Archives For Mike Kwiatek

Sometime around midsummer, we all look at our yards, filled in and blooming, and think about designing something new, dividing plants, or perhaps creating a new hedge. 

Attractive native shrubs are often overlooked—and occasionally hard to come by in local nurseries and garden centers—but they are well worth the effort to find. Already adapted to our particular climate and ecosystems, natives simply do well here—and look spectacular. 

Here are five options to consider.

Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)

With a name like chokeberry, people aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to plant this native shrub. It’s unfortunate, because the chokeberry is one of the best shrubs you can grow in Illinois.

PHOTO: Closeup of chokeberry fruit ripening.

Iroquois Beauty™ chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Morton’) is starting to ripen. The beautiful black fruit stays on the plant longer than some other varieties.

Not to be confused with the chokecherry tree (Prunus virginiana), chokeberry (Aronia sp.) is a fruiting shrub that ranges from 3 to 10 feet tall with red, purple, or black fruit. The name chokeberry comes from the astringency or dryness of the fruit, which may be the result of antioxidants.

There are three main species: Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry), Aronia × prunifolia (purple chokeberry), and the most common, Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry).

Aronia is an all-season plant. In spring to early summer, the plants become covered in white, apple blossom-like flowers for several days to weeks. The glossy green foliage holds up against extreme heat and drought, and in fall, these great landscape shrubs produce red, purple, or black fruit in combination with orange to red-scarlet fall color.

The fruit attracts birds, though this may often be as late as February depending on Aronia species, food availability, and the density of your bird population. The fruit is also eaten by humans and is popular in Europe. Containing more antioxidants than blueberries and easier to grow, it’s a health food that you should definitely consider adding to your diet! Sweeten the fruit with honey or sugar to make a jam or syrup. I recommend ‘Viking’ for less astringent fruit that is good for harvesting. If fruit doesn’t interest you, consider ‘Professor Ed’ or the Chicagoland Grows variety ‘Morton’, both of which have ornamental fruit, stay somewhat small, and have excellent fall color. Aronia also takes well to renewal pruning if you wish to keep a larger variety at a smaller height.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

PHOTO: Closeup of buttonbush in bloom.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flowers are attractive, unique, and somewhat unworldly. These are growing by the water in the Lavin Evaluation Garden.

Wouldn’t you want something called buttonbush in your yard? The white, butterfly-attracting flowers are arranged in little celestial spheres that are 1 to 2 inches in diameter, emerging between late May and late July (depending on the region). After the flowers have finished blooming, spherical seedheads remain on the plant, providing winter interest. Buttonbush tolerates well-drained soil well, but loves it wet—making this an excellent choice for a rain garden plant!

They can grow fast—a 6-inch shrub can easily grow to 5 feet within a few years, and can reach up to 15 feet when fully mature! These shrubs also take well to renewal pruning, if you’d like to keep them short. They typically have a good rounded habit, but if you would like more uniformity, prune them in late winter or early spring.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)

PHOTO: Sweetfern in the fall.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) leaves turn russet in the fall. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Use this plant if you want a unique-looking shrub that can tolerate poor—even salty!—soils. Sweet fern has deeply notched, glossy, fern-like leaves that have a sweet fragrance when crushed. It grows to be around 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide with a nice upright rounded habit, but sweet fern can produce large colonies if left to grow wild.

The flowers and fruit won’t make a huge impact in the garden, but the catkins and fruit may be left as one of those subtle garden curiosities you need to go looking for. The leaves are edible, and are sometimes used for tea as well as insect repellant. These shrubs love part shade to full sun spots, and tolerate drought well.

If your soil is fairly alkaline you may wish to avoid sweetfern, though they will tolerate a degree of alkalinity.

My next pick is another “sweet” choice for the native home garden:

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale)

PHOTO: Sweet gale catkins.

Sweet gale’s (Myrica gale) catkins are certainly attractive, if not particularly showy. You can find a hedge of them in the Native Plant Garden, near the patio.

If you’ve got a sunny to somewhat shady wet area, consider sweet gale for your garden. This native shrub prefers moist areas, but tolerates dryness and even some salt. It even fixes nitrogen in its roots, which can help improve the soil. The plants have an attractive mounded, candelabra-like habit, becoming 4 to 5 feet tall in the landscape. The leaves, which are a glossy dark green to gray-green, are fragrant when crushed. The branches, leaves and cones can be used like hops in brewing beer, and were used extensively before hops were widely available. Though sweetgale is native to North America, the species is also native to northern and western Europe, so it appears in European folklore and carries a history of use as a dye, insecticide, tea, and more!

