Monday, November 24, 2014

Hardy begonias: the next generation

Begonias and ferns

In a previous post (Beyond Begonia grandis: new hardy begonias), I discussed several begonia species and hybrids that have been around for a few years and were already known (or purported) to be fairly hardy.  In this post, I'll discuss a new generation of begonias I've discovered to be hardy in my zone 7a/b garden in just the last few years, even though some of them have been around much longer than that!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The mystery maidenhair fern

Adiantum sp.Adiantum sp., still green after 20° F

Winter has come a bit early this year, with a low temperature of 20° F (-6.6° C) a few nights ago, and several more nights in the low 20's.  It's very unusual to have temperatures this cold before mid-December.  Yet among all the brown and crispy frozen foliage, one bit of bright green still stands out: a maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp.).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Garden bloggers bloom day: November 2014

Washington Monument

Despite a few evening clouds, it was cold and clear last night in Washington, DC and we finally got our first good freeze of the season.  I've had a couple of very light frosts already, when overnight lows were in the 30's, but without any damage to my plants.  Last night was the first time it went down to the freezing point, 32 degrees F (0 C), or perhaps slightly lower.  When I went out this morning to survey the damage the first thing I noticed was the sickly sweet smell of frostbitten vegetation.  That's the part I always forget.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Beyond Begonia grandis: new hardy begonias

Begonia grandis
Begonia grandis, white-flowered form

Many gardeners are familiar with Begonia grandis (a.k.a. B. discolor, B. evansiana, B. sinensis), a tuberous species from China commonly known as the "hardy begonia".  The name is well-earned: this truly is the hardiest species in a huge but mostly tropical and subtropical genus, going dormant in the winter and able to survive freezing temperatures into zone 6.  But for a very long time, the most exciting news about hardy begonias was that they came in white as well as pink.  In a genus with so many flashy plants, neither the foliage nor the flowers of B. grandis are terribly exciting.  The leaves are handsome enough, and the pink or white flowers are nice coming so late in the season... and darn it, it's a hardy begonia.  But hardiness is mostly what it has going for it, and is offset by the thing being downright weedy.  It produces little aerial bulbils that act like seeds, dropping all over to produce a steadily-growing colony that will eventually crowd out smaller and slower-growing plants.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hooray for the urban heat island

In for the evening
Begonias, in for the evening

Last night, I piled some of my begonias into a plant tray and brought them indoors for safekeeping.  There was a forecast of near-freezing temperatures and near-certainty of frost, but this time of year I always gamble a bit, bringing in just my most tender or irreplaceable plants, and leaving the rest to their fates.  We may be well into November but I'm not quite ready yet for the annual routine of lugging potted plants in, and putting sheets over the plants I can't bring in, every time a frost is predicted.  It's just too damn much work (have I mentioned before how lazy I am?).

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Begonias and temperature

Begonia sizemoreae flower closeup
Begonia sizemoreae (female flowers)

With temperatures dropping and the growing season coming to an end, I was going through some old photos for a blog post I'm putting together and came across some photos of a plant I no longer grow, Begonia sizemoreae.  This recently described species from northern Vietnam is closely related to B. rex (and according to some botanists the two belong to the same species).  I picked up this plant on a whim at a local begonia society show and grew it for a few years; while it didn't turn out to be the least bit hardy, it did give me some interesting hybrids that survived a couple of warm winters in the ground and encouraged me to attempt more crosses.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Halloween 2003

Throwback Thursday: Halloween 2003
Halloween, 2003

Not much to say today, just going through some old photos, looking for inspiration for carving this year's jack-o-lanterns and came across these guys I did in 2003.  Below is a jack-o-lantern I carved in an uncharacteristically patriotic mood for Halloween 2001, a rather somber time when nobody felt like celebrating and we only got 3 or 4 trick-or-treaters all night.

Happy Halloween!

