Tales from a Plant Addict Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old. Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/rss.xml Seven Sons Tree—Heptacodium miconioides https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11254/ Sun, 04 Sep 2016 00:12:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11254/ When I met my husband Chris, his thumbs were not even the slightest shade of green. He started to show some interest in topics related to gardening as time went on, but his budding interest really blossomed when we bought our home, and a year later bought the lot next door.

The agreement when we purchased the lot next door was that the landscaping there would be his project, with my territory being around the house. Chris spent a lot of time drawing out his plans, and slowly bringing them to life as time and money have allowed.

One of his biggest projects has been four large planting beds. What to plant in these beds has been a subject of debate in the Nelson household.

The area in question is in full sun, and typically a lot of wind. Chris' ideas on what to plant evolved as his knowledge grew. His first idea included hostas. I vetoed that idea, as full sun and incredible wind would reduce any hosta to a withered mess.

For a while Chris wanted to plant crepe myrtles, a plant way more accustomed to Southern climates than central Illinois. The crepe myrtle is a small to medium sized tree covered in flowers by midsummer, with attractive exfoliating bark. But typically crepe myrtles are hardy only to Zone 7, with a few listed as Zone 6.

Zone 6 cultivars have a chance of surviving in our Zone 5b climate if planted in a sheltered spot and mulched heavily for the winter. Crepe myrtles overwintered in central Illinois typically die back to the ground each year and so usually never get very large. The lot next door definitely doesn't qualify as a sheltered spot where a Zone 6 plant could hope to survive the winter. This realization pretty much killed Chris' plans to plant crepe myrtle.

Some readers will remember that at one time my husband was sold on planting the Ben Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha. A summer-flowering tree also with attractive bark and great fall color like the crepe myrtle, it is much better suited to our Zone 5 climate. However, it is a very slow growing tree and we found it difficult to locate a specimen that was much larger than a seedling that didn't cost a small fortune.

Well Chris finally found "the" tree—the Seven Sons tree, Heptacodium miconioides. It has all the plusses of the crepe myrtle and the Ben Franklin tree—summer flowers and attractive bark, plus nice fall color. It will survive the winter in this area. Plus we found decent size trees for about $50 locally.

Seven Sons tree was first collected in 1907 in China. It was pretty much forgotten until the 1980s, and although it is more widely available now than it used to be, it is still a tree that most people will ask "what is that?" when they see it in the landscape.

The big attraction of this species is the fragrant, creamy white flowers that are borne in clusters of seven in late summer and early autumn, a time when there aren't a lot of fresh blooms in the landscape. Typically the flowers are at their peak around Labor Day weekend. Coupled with showy purple fruit and purple-bronze foliage later in the autumn, it provides quite a show in the landscape.

Through the winter Heptacodium shows off its tan bark which exfoliates to reveal a deep brown inner bark. Spring brings bright new green oval shaped leaves to start the cycle all over again.

Depending on your point of view, the Seven Sons tree is either a small tree or a large shrub. It reaches heights of up to twenty feet and widths of eight to ten feet. It may be grown as a single stem, which looks a lot more tree-like, or multi-stemmed, which is a lot more shrub-like.

People I know that have Heptacodium in their landscape have recommended keeping it multi-stemmed if deer are a concern. With multiple stems, there is not enough room for a deer to get his antlers close enough to rub on the tree and damage the bark.

One description of the Seven Sons tree touts it as "indestructible". That is just what this spot in our landscape needs. Our trees have lived up to this reputation in the six years since we planted them. The flowers in late summer are always eye-catching—each year someone passing by has asked about them. I think Chris chose a winner for his landscape design!


Seed Saving https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11712/ Fri, 02 Sep 2016 11:01:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11712/ One of the first "gardening lessons" I remember as a young girl was saving seed from marigolds. I remember my mom showing me how to pick the flowers that were dead and dried on the plant and put them in a brown lunch sack.

I also remember that brown lunch sack sat in a cabinet in our basement, and if you wanted to plant marigolds in the spring, you took some of the dried flowers from the sack. I loved to help break open the flowers and see all the tiny seeds inside.

It sounds a little crazy that all these years later I remember doing this with my mom, but I do. This memory has nothing to do with the latest toy, movie or other fad, but has everything to do with quiet moments with my mom. Now I'm doing the same things with my children. Gardening gives you a lot of these moments. If you ever wonder whether gardening with your children is worth the effort, I will tell you wholeheartedly it is.

Flash forward a few years, and in high school I bought some seed of the first white flowered marigolds. I grew them, and wanted to save seed for next year. Just like I did as a young girl, I picked the dead dried flowers and stored them in a brown lunch sack in the basement cabinet.

The next year when I grew those seeds, I was surprised at the results. Some of the flowers didn't really look like marigolds at all. Some weren't white, but a weird green color with petals that stuck out like spokes on a wheel, more like a daisy than a marigold. What in the world had I done wrong?

The problem was that I had saved seed from a hybrid. Hybrids are cultivars that are developed by crossing, or hybridizing, particular plants as parents. Then the seed from that cross is sold as a hybrid cultivar, a specific combination of genetic material from the parent plants. If you harvest seed from the hybrid plants, you are getting a new combination of the parent plants' genes, and that new combination may look absolutely nothing like the original hybrid.

So you may think that as long as a plant is not a hybrid cultivar, the seed is worth saving. Not so fast. You have some factors to consider. Just because a plant is not a hybrid does not mean that the seed you are saving is what you think it is. For instance, if you planted any combination of squash, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers in your garden, they all have the potential to cross-pollinate with each other.

This cross pollinating does not affect the quality of the fruit consumed that year. But the seed you save from that melon that was the best you ever tasted may not taste so great next summer if the seeds you saved were actually a cross of that perfect melon with the squash planted next to it.

So how in the world does anyone save seed from squash, melon, pumpkin and cucumber? In a commercial setting to produce non-hybrid seed, individual cultivars are separated by half a mile or more.

If you have figured out a plant that you'd like to save seed from, how do you do it? Each crop has its specific needs, but in general you need to wait until the flower and its fruit are fully mature. In some cases, especially with vegetables, you may need to wait until the fruit is way past the stage at which it would be normally eaten. For instance, a mature cucumber which contains ripe seeds will appear very large and usually yellow in the garden-- not the point at which you would want to eat it!

Some crops need specific treatment after the seeds are collected in order for those seeds to germinate. Tomato seeds, for example, have a gelatinous coating on them that contains germination inhibitors. Unless that layer is removed, germination cannot occur. This layer can be removed by just wearing away over time, by passing through an animal's gut, or through fermentation.

To save tomato seeds at home, cut the top off a clean, ripe, disease-free tomato and squeeze the seeds, juice and pulp into a jar. Place the jar in an area above 70°F for three days—it would be a great idea to put this jar outside or somewhere people don't frequent, as it will develop a strong odor of rotting tomatoes. Do not cap the jars, but secure a cloth over the top with a rubber band to keep fruit flies out. You may stir the contents occasionally if desired. After three days or so, there should be a layer of mold on top of the contents, and seeds should be visible on the bottom of the jar.

Remove the layer of mold and pour the remaining liquid containing the seeds through a mesh strainer and rinse with water until seeds are free of any pulp or moldy bits. Dry the seeds on a paper or glass dish in a warm spot until thoroughly dry. Do not apply direct heat to the seeds or you will cook them!

There are various pieces of information available for specific crops, but seeds in general, including tomato seeds, should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. If seeds are not totally dry when they are stored, it is likely they will mold.

Seed saving has been used successfully for many crops over the years-- the varieties we call "heirloom" are here today because of seed savers. There are many groups out there that trade seeds, as well as tips and tricks on seed saving. Your local U of I Extension office can also give you some suggestions on how to save seed of your favorite vegetable or flower.


Hardy Kiwifruit https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11253/ Sun, 28 Aug 2016 00:05:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11253/ My husband jokes with me about our yard being "one giant experiment". We have planted a lot of different plants over the years, both ornamental and edible. We have had a lot of spectacular successes and failures in each category. As time goes on we have found some new favorites in the edible category. One of those is a hardy kiwifruit, Actinidia kolomikta. I love kiwifruit so the promise of growing some in my own backyard seemed too good to be true.

Hardy kiwifruit is a cousin of the fuzzy brown-skinned kiwifruit we see in the grocery store, Actinidia deliciosa. There are about 60 different species of Actinidia that produce edible fruits, and they are widely variable in size, shape, color and hairiness. All the fruits are considered berries and grow on woody vines that can reach 20 or more feet in length.

