Gardening Tips: July 23, 2014
Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching mid-summer and it seems like there are far fewer flowers to enjoy than there were a month or so ago. We are fortunate that most of our local garden centers stock a variety of perennials and shrubs to allow for a more or less continuous display of bloom from April through September. Just because it is hot and sticky outside, this does not mean you cannot enjoy seeing lovely flowers and some of these have more than one use. I do not have much of a flower garden these days, but there are a few plants that I really do enjoy at this time of the year. Not only are they pretty, but also I employ most of them as herbal medicines also.
From where I am sitting in my easy chair, in my living room, I can see only the top of my black cohosh plant as it pokes its flower spikes above the kitchen window. This native perennial commonly grows wild south of here in forests, from Pennsylvania well into Georgia. Although this particular plant was dug up and transplanted from State College, PA, a few years ago I have seen it for sale at a few local garden centers. I doubt very much if you will find it at any big box store. I noticed several varieties of this Cimicifuga offered for sale at Kern’s nursery in Jewett. Kern’s is not easy to find, but well worth a visit! This plant is also called bugbane and the variety I have growing (C. racemosa) features tall, cream to white colored spikes of ill scented blossoms that seem to attract lots of pollinators, especially sweat bees but also honey bees and bumblebees. It grows in shade but also seems to be thriving right in front of my house with full sun till midday. It is a sizeable perennial so you should plant it as a background plant. In PA the flower spikes may be seven-feet tall or more!
Right next to the black cohosh in front of my house there is another plant that has been used as herbal medicine. It is called Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) and it is in the daisy family. It has small, white, daisy like flowers that practically cover the entire plant. It can be somewhat invasive and apparently sheds lots of fertile seed as I see several of them popping up near the mother plant. This plant has been used for treating migraine headaches, but also may cause dermatitis if handled or mouth sores if the leaves are chewed. It is also a tough, reliable, perennial that attracts pollinators and grows in full sun or partial shade.
Another woodland perennial that is tolerating far more sun than I would expect, is a huge specimen of Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) . This native wildflower seems to have two distinct forms; a small version, about 12-inches tall and this very large form that is well over two-feet tall. The very unusual flower in May is followed by a cluster of bright red berries in August. Don’t try eating any part of this plant however as it contains calcium oxalate crystals, which will cause severe burning of your mouth. For some reason, black bears seem to relish the large root like structure, (despite the burning crystals) which looks like an oversized gladiola corm. Our local resident black bear has dug this up a couple of times forcing me to go find another one in the woods to transplant. The corm seems to transplant pretty easily and with a little TLC, it grows much larger in partial sun, than full shade.
I realize that Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is usually considered a coarse weed, commonly found in disturbed sites, roadsides and construction zones. The wild form has pale green, very fuzzy leaves that form a broad rosette the first year and it sends up a flower stalk the second year. The flower stalk is a spike that may be six-, seven- or eight-feet tall, with small yellow flowers that open up a few at a time over a couple of weeks. There are some ornamental varieties available that feature red flowers and they are really quite attractive. The dried leaves have been used to treat lung congestion, but they also contain rotenone, a poisonous compound used to kill insects and fish.
The last perennial that I have growing in my front garden is the very popular purple coneflower, (Echinacea purpurea) . This is yet, another tough, reliable perennial that is widely used as an immune stimulant, particularly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It is native to the U.S. Midwest but not our area. Right now I have about 10,000 plants of a patented Echinacea cultivar called “Green Envy” growing in a field by the Catskill creek. I am growing these on a contractual basis for use in a cosmetic product that I hope to see for sale some day at local stores. Unlike most coneflowers, this one features green flowers with the petal fading to a pink color at their base. I don’t think you can buy “Green Envy” just yet, but there are many other pretty cultivars sold at local garden centers.