A Merry Gardener Horticulture for daily living Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/rss.xml Meet Me Under the Mistletoe http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13021/ Fri, 01 Dec 2017 14:27:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13021/ Many plants enter our homes for the holidays as we deck the halls with holly boughs and adorn an evergreen tree. Perhaps one of the most interesting botanical holiday traditions, though, is kissing under the mistletoe.

Mistletoe has long been a part of human folklore and tradition. In Europe, the Druids and other ancient peoples believed that mistletoe possessed supernatural powers because it remained green in winter when the trees lost their leaves. Because of this, the Druids used mistletoe for sacred rituals during the winter solstice.

Today we recognize mistletoe as a sprig of greenery with spoon-shaped leaves and white berries, tied up with ribbon during holiday festivities. Washington Irving wrote about the kissing tradition in 1820 in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent: "The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

Outside of its use as holiday decor, the existence of mistletoe is rarely considered. In nature, it grows not on the ground, but high in the branches of trees. One species of mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is native to southern Illinois.

The scientific name Phoradendron translates to "thief of the tree." This name is apt, as mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that steals water and nutrients from the tree that it lives on. Because mistletoe depends upon a host for survival, it requires a specialized dispersal mechanism that delivers seeds to tree branches.

Mistletoe berries, while toxic to humans, are a prized food source for birds. However, simply being eaten by a bird and excreted in midair, only to fall to the ground, would not do. Instead, mistletoe seeds have a sticky coating that causes them to cling to bird feathers and feet after being passed. The bird must land and scrape these sticky seeds off onto another surface like a twig, thus delivering them to their desired destination with great frequency.

Named for its seed, the word "mistletoe" is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words that meant dung and twig. It is both ironic and beautiful that a parasitic plant called "dung on a twig" can be a symbol of love and vitality. I hope this brief botanical history lesson gives you a new appreciation for mistletoe this season.

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Jack-O-Lantern http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12948/ Tue, 31 Oct 2017 15:00:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12948/ Happy Halloween everyone!

Today's blog tells the story of why we carve pumpkins at Halloween.

This tradition stems from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. In the legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks at the end of the night. So Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Once Jack had the Devil inside the coin, he placed the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from changing back to his original form. After keeping him trapped for a while, Jack freed the Devil under the condition that he would not claim Jack's soul when he died.

When Jack died, God would not let him into heaven because of his unsavory tricks. The Devil kept his promise and did not allow Jack to enter hell either. He sent Jack away into the dark night with a single coal for light. Jack placed his coal in a carved turnip and began roaming the earth for the rest of eternity. The Irish referred to his ghost as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O'Lantern.

People in Ireland and across the British Isles began to make their own versions of Jack's lantern by carving turnips with scary faces to frighten away Stingy Jack and other roaming spirits. When immigrants from the region came to America, they brought this tradition with them, and soon found that pumpkins were even better than turnips for making jack-o-lanterns.

After World War II, the baby boom and the end of sugar rationing caused a huge surge in trick-or-treating activities. As a result, the demand for jack-o-lanterns soared. Plant breeders responded by developing pumpkins specialized for carving. Smooth orange pumpkins with sturdy handles were released, bearing names like Spooktacular, Happy Jack, and Jack-O-Lantern.

While scary faces are still popular, pumpkin carving today has become a limitless creative outlet. Everything from cats to movie characters can be found glowing on someone's front porch. Enjoy the unique and artful pumpkins in your neighborhood this evening!

For more fun facts about pumpkin history, how to grow pumpkins, and even pumpkin recipes, visit http://extension.illinois.edu/pumpkins/default.cfm

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Pumpkin Time http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12947/ Mon, 30 Oct 2017 16:49:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12947/ The joy and festivity of autumn holds a special place in my heart. Judging by the decorative displays on front porches everywhere I go, and the flood of seasonal social media hashtags [#fallfavorites #pumpkinspice #pumpkintime], I believe that I am not alone.

The central player in all things fall is the pumpkin, so to celebrate the spirit of the season, today's blog post will focus on some fun pumpkin facts.

Illinois is the number one pumpkin-producing state in the U.S., beating out the other top fifteen states by growing 2-4 times as many acres of pumpkins. In 2016, 17,400 acres of pumpkins were harvested in Illinois, producing a crop worth $52.4 million.

Pumpkins are part of the plant family Cucurbitaceae, along with squash, cucumbers, melons, and gourds. There are a few species of pumpkins that we grow today for various purposes, including Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Curcurbita pepo. The botanical name Cucurbita pepo literally means squash melon—not exactly creative, but certainly accurate. What's interesting is that acorn squash, zucchini, yellow squash, and some pumpkins are all varieties of the same species, C. pepo.

