Monday, August 20, 2007

More Shadowy 'Blue River' Hibiscus

"Pay no attention to the man inside the box."

That line from The Prestige, (which we watched the other night), could well sum up the focus of these shots Fernymoss did last week. Though in the context of the film it clearly refers to the illusionist's techniques to distract the audience from what is really going on (which is of course more interesting than the false focus), here it's meant more to guide the viewer of these photos to the true subject of these shots: the shadows.

Fernymoss was out to capture more of the effects of late afternoon sun on the 'Blue River' hibiscus than to get tightly focused Inner Bits shots ... and to that end, I think he succeeded quite well. These aren't the most perfect of Hibiscus blooms, au contraire, they're a bit chewed up (likely by grasshoppers who have been real pests of late, and have eaten all of my prized Convolvulus seedlings!) We also thought that the textures displayed here were interesting in and of themselves, as well as the strategically placed "eyes" the marauding insect left on the bloom ... and in particular, the inner bits reminded us of those 'blow out' noise makers so popular with birthdays and New Year's Eve celebrations. Whether you see a Mardi Gras mask or just a rather molested Hibiscus bloom, it doesn't matter ... what I like best about these shots are the golden hue of the late afternoon sun, combined with the shadows it makes during the transition to evening ... after which, of course, another bloom will come along to replace it in the cycle this 'Blue River' hibiscus goes through every year. Though the flowers may seem the same, it's shots like these that prove to us that each one is unique in its own way, and there's always something new to be seen on close examination out in the garden....

As a quick aside ... The Prestige is a film well worth viewing for its multi-layered temporally distinct narratives as well as its intrigue created by the rivalry between two late 19th century illusionists played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. It's a film that will engage your intellect immediately and sustain it throughout its many plot convolutions and trips through time to tell its story. Directed by Christopher Nolan of Batman Begins and Memento fame, it's a film that generally got overlooked last year (hmm, was it because it was too intelligent for most audiences?) but merits more attention from a wider audience. We highly recommend it, and look forward to comparing it to that "other" magician film from last year, The Illusionist. The latter is going to have to go the extra mile to achieve the astounding effect The Prestige did for us, but we'll approach it with an open mind and see what it has to offer. I'm just curious though, about why two different films focusing on the minutiae of magic acts happened to be released at roughly the same time last year ... after all, it's not a subject that readily springs to mind as a potential film vehicle, but as far as The Prestige is concerned, I'm glad it got made and actually saw the light of day!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Guest Photo by Fernymoss: Steppin' Out

Photo Courtesy of Fernymoss
Taken 16 August 2007.
While we're at it with the Praying Mantis pictures, I thought I'd just do a quick post of another shot Fernymoss got after we brought the new guy (still unnamed) home. In the comments several of you likened him to a belle in a poofy dress preparing for a night out, which I have to admit hadn't really entered our minds, but hey, what you see in a photo is what you see! But now that you mention it ... that spent Bee Balm bloom does suggest it ... so, with all preparations and ablutions completed, here we see him heading out to find a good lookout spot for prey.

We're hoping that the spot in the back corner bed will provide well for him and encourage him to stick around, especially now that I did a spot of research on them here at Wikipedia. I hadn't known previously that there are some 2000 species of Mantids in the world, of which 20 are native to North America. Basically about all I knew was that they were a generally beneficial insect to have in the garden and that they will eat just about anything they can catch, including members of their own species. And when you get a close look at that mouth, you can definitely see you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of its attentions ... check out the Wikipedia link for a lot of fascinating facts about them, as well as photos of some really spectacular species (the Costa Rican 'Tropical Shield Mantis' was a real wowie for me). If you're a fan of 50's sci-fi (hello, FM?), for giggles and thrills you might want to investigate the 'classic' Universal Pictures cheeseball The Deadly Mantis, which I recall seeing as a kid and being singularly unimpressed. I used to be all over all of those radioactive or reanimated mutants, but I still have to admit that though some of the U.S. films were great fun, Godzilla and especially Mothra were and are still my favorites!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Our New Garden Denizen

