Category Archives: Links

Forbidden Love!

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Ok, I know that peonies may not be the trending plant but I love them! Like many grandmothers, my maternal grandmother grew peonies around her farmhouse… Their fragrance filled the air and they sprawled magnificently after a rain. I found them captivating!

Peonies were first described as medicinal herbs in China around 200 B.C. Traditional Chinese medicine still uses peony extracts to treat various ailments. Peonies were introduced to Europe, and England, in the late 1700’s. English, and French, nursery sales began in the early 1800’s as did hybridization. The public was delighted!

There are many reasons to use peonies in your garden. They are beautiful in bloom and many are wonderfully fragrant. Peonies are excellent when used as a focal point, an accent plant, to hide spent tulip blooms, to shade clematis roots or even as a hedge whose flowers can be used for cutting.

Peony flowers come in various colours including red, rose, lavender, yellow and lots of lovely shades of pink and white. The flowers can be many petaled or have as few as five petals. Peonies are not invasive and are long-lived. Once established, peonies are drought-resistant, easy-care perennials. They are also deer and rabbit resistant probably because the flowers and leaves have a bitter taste.

cheryl1
Very early herbaceous peony – author’s garden

Herbaceous peonies are the most common of the three common types. Herbaceous peonies grow in zones 2-8. They die back to the ground in the fall and are dormant all winter. They bloom in May to June depending on the cultivar. Woody peonies, often called tree peonies, are small shrubs that lose their leaves in the fall but keep their strong, woody stems all winter. Woody peonies like it a bit warmer growing in zones 4-8. They do not like to be moved once established. Finally, itoh, or intersectional, peonies are fairly new. They are a cross between the woody peony and the herbaceous peony. They too prefer zones 4-8 and die back to the ground in the fall followed by winter dormancy. Itoh peonies have strong stems, often a longer flowering period and large blooms.

In the fall, plant peonies in well drained, rich soil in full sun or full sun/part shade in areas with very hot afternoon sun. Do not plant the peony crown any deeper than a couple of inches. Lightly fertilize your plants annually with composted manure but do not allow the manure to come in direct contact with the plant’s crown. Mulch to help retain moisture. Water if soil is dry in the spring for good bloom production and as needed usually just the first summer after planting. Maintain space around your peonies to encourage good air circulation otherwise, peonies can be prone to fungal diseases. In late fall, remove all peony debris to help prevent disease and pests.

cheryl4
Herbaceous peony – author’s garden

My peony is not blooming…..why?

Reasons include planted too deep, not enough sun, weather extremes (eg. hard spring freeze may damage flower buds), disease or pests, newly planted (can take up to three years for a young plant to bloom), too old (takes several decades, divide the plant to rejuvenate), too much fertilizer will encourage foliage growth not blooms but not enough can result in undernourished roots that are unable to support blooming. Just a caution, do not remove peony leaves in July or August, their removal can weaken the roots so that they are unable to support blooms.

I love peonies! Their blooms are glorious and their foliage stays lovely and green after the flowers are gone. They are easy care perennials that can add colour, texture, drama and a sumptuous fragrance to your garden. If you grow peonies now, you know already, if not, try them… You will be captivated too!

More Information:

The American Peony Society

Peonies by Allan Rogers, Timber Press Inc., ISBN 0-88192-662-0

The Canadian Peony Society

My Favourite Pruning Book

by Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I have a lot of gardening books and whilst I do search on the internet if I have a quick question, there are a few books that I go to repeatedly and often. One of these is from the UK Royal Horticultural Society Pruning & Training. I am sure you could find a similar book in Canada but as this book was given to me a few years ago by my father-in-law as a present, it has special meaning for me.

I love growing fruit, apples, grapes, currants, blueberries, to name a few and as I have a smaller city garden, this comes with challenges. I have to make use of all available space and prune effectively to fit everything I want into my garden. Hence the reason why this book is so important to me and why I use it so often.

