Sunday, April 29, 2012

On the Wings of Columbine

Music Blue and White columbine
Aquilegia 'Music Blue and White'

Mention the word "columbine" and most people, unfortunately, think of the tragic 1999 shooting at a Colorado high school of the same name. That's a shame because this plant is a wonderful way to move the garden from spring into summer.

The flowers always make me think of flying. Its sepals, the colored petals in the photo above, are the wings -- when viewed from the side at least. Its spurs, the long tubes on the back of the flower, look like the tail of a bird or a comet. In fact, this plant's common name stems from the Latin word columba, or dove.

Dove columbine
Aquilegia 'Dove'

Those long tubes serve a purpose. They hold the nectar favored by pollinators such as hummingbirds and moths. In fact, one scientific study showed that the length of these tubes has changed over the years to accommodate the available pollinators!

Columbine has been around practically forever and is native to most parts of the world. The wildflower version, aquilegia canadensis, has orange/red and yellow flowers that face downward. It will easily cross-pollinate and actively self-seed although you can avoid the latter problem by deadheading the flowers once they are finished blooming.

The plant has changed a lot since its beginnings as a wildflower. Size now varies from the 10-12" of Little Lanterns, a miniature version of the wildflower,and the Winky series to the 2-3 feet of the Songbird, Music and Origami series. Colors include all shades of pink, purple, yellow and red. Some flowers, especially those of the Songbird series, face upward. There are even columbines with green and yellow marbled leaves and others with double flowers.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Leprechan Gold' leaves
Aquilegia vulgaris 'Leprechaun Gold' with
Alchemilla mollis in the background

Cultivation is easy. This plant prefers part shade and is hardy from zones 3 to 9. It likes a rich, consistently moist soil that is well drained and blooms from late spring to early summer. My garden especially needs more columbine this year as the early, warm spring caused most of my spring bloomers to finish up early.

A note of caution: If you have a dog, it's probably best to avoid this plant. Although you will find it listed on the Internet as both dog-friendly and dog-toxic, the foliage and roots apparently are harmful if eaten. Better to be safe than sorry.

Columbine Origami Rose and White
Aquilegia 'Origami Rose and White'

Columbine (Aquilegia) Origami Yellow
Aquilegia 'Origami Yellow'

Aquilegia 'Spring Magic Rose and Ivory'
Aquilegia 'Spring Magic Rose and Ivory'

Aquilegia 'Winky Double Red and White'
Aquilegia 'Winky Double Red and White'

Do you have a favorite columbine?

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Adopting Sophia

Thermopsis chinensis 'Sophia'

This is a story about a little girl, adoption and a great new plant.

When I first spotted the plant, I thought it was lost. Its leaves, from a distance, looked like those of a baptisia, or false indigo. Yet there it was, sitting quietly in the “T” section at my favorite nursery. A closer look at the tag revealed it actually was a variety of thermopsis chinensis, also known as the false lupine, pea bush or Chinese bushpea.

The word “lupine” instantly caught my attention. I have lusted after lupines for years, lured by wonderful pictures in books and magazines. Yet, I had been unable to grow them, something that apparently is the case for many Midwest gardeners.

The tag promised this plant would be much easier to grow than a true lupine and produce lovely canary yellow flowers in full sun to light shade. Its height was estimated at just 1 ½ feet, perfect for the space I had in mind, so I decided to take Sophia home with me. She joined a bed of mostly ornamental grasses, coneflowers and rudbeckia where she could star in her own spring show. The plant grew so well that I returned and bought two more.

The leaves of thermopsis chinensis 'Sophia'

My efforts were rewarded this spring with a wonderful burst of color. The flowers are just now starting to fade after three weeks and that's despite numerous frosts. They’re a softer yellow than forsythia and the color goes well with daffodils. The foliage will provide some interest even once the flowers fade.

Sophia took on an added dimension when I contacted the grower that had introduced it, North Creek Nurseries. Turns out the variety was named after an employee's newly adopted daughter, Sophia. As my husband and I also have adopted, the plant now has a special meaning for me.

I guess, in a way, a gardener is always “adopting” plants, nurturing them, helping them to grow and reach their full potential.

Here's hoping the real life Sophia is doing well. If she's anything like her namesake, I'm sure she'll go far.

A closeup of the flowers on thermopsis chinensis 'Sophia'
A closeup of the flowers on thermopsis chinensis 'Sophia'
By Karen Geisler

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Serviceberries? Yum!

Serviceberry in flower
The serviceberries are almost finished blooming in the Chicago area.

The amelanchier has more names than you can shake a stick at.  This small native tree/large shrub, often called a serviceberry, is also known as a juneberry, Saskatoon, shad blow, shad bush, sugarplum,  sarvisberry, chuckley pear or even currant-tree.

 I recently added another one – delicious.

While most people in recent years have focused on the tree’s ornamental qualities, its fruit increasingly is taking center stage. Amelanchier (pronounced am-el-LANG-kee-ur) is mentioned in the book “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy as well as other similar books. It’s also being grown commercially in Canada’s Prairie provinces with great success.

Closeup of serviceberry flowers
Serviceberry flowers

The various amelanchier species do have nice white spring flowers, smooth gray bark and good fall color. Recent introductions have enhanced these traits, including Autumn Brilliance, which has great fall foliage.  Rainbow Pillar and Cumulus, two narrow upright versions, are great for smaller urban lots.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that the fruit is quite tasty and can be eaten straight off the tree. Many of the edible fruits from other trees and shrubs, like chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) or elderberries (Sambucus spp.), need to be cooked with some sugar.

Serviceberries technically aren’t even berries; they are actually "pomes" or a tiny apple of sorts. They also are good for you, with lots of antioxidents. Native Americans mixed them with dried meat and fat to make pemmican, which sustained them in the winter.

I recently stumbled across a website that sells jam, syrup and pie filling made in Canada from a specific kind of serviceberries known as Saskatoons (Amelanchier anifolia).  So I ordered some jam and decided to treat my co-workers at a breakfast meeting.

Empty jar serviceberry jam
Serviceberry jam
The tasting was a big hit!  They described the taste as similar to blueberries but with a twist. Some thought it has a slight almond taste, while others thought it was similar to that of blackberries, dark cherries or raisins. Needless to say, there wasn’t much jam left and my family quickly devoured that.

There are several efforts underway to promote these trees in the U.S. as a commercial crop or an addition to pick-your-own farms. These include Michigan's Saskatoon Project Midwest and a demonstration project by the Cornell University Cooperative Education Extension in upstate New York.

Both are focusing on Canadian varieties especially developed for their fruit: Regent, Smoky, Northline, Thiessen, Honeywood, Pembina, Martin and JB-30 (all Amelanchier anifolia).

Several of the more widely available serviceberries, including Regent (Amelanchier anifolia), and Cole Select, Autumn Brilliance and Princess Diana (all Amelanchier x grandiflora) are reportedly tasty. You also get the plant vigor usually associated with a hybrid form.

Meantime, I’m trying to figure out where I can put a few of these in my garden. Serviceberries, unlike blueberries, will grow in the alkaline soil common in the Chicago area and don’t require two different varieties to get a good crop.

They do, however, need full sun, good drainage, air circulation and watering during drought, especially while they are getting established. The fruit generally matures to a deep blue color here in early July, despite its "juneberry" nickname.

A serviceberry takes about three years before it starts producing a decent-sized crop. Given the wonderful taste and health benefits, though, I’m willing to wait. Now if I can only figure out a way to get the fruit before the birds do….

Serviceberry bush in bloom
A serviceberry in full bloom
By Karen Geisler

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Lurie Garden in Spring

Ballade tulips in the Lurie Garden

Spring has come to the Lurie Garden in its own quiet, subtle way.

There are no tall grasses waving in the wind, no dramatic "rivers" of purple salvia grabbing your attention. You will, however, find a gorgeous Eastern redbud (cercis canadensis) in full flower and thousands of bulbs gradually coming into bloom.

As with many gardens in the Chicago area, the record-breaking heat last month has taken its toll. Some of the bulbs -- including the crocus and Glory-of-the-Snow (chionodoxa) --  have long since come and gone.

Look closely, though, and you'll find purple Grecian Windflower (anemone blanda) and Grape Hyacinth (muscari) nestled among the emerging salvia. There's prairie smoke (geum triflorum) without the "smoke" it will eventually eventually develop.  And scattered all around are Virginia bluebells (mertensia virginica) and several daffodils, including the poet's daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) and angel's tears daffodils (narcissus triandrus).

The white "Spring Green" tulips recently were joined by the colorful "Ballade." "Maureen" tulips also will eventually make an appearance. So there's plenty to see during a stroll through the garden on a warm spring day.

If you decide you need the yellow and red tulips that scream "Spring!" you can easily find that a couple of blocks away in the rest of Millennium Park. Me, I'll take the quiet interplay of colors and textures that seems to occupy the Lurie Garden year round.

An eastern redbud in full bloom

Virginia bluebells with daffodils
Virginia bluebells and "Lemon Drop" daffodils

Prairie Smoke spring Lurie Garden
Prairie Smoke without the "smoke"

Spring Green tulips spring Lurie Garden
"Spring Green" tulips
Muscari spring Lurie Garden

Narcissus poeticus Actea spring Lurie Garden
Narcissus poeticus 'Actea'
By Karen Geisler