Pretty Pollen

Who'd have guessed this spiky orb is a grain of morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) pollen, and not some strange sci-fi asteroid? Electron microscopes, such as the one at Dartmouth's Rippel Electron Microscope Facility which made these photos, give us a whole new view of worlds hidden until this incredible technology could reveal them. The morning glory is colorized; electron microscopes "see" in black and white. A truer view can be seen in the picture of collected grains of pollen from sunflower (Helianthus annuus), morning glory (Ipomea purpurea), hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora), lily (Lilium auratum), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) and castor bean (Ricinus communis). More cool color-enhanced images of pollen can be found here, and more black and white pollen shots here. Prowling around at this site will uncover other microworld wonders: nicotiana leaves, coleus stems and other botanic bits.

Got Cups?

Recycling is a good thing. It can even be a great thing, artistically speaking. "The Gravity of Color, Series #5" a sculpture by Lisa Hoke, is made entirely of paper and plastic cups. It's on display at the New Britain Museum of American Art, a gem of a museum in nearby New Britain, CT, and should hang there, more or less, until the cups start falling off the wall. Think of the potential for recycled art work in the garden: old tools, broken wheelbarrows, pots, seed packets, plant tags...hmmm.


Fab Foliage Friday

'Lime Zinger' elephant ear (Xanthosma 'Lime Zinger') creates bold contrast with the finer textured foliage surrounding it. And the chartreuse shades of its Brobdingnagian leaves make a wonderful color echo with the coleus. Planted by Brian McGowan at his former nursery, Blue Meadow, in Montague, MA.


Cuckoo for Kiku--More From NYBG

I recently bemoaned the thought that there was no word to express the transitory beauty so familiar to gardeners. Turns out there is one, Hanami, a Japanese expression for the pastime of flower viewing, a celebration of both the transience of life and the beauty of a single moment. The Japanese are famous for their reverence of cherry blossoms, and they have a similar expression of Hanami late in the season, when the chrysanthemums bloom.

Chrysanthemums occupies a special place in the Japanese psyche: a stylized version of the flower serves as the Emperor's royal seal and to outsiders the seat of Japanese power has long been referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne. As tends to happen in Japan, the object of veneration becomes the center of ritualistic, almost cultish devotion. And so it has gone with the chrysanthemum. That now culminates in their annual "Festival of Happiness" a celebration of things mum. The New York Botanical Garden recently hosted a special exhibit called Kiku (KEE-koo), to show us what it's all about.

The Japanese bring a near fetishistic fervor to mums and train the plants to do things I'd never dreamed possible. At some point, this kind of pursuit becomes less about the plant and more about the practitioners of the arcane art devoted idealizing the mum. These things are coddled and coaxed There are several different disciplines, At top is Shino-tsukuri, Driving Rain, in which two plants are placed side by side in pot, then pinched and tweaked until they produce 27 flowering branches-no more, no less-whose height is adjusted, just so, to create the slanted circle of pinwheeled flowers. As is customary, they are displayed in their own little bamboo and douglas fir shelter, protected by curtains of imperial purple and a sash tied in a ceremonial knot.

My favorite form, and the most striking visually, was Ozukuri, Thousand Bloom. A single plant is pinched until it produces 5 strong growing shoots, which are in turn manipulated, staked, trellised and otherwise manhandled to within an inch of their life until they produce an exquisite dome-shaped cloud of flowers, each one precisely placed within the overall composition. These things are huge, nearly 4 feet across. It takes 11 months and whole team of gardeners to create one of these tour-re-force mums. The plants even have names. We're looking at Friendship, boasting 229 flowers.

The silliest display was the Ogiku, Single Flower. These are the lollipops of the mum world. Gardeners diligently train a single stem--pinching off all shoots and buds save one, so as to produce... one single flower. But it's a big one. The one we're looking at here is larger than a softball. Plants are then displayed in formation, lined up in ranks, like soldiers.

Winner of the windowbox award would have to go to the form known as Kengai, Cascade, in which plants are tickled and pinched to produce a multitude of side shoots which are in turn trained through a wire mesh frame and tied into place. After 10 months, buds begin forming and the frame is lowered into a cascading position. Plants-which are usually raised in pots-are then moved into an Uwaya, the traditional bamboo display shelter that protects these delicate creations from the elements

I found it exhausting just looking at these amazing specimens of...what?...the gardener's art. A friend who's visited Japan about this time of year said the country is virtually overrun with these creations, that they are everywhere, by the thousands, or even tens of thousands. Must be quite a sight.


Our Quest for a Quetzal

Not so long ago, my wife Kate, son David, and I wanted to see, among other things, a resplendent quetzal. This Central American bird, prized by the Maya for its long, irridescent green tail feathers, is one of the bird world's wonders. It had become, for me, a kind of birding grail. I've failed to see one many times.

So off we went to Panama, to the slopes of Volcan Baru, a 10,000-foot-tall dormant volcano in the center of a vast national park near the Costa Rican border. The cloud forest there hosts a marvelous profusion of primeval-looking, moss-draped plant life, which seems to grow constantly in the nearly constant mist. And, of course, there were lots of animals and birds. The sheer profusion of life and the mystical, foggy quality of the light makes cloudforests--which are basically high-altitude rain forests--among the most magical places on earth.
We stayed in the cabin pictured above, which was reached from the nearest village by a 30-minute, bone-pounding ride up a rocky track in a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, then a 15-minute hike through the jungle. But there we were at the remotest outpost of Los Quetzales, a lodge and spa that also offers accommodation in several remote jungle cabanas. As we looked out from our second-story porch, several species of hummingbirds flitted among orchids and bromeliads. Brugmansias towered 25 feet or more toward the forest canopy. Tree ferns were everywhere. But no quetzals.

We hiked through a steep ravine alongside waterfalls, across rivers, and saw all manner of birds. And plants, which will be the subject of several upcoming Panama posts, as it was an inspiring locale for anyone who, like me, tries to emulate the dramatic architectural plant life of the tropics in a temperate garden. Anyjungle, we sometimes cooked dinner on the gas stove in the cabana, and always had a wood fire at night. Yes, we were in the tropics, but the altitude made it comfortably cool during the day. On our last dawn in the cloud forest, my wife the artiste and my son birdboy decided to try calling in a quetzal.

They stood at the edge of the forest, mimicking noises a bird guide taught us. We knew we were in a promising spot, since a nearby tree was covered with some fruitlike stuff quetzals loved. Suddenly birdboy said he saw one. The artiste and I were suspicious that it was more of an optimistic mirage than an actual sighting. After a few minutes, birdboy said he spotted another. More suspicion followed. Then, a quetzal, a colorful male, flew right overhead, trailing its long tailfeathers and showing off its bright red breast. It was like something out of a painting, maybe one by Michael DiGiorgio, whose fanciful image of a quetzal graces the top of the post. The bird's passage was fleeting, but the memory of its beauty lingers.


Fab Foliage Friday

Silver spur flower (Plectranthus argentatus) is a tender perennial whose fuzzy, silvery leaves make a handsome addition to most any planting. It's a winner in containers and in the ground. Peter Wooster used one to brighten a galactic cloud of tiny white flowers in his Roxbury, CT garden.

Garden Touring with Clive

Clive Nichols is one of my favorite garden photographers. And he's shot at many of the very best gardens in England and on the continent, such as Nicole de Vesian's in Provence, France (pictured). It's nice, every so often, to visit his site, and wade through the thousands of pictures he has online. I always find inspiration--sometimes for making gardens, sometimes for making pictures. Clive also wrote a top notch how-to garden photography book: Photographing Plants & Gardens. For my money, it provides a lot more practical advice than his recent, stunning The Art of Flower & Garden Photography.


Durian and Other Iffy Edibles

Everything you've heard about the durian--assuming you've heard anything at all--is true. It's sinister looking, but sweet tasting, a strange fusion of ugliness and beauty. Tim Laman's National Geographic photo, above, perfectly captures the durian's duality. It is ambrosial. It smells bad enough to induce vomiting. It is an aphrodisiac (Indonesians say that when the durians come down, the sarongs go up). It is illegal in many southeast Asian hotels and on public transport. Virgin Airlines once cancelled a flight because, thanks to the stench of a stowaway durian, the plane was unfit to fly in. No matter what which side of the argument you take, there's no denying it's one strange fruit.