There are chapters on ornamental trees as well as ornamental shrubs and roses and a good introduction describing the parts of a plant as well as the principles of pruning and training. But it is the chapters on tree fruits, soft fruits and climbing plants that I refer to most often. I actually have PostIt® notes on the sections that describe the pruning shapes I have chosen for my apples, currants, gooseberries and grape so I can check I am doing it correctly. I must admit it took a few years to observe the effectiveness of pruning well, I was always hesitant to cut off too much of the plant, much as I still save every perennial seedling that comes up in my garden. In my last house we had a grape for approximately 6 years and whilst we did get some fruit on it, we could have doubled or tripled the harvest with better pruning, but I hated to cut so much off.

For my grape vine I originally had it growing over an arch, but it soon outgrew that support, so we had to build a new support system and then re-prune it into its new system. There are many different systems that can be used for grapes including the rod and spur system in which the grape is grown along 3-4 horizontal wires to the guyot system in which shoots from two horizontal stems are grown vertically.

The chapter on tree fruits starts by showing diagrams of all the different forms or shapes as well as describing basic and pruning techniques. There are lots of photos and diagrams in this book so that you can visually see everything being discussed, which I really like. There is also a section on renovating neglected tree fruits.

I chose to prune my apples trees as espaliers on a four tiered tree, this is my trees fourth year and first year that they have blossoms, so I am hoping to have my first apples. It is fairly time consuming, especially as I didn’t know what I was doing the first couple of years, but I followed the instructions religiously and am now beginning to approach the trees with pruners in hand confidently.

espalieredapple
Espaliered apple tree (Year 4)

My currant and gooseberry bushes were pruned as multiple cordons with three vertical arms. I have this grown both on the same support system that I have for the fruit trees but also on bamboo poles. I find that by growing them in this way as opposed to a bush, I can fit more currant bushes into the same space, I grow red, pink, white and black, and they are easier for me to pick. I still have a high yield of berries and am able to harvest almost all of them.

currentcloseup
Close up of currants
redcurrent
Redcurrent bushes

There are plenty of videos on the internet showing different pruning techniques, maybe even too many as it is often difficult to choose just one, and then you end up getting side tracked. As I was writing this article and looking up videos, I ended up watching three including one on heucheras. Here’s one you might like from the RHS on renovating fruit trees.

 

 

Spring Ephemerals

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Definitions of “spring” and “ephemeral”, curtesy of Merriam-Webster online dictionary, are “to come into being” and “lasting a very short time”.  Two wonderful words, when used together, mean those lovely but short-lived flowers that we may see on our walks through woodland gardens or deciduous forests at this time of year!

My list of favourite spring ephemerals includes:

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) – Of course, this native plant comes to mind first.  It is Ontario’s official flower but not Ontario’s only trillium … there are four other native species. Trillium grandiflorum produces one large, white, three-petaled flower above three, simple, broad leaves.  The flower fades to pale pink as it ages.  Red seeds are produced which are mainly dispersed by……ants!  Seeds germinate slowly and take 4-5 years to become a mature flowering plant.  Plants grow to reach 30-45 cm (12-18 in.) high, prefer moist rich soil and dappled shade.

trillium
Trillium grandiflorum

Dog-toothed violet (Erythronium americanum) –  These pretty little native flowers grow from a corm.  They are small, just 15 cm (6 in.) high but their bright, yellow flowers stand out  and along with their spotted leaves (hence their other common name “Trout Lily”), are one of the earliest spring ephemerals to appear.  They prefer rich, moist but well-drained soil and part to full shade.

dogtooth
Erythronium americanum

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – If you remember your high school latin, you will recognize where Sanguinaria originates when you learn that all  parts of this native contains an orange/red juice.  The Latin sanguinarius means “bloody”.  S. canadensis is the only species in this genus.  It produces a white flower, that may be tinged in pink, and has deeply lobed, flat leaves.  It prefers part to full shade and well drained, moist, rich soil but seems to survive in varying soil conditions.  This plant will grow under your black walnut tree!  S. canadensis grows 15-30 cm (6-12 in.) high and spreads through rhizomes.

