily distinguish it from either astilboides or darmeras, remember that its leaves are shaped like a tractor seat rather than an umbrella.

And leaves can be huge, measuring up to 30 inches (80 cm) in diameter, carried on strong petioles. The name Petasites comes precisely from its large leaves, for the name means “like a hat” and when it rains, you can indeed pull off a leaf and wear it as a rain hat. Japanese butterbur is sometimes mistaken for “wild rhubarb”, a plant to which in fact it is in no way related. (Rhubarb is in the Knotweed family while butterbur is in the sunflower family.)

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With Japanese butterbur, you’ll soon have a waist-deep carpet of huge green leaves.

Each plant produces only 3-6 deciduous leaves, but also several underground rhizomes. These rhizomes give birth to other plants and in no time you have a vast green waist-deep carpet. It is a highly invasive plant, particularly in wetlands, but even in a normally drained flowerbed, butterbur can take over rather quickly, as it tends to smother out neighboring plants with its huge leaves.

Ideally you’d plant this weedy perennial inside some sort of barrier. One I’ve found works well is to sink a large container made of thick plastic (like a child’s pool) into the ground, leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rim exposed. (You can hide the rim with mulch after planting). Now fill in to 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the edge, plant and water well to get it started. The container will quickly give you a huge green circle of giant foliage in just a year or so, yet the plant won’t be able to spread any further, trapped by the barrier’s walls.

Note that it isn’t necessary to drill drainage holes bottom of in the container: butterbur doesn’t mind the soggy soils that occur containers with no drainage hole.

Japanese butterbur does best in moist to wet soils, but will also grow in the typical “moist but well-drained” soil of the average perennial bed. Under such circumstances, though, the leaves tend to wilt every day during hot weather, which is not a pretty sight. Plant it along the edge of a pond, though, and it will be much happier. You can even grow in a pond, with its roots slightly covered with water.

Japanese butterbur is pretty much indifferent to soil quality and adapts equally well to various light intensities. Thus it will grow in sand, humus, or clay and in sun or shade. If you grow in in full sun, keep it wet at all times. In shade, it prefers spots that enjoy spring sun, such as under deciduous trees. It is not as happy in spots that are shaded all year long.

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Hail damage to butterbur.

Note also that butterbur leaves are easily damaged or torn by strong winds or hail. This doesn’t harm hurt the plant in the long run and it will still grow back vigorously the following year, but the results are not very pretty. This is one reason why this plant is often more interesting when used in the shade of large trees that help protect it from hail and wind.

Beware too of slugs, especially in early spring as the leaves start to appear.

In addition to serving as an ornamental plant, Japanese butterbur is also a vegetable. In Japan, where it goes under the name fuki, people harvest and eat the young leaves and petioles in the spring. Note, however, that you have to prepare the leaves correctly, because otherwise they are slightly toxic.

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Japanese butterbur flowers are easy to mistake for an entirely different plant.

As with darmera, butterbur produces its flowers before its leaves appear. They seem to sprout out of nowhere in early spring on 6- to 12-inch stems (15 to 30 cm) covered with pale green bracts. Each stem bears a dense dome of pale yellow flowers. The blooming flower stalk actually looks an entirely different plant, not just a flower stem! The first time it bloomed in my garden, I thought it was a plant I’d forgotten to label! It wasn’t until the flowers and the green bracts faded and the huge summer leaves started to pop up that I put two and two together and realized that the “short yellow-flowered plants” in my garden were actually butterbur blooms!

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Variegated butterbur is most colorful early in the summer.

There is also a variegated Japanese butterbur with foliage that is marbled yellow in the spring (the color tends to fade in summer, though). It is officially called P. japonica ‘Nishiki-buki’, although it is generally sold under the incorrect name P. japonicus ‘Variegatus’.

And for lovers of truly giant leaves, there is also a giant butterbur (P. japonica giganteus) whose leaves are 3 to 4 feet (1 m to 1.2 m in diameter) on stems up to 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. Note many nurseries offer regular P. japonicus as giant butterbur. I don’t think they realize they have the wrong plant! Finding the true giant form can be difficult.

Warning: both varieties (the variegated one and the giant one) are just as invasive as the species!

