Sunday, August 13, 2017

Northeast Downtime

ProfessorRoush was away this week, visiting the Birthplace of Freedom;  Boston, Massachusetts.  Yes, I walked the Freedom Trail and I saw Plymouth Rock, and I crossed the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library off my bucket list.  For those who care, I've now visited 5 presidential libraries in my lifetime and JFK's is the best, although I think the image of JFK they chose for the 100th anniversary of his birth, showing him with fat jaws and in sunglasses, is unflattering and jowl-ey.  But I guess they didn't ask my opinion.

I didn't do any personal physical gardening this week, nor, I must confess, did I visit a single public garden.  But since the NorthEast has been well-supplied with rain, I did spend some time admiring the health and vitality of a number of gardens, including the perfectly-maintained alleyway garden I saw in Salem, MA that is pictured above. As moist as things were, I was interested that the phlox here showed no signs of mildew at all.

Private lots are small in all the cities there, so, in fact, alleyways and hidden gardens were the main attractions in the area.  Otherwise, I rarely saw more than a windowbox or container in most of the city.  This shady courtyard near Bunker Hill, however, was well sited for the hosta grown there as focal points.  

One of the reasons for the visit was to expose a precocious nephew to the possibilities of Harvard and MIT, so I spent time on both campuses.  I was, frankly, not that impressed by the tour of Harvard, which never bothered to verify if my nephew even showed up for his scheduled tour and never took us into a single building.  I am limited in my admiration of expensive architecture if I'm not allowed inside the buildings.  I did find, however, Harvard's use of boulders as a student gathering and sitting area quite innovative, however uncomfortable it might be in cold weather or for long sitting periods.

I was much more impressed by MIT, which seemed to actually care if we kept our tour date.  A wonderful admissions director, Mr. Chris Peterson, gave a lively and informative presentation on MIT and its programs, and then we were led on a tour by a complete nerd, an astrophysics student who hailed from Oklahoma, that included a look INSIDE the labs and buildings and provided a broad look at student life on campus.  Kudos to the MIT admissions team for putting together a great program and to the entire university for a unique atmosphere.  And further congratulations to the landscape designer who included these columnar Sweet Gum outside the student activities building at MIT.  They are fabulously healthy and the first ones I'd ever seen.  I was salivating about the fall coloring they must exhibit.  Where do I get one?

On Friday, I bid farewell to the Northeast and its strange set of quirks, which included labeling each "roundabout" as a "rotary."  I've heard of rotary as a noun referring to an old telephone, but the first time I saw one of these signs, I though I was lost and being directed to the local Rotary club.  To further confuse the issue, some areas were labeled as rotaries when I never really saw a complete circle emerge from the traffic pattern.  And what happened to the strong Bostonian accents I was wanting to emulate?  The entire area is so cosmopolitian and diverse these days that I only talked to one individual with a classic Bostonian accent in five days in the area.

Now, I'm back to the prairie, staring out the window at a dew-covered overgrown lawn bordered with weedy flower beds that both need attention.  And where else can I watch a pack rat playing blatently on my front steps at 8:00 a.m. in the morning.  Just another thing one my to-do list;  bait the pack-rat traps!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sensitive Brier

If I were a Native American child on the Kansas prairie, or perhaps if I were any current child who occupies these arid grassy deserts, my favorite plant might just be the Catclaw Sensitive Briar,  Mimosa quadrivalvis  L.  var. nuttallii  (DC. ), a low-lying perennial that is widespread over my native prairie plot.  It blooms in late May-June here, before the grass reaches high above it to blot out the sky, its pink puff-heads screaming for attention alongside the new shoots of bluestem and Indian grass, and its 4-foot long branches spreading through the prairie.  The yellow ends of mature flowers are the anthers.

Sensitive Briar is a member of the bean family, the Fabaceae, the latter scientific nomenclature sounding not so much like it describes a squat languorous legume as a pretentious ancient Roman dynasty.  Perhaps Sensitive Briar has a right to be a bit pretentious.  It is very nutritious for livestock, who seek it out and overgraze it, making the presence of Sensitive Brier an important indicator of overall range condition.  Some sources refer to it as a "brier" rather than a "briar," and after some searching, I admit that I will have to accept continued mystery about the proper form of reference. Perhaps Thomas Nuttall, the 18th Century English botanist honored by the subspecies name, could enlighten me if his spirit were to pass by this part of the continent.

The "sensitive" part of the name comes from the plants response to touch, an action scientifically termed "thigmonasty", although I don't know why it would be considered nasty unless one considers the impertinence of the touchers.  It folds its leaves from open, like the photo at the left, to closed, as seen at the right with the merest touch of child or wind, and also at night.  Other common names for the plant, Bashful Brier or Shame Vine, also refer to this thigmonastic action.  Thus, its attractiveness to children, who seem fascinated when they discover or are shown this little moment of cross-species contact.  I wonder, if such moments were the first introduction of many children to the world of plants, would ecology and Gaia be more prominent throughout life in our subsequent actions and thoughts?