Pumpkins are native to the Americas, and are one of the oldest crops in the western hemisphere. Archeologists have identified cucurbit seeds in 12,000-year-old mastodon dung, suggesting that these and other prehistoric megafauna played an important role in the lifecycle of wild pumpkin ancestors. A recent study of archeological and modern DNA samples from wild and domesticated Cucurbita species suggests that humans may have domesticated cucurbits six different times in six different places.

However it happened, pumpkins became an important crop for food and fun. Pumpkin is a nutritious vegetable packed with beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkin over open fire, slow-cooked them for stews, and dried thin slices to preserve for longer storage. Records from the European colonists indicate that they were quick to incorporate pumpkin into their diet. One of the most amusing colonial records is a quirky poem from the 1630s.

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

If Barley be wanting to make into Malt,
We must be contented and think it no Fault
For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips
Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.

Sorry to the hipsters. Pumpkin beer was cool in the 17th century.

Tune in tomorrow for more pumpkin fun, Halloween edition.

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Holes and Frass; Garden Guests http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12809/ Tue, 22 Aug 2017 09:57:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12809/ One morning in mid-July I found a surprise in my herb garden. My lovely borage (see my post on borage) had been turned into lunch by some hungry lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars). The leaves looked like crochet, and clumps of webbing and frass (caterpillar excrement) perched in the tops of several stalks.

While many gardeners would have been upset by this destruction, I had reason to be excited. I knew that many butterflies use herbs as larval host plants, so my co-worker Maggie and I decided to capture and rear a caterpillar to find out what species had come to visit my garden.

The captured culprit was colored in light and dark green, and was covered with spines. Three pairs of true legs and five pairs of prolegs (the pseudo-legs on the back half of a caterpillar) rippled like "the wave" as the caterpillar crawled along the inside of its new mesh enclosure. It ignored the borage stalk I placed in the enclosure with it, persisting in a restless clamber across the mesh top of the butterfly house. I worried that the stress of capture was preventing the caterpillar from eating, and hoped it would settle down.

The next morning I was met by yet another surprise. The caterpillar had formed its chrysalis overnight! (No wonder it was busy crawling along the top of the cage the day before.) The chrysalis was a dark army green with touches of gold highlighting a twin row of spines. I was already one step closer to learning the identity of my mystery guest.

Unfortunately, as nature would have it, I went on vacation the next week and missed the day when the butterfly emerged. Maggie released the butterfly and managed to capture a couple of picture for me.

Based upon all of the clues we gathered (the host plant, the webbing that the caterpillar made, the appearance of the caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult butterfly, and the length of time between chrysalis formation and emergence) I determined that my visitor was a painted lady, Vanessa cardui.

According to the Iowa State University Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site, Vanessa cardui is the most widely distributed butterfly species in the world. It is found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, North and Central America. The host plant range for the species includes Compositae (especially thistles), Boraginaceae (borage!), Malvaceae (especially hollyhock and common mallow), and Fabaceae (legumes like soybean). With its wide host plant range and regional distribution, it is likely that there are painted lady butterflies in your neighborhood too!

I had such fun with this butterfly identification project. I hope it inspires you to plant a little extra in your garden for guests like the painted lady butterfly and other pollinators. For more information about growing gardens to attract pollinators, visit the University of Illinois Extension "Pollinator Pocket" website http://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/pollinators/ or refer to the Pollinator Partnership ecoregion planting guides http://pollinator.org/guides.

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Edible Ornamental, Uncommon Herb – Borage http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12709/ Thu, 06 Jul 2017 16:51:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12709/ Giant, bright blue eyes in a child have the power to strike me still. The astounding, azure blue star of a borage flower catch me and hold me fast. Few flowers produce such a remarkable and moving color as that of the clear-sky blue borage blossom.

Borage is an herb unknown to many. It is an annual, growing 2-3 feet tall with a basal rosette architecture. The leaves are rough and covered in fine hairs, while long hairs densely coat the stems. From the center of the plant, numerous flower stalks emerge. Star-shaped blue flowers nod on bowing stems tinted with red. The stunning flowers and textured leaves would be enough to make borage a valuable ornamental plant—beyond looks, borage also makes itself useful as an edible herb.

The young, tender leaves and flowers have a flavor similar to cucumber. Use borage fresh in salads, dips, and soups. The flowers also make a pretty garnish for drinks and desserts. Freezing the flowers inside of ice cubes can add a delicate touch and light cucumber flavor to iced beverages.

Borage can be grown readily from seed. Sow seeds directly in the garden after the danger of frost has passed; for a head start on the season start seeds indoors four weeks before the average frost-free date. Sowing new plants every four weeks will provide a continuous supply of foliage for harvest throughout the summer. Space plants 12-15 inches apart in an area that receives full sun.

