Botany word of the month.

Panicle

A few weeks ago, I received a question from a gardener in the city who wanted to know about the best hydrangeas to grow in Calgary. Due to our climate, we’re not able to overwinter the really showstopping bigleaf types (H. macrophylla) that gardeners in warmer regions can, but we still have some extremely nice selections to choose from. I suggested that, due to sufficient cold hardiness, smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens) and panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata) tend to fare best in our part of the world – and then he wanted to know: what on earth did I mean by the word ”panicle”?

Good question! The term panicle is often associated with grasses. Most grass panicles are easy to identify. Here is an example: Take a look at the fuzzy top of foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum, a beautiful but persistent, troublesome weed here in Alberta). That lovely plume is a panicle, a type of compound flower head that features long, sliver-like awns, which can cause pain for livestock that accidentally graze on the plant.

With hydrangeas, what we think of as one huge flower is actually a panicle. Like the fuzzy flower head of foxtail barley, a hydrangea’s panicle is a compound inflorescence. It is made up of tiny individual florets, which are attached via pedicels (stem-like structures) to “branches” called racemes. Panicle hydrangeas are named for this type of floral arrangement.

Do you grow hydrangeas (any types)? If so, which ones are your favourites? (If you have any, please feel free to link up to photos of your hydrangeas on your blog or website – I’d love to see them!).

Recipe: Swiss chard (or beet green) soup.

I have a question for all of you long-time bloggers!  Do you periodically go through past entries in your blog and do a refresh? (Fix broken links, add new updates, redo or add new photos etc.)?  Flowery Prose turned ten years old in March of this year and while I’ve tweaked a few little things here and there, particularly with the themes, I haven’t ever done a thorough clean up of old posts.  What is your process for doing this?  Or have you just left everything as is?

This recipe is from an old post that I’ve revised to better categorize the content.  Finding it again was a bit fortuitous, as this spring I decided to use up some old Swiss chard seeds I had kicking around – and had excellent germination rates with them. (Don’t chuck ancient seeds! The charts may “say” they’re not viable after a certain point but it never hurts to try. If you’ve stored them properly, you might have a chance at success).  The plants are still small – again, as with everything this year, I’ll just chalk that up to our wacky spring weather – so I’m not attaching a photograph.  No need to brag.  😉

Swiss Chard (or Beet Green) Soup

5 cups chopped fresh Swiss chard or beet greens (or a combination of the two)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsp milk (dairy or non-dairy, such as cashew)

freshly cracked pepper to taste

1/2 cup Havarti cheese, shredded (use a vegan substitute, if preferred)

Sauté the chard or beets, the garlic, and the onions in olive oil in a large saucepan until the greens are reduced.  Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat.  Remove the soup from the heat, cool it slightly, then carefully purée it with a hand blender. Add the milk and cheese and reheat gently (do not boil).  Add pepper to taste.

Yield: 2 generous servings

What are your favourite ways to eat Swiss chard and/or beet greens?  Or do you dislike them entirely?

How to deal with sowbugs in the home and garden.

Since we moved into an upper floor apartment (versus the basement unit we had previously), we’ve had very few insects pay us a visit… and even the arachnids have been scarce. I’m of the mind that these sorts of critters belong outside, so I’ve found this situation very satisfactory. This spring, however, we had an encounter with a particularly interesting type of beast – a sowbug (also called a wood louse). We actually saw three of them, but I managed to capture an image of one in what is possibly the very worst photo ever recorded with a modern phone camera:

Sowbugs (Oniscus asellus), I’ve since found while perusing the Internet, are ALWAYS confused with pillbugs (Armadillidium vulgare – isn’t that the best name ever?). They are not the same, however. Pillbugs have rounder bodies than sowbugs, and they are capable of curling into a ball, which has earned them the nickname roly-poly. Sowbugs can’t pull off that same stunt – their bodies aren’t designed for rolling up.

We may call them “bugs,” but sowbugs are not insects – they are terrestrial crustaceans. That means they have a bit more in common with a shrimp than an earwig. Sowbugs have seven pairs of legs, rather long antennae, and armored bodies that can reach a length of up to 15 millimetres (0.6 inches). They can’t bite or sting or do any damage inside the home (they definitely don’t care about what’s in your pantry). In fact, the last place they want to be is indoors, because they cannot survive for long there. They primarily feed on decaying plant matter and really would prefer to be crawling around in wood mulch or in some dead leaves in your garden. They also have gills, so they need moist, damp environments to survive. Typically, kitchens and living rooms don’t fit that bill.

Another pretty neat thing about sowbugs? Like many other crustaceans belonging to the order Isopoda, they give birth to live young and carry them around in a brood pouch called a marsupium. I propose that from now on, we stop calling them sowbugs, which is totally inaccurate, and use the more appropriate moniker “land shrimp kangaroos.” Oh wait, there are already kangaroo shrimp (Dugastella valentina), so that could be a tad confusing. Land shrimp wallabies? 😉

So, next time you see a sowbug in your house, gently take it outside and marvel at just how fascinating the natural world is. Then head inside and ponder why the heck it – and two friends – had taken up residency behind the stove. Hopefully there isn’t too much decaying wood back there or we’ve got some renovations to do….

Have you ever seen sowbugs or pillbugs in your garden or home?

For more information about sowbugs, check out this article from the City of Edmonton.

Flowery Friday: Arnica.

A recent trip out to Brown-Lowery Provincial Park (near Millarville, Alberta) revealed an understorey filled with bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), tall lungwort (Mertensia paniculata), and this yellow beauty, heart-leafed arnica (Arnica cordifolia).

Alberta snapshot: Brown-Lowery Provincial Park.

We’re having a mosquito year! Heavy spring rains and flash flooding in some areas have brought out the nasty little critters in thick swarms. It’s impossible to avoid them when you’re outdoors, even in the city, where they are not usually a huge problem due to mitigation measures. On a hike out at Brown-Lowery Provincial Park earlier this week, my husband and I added a slightly frantic waving arm/slap routine to our walk and it ended up being quite the upper body workout. The views were worth the ridiculousness, though.

Prairie gardening tip: How to troubleshoot common radish problems (bolting and a lack of root development).

Someone recently sent me a question about radishes, and then I had a bit of a chuckle because the same thing she was complaining about happened to me this week: they bolted. To add insult to injury, when I pulled them, there were no beautiful globular roots, just some lovely greens and the start of a bloom. While radishes are often excitably touted as one of the easiest and quickest edible crops to grow, things do go wrong sometimes. So, let’s troubleshoot this:

About the bolting:

Heat usually is the cause. Radishes are a cool season crop and tend to freak out when the temperatures tip into summertime territory. Plant them early in the season (or late in the season, if you have that luxury) and you’ll have a better chance of success.

About the sumptuous tops and lack of bottoms:

Did you space them sufficiently apart in the container or bed? They need room for the roots to properly develop.

Did you add too much nitrogen-based fertilizer? That’s not going to produce generous roots.

Is your soil compacted? If so, you might end up with misshapen roots or none at all.

Too many cold, cloudy days. Radishes may be a cool-season crop, but they do need adequate sunlight for production.

That bolting thing. It all comes full circle…when the temperatures soar, the radishes think it’s flower and seed time and completely forget about their roots.

So, my radish problem? The seeds were sown just over two months ago, so late seeding isn’t a likely candidate. I can eliminate the compacted soil and the overabundance of fertilizer, as I know those are not the culprits. Spacing was more than adequate for the variety I planted. That leaves me blaming the weather, which – you have to admit – seems both plausible AND satisfyingly convenient. 😉

*

Janet Melrose and I wrote more about radishes (and many other veggies) in The Prairie Gardener’s Go-To for Vegetables.

Do you grow radishes? Which cultivars are your favourites? Do you ever have problems with them?

Plant profile: Mugo pine.

Pinus mugo

Particularly at this time of year, when the new candles are formed, mugo pines may appear to be the angriest shrub of the plant world, looking for all the world like they are furiously gesturing to the idiot that cut them off in traffic. (Now you’ll never see them the same way again. You’re welcome). 😉

Mugos have shorter needles than most pines, but they’re still fairly long (up to two inches), elegant as befitting pine trees, and clustered in pairs. If you touch the needles, they’re not particularly soft like some other pines. Again, that sort of fits with the whole angry thing.

On the larger cultivars, the branches are supposed to sweep upwards in stiff arcs, but the shrubs themselves sometimes acquire a sprawling habit as they age (I completely understand this as I have, too), so this isn’t always accomplished as well as it should be. When left unkempt, unattractive bare spots often open up in the centre of the shrub. (You can – carefully and judiciously – prune the shrubs every few years to maintain a more tidy, compact shape). Smaller cultivars, such as the lovely ‘Mops’ (which really does look like a ploofy green mop turned upside down and stuffed into the ground), tend to be a tad more well-behaved.

Once you’ve got the ID down pat on these, you’ll start to realize how common they are, at least in urban areas here on the prairies. Their hardiness and compact size (small and smaller) make them tough to beat as landscape specimens. They’re pretty much a go-to for residential and commercial foundation plantings. Although it does occur in particularly harsh years, mugos tend to resist winter desiccation a bit better than many other conifers, and that’s a big deal around here.

This article that was published in the Calgary Herald in 2010 has some great tips for pruning and candling mugos to maintain a compact form.

What are your favourite conifers (small or large) in the garden? (It doesn’t matter where you live, I’d love to hear about them! They don’t have to be suitable for the Canadian prairies).

Alberta snapshot: Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area.

This amazing natural area just outside of Calgary is one of my favourite places to visit – the views are incredible in any season and in any type of weather. The Rocky Mountains to the west, rolling grasslands in the south and east, and even a view of the city’s downtown when you gaze north – it’s all eye candy from the trails, and depending on the time of year, you’ll catch a myriad of wildflowers in bloom, numerous bird species, and maybe even some wildlife (we’ve seen moose and deer, and a few small mammals such as squirrels). I took this photo about three weeks ago, when the aspens were just leafing out and their foliage had that brand-new-straight-out-of-the-package brilliant yellow-green colour and the snow pack was still high on the mountains (that actually hasn’t changed much – the peaks remain pretty white).

How to: dry sea buckthorn leaves for tea (tisane).

If you’re familiar with sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides, also called seaberry) shrubs, it’s probably because of the beauty and edibility of the berries, those brilliant orange pops of fruity sunshine. But, here on the prairies (and elsewhere in the country) June is the month to harvest and dry sea buckthorn leaves for tisane – well, the leaves from the male plants, that is. (Sea buckthorn are dioecious and flowers are borne separately on male and female plants. You need both to produce fruit. One male plant can pollinate up to seven females, and you need the wind to make the required pollen transfer). You can harvest the leaves from female plants, as well, but you must wait until autumn, after the berries are produced.

Sea buckthorn tisane is purported to be chockful of amino acids and antioxidants, and there are claims that it acts as an immune booster and an anti-inflammatory. Scientific studies are continuously ongoing. For now, I’m just going to enjoy the plant’s leaves and berries because they taste good and I have access to them. Many gardeners aren’t aware of the uses of this particular plant and might not take advantage of its edibility…as long as you’re absolutely certain of your proper identification of the plant, you may want to try it and see if you enjoy eating it. (If you don’t know for sure what you’re dealing with, please don’t sample it. That goes for every plant you encounter).

When you’re ready to pick leaves, you first need to figure out which plants are male. That can be a huge challenge unless you’ve purchased labelled male and female plants for your garden and you know which one is planted where. The females are the ones that produce the berries, but they don’t do that until nearly September. But – no fear! This website has some extremely helpful photos and information to differentiate the males from the females – check it out before you head out to do some harvesting.

Bear in mind while you’re picking to go easy on the plant and not remove too much – you never want to stress the plant by overharvesting. The plant needs a good canopy of those beautiful silvery-green leaves to conduct photosynthesis! For your first harvest, only take a handful in case you aren’t keen on the drink.

Wash the leaves well and pat them dry with a towel. Lay them out in a single layer on a wire rack and allow them to air dry for several days in a cool, dry location. You should turn them every couple of days or so. When it comes time to pack them up, store them in a clean, airtight tea tin and label the contents.

Once the leaves are dry and ready, brew them up to your preferred strength. You can enjoy them as is or make a custom blend by adding green tea leaves or dried fruit (why not try sea buckthorn berries?). A splash of locally-produced honey drizzled in hits the spot!

Do you grow sea buckthorn? Have you ever eaten the berries or used them or sea buckthorn oil in cosmetics? (I regularly buy a sea buckthorn lip balm from an excellent company in Manitoba).