The flowers appear in summer and are not very showy, but the fruit that comes afterward offers a food source for yellow-rumped warblers on their way south.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

PHOTO: New Jersey tea plant on the green roof.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) thrives on the green roof of the Plant Conservation Science Center.

New Jersey tea is one native shrub that I hear recommended over and over again, but I can’t recall a time I’ve seen it in a landscape outside of public gardens.

New Jersey tea is a small deciduous shrub that grows to about 4 or 5 feet in height. This nitrogen-fixing member of the buckthorn family grows in open woods and produces leaves that can be dried and used for tea. In fact, its leaves were often used as a tea substitute during the revolutionary war—providing a similar flavor to imported teas, though lacking in caffeine.

New Jersey tea does well in moderately well-drained soils, but it develops a deep root system within a few years so it can withstand drought easily once established. It also provides nectar to butterflies and hummingbirds, acts as a butterfly host plant, and provides food for birds. The yellow twigs that remain in winter can be quite showy, and the white, fragrant flower clusters provide interest in summer.

If you want to make a short but attractive native hedge, start with small plants spaced two to three feet apart. You might also consider Ceanothus ovatus for a hedge that will grow to only 3 feet high.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Have you been to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden lately? If you have, you probably saw some of the garden staff perching in the branches of the niwaki. We’re not building nests or hiding out; we’re candling.

PHOTO: Niwaki near the Japanese Garden bridge.

In early spring, a niwaki near the bridge stands in need of candling.

Niwaki

Niwaki, literally translated, means “garden tree.” Some people think of niwaki as big bonsai, but that relationship isn’t exactly right. Bonsai translates to “tray (or pot) planting.” While we may think of niwaki as big bonsai, we should try to think of bonsai as niwaki in a pot. The purpose of the two arts are the same; they represent the essence of the tree.

If you consider how bonsai and niwaki are styled, they give the impression of age. The trees may be windswept or upright, often with gnarled bark and wide trunks. We achieve these effects by holding branches vertically with string tied to the ground, with fall pruning, and with candling in both spring and summer.

What’s candling?

In spring, we all know things start to grow again: seeds sprout, perennials push out growth from the roots, and trees break dormancy. In pine trees, these shoots of new growth are called “candles.” When we candle, we break off part of the new growth to stimulate growth from lower nodes. (In other plants, we often refer to this as “pinching.”)

PHOTO: Closeup of the tip of a pine branch, showing new growth.

A closeup of this Pinus sylvestris shows where the candle was broken last year and where you expect the new growth to emerge.

The result of breaking these candles is that the new growth spreads more horizontally than vertically, and the density of the pads increase, which makes them appear more lush and healthy over time. We never purposely take off an entire candle, because it removes the most actively growing point and takes longer to recover.

Why candle?

The pine shoots that emerge in spring are called candles for a reason: they tend to be very tall, skinny cylinders like taper or dinner candles. If we let this growth continue, the growth from one pad would grow into the next pad within a few short years. By the time this would happen, much, if not all the original pad would be woody, old, and almost impossible to repair. So in order to maintain the appearance of these trees, we need to candle every year. 

PHOTO: Uncandled new growth on the Japanese Garden pine trees.

If allowed to grow, these new shoots would quickly take over.

How long does it take?

There are 180 trees in the Malott Japanese Garden trained in this style. Each tree can take anywhere from eight hours to multiple days, depending on the size and on the person who is working on it. Most of the trees at the entrance to the garden will take eight hours for some of our speedier employees. Most days, during our regular hours, you can expect to see between two to five employees in the trees.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Eating Weeds

A guide to some common—and tasty—weeds

Mike Kwiatek —  June 10, 2014 — 6 Comments

If you ever find yourself grumbling over the dandelions that make their home in your lawn, or staring angrily at the purslane popping up in your vegetable garden, I have a suggestion for you: make a salad.

You may be familiar with the concept of foraging for weeds. I first became interested in the subject in college, when I realized that free food was everywhere once you knew where to look. (The reality soon set in that most of this “free” food was actually growing on lawns and private property.) Whenever you forage weeds and wild plants you have to be careful that what you take isn’t getting sprayed with herbicides—which is why I recommend only harvesting weeds from your own yard, or places you know have uncontaminated soil (and aren’t sprayed). It’s also very important to know exactly what you’re eating. Sometimes weeds have look-alikes that can be upsetting to the stomach or downright deadly. Others, of course, you can easily recognize from a distance, like yellow wood sorrel.

