Category Archives: Public Gardens

Lessons Learned from a Botanical Garden

What’s not to love about a great botanical garden? Fabulous garden design, uncountable cultivars of every plant you can imagine, old trees, gorgeous hardscape, a café to supply your latte needs and the perfect spot to sit and enjoy it. Not to mention the army of gardeners who weed, water and mulch behind the scenes. Where else can you go to find a railing that is this lovely?

At Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia

I must say that my favorite thing about a botanical garden is the name tags. Ever fallen in love with a flower or a tree when you’re out and about, only to be thwarted because there’s no way for you to know exactly what it is? Not so at most botanical gardens. Tags are great for picture taking too – no need for a notebook when you can shoot the flower, then capture all the relevant data.

At Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA

So helpful!

One of the jewels of the garden world is the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Formerly the city estate of Henry Shaw, this urban oasis boasts rose gardens, woodland gardens, a biosphere, a temperate house, a camellia house, a bird garden, a children’s garden, an herb garden, a prairie garden, a maze adults get lost in and an amazing Japanese garden. For the many years that I lived in St. Louis, I was a regular visitor. When I was working like a crazy woman, I went every Saturday morning when they waive the fee for locals. When I traded in my heels and sales career for a stroller (and soon after that a double stroller), I coughed up the money to become a member and went every chance I could get.

Every spring I would watch the garden come alive a week at a time, often with the help of the “what’s blooming now” display in the welcome center. In a little cart by the main entrance to the garden were cuttings of all the plants that were in bloom that day. In the spring and summer, of course, I didn’t need that much help as blooms filled every glance. In the winter and early spring, though, you kind of had to hunt. A camellia in the Linean House, a snowdrop in the woodland garden, some lavender in the Temperate House. I took for granted that the powers that be just happened to know what was blooming when, but clearly, they had a system. And yesterday, I discovered their system.

Eight hundred miles of interstate now prevent my weekly visit, but I find myself on their website quite often. Their Kemper Center for Home Gardening plant finder is fabulous – with thousands of plants listed alphabetically and a great search engine to help you find just what you seek. You can search by scientific name, common name and even the names of cultivars. (Thank goodness for the common name search. Am I the only one out there who can’t seem to get her head around all that latin??) There are pictures of each plant, basic data about bloom time and growth habits, noteworthy characteristics and problems it may encounter. There’s even a comment section where gardeners can rate the plant and leave notes about their experience with growing it. But here’s the cool thing I discovered yesterday as I was trying to figure out just what came in that box from the mail order place. The main page tells you Coronation Gold yarrow blooms from June to September, but if you click on the “bloom data” link, you get a page that show you exactly which weeks it was observed in bloom, which years and in which locations. So in one location in 2005, this yarrow bloomed from the second week in May through the last week in October, but in another location the same year, the blooms faded for good by the end of July.

Okay, fine. So this world renowned botanical garden has a cool website. Great. But what’s that to me? Every year I wish I had written down what was blooming in my garden the year before at the same time. Did the tulips and the lilac bloom at the same time last year? Can’t remember. Should I be freaking out because it’s September 15 and my crepe myrtle hasn’t bloomed yet? Don’t know, because I forgot to write it down. So, a new year’s resolution. (Never too late). I’ve made myself a version of this chart and I will make a weekly visit to my own garden for the purpose of tracking my blooms. All I will need is my chart and a pencil. I may be the very last gardener on earth to take this step – but it feels like one I ought to commit to. Here’s my fancy excel spreadsheet – and once I figure out the names of everything I’ve planted, I’ll be ready:

super high tech! Let me know if you want a copy.

Watch out. Things are getting serious in the little garden outside Philly. Next year when you visit, there might be name tags!

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New To Me: Winter Aconite

Three days in the 40s, three days in the 50s, and spring has burst onto the scene in Philadelphia. (Can’t you just hear the Halleluiah Chorus? C’mon, sing it with me – hal-lejuiah, hal-leluiah!)

I spent the afternoon with my two little guys at Morris Arboretum. I basked in the sun and took pictures; the 4-year-old and 5-year-old threw rocks in the creek and ran and ran and ran.  It was a visit enjoyed by all.  The photo ops started at the parking lot, where I had to squeeze in next to a left0ver snow drift because it was so darn crowded. Under a pine tree were loads of these sunny little buttercupish flowers.  They were crocus sized and fabulous. And incredibly intoxicating to the first bees I’ve seen in months.