Actinidia deliciosa is native to Southern China and is considered to be the national fruit of China. It is hardy to Zones 7 or 8 in the U.S. depending on the variety. There are other species of Actinidia that are native as far east as Japan or as far north as Siberia, making them hardy to Zone 3 or even 2 in some cases.

Actinidia deliciosa made its way to New Zealand in the early 1900's and were grown mainly as a novelty by home gardeners. Many thought they tasted like gooseberries, so they were nicknamed the "Chinese Gooseberry" though they are not related to the gooseberry. It wasn't until the 1950's that fruits were commercially grown, exported and given the name "kiwifruit" in reference to New Zealand's brown furry national bird, the kiwi. Today New Zealand is the second largest producer of kiwifruit, with Italy being the number one producer, and Chile the third largest producer. The U.S. and several other countries produce kiwifruit, but all at a fraction of that produced by Italy, New Zealand and Chile.

Homeowners in the Southern U.S. can grow Actinidia deliciosa, but those of us in Zone 6 and lower are limited to several species that are all considered to be "hardy kiwifruit". The most commonly grown species are: A. arguta, and A. kolomikta which have fruit with smooth green skin and flesh, and A. purpurea, which has fruit with reddish skin and flesh. All the hardy kiwifruits are about the size and shape of a grape, and their skins are edible, unlike their brown furry cousin A. deliciosa.

Kiwifruit vines produce either male or female flowers, so a minimum of one male and one female vine is needed to produce fruit. One male vine can pollinate somewhere between 6 and 9 female vines. The flowers bloom early in the spring, leaving them vulnerable to damage from late frosts.

Actinidia arguta 'Issai' is one of the only hardy kiwifruit that is self-fertile, meaning it produces both male and female flowers. It is also reportedly bears fruit as quickly as a year after planting and is small enough to plant in a large container. Most hardy kiwifruit vines take upwards of three years or more to produce fruit.

I planted two hardy kiwifruit vines, A. kolomikta 'Arctic Beauty' when we first moved into our house in 2005. The 'Arctic Beauty' variety is one of the only hardy kiwifruits that prefers partial shade, and it is on the small side, growing 10 to 12 feet long. Despite my careful planting, one of the vines promptly died that first year. I had never gotten around to labeling which was the male and which was the female vine, so I ended up having to purchase a new set of male and female vines. That new set took off with great vigor and quickly covered the two trellises that my husband built on the north side of our garage for them.

One unique feature of the 'Arctic Beauty' variety is the striking pink and white variegated leaves, particularly on the male vine. They are gorgeous, and create a nice feature in our landscape. In the years after I planted our kiwifruit, I heard a lot of negative feedback from other people in the area that had also planted hardy kiwifruit, complaining that they had never had their plants produce a single fruit. I started worrying about our plants. Were they destined to just be pretty foliage, or would they ever produce the coveted kiwifruit?

About four years after planting our 'Arctic Beauty' kiwifruit, we harvested our first fruit. We only had about six grape sized kiwifruit, but they were delicious. In the years following that first harvest, the vines produced more and more fruit, even during the horrible drought in 2012. For the last few years the female vine has been consistently covered in fruit. The female vines produce attractive white flowers in the spring, and the fruit spend the entire summer growing and maturing.

Fruits begin to ripen in late September and October, becoming slightly soft and extremely sweet. Last year we barely got to eat any of the fruits because the birds beat us to them. We will need to cover the female vines with netting to keep them away if we want to harvest any this year. Vine-ripened fruits have the best flavor, but unripe fruits may be harvested if frost threatens and allowed to ripen in the refrigerator.

We have had to prune our kiwifruit vines out of necessity because they are extremely vigorous growers, threatening to swallow the side of our garage if we're not careful. But selective pruning can not only keep the vines a manageable size, it can increase fruiting. Pruning to manage size can be done at any time of year. Pruning to increase fruiting is best done during the winter dormant season. While the vines are dormant, it is a good idea to remove any tangled or broken vines, and to prune out any vines that fruited the previous year. Flowers and later fruit are produced on one year old vines. Ideally these one year old vines should be spaced about a foot apart on the trellis or other support.