The hairs on the leaves and stems of borage can be irritating to some people's skin, so take care when harvesting. Select tender leaves to harvest, avoiding the larger, older leaves. Cut leaves and flowers from the plant with a sharp knife or pruning shears. Rinse and pat dry before use.

Borage is such a stunning and useful plant. It certainly deserves more attention from gardeners and cooks alike!

For more information about borage and other herbs, visit http://extension.illinois.edu/herbs/borage.cfm

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Spice Up Your Landscape with Ornamental Peppers http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12604/ Wed, 31 May 2017 09:52:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12604/ Ornamental chile peppers may provide just the kick you're looking for to spice up your landscape. Breeders at the New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute have paired the vibrant and variable colors available in chile peppers with a compact growth habit and upward-facing fruits. The result? A whole suite of ornamental chile pepper cultivars.

Since the 1990s, NMSU has released a series of holiday- themed ornamental chiles. As part of the fun, the colors of ornamental chile peppers change as the fruits mature. 'NuMex Valentine's Day' peppers turn from red to white and 'NuMex Halloween' from black to orange; 'NuMex Easter' peppers are purple, yellow, and orange. To date, NMSU has released over a dozen ornamental chile cultivars.

These plants are well suited to growing in full-sun flowerbeds and patio pots; you can even grow them indoors as long as they have 12 hours of strong light. The short stature of ornamental chile plants—maxing out below 12 inches— makes them perfect for the shorter tiers in your landscape design.

Ornamental chiles can tolerate hot conditions, but for best growth, water when the top half inch of soil becomes dry. Ornamental chile peppers are frost tender, so hold off planting until several weeks after your area's average frost-free date. For more on cultivating peppers, visit U of I Extension's "Watch Your Garden Grow" (go.illinois.edu/peppers).

In 2014, 'NuMex Easter' was named an All-America Selections winner for its superior performance at trial gardens across the country. All-America Selections is an independent, not-for-profit organization that tests new varieties of garden plants, releasing the best as AAS winners. The judges appreciated the cultivar's compact and uniform plant size, colorful and eye-catching fruits, and ease of growth. Ornamental chile peppers come with the bonus of being edible, at least if you enjoy spicy flavors. For more information about All-America Selections winners, visit all-americaselections.org/winners.

To see how 'NuMex Easter' and 'NuMex Halloween' look in person, stop by the Jackson County Extension Office in Murphysboro. I have a demonstration garden planted with these and other ornamental vegetables and herbs.

Ornamental peppers are a fun and unique addition to the garden, sure to start conversations and attract visitors.


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Spring Struggles http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12489/ Mon, 24 Apr 2017 18:02:00 +0000 http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12489/ If you have ever found yourself second-guessing your spring planting enthusiasm because of all of the miserable failures that you have faced, know that you are not alone! Novice and expert gardeners alike face a number of challenges early in the growing season. In the hopes of demonstrating that your own failures are not uncommon and certainly are not cause to give up, I've decided to share a few of my own challenges and set-backs that have occurred this spring. Perhaps sharing these experiences will also help you to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

1) Crispy critters: Back in March, I started seeds in our high tunnel on a fabricated propagation bench (a table with a heat mat and a plastic cover to protect the seedlings on cold nights). During the day, the plastic cover was opened to prevent over-heating. About a week after the seedlings came up, the cover was lifted a little too late and the plants were toasted. Every little seedling was completely desiccated, withered up to nothing in the 140°F heat that had built up under the plastic tent. Moral of the story: be careful not to solarize your seedlings!

2) Furry critters: After the heat-kill incident, I replanted my seeds and took off the plastic cover completely. The night temperatures had increased enough that I wasn't worried about freezing and I didn't want a repeat incident. Two days later, I found big holes and disturbed soil in my flats. Some little rodent had been through overnight, plucking out and eating most of my seeds. Moral of the story: seed predators will enjoy the buffet you lay out for them if you don't create a fortress around your seeds. Wire caging, cloches, or plastic covers at night can be used to protect your seed trays.

3) Fungi: A few of the survivors, undisturbed by hungry mice, began to germinate this week. Having only a short time in the sun, the biggest enemy of seedlings struck. Several of my half-inch seedlings succumbed to damping off—a fungal disease that commonly infects and kills young seedlings. The best defense against damping off is starting with sterile containers and potting mix, and providing good air circulation. While I began with clean materials, my prolonged saga of attempting to germinate seeds in warm, moist media created the ideal conditions for fungal growth. Moral of the story: keep your growing area well ventilated and as clean as possible. Start with fresh media even in replant situations.

Growing plants does not come without its challenges, but I think that it is in overcoming our challenges that we are able to appreciate our success. Learn from what did not work and keep on planting. Then you can do your happy dance when your plants survive!

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