Winter Aconite (eranthis hyemalis) is a native of Asia Minor and Europe ranging from southern France to Bosnia (southern france?!?! – no wonder they exude sunshine.) They show up in the very very early spring – around the same time as the snowdrops and before the crocuses. They’re blooming here now with the crocuses because of all the snow we’ve  had.  They bloom for a couple of weeks, welcome in the spring, and then disappear until next year. They like lots of water.  I read quite a few rants about their invasiveness, although because they bloom and go dormant so early, they don’t make too much of a nuisance of themselves. Highly poisonous though – I guess that’s a downside. The University of Wisconsin warns that the tuber can “cause nausea, vomiting, colic attacks and visual disturbances.” Visual disturbances? Are we talking hallucinations? Blurred vision? Near sitedness? Not to take the warning lightly: don’t eat winter aconite.

Don’t eat them, but do admire them when they drift:

And if you want them in your garden, sow seeds in the fall or divide clumps in the spring. I’ll be doing it. They’re too good to resist. I guess I’ll only have to have one child vomit, contract colic and experience visual disturbances once before they learn that lesson.

Besides the Winter Aconite, here’s why today was a perfect day out of doors. A few weeks from now, Morris Arboretum will be so chock full of blooming beauties that I won’t know where to look . It will be stimulating. It will be overwhelming. It will be wonderful. But in a few weeks, will I be stopping the horticulturalist to ask about a buttercup the size of a quarter? Will I look it up and learn about its habits and identify its native growing area? I must admit probably not. Winter (and yes, it is still winter),  gives me a wonderful excuse to focus. To focus on the five things that were blooming today, to appreciate them for their special attributes, to plan to add them to my garden.  Someone remind me of this in the fall when I’m exhausted by all the stimulation, the overwhelming, the wonderful.

Here are today’s other beauties:

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Smell This!

Put your nose deep into a bloom and inhale. You must admit that there is something essentially satisfying in that. Now put your nose deep into a bloom from a moment in your past. What memory comes rushing back?

Researchers think smell triggers specific memories because, when we come in contact with a certain scent, our brains recall the first time we encountered it. The smelling part of our brain also happens to live right next door to the remembering part of our brain. (Clearly, I majored in Literature, not in Biology). According to science editor Sarah Dowdey, “our olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the ‘emotional brain.’”

Whatever the anatomical reason, I took a walk down memory lane on Sunday when I visited the amazing conservatory at Longwood Gardens.  The first thing I noticed when I climbed the stairs to enter this enormous greenhouse was the smell. It smelled like flowers and dirt and grass and water. It smelled, in other words, like spring. I think that part of what I’m missing during this season of snow covered gardens is the SMELL of things that grow.

As I strolled, I found myself turning my head, sticking my nose up into the air like a dog on the hunt, sniffing my way to lovely and familiar smells. The first was sweet alyssum, the diminutive white ground cover that’s a dead ringer for honey. I’ve planted it in my garden every year since I first encountered it at my sister-in-law’s house. I walked out her back door and was overwhelmed by the delicate honey smell. I started sniffing, and my nose led me down to my feet. I was standing on the source! She had planted the alyssum in between the stepping stones that lead to her garden. Every time someone tread on them, the smell shot on up. Brilliant. And beautiful.

Stargazer lilies took me immediately back to my wedding 17 years ago. My bridesmaids held them during the ceremony, and if you’ve ever been remotely near a stargazer, you know they are pungent. These always turn my head, er, I mean my nose, whenever I pass them by. I can’t remember which of my dear friends were at my wedding, but boy do I know what it smelled like.

The hybrid tea = Nana’s dining room table. My grandmother’s gardening tendencies ran towards a sweeping, weed-free lawn and foundation boxwoods, but boy could that woman grow roses. Her landscaper took care of everything else, but he never touched the rose garden. Legend has it that she braved the back yard once a week with her rose spray and fertilizer, immediately before her weekly trip to the beauty parlor. I guess if you’re only going to “do” your hair once a week, it’s best to tend to your chemical work just before hand. Whatever her methods, she always adorned her table with freshly cut roses. I smell a hybrid tea rose and I am at that dining room table, looking at Uncle Ben’s portrait, laughing with my cousins, and answering PawPaw’s questions about where I want my gravy. (On the turkey? On the biscuit? On the side?)

I wonder which of the flowers I grow in my garden will, in twenty years, make my children flash back to a particular moment. Moonflowers? Hyacinths? Lavender? Maybe it will be another garden smell that triggers the memory: mulch, freshly cut grass, a pile of dried leaves.  Whatever it is, I hope the memory is of a happy time, and not of a crazed, dirt encrusted mother screaming, “Leave me alone! I’m gardening!”

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Bloom Day Blues at Longwood Gardens

Longwood Hybrid Cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida)

“There is no such thing as a blue flower.” That’s what my mom said as we were discussing my nosegay for the Town & Country cotillion Holly Ball when I was in sixth grade. (Remember nosegays? The little hand-held bouquets with the plastic handles?)   That’s what I remember anyway.  Although now that I think about it, I remember having this conversation while she weeded the garden. Could she possibly have been weeding in December, the traditional time for Holly Balls? Whether or not memory is a reliable witness is a conversation for another day. Let’s just agree for the sake of argument that she said it. I certainly believed her. She could make anything grow and my 12-year-old mind hadn’t registered the possibility that parents could be wrong.