Photo courtesy of Fernymoss
Taken 16 August, 2007
Today when Fernymoss came to pick me up from work, he asked "Do you mind if we give my little buddy a ride home?" And with that, he reached into the back seat and pulled out a small wooden box with a screened top ... containing none other than this magnificent Praying Mantis! He had told me last night that a really big mantis had been hanging out all day on one of the plate glass windows at work, disconcerting some of the customers who rummage around in the big containers of clearance merchandise in front of the store. Since he had to close, he looked again when he left and the mantis was gone, otherwise he would have come with him last night. Well, today he was back and he was ready for him ... so he carefully captured the mantis put him in his temporary digs until he got off work.

Once we got home he took him back to that overgrown mess that we usually call the back garden (it's savage garden central this year, alas) and introduced him to his new home. Of course I immediately asked "Why don't you go get some pics of him in case he decides not to stick around?" (though we hope he will as there's probably plenty of food back where he put him). So here he is in his new home amongst the False Indigo and spent Bee Balm blooms in the back corner. We're really hoping he adopts the garden as his new territory and thrives there, as it would really make us happy to know that we have mantises around ... though should he manage to find a mate that would surely be the end of him. So for now, we're just going to keep an eye out for him and hopefully we'll be able to get more shots of him lurking around waiting for dinner. We haven't seen the little one I shot earlier this summer lately, so as long as s/he stays away from the big one we might get lucky enough to have a couple around! We'll keep you posted ... any ideas for naming this one? I have some ideas, but have never had the occasion to name a mantis before!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Guest Photo by Fernymoss: Shadow of the ...?

Tonight's treat is an experiment Fernymoss tried during the late afternoon-early evening hours when the western sun was at its brightest ... he went looking for some interesting shadows and I think he succeeded fabulously with this shot that he calls Faerie Passing. I think there are a lot of things you can conjure up in this shot, so I'd be really interested to hear what you folks see in it.

It's a detail of Hibiscus moscheutos 'Blue River,' of course ... which is carrying on admirably its non-stop bloom fest as usual. Still waiting for 'Kopper King' to end its break and start up again so we can see some more of those, but they'll be along soon! Oh, and that green castor is taller than Fernymoss now ... it's just loving this heat and high humidity, even if the dogs and humans aren't! We'll do an update shot of that soon, as well... but for now, enjoy Faerie Passing!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Guest Photo by Fernymoss: Red Celosia Sport

Following up on last night's post about Celosia garden sports, here's a really odd, yet attractive one that Fernymoss was attracted to because of its "joined hands" near the bottom of the bloom. It's obviously a cross between one of the common red plumosa varieties available (often referred to as 'Castle Red or Yellow') and a relatively recent cultivar called 'New Look,' which features brilliant red plumes carried on compact (6-8 inch) plants with reddish foliage and stems. You can see the parentage in the leaves where the reddish hue and veining is somewhat pronounced in this specimen. Unfortunately this detail doesn't show the top of the bloom, which is a bit more like a smaller cristata (cockscomb) variety. (Though Fernymoss did take some shots of the top, none of them turned out well enough to use here, so you'll have to wait a bit to get a peek at that, but my first impression was that it looked like a lobster waving, while the "hands" are "joined" lower down.)
Ok, so why plant Celosia? Whether you choose the Cristata varieties, with its large "brainy" headed flowers often 5-6 inches across, or the smaller varieties, it's guaranteed fire in the garden during the hottest months of summer! They positively thrive in conditions when everything else is looking a bit "burned out" and grow well in full sun whether you have average, poor, to even clay soil in the garden. They're not picky and once you've got them established (you should give them regular waterings while they're settling in) they're incredibly drought and heat tolerant. Once they start blooming they're incredibly long lasting flowers, which if you just leave them alone, will eventually fade and drop their seed after frost, virtually guaranteeing you'll see more of them the following spring. I should note that as long as the seed stays in the ground over the winter, it will generally germinate, however don't look for them until later in the spring, because they tend to come up only when the ground has warmed sufficiently and all danger of frost is past.

The larger 'Cockscomb' variety is a great plant to dry for arrangements and will last a couple of years if dried properly. You merely need to cut the whole plant down (or just pull it up) late in the fall (or while it's at its maximum depth of colour), hang it upside down in a dry place (preferably a dry basement or somewhere out of direct light) and wait for it to dry out completely. It's also best to remove all leaves and just retain the stalk with the bloom intact. Of course, should you choose to do so just keep in mind that once fully dried it will drop its seeds (and they're tiny ones!), so you might want to place something underneath it to catch them. As long as the plant has matured sufficiently over the season, you should be able to store these seeds and plant them the following spring ... or better yet, just broadcast them (in the fall after the first hard frost) in an area of the garden where you'd like to see them the next year. Though they might not all come up, they have a very high germination rate, so you'll probably be forced to thin the seedlings out at some point to ensure the biggest specimens possible.

We've found that while the large Cristata argentea variety tends to come back 'true' to the parent plant, all bets are off when it concerns the smaller varieties, such as those seen in these past few posts. But that's one of the really fun things about Celosia ... if you're not expecting exactly what you planted the previous year, you may be rewarded with the odd sports and mutants, thanks to the many bees, butterflies and other insects who tend to congregate on these flowers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Guest Photos by Fernymoss: Yellow Celosia Sports

Last summer I wrote several posts on these Celosia sports in their 2006 incarnations, both yellow and red ones, those odd mutants who have crossed over the years and just keep coming back slightly modified each successive year. So here's some of this year's crop ... they're not as numerous as they have been in the past, but the weeds have gotten away from us for a while and have choked out some, I think. And earlier this summer it seemed that there just weren't as many as in previous years, so I think next year will probably entail planting a bunch of new 'pure' ones and let the process start all over again, along with those who come from this year's plants as well.

Long time readers may recognize the first shot as similar to a sport I posted about this time last year, and these particular ones are pretty much in the same spot the original 'pineapple' top we had growing last year. (Make sure you look at the large version to see the bonus bugs!)

The second shot is a relatively new one this year, probably metamorphosed between and plumosa variety and the more traditional cristata, or 'Cockscomb' variety, though anyone's guess is as good as mine. I can only really try to classify them by the shape and colour, both of which are way off from what you'll find in the garden centers. Let's just call this one "Bottle Brush," and consider it named!

Photos courtesy of Fernymoss. Taken 13 August, 2007 out in the front boulder bed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Kopper King Trifecta

Here's good ole Hibiscus moscheutos again, but this time it's my favorite hybrid 'Kopper King!' As I've often stated, I'm not usually one to adopt most hybrids, but 'Kopper King' is just too outstanding an exception that I think every serious gardener should have at least one in the perennial border.

For one, its bronzy, reddish purple foliage reminiscent of maple leaves is the most striking of any of the H. moscheutos cultivars of which I'm aware. Even when it's not blooming (which from July to September isn't often) it's a very attractive plant, growing to about 4 feet by 3 feet in a season. It's a relatively low maintenance plant and aside from pruning it back in the spring and keeping it fairly well watered in hot periods, it doesn't really demand much in order to wow you with its fabulous flowers. It's also quite cold hardy, happy to dwell within Zones 4-9. The only real drawback I can see is that, as it's a hybrid, it produces no viable seed, and the only way to propagate it is from stem cuttings rooted in late spring or summer.

But once established and when it gets to blooming in late July, it rarely ceases to amaze passersby with its truly dinner plate sized flowers, intricate veining on the petals and just plain eye popping blasts of red, pink and white. We're starting to see a few more of these around local gardens, but it doesn't seem to have caught on as much as the 'Lord Baltimore' and 'Disco Belle' cultivars you more commonly see growing in local gardens.

No matter, we like having one of the more rare Hibiscus moscheutos in our garden (in fact we have two!). I named this one 'Olivia' last year (I don't go naming too many plants but this one just begged for it) due to her deep admiration of pinks. So here are two very different angles on it. The first shot was intended to capture the absolute competition between flowers to be the first to show off ... these three were so closely situated that none of them managed to truly open to the full potential, but as an ensemble I think they make a nice cluster of contrasts between colours and textures. The second shot is a full on close up aimed at getting the whole inner-bitian enchilada for Olivia. (I may have posted this before, but it's a worthy rerun for this flower!)

At present it's taking a bit of a break due so the recent dry weather, but with the regular rains of last week, it should be gearing up to launch another round of blooms soon, so keep dropping by and I should have more sometime soon, because you can never have too many Hibiscus blooming, no matter what variety you grow!

Friday, August 10, 2007


Ok, confession here: we got our Nasturtiums in a bit late this year and the ones that came up haven't started blooming yet, but this one from 5 August 2006 still is. So, I decided to pluck it from the archives to provide a little mid-summer firepower for the end of the week.

If you've never grown Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), they're really worth trying because they're fairly easy to grow and when they start blooming they keep on going until frost. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again -- they make fantastic additions to salads where they provide a nice peppery contrast to the greens. And all parts of the plant (unlike Daturas and Castors!) are perfectly edible. The leaves should be used when they're smaller and more tender, however the peppery flavor in them is more pronounced than in the flowers. I even discovered tonight (see the Wikipedia link) that the unripe seeds can be used as a caper substitute. I'd like to try that, but wonder if one should soak them in some kind of brine solution first ... something to check into.

All you really need to provide Nasturtiums is some average to poorish soil in a full sun position (they will tolerate some shade), adequate water and some space, because they will spread out quite a bit by the end of the season. Just plant the pea-like seeds early on (our big mistake this year!) in mid May or when weather conditions permit in your area. (FAR, you could plant these really early where you are, say April or even late March.) The two only really important facts you need to know are that 1) they do not like being transplanted, so sow them where they are to grow and 2) NEVER EVER fertilize them! Like Morning Glories, if you fertilize them you will be rewarded with rich, huge foliage and few, if any, blooms. So don't even go near them with the Miracle Grow! One other note: they make an excellent companion plant to many flowers, and especially certain vegetables. Nasturtiums are known to provide protection for such plants as the Cucurbita family (Cucumbers and squash) to the Brassicas (cabbages, broccoli and Brussels sprouts) by either luring the bad bugs away from the plants or attracting said bugs' predators to the area. And they make a lovely fiery border around the vegetable bed ... again, just keep them away from the fertilizers!

This year we planted Nasturtiums among the rocks to let them crawl around and out (hopefully), so when we've got some blooms later on, I'll probably be posting more of them as they arrive. Oh yeah, the reason I liked this shot so much was because I managed to get the sun shining through the flower, which really illuminates its details, I think. Though Nasturtiums come in a wide range of colours and hybrids, I still prefer the old fashioned orange, yellow and red ones. These were Burpee's Fordhook Favorites, a supposedly climbing variety though we've never had them actually climb ... they just meander around and fill the empty spaces of the bed where they're planted. But wherever you might decide to plant them, they'll bring you lots of summer colour and tasty treats as well if they suit your palate. They're just an old-fashioned, easy annual that really doesn't ask much of you for what they give in return!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Red Lobelia and Holly

Lobelia cardinalis is one of those plants we haven't had much luck with growing over the years, but we keep on trying in different spots, hoping that we'll eventually find somewhere it's truly happy in the garden. After having had several plants fail on us in other areas in the front garden, we planted this one in the woodland garden near one of the hollies two years ago, hoping that the generally moist soil in that part of the garden would be able to sustain it.

Well it has done better than others but still doesn't seem perfectly happy where it is ... it came back and bloomed a bit last year, then as it got drier in the fall, just disappeared. I looked for signs of it in late spring and didn't see anything, so I just figured there goes another one. Maybe we should just give up on this one ....

One day last week when I was opening the blinds in the dining room I happened to look out on to the woodland garden (unfortunately engulfed by weeds and daturas right now!) and spotted a patch of crimson ... the Lobelia was still alive and putting up a few bloom stalks! So maybe there's hope for this plant yet, since it managed to come up amongst some pretty bad weeds (things got away from us a bit in July, as usual), I guess we should encourage it a bit more and perhaps plant a few new ones next year. That splash of brilliant red right in the front of the holly is really impressive! If you look closely at this shot, you can see holly berries forming behind it ... of course they're still green at this point, but if that plant does anything like it did last year, it will soon be covered with ripening berries to carry us over into the fall and winter. As our garden sensei says: The only thing better than red is more red!
Photo courtesy of Fernymoss. Taken 5 August 2007, using the flash.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Guest Post by Fernymoss: Castor Up Close and Personal

Tonight let's get up close to the Castor (Ricinus communis 'Zanzibariensis') we have planted in the back yard. Fernymoss was after some detail shots of the trunk and leaves, and as you can see, he really hit pay dirt! In fact, he made a rather astounding discovery we've never seen before when growing these ... there are ants feeding on it! (If you look at the enlarged version of the first shot, you'll see them busily working some sort of nectaries scattered along the trunk and the leaf nodes.) This was definitely something to set us to thinking .... do they have some sort of symbiotic relationship with them, much as peonies do? Apparently they must, and after researching it a bit on the Google, I wasn't able to come up with anything definitive, except that an extract from the leaves is being used in Brazil to kill leaf cutter ants ... which certainly didn't point to a beneficial inter-species relationship.

The most useful tidbit I was able to turn up was in a comment on where one grower had this to say:
I have observed that they also have nectaries on their petioles which attract ants, and these will guard the plant like a fortress. The only bugs to bother mine have been earwigs chewing at night when the ants are off-duty.

We're definitely going to have to do some more observing on our own to see if this "guarding" behavior truly is what they're up to, but so far, I don't think the ants are suffering any ill effects from their feeding on these nectaries. Our suspicion is that they do provide a useful service to the plant, perhaps freeing the new leaves from their membrane as they unfold, but I have no solid evidence to prove this as yet. (So ... here you go Nancy, we've got a garden mystery to solve!) If anyone has any solid sources about this behavior, I'd love to hear more about it in the comments.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the toxicity of Castors is well documented, but as long as you're prudent and don't allow pets, children or other animals to munch on it, they're really pretty safe to grow and make a stunning architectural accent in the garden. They're also reputed to repel moles, voles and other pesky critters and though we can't personally attest to this since we've never had moles and only the occasional vole, maybe the fact we plant a few each year has kept them at bay. In any case, we love the exotic tropical look they bring to the yard, and it's fun to speculate just how large they will get during the summer ... our best (several years ago) was probably about 12 feet, but it all depends on the caprices of Nature ... the longer you can hold off the hard freeze, the longer they'll be around. Removing really big specimens can be a challenge if you choose to take them out (so to speak) in the fall, when the best solution is usually a saw. We usually just let them die in place, remain over the winter, and then in the spring they're relatively easy to just pull out of the ground. The result is a long trunk terminating in a scary tap root that looks ever so much like a spear!

I alluded to a story about a neighbor and Castors in the previous post, and I think I'll save it for another post sometime soon. Suffice to say for now, she was a bit freaked out and intimidated by our over-enthusiastic planting one year. Sorry, FAR, but you'll have to wait a bit longer for that one!

The first shot shows off the trunk, those nectaries and the ants hard at work ... and if you look to the upper right you can see another Cthulu starting to emerge ....

The second shot shows the unfurling of a new leaf, and if you look really closely, you'll see that some water from the previous night's rain had collected in it and drowned some unfortunate bug who obviously didn't know how to swim.

Photos taken 5, August 2007, courtesy of Fernymoss.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Preview: Castor Bean Tree

Here's a quick preview of things to come from Fernymoss' fabulous work this past weekend. This time it's a green Castor Bean tree (well two of them actually), and you'll be seeing more of these as the summer progresses since we have two varieties planted (these are in the back yard and the others are in the front bed). If you've heard of Castor Bean oil (a dreaded laxative when I was a child), these are the trees that produce them. They're really quite a dramatic, architectural plant to showcase in the garden, even though we have a neighbor who's quite terrified of them (more on that later), but most people seem to appreciate the drama they bring to wherever they're planted. Besides we just love them! To be able to grow a plant that can easily reach 8-12 feet during one season in Iowa is testimony to this plant's tenacity!

I'll have more details when I do the next few posts, but for now I'll leave you with a link to some more great pictures of Ricinus communis available for planting ... if for no other reason than to prove that we're not the only weirdos who find this plant a fascinating addition to the garden!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Guest Post by Fernymoss: Buds Burst Open

Following up on last night's post, tonight I thought I'd skip the "suspense" and reveal the name of this one: Ligularia dentata 'Desdemona.'

It's one of two species of Ligularia that we have planted out in the woodland garden on the north side of our house. Sometimes you will see it referred to commonly as
Ragwort -- not be confused with ragweed, though I've read that some are allergic to the other species we have Ligularia stenocephala, which you can see in the background of the first shot.

We've really become big fans of 'Desdemona' since we first discovered it several years ago in another shade garden we pass every day. We saw it when blooming and were struck by the brilliant yellow flowers (oddly suggestive of Black Eyed Susans) and bronzy red foliage, so we just had to find out more. With a little research we were surprised to find that it was a Ligularia! At that point all we had was L. stenocephala and we were already quite fond of it, so we set out to find a 'Desdemona' to keep it company. It took a bit of looking beyond the typical garden centers to find it, but this plant does have a bit of a following among gardeners (especially in shade gardens) and seems to be more widely available the past few years. It's definitely most suited for shady areas where the ground never really dries out completely, as it's very prone to wilting and will die if left in dry conditions for too long. Nevertheless, it's a very hardy plant once established, and it tends to spread relatively quickly, so give it some space the first few years. With a little regular watering during dry spells in summer, it will reward you with plenty of flowers beginning in July, often into the fall months with a little deadheading and luck. Ligularia dentata makes a great companion for ferns as well, and though you can't see them in these shots, it's very close to a stand of Maidenhair Ferns.

The first shot gives a sense of what the overall plant looks like, though this is really just a detail showing the foliage and buds opening ... they don't look quite as sinister in this one do they?
The second shot is a marvelous close up Fernymoss got of the party going on in this bloom ... just look at those dancing anthers! He also caught a party-goer sneaking away, but not fast enough to escape the lens (fortunately)!

These shots were taken 5 August, 2007, courtesy of Fernymoss.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Guest Post by Fernymoss: Budding Mysteries

Fernymoss was out with the camera today and captured quite a few very good shots of some plants currently of interest out in the garden. I decided to post these two shots of this plant, who shall remain a 'mystery' for another day or so ... just to see if a sharp-eyed reader can identify this one.

A few clues: those familiar with the woodland area of the garden may recognize this from earlier in the year ... it shares space with the hollies and numerous ferns and other shade plants. Though there are several species of this plant, this one has the intriguing cultivar name of 'Desdemona,' and one of my sources also says it is often confused with another, 'Othello."
No matter which Shakespearean option you choose, it's a great plant, with gorgeous foliage ... perfect for part or full shade gardens that stay relatively moist.

I think the first shot seems kind of sinister ... like some Cthulu type creature either ingesting or getting ready to disgorge some captive flower ....

The second shot shows another cluster of buds that for some reason remind me of a pitcher plant in form, though it's clearly not one of those. You can see one of the open flowers as well, and I think this one also shows off some of the foliage pretty well. In the next post I'll have more of the open flowers and more information (such as the name!) as well.

Photos courtesy of Fernymoss, taken 5 August, 2007.