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.

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.

State Fair Gardens

If you go to the Minnesota State Fair this weekend, be sure to stop by the Horticulture Building to admire the gardens that have been planted there. The Minnesota State Horticultural Society is responsible for several gardens on the southwest corner of the building, and they are gorgeous, providing a place to rest from the noise and excitement of the fair. While many volunteers and organizations contribute to the gardens, the mastermind and driving force behind them is Ron Dufour of the St. Anthony Park Garden Club.

Ron supervises the plant selection and design, then works with volunteers to put the finishing touches on the gardens just before the fair opens. I had a chance to talk with him at the fair last night and he noted that volunteers were working the night before the fair opened to get the gardens ready. All summer long, Ron stops at the garden on his way home from work to pull weeds or water the perennials. While he has training in horticulture, Ron has created the kind of garden most people could plant and maintain on their own, full of colorful shrubs, bright perennials, tall grasses and charming annuals.

Many of the plants are donated by nurseries and by individuals. Ron spends sometime every day during the fair at the garden, answering questions of the thousands of people that walk by his corner. The plants he gets asked about most are the gloriosa daisies. This Rudbeckia is an easy-care, short-lived perennial that readily reseeds. The ones at the fair have a deep red color at the center of the bloom, bright enough to attract attention even at the gaudy fairgrounds.

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.

The November Garden

November is my least favorite month: dark, wet, and nothing but winter in sight for the next six months. But gardeners can find ways to brighten November–or at least work with its palette. Yesterday and today, I’m on a road trip to the Chicago area. En route to Chicago, I stopped at the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wis. Olbrich is a city garden, nestled in a large park along Lake Monona. Its executive director is Roberta Sladky, formerly of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul.

Like Madison itself, Olbrich is big enough to be interesting, but not so big it overwhelms visitors. I toured Olbrich on a hot, sunny day in the summer of 2006 and loved the garden’s bright colors, especially its rose garden. This time, fall and a persistent drizzle gave the place a pleasant but muted feel.


Visiting public gardens is a great way to get ideas for your own garden. Public garden designers really know how to frame vistas and outlooks. This view is not far from the entrance to the garden and it clearly tells visitors they are entering a special place. That tower in the distance overlooks the rose garden.

Olbrich uses grasses, fruiting trees, and ground covers to provide interest and color in the fall garden. The gardeners there also leave many of their perennials standing, rather than clearing them out for the winter.

img_0192.jpgI love the rich purple color of this Ajuga ‘Burgandy Glow’ img_0203.jpgwhich is underplanted in a bed of shrubs and perennials. Planted nearby are several crabapple trees with their bright red fruits dangling down. Other highlights of Olbrich are its Thai garden and its use of grasses. More on those in future posts.