Consider its spiked shell, which, if you were walking under a tree at just the wrong time, could have lethal implications--durians can easily be large as an American football. Stink fruit looks primeval, and our hunger for it may be equally archaic. Our taste for it, say some southeast Asians, harkens back to our animalistic, id-driven roots, since the "king of fruits" is said to be a favorite snack of the Orang Pendek--Sumatra's storied manbeast--and other wild, fearsome missing links. One of the more grisly descriptions comes from Adam Leith Gollner's highly entertaining book "The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Obsession and Commerce." In it, he likens the scent of a durian to that of "a disinterrred corpse clutching a wheel of blue cheese."'

I tried durian several times while traveling in Java and Bali. One day while tooling around the artist's village of Ubud, I left a durian in my car while I went into a restaurant for some nasi goreng, and a few skewers of sate ayam. When I got back and opened the door, it smelt as if the entire NFL had stuffed their dirty socks under the back seat. Undeterred (though I'm not sure why), I got back to my bungalow, sliced the fruit open, and slopped out some of the creamy, custardy goop within. To me it tasted like sweet vanilla custard infused with bite of an onion. Sweet, but with a bite. Pleasant, really. But there was still that awesome olfactory challenge-durian boasts some of the same sulfuric chemical compounds as garlic and skunk. As a result, the entire experience was enveloped in cloud of noxious, malodorous gas, an olfactory assault. Not pleasant, really.

So it was odd snack. Rarely does one have the chance to taste something truly weird, something outside all prior sensory experience. For me it was a edgy epicurean adventure; and while I'm not about to become a member of one of the many fan clubs that host tasting parties, I'd give durian another go. The experience is so complex that it merits further exploration. If you're so inclined, it might be worth looking around Chinatown in New York or San Francisco or any similar Southeast Asian enclave. For more on durians and other really strange things to eat, head over to the weird fruit post at WebEcoist.


More From NYBG: Mum's the Word

Let's face it, mums are maligned. Many a plant snob sneers at them. They're just so common. Hard to imagine a plant so over used and, often, so poorly used. Usually, they're just thrown about higgledy piggledy to add a garish splash of color. But, hey, I even love marigolds, so to me mums always seemed a plant that just hadn't found the proper calling. Yet.
Anymums, what drew me to the New York Botanical Garden the other day was their seasonal exhibit on Kiku (KEE-koo), the Japanese word for chrysanthemum. Obviously they wanted to show mums in Japanese-tinged scenes. One way they did that was by creating Oriental gardens such as the one above, but what really caught my eye was the creative, intensely colorful use of mums as major players in a kind of fanciful, bed-and-border woodland garden comprised of Japanese plants. Turns out mums and Japanese maples were just plain made for each other. Who knew? Such vivid, rich color harmonies make beautiful garden music. Is there anyone who cannot appreciate the interplay between the fall foliage of 'Shishigashira' Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira' and the Chrysanthemum 'Colona Orange'? Even the wildly tossed-about blades of fast-fading golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aurea') add to the splendor of the scene.

And how about this pair? Not sure of the maple's proper name, or of the mum's.

Whatever the grass, whatever the mum--they both looked great, and really set off the toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.), which acted as the centerpiece in this dynamic threesome.

Not a mum in sight, but this Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra') and heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica 'Gulfstream') made a handsome couple too.

Below is grab bag of other sights. I especially liked the leaves of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Beni-otake') fallen on the sedge (Carex oshimensis 'Evergold') at lower right. Looks
like something from all fall down.

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Wild About Your Garden

Today marks the debut of a new BBC gardening show. Wild About Your Garden picks up an old theme--the garden makeover--but takes it in a new direction. It's garden-design-and-build team creates gardens designed to attract wildlife. Out with the old concrete patio, in with the bird-friendly mixed border. You can catch a preview by clicking on the link above. No clue how much of this show may be watchable via the internet, but you'll find-at the very least-ideas you can use on the website.

