Tag Archives: botanical 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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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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