bloodroot
Sanguinaria canadensis

Mayapple (Polophyllum peltatum) – Mayapple makes a great groundcover.  It grows up to 45 cm (1.5 ft.) tall and produces one white flower which appears under it’s umbrella-like, multi-lobed, two leaf foliage in late spring…..a single leaf means no flower and no fruit.  The leaves and root are poisonous as is the immature green fruit.  Only the mature yellow fruit is edible.  This plant spreads through rhizomes, prefers light shade and moist, rich soil.

mayapple
Polophyllum peltatum

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum) – Where do I start; this plant has a very interesting flower …. the spathe is the most conspicuous part.  It is a hooded, tube-like structure and houses the spadex which is a spike and is where the actual flowers are located.  Clusters of bright, red berries form in the fall.    It grows 30-90 cm (1-3 ft.) tall and prefers moist, rich, slightly acidic soil and part to full shade.  Jack-in-the-pulpit grow from corms.

jack
Arisaema tryphyllum

Next time you go for your woodland walk look for the spring ephemerals.  Their appearance signals that warmer weather is coming very soon!  Let the gardening season begin!

Many nurseries now carry native plants and some specialize in natives.  Just be sure to ask about the origin of the plants that you are buying, you are looking for plants that have been nursery propagated not harvested from the wild.

Suggested Nurseries

Resources

Books

  • The Ontario Naturalized Garden, by Lorraine Johnston ISBN1-55110-305-2

Websites

 

Permaculture: Where do I start?

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

So what do gardeners do in the winter? Once we’ve read all our seed magazines and compiled our purchasing lists, or designed new or changes to existing perennial beds, or decided on our vegetable crop rotation for the upcoming season, or read a new gardening book, or watched some gardening videos or TED talks, or found ourselves in the middle of taking a gardening course, what next? Personally, once I’ve exhausted all these possibilities, I tend to reread my favourite gardening books. I have an incredibly bad memory and find it really helps me when I reread the same books over and over; hoping eventually something will sink in. My books to reread this year are both permaculture-related: Toby Hemingway’s “Gaia’s Garden” and Rosemary Morrow’s “Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture”.

When I first became interested in permaculture a number of years ago, I started reading books and watching videos by the two founders, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The concept, ethics, and principles resonated with me, but I have to admit that I struggled based on the literature available at that time, to understand how to translate this into my own Canadian garden. It was not until a couple of years later that I attended a couple of local permaculture design courses and read the book by Toby Hemingway who focuses on North American gardens, that I felt confident enough to bring some of those concepts and methods into my home garden

As I mentioned in my last blog, permaculture is a design system, a set of guidelines, principles and practices for sustainable living and land use, working with nature in a continuous cycle that benefits both people and wildlife. As with anything new or overwhelming, it is easy to be deterred by the big picture.  Instead, focus on smaller ideas or concepts. If you start implementing smaller more manageable tasks, it will give you confidence to tackle the larger concepts.

The following are a few easy-to-implement permaculture techniques to get you started:

  1. Sheet mulching. This was actually the first group activity I performed in my first design course.  It can also be called lasagna gardening. Permaculture encompasses a no-dig philosophy focusing on building soil life. Sheet mulching allows you to create new beds whilst eliminating weeds and building up the health of the soil. It is also a lot healthier on your back. You simply lay a heavy layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area and top it with 12 inches or so of organic mulch.
  2. Keyhole garden beds. Keyhole beds are often used in permaculture because they maximize use of space, whilst building soil fertility.  They decrease irrigation needs and are easy to plant, harvest and maintain. The bed can be either raised or not, and is often created in a circular pattern which decreases the space required for paths and increases space for plants. This type of bed is most often used for growing herbs & vegetables and because of the circular design, plants with different growing requirements can be planted together often creating different microclimates. For more information: https://permaculturefoodforest.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/keyhole-gardens/
  3. Creating gardening communities or guilds. In permaculture, a guild can be defined as a grouping of plants, trees, animals and insects that work together protecting their health, habitat and productivity. Probably one of the most familiar guilds is the Three Sisters Guild in which squash, corn and beans are grown together; each one supporting and benefiting the others. The beans grow up the corn and provide nitrogen, whilst the squash mulches and covers the soil. In my last garden, I grew apple tree guilds, surrounding each apple tree with daffodils in the spring (deter predators from chewing bark), comfrey and yarrow, and herbs such as dill & fennel along with chives & onions.
  4. Multiple stories or forest gardens. As an avid gardener and someone who has difficulty saying ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to plants–and also the owner of a small city garden–this technique is one I am especially interested in. The idea is that a garden can have multiple stories or layers; from a low herb or ground cover layer up to perennials, shrubs, small trees and finally the canopy trees. The plants in each layer combine and support each other to create and maintain a healthy ecosystem.
seryck1
Vegetable garden incorporating annuals and perennials

Permaculture is much more than the simple examples I have given.  It can encompass everything from designing landscapes and buildings, to water and waste management. The benefits for me include enriching the land, feeding and providing habitat, growing food for my family, and giving me somewhere to unwind and feel good about life. However, I am omitting one very important benefit for myself–by incorporating some permaculture practices into my garden, the garden tends to look after itself much more with less interference and work for me!

Pot, eh?

By Mary-Jane Parker, Master Gardener

This past growing season was my first foray ever into growing marijuana. I tried this because I want to attempt to make a salve that I have been purchasing locally for arthritis (which, by the way, seems to work for me!)

marijuana-101796_960_720I started my seeds inside under lights. When I planted the seedlings outside, one went into the ground in my garden and the other went into a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. The bucket plant went into my little greenhouse.

I did not fertilize either plant regularly – maybe 3 times the whole summer – but I did water the potted plant pretty well daily. I gather from other growers that I should have fertilized a lot more and then held back on the fertilizing later in season to clear chemicals out of the plants.

I thought this would be a good way to test growing techniques – greenhouse as opposed to outdoors but in the end it was not. I had planted 2 varieties that had very different characteristics. One had a beautiful bluish, reddish tinge to it and the other was twice as bushy.

Both plants ended up being well over 5 feet tall with lots of flowers. I cut them down before first frost and hung them in the greenhouse with shade cloth draped overhead.

So now, I am not sure if all the work was worth the effort and I haven’t even made the salve yet. I don’t know how the hippies from the 60’s and 70’s did it. I was told to trim off all the leaves before I hung the plants. That took an incredibly long time. And apparently I will have to trim the dried flowers off in the very near future. The marijuana plants themselves are kind of interesting architecturally but they stink. Birds for the most part avoided them and I don’t think I saw even one bee on them and I have lots of bees here. At any rate, I will make the salve and reserve judgement until then. We have to try new things, right?

Links:

How to grow marijuana outdoors: a beginner’s guide

How to Grow Cannabis in 10 Easy Steps

Master Gardeners of Ontario Information Sheet: How to grow Cannabis

.

Dog Strangling Vine

by Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

While taking a walk along one day along one of the lane ways along Crowe Lake, I spotted Dog Strangling Vine. It was because of the flowers that I recognized it.  They are very small, 5 to 9 mm long, star shaped and pink to dark purple in colour. The vines grow 1 to 2 metres long and will twine around structures, other plants or each other. The leaves are oval with a pointed tip, 5 to 9 cm long and grow on opposite sides of the stem. The flowers develop into a bean shaped pod filled with feathery seeds that are dispersed in late summer (similar to the milkweed pod, but much narrower).