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home

Ladybugs are always welcome in my yard. These dinky defenders of the garden munch aphids--as many as 5,000 during their lifespan--and gobble up other soft-bodied insects with gusto. And their little, polka-dotted, armor-plated shells are so darn cute. But gosh, it looks awfully hard for these guys to get off the ground, the leaf, or whatever when seen in super slo-mo photography.

LadyBug flight in UltraSlo motion - Watch more Free Videos


Field Trip: New York Botanical Garden

I don't get out that much, but I made every effort to make a late season visit to the New York Botanical Garden. The always inspiring gardens there are full of ideas and are a great place to discover new plants and combinations that celebrate the season, whatever that season might be. They had some outstanding fall displays, which I thought were worth sharing. The photo at top looks out upon a section of their main perennial garden through a stand of late, late-blooming tatarian aster (Aster tataricus), and shows the value of structure--the two obelisks really add interest to the scene, which is further enhanced by the many evergreens and fall-colored trees and shrubs, each adding their own dollop of shape and color.

I especially like this dramatic, late season combination: 'Strawberry Fields' globe amaranth (Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields'), thread leaf blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) in its autumnal glory, and blue spruce (Picea pungens).

The seeds heads of this fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) add textural pizzaz to the blades of Crocosmia (I think), and mystery cushion mum (Dendranthemum) (ditto), and the cool red tropical thingy (of that much, I'm sure).

This 'Fiona's Sunrise' poet's jasmine (Jasminum officinale 'Fiona's Sunrise') glows against the pumpkin hues flowers of black-eyed Susan 'Cappuccino' (Rudbeckia hirta 'Cappuccino') and the purplish wands of Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha).

The spectral shapes of these mountain laurel (Kalmia spp.) seem like harbingers of the coming winter's stark simplicity. Below, a sampler of other enjoyable sights at NYBG.

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The Bear Out There

We live in the woods, where one of the challenges of gardening is facing off against the other critters that call this forest home. Coyotes, raccoons, opossums, fox, deer (by the herd)...we got 'em all. Bear too, one of whom just paid us a visit. He tore down one of our bird feeders, bashed it open, and chugged down its cargo of seed and nuts. Must be a fairly big black bear, as the feeder was almost six feet off the ground. After he was done, he just left it hanging. Last year, the bear grabbed a bag of chickenfeed and made off with it, leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of crumbs halfway across the yard before giving up on the 50-lb bag. Oh well, it keeps things interesting.


Fab Foliage Friday

Neatly clipped boxwood orbs seem to roll across a path at Madoo, artist Robert Dash's garden in Sagaponack, NY. These sturdy spheres enliven this spot, and make the trunks of the gingko trees look like giant mallets in an ongoing game of croquet.


Daydreaming in Color

T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, but no--November has it, hands down. The leaves are gone, the sky is gray, there's no snow, no sun. It's cold-but not frigid enough to be exhilarating. It's just kind of grim. Like the skies today. So when I look out the window, I tend to daydream, and my thoughts often carry me off to tropical places with vibrant, bright colors, the hues that inspire me in the garden. Mostly today I'm dreaming in the hottest of hot colors: vivid reds and oranges, maybe soothed by cool blues, colors that stand up to the sun--which is surely shining somewhere.

A Plant's Eye View

Learn about corn's scheme to take over the world, and lots of other stuff in this thought-provoking, roughly 17-minute TED video of Michael Pollan giving a talk called "The Omnivore's Next Dilemma". I think we can all agree that in the US, our food production and distribution system is seriously broken. Too many chemicals, too much fossil fuel, and too much pollution--and food that's really not especially healthy. And that's just for starters. Did you know the average item on the shelf at your grocery story traveled 1,500 miles to get there? Industrial farming is not the solution, it's the problem. Darn few folks have devoted much mental energy to developing new models for agriculture. Michael Pollan, a terrific writer on the subjects of gardening, growing things and how the food we eat gets too our plate, has thought about this a lot, and his ideas are fascinating. If you haven't read his "Botany of Desire" or "The Omnivore's Dilemma"--or even if you have--take a look at what he has to say.

TED, by the way, stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. They host an aunnual conference which brings together an eclectic global consortium of thinkers and doers on the cutting edge of science, art. writing, or whatever to present "the talk of their lives"--usually in 20 minutes or less. More than 200 video presentations are available free at the TED site. I think it's one of the most incredible repositories of ideas on the Internet. And did I mention it's FREE? Check it out.


Review: Great Gardens of the Berkshires

Let me begin with a disclosure: I’ve known Virginia Small for more than a decade, and in that time we have collaborated and brainstormed on everything from garden designs to magazine articles. Too bad I missed the boat working with her on “Great Gardens of the Berkshires” (Down East, hardcover, $35). Instead, Virginia, a former senior editor at Fine Gardening magazine, and ace garden lensman Rich Pomerantz teamed up to produce this paean to 17 great gardens clinging to the rocky spine of the Berkshires. Public gardens such as incomparable Naumkeag and The Mount are featured, as are private gardens, including those of Lee Link, Jack Hyland and Larry Wente, and Honey Sharp. Virginia’s a poet, so her prose is crisp, sharp, and evocative, but what distinguishes Great Gardens of the Berkshires from so many coffee-tablesque great garden books is that this one is not merely an exercise in lyrical praise-giving. Instead, it’s chock full of news-you-can-use concepts such as how these gardens actually evolved, what sites served the owners as sources of inspiration, and what design strategies were employed in creating these distinctive sites. Many of those valuable insights are distilled in boxed featurettes, so they can readily be referred to again and again. Last but not least, Rich Pomerantz’s fine photographs are inspiring enough to stand on their own, but their careful integration with the text makes them especially informative as well.

Silly Squirrels

Every fall, the squirrels around Clatter Valley go kind of, well, nuts. Their frenzied foraging has them leaping at the bird feeders, scrabbling at seeds, and darting thither and yon. Their ongoing game of tree tag reaches for new heights of ferocity too. But, strange as the local squirrels may seem, they cannot compare with some of their crazier cousins.


All Fall Down

As Autumn's last leaves drift earthwards, they might inspire new garden compositions. They do for me. At the least, you might think about allowing a scuffle-deep layer of brightly colored leaves to carpet a section of garden or woodland edge for a week or two. But you can also coax more rarefied charms from fallen foliage or flowers. Yesterday I saw this vivid red Japanese maple leaf had tumbled, just so, onto one of the branches of a 'Blue Princess' holly to make a vividly colorful pairing. Such happy accidents are a delight to discover, but you can also encourage them. Really, it's planning in three dimensions--you think about what's in the ground, and about what may, at some time of the year, fall down upon whatever is groundbound, uniting, however briefly, earth and sky. I once saw a spectacular crimson carpet of fallen maple leaves, punctuated by mounds of deep green hellebores; the combination provides exuberant testimony to the beauty of late fall and to the value hellebores play in the garden's shoulder seasons.

Such unions of sky and soil needn't be limited to fall. Think of the potential for making use of the ephemeral carpet created by, say, spent magnolia blooms or the fallen flowers of many spring blooming trees and shrubs. You can even do something in summer, as designer Wesley Rouse has in his Southbury CT garden. (Yes, I know I've already posted this picture, but hey--it's too perfect an illustration to pass up for the point I'm trying to make.) Wesley created a beautiful ground layer of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechola macra 'Aurea', and green on green spurflower (Plectranthus forsteri 'Green on Green'). Above them he placed a large princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) planted in pot, to give it extra height. The princess flower's blooms are fragile as glass, so any time it rains the blooms shatter and their petals rain down to lend their exquisite color to the complementary gold and chartreuse hues of the grass and spurflower. There's such a Zenlike, ephemeral artistry to this scene, that there ought to be some specific word to describe it. The Japanese, who revere the achingly brief loveliness of cherry blossoms, cherish such moments of transitory beauty. So do I.