Saturday, June 25, 2011

Worts and all

Hark ye, m’lords and m’ladies, while I tell a tale of worts. That’s worts with an “o” and not with an “a.”

Their names are many. There’s spiderwort, barrenwort, masterwort, St. John’s wort and others – almost 200 in all.

“Wort” stems from from the Old English word “wyrt,” which means plant, herb or root. It hasn’t been widely used since the mid-17th century, so any plant with a common name ending in “wort” has been recognized as being worthy of cultivation for a very, very long time.

Masterwort (Astrantia major 'Roma')
Most are found in or at the edge of the forest. Many were originally selected because of their reputed medicinal properties.

Spiderwort, for example, was thought to treat spider bites.

Barrenwort supposedly would prevent pregnancy.

Lungwort was reputed to help lung problems because its silver spotted leaves were thought to look like a lung.

And masterwort? Well, according to Monrovia’s ye olde website, it was recommended to treat "the bite of a rabid dog"!

While time – and medicine – have marched on, these plants have endured because their ornamental qualities. Barrenwort (epimedium rubrum) and lungwort (pulmonaria) are both good in dry shade, always a difficult situation for gardeners

Barrenwort has wonderful heart-shaped leaves that are topped with dainty flowers on wiry stems. Make no mistake, however. It’s as hardy as they come. Ditto for lungwort, which now has pink and rose-colored flowers in addition to the original blue.

Barrenwort (Epimedium rubrum)
Spiderwort, which can take part sun but loves moisture, is a bit of a quirky plant. It has an almost zig-zag growth habit and the three-petaled flowers last for only a day. You’ll find it blooming in drifts in the roadside ditches of north central Illinois. It will even thrive under black walnut trees.

Ironically, spiderwort (tradescantia virginiana) is being touted nowadays for a health problem other than spider bites. According to preliminary studies, its blue stamens turn pink when exposed to nuclear radiation or chemical pollution. It’s all the rage on survivalist websites.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)

St. John’s wort, of course, has long been thought to help with depression. If you want to grow it because of its nice yellow flowers, however, make sure you get the “Hidcote” shrub version. The actual herb, hypericum perforatum, is classified as an invasive plant by both Wisconsin and Michigan.

All of these plants are time-tested, to say the least, and very worthy of consideration when you’re planning a garden. Or maybe that should that be “wort”-hy…

What's your favorite "wort"?

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Maybe it’s because I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at an impressionable age, or maybe it’s my German heritage, but I’ve always had a secret love of garden gnomes.

For years, I’ve fought the urge to buy one. They were, after all, considered the height of tackiness when I was growing up in the ‘60s. Practically every garden seemed to be bursting at the seams with one too many of these little creatures.

Still, I read with interest in the late 1990’s about the Gnome Liberation Front which “freed” garden gnomes in France. Then Travelocity’s “Roaming Gnome” came along in 2004 with its cute little pointy red hat and made gnomes respectable again.

the Roaming Gnome
The Roaming Gnome
Now that the movie “Gnomeo and Juliet” is a box-office hit, 2011 is definitely shaping up as the year of the gnome.

Garden gnomes – a kinder, gentler version of the dwarves featured in childhood fairy tales -- have a long history. They date back to the early 1800’s in Germany where, according to legend, they brought health, wealth and happiness to their owners.

Gnomes became all the rage in England in the 1840’s after Sir Charles Isham ordered 21 terracotta models from Germany for his Lamport Hall. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone so well since then. The prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London went so far as to ban gnomes and other colorful garden creatures in 2006 from its featured gardens.

Lowbrow? Maybe, if you’re talking about cheap and cheesy plastic models that quickly fade. But gnomes – when well done – can add a sense of whimsy, of magic to a garden.

Garden gnome red hat

There’s no better place for that, especially if your garden is visited by children. And in this day and age, who couldn’t use a little more health and wealth?

Of course, garden gnomes have changed a lot since I was a kid. Most, like the Roaming Gnome, still wear red hats. One website, though, offers “hipsters” wearing purple, blue and all the colors of the rainbow. There also are bikers, both male and female, dressed in leather jackets. (Harley-Davidson, are you listening?)