DSV

The problem with dog strangling vine is that it can form dense stands that can overcome and force out other plants. Its leaves and roots are toxic to animals. It threatens the Monarch  Butterfly which will lay its eggs on the plant, but the larva cannot develop. (It’s related to milkweed, a plant necessary for the Monarch Butterfly.)

image1

I contacted the municipality and they have no program for its control, so it’s up to the individual property owner to be aware of it and to control its spread.

The Ontario Invading Species Program has information of how to control its spread.

If you already have some on your property, check out Best Management Practices. This also is from the Ontario Government.

 

The Peterborough Garden Show

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

It’s coming in 25 days.  It can’t come soon enough.  In our city, “The Garden Show” is a true sign of spring.  It’s an occasion that brings together speakers, workshop leaders, vendors, horticultural society members, master gardeners, exhibitors and many others for one reason:  “For the Love of Gardening”.PGS-logo-small

This year marks the 19th fantastic show: 
April 26 – 28, 2019 (Friday 5-9pm, Saturday 10am-5pm & Sunday 10am-4pm).

And there’s great news ! The show has MOVED – to Fleming College’s brand new Trades and Technology Centre on Brealey Drive with lots of FREE parking and a $10, one-price ticket so you can enjoy the show all weekend.

The Peterborough and Area Master Gardeners will have a booth at the show, and will be happy to answer any gardening questions that you may have. Watch for our red aprons!

The theme “Coming Up Roses” is reflected in several of the amazing speakers along with educational and fun workshops and demos.

This award-winning show was honoured in 2017 with both a “Canada 150 Garden Experience”, and “Garden Event of the Year” by the Canadian Garden Council, so come and see what all the fuss is about.

You will find many of your old favourite vendors along with some new ones.

…and don’t forget the popular “Little Green Thumbs” Children’s Garden that is always teaming with liveliness and action! There are learning activities, face painting, crafts and even a take-home project. Their theme this year is “Miniature Gardens for Elves and Fairies”.

All the show profits go back into our community to fund scholarships for post-secondary students studying in horticulture-related fields,various local projects & Community Gardens.  Since 2002, the show has put over $200,000 back into our community.

Please save the date, visit and and learn why “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in 2019.

Learn more about the incredible speakers, workshops, bus trips, places to stay and tickets here: peterboroughgardenshow.com.

 

What to Get a Gardener who has Everything For Christmas

by Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

Generally on the whole gardeners are a pretty easy bunch of people to get Christmas presents for – who doesn’t love a good ‘garden themed’ mug or calendar?

But what do you get the gardener in your life who already has a dozen or so mugs and calendars, bookcases overflowing with garden design, plant identification books and Canadian Gardening magazines, a shed full of shovels, trowels, pruners and every imaginable weeding tool that has ever been created.

So to my husband and anyone else who is looking for something a little different, I have attached my Christmas list:

Gardening Gloves

I know, I know I have at least 10 different pairs in the shed, but I must lose at least half of those pairs in a single season in my own backyard. Not to mention the other pairs I lose whilst gardening for someone else, or just simply driving, I’m not sure if they jump out of the car by themselves or simply get lost between the seats.

garden-2939827_1920

 

Gift Certificates

I’m pretty easy and flexible on these. Gift certificates for seed companies are always welcome, as is a gift certificate from Lee Valley, there has to be some tool I don’t already have. You can also purchase gift certificates from the many nurseries or garden decor/accessory shops in and around Peterborough, like those on the Peterborough and Area Garden Route. A gardener will always have room for one more plant, insect house or garden gnome.

giftcertificate

Advance Passes to a Garden Show

Canada Blooms in Toronto in 2019 is being held on March 8-17; advance tickets can be ordered here. And locally the Peterborough Garden Show is on April 26-28; advance tickets can be purchased at numerous physical locations plus online.

