Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shy Violets? Not So Much!

The other violet flower

Last year, at Morven Museum, we had an infestation of one of the worst historic-garden pests I know: archeologists! I do realize that it's extremely important to make absolutely certain there's no crockery in a spot that will, ultimately, be built upon, and therefore it's necessary to dig holes of grave-like proportions. But in the process of determining that there were in fact no buried treasures, living plants were murdered and soil was up-ended. That is, what had been down was turned up and what was up is now down. Curiously this caused an explosion of violets in spring. The long-buried caches of seeds (I'm guessing) were brought to the surface and reveled so in their first exposure to sunlight after decades of darkness that they all germinated. I can understand this reaction. From past experience with violets I know what this means. Either I learn to love my new woodland groundcover--and I do love the delicate nodding flowers--or I harden my heart and dig them out, roots and all. Halfway measures will not work. And I'll tell you why.
There are violets you see, and violets you don't see. Where stem meets soil, the unseen flowers lurk. Dig a violet up and you'll find what looks like a bud, but is actually a flower, a cleistogamous flower, the kind that produces viable seed without ever opening and with no help from pollinators. And, as if that's not enough of a procreative advantage, violet seeds have a sugar-rich appendage called an elaiosome that is so appetizing to ants that they drag the seeds home to the safety of their nests, eat the good part, and leave the rest to germinate in a medium made rich from their waste. Meanwhile, above ground, the violet flowers we know and love form seed pods that burst when ripe, catapulting the seeds in all directions.
Triple advantage: Violets.
Triple nuisance: Gardeners.
We may as well just learn to get along with these ubiquitous volunteers. Pulling them out always sets off a bout of guilt anyway ...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Plants I Can't Live! Without

You may think that the title of this post is an exaggerated statement. I considered that. Of course if these three plants vanished from the world I may still be alive (unless the same catastrophe claimed me too, a distinct possibility). But being alive isn’t the same as living! (with the exclamation point). There is one point I'm not being exactly truthful about—there are more than 3. Maybe 30 … or 300. I will name 3 at a time, taking a very undisciplined approach and not favoring any particular type of plant—I’ll do it on Mondays, just in case anyone’s interested—until I run out of inspiration. Or die. Please feel free to offer suggestions ... or link me up to your own post!
Dragon Wings Begonia
My relationship with red has not been an easy one. But we’ve reconciled our incompatibilities. I use red in brief brilliant shots to fire up the garden scene. Dragon Wings is shiny, flashy, tough-as-nails, and always makes a healthy splash. I must have this red. I’m now working on improving my relations with pink.
'Robert Poore' Phlox paniculata
If you’ve fallen for the fairytale about David being the only mildew-resistant summer phlox, you really need to meet Robert. Tall, handsome, clean … and he’s more colorful than David. Trust me, he’ll keep you interested.
mid-height Zinnia hybrids
Currently in my favor is sweet yellow ‘Highlight’ hybrid. Here it is in late August after a summer of constant rain not splaying or showing even a hint of powdery mildew! But ‘Profusion Orange’, ‘Zahara Scarlet’, and ‘Zahara Rose’ are about on a par. They all contain some Zinnia angustifolia (a fine small garden plant in its own right) parentage and they’re all just so nice in mixed company.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hottest Pepper in the World

In my backyard in Emmaus grows a plant bearing about four dozen Bhut Jalokias. A combined 50 million Scoville units of heat are trapped in this little crop of peppers, which are the hottest in the world! I’d call that a lifetime supply of HOT. Clearly there are those who attach great value to homegrown fire—I infer this from the popularity of the Youtube videos that feature to all appearances sane young men (nearly always men) who boldly pop a pepper whole into their mouths, munch, and swallow. A strange sort of suspense ensues, where the viewer watches in anticipation of a horrific outcome—will he fall thrashing on the ground, or, worse, vomit? I have not done an exhaustive survey of this video genre but did watch as one (apparently) civilized young man with a clipped accent took off his glasses. Later in the 10-minute video, he put them back on. This was the height of the action. Oh there were beads of sweat, and his speech was halted at times but he remained amazingly calm under fire. I ascribe the viewers’ high regard for these videos to admiration for those who can withstand extreme self-torture and still keep their cool. And I admit, I was bizarrely enthralled by the man’s composure.
Personally, I have no use for the issue of this plant, planted purely out of curiosity, and I feel a little bad about that. There’s a serious amount of capsaicin in the 50 or so fruits on my potted plant that could be put to use to kill prostate cancer cells, relieve pain, stop evildoers in their tracks, or (and this is my favorite) repel elephants! But it just doesn't work for my purposes—a mere whisper of Bhut would overwhelm a huge bowl of gazpacho. So I walk right by the potent peppers, harvest my tender lettuces and tomatoes, and then compile that sweetest of treats, a BLT (with pesto) picked, sliced, and eaten all within a quarter hour. Capsaicin releases endorphins, I know. But I prefer stumbling onto bliss as basil, tomato, and bacon juices mingle and drip, and I sop up the red-green dribbles on my plate with the toasted corners of the layered feast.
I suppose I could make a pretty Bhut ristra, hang it in my kitchen, and watch it slowly shrivel. I wonder if the fabled Bhut euphoria would permeate the air.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ants at War

This summer, more than usual, my sidewalk has been blackened by big masses of ants. When it happened again this evening I looked the phenomenon up. I learned from this fascinating article that the little black ants that often make their way into our kitchens are called, aptly, sidewalk ants … and when they pile up on the sidewalk they are at war! Knowing this piece of information, I got out my magnifier and looked closer. Sure enough, there were mandibles thrashing and little ant bodies locked in layers of combat, often two or three against one. They fight over food, or territory, the ant article continued. Familiar story?
Oblivious to my peeping, they battled in a big squirming mass for the next twenty minutes. Then something happened. The center of the melee thinned, forces were quickly withdrawn, and within a minute or two the whole horde had dispersed. Just like that the battle was over.
The mystery of why they blacken the pavement is solved, but another inscrutable question remains unanswered. Who won??