PHOTO: Yellow wood sorrel in bloom.

Great as a snack or a garnish, Oxalis is a tasty edible weed.

Oxalis stricta

Oxalis stricta, also known as yellow wood sorrel or lemon clover, is an annual weed that you can find anywhere…and everywhere. It spreads aggressively from its seedpods—which can explode on contact!

It only takes a brief sampling of the leaf to figure out why this weed is also called sour grass. The plants are full of oxalic acid, which is dangerous to humans in large amounts, but relatively harmless in small doses. The oxalic acid in the plant gives it a wonderful sour taste that makes for an excellent addition to salads. Oxalis grows commonly in lightly to heavily shaded garden areas. Look for them under plants like hostas.

PHOTO: Dandelion blooming in the lawn.

The long, lion-toothed leaves help identify suburban lawn villain Taraxacum officinale, but if you ever have a doubt, look for the aster-esqe yellow blooms.

Taraxacum officinale

Taraxacum officinale, or dandelions, are bothersome weeds, but they are truly “gourmet.” Dandelions get their name from their toothed leaves which are reminiscent of lion’s teeth, or as the French would say, “dent de lion.”

In its long botanical history, the dandelion has been used medicinally, but also as food. Dandelion roots, leaves, and flowers are entirely edible. Roasted, the roots can make for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The young leaves make for bitter but interesting additions to salads. The plants can also be deprived of sunlight until the leaves become pale, which will change the flavor of the leaves to make them more palatable. The flower buds can be fried and eaten, while the open blooms can be used to make dandelion wine!

PHOTO: Purslane poking up through garden mulch.

Keep an eye out for the  fairly drought resistant  Portulaca oleracea in areas where the ground tends to crack.

 

Portulaca oleracea

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed that you can find in sunny garden areas. They have succulent, red to green, low-spreading stems with flat, paddle-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. Purslane actually has an ornamental relative called moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), which have leaves that are more pointed than flat, and much larger flowers. Though they are also edible, why bother when you have purslane growing naturally? Look for purslane in sunny areas, particularly where the ground can get dry. Harvest purslane any time before the flowers appear, because they can become quite bitter after flowering. Purslane is also incredibly nutritious, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and high in Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as magnesium, potassium, and iron, just to name a few. Try it raw, or in a stir-fry!

PHOTO: Lamb's quarters in the garden bed.

Chenopodium is an easy weed to scarf up while working in the garden.

Chenopodium album

Another common edible weed is Chenopodium album, also called lambs’ quarters, or goosefoot. It will grow in sunny to partly shady areas and is high in Vitamins A and C. Like Oxalis, it also has high amounts of oxalic acid, so remember to enjoy it in moderation. I prefer to eat the young seedlings which only have 2-3 sets of leaves. This makes for an easy snack while you’re in the garden. 

Steer clear of Chenopodium’s southern cousin, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides or Dysphania ambrosioides). Native to Central America, South America, and southern Mexico, this weed can now be found on roadsides in North America as well. While epazote—whose long skinny leaves do not resemble a goosefoot—is used medicinally for a number of purposes, high doses can can cause severe dermatitis or allergic reactions. 

PHOTO: Spiderwort in bloom.

Tradescantia is more of a beautiful garden edible than a weed.

Tradescantia

As our final edible weed, I debated including Tradescantia, or spiderwort, in this list. Though it can spread in the garden, it is not anywhere as aggressive as the other weeds in this list. It is also commonly grown for ornamental purposes. In fact, I’m planning to order some of Chicagoland Grows’ Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’ —a reddish-purple-flowered cultivar—for my garden next year when it is released!

The wild plants vary a great deal in size from 1 foot to 4-5 feet tall, depending on species. The small, three-petaled flowers are often blue, but also come in purple, pink, and white. The name spiderwort may come from the fuzzy, webbing-like stamens of the flower, or from the way the mucilaginous substance in the stems will form thin, web-like strands when broken. If you’re planning on eating this one, peel the leaves off the stem and cook them like asparagus. You can also chop up the stems (or leaves) and fry them. But don’t stop there—the flowers are also tasty when raw. Since they usually last for just one day, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating them either! Plus, since they’re native plants used to grazing animals, they can take the abuse!

Interested in learning about more weedy cuisine in your yard? Join environmentalist, author, and forager Melany Vorass Herrera for The Front Yard Forager Workshop on Friday, June 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Strawberries

Mike Kwiatek —  May 26, 2014 — Leave a comment

When I was 8 years old, I traveled with my family to Przysietnica, Poland, to spend the summer with relatives. My grandparents’ farm was the home base for my adventures with cousins and siblings. We spent hours in the breezy northern hills, picking the sweetest strawberries I ever had. They grew wild and tasted like candy. We often brought some back to share with the family, but there is nothing quite like a strawberry fresh off the plant.

PHOTO: Blooming strawberry plant in the garden.

First described by the ancient Romans, strawberries were first cultivated in gardens in the 1300s.

The Cultivated Strawberry

The garden strawberry is the strawberry we most often think of when we think of strawberries. This is the strawberry from the clear plastic boxes you find at the grocery store. This strawberry is Fragaria × ananassa, which has only been around for about 260 years, and has undergone a lot of breeding in that time.

Fragaria × ananassa is actually a cross of the Chilean and Virginia (or wild) strawberry, which arrived in Europe in 1712 and 1624, respectively. The hybrid plant was discovered in the 1750s and recorded in 1759 by Philip Miller, a famous English horticulturist. He referred to it as the “pine strawberry” for its taste, which was similar to pineapple.

If you’re taken aback by this assessment of flavor, you’re not alone—the modern garden strawberry has undergone a great deal of breeding, which improved firmness but did little for its taste. Some of the modern breeding programs are working to fix this problem.

Fragaria × ananassa is not the only cultivated strawberry on the market. There are more than 20 species of strawberries worldwide, with only a small portion of those being grown in gardens for eating. Some of the popular species include the musk strawberry (F. moschata), the alpine strawberry (F. vesca), the Chilean strawberry (F. chiloensis), the Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana), Fragaria nipponica, and Fragaria viridis. Most of these strawberries originate in Europe (Fragaria nipponica is Japanese in origin); the Chilean and Virginia strawberries are the only cultivated New World species. While there are many edible strawberries, these tend to be the most popular.

PHOTO: Rows of strawberry plants mulched with (what else?) straw.

Strawberries planted in rows and left to their own devices will spread wildly within a few years.

Biology

Do you know how the strawberry got its name? The popular theory is that strawberries are so named because they are cultivated on straw. The truth is, strawberries were named before straw was ever cultivated. Have you ever seen strawberries growing? They spread by stolons, or above-ground roots. These stolons reach out, find a good moist spot away from the parent, and put out roots, producing a new clone of the mother plant. In this way, a single cultivar of strawberry can reproduce itself dozens of times and still be identical or nearly identical to the mother plant. The stolons that give rise to new strawberries are called “runners.” This habit of growing is what gave it its name; strawberries tend to be strewn (spread) about.

It’s generally accepted that strawberries will either produce runners or flowers. Though sometimes producing both simultaneously, the energy is usually dedicated to one task over the other. This is why there are three main types of garden strawberries: ever-bearing, day-neutral, and June-bearing. Strawberries tend to be June-bearing by nature, which means you’ll harvest your fruit in late spring to early summer. Though you sometimes end up with a second crop in fall, the June-bearing strawberry will produce runners for the rest of the year. Ever-bearing strawberries prefer to put their energy toward making fruit, so you’ll end up with few runners and strawberries several times per season. Day-neutral will produce strawberries continually throughout the year, and create the fewest runners.

The white tissue under the pistils is what swells into a red juicy strawberry

The white tissue under the pistils swells into the sweet edible “fruit”

“Fruit”

Did you know that a strawberry isn’t a fruit? It’s an “aggregate of achenes on a swollen receptacle.” Achenes are those little specks on the surface of the strawberry; these are the true fruit of the strawberry. The achenes break apart much the way that sunflower seeds do. An aggregate refers to a cluster or grouping, and the receptacle is the part of a flower that bears the sexual organs.

Seems complicated? Try this: cut a strawberry flower in half and look inside.

The female parts of the flower (pistils) are near the top center of the flower with the male parts (stamens) forming a ring around the outside. When the flowers are pollinated, the area under each pistil swells and turns red. When the whole flower is pollinated, you end up with a perfectly red strawberry.

VIDEO: Time lapse of strawberry fruiting process.

Time lapse of a strawberry, flower-to-fruit, by Tomas ‘Frooxius’ Mariancik.

Humans have known about strawberries for hundreds of years, but strawberries only became commercially common within the past century, thanks to refrigerated trucks and breeding programs that gave strawberries their firmness. Ever since, they have been one of the top ten favorite “fruits” in the United States.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Darwin’s Orchid and the Wardian Case

History makes an appearance at the Orchid Show this winter

Mike Kwiatek —  February 26, 2014 — 1 Comment

There’s something very special about this orchid. Can you tell what it is?

