Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Plants!

While most of my plants mad it through my winter break absence with little more damage than the loss of a few leaves, there were a handful of things that just could not be saved. Sad as it was, their demise did leave window sill space for potential new acquisitions and so I could not resist when I came across some beautiful - and cheap - new African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) at the local florist's shop. I bought plants of two different varieties; one has single  white flowers with frilly edges marked in a deep shade of purple, while the other has bright pink double flowers and foliage speckled with pale pink spots.

The white-and-purple variety

The pink variety - Notice the intense pink speckling on the younger leaves

The one African violet I had bought in the fall - with single flowers in a shade somewhere between wine red and purple - is doing well, too, and actually greeted me with a whole bunch of new flowers when I got back to campus.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Plant Care Profile: Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)

I know I have not done one of these in a really long time but Eliza at Appalachian Feet is having a Blog Carnival about "How to Find Great Plants" for which she asks people  submit posts about great plants they would recommendt What better reason could there be for me to finally get back into the habit of writing this type of post? The subject of this new Plant Care Profile is cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma), one of my all-time favorite perennials. Neat and practically care-free, it puts on a beautiful show of bright yellow flower heads early in spring before most other perennials come into bloom and continues to look nice for the rest of the summer and fall as a tidy green pillow that provides a nice backdrop for plants blooming later.

My very first specimen of cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma) in my family's previous Zone 6a garden in southeastern Michigan, approximately one year after planting

Origin:  Euphorbia polychroma is native to Eastern Europe, with a natural range that reaches from Turkey to Ukraine and Western Russia.
USDA Hardiness Zone: Cushion spurge is reportedly hardy to Zone 4a.

A closer look at the bright yellow inflorescences

Size: Individual specimens grow to about 1' (ca. 30cm) tall and up to 2' (ca. 60cm) wide.
Flowering Time: Depending on the local climate, Euphorbia polychroma will begin to flower in mid- to late spring, at roughly the same time as creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) and most tulips. Flowering continues for several weeks, and the bracts surrounding the small real flowers retain their color into early summer even after actual flowering has ended.
Light Requirements: Cushion spurge generally needs full sun but will tolerate some light shade, especially when planted near deciduous trees which leaf out relatively late and therefore allow the plant to receive full sunlight during the main part of its growth cycle in spring. However, plants grown this way might become a bit leggy in summer and not look quite as neat.

One of the flower beds in the front yard of my family's former southeast Michigan home in mid-spring, with Euphorbia polychroma,  creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), Ajuga reptans, various tulips, money plant (Lunaria annua), and forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Soil Requirements: Cushion spurge happily grows in most garden soils, provided they are well-drained.
Siting in the Garden: Euphorbia polychroma should be planted in a well-drained or even somewhat dry spot in full sun. Due to its relatively low growth habit, care should be taken not to plant it too close to plants that get very tall , since these could suffocate the plant or leave it languishing in more shade than it can put up with.
Care: Cushion spurge really requires minimal care. Young plants may be planted or transplanted any time from mid-spring to late fall. While not necessary by any means, it is generally a good idea to work some compost or organic fertilizer such as bone or blood meal into the soil at the time of planting. Newly planted specimens should be watered well until established, after which point watering or irrigation of any sort should only be needed in times of extreme drought and heat. Plants should be transplanted when very young, since older specimens do not transplant as easily; since they reach their full size in two or three seasons under normal conditions, this should not be much of a hassle. After flowering the plants may be sheared back to prevent self-seeding and to keep them even tidier, though this also is entirely optional. I personally prefer a certain amount of self-seeding and only trim individual plants when they look messy because I like to always back up seedlings of Euphorbia polychroma, be it for new plantings or to replace older plants which, after five or six years or so, have lost some of their vigor. After the foliage dies down in late fall the stems should be trimmed to a height of 2"-3" (ca. 5-7cm) but not lower, since the buds for the next year's growth form along the bottom portion of the stems. Like many plants, cushion spurge also benefits from a light layer of leaf mulch, especially in winter but also throughout the year.

