Reader Alert: Invasive Plant

    The sweet scent practically bowled me over. My friend, walking with me along the nearby rail trail, characterized the aroma as citrus-y rather than sweet. Either way, the aroma was delicious and welcome. Too bad the source of the scent, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), is a plant so reviled.Autumn olive blossoms
    “Too bad” because the plant also has other qualities. The olive-green leaves lend a Mediterranean feel to any setting. Microorganisms associated with the shrub’s roots garner nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. And come early fall, the plants are loaded with delicious and nutritious, small, red (sometimes yellow) berries.
    Alas, this non-native plant grows too easily, frequenting fields and waysides. It’s deemed invasive, which it is . . .  but?
  Autumn olive fruit  (Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive, E. angustifolium, a close relative that is more tree-like, less invasive, and with sweet, olive-green fruits. Another equally attractive, fragrant, tasty, and soil-building plant is gumi, E. multiflora, not well known but closely related to the other “olives.”)

And Yet Another Invasive

    Soon, by the time you read this, the rail trail and elsewhere will be suffused by another pleasant aroma, that of honeysuckle. These flowers are also followed by red berries, but they’re not edible. (Other honeysuckle species do yield edible berries, an up and coming fruit called haskaps.)Honeysuckle flower
    How could anyone not like a plant with a name like “honeysuckle?” A lot of people don’t like honeysuckle because it too, despite its qualities, is invasive.

You Call This Renovation

    Before anyone attacks me for heaping praise on invasive plants, let’s sidle off the rail trail and back to the home front, where yet another delicious scent fills the air. This one wafts from a plant that, unlike autumn olive, Russian olive, and gumi, is not invasive and is truly in the olive family: lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
    Actually, for years now, my lilac bush has not been perfuming the air as much as it should. The plant is old, my guess is over 50 years old. Not that age alone is responsible for its poor showing. Lilac, like other shrubs, have long-lived root systems. No stem ever develops into a permanent, long-lived trunk and — important for all flowering and fruiting shrubs — after a certain age stems can’t keep up the flower production of its youth.
    The way to prune any flowering or fruiting shrub is by a renewal method. You cut down some of the oldest stems that are no longer performing well. And then you thin out — that is, reduce the number of — some of the youngest stems so that each can develop to its fullest potential without being crowded.
    How long an old stem is worth keeping and how many new stems spring up each year from ground level depends on the kind of shrub and the growing conditions. A highbush blueberry stem, for example, retains its youthful fecundity for about 6 years; a raspberry, for two years.

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

    I’ve pruned my lilac over the years, but — I have to admit — never cut the old stems close enough to the ground nor thinned out the many young stems sufficiently. (My excuse is that the dense crowding of 5-inch-diameter stems made cutting difficult, the difficulty made more so by the haven they provided for poison ivy vines.)
    A non-blooming lilac shrub isn’t worth keeping, so drastic renovation was in order. This treatment can be applied to any old, decrepit shrub. It’s easy. All that’s needed is to cut everything to the ground. Which I did.
    My lilac’s stumps gave evidence to the shrub’s poor showings over the years with their many thick yet half-rotten, old stubs. Shrubby stems, as I wrote, just aren’t meant to live that long, and over time can’t support good flowering.
    If all goes well, new sprouts should soon poke up from ground level, vigorous new sprouts because they’ll be fueled by a large, old root system. It’ll be a few years before any of those sprouts get old enough to start flowering. But I’ll make sure to thin them out so each has room to develop. I promise.

Win a Copy of My Book

A few weeks ago my plum tree was in full bloom, actually only part of it was in full bloom. Winter’s wacky weather? Spring’s wacky weather? Plum, blossoming branchOffer an explanation and, if correct, you’ll be in the pool of readers, one of whom, randomly selected, gets sent a free copy of my book Grow Fruit Naturally. Respond by midnight, May 31st.
GFN Front Cover


Too Hot Here For These Gems, But Maybe I Can Trick Them

   It was decades ago that Norman — gardener, orchid expert, one-time cattle farmer, and lawyer — described to me his first sighting of blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. He was traveling in England, and at this particular garden was a pond whose far side was electrified by the sky blue petals of blue poppy, perhaps the purest blue of any flower. The mirrored surface of the water stepped up the voltage, as do the frilly clusters of golden anthers trembling in the center whorls of petals.Blue poppy at Longwood Gardens
    Since then, I’ve lusted for blue poppies but have yet to see the plant in bloom. Twice I tried to grow it, from seed. Each time the seedlings germinated and got off to a good start. Each time, in July, as temperatures here started to get steamy, the plants collapsed, dead. Blue poppy is native above 10,000 feet in the Himalayas and doesn’t like hot weather.
    I don’t feel compelled to grow the plant (although that would be nice); I just want to feast my eyes on those bluest of blue petals. To see the plant in bloom requires being somewhere: 1) in late spring or early summer, 2) with cool summers, 3) where blue poppy grows wild or has been planted. The second condition, cool summers, is found in North America in the Pacific Northwest, New England and adjacent parts of Canada, and Alaska. I like hot summers so I’m not relocating to any of these places in order to grow this plant. Also, my garden is particularly needy and entrancing in late spring and early summer, so I’m not leaving then.

I Almost Cross Paths With Blue Poppy, After 20+ Years

    As it turned out, I just missed an opportunity to see blue poppy in bloom at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. Not only is Longwood not far from here, but I happened to be in nearby Philadelphia two weeks ago, when the plant was in bloom. Who would have thought blue poppy could be grown in Pennsylvania?
Close up of blue poppy    I had, at least, to find out how the plants are grown there. As described by Longwood horticulturalist Jim Harbage, each October Longwood has potted plants shipped from a nursery in Alaska. The plants are put into cold storage until early January, then brought into Longwood’s cool (50-60°F) conservatory to slowly awaken and, finally, blossom in March. After bloom, the plants, although perennials, are discarded.
    Most important is to keep temperatures below 70° F. Research at Longwood Gardens showed that respiration outpaces photosynthesis at warmer temperatures. The plant, essentially, starves. Warmer temperatures also cause some purpling of the petals, ruining the whole reason for growing the plant.
    Could Longwood’s prescription be mimicked in my greenhouse? Probably not.  Longwood’s large, high-ceilinged conservatory, with dappled shade from tree ferns and citrus trees, perhaps also cooling mists of water puffed into the air as needed, is a lot cooler than my greenhouse. Here, greenhouse temperatures on sunny days in February and March soar, despite vent fans, into the 80s.
    How about a sunny window sill? Temperatures are cool in my house, more so the further you go from the woodstove. So that’s a possibility. But purchasing new plants every year could get expensive, especially plants that are good only for compost once their blossoms fade.
    How about starting the seeds in early or mid winter for planting outdoors to blossom before temperatures get too hot? Or starting the seeds in fall and exposing the young seedings to very cool temperatures for more assured earlier blossoms outdoors? Blue poppy, if it behaves like many other perennials, should blossom the first season if started very early or if tricked into thinking it’s been through winter before blossoming. I later learned that Chanticleer Garden, also in the Philadelphia region, gets outdoor blossoms from plants purchased in October, wintered in cold frames, then planted outdoors in March. Bloom is in April; composting is in June.
    The most important and most reliable route for me to eye blue poppy in bloom is to pencil in a trip to Longwood Gardens for early March next year.

King Red, For Fruit & Beauty, Also Elusive . . . Do Far

    My blue poppy experience is reminiscent of my experience with another plant of western Asia, a plant variously called King Red Russian olive, iğde (in Turkey), botanically Elaeagnus angustifolia var. orientalis, or, erroneously, Trebizond date (which is a persimmon species).

King Red seeds, sprouting last spring

King Red seeds, sprouting last spring

    King Red is invasive out West but definitely is not invasive here. As with blue poppy, I’ve grown the plant from seed only to have it collapse, dead, when steamy weather arrived.
    Beautiful blossoms are not the attraction of King Red, although they do sweetly perfume the air in spring. Rather, it’s the bright red fruit that is highlighted by the gray-green foliage and, when dried, is like sweet talcum powder contained within a cherry-sized, brittle shell. Even without the flowers or fruit, the tree imparts a soft, Mediterranean look to the landscape, much like an olive tree, a relative.
    I started some seedlings of King Red Russian olive last year, hoping for some genetic variability in heat tolerance. All the seedlings thrived, probably because of last summer’s relatively cool temperatures.

King Red branch that someone sent me

King Red branch that someone sent me

   The seedlings are now dormant in 4 inch pots in my basement. I want 20 foot tall King Red trees so eventually the baby trees need to be planted out. I’m scoping out suitable locations with cooler microclimates. A spot receiving only morning sun is the current best candidate.
    Perhaps in a few years I’ll be eating home-grown iğde while enjoying the sight of blue poppies.

What’s New Farmdenly?

