Plant Therapy: It’s Sunny Somewhere

Friday night, I got back from Florida, trading a high of 81 for a high in the mid-teens. Sunday morning, it started to snow. It’s been snowing off-and-on since then. On Sunday, I blew out the driveway once, then shoveled it for the exercise later in the day. This morning, I blew out the “plow gunk,” then went in to take a shower. In the meantime, the plow came by again, dumping another load, and by the time I was out of the shower, my husband was blowing out the second round of plow gunk.  So, above is a photo from a nursery I visited in Florida, where the lilies are blooming.

For more plant therapy, check out my review of the Naples Botanical Garden, in the Gardens to Visit section above.

Air Plants

Tillandsia ionantha

I just returned from my more-or-less annual visit to my folks in Naples, Fla., and after six days in the sun, I’m ready to face down the rest of winter.

The weather this winter has been cool in southwest Florida, just like the rest of the country. You can see marks of it on the edges of leaves that clearly were nipped by frost. Many blooming plants are behind their usual schedule as well. Despite that, it was great to see the tropical hibiscus, palm trees, blooming bougainvillea, and the lush pots of annuals that are everywhere.

During a trip to a small farmers’ market near Estero, my mom and I happened upon a vendor of air plants, which are more formally known as epiphytes. These tropical plants do not require soil to grow. After my mom mentioned that I edit a garden magazine (hey, she’s my mom!), we got a short tutorial on these unusual plants, which are part of the large bromelliad family. According to the vendor, there are 10,000 varieties of bromelliads, divided among many genus and species. The air plants belong to the genus Tillandsia.

Unlike other plants, they absorb water only through their leaves and are able to gather nutrients from the air itself and from the dust and other particles carried in air. The plants have roots, but they are strictly used for latching on to trees, logs, and other anchors. The plants come in a wild assortment of leaf shapes, colors and forms. They are native to Mexico and other parts of Central America. It’s only in the past few years that breeders have gone into the jungles to collect some of the more unusual varieties. Because of growing interesting in tropicals, breeders are developing new types all the time now.

After our talk with the vendor, my mother mentioned that air plants were incredibly common in her neighborhood. Sure enough, on a walk later that day, I spotted dozens of air plants clinging to branches, pruning cuts, and trunks, drinking in the warm Florida air, just as I was.


The People’s Garden

These two palms are from the earliest collections of the USBG.

Give the Founding Fathers a lot of credit: Not only did they design a pretty good system of government, they  thought of an amazing number of details that would make life better down the road for U.S. citizens. One of those details was the creation of the U.S. Botanic Garden, a brainchild of  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — all of whom had a strong interest in horticulture.

Norfolk Island pine in primeval room -- a gorgeous tree from the age of the dinosaurs

While established in the early 1800s, the garden has been open to the public since 1850 — and I got a tour of the garden this week during a visit to Washington, D.C. The weather in D.C. was nippy (and then snowy), but inside the garden it was balmy, green and blessedly humid. The botanic garden is conveniently located on the National Mall near the Smithsonian Museums, though it is run by Architect of the Capitol. (The display gardens and conservatory on the Mall are a small fraction of the USBG’s collection, most of which is housed in what our guide described as “miles of greenhouses” outside of D.C.) The goal of the garden is to preserve unique plants (it’s a rescue center for contraband plants confiscated at U.S. borders) but also to educate the public about the uses of plants and the value of them. The garden conservatory is divided into a number of habitats: Rain forest, desert, and a primeval garden (a landscape from the Jurassic age) and also includes fascinating exhibits on plant adaptations, medicinal plants and rare plants as well as special exhibits.

Amaryllis 'Madrid'

The big orchid show opens in early February. For now, the entry hall to the garden is decked out in amaryllis. There’s a lovely garden outside of the conservatory using plants from the mid-Atlantic region, and I could not help but be a little envious of D.C. residents when I saw daffodil greenery poking out of the soil in a bed near the conservatory. If you are planning a trip to the nation’s capitol anytime soon, be sure to check out the garden our founding fathers planted.

Mexican Hat and Black-eyed Susan Vine

IMG_5562Because I edit a garden magazine, I’m constantly tempted by new plants — whether they are new on the market or just new to me. This year, I’ve planted two “new to me” plants that have brightened up different spots in the garden.

On the front porch, I put a Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) in a pot. Despite the common-name reference to a favorite prairie plant, this vine is tropical. It was easy to grow from seed and once out on the porch, it started to climb its support. Vines grow 5 to 10 feet long and can be used as a trailer in a window box or hanging basket or as a climber on a trellis. The 2-inch-diameter flowers come in orange and yellow shades and contrast starkly with the deep black eyes at the plant’s center.

IMG_5476In the July/August issue of Northern Gardener, native plants columnist Lynn Steiner recommends Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) for its diminutive size, attractive foliage and bright flowers. This is a tough plant that preforms well in dry conditions, sun or light shade, and has an unusual, sombrero-shaped bloom that inspired the common name. When I saw some plants on sale, I bought three. They seemed to struggle a bit at first in the bed, which has plenty of shrub roots, but they’re blooming now and seem to be establishing themselves.

A One Hour Tropical Vacation

img_1075.jpgimg_1092.jpgI was in St. Paul on business today, and one of the events I had scheduled was canceled. So, I found myself not far from Como Park with an hour to spare. Impulsively, I set out for the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, the tropical garden in Como Park. It was just a few minutes after 10 a.m., the conservatory’s opening time, when I arrived and already the parking lot was nearly full. It makes sense. The weather lately has been cold and lousy. I’m not the only one who decided to take a one hour vacation to the tropics.

img_1070.jpgWhen I got in, the first thing I had to do was wait for my glasses to defrost after the rapid change in temperature and humidity between outside and the conservatory. It turns out the conservatory was hosting its annual Winter Flower Show in the Sunken Garden Room. You couldn’t help but relax and slow down when surrounded by this much beauty, breathing that soft, humid air.

img_1090.jpgimg_1113.jpgI was blown away by the azaleas that lined the room, mixed with Oriental lilies (pictured above right), cyclamen and amaryllis, among other flowers. The azalea flowers were enormous and each one seemed almost perfect. The top group of flowers in the photo at right actually comes from a tree that is in a pot about four feet below the floor of this display area. I talked with a very helpful volunteer named Maggie, who told me that the bushy azaleas in the main area also have thick trunks inside of them. The conservatory horticulturists keep them pruned tightly in order to encourage bloom for this annual show. I was feeling a bit sheepish about how wimpy my azaleas are in the spring, but Maggie told me not to make comparisons. The conservatory show features tropical azaleas, which are nothing like the Minnesota-hardy azaleas developed at the University of Minnesota.

img_1159.jpgimg_1130.jpgIn the main part of the conservatory, orchids are scattered among the palms and greenery. The conservatory keeps a large collection of orchids and sets them out when they are in bloom. I really liked the one at left. I was also fascinated by this Manila hemp plant. The scientific name is Musa textilis and it’s related to the banana family. The plant is known for its durable fibers, which are mainly used for making rope. That pink blossom that looks like its coming off of a cable is the plant’s flower.

img_1132.jpgAm I crazy, or does the flower look like something electrical?

img_1160.jpgMy spare hour was soon up, so I bid Maggie and the tropics good-bye. If you are thinking of visiting the conservatory, it’s open 10 to 4 everyday in the winter. The conservatory is free, though a sign politely asks for a $2 donation per adult. (Definitely, a bargain.) You can also visit the Como Zoo while there, and even have a bite in the park’s dining areas. It’s not exactly Bermuda, but on a frigid February day, it’s a real respite.