A seedling plant in its second year

Propagation: The easiest way to propagate Euphorbia polychroma is through seed, especially if one lets the plants self-seed in the garden and simply removes unwanted extra seedlings or moves the young plants to the desired locations. In my experience this is the best strategy, since the self-seeding is moderate enough that the plant does not get weedy or invasive. Alternatively, one can collect the seeds - which might require bagging the flower heads before the little fuzzy seed pods are fully ripe to keep them from dispersing - and either start them indoors in early spring or sow them directly in the desired location after the soil has warmed up a bit.
Use in the Garden: Cushion spurge adds lively color as well as volume to the spring garden and is well suited for the front or middle of sunny perennial border. The acid yellow of the normal form combines well with light blue forget-me-nots as well as dark blue Ajuga reptans and various species and varieties of grape hyacinth (Muscari sp.). Throughout the rest of the season, the plant forms a neat, domed cushion of velvety green, though there are also some selections, such as 'Bonfire' which have reddish or purplish foliage that provides more obvious all-season interest.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Family Florida Trip - Part 3: Vizcaya

The third garden my parents and I visited on our recent Florida trip was Vizcaya, the former winter estate of early 20th-century industrialist James Deering. His family had created the Deering Harvester Company whose machinery contributed significantly to the development of Midwestern agriculture and which, under the name of International Harvester, would become the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the United States. The estate was built between 1914 and 1916 by architect F. Burrall Hoffman and Colombian-born, Italian-trained landscape architect Diego Suarez, though its overall look as well as decorative details were determined mainly by Paul Chalfin, Deering's "general artistic supervisor".  An Italianate villa set in a whimsical, playfully formal landscape, Vizcaya seems weirdly out-of-place in tropical Miami but at the same time that makes up a big part of its charm. The house its impressive in its sheer size and sumptuousness but to be honest I found the interiors disturbingly gaudy in all their mismatched period-piece clutter. They are certainly worth seeing as a testament to their times and the men who created them but I could find very little of actual beauty in the Roman columns turned into candle holders or the 16th-century painting of the Virgin Mary sawed in half to create two panels to hide an organ. The grounds, however, are an entirely different matter. Somewhat more restrained in their decorations - and without too many re-purposed European antiques - they are truly beautiful, and the seemingly incongruous mix of Italianate formality and ornament with lush tropical vegetation is actually nothing but enchanting.

 The entrance court

 The house at Vizcaya as seen from the side of the garden stretching along the Bay of Biscayne

The stone barge

The tea house on the bay-front side of the property

The interior of the tea house

The largest part of the gardens lies south of the house, arranged on a series of different levels with extensive parterres and various garden "rooms", all connected by elaborate staircases and accented with various pavilions, plant-filled urns and terracotta pots, and tons of statues. Only a comparatively small stretch of garden lies east of the house facing the Bay of Biscayne, but it contains some of the most opulent decorative features on the property, namely a small island shaped like a barge that acts as a tide breaker and boat mooring and a tea house covered in turquoise lattice work reached via a Venetian-style bridge.

 The Secret Garden

A single variety of moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) in one of the wall planters in the Secret Garden

Succulent arrangements in the Secret Garden

A view over one of the parterres

The theater garden

The entrance to the Fountain Garden

The Casino, surrounded by live oaks (Quercus virginiana) draped in Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

The water stairway

Fountains and specimens of Podocarpus macrophyllus trimmed into pillars

One of the many urns filled with colorful bromeliads

On the whole, the gardens are what really makes Vizcaya worth a visit, at least to my mind. They are quite over the top and with Vizcaya being one of Miami's premier attractions - as well as a very popular spot to take Quinceañera pictures - they are also not exactly empty or quiet, yet they are nonetheless impressive and oddly beautiful. The curious combination of Italianate formality and tropical foliage produces an odd sense of melancholy, as if one where wandering through the remnants of an abandoned structure being reclaimed by nature. If you want to find out more, you can visit the web site of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Family Florida Trip - Part 2: The Kampong

Located in the Miami suburb of Coconut Grove, the Kampong is one of the five sites of the National Tropical Botanical Garden ( and the only one on the US mainland, since the other four are situated on the Hawaiian islands of Kaua'i and Maui. The house and garden were begun by Dr. David Fairchild and his wife Marian in 1916 and after their passing in 1954 and 1962, respectively, they were bought and further developed by the botanist Dr. Catherine Hauberg Sweeney, who eventually donated the property to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Fairchild was a famous botanist plant explorer who managed the Department of Plant Introduction at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in nearby Coral Gables is named after him. The property takes its name from the Malay and Indonesian word for "village" and there is a notable Asian influence in the design of both the house and the garden.