Hardy kiwifruit are one fruit that is rarely seen for sale in the produce department of your local grocery store. They are simply too delicate and too perishable to ship great distances. I saw them for sale once at a major grocery store last fall, and when I went back to buy more the next week they were no longer available. Occasionally they may be found at farmer's markets or specialty stores sold as "baby kiwifruit". Kiwifruit are great sources of Vitamins C, K and E, fiber, and potassium. They are a truly unique addition to any landscape and quite tasty as well.

Homegrown Tomatoes https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11252/ Sun, 21 Aug 2016 00:03:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11252/ Any tomato lover can relate to the statement that nothing quite matches the taste of a homegrown tomato. The factors that contribute to that delicious flavor may surprise you—or at least make you appreciate great tasting tomatoes even more!

Tomatoes will not ripen properly in daytime high temperatures above about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Researcher's evidence suggests that night temperatures may be more important for both fruit set and ripening.

Warm nights between about 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal conditions for tomatoes to set fruit and ripen properly and develop the flavor that makes gardeners' mouths water. Cool nights below about 55 degrees Fahrenheit will negatively affect fruit set and ripening.

It's not very hard to taste a tomato and decide whether you like or dislike the flavor. But what are you really tasting? Tomato flavor is a combination of two major and one minor factor. From there, things get complicated quickly.

The two big players in tomato flavor are sugars and acids. They are considered to be major factors in flavor because they occur in the largest quantity. There are two primary sugars produced in tomatoes: fructose and glucose. Obviously, sugars are the source of sweetness in tomatoes. The acids in tomatoes are mainly citric and malic acids. These are the source of tart flavors in tomatoes.

Looking at the possible combinations of sugar and acid levels in tomatoes, researchers have been able to make some generalizations. Tomatoes with high sugar and high acid levels are generally considered to have "good flavor". People tend to categorize tomatoes with low sugar and low acid levels as "bland". A tomato with high sugar but low acid content would most likely be called "sweet", and one with low sugar but high acid content would be considered "tart" by most.

The minor factor in flavor is volatile compounds. These occur in minute amounts, but researchers have found that they are the factor that contributes most to what we label as "tomato" flavor. Volatiles are the key factor that helps us distinguish flavor differences among varieties with similar sugar and acid content.

These volatile compounds are not detected by the tongue, but by the olfactory nerve in the nose, otherwise known as the sense of smell. We usually forget that the sense of smell contributes to tasting the flavor of foods until we are congested and can't smell anything. Then it seems like many things taste more bland than usual. This is because our olfactory nerve cannot detect the volatiles in the food we're eating.

Researchers have quantified over 400 different volatile compounds in the tomato. Of these, only thirty occur in quantities greater than one part per billion (ppb). Only sixteen of these compounds have been associated with significant contribution to tomato flavor.

How does this all relate to the difference in flavor between homegrown and artificially ripened tomatoes? The different conditions in which each group is grown has significant effects on the levels of sugar, acid, and volatile compounds in the tomatoes produced.

Flavor is not necessarily the first consideration when breeding or choosing a commercial variety to produce. Generally speaking, traits like disease and pest resistance usually rank higher in importance. Also, a commercial producer must consider how well a variety can survive harvesting and shipping to market. This is one reason why commercial tomatoes are typically picked very under ripe, at a stage called "mature green" meaning in another 24 hours or so it will show some pink coloring, and be at the "breaker" stage.

Tomatoes that are still green will store a lot longer, and travel better than ripe tomatoes. Before they travel to market, they are artificially ripened using ethylene gas. Ethylene is naturally produced by ripening fruits of all kinds. Exposing the mature green tomatoes to ethylene will trigger the ripening process, so red tomatoes are delivered to market. Those tomatoes that were picked at the breaker stage do not need the ethylene to ripen, since they have already begun the process. Interestingly enough, these breaker tomatoes are the ones sold in stores as "vine- ripened".

Tomatoes destined for processing into canned products are allowed to ripen fully on the vine, yet must be tough enough to not break during harvest and transport to the canning facility. They are generally drier and have thicker skin and flesh than varieties intended for fresh consumption. They are definitely not the tender juicy homegrown tomatoes we savor each summer.

Exposure to sunlight is crucial for sugar production in tomatoes. Picking mature green or breaker stage tomatoes reduces their time in the sun, and reduces the levels of sugar in the tomatoes. Some studies have related the amount of potassium to acid levels in tomatoes. Fertilizing with greater amounts of potassium resulted in higher acid content in most varieties.

