Sunday, November 25, 2012


Enduring Red poinsettias

Enduring™ Red Poinsettia

No flower says Christmas to me more than the poinsettia. It's as much a part of the holiday as Christmas trees and wreaths.

I still remember going to church as a young child and being amazed at the sea of bright red poinsettias at the front of the church. There's also the legend of the poinsettia -- how a poor child, having nothing else to offer, gathered a bouquet of weeds to lay at a Nativity scene on Christmas Eve only to see them burst into bright red blooms.

John Roberts Poinsett

It's hard to believe that they were first introduced in the U.S. more than 180 years ago after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, sent some back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.

He had many other accomplishments in his life -- Congressman, Secretary of War under President Van Buren, organizer of the first National Gallery of Art and founder of what later became the Smithsonian Institution. This amateur botanist, though, will mostly be remembered for a colorful Mexican plant.

The botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which literally means "the most beautiful Euphorbia." You'll find lots of this plant variety for sale at your local nursery each spring although they are annuals -- not perennials -- in the Chicago area.

Carousel Dark Red poinsettias

Carousel ™ Dark Red Poinsettias

What most people think of as flower petals actually aren't. They're technically bracts or modified leaves. The "flowers" are the small yellow structures at the center. And, contrary to popular opinion, the plant is not poisonous.

Poinsettias that grow in the wild are much different than what you'll find in the U.S. today. They're shrubs that are much more open and even scraggly at times. (For some pictures, click here.)

Modern varieties have been specifically developed to have a high number of blooms per stem. For years, most of these were bred and grown in California by the Paul Ecke family. That, however, has changed in recent years as production moved to Guatemala and other growers figured out ways to make the plants fuller. In August, the Ecke family announced it was becoming part of Dutch-based Agribio Group.

Visions of Grandeur poinsettia

Visions of Grandeur™ Poinsettia

Although one can supposedly get a poinsettia to bloom the following year, I've never been able to do it. It needs to be cut back, put in the dark and then brought out and put into bright sunlight, something I really don't have at my house.

If you'd like to give it a try, check out this fact sheet from Ohio State University. 

There also are two events in the Chicago area, both with free admission, if you'd like to see lots of poinsettias all at once.

The annual holiday show at the Garfield Park Conservatory opened Saturday and continues through January 6. All of the photos in this post were taken there. While repairs from last year's devatating hailstorm are still underway, the flowers in Horticulture Hall are quite lovely.

Cantigny Gardens in Wheaton also will have an open house on Tuesday, Nov. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. featuring 3,000 poinsettias in its greenhouses.

Just the idea of raising that many plants at once is enough to give me a headache! I think I'll stick with buying one plant as I usually do each Christmas. I'm obviously not alone as poinsettias are the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada.

Here's hoping one of the many varieties available will brighten your home this holiday season.

(For more information from the University of Illinois Extension about poinsettias, click here.)

DaVinci poinsettias Garfield Park Conservatory
Da Vinci™ Poinsettias at the Garfield Park Conservatory

Pink Cadillac pointsettias
Pink Cadillac Poinsettias

Snowcap pointsettias
Snowcap Poinsettias

Sparkling Punch poinsettias

Sparkling Punch™ Poinsettias

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Fall Bouquet

The last flower has faded. All the leaves have fallen from the trees. And the frost has been on more than just the pumpkins.

It's time once again for the final fall bouquet.

This has become an annual tradition for me. I'm the only member of my immediate family who doesn't live in our hometown, so I always spend Thanksgiving at the house of a relative. I usually make this bouquet as sort of a host/hostess gift using dried materials from my garden.

(Of course, there have been several years when I've forgotten the arrangement in my rush to get out the door, but I try to tell myself it's the thought that counts.)

Finding good quality materials in the garden wasn't as easy this year, courtesy of the drought. I started with the old standbys --  hydrangeas, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'), coneflowers (Echinacea ssp.) and Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum). I threw in some seed pods from sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia 'Henry Eilers') and some cattails cut from a roadside ditch.

Then I added some dried Queen Anne's Lace. Yes, the same wildflower/weed that spread rampantly in my garden, causing countless hours of back-breaking labor. It does look nice dried, however, with its starburst-like seedheads. Anyway, I figured it was pay-back time.

Finding some color proved to be my biggest problem. With last year's warm, extended fall, I could use some brightly colored leaves from my trees and shrubs. Not this time. The only bit of color I could find was a slight red lingering on my sedum's seedheads. I quickly snapped those up.

Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet and visit a craft store where I bought some dried yellow flowers plus some seed pods with a slight lavender tinge. Pricey, but definitely worth it.

So there you have it. I hope you'll try making your own version. You don't need anything fancy. I used a Mason jar filled halfway with river rock to hold all the stems upright. A bit of raffia tied in a bow added a final touch.

Don't sweat the details. After all, this bouquet will be fleeting, one that will quickly give way to holiday greens. It is, however, a good way to share some of your garden's bounty with your family on a special day.

Here's wishing you all a very happy Thanksgiving!

By Karen Geisler

Saturday, November 10, 2012

To Cut, or Not to Cut

To cut, or not to cut: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the garden to suffer
The stalks and seedheads of outrageous foliage,
Or to take pruners against a sea of dead leaves
And by cutting end them?

 -- With apologies to William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s got nothing on me, at least when it comes to cutting back the garden each fall. I’m always of two minds.

Should I leave the foliage of my perennials and ornamental grasses up all winter? Or should I cut them all down?

I fell in love with the look of seedheads and ornamental grasses in winter after reading the books of Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. The Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago, where he designed the perennial plantings, is an excellent example.

Ornamental  grasses along with my evergreens provide some much needed structure in the winter landscape. I also love the way the grass foliage can wave in the wind and cast shadows on the snow.

Seedheads provide food for the birds in the winter. Coneflowers (Echinacea ssp.) especially seem to be popular with my feathered friends. There’s generally nothing left on them by the time spring arrives even though I regularly stock two bird feeders.

Coneflower seedheads in the winter garden

The foliage can provide shelter to birds and other living creatures as the cold weather finally arrives. In addition, it insulates the crowns on plants I’ve added in the past season. The survival rate in my garden has definitely improved by waiting until spring to cut everything down to the ground.

With this year’s drought, though, the question of whether to cut is proving to be more problematic than usual. The remains of my peonies, for example, don’t look good – with black spots over large portions. I’m going to cut them off and bag them, just in case it’s due to a disease or fungus. Leaving them up would only compound any problem.

I'm also thinking about pruning everything around my bulbs and spring bloomers. Because the weather got so warm so early last spring, I didn't get a chance to cut down the clutter around them until they were already up and growing fast. Spring clean up was much more difficult than usual as a result.

I know that my catmint (Nepeta x faassenii  'Walker's Low), a sprawler if ever there was one, could easily stand one more "haircut" this year. Ditto for my daylilies.

Prairie dropseed foliage in the winter garden

Then there’s the question of my soil. Although I put lots of compost in my clay soil initially, I haven’t done it for a few years now. Boy, could you tell during the drought this last summer. Some newer beds especially fared poorly.

My garden obviously needs more organic matter and fall is a good time to do it. That way, the compost or other material can break down over the winter, just in time to provide nutrients to my plants in the spring. Besides, spring usually is too wet to work with clay soil. (At least I can hope that will be the case after this year's drought.)

Amending the soil will be difficult unless I cut down most, if not all of the foliage in some areas. At this point, I’m waiting for a soil sample to come back before making a decision. It might be a case where, as Hamlet said, I must be cruel only to be kind.

I've been lucky so far because the weather has turned a bit warmer, allowing me to hold off making a decision. I 'd like to do something before the snow flies, which probably won’t be long now. Let’s just hope it doesn't turn out to be, as another Shakespeare character once noted, the winter of our discontent.

By Karen Geisler