In this early part of the growing season, I’m frequently asked, “So what new and exciting plants are you growing in the garden this year?” And just as frequently, I can’t think of anything. Not that gardening isn’t “new and exciting” every year, what with the vagaries of the weather and pests, and their interaction with planting, pruning, and soil care.
Well, this year I can think of at least four new and exciting plants I’m growing.
I actually have grown cardoon before, perhaps 25 years ago. And up until this weekend, I had no desire to ever grow it again. The plant is like a giant celery with spiny stalks that must be tied together so that they get blanched and edible. Or supposedly edible, once you removed the tough strings running down each stalk. Blanching and de-stringing was a lot of trouble, too much trouble for me considering the taste of what of the tough stalk after being cooked.
This weekend, two people at my grafting workshop digressed from grafting to wax enthusiastic over cardoon. Evidently, my problems 25 years ago were growing the wrong variety and cooking it poorly. I’m not sure if any varieties were available back then, but I was convinced to order seed of the suggested variety, Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice), and will sow them in pots as soon as they arrive.
Once the weather warms reliably, I’ll plant out two or three small plants, giving them rich soil. Once the plants are three feet high, I’ll mound some soil or wood chips up around their bases and tie the leaves together to blanch them, then a few weeks later, cut down the four-foot-tall monsters for eating. I was told that they taste like artichoke, a close relative.
In warm winter regions, cardoon grows as a perennial. If winter’s were warm here, I’d plant cardoon even if they tasted awful. That’s because in their second year, they send up six-foot-high stalks capped with bottlebrushes of cerulean blue flowers that sit in an artichoke-y base.
I’ve also previously grown — or tried to grow — the second of this year’s N&EP (“new and exciting plants”), King Red Russian olive. It’s a variety of Russian olive, native to Afghanistan, that, instead of bearing the usual innocuous silvery green fruits, bears bright red fruits. The fruits contrast nicely with the silvery green leaves — and taste pretty good.
For some reason, King Red doesn’t like our summer weather, probably the humidity. My plant of yore grew fine until sometime in July, when it collapsed, dead. Others in the humid East have had similar experiences.
Out West, King Red, which was introduced as a conservation plant decades ago by the USDA, grows fine. Too fine, so that it is now listed as an invasive plant out there, along with regular old, green-fruited Russian olive. (Sometimes they are listed so in the East also, although they seem pretty sedate around these parts.)
I’m thinking that somewhere in the genes of King Red, which is a seed propagated variety, not a clone, might lie genes that can tolerate our summer climate. To that end, I got my hands on seeds left from a bag of imported, dried King Red fruits; I’ll sow them all and hope for the best. (I once tasted the dried fruits; they are like sweet talcum powder, enclosed within a brittle “shell.”) The fruits parade under a number of aliases: Trebizond date, lotus tree. Botanically, it’s Elaeagnus angustifolia var. orientalis.
Another fruit, Ficus Afghanistanica, or mountain fig tree, is among my N&EP. With more than a half-dozen fig varieties in my not very fig friendly climate, you’d think I had enough figs. Mountain fig tree is worth a try for its hardiness, by some accounts to well below zero degrees F. Of less importance here in the humid East is its drought tolerance, which may be related and help with its cold hardiness.
Also on the plus side, the plant has decorative leaves, similar to common fig leaves except pointed at their tips.
On the negative, there’s some question as to whether this fig needs pollination, something most fig varieties do not need. If so, a special pollinator variety would be needed as well as some means to get the pollen into the eye of each fruit at the right time. A syringe filled with pollen? Figs that need pollination normally get their pollen with the help of Blastophagus, which are tiny wasps that, laden with pollen, enter the eyes of developing fruits to lay eggs and, in so doing, inadvertently pollinate the flowers within.
The buttery pleasure of eating hickory nuts is offset by the tediousness of cracking and shelling them. That’s shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), which are native throughout eastern U.S.
Shellbark hickories (C. lacinosa) have similar nut flavor and shape, except that they are two or three times larger, so you get more bang for your buck with each nut you crack. Walking just a quarter of a mile in any direction, I’d be likely to find some shagbark hickory nuts on the ground but nary a shellbark hickory. The latter species is found mostly along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and bordering regions; nowhere, though, is it common.

So I ordered trees from Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery, and not just any old shellbark trees, but the varieties Simpson and Selbhers. Both are billed as heavy bearing and producing nuts medium to large nuts with excellent cracking qualities. Very “new and exciting;” I hope to enjoy the nuts of my labor in 5 to 10 years.