Japanese butterbur is hardy to zone 4 in exposed locations, but also does perfectly well in protected sites of zone 3. It does best in cool summer areas, usually zones 8 or less.

Multiplication

All three umbrella plants described here are mainly propagated by division in spring or fall.

Other “Umbrella Plants”

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Giant gunnera (Gunnera manicata) is a knockout, but won’t tolerate cold winters.

There are other plants with rounded peltate leaves that you can grow in your temperate climate gardens, plants like Podophyllum peltatum, Diphylleia cymosa, and Syneilesis aconitifolia, but they are of a more modest size than the umbrellalike plants described here. Of course, if you live in zone 8 or warmer, you could try the most umbrellalike umbrella plant of all, the beautiful but frost-tender giant gunnera (Gunnera manicata), with leaves that can reach almost 6 feet (2 meters) in diameter.

But if you want to impress the neighbors with your own umbrella plants and you live in a climate with cool to cold winters, I suggest you start with one of the plants described above: astilboides, darmera, or butterbur. They really are quite something!20160822I

The World’s Strangest Plant

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Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild.

The strangest plant in the world is probably the welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) found in Africa’s Namib Desert.

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This young welwitschia grown in a greenhouse clearly shows the woody crown and the two long leaves typical of the species.

It is a gymnosperm, that is, it is related to conifers, and grows from a short, thick trunk called a crown that never branches and barely shows above the ground. It basically looks like a fire-scorched stump. All the crown produces throughout its life are two broad thick leaves that grow continuously from their base and that can reach 6 to 12 feet (2-4 meters) long.

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This confused mass of vegetation is actually made up of one plant and just two torn leaves.

As the leaves grow longer, they are torn into strips by the wind, and dry up and die at their tip. Thus the leaf grows continuously but very slowly at one end and dies back continuously at the other. The age of some welwitschias is estimated to be about 2000 years, which means the leaves too are just also old, making them the oldest living leaves in the world. The botanical epithet, mirabilis, reflects this surprising and unique growth system: it means “miracle”.

This plant is one of kind. In fact, literally so, because the genus Welwitschia contains only this one species… and it is also the only surviving species in its own family, the Welwitschiaceae. It is considered a living fossil because the species has existed for at least 105 million years.

If ever plant life is found on Mars, I am convinced it will look a lot like a welwitschia!20160821C

A Sage Made for the Shade

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Sticky sage (Salvia glutinosa)

Gardeners use quite a few sages in their gardens: the culinary herb common sage (Salvia officinalis), the various perennial sages, all long-blooming (mostly S. nemorosa, S. sylvestris and their hybrids), plus many sages grown as annuals in northern regions and as subshrubs regions in the South, such as scarlet sage ( S. splendens) and mealy sage (S. farinosa). However, few gardeners seem to know sticky sage (S. glutinosa), also called Jupiter’s distaff.

It’s a very hardy perennial sage (zone 3) that grows and blooms in dry shade. Yes, in dense shade, among abundant and shallow tree roots. And it blooms for over 2 months as well: quite a performance!

Sticky sage’s tolerance of atrocious conditions is remarkable. It can grow in almost any well-drained soil, even in alkaline ones. It sails right through most droughts without even wilting. Also, although it is used mostly in shade gardens because it grows so well there, it does just as well in partial shade and will even grow in full sun.

It’s a shrubby perennial with medium green arrowhead-shaped leaves, already attractive in their own right, that reaches about 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm in height and diameter.

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Sticky sage flower with its two arching lips.

The flowers are borne in whorls on upright, sometimes slightly arching spikes borne well above the foliage. They are pale yellow with a lower lip marbled brown… something you’ll only notice close up; from a distance, the flower appears entirely pale yellow. The shape of the flower is curious, with two very long, curved lips, looking much like a wide-open bird’s beak.

Bloom lasts 2 months and more, but the flowering seasons varies according to your conditions. In zones 8 and above, it can start blooming as early as late spring and will bloom right through the summer. In colder climates, it flowers much later. In my zone 3 garden, for example, it doesn’t begin blooming until late August, but then continues until frost, sometimes as late as November.

The name sticky sage refers to the sticky glandular hairs found on leaves and stems, and indeed, even the flowers, giving the plant a clammy feeling when you touch it. Their stickiness is believed to protect the plant from predators and indeed sometimes you’ll find insects stuck on them. Certainly deer don’t like sticky sage, nor to rabbits. The glands also leaves give off a pleasant smell if you rub them or even all on their own on a hot day. The essential oil derived from the leaves is said to have medicinal properties and is also used as a flavoring in some countries of its native Europe.

A Bit Invasive

The glutinous sage is not without its flaws, however, as under conditions to its liking, it can reseed abundantly.

If you are one of those gardeners who prefer plants that remain exactly where you put them, simply don’t plant sticky sage: you won’t like its vagabond habit.

If however you appreciate a more natural look in a garden, such as an English-style flower border or a naturalized woodland garden, you’ll probably appreciate this characteristic. After all, a plant that manages to not only grow in dry shade, but even to fill in empty spots, there is a rare find. Even so, you may sometimes have to remove a few stray seedlings that really are not where you want them to be.

Where to Buy Sticky Sage

Here’s the real rub. This plant is very rarely offered in garden centers. Probably no nurseries in your area will will have it. It’s just one of those plants you have to get by mail order. In Canada, you can find it at Fraser’s Thimble Farms and Vivaces de l’Île. In the US, try Plant Delights Nursery. And Chiltern Seeds in England offers its seeds to gardeners around the world.

If you know of other sources, let me know and I will add them to this blog.

Other Yellow-Flowered Sages

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Salvia nipponica ‘Fuji Snow’. Photo: Plants Delight Nursery.

I know of at least two other sages with pale yellow flowers that grow well in the shade. They are very similar to the sticky sage in most aspects, but smaller, less hardy and later blooming: S. koyamae (zone 5) and S. nipponica (zone 6-7). S. nipponica ‘Fuji Snow’, with variegated foliage, is particularly charming, but is no where near hardy enough for my conditions, so I’ll leave it to gardeners from mild climates to try!20160820A

Dry Herbs Quickly… in Your Car!

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Herbs drying on a dashboard. Photo : showmeoz.wordpress.com

To dry herbs quickly, park your car in a sunny spot, spread the herb stems and leaves on a baking tray and place the tray on top of the dashboard, under the windshield. Now, roll up the windows and close the doors. (Hint: you don’t have to remain in the car. In fact, I would discourage this practice.)

The herbs will dry quickly, often in just a few hours, certainly before the end of the day, and since they dry so quickly, there is no risk of mold forming.

Also, your car will give off a delicious aroma for several days!

Yet Another Horticultural Ripoff: Square Watermelon Seeds

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Photo accompanying an ad for square watermelon seed.

Really, people will sell anything on the Internet!

On sites like Kijiji and Amazon, you can readily find vendors offering seeds of a truly exceptional fruit: the square watermelon. And they have photos to back them up. It’s certainly intriguing and the seeds aren’t really that expensive…

But it’s a scam, of course! No seed will give you square watermelons unless you give the fruit very special treatment… a treatment certainly not included in the seed pack!

How They’re Produced

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A mold for square watermelons.

Where then do the photos of square watermelons come from? No, they weren’t photoshopped: square watermelons really do exist! In Japan, some farms specialize in the production of molded fruit: the mold is placed on a developing fruit and as it grows, it is constrained by the walls of the mold and ends up taking its shape. In this case, a square mold is used, but there are heart-shaped molds, hourglass molds, funny face molds, etc.

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$200 watermelons on sale in Vancouver.

The production of these fruits requires a lot of manipulation and thus the fruits produced are very expensive. They occasionally make their way into North American and European supermarkets where, apparently, they sell very well, despite their exorbitant price. Obviously, some people have deep pockets!

Before getting out your credit card with the idea of regaling your friends with a truly remarkable fruit, however, be forewarned that square watermelons are not very good to eat. That’s because they have to be picked when they fill the mold completely, generally before full maturity. The result is a fruit with pale pink flesh and barely any sweetness, more designed for use as a decoration then to be served to guests.

Personally, I’d rather eat my watermelons than look at them!