If you’re a sports fanatic, you’re in luck. Gnomes are now available in the uniforms of your favorite football, basketball, baseball or hockey team. And they aren’t always G-rated. You can get "naughty" gnomes holding a beer can or mooning garden visitors.

With such a broad range of choices, how could I decide which gnome to get?
I finally bought a little gnome couple for my husband on our 25th wedding anniversary. I’m planning to put it out in the garden on June 21, International Gnome Day. While critics may say that there’s gno fool like a gnome fool, I will display it with the same pride as any flower or shrub.

Garden gnome couple

By Karen Geisler

Thursday, June 9, 2011


One of my earliest memories is of smelling a peony for the first time. Of course, as a child, all I knew is that it was the biggest, whitest, most frilly flower I had ever seen. It had little red dots in the middle and a fragrance that was sweeter than anything I had smelled before.

Festiva Maxima peony
Festiva Maxima peony

The peony was one of several we had in a row against the back of our house. My mother also had a shrub rose, irises and a lilac but she generally didn’t bring those into the house – mostly peonies. I guess to her they brought back memories of a day in June 1946 when they filled a little country church for her wedding to a World War II Army Air Force veteran.

Although my mother has added a few gray hairs since then, she still loves her peonies. If I don't get her plants cleaned up early each spring, she's been known to get out there and do it herself, despite her advancing years and my admonishments to the contrary.

Peonies, without a doubt, are a great plant. They love clay soil, asking only for an occasional top dressing of composted mature. Many are fragrant. If the blooms aren't already big enough, you can pinch off some of the smaller buds so the remaining flowers become incredibly huge. They make great cut flowers.

Kansas peony flower
Kansas peony
And peonies are long-lived.  I’ve gone back to look at my previous gardens and much of what I had planted is now dead and gone. The peonies remain.

My decision to plant peonies in all of my gardens, though, hasn't been made with my head. It was made with my heart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as enthusiastic as anyone about new plant cultivars. I've grown some of the new coral-colored peonies (prompting a lot of oohs and ahs from my neighbors).  I'm also dying to find a place in my garden for one of the new Itoh intersectional peonies.

Still, my garden will always have some of the time-tested peony varieties like Festiva Maxima, Kansas and Sarah Bernhardt. They're sentimental favorites. Every garden should have flowers that hold a special meaning for its owner. After all, that's what makes a garden uniquely yours.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An introduction

I started out as an accidental gardener.

It all began when my husband and I bought our first house, a 75-year-old, two-story brick-and-stucco charmer in St. Paul, Minn., near Macalester College. It was winter and we realized it would eventually need some landscaping work. There was a blue spruce trimmed up almost beyond recognition and an especially nasty juniper on the front sidewalk that threatened to engulf anyone who ventured too close.

Then the snow melted.

Suddenly, the walk to the garage was crunchy. The whole backyard was crunchy and there was no grass. We consulted our new neighbors and learned that the legal description of our property, the Walnut Grove Rearrangement, was quite literally true. We had two of the four remaining black walnut trees in the area.

This made us very popular with the squirrels, especially in the fall. It also made us very unpopular with landscapers because such trees emit a chemical, juglone, that instantly kills roses, tomatoes and a host of other plants.

I started taking classes and learned what plants could be grown under walnuts or in shade. Garden tours became my pastime of choice during the summer months. The dirt in the front of the house, once so hard we needed a pick axe to dent it, eventually yielded to the constant application of composted manure.

Gardening was my “therapy” after a hard day of writing about the world of finance and commerce. So after we moved to the Chicago area, I added a certificate in ornamental plant materials from the Chicago Botanic Garden to my resume. Gardening is now my vocation as well as my avocation. I’m in my third summer as a nursery concierge for Chalet.

A scene from my current garden
 I’ve learned a lot along the way from more experienced gardeners who have generously shared their time. I’ve also learned a lot about patience. Last year, for example, I had major surgery during the winter and didn’t get to my “spring cleanup” until well into June. I was fighting weeds all summer.

I didn’t realize it when I put my first trowel in the dirt, but the saying “There’s always next year” is as true for gardeners as it is for Cub fans.

I hope to share my experiences and thoughts with you in the coming weeks. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.