Gardening with Georgia

Archive - February 2010

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Aflame in late winter

Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 07:02:54 AM

The flame vine puts on a show.

Late winter bloomers always are welcome, especially this winter when we seem to be stuck in cold. Flowering in the south parking lot is the red kapok or red silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, while the vine pergola is displaying a gorgeous coating of orange, thanks to the flame vine, Pyrostegia venusta. Just the sight of these brilliantly colored flowers will lift your winter spirits.

The silk cotton is a large tree that needs room to grow: it can

Big, waxy flowers on the red
silk cotton tree.

reach 80 to 100 feet in height. (Remember that tree roots are generally three times as long as a tree is tall.) The waxy flowers are similarly proportioned, sometimes reaching nine inches across. The tree generally drops its leaves in winter, flowers and then grows new palmate-shaped leaves in spring.

Tubular flowers on the flame vine are so bright you can hardly ignore them. This South American vine becomes woody, races to cover as much as possible, and then it ignites the landscape with color. Because it is so aggressive, you have to be an aggressive gardener should you plant it, cutting it back hard after the flowers disappear. It will grow in full sun or partial shade and it is not picky about soil types.




Discovering secrets in plain sight on a walking tour

Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 02:55:15 PM


One of the best experiences at the garden is a walking tour.  I checked out two tours recently and discovered things about the garden and its plants that I never knew. Walking tours are lead by well-informed volunteers and inevitably launch friendly exchanges among participants. Tours don’t cover the entire 83 acres, but are confined to two areas easily covered in 45 minutes: the palm and tropical fruit area of the garden, and the arboretum, vine pergola and spiny forest displays.

This cycad was given by
the garden's founder.

Sima Siegel began her palm and cycad tour at the cycad circle. She showed us a cycad donated by Col. Robert Montgomery when he founded the garden back in 1938. It’s Macrozamia moorei, from Queensland, Australia, and it wears a lovely coat of resurrection fern on its substantial trunk.  Sima also pointed out the oldest garden resident, another cycad. This one, Dioon edule, was acquired from a botanical garden in Scotland and is 260 years old, she said.

Sima leads us through the palmetum describing the intricacies and features of many species. The foxtail palms, discovered in the 1980s in Australia, have bushy fronds that resemble a fox’s tail. The lady palms create useful hedges by branching beneath the ground, and the triangle palm arranges its fronds in a triangular crown.

Latania seed is beautiful.

Latania palms are among those species that are dioecious, having male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another. The seed of a Latania that Sima showed us looks as if it had been beautifully carved, but it was a natural pattern. However, buttons and other items are carved from seeds of the ivory nut or tagua nut palm. Those seeds sometimes are referred to as vegetable ivory.

Two stories are told about how the zombi palm (Zombia antillarum) from Haiti came by its name: One that the spines on its trunk are used in voodoo; and the other is that after they die, they don’t fall over but seem to remain as living dead in the landscape.

The huge fronds of the oil palms – one species is from South America and a second is from Africa – rise skyward like geysers. Oil is pressed from the seeds, and the development of plantations in Asia is among the chief threats to the endangered orangutan.

We ended our walk at the tropical fruit pavilion, where Sima pointed out dwarf pomegranates, tamarinds, guavas, Malay apples and cactus that produce the increasingly popular dragon fruit.

We took the second tour given by Carolann Baldyga on Wednesday.  Beginning at the ylang-ylang tree just beyond the visitors center, she told tourists from Great Britain and New Jersey that it takes 70 truckloads of the tree’s fragrant flowers to produce one ounce of Chanel No. 5.


Carolann Baldyga leading
a walking tour.

At the floss silk tree, she told how the flowering tree, related to kapok, produced pods full of“lovely cottony stuff” that once was used to make life preservers. Cecropia leaves, when dried, make a beautiful addition to floral arrangements, while the tree, which may grow at a rate of 7 feet a year, harbors ants in hollow parts of the twigs. The ants feed on a special sugary substance produced by the tree and in turn protect the tree against other insects.

Crushed leaves from allspice and bay rum trees delighted garden visitors with their aromas, prompting a UK visitor to says, “You’ve pointed out things we wouldn’t have found ourselves.’’

Feathery or pinnate palm fronds and palm-shaped or palmate fronds came under study, as did the interior of a palm trunk, which has no growth rings like those found in temperate trees. “How do you tell its age,” asked a visitor. By knowing its growth habit and how long it takes to reach a certain size.

Passing bougainvillea (“the actual flower is the white part in the center”), and stopping before the garden’s tallest tree, Carolann explained that each of the garden’s plants has a record, telling the origin, who collected it and when. Tags found on the individual specimens tell the year collected, the botanical name and common name, if there is one, and a bar code for record keeping – which is the way a botanical garden is distinguished from a park, which does not maintain such records.

About half way through the walk, a possibly reluctant visitor changed her mind. “I think we should finish this. She’s excellent.’’




A more natural way to grow orchids?

Thu, Feb 04, 2010 at 07:00:26 AM

Harry Phillips, who with his brother Andy operates Andy’s Orchids in Encinitas, Ca., made a strong case for growing epiphytic orchids mounted on hard wood when he spoke at the Orchid Society of Coral Gables this week: it’s easier to water; roots grow longer; plants grow best when in situations that imitate nature.

Orchid roots exposed on mounts benefit from good air circulation. The only orchid that doesn’t like good air movement around roots is the ghost orchid, he said. It prefers humid, close conditions like those deep within a swamp.

When watering, the entire mounted orchid should be irrigated for a long time, not just the roots on the lower part of the wood. “Typically people under-water orchids for fear of over-watering. But you usually cannot over-water orchids [on mounts].”

An orchid mounted on
hard wood.

The daylong rain that fell Monday was wonderful for orchids, which plump up their water-storing pseudobulbs during such events, and fatten their water-storing roots. “The duration of watering is the key,” he said.

In the summer rainy season, when does most rainfall occur? he asked. In the afternoon or evening. So Phillips recommends watering late in the day during warm weather to give plants on mounts a chance to stay wet longer. When watering in the morning in the summer, he said, exposed roots dry too quickly to fully absorb as much water as they need. (Most of us water early in the morning in South Florida and, in the hottest months of summer, mist orchids once or twice more in the afternoon to cool them. There could be a danger of fungal disease spreading if our orchids stay wet too long overnight.)

Phillips suggested mounting orchids on cedar or other hard woods, even upside down clay pots.  He also said that melaleuca branches are great for epiphytic orchids that will tuck roots into the papery bark.

The media between orchid roots and the wood should either be sphagnum, which holds water for a long time, or green moss, which drains better. The choice depends on the type of orchid being mounted. Cattleyas that need to dry their roots between waterings should be mounted using green moss; bulbophyllums and other orchids that like their roots to stay wet longer should be mounted with sphagnum. The exception, he said, are Phalaenopsis orchids. “Phals don’t like sphagnum,’’ he said. (Many South Florida hobbyist orchid growers use sphagnum for phals, repotting annually.)

To tie the plants onto the moss and mount, use 12-pound-test fishing line.

Buy a light meter to check how high or low the light conditions are; use a thermometer to keep track of temperature; use a single-edge razor blade when removing old roots and leaves. Use one blade per orchid, discarding each after use to avoid transmitting viruses and other diseases.

If some of these recommendations fly in the face of the way we grow orchids, perhaps they could be tested on a few plants in the coming months. Seems like a worthy effort.


Plants and People: An Interactive Garden

Tue, Feb 02, 2010 at 04:18:37 PM

Between drizzle and downpour, a magical thing happened this week in the garden.  Plants and People did indeed connect and interact during the luncheon and tram tour for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

The program is new to the garden this year, initiated by trustee Lin Lougheed after he witnessed a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During a boxed lunch in the Visitors Center, everyone worried about the rain, and a slide show stood at the ready. But just at the moment when the 25 visitors and 11 volunteers were to board the tram, the rain stopped.

Volunteer extraordinaire Bob Petzinger prepared a special talk, and walked beside the tram much of the way, as it traveled slowly through the garden.

Bob and several other volunteers and staff began training last summer with professionals from the Southeast Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, learning both about the disease and how to communicate with patients (“Be direct, maintain eye contact, and talk more slowly,” Bob explained.)

Then, Jay Jones, an early Alzheimer’s patient, and his wife, Laura, rode with Bob on his regular tour, suggesting ways to craft the program by eliminating references to dates and numbers and streamlining the information.

“We’re trying to give caregivers a pleasant day and achieve some interaction with patients,’’ Bob said.

This week’s program was dedicated to the late Sophie Miller, whose family attended. Irma Braman, Sophie’s daughter, and Debi Weschler, her granddaughter, were aboard the tram with Lin Lougheed and Aaron Fleischman, who has generously endowed the program. Congresswoman Ileana Ross Lehtinen and her sister Nancy brought their mother, Amanda Ross; Fran Plummer brought her husband Bill; Rachel Menton, activities director, brought seven patients and their caregivers from the Seymour Gelber Adult Day Care Center, and many others were aboard.

Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted pumpkins were a hit, as were the cycads, which were seeding. An alligator caused all sorts of commotion, oohs and aahs, as it neared the lake's shoreline. As the tram proceeded, patients clearly became engaged in the garden’s sights.  A woman named Marianne, who was seated behind me, tucked an orange piece of cycad cone in her purse, delighted with the brilliant color and feel. When stopped at the steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero called She, Bob asked if anyone could guess why the enormous piece with moveable parts was given that name. Looking at staffers and volunteers swaying gently on the swing, someone called out “Because they’re swingers!”

Through the lowlands, past the gingerbread palms from Egypt and the Loch Ness monster, the 70-seat tram traveled. At the carnuba wax palm, Bob explained how the wax taken from the palm’s leaves was used, and how Brazil controlled the distribution. “So now we know, and next week we’ll forget it,’’ Marianne said with a big smile, acknowledging the irony of her disease.

Miniature Phalaenopsis orchids were given to each person at the tour’s end.

Perhaps the person to best sum up the experience was Rachel Menton, who brought so many from the adult day care center.

“The garden is so peaceful for them,’’ she said, explaining why bringing her patients and their care givers was important. “They won’t remember being here all the time, but they will remember the tranquility.”

Seven tours had been planned for this program, but an eighth already has been added by special request. For more information, click on “Plants and People” in the garden’s Events menu: