Category Archives: native plants

July Garden

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July can surely make or break a small garden. Because it’s July I have mustard greens, Swiss chard, rue, apple mint, begonias, a kiwi vine/tree, and black-eyed Susan all bursting out of a 2-foot by 2-foot section of garden. It’s a potential tangle that somehow works with something akin to forestry practiced on a tiny scale. The edibles can all be gradually harvested, and the big leaves of the Swiss chard and mustard greens keep the soil cool and shade the begonias. The pink and fuchsia begonia blooms peek out ever so sweetly among the reddish and purplish veins of the mustard and chard leaves. The mustard greens are starting to flower, and I let some of them go to attract pollinators. Not a typical sprawling garden mint, this apple mint grows fairly upright on thick stems and responds to being cut back by continuing to produce attractively woolly, rounded leaves that taste subtly fruity deep into the season. More slow-growing rue spreads its blue-green, delicate-looking foliage throughout. (I say “delicate-looking” because rue, Ruta graveolens, is one tough plant, tolerant of hot and dry conditions and harsh winters. Quite toxic when consumed in large doses, it has been used medicinally in a variety of ways. I first planted it to make a tincture for treating my cat’s ear mites. It can also cause skin blisters when touched. I’ve never experienced that in the many years I’ve grown it, but I try to touch it as lightly as possible.)

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Springtime alliums and columbines have given way to summer coneflowers.

On the other side of the plot, wild asters and purple coneflowers have lured painted lady butterflies and bees of all kinds into the garden. I leave the dried allium flower heads up as long as their stalks can stand. I like how their spiky globes contrast with the spiky disks and petals of the echinacea. The brilliant color of their spring is gone, inherited by the coneflowers.

Cleaning up July’s overgrowth has its drawbacks, as I was reminded this morning. Last week, I cut back aggressive plants, took some out, and tied others back, all in the name of offering more space, light, and air to half-hidden plants. But with more ground exposed, the garden was suddenly much drier. In its jungly state, the garden had resisted our streak of 90° days handily. I came back to wilting herbs in my opened-up garden. Luckily, I caught them in time to give them a good soaking, and we got a good two inches of rain over the last two days.

July is also having its way with the balcony garden, where things can get hot, dry, windy, and sometimes irresistible to pigeons. So, of course, I try to plant what likes these conditions—or doesn’t mind them. They all need extra water on 90° days, but as with the garden plot, placement helps retain moisture. The tropicals are good at shading the more delicate plants and the soil they’re in. The tough leaves of many of my current plants seem to have discouraged the pigeons for now.

Succulents, cacti, coleus, begonias, caladium, elephant’s ear, scented geranium, Dracaena marginata, and a saucer of mosses all do fairly well here, and I even have some seedlings going, an attempt at succession planting. I have no idea why the pigeons are leaving the seedlings alone. Maybe they taste better in the spring? With any luck, the bean plants will be producing in a couple of weeks, and some tender nasturtium leaves will add a bite of pepper to our salads.

The July garden is about eating for many gardeners, and for me though it’s not a standard vegetable garden, my plot and balcony do provide edibles that are usually ridiculously expensive or plain not available in the supermarket. These are things you don’t need in great quantities and taste best when picked fresh: greens, herbs, and ripe raspberries. Not a bad trade off.

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The July garden on a plate: A tender mustard green leaf cradles rice and beans with fresh-picked oak-leaf lettuce (above, right).

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Taking advantage of the range of shade to bright sun offered by a balcony corner. The wall offers protection to bean seedlings. Elephant’s ear and caladium below.

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A Visit to the Corpse Flower: Hell’s Kitchen Gardener Goes Uptown

I wasn’t really trying that hard to see the corpse flower, but fate had me traveling up to the Bronx for a class at the New York Botanical Garden on the same day that this giant was scheduled to bloom. That was a week ago and I’ve been thinking about this extraordinary plant and its effect on its human observers ever since.

It was a sticky day that between threats of rain offered blindingly bright cloud cover. This combination could have challenged my willingness to wait in line, but I was already in too deep, having promised my daughter to make this visit, and then there was the line, which itself drew me in. People had dressed up to see a flower! They wore flowered shirts and dresses and jewelry and jaunty summer hats. And the profusion of parasols… a symptom no doubt of the uncertain weather, but the effect was beyond utilitarian, the pinks, pale yellows, and blues contrasting delicately with the white spidery structure of the conservatory building.

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Conversations around us were fixated on the flower. A mother and son were anxious: What if it turns out not to be as big as everyone says? Would the smell drive them away before they could get pictures? People departed the building as if in a dream state. Was it the odor or the flower itself? There was an unspoken understanding, it seemed, that it would be wrong to give anything away to those still waiting.

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Stepping inside, I understood the dreamy looks of the visitors before me: Here was a hybrid of Jurassic Park and the Enchanted Forest. Amid the graceful backdrop of the other outsize frilly and ferny plantings, the Amorphophallus titanum—for that is its calling-it-like-it-is scientific name—stood on a pedestal in the conservatory pond, peacefully and regally undergoing the changes that all flowers must. The flower had opened earlier in the day, releasing its scent, which had now completely dissipated. The spathe—the skirt-like bract surrounding the flower spike—had started to close back up, revealing just a glimpse of its lush red interior. A security guard kindly shared his cell-phone photos of the fully opened blossom and his own experience of what he respectfully called “the fragrance.”

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Amorphophallus titanum closing up but still a sight to behold. Behind it and to the left (green stalk with white speckles) is the vegetative version of the plant. Though it looks like a small tree, that’s actually a compound leaf at the top. The plant sends up leaves periodically to capture the sun’s rays through photosynthesis. This energy is stored in the plant’s enormous corm (up to 200 pounds), until there is enough to produce a flower.

I was disappointed not to have smelled the corpse flower’s scent for myself and couldn’t help feeling that I was cheating, but I did seem to enter the dream state I had imagined seeing on the faces of preceding viewers. Of course, I tried to document this fantastical being with my camera.

Here in the northeast, we are accustomed to tropical plants potted up in our homes and serving as summer annuals in our garden beds. They offer a faint nod to greenery in doctor’s offices and workplaces and therefore, through no fault of their own, have become boring. The A. titanum, native to Sumatra, is no houseplant. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen here.

Or is it?

The corpse flower is a member of the Araceae, or more commonly, arum, family, and somewhat like finding vestiges of dinosaurs in present-day birds, arums abound in native and non-native forms here in the New York City area. As I write, my golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) drapes its viney self over the table. I rescued it years ago from the street. Horribly invasive in tropical forests, it grows eagerly in a pot on my balcony during the summer, requiring only a little water now and then. (I’ve seen these selling for $10 apiece in supermarkets. Crazy!)

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My little arum.

Arum italicum grows beautifully in a woodsy bed at my community garden. It too is invasive, from Europe as the name suggests, but under control in this particular spot. Like the corpse flower, on a comparatively tiny scale, it has a flower spike surrounded by a showy spathe. The spathe dies back and the flower spike produces glistening red-orange berries. These remind me of the corpse flower’s red berries, which are eaten by hornbills, who spread their seeds.

Our native eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, has both odor and thermogenesis in common with A. titanum. The corpse flower ensures the spreading of its scent by heating itself up close to the temperature of the human body. The stench attracts carrion flies and dung beetles. Growing in an entirely different environment in wet woods and bogs from Minnesota to the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, the eastern skunk cabbage heats up in early spring, melting through ice and snow. The heat in this case broadcasts its scent to the few early spring pollinators in the woods. These gnats, flies, and beetles find warmth and shelter in the skunk cabbage spathe, which induces them to stay awhile and get more covered in pollen.

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Eastern skunk cabbage—hot  and stinky like its relative from Sumatra.

All members of the Araceae family have in common crystals of calcium oxalate in parts, usually leaves and flowers, or all of the plant. These needle-like crystals are toxic to many animals although some, including humans, have found ways of getting around that problem, depending on the plant. Apparently hornbills don’t mind, which is a good thing for our rare titan.

For more about the corpse flower, check out this blog by Marc Hachadourian, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections. NYBG’s website also diagrams the plant’s life cycle, which helps account for why this blooming happens only once a decade:

http://blogs.nybg.org/plant-talk/2016/07/horticulture-2/the-corpse-flower-a-decade-in-the-making/