The "catclaw" of the common name refers to the later pods of these flowers, their prickly nature making them far less attractive to children later in the summer.  These do not seem to cling to clothing so much as they scratch at anything in their vicinity, particularly any delicate little bare legs of children playing hide-and-seek in the tall prairie grass.  I suppose, like most of nature, one must always take the good with the bad, the rose with its thorns, the Catclaw Sensitive Briar with its pods.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pink Sugar and Red Hearts

Hibiscus syriacus 'Sugar Tip'
If a happy place exists in my arid, almost-August garden, it would have to be near this Rose of Sharon, Hibicus syriacus 'Sugar Tip'.  I know the colors of the photos here are a little muted by the hazy sky within the not-yet-entirely-risen morning sun, but 'Sugar Tip' is a very pleasing blend of cream-tipped matte foliage that frames the clear, pink blossoms, and it is a fantastic focal point when nothing else is blooming nearby.

'Sugar Tip', 2 years planted
'Sugar Tip' is a mere adolescent, present in my garden since 2015, and she also goes by the name of 'American Irene Scott'.  Discovered in 2001 and patented by Spring Hill Nursery, She is touted as a refined Rose of Sharon, reported to have a semi-dwarf habit for shrubs of her type, although she is easily expected to grow 6 feet tall and nearly as wide.  I do find that she is restrained in her habits in my garden, gracious to the shrubs and roses around her, unlike a massive pussy-willow that grows in the same bed.  'Sugar Tip' is a "triple-threat" garden plant, if I can borrow that hardwood term here in baseball season, providing a spectacle in the garden in three seasons as she adds leaves, shows off those delicate, double 2.5 inch flowers, and then self-cleans back to eye-catching foliage in late summer.


Hibiscus syriacus 'Double Red'
If I didn't know better, I would have guessed that 'Sugar Tip'  was a sport of another Hibiscus in my garden, the more mundane 'Double Red'.  Although 'Sugar Tip' is supposed to be a chance seedling, the blossoms of both are identical, light pink and double, 'Double Red' only lacking the cream-tinted edges.

Hibiscus rojo 'Red Heart'
For sheer blossom power right now, however, neither can match Hibiscus rojo 'Red Heart'.  'Red Heart' has much larger blossoms, single-petaled, with the bright red center surrounding a towering yellow pistol group.   Unfortunately, one only notices 'Red Heart' in my garden from the rear of the garden because I placed her on the far side of a bed, hidden from the front by an oak and other shrubs.  She is one of those plants that I notice only when I mow, or when I'm on a full tour of my garden beds.  In her presence, I stop and look at each bloom individually, reveling in the deep soul of each heart.

In the King James Bible, Song of Solomon chapter 2, verse 1, the beloved says "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys."  In my garden, there are many beloved ladies worthy of being called the "rose of Sharon", each with its own special beauty and charm.  Right now, they all shine, content to bask in the heat of the August sun, supremely confident in their unrivaled glory.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It Could Be Worse

I just keep telling myself that there are many situations that could be worse than trying to keep a garden alive in Kansas in July.  We've only seen one substantial rain in two months and the temperatures have been hovering near or over 105ºF for a week, but it could be worse.  Lawn grasses have completely dried up and the trees are voluntarily shedding half their leaves, but it could be worse.  Daylilies are yellowing and drying on the ends, despite all the advantages of their fleshy, water-retaining tubers, but it could be worse.  That's daylily 'Beautiful Edging' at the right, not so beautiful at present as it edges my garden bed.
Yesterday, for instance, I was headed into my local Walmart at 10:00 a.m., clawing my way forward through the humid already-102ºF air, when it suddenly occurred to me that it would be worse if I had the job of the Walmart employee who had to round up all the carts.  Imagine the despair you'd feel to spend your day walking to the parking lot in that heat and humidity, bringing back a long line of carts, only to watch them disappear from the front end even as you were pushing them back into the busy store.  That entire job would be an endless, mind-numbing circle of frustration equal to that of Sisyphus ceaselessly rolling the stone uphill only to watch it roll back down.  I say that with every intention of not belittling the efforts of the struggling Walmart cart-person, but in sympathy for them.  

But then again, the cart-person knows exactly what lies ahead and is not endlessly teased with possibilities and relief.  They don't experience rain in the forecast for weeks-on-end, constantly present several days in the future, only to see the rain chances diminish as the appointed day nears. They don't experience what we did last night;  a large storm from the west that dissipates and dies within sight of our gardens, just as it meets the air mass of a large storm north and east that we watched form a few miles away and move away from us.  We received 0.4 inches of rain last night, penetrating only deep enough to nourish the crabgrass, leaving the poor lilac bush pictured here to languish in the oppressive heat.  When thick, succulent lilac leaves start to turn up their heels, you know the drought is bad.  You're from New York and afraid of coming to Kansas and experiencing tornadoes?  We hope to see them for the rain they'll bring in their paths. 

It could be worse.  In July, in a Kansas garden, I just keep telling myself ,"it could be worse."   At least I don't want to trade places with the cart-person at Walmart yet.  And I've got a great thriving stand of crabgrass.


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