Throwback Thursday: Halloween 2001
Halloween, 2001

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Smithsonian Gardens, part 3: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Smithsonian Castle
Parterre garden in front of the Smithsonian Castle

[Third in a series on Smithsonian Gardens; introduction here, part 1 here, part 2 here]

I took a walk through the Smithsonian's Enid A. Haupt Garden a few days ago and found it still going strong in mid-October.  That stroll reminded me that I still had a set of photos from July to upload that I took for a series of blog posts on Smithsonian Gardens.  I wrote up the Butterfly Habitat and Urban Bird Habitat Gardens, and the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, but I kept putting off the Haupt Garden.  Nestled between Independence Avenue, the Smithsonian "Castle", the Freer Gallery and the Arts and Industries Building, this is the largest of the Smithsonian's gardens on the National Mall, and I'll admit I felt a bit intimidated!  The Haupt Garden is actually a series of connected gardens that contrast strongly in character, altogether covering 4 acres.  Most of this is planted over the Smithsonian Quadrangle or "Quad", a large underground complex of office and museum space.  The Haupt Garden is thus a giant roof garden, and although it was installed only after the Quad was completed in 1985, it looks like it's been there since the Castle itself was built.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Ithaca, 1987


Who on earth are these kids?  That's me on the left playing the piano, my partner (now husband) Dan standing on the right, and our friend Andrew between us.  Even knowing full well who these people are, I still have to ask: who are these kids?  27 years ago, 3 years out of college, we finally had our first house--okay, rented--but with its own yard and off-street parking, the first place where we stayed for more than one year, the first yard I mowed since graduating from high school, and the first time we had an unfurnished rental so we hit a lot of garage sales during that first year.  Even though we both had full-time jobs by this point, new furniture was a foreign concept because we were paying off student loans and had virtually no money.  Yet when I spotted this old piano at a sale one Sunday, I had to have it; we borrowed a friend's pickup truck, enlisted a couple of other friends, and went back to get it.  $700 was a huge amount of money at the time but I loved playing piano, and since we didn't even have a television I needed something to occupy my time!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hardy palms of Rehoboth Beach


My husband and I spent a pleasant long weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware earlier this month.  We love going to the beach during the off-season, not only because it's cheaper, but because it's a whole lot less crowded; we love being able to find parking and not having to wait for a table at a restaurant.  Rehoboth Beach is beautiful in early October and if the weather cooperates, the water is still warm enough to swim.

Because of its proximity to the ocean, the climate is much more moderate than my own in Washington, DC; the summers tend to be a bit cooler and the winters a bit warmer, making the climate ideal for growing hardy palms like Trachycarpus fortunei.  A few adventurous Rehoboth Beach gardeners have been trying windmill palms and I've been following some of these for several years.  But the beach is by no means immune to cold weather and this past winter the palms of Rehoboth Beach were put to the test by the east coast's coldest winter in 20 years.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What is it about jack-in-the-pulpit?

Arisaema triphylla
Fruiting jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphylla)

When I in was in western New York last month, visiting my parents, I took a walk in the woods behind their house--the house where I grew up, another lifetime ago--and spotted something brilliant red in the distance.  It turned out to be a jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphylla) bearing its fruits among the poison ivy and detritus of decades of neglect.  Not far away I spotted a patch of them, and near those, another even larger.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Schefflera delavayi, one year later

Schefflera delavayi
Schefflera delavayi, October 2014

I wrote about Schefflera delavayi, one of the hardiest species of this primarily tropical and subtropical genus of the family Araliaceae, a year ago. For more information about this species and its background, please see my earlier article: Schefflera delavayi. (Interestingly, that article is now one of the top search results for this species name on Google.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A year of blogging

Garden one year ago

Today marks one year since I started this blog and published my first post.  The most immediate reason for blogging was the shutdown of the federal government last year: being stuck at home for an indefinite period of time, I decided to use my time productively rather than watch TV and surf the web!  I had been thinking about blogging for a while, and in fact had tried my hand at blogging once before (I was particularly proud of Transitional Species in Insect Evolution, about the evolution of termites from social, wood-eating cockroaches); but before I get too self-congratulatory I should also note that my previous attempt at blogging lasted just over a year!  Finally, after years of posting commentary and photos on several plant and gardening-related websites and discussion lists, I realized that in a very real sense I was already blogging; I might as well pull it all together on one site, attached to my own name.  Plants and gardening have always been a passion for me, and I hoped to direct and focus that passion.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Last September sunset

Last September sunset
The last sunset of September, seen from our roof deck

The sun set on September last night.  Maybe not as spectacularly as the equinox sunset but in some ways, this one felt more final.  Where has September gone?  Where has the summer gone?  Where has all the warm weather gone!   Lazy summer days are behind us, and it's that time of year when nights get chilly, the garden starts winding down, and many plants prepare to go dormant for the winter.  The nice thing about many of the subtropical plants I grow is that they'll look good right up until the first hard freeze, which in my area is usually sometime well into November (and sometimes not until early December).

Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Steroidal Giant'
Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Steroidal Giant' will look good until Thanksgiving

This has been an interesting growing season, one that saw the death of two of my palm trees after a cold winter that devastated many gardens in my area.  My garden was also neglected because of my frequent trips to Buffalo after my father suffered a major stroke last fall (see The Roots of a Gardener).  But this year also gave me many surprises.  In particular, I had many begonias, both species and hybrids (including some of my own), survive the winter with minimal protection.  After my area's coldest winter in 20 years, this gives me some hope that my begonia breeding may actually pay off with some fairly hardy hybrids.

Begonia hybrid
Begonia unnamed hybrid, one of this year's surprises

Garden, mid-September
Garden in September

October brings another milestone: in a week I'll celebrate the one-year anniversary of my DC Tropics blog.  When I began this blog, just to occupy my time during last year's government shutdown, I had no idea how long I would keep it up; I truly feared I would run out of material in no time at all.  I needn't have feared; I had intended to write primarily about my own garden and my own plants, but in the last year I've taken several thousand photos and I've ended up writing about a variety of topics, including hardy palm survivors, Smithsonian Gardens, a Palm Society meeting, plant nurseries and botanical gardens, nursery trade shows, and plant diseases.  So who knows, I might have another year of blogging in me!  Thanks for reading; as always I appreciate any and all comments, and if you like my blog or any of my individual posts, please do share them on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media!

Hibiscus margarita
I've even enjoyed a drink or two (Hibiscus margarita, Tico restaurant)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Meridian Hill Park

Jeanne d'Arc
Statue of Jeanne d'Arc, Meridian Hill Park

I've been taking lots of photos on recent walks around town but didn't have room for everything in a previous blog post (A midsummer miscellany) so here's a bit more.  Virtually unknown to non-residents is Meridian Hill Park, dubbed "Malcolm X Park" by local activists and still known by that name to some city residents, albeit not officially (or even acknowledged) by the National Park Service.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sun sets on summer

Equinox sunset
Equinox sunset just getting started

It's hard to believe summer is over, but my garden will continue to look good for several more weeks, right up until the first hard freeze (usually sometime in mid to late November).  So for now, just a few photos of the glorious sunset we had on the last day of summer this year, as photographed from my roof Monday night.  We have a view over Rock Creek Park of the National Cathedral, and you can see in the photos the scaffolding for the ongoing repairs to the tower that was damaged by the 5.8 earthquake we had 3 years ago (one spire was knocked off entirely, and 2 more were in danger of falling).
Equinox sunset
Featured on Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog, and PoPville blog

Equinox sunset
National Cathedral closeup (featured on DC Focused)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Smithsonian Gardens, part 2: Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

Ripley Garden
Entrance to the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden on the National Mall

[Second in a series on Smithsonian Gardens; introduction here, and part 1 here]

The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, tucked into a narrow space between two Smithsonian museums, the Arts and Industries Building (closed for renovations since 2006) and the Hirshhorn Museum, is one of the Smithsonian's smallest but it's one of my favorite gardens in Washington, DC.  Like the Butterfly Habitat Garden, this oasis just off the National Mall is easy to miss, and tourists focused on the memorials, monuments, and museums will walk right by it without ever knowing it's there.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: September 2014

Seemannia hybrid
Seemannia hybrid

Bit by bit, the garden is recovering from a brutal winter.  It may not look like much from above: there are a couple of empty spaces where palms used to grow, the hardy banana (Musa basjoo) hasn't grown nearly as big as it did last year (see Everybody loves my big banana), and the figs were killed to the ground and are coming back from the roots, but hidden underneath all that foliage are some plants that are just now hitting their peak.

Garden, mid-September
View of the garden from our roof deck

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Beautiful monsters

Passiflora caerulea
Passiflora caerulea, a beautiful monster

There are some plants that, beautiful though they may be, you should be wary of inviting into your garden.  These are plants that grow so fast, so big, and propagate themselves with such enthusiasm, that they will bully and overwhelm anything the least bit slow or small or dainty until one day in mid to late summer, you realize that several of your most precious plants are missing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Back from Buffalo


I haven't been blogging because I've been visiting with my family in Buffalo for the last week.  Now that I'm finally home I have a lot of things to catch up on, so for now I'll just show some of the sunset photos I took from the plane window as I was flying into Washington, DC this evening.  Please click on the photos to see them full size in my Flickr album!




Thursday, September 4, 2014

In praise of pokeweed

Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana L.!
You are reviled in the online gardening discussions,
Weedy, invasive, hard to control
But if you're a weed, you're just doing what weeds do:
Growing where you can, when you can, conspiring with the birds to spread
And like your friends the catbirds and mockingbirds you were here first
(Along with poison ivy, virginia creeper, so many other "weeds")
You even predate the honeybees on your flowers (they came with us!)
So who are we to say you don't belong?
This land is your land, it always was:
Even Linnaeus recognized that you are as americana as we are, if not more.


As for me...
You take me back to when I was just a kid (albeit an odd child)
Using the beautiful magenta juice from your berries as ink
And when other teenagers were experimenting with marijuana
I was experimenting with a "weed" of another kind,
One that grew taller than me, huge leaves hinting at the tropics
But with tender spring shoots;
(My mother never knew if these things were going to kill me--
the shaggy mane mushrooms made her especially nervous,
although they were among the few mushrooms I could confidently identify--
but pokeweed, you're certainly poisonous if not prepared properly,
or so they say, I never tried boiling you only once; I wasn't that adventurous)
And with a bit of butter you were delicious.

Phytolacca americana

[After writing this, I came across this very nice blog post on the same subject at Nadia's Backyard: Pokeweed, American (Phytolacca americana): The Jekyll and Hyde Plant]

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Washington windmill palm winners (and losers)

Trachycarpus fortunei
Scottish Rite Temple, October 2012

In early February, when we were in the middle of our coldest winter in a very long time, I wrote a blog post rounding up several windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) that I've encountered in the city.  Most of these palms were several years old and had suffered little damage from our recent mild winters but as I wrote in February, "...our coldest winter in 20 years will surely put these palms to the test.  A general rule of thumb is that single digit temperatures are likely to cause damage, and temperatures below zero will cause massive damage and in many cases kill the palm outright (although duration of the cold is also critical).  This makes windmill palms marginal in zone 7: sooner or later, they will experience temperatures capable of killing them."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Basil Downy Mildew: say good-bye to pesto

Basil downy mildew
Yellowing leaves: an early sign of Basil Downy Mildew

I just harvested what will probably be my last batch of basil (Ocimum basilicum), for what will probably be my last batch of pesto this year.  This is depressing for several reasons.  First, I love basil and I love pesto, and I always find the end of the basil season a bit depressing.  Second, my basil usually lasts much longer, only petering out in October once nights start turning consistently chilly.  But most of all, I'm depressed because I discovered that my basil has Basil Downy Mildew, a new disease that I've never encountered before, and that promises to be a major problem for basil growers--and lovers--in the next few years.

Basil downy mildew
Leaf discoloration from Basil Downy Mildew

One thing I love about basil is how fast it grows, and how productive even two or three plants can be.  I grow my basil in a container on my back deck, where it gets the heat and sun it loves all day long.  I never start it from seed, always buying plants from a local garden center or farmer's market, and this year started like any other.  The first sign that something was wrong came just a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed yellowing older leaves on my basil.  But it was still vigorous and growing strongly, was yielding well, and I thought maybe I had stressed it by over- or under-watering it.  Consistent watering is not my strong suit!  But the yellowing progressed, the older leaves developed brown lesions and started dropping off, and younger and younger leaves were affected.  When I harvested the basil I noticed a dark fuzzy discoloration on the leaf undersides, which I assumed was some kind of mildew.  I still wasn't terribly concerned; I've had mildew on various garden plants, and this seems to be an especially bad year for powdery mildew on several plants that are prone to mildew anyway: peonies, columbine, and Verbena bonariensis.  I've never seen mildew on basil before, but I chalked it up to the summer being a bit cooler than usual, because basil certainly loves heat.

Basil downy mildew
Leaves infected with Basil Downy Mildew, bottom (left) and top (right)

But the disease progressed rapidly so I did some Googling and that's when I started to get a bit alarmed.  I sent photos to Margaret McGrath, a plant disease researcher at Cornell University, who confirmed that my plants had Basil Downy Mildew (BDM).  BDM is a new disease, reported in Europe in 2001 and found in the United States for the first time in Florida in 2007 but already reported from all over the country, even Hawaii.  The disease spreads quickly and easily, progresses rapidly, and can wipe out a grower's entire crop of basil in a matter of weeks.  Even in its early stages the plant's foliage is disfigured and ruined for commercial use.  I'm lucky this is the first time I've encountered it, but this isn't likely to be the last.  No basil cultivars are (yet) known to be resistant, so I suppose that gives the plant breeders one more thing to keep them busy!

Basil Downy Mildew
Underside of leaf infected with Basil Downy Mildew

Basil downy mildew can be controlled with fungicides, but I don't use pesticides of any kind in my garden so for now I'm at a bit of a loss and don't have any tips for control.  The best advice is probably to monitor plants closely and immediately remove and destroy any that show even a hint of disease.  The good news is that the mildew isn't toxic to humans, although it can and will kill your basil.  More good news is that the disease probably (probably) won't survive cold winters; but it can spread by infected seeds so if you have BDM-free plants it might be wise to save your own seeds and grow your own!

Please share this post to help get the word out about this destructive new disease!  Dr. McGrath and her colleagues are gathering reports of Basil Downy Mildew so if you have it, you can report it here: Basil Downy Mildew Monitoring Program (this link also has information on submitting samples).  Has anybody else in the Washington, DC region encountered this disease?

For more info:

Expect and prepare for downy mildew in basil (Margaret Tuttle McGrath, Cornell University)
Downy mildew on basil (photos, Cornell University)
Basil Downy Mildew and the Ornamental Greenhouse (A.R. Chase, GPN)
Fungus threatens basil plants for this year and beyond (Adrian Higgins, Washington Post)
Downy mildew on basil (Nancy F. Gregory, University of Delaware)
Basil downy mildew (University of Maryland Extension)
2014 Basil Downy Mildew Outbreak Our Worst One Yet (Debbie Roos, NC Cooperative Extension)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What's missing from this picture? (Hint: palms)

Garden, late August
Garden, late August 2014

What's missing from this picture?  Those of you who have been following my blog since last year (or who read the post title) probably have a good idea.  But this photo from the same time last year really brings it home:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Raleigh, part 2: Plant Delights Nursery and JC Raulston Arboretum

Crinum and Yucca

[Part 1 here: Southeastern Palm Society summer meeting.]

I spent a pleasant and only moderately wet morning taking photos at Plant Delights Nursery and chatting with Tony Avent.  In retrospect (especially considering the afternoon rain that made photography nearly impossible later in the day) I probably spent too much time with the begonias, but that's one of my current interests and it's what I wanted to see.  Tony is very interested in begonias (although I've yet to find a plant group he's not interested in) and has acquired quite a collection of species and hybrids at the nursery to test for hardiness and commercial potential.  We compared notes at length on hardy begonias, not just B. grandis but several other species and hybrids that are proving to be fairly hardy, as well as my own efforts to breed hardy begonia hybrids.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What to do with a dead tree

Garden (cropped)
Garden, this time last year (note fig at upper right)

What do you do with a dead fig tree?  Okay, it isn't actually dead, although for quite a while I feared it was; it took its sweet time but it's finally putting out strong new growth from the base.  Who knows, I might even get some figs next year!  But in the meantime, what to do with the dead trunk and branches?  I suppose I could have cut it to the ground, but I kept hoping it would finally leaf out, right up until that time of year when I pretty much stop working in the garden because it's too hot, too humid, and too buggy.  (At least that's my excuse for what is probably just plain laziness.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: August 2014

Okay, enough with the long blog posts for now!  It's time for a quick-and-dirty blog post with pretty pictures and not much else.  These are some of the plants I had blooming in my garden today.  For more information about any of them, feel fee to post questions in the comments section!  For many more photos, click here.  For more Garden Bloggers Bloom Day posts from all around the blogosphere, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Spigelia marilandica
Spigelia marilandica, second bloom after deadheading a few weeks ago

Spigelia marilandica
Spigelia marilandica

Asclepias tuberosa
Asclepias tuberosa, also reblooming after deadheading

Asclepias tuberosa
Honeybee on Asclepias tuberosa

Clerodendrum bungei
Clerodendrum bungei, one of my beautiful monsters

Lobelia cardinalis
Lobelia cardinalis, still going strong

Aralia elata
Aralia elata has been dropping tiny white flowers all over everything for a month

Liriope muscari
When was the last time you took a close look at the flowers of Liriope muscari?

Begonia grandis 'Early Bird'
Begonia grandis 'Early Bird', my own early-blooming selection of the species

Hosta plantaginea
Hosta plantaginea, "August lily", night-blooming and wonderfully fragrant

Datura wrightii
Datura wrightii, last night

Datura wrightii
Datura wrightii, this morning

Datura wrightii
One more because I can't get enough of those daturas!

Morning glory (Ipomoea sp.), growing as a weed

Sphaerorrhiza sarmentiana
Sphaerorrhiza sarmentiana (Gesneriaceae), blooming on my windowsill at work