View from the terrace to the Bay of Biscayne in the distance

View of the house and patio from the back of the property

A view towards the tennis court

The part of the garden that stretches from the back of of the house to the Bay of Biscayne is beautifully landscaped, with lawns framed by clumps of trees, beds of shrubs and curving hedges, and fences draped in colorful climbing plants. There are Japanese-style stone lanterns as decorative accents, and some seats placed rather romantically at the very tip of the property by the sea shore. The house, too, is quite decorative with low horizontal lines and its geometric red trim, all festooned in colorful bougainvilleas and other plants. A beautiful view into the garden unfolds from the little patio, where a small fountain trickles in the shade.

The patio

I love the pink-tinged white flowers - or rather bracts - of this variety of Bougainvillea

Pink trumpet vine (Podranea ricasoliana) on the fence around the tennis court

Crimson passion flower (Passiflora vitifolia), another climber that graces the tennis court

The path to the seats by the sea

The other half of the garden located towards the road has a very different character, since it is filled with botanical collections that are still actively used for scientific research by visiting scholars and students. As a result, this area is much less manicured and dominated by clumps of trees, somewhat like an orchard. In fact, many of the trees are indeed fruit trees, such mangoes (Mangifera indica), avocados (Persea americana), and oranges (Citrus sinensis). There are are plenty of ornamental trees and shrubs, to be sure, but they are largely arranged in a more no-nonsense fashion than in the back garden, except around the parking lot and and the entrance to the house, which features a lily pond a decorative bed of bromeliads.

Euphorbia punicea - the inflorescence look a bit like miniature version of the related poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) but the plant is a much more graceful little tree

Starfruit (Averrhoa carambola)

Bauhinia x blakeana

A tropical waterlily (Nymphaea lotus) in the lily pond by the parking lot

A planting of bromeliads by the entrance to the house

The Kampong can be visited between 10 am and 2 pm from Tuesday through Friday. Visitors should call in advance, though we were told the place usually does not get crowded and even though we visited at the same time as a tour group it felt as if we had the garden to ourselves, so do not let the odd ours or the request to call ahead deter you. For more information, you can visit the garden's website here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Desert Roses (Adenium obesum) - I Want One!

Fer over at my little garden in japan is having another Blog Carnival, and this time he is asking us all about our gardening plans for this year. Since I am graduating from college in May, I am not really sure yet what my living - or working - situation will be for most of the year; hopefully I will start graduate school in the fall but even that good be in a number of very different places. As a result I cannot really make plans for a real garden of my own this year. However, I will of course keep working on my family's garden in Michigan whenever I am home to visit my parents, and I will have HOUSEPLANTS. Thus my "plan" for this year will be to acquire a particular houseplant which I have coveted for a while but which I have so far never had the chance to grow, since it is not that commonly sold around here as well as being rather expensive and supposedly a bit difficult to keep and bring to flower. The plant in question is the desert rose (Adenium obesum), though my research suggests that the handful different species of Adenium are all of comparable loveliness.

 A deep pink cultivar of desert rose (Adenium obesum) at the Naples Botanical Garden

Apart from its stunning flowers and the way they contrast with the oddly pudgy and gnarled shape of the rest of the plant, I also like Adenium obesum because it is one of a number of bizarre and beautiful desert plants native to Oman, a fascinating country which I visited last summer and whose public green spaces - some of them previously featured on this blog - are the subject of a large part of my senior thesis. I hope to go back there someday soon, but in the meantime a desert rose on my windowsill will be a lovely reminder.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Pongal/Makar Sankranti!

A large number of Indian festivals fall on or around this weekend, including Pongal, celebrated in Tamil Nadu in South India and by Tamil people all over the world, and Makar Sankranti, which is celebrated in varying versions in many parts of the country. Most of these are mainly harvest festivals, though many different mythological events and religious observances are connected to the various holidays as well. The following music clip from the somewhat older otherwise rather dark Tamil film Mahanadhi (see its Wikipedia entry here) shows some of the traditions associated with Pongal:

If you want to learn more about any of these holidays, here is the Wikipedia page on Makar Sankranti which will link you to information about all the different versions of the holiday across South and Southeast Asia.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Family Florida Trip - Part 1: Naples Botanical Garden

I just returned from a trip to southern Florida with my parents; we spent a few days in Naples, followed by a day in Key West and a few more days in the Miami area. As is usually the case during our family trips, I made sure we visited a few interesting gardens along the way. First up was the brand-new Naples Botanical Garden, though this was not a visit planned well in advance. If it had not been for a relatively inconspicuous advertisement in one of the brochures for tourists that were lying around the hotel lobby, we might well have missed this place. Since it is so young - it first opened to the public on November 14, 2009 - the garden is not yet very well known or widely publicized and I was completely unaware of of its existence, though after coming across the little blurb in the brochure I dimly remembered having read this review on the great blog The Galloping Gardener last winter. We quickly decided to check the garden out but did not really have any sense of what to expect once we made our way to the address a mere five minutes down the road from posh-but-sleepy downtown Naples. In one of the greater garden-related surprises of my life, however, the garden turned out to be an utter delight!

The border along the visitor parking lot - I love the effect of the lime-green wall as a backdrop for the tropical flowers and foliage

Some eye-catching orange bromeliads in one of the beds outside the garden entrance

The entrance area of the garden

Already in the parking lot visitors are welcomed by eye-popping plantings of fiery bromeliads set off against white gravel, a great number of different palms and other tropical and subtropical trees, and a long border filled with bougainvilleas, small palms, various other ornamental foliage plants and many colorful bedding plants stunningly backed by a bright lime-green wall. After entering the garden, the landscaping continues in a similarly quirky, unbridled fashion, with a long, somewhat informal avenue of numerous different species of palm underplanted with myriad bromeliads and different succulents.

Some of the plantings just past the entrance building

A map of the world near the garden entrance which indicates the extent of the tropics and the various regions which have inspired themed gardens at the Naples Botanical Garden - Brazil, the Caribbean, Florida, and Southeast Asia

A flowering Aloe

The first specialized garden area that branches of this entrance way is the Children's Garden, which essentially consists of an elaborate playground set amidst a number of different educational garden "rooms", including a vegetable garden, reconstructed Florida woods and wetlands, play-friendly fountain jets, and a butterfly house. This part of the garden seemed to be popular not just with small children but also with parents, who enjoyed the ample and varied seating around the central plaza.

View into the Children's Garden

Lion's ear (Leonotis leonurus) in the butterfly house

A tiny pale blue water lily (Nymphaea sp.) in the small pool of the butterfly house

Further up the main path from the Children's Garden one reaches the Brazilian Garden, which is somewhat of a visual centerpiece for the whole complex. Designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles - see his website here - it is somewhat of a tribute to famous and extremely influential Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (see the Wikipedia page about him for more information about him and his work), whose broad swaths of bright colors and extensive use of Brazil's vast and beautiful range of native flora it emulates. In its center the only original tile mural by Roberto Burle Marx stands on  a small hill surrounded by a lily pool from which water descends in a broad cascade to a larger pool below. The rest of the garden is arranged around this larger pool and up the sides of the hill and is filled with a plethora of Brazilian plants arranged in big waves of color that echo the abstract, violently colorful  design of the mural. Virtually everything about this garden is bright, bold, and brash, with intensely colorful flowers and foliage, huge palm trees and giant water lilies (Victoria amazonica), the eye-catching mural, and the waterfall connecting the two broad panes of still black water. Yet at the same time, the overall effect is very harmonious.
View into the Brazilian Garden with the Roberto Burle Marx mural in the background

Plantings in the Brazilian Garden

Tropical water lilies (Nymphaea sp.) in the pool surrounding the mural

A view from the hill

The waterfall

A view from the Brazilian Garden outward

The large lower pool

From the Brazilian Garden one can either immediately go on to the adjacent Caribbean Garden or take a detour through some of the outer portions of the 170-acre site, which are managed as a nature sanctuary that includes several distinct ecosystems, with lakes, marshes, pine forest, mangrove swamps, and a number of rare and endangered species. A walk leads visitors through some of this natural wealth along the contours of one of the lakes, and there is even a birding tower.