GardenShow

Folding Garden Stool with Tools

We are all getting older and in my case also more forgetful. As well as losing gardening gloves, I also frequently lose my tools. My husband even tried painting the handles of my tools bright red so I would be able to find them easily, that did not work. Every summer I must find at least 1 pair of pruners and a hori hori knife (I currently have 3) from the previous year or two. So to save both my aching knees and not lose any more tools I am adding this stool to my list, which actually stores the tools under the stool.

GardenStool.png

Seed Bombs

No other reason than I love the look of these. If you look at some of the websites out there you can find them in many different colors containing different types of plant seeds, for example seeds specifically for pollinators. They are also small enough to fit in a stocking, and if you like to make your own gifts this could be something you could do yourself.

seed-bombs-2314498_1920

A Gardening Book

And finally, of course, a gardening book, but not just any gardening book. This book was listed in the Toronto Star as one if the ‘100 notable books of 2018’.
It is called ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. I haven’t read this, hence it’s on my list, but I am intrigued by the description given in The Star: ‘The science of botany and the art of storytelling merge to ingenious effect in Power’s magisterial new novel – in which people are merely the underbrush and the real protagonists are the trees that the human characters encounter’.

81tN8IGERxL

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and hope you all receive what you wish for under your tree.

The 12 Plants of Christmas – Part 2

By Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

So in the spirit of the Christmas season, this week’s blog continues Part 2 of the 12 plants of Christmas—this one focuses on food and other traditions that are plant-related.

CHRISTMAS FOOD

sage

5. Sage

Not only is sage a vital ingredient of the Christmas classic, sage and onion stuffing, its fragrant, evergreen leaves are also a wonderful addition to a homemade Christmas wreath, a table centrepiece with candles, or simply stuck in a vase with some silvery eucalyptus leaves, bay branches and rosemary. Sage is reputed to have health-giving properties – it is said to be an excellent anti-inflammatory and helpful in reducing irritations of the stomach and intestines. Sage is also thought to be a great memory booster and is one of the most effective treatments for a sore throat. There is an Arab proverb that says “How can a man die who has sage in his garden?” If you are interested in its medicinal properties, this Herbal Academy site has some fascinating background.

In your garden, sage likes full sun and a well-drained soil. Be sure to prune it right back every spring to stimulate new growth. It doesn’t have to go into a dedicated herb bed—plant it under roses and with lavender.

rosemary

4. Rosemary

Its scientific name very charming – rosmarinus, which is from “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus) or “dew of the sea.” Rosemary is native to the rocky hills on the shores of the Mediterranean and loves a humid sea breeze. The ancients believed without a doubt that the sea air gave the tree its distinctive scent.

Rosemary was connected with the Virgin Mary (because it was thought to be Mary’s favorite plant) and people thought that it could protect you from evil spirits. It is also considered a plant of love, loyalty, and friendship and was the most common garnish put on the boar’s head that rich people ate at the main Christmas meal in the Middle Ages. Rosemary is also more commonly known as the remembrance herb, so it therefore used at Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus.

The English poet, Robert Herrick, who lived between 1591 and 1674 celebrated the holiday use of rosemary in this verse:

Down with the rosemary and so, Down with the baies and mistletoe, Down with the holly, ivie all Wherewith ye deck the Christmas hall.

Many people use (or give) a small, potted rosemary bush for a lovely little Christmas tree or fragrant centrepiece. If you need some tips on how to keep this humidity-loving plant alive after Christmas check out this blog.

CHRISTMAS TRADITION

wreath

3. Christmas Wreaths

Hanging a circular wreath of evergreens during mid-winter appears to have started back in Roman times when wreaths were hung on doors as a sign of victory and status. Rich Roman women also wore them as headdresses at special occasions (like weddings) and to show their wealth. The word ‘wreath’ comes from the Old English word ‘writhen’ which means to writhe or twist. Christmas wreaths as we know them today, might have started life as kissing boughs (a gesture of goodwill or to welcome guests) or come from the German and Eastern European custom of advent wreaths.

frankincense

2. Frankincense 

Frankincense derives from the tree Boswellia sacra. The frankincense tree grows in the Dhofar Fog Oasis, a remarkable area where three coastal mountain ranges of Oman and Yemen are cloaked in thick fog during the summer months. This species was a source of great wealth in centuries past. Frankincense from the Dhofar region (what is now Oman) provided much of the wealth through centuries of trade with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Caravan routes carried the precious resource across the Arabian peninsula.

The BBC posted an amazing story about uses for both frankincense and myrrh in the modern age. Both frankincense and myrrh were widely available and would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used in embalming, symbolized death.

myrrh

1. Myrrh

Myrrh is derived from the species Commiphora myrrha a small tree that exudes gum resin as a pale yellow liquid when the bark is cut. This dries into reddish-brown lumps the size of a walnut from which the oil is distilled. Native to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen, myrrh was very popular in the ancient world and was used as a medicine by the Chinese and Egyptians. It was important for use in the Egyptian sun-worshipping ritual and mummification. If you are interested in more information about the botanical connections to the Christmas season, this article has lots of links.

Well there you have it. Some fun and interesting gardening connections to the Christmas season.

If you are up for another garden-related challenge, try this 50 question quiz. Tell us how you did!

end

The 12 Plants of Christmas – Part 1

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

The snow is on the ground and the cold winds in the air. Canadian gardeners are reflecting on their gardening season (why does it always go by so fast?) and thinking about next year’s garden (has your first seed catalogue arrived yet?).

So in the spirit of the Christmas season, this week’s blog is about the 12 plants of Christmas—some decorative, some food, and some traditions! In Part 1 we’ll look at Christmas plants and one food; you’ll have to wait until next week for more food and other plant traditions.

CHRISTMAS PLANTS

holly-tree-1030595_1920

12. Holly

Decorative green plants like holly, ivy, and mistletoe originate in pre-Christian times and were associated with celebrating the Winter Solstice by warding off evil spirits and celebrating new growth (well the latter only in warmer climate). Many countries (especially the UK and Germany) still decorate their homes with these plants today, often in Christmas arrangements or wreaths. The beautiful berries of the Christmas holly are produced by some of the approximately 400 species of holly (Ilex) that growing wild around the world. Typically, holly trees and shrubs are smooth-barked and have small flowers, fleshy red or black berries, and leathery, shiny leaves.

In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve. For the Christian faith, the prickly leaves symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns.

If you are interested in five fascinating facts about holly, check out this link.

mistletoe

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has long been a symbol of love, peace and goodwill. The custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is also pre-Christian and the habit of kissing under the mistletoe continues today in many countries. Mistletoe is the common name for obligate hemi-parasitic plants in several families in the order Santalales. The plants in question grow attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. In the past, mistletoe was often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but has recently been recognized as an ecological keystone species. Studies have shown that rather than being a pest, mistletoe can have a positive effect on biodiversity, providing high quality food and habitat for a broad range of animals in forests and woodlands worldwide.

For a whole host of information on mistletoe myth and legend, plus practical details of how to grow it in your own garden, Jonathan Briggs’ Mistletoe Pages.

cactus

10. Christmas Cactus

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera xbuckleyi) is popular for its colourful flowers that appear during the Christmas season. It is native to the coastal mountains of south-east Brazil where it is found growing on trees and rocks.

However, if you have picked up a “Christmas cactus” in the past month or so that is now blooming beautifully it probably is a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate), which usually blooms about a month before Christmas cacti and has very cool flowers– I have heard them described as “leaping shrimps” or “lobster claws”. You can read more about the varieties, and how to tell them apart (hint it’s all in the leaf segments) here.

poinsettia

9. Poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima is is a shrub native to Mexico where it is known as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve. The Aztecs called it cuetlaxochitl (brilliant flower), and made a purple dye from its bracts and a fever medicine from its sap. The plant’s association with Christmas began in Mexico 400 years ago. According to legend a young girl who was too poor to provide a Christmas gift for the birth of Jesus was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them at the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” appeared from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. The poinsettia plant was named after Joel Robert Poinsett, who was an American ambassador to Mexico around 1829. Poinsett was an amateur botanist and liked the plant so much that he sent several back to his home in South Carolina where he grew them in his greenhouse and introduced them in the US.

Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in North America and Europe, and the colours have expanded far beyond the traditional red to all shades of pink, salmon, apricot, yellow, cream, and white. While lovely at Christmas they are tough to keep as a houseplant given our dry indoor conditions. During the 1960s, plant breeders worked hard to make the poinsettia more colourful, compact and floriferous, which is what you see today. More information here.

paperwhites

8. Paperwhites

Tazetta daffodil types – usually the paperwhite narcissus N. ‘Ziva’ – is specially prepared to flower in time for December 25. Cultivars of N. tazetta include ‘Paperwhite’, ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ and ‘Ziva’, which are popularly used for forcing indoors.

If you want to try them out and have flowers all winter, here’s some information about how to do it. More here. (One word of warning: not everyone loves the perfume of paperwhites. One component of the paperwhites’ unmistakable scent is indole, and some people’s noses find this adds a fetid edge that’s really rather unpleasant. So you may want to sniff before you try.)

Paperwhites may grow tall and leggy, flopping over just as they begin to bloom. Tie a ribbon around the stems, about two thirds of the way up. According to a professor at Cornell University if you grow paperwhites in a 4 to 5% solution of alcohol it helps regulate the growth. Given that most liquors are 40% alcohol, this would be 1 part alcohol to 9 parts water. Don’t use beer or wine (just hard liquor – gin/vodka/whiskey/rum/tequila).

121-2135_IMG

7. Amaryllis

Everyone I know loves the amaryllis, and we closely associate them with the festive season. While the popular name is “amaryllis”, hippeastrum is generally accepted as being the correct name. It usually blooms around Christmas or into January or February in the Northern Hemisphere, then produces long green leaves that allow it to store energy for the following year.

Native to Peru and South Africa, amaryllis comes from the Greek word amarysso, which means “to sparkle.” Bulbs were brought to Europe in the 1700s and have been known to bloom for up to 75 years. Amaryllis flowers range from 4 to 10 inches in size, and can be either single or double in form. While the most popular colours are red and white, flowers may also be pink, salmon, apricot, rose or deep burgundy. Some varieties are bicolour such as purple and green, or picotee (having petals with a different edge colour). Lots of information here.

You can buy bulbs on their own or potted up. Select the largest bulbs available as they will produce more stalks and blooms the first year. Bulbs should be firm and dry with no signs of mold, decay or injury. It is common to see new growth (leaves, buds) emerging from bare or planted bulbs. Want to get your amaryllis to rebloom? Here’s some great advice.

CHRISTMAS FOOD

6. Cranberry

The cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) has been a festive favourite for hundreds of years, ever since Native Americans mashed up the fruit and mixed it with dried deer meat and fat to make pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food). In 1816, Dutch and German settlers in the New World planted the first ever “crane berry” crop (so-called for their blossom’s resemblance to the head and bill of a crane) on Cape Cod, using the fruit as a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing.

It was probably inevitable that the cranberry became linked with Christmas. With their bright red colour, they reflect the season perfectly. As early as the 1840s, people were stringing them with popcorn to make festive garlands for the Christmas tree. At the same time, with their winter availability and the fact they were slow to spoil, cranberries represented one of the few fruits that could be served fresh during the holidays. To settlers’ delight, it was discovered very early that the tartness of cranberry sauce helps cut the far and richness of such traditional holiday fare as pork, goose, duck and turkey, making it a perfect complement to festive dishes. Check out lots of lovely ways to use cranberries here.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of the 12 Plants of Christmas.
Stay tuned until next Monday for our second segment.