Without question, research has shown that artificially ripened tomatoes have significantly lower levels of volatile compounds than homegrown fully ripe tomatoes. The million dollar question that remains unanswered is how to artificially induce green tomatoes to produce the volatile compounds.

There is a lot of science behind the casual observation that homegrown tomatoes taste better than store bought. Next time you enjoy a great tasting homegrown tomato, consider not only how wonderful the flavor is, but also how wonderful and amazing it is that such a small, common fruit houses incredibly complex processes to produce that flavor.

Anyone interested in trying different tomato varieties is encouraged to attend University of Illinois Extension's 11th Annual Tomato Taste Panel. We will highlight unique tomato recipes and sample a wide variety of tomato cultivars ranging from heirlooms to new hybrids. The Taste Panel will be held at the Macon County office on August 30th at 1 and 6 pm and at the Piatt County office on August 31st at 6 pm. Register online at go.illinois.edu/dmp or call 877-6042 .

Eggplant https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11251/ Sun, 14 Aug 2016 00:28:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11251/ In my own limited experience, it seems like there is no middle ground in fondness for eggplant. People either seem to love it or hate it, with no in between.

I don't remember ever eating it growing up. I recall my mom saying she didn't really like it, and it took a long time to prepare, so there was never any eggplant served in the Schultz house. My first taste of eggplant was about 13 years ago when I purchased a 'share' of an organic farm, and each week I got a box filled with whatever was being harvested at the farm. I received plenty of eggplant that summer, and after experimenting with different recipes found that I really liked it.

Though lots of my friends were used to eating eggplant and I thought I was the only one who wasn't, overall Americans are not big consumers of eggplant. The USDA released statistics that show eggplant consumption in the U.S. to be less than one pound per person each year. Compare that with a more widely known and used commodity like tomatoes, which is consumed in fresh and processed forms at a rate of about 92 pounds per person each year.

Eggplant, Solanum melongena, is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. The Solanaceae family also includes poisonous plants like Deadly Nightshade, so sometimes introducing this crop to a new part of the world was slow, as people believed it to be poisonous.

Scientists believe eggplant is native to Southern India and Sri Lanka. The fruits of wild plants are small, less than about an inch in diameter. Historians believe that eggplant was cultivated primarily in southern and eastern Asia for centuries before Arabs brought eggplant with them while invading Persia in the Middle Ages. This was eggplant's entry into the Mediterranean region and the Western world.

The name 'eggplant' became common in the 1700's, because early European cultivars were yellow or white skinned and the size and shape of goose or hen's eggs. The 'typical' eggplant cultivar grown in Europe and North America today produces an elongated oval fruit with a dark purple skin. In Europe, the eggplant is more commonly referred to as the 'aubergine', a name derived from one of the original Sanskrit names for the fruit. I've noticed this term is sometimes used as a name for the dark purple color reminiscent of many eggplants. I was stumped the first time I read a description in a catalog for something that gave 'aubergine' as one of the color choices—I guess it does sound a lot more exotic and sophisticated than 'dark purple'!

Different eggplant cultivars produce a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors of eggplants. Many of the most unique looking cultivars come from Asia and India, where the crop has been a common food for centuries. Some are egg shaped and sized, while others are larger. 'Chinese' types are elongated like a cucumber, sometimes curving at the end. Colors can range from white, to yellow, green and shades of purple and red. Some cultivars are even striped or have different colors at the stem and blossom end.

When growing eggplant, a good rule of thumb is they need warm weather. Most people grow them from seed indoors then transplant seedlings into the garden, much like you would a tomato. But eggplant transplants are far more sensitive to cold soil and air temperatures than tomatoes. If it is too cold when transplants are set out, they will refuse to grow, and may even show signs of cold injury. One rule of thumb is to plant eggplant at least a week after the average last frost date for your region. In central Illinois this is around May 15th.

When choosing eggplant, look for fruits that are glossy, not dull. If you press on the fruit, it should yield but bounce back. If you press and the dent remains, or the fruit is dull rather than shiny, it's overripe and likely to have bitter flavor and tough seeds.

There is an old wives' tale persistently circulating that 'female' eggplants are less seedy than 'male' eggplants, and vice versa. People argue that the shape of the dimple on the blossom-end determines the sex of the fruit. There is no such thing as a male or female eggplant. Fruits develop from the female flower on a plant, but have no gender. Proper harvesting and storage is what determines fruit quality.

