Friday, February 15, 2013

Witch Hazel - What's Flowering in February

February 15th, beautiful sunny day.
Witch Hazel, or Hamamelis, is a genus of medium-sized shrubs that typically have a vase-like shape and a unique flower that comes outside of the typical season. Today, I have decided to write about them because my Witch Hazel is in full bloom.  I first noticed it last week (February 5th) and it showed a little color through our huge snowstorm, but with the warmer weather this week it has burst out.

Overcast February 12th.
The plant in my garden is Hamamelis x intermedia "Arnold Promise".  Most of the plants in the trade are x intermedia hybrids, which are a cross between the Japanese and Chinese species.  These hybrids are popular for their prolific flowering and broad range of colors from yellow to orange to copper to red and many shades in between.  They can be fragrant, but who's really spending time outside smelling flowers in February.  If you have a lot of space in the garden and have a number of plants, cutting some branches and bringing them in can be a wonderful, fragrant surprise for this time of year.

I am amazed that my photo had this detail as I cropped it close.
The flowers appear in clusters and the yellow strap-like pieces are actually the petals. The petals come out of a dark red calyx, inside of which are the stamens.  The yellow petals  extend out in this relatively warm weather and will shrink back in when we get a cold snap.  The lack of real heat is what allows these to flower for such a long time.  You'll notice in the summer that flowers don't last very long when it is really hot.  See the picture above of a close-cropping of the calyx and petals.

I read an article a while ago where someone said that Witch Hazel would be an ordinary and forgotten plant if it flowered in June.  What a ridiculous statement.  It doesn't flower in June, it flowers in February and will show color for two months or more, and when you have snow like we have now, it is a brilliant focal point in the garden.

This beautiful shrub is off the back of my garage and I look directly at it from my drafting table.  I would like to say I placed it there for that exact reason, but my table was in a basement office when I planted it years ago.  Like many things in the garden, success can not always be planned, sometimes it just happens.

Elegant vertical, vase-shaped form.
In the suburban gardens that I live and work, with minimal pruning these shrubs can be kept to a manageable size with an elegant vertical shape.  They have a nice big leaf with wavy edges and many of the hybrids show good fall color, but really they are best grown as a structural accent plant in smaller gardens.  They have a nice layered look and can be lovely next to a terrace or deck.  Of course it is critical to locate it where it can be enjoyed in flower during mid-winter months.

In larger, more natural gardens, they can be planted in groups and left to form their vertical branching.  Witch Hazel can be effective as a natural screen or transition into woodland areas.

They are basically understory plants and prefer some shade but will do well in sun provided they have moisture.  They do not like it hot and dry.  Any pruning should be done in early spring so as not to remove next seasons flower buds.  They also tend to be suckering shrubs and will send shoots up from the roots.  Be sure to prune these out if you want to keep the open layered look.

Growing up I remember a product in the house called Witch Hazel.  I had no idea what it was used for, but apparently it is commonly used as an astringent and for a number of other ailments.  It is distilled from our native Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana.  This plant is also available in the trade, since it is our native, but the major difference with this species is that it flowers October through December.  It has the same beautiful flowers, but they appear when the leaves are still on the plant and the display is mostly hidden.

Spring is still far away, but at least I have flowers in my garden...

For those who say the shrub has no impact outside of 3'...This picture is from 30'

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cool Products on Display at New England Grows

What better way to spend this pre-storm Friday afternoon than to write about some cool items I saw at New England Grows this past week.  New England Grows is our regional trade show for gardeners, landscapers, designers/architects, horticulturists, educators, nurserymen and others in the field.  They had a great educational program and miles of items on display.  I agreed with many people I ran into during the show that the items on display continue a trend of being less than inspiring.  Of course, that doesn't mean there weren't some fun and interesting products.

Click on the company names to visit their websites.

Fancy Fire Pit

What a fantastic idea!  Recycled carbon steel tank tops, turned upside down and designed into whimsical fire pits.  I have seen a lot of fire pits, and many only big enough for a couple of logs and some that looked as though they may fall over in a heavy wind.  These monsters (size and weight) allow you to have a nice, roaring fire in a safe and sturdy vessel.  The steel develops a nice rust patina that gives it wonderful character.

The 'Corona' has no design but is beautiful in its simplicity and bulk.  It reminded me of the pot in which Yosemite Sam tried to boil Bugs Bunny.

The 'Blaze' is by far my favorite with the lapping flames cut out of the heavy duty carbon steel.

Joy, the owner who I met at the show, said that they will also create a fire pit based upon your individual design.  While they are not inexpensive, at least shipping is free for a very heavy item.

Christopher Oberg - Nantucket Metal Works

Beautiful color and structure added to terrace
This was by far my favorite 'find' at this year's show.  I had to sit down after walking for a while and I gave the furniture a good 10 minutes as I spoke with Chris and learned about his 'industrial art' furniture.

They are very comfortable, and he also has some nautical themed cushions if you want to go that route.  If you don't want his cushions there a companies that can make custom cushions.

He has lots of colors for his furniture but can also do custom colors.  He is an engaging person who also has a garden design/build business on Nantucket.

Corner seat can be part of a 'sectional'
Bench or coffee table
I spent some time in this very comfortable armchair

Bar Harbor Cedar

This company has been around for a while and you can find their products in a number of local retail nurseries.  I highlight them here because they provide simple products with good materials and solid construction.  It is sad to say that this is not the norm in the industry, so when you find good, solid products you want to remember them.

They offer a wide range of products: Trellises, containers, boxes, furniture and gardening structures.  While they only sell to wholesale, you can always go to a local nursery and ask if they carry Bar Harbor products and they may directly order for you.

Wall Container, I like this small display
Some different and well-crafted containers

Freedom Greenhouse - Maine Garden Products

8x8 Solar-powered cedar.
Maine Garden Products has been around for about a decade and this recent introduction of a solar powered, cedar greenhouse is wonderful and sturdy.  Having worked with Hartley Botanic, where greenhouses cost well into the 5 digits and that doesn't include hardscape work and construction, it is nice to have an affordable greenhouse not made out of plastic.

The genius is that the ventilation motor and irrigation are automated and run by solar power.  Someday I will have a small greenhouse and unless I hit the lottery it will be something like this simple and efficient design.

Hopefully something here has inspired you or at least taken your mind off the fact that our local government says we will be arrested and fined if we go out on the road during the storm.

I also like that each of these products is made in the USA.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Carl Linnaeus: The Botanical Mr. Organized!

Carolus Linnaeaus
courtesy of the Linnaean Society of New York
Why do we have to use crazy binomial latin names (genus and species) when we are talking about trees, shrubs and flowers?  Why can't we just use common names and say Yellow Sneezeweed(Helenium amarum), Purple Lungwort(Pulmonaria longifolia), Monkey Puzzle Tree(Araucaria araucana) or my favorite,  the savory Sausage Tree(Kigelia africana)?  We can, and with these examples there is little confusion with  the exception of maybe knowing the exact species.

However, in many cases using common names can be confusing because they can refer to many different plants that are not related and they can be highly regionalized and not carry recognition  everywhere.  One of the classic common names that extends way beyond its true plant is Cedar.  There is one genus in the Pine family called Cedrus, that refers to a small group of true cedars:  Deodar, Atlantic and Lebanon.  However, cedar is used as a common name in many genus: Thuja, Calocedrus, Cupressus, Cryptomeria, Juniperus, Chamaecyparis, Torreya and some others.

Not only can a common name be used across many different genus, but one genus can have many different common names.  Amelanchier is a commonly used plant in New England and many of its species are native to New England, but it can go by many common names:  Serviceberry, Shadblow, Shadbush, Saskatoon, Juneberry, Sarvis-Tree and many other regionalized geographic names.

Carl Linnaeus, in his two major works in the late 18th century, started the process of classifying plants, animals and minerals.  Now this isn't a task like trying to index files on your computer, or organizing your children's baby clothes.  His novel approach organized plants based upon their sexual parts (i.e. petals, stamens, pistils, etc.)  He looked at flowers to determine similarities and grouped them together.  Discussion of plants sexual parts at this time in history was not readily accepted, and many of his writings were considered pornographic.  But, his system was the first to put some order to the plant, animal and mineral worlds.

The task of classifying plants was massive and continues today with interntional organizations meeting to discuss the reclassifying of plants and families.  Back in Linnaeus's time, the plants were classified by their flowers with such commonalities as number of flower petals, number of stamens, female and male flowers on separate plants(Holly plants, where only female plants berry), female and male flowers on the same plant(pine trees that have male pollen in spring followed by female cones).

In the following century along came Charles Darwin, and he said that evolution should determine what plants are closely related.  These two arguments have come together to form the current classification system.  Today with all of the recent genetic science, botanists have started to shake up lots of plants and families.    If you remember back to high school biology, everything is put into the following botanical ranks:  Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  We use Genus and Species in our regular conversations about plants, and we often will refer to Family to help understand common cultural and flowering traits.  This is what is called Linnaean Classification

In the plant world, as well as the animal world, plants are broken down into the aforementioned hierarchical groups, and the lowest levels of this grouping are the genus and species which we use most often.  Amelanchier(Genus) canadensis(species) is a native Serviceberry of Canada that can be inferred from the species name. Quite often the genus and species will refer to its country of origin, name of the person who discovered the plant, color of flowers or any number of other relationships to the plant.  Styrax japonicas is native to Japan, Kigelia africana is native to Africa, Echinacea purpurea has purple flowers, Alchemilla alpina is an alpine or rock garden plant, Fuschia is named after a German botanist named Leonard Fuchs and additional examples are endless.

The Ericaceae family contains many genus: Rhododendron, Azalea, Pieris, Erica(Heather), Kalmia(Mtn. Laurel), Vaccinium(Blueberry), Enkianthus, Leucothoe, Oxydendrum and many lesser known plants.  It helps to know that these plants are in the same family because they all like acid soils, moisture and organic material in their soil.  You might think that they are very different plants, but their flower structure(i.e. sexual parts) are very similar on close inspection.  The Aster family (Asteraceae) is filled with plants that have daisy like flowers, it is one of the largest plant families.  The Pine family (Pinaceae) is filled with needled evergreens, but is only one of many evergreen families.

Most recently, a huge uproar (as big an uproar as there can be in the horticultural world) occurred over the splitting of the Dicentra genus.  Everyone knows Bleeding Heart, those wonderful plants with the heart shaped flowers that hang in a long line.  Well, some geneticist tested several species of Dicentra and found out that Dicentra spectabalis is not closely related to other Dicentra species and therefore gave it a new genus, Lamprocapnos.  Dicentra and Lamprocapnos are both in the Fumariaceae family so they are not that distant, but from a genetic and evolutionary point of view are different enough to merit a different genus.

These changes are not made lightly by a body of scientists that makes our bipartisan government look cooperative.

The USDA has a page where you can learn the pedigree of any plant

So what does this all mean when we go outside to enjoy our gardens...absolutely nothing

I find this interesting, in doses, and I hope you found it interesting too.

To help in remembering some details I referred to the following sites and publications:

How to Identify Plants by H.D. Harrington
Linnaean Society of London -
Linnaean Society of New York -
Class materials and notes from my Botany Class  at Strybing Arboretum in S.F., CA