Canterbury Bells (campanula medium)

To this day I’m amazed and overjoyed when I find blue flowers. I paid a visit to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania today in the hopes that their conservatory might lift my spirits. (Still multiple feet of snow on the ground here with more forecast for tonight. Bleh. Check out my posts 48″ of Snow and The Thrill of Victory for pretty snow pics and a more embracing attitude).  I went ostensibly to enjoy the “orchid extravaganza,” but it was the blue flowers that caught my attention. Not only is there such thing as a blue flower, there are loads of them.  I suppose you might argue that some of these lean a bit towards purple, but all in the family, right? Some of the colors were so vibrant that a fellow observer, upon seeing the hydrangea pictured below,  recalled the old  science-fair trick with carnations: “Do you think they used food coloring?”

Hydrangea macrophylla "Mathilda Gutges"

I checked. These were no cuttings that had sucked up blue colored water. They were the real deal.

I liked the spiky crown on this ground-ivy sage:

salvia glechomifolia

and don’t you just love the yellow tips on this ceanothus? Like tiny little rings, or maybe handbags. (Work with me, I’m thinking accessories here):

ceanothus "Ray Hartman"

My mom should certainly have known about these grape hyacinths. They are exactly the same color as her eyes which are very decidedly blue.  (Any wonder my dad fell for her?):

So, that’s what’s blooming today in my garden, hmm, I mean at Longwood’s garden. Hey, at least they’re blooming somewhere nearby in the midst of a very white winter!

Visit May Dreams Garden to see what’s blooming in gardens around the world.

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1st Reason to Love Public Gardens: Witch Hazel

When you cultivate a plot of land as small as I do, you learn quickly to appreciate acres and acres of professionally landscaped and maintained garden. Today’s adventure was to Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, a  92 acre botanical garden just inside the city limits of Philadelphia. It used to be the summer home of John and Lydia Morris, who left their little plot to Penn in 1932 because they were dedicated to horticultural education. They kindly planted loads of  lovely plants and conveniently tagged them with both common and latin names. (Just didn’t want anyone to think I actually KNEW all this information).

Primavera Witchhazel - hemamelis x intermedia primavera

So there are tons of reasons why I love  botanical gardens. First, my favorite ones all used to be private estates. Part of the fun for me,  I’ll admit, is  to imagine what it would be like to live in the big house on the hill and watch your team of gardeners create and maintain this paradise for your own back yard. A little bit of role-play never hurt any of us, no matter our age.  Second, everything is always just right. The house lines up with the trees which line up with the lake which lines up with the paths.  They look amazing in all four seasons. There are no weeds in botanical gardens. They are just right. Third,  there are just so many darn plants.  I took hundreds of pictures of beautiful things today, and it’s January 31. Imagine what a bounty I’ll bring home in May.

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Part of the joy of the “so many darn plants” scenario is that you get to see multiple cultivars of the same plant. The star today was witch hazel, because it’s 28 degrees and it snowed yesterday, but these guys are blooming their heads off. I’m a witch hazel newbie, but according to internet sources, there are three kinds of witch hazel: the North American native  (hemamelis americana), the japanese version (hemamelis japonica) and the chinese witch hazel (hemamelis mollis). The hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between Japanese and Chinese cultivars.  They grow to be 10-20 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide.

Orange Beauty Witchhazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "orange beauty"

But here’s the interesting thing. I googled “witch hazel” and had to really search for information on the plants themselves. The vast majority of the information was about the herbal remedy that comes from this shrub’s bark. This astringent reportedly clears up pimply skin (where was this information when I was in high school?) soothes diaper rash, reduces hemorrhoids (Tuck’s pads, anyone?), shrinks bags under your eyes, relieves varicose veins, reduces pain from poison ivy and oak (two of the less friendly plants native to N. America), heals skin ailments ranging from sunburn to dry skin to chicken pox blisters to bruises, and provides an important ingredient (along with a good amount of vodka, interestingly enough) for making your own deodorant. An impressive list without a doubt.

Lansing Witchhazel - hemamelis Lansing

So, if you ever have an occasional breakout, if you have child-birth induced complications (I see at least two listed above), if you sometimes look in dismay at the dark circles under your eyes, if you engage in outdoor activities which  might bring you in contact with poisonous plants, bruise inducing garden tools or the sun: this is the plant for you. (Do I sound like a snake oil salesperson to anyone besides myself?)

Rochester Witchhazel - hemamelis rochester

Seriously, I would love to have the space to grow one of these, because they really do bloom in the depths of winter. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of those dark circles??

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