Ideally eggplant should be used immediately after harvesting. Fruits stored in the refrigerator for extended periods tend to deteriorate quickly and develop bitter flavors. I wouldn't be surprised if some people dislike eggplant because their only experience was with one that was bitter.

Eggplant is never eaten raw, it is always cooked. Some cooks prefer to remove much of the water in eggplant to improve the quality of the finished dish. This process involves sprinkling sliced eggplant with salt and removing the water that is drawn out. This process is called degorging. This process will also reduce some of the bitterness associated with eggplant, though most new cultivars are not very bitter to start with, if harvested properly.

My favorite way to prepare eggplant is to peel it, cut it into one inch cubes and sprinkle liberally with salt. Allow to sit for 30 minutes to draw out any bitterness in the eggplant. Rinse the cubes and dry them. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil and your favorite seasonings. Roast in a 425 degree oven until the cubes are golden brown and caramelized. They can be eaten as is or added to pasta sauce or salads.

Coreopsis https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11250/ Sun, 07 Aug 2016 00:27:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11250/ This time of year I am on the lookout for plants that still look good in the garden. Most plants look pretty tired and haggard by the time August rolls around. Adding in some plants that are starting to bloom or still blooming by late summer breathes some life into a tired landscape.

If you're looking for a real workhorse of a plant for your perennial garden, consider Coreopsis. Many cultivars of this plant flower beginning in spring and continue into the fall. Most cultivars are right around two feet tall, making them a good medium sized plant in the perennial garden.

A big factor that contributes to Coreopsis' work horse reputation is that many of the cultivated species are native to North America, so they are well adapted to our climate.

Coreopsis, also commonly called tickseed or calliopsis, is a genus from the family Asteraceae, the plant family that includes familiar members like daisies and black-eyed Susans. The family resemblance is apparent looking at Coreopsis-- each flower is daisy-like, usually less than two inches in diameter, typically with petals that have a toothed tip.

Most Coreopsis flowers are yellow. However there are more and more cultivars being introduced that broaden the color palette into reds oranges, pinks and white. A few cultivars to consider:

  • Red flowered: 'Snowberry'-- white flower with burgundy center; 'Limerock Ruby'-- treat as an annual in central Illinois, as it is only hardy to Zone 7
  • Orange flowered: 'Jethro Tull'-- yellow-orange flowers, tubular fluted petals ; 'Early Sunrise'-- double orange flowers; 'Nana'-- early blooming; 'Sienna Sunset'-- salmon colored flowers
  • Pink flowered: 'American Dream'--- pink flowers with yellow centers; 'Sweet Dream'-- soft pink flowers with purple-red center
  • White flowered: 'Alba'-- tiny white flowers; 'Pinwheel' light yellow-white flowers with petals flared like a pinwheel

Foliage is another variable to consider among different species and cultivars of Coreopsis. Leaves may be deeply cut, or even fern-like and thready. One fern-leaved cultivar I have in my garden is 'Zagreb', a yellow-flowered cultivar. Its thready foliage is a nice contrast to plants with broader leaves. It flowers most of the summer into fall, and the flowers appear to float among the foliage.

Another cultivar with unique foliage is 'Tequila Sunrise'. This Coreopsis has deeply cut foliage with cream colored variegation and bright yellow flowers. Even when not in bloom this plant is beautiful. I have noticed though that occasionally solid green, or revertant sections appear in this plant.

This is not unusual for a variegated plant. The variegated foliage is genetically a mutant, and occasionally Mother Nature mutates a few cells in the growing point back to the "normal" solid green. I keep my plant variegated by removing the solid green sections as they appear.

Coreopsis typically holds its flowers on wiry stems well above the foliage. To keep Coreopsis flowering consistently, deadheading is a must. The wiry stems make deadheading fairly easy, but the typical mix of spent and new flowers makes this job tedious.

It is far easier to shear off all the flower stems to deadhead in one fell swoop rather than pick through each flower stem. Sources say to shear the plant back as blooming wanes to encourage a new wave of blooms. It took me awhile to build up the courage to shear the entire plant back, but I have done it, and it worked beautifully at stimulating more blooming.

In recent years I have not had much time for deadheading all the Coreopsis in our garden. One morning I noticed that the local goldfinch population was happily feeding on the Coreopsis seed heads, the wiry stems easily supporting the small birds. So I guess my lack of time ultimately made the local goldfinches pretty happy!

I have continued to leave at least some of the Coreopsis seed heads for the goldfinches. The plants are not flowering as profusely as they would when regularly deadheaded, but they are still blooming. And now there are more goldfinches to watch in my garden, which is a great tradeoff in my mind.

Besides their extended flowering, Coreopsis are also very drought tolerant and considered deer resistant. These hard working plants deserve a spot in your perennial garden.

Plumbago https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11249/ Sun, 31 Jul 2016 00:26:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb259/entry_11249/ It seems like whenever I travel outside of our Zone 5 climate, I get a case of what some people call "zone envy". There's always a plant or two at my destination that would look perfect in my garden back home, and further research usually reveals the disappointing news that the plants I'm admiring will only survive winters much warmer than central Illinois.

While on our honeymoon years ago in Florida, a shrub covered in brilliant true blue flowers caught our eyes. True blue flowers are a rare sight in the plant world, and we thought this plant would be perfect for our orange and blue Illini garden.

We found the identity of this gorgeous blue-flowered plant was plumbago. My husband insisted we had to be able to grow this plant. I was more cynical, thinking it was probably not hardy in Illinois.

A little research upon returning home revealed that sure enough, the plumbago we saw in Florida, Plumbago auriculata, is only hardy in subtropical climates. In the U.S., that limits its range mostly to parts of Florida and California. I concluded our Illinois garden would never see a plumbago plant.

Boy was I wrong. While shopping for perennials later that spring, a blue flower caught my eye. The tag read "Hardy Plumbago", and it also said it was hardy to Zone 5. Was I seeing things? Was it wishful thinking? Was it some new cultivar of the plumbago we admired in Florida?

Luckily I wasn't seeing things. The hardy plumbago plant is Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. It is in the same family as Plumbago auriculata, the botanical family Plumbaginaceae. At one point in time they were both categorized in the genus Plumbago.

The plumbago family contains about ten to twenty individual species, native to warm temperate to tropical regions of the world. The plumbago we saw in Florida, Plumbago auriculata, is native to South Africa.

Another common name for Plumbago is Leadwort. The genus name is derived from the Latin name for lead, plumbum. This is probably because the blue flowers of many species resemble the color of lead, but there are also accounts of plumbago being a folk-remedy for lead poisoning.

In its preferred tropical climate, Plumbago auriculata will grow anywhere from three to ten feet tall, depending on cultivar and individual site conditions. It rarely becomes invasive in most gardens. Hardy plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides is really more of a groundcover, typically growing from sprawling rhizomes only to a height of about twelve to eighteen inches. The sprawling rhizomes result in a spreading growth habit which can become invasive in some gardens. Over the years it has behaved itself in our garden, and has not been an aggressive or invasive plant at all.

Both Plumbago auriculata and Ceratostigma plumbaginoides prefer rich, well-drained soil that is slightly acid. Both perform best with regular watering, but once established will tolerate some dry periods.

The flowers for both species are very similar—five petals on top of a tubular flower, resembling the flowers of phlox. Shades of blue vary in both species depending on the cultivar.

Plumbago auriculata remains green and flowers most of the year in its preferred tropical climate. There really is no variation in foliage color throughout the year. It can survive some freezing temperatures, but not extended freezes. In my opinion, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides has an advantage of not only being hardy to Zone 5, but it also has some interesting foliage colors. The new growth is burgundy, and the foliage develops a nice coppery-bronze fall color, perfect for my orange and blue Illini garden!

I have found Plumbago auriculata sold locally as a 'specialty annual'. The first place I saw it, it was a very large plant, about four feet tall. I was intrigued until I saw the price-- $90. In my opinion, that is way too much to pay for an annual, even if you could figure out a way to overwinter it indoors.

I have also found Plumbago auriculata at a local "big box" discount store while grocery shopping. These were smaller, about two feet tall, but only cost $6. That was much more my speed. I brought one home and enjoyed its beautiful blue flowers in our Illini garden that year. I suppose if I were more ambitious I could have attempted to overwinter the plant, but I just treated it as an annual. I figured that for $6, it was a small price to enjoy some great vacation memories as well as gorgeous flowers.