Natural habitats in the outer portion of the Botanical Garden

Having taken this longer route, one arrives at the Florida Garden, which in turn as five separate sections - the Great Circle, the Idea Garden, the the Enabling Garden, the Contemplative Garden, and a symbolic labyrinth. The Great Circle consists of multiple circles of sabal palms (Sabal palmetto), Florida's state tree, underplanted with Bougainvillea glabra and surrounding a field of colorful annuals and perennials such as various varieties of blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and ornamental sages (Salvia sp.). The Idea Garden is geared towards things more commonly seen in home gardens, such as roses (Rosa sp.), vegetables, and dwarf fruit trees. Meanwhile, the enabling garden has very nicely done raised plantings along broad, easy-to-maneuver paths, demonstrating how a garden can be made accessible to those faced with physical challenges. At once serene and a reflection of one of Florida's most important crops, the Contemplative Garden is meant to sit among shady, fragrant Citrus trees. The labyrinth, rather than being executed three-dimensionally in hedges or walls, is a meditative abstract paving pattern.

The Great Circle

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia pulchella) in the Great Circle

The Idea Garden

The Enabling Garden

A simple, pretty "vertical garden" in the Enabling Garden

Beyond the the Florida Garden lies the Asian Garden, pleasantly unusual in that it does not draw on the horticultural and architectural traditions of Japan or China but rather those of Southeast Asia, with the most notable influences being Thailand and the Indonesian island of Bali. It was designed by the renowned Australian-born, Balinese-by-choice landscape architect Made Wijaya - whose website can be found here - and tries to emulate not simply a garden space but a whole cultural landscape, with lotus ponds, pavilions, vegetable beds, two small rice paddies, a little stream, and even artificial temple ruins. I personally did not really like the latter because they had too much of an air of theme-park artificiality for my taste. The rest, however, is quite lovely, despite the fact that this is one of the youngest parts of the Botanical Garden and therefore one in which the plantings still look very new and a bit unsettled. Given a bit of time this garden will likely become truly enchanting.

Sign at the entrance to the Asian Garden

View across one of the rice paddies towards the Thai pavilion

A Balinese shrine set on an island in one of the ponds

The vegetable patch below the rice paddies

The little stream that runs through the garden

Next to the Asian Garden is the Caribbean Garden, which displays both native vegetation of the Caribbean islands as well as historically or currently important crops of the region, such as tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), pineapples (Ananas comosus), and bananas and plantains (Musa acuminata x balbisiana). The centerpiece of the garden is a bright turquoise hut, and there is also a beautiful long pergola that curves along a large lawn.

Pineapple plants (Ananas comosus) and banana plants (Musa acuminata x balbisiana) in the Caribbean Garden

The little house in the center of the garden

The large lawn and pergola

Between the Caribbean Garden and the entrance area and adjacent to the Brazilian Garden lies the Water Garden, a essentially a large, rounded lily pool not unlike those in the Brazilian Garden. It is filled with all sorts of tropical water lilies and other aquatic plants and a boardwalk across its center allows one to get much closer to these beauties than is usually the case.On one side the Water Garden also connects to the River of Grass, a recreation of the Everglades landscape which serves to filter run-off from the gardens.

A view from the boardwalk out to the edge of the Water Garden

A view along the boardwalk

Another view of the Water Garden with the River of Grass in the background

On the whole, the Naples Botanical Garden was a really great place to visit. I loved seeing a brand-new garden project of such magnitude, intricacy, and diversity since usually such a big concern with gardens one can visit is conservation rather than creation. Besides, considering that it is growing, the garden is likely to get even better. At $12.95 for anyone over 14 the admission fee is a bit hefty but perhaps understandable in light of the fact that this garden is the product of a private initiative by local individuals and is sustained by entrance fees and charitable contributions. If you want to learn more about the garden, you can visit its extensive website here.