PHOTO: Closeup of Angraecum sesquipedale bloom.

A native of Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale is an epiphyte that prefers the drier branches and trunks of trees as a host.

 

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid's spur.

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid’s spur.

If you guessed that it was the long tubular structure coming from the back of the flower, you are right! That spur contains energy-packed nectar and is the reason this plant has a place in history.

Discovery

Angraecum sesquipedale was first described in 1822 by French botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars and would be shrouded in mystery for decades after. It arrived in the United Kingdom 33 years later.

ILLUSTRATION: an illustrated plate of Angraecum sesquipedale from 1822.

An illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale from Histoire particulière des plantes orchidées recueillies sur les trois îles australes D’Afrique de France, de Bourbon et de Madagascar (1822) .

At the time  this orchid was discovered, transporting plants from one continent to another was extremely difficult and often unreasonable. The long sea journey, combined with polluted conditions in industrialized cities, made it difficult to collect and maintain specimen plants. This would all soon change.

It was in 1829 that Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered the mechanism that revolutionized horticulture and botany forever. 

The Wardian Case

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was an English doctor who spent most of his life in eighteenth-century London. In his youth, he perused the writings of Linnaeus and spent some time in Jamaica, which fostered his love of entomology and botany. As an adult, Ward was inspired to create a wall of ferns and mosses in his own yard, but failed due to the polluted air of East London. He was distraught.

In the summer of 1829, Ward took a glass jar and placed a hawkmoth chrysalis inside, atop a bed of moist leaf mold. Ward regularly checked on the progress of the moth, finding that before it hatched, grasses and a fern emerged from the leaf mold. Ward observed that the glass jar retained moisture because as it warmed up, water evaporated, condensed on the glass, and returned to the base of the jar, never escaping. With this success he repeated his experiment and, to his delight, found that he could keep plants growing within the chamber for years. His discovery brought about the invention of the Wardian case, the predecessor to the modern terrarium. He wrote extensively about this in his book, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. Soon the Wardian case became a popular feature of the parlor in Victorian society. These parlor versions, both tabletop and freestanding forms, often held one or more plants and could be rather ornate.

PHOTO: A large Wardian case, made of steel and glass—an individual greenhouse for an orchid.

One of four Wardian cases appearing in our Orchid Show this year. Wardian cases like this one could be found in parlors of wealthy Victorians.

In 1843, the Wardian case was used for the first time to bring plants from China by sea. The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, observed that in 15 years, the Wardian case brought six times as many plants as had been imported in the last century. If you do the math, that means it made importing plants almost 40 times as efficient as regular ocean travel! This was of particular use to collectors like James Bateman, a wealthy landowner who sponsored several plant exploration trips through the Royal Horticultural Society. One such trip would bring several rare Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar to England, and in 1862, this plant would find its way to one of the prominent figures in history.

Charles Darwin

By 1862, Charles Darwin had already become a prominent figure internationally. Having published On the Origin of Species three years earlier, Darwin was already the subject of scrutiny by religious groups and scientists who disagreed with his theories on evolution and natural selection. In this same year that he received a number of orchids from Bateman, Darwin published his book The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, which proposed that Angraecum sesquipedale must be pollinated by a “huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis” (or straw-like tongue). He proposed that it might be a Sphingidae moth since these are typically large. No such moth was known to exist on Madagascar.

Though largely overlooked by the public, his proposal became a subject of controversy, particularly in the religious community. Critics attributed any existence of such a creature to be by divine will and not natural selection; most mocked the possibility of such a moth existing. Others viewed his prediction with skepticism since only smaller moths had been discovered in Madagascar.

PHOTO: Morgan's sphinx moth, with its 30-centimeter tongue unrolled to show its length.

Morgan’s Sphinx moth, the predicted pollinator. Photo by Esculapio (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1903, 21 years following Darwin’s death, a subspecies of moth known as Xanthopan morgani praedicta, Morgan’s Sphinx moth, was found in Madagascar. This moth has a wingspan of 5 to 6 inches and a proboscis of 10 to 12 inches long. The subspecies name, praedicta, was intended as an homage to Darwin’s prediction that such an insect existed.

Angraecum sesquipedale, frequently referred to as Darwin’s Orchid, is currently being displayed in the Greenhouse Gallery of the Orchid Show (purchase tickets here) this year.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org