Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Thankful Gardener

I'm thankful for tulips that know they're perennials and act like it.

I'm thankful for reliable performers...

...and pleasant new surprises.

I'm thankful for the few butterflies we had this year, and that my garden could offer them some food and respite, even if only for a moment.

I'm thankful for garden buddies who provide blogalong passalongs.

I'm thankful for botanical oddities that keep me guessing...

...peppers that did the best they could in adverse conditions...

...and plants that remind me to pay attention to them, even when they're relegated to a less-than-perfect spot and deserve better.

I'm thankful for the rewards that gardening provides...

...and the continual promise of more beauty to come, year in and year out.

Most of all I'm thankful for you, dear readers, because without you I'd just be talking to myself! Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Review: Flora Mirabilis

I had the chance to review a copy of Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty, a collaboration between National Geographic and the Missouri Botanical Garden written by Catherine Herbert Howell. While there are a number of reasons to read this book, notably its plant profiles and resplendent illustrations, the foremost is its focus on the significance of plants to human civilization.

Flora Mirabilis summarizes the use of plants through history, from the domestication of cereal crops thousands of years ago to the modern utility of rubber and cacao. It explains how people have employed plants medicinally, gastronomically, economically, and culturally, and this book highlights 27 particularly important plants, such as wheat, rice, cotton, and orchids. With intellectual yet readable prose, Howell describes how plants drove the age of discovery and sustained international trade long before "globalization" was a household term. For example, the desire for black pepper (the seeds of a vine) fueled Columbus's voyage, and sugarcane maintained the triangular trade of sugar, rum, and slaves between the New and Old Worlds. The terrible consequences of such botanical commerce are not overlooked, and neither are the social changes engendered by the spread of plants now consumed worldwide, including potatoes, tobacco, and coffee.

Howell focuses most of the book on the pre-modern era and moves fairly quickly through the last two centuries. This is understandable, as synthetics have increasingly replaced the original botanical sources of food and medicine, but it changes the pace and focus of the narrative. Conservation, ethnobotany, and the cut flower industry become the emphasis of later chapters. However, the evolution of botanical illustration is an additional subplot woven throughout the book. It not only complements the beautiful illustrations but also rounds out the rich history of humans' relationships with plants, which was much more intimate and complex before the Industrial Revolution.

I have been gardening since childhood, but my true passion (and educational background) is history; therefore, this book spoke to my two favorite interests. It is not a traditional gardening book or a how-to, and it may not appeal equally to those less enamored with the study of history. But if you enjoy exploring the ways we use, periodically abuse, and interact with members of the plant kingdom, then Flora Mirabilis will be intellectually invigorating and visually stimulating.

This book is, as they say, "available wherever books are sold." Happy reading!

Dear FTC: I was provided a free download of a pdf version of Flora Mirabilis. I did not receive any other compensation, nor was I directed/asked/cajoled to provide a favorable opinion. I am a subscriber to National Geographic, but that is paid for with my own hard-earned cash. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Love for the Houseplants

For much of the year, houseplants are second-class citizens. They're shuffled around, moved outside for their allotment of fresh air and sunshine (like convicts in a prison yard), or, if left inside, they're overshadowed by the sexier outdoor garden which commands attention with its changing colors, peaking perennials, and vegetable harvests.

In my house they are even crowded on poorly lit window ledges to make room for our Christmas tree because the only location that can accommodate the tree happens to be the best window for the plants. So which member of the plant kingdom gets priority? The dead conifer, of course!

(The houseplant classic: spider plants!)

But when the garden enters hibernation and the Christmas tree is being ground into wood chips, it's the houseplants that are still colorful, still verdant, still recharging me by bringing life and lushness to the surroundings. So it's time I show the houseplants some love. That doesn't necessarily mean pampering because most houseplants are unfussy to begin with (especially mine or else they'll die quickly). What they really need is some interested attention.

(Night-blooming cereus with overwintering coleus and my aloe in the background.)

In the months of low daylight, abundant water and fertilizer will only confuse or even damage houseplants by contradicting their natural tendency to slow their growth. Houseplants are tender perennials and they respond to seasonal changes just like their outdoor brethren. Rather than flood them or push them into artificial growth spurts, it's best to monitor houseplants and water them thoroughly only when they're certifiably dry. If you stick you finger into the dirt and it's dry to your first knuckle, it's time to water. Let the water soak through until it's pooling in the tray (you've gotta have trays and pots with drainage!). Then let the plant be until it passes the dryness test again.

(The largest of my three purple passion plants, with my Christmas cactus. Pardon those dead leaves.)

That time period varies, however, since heat in our houses can cause houseplants to dry out faster than during the summer months. That's why these plants need attention--are they remaining moist in a dim corner, or are they baking near a heat vent? Either way they'll probably survive as long as you're aware of their conditions and take appropriate steps to care for them.

(Tillandsias, my new favorite plants. I run these under the faucet once every week or two, but that's another post)

A great way to know if your houseplants are happy is simply to touch them. Do they feel floppy? You're probably overwatering. Crispy? They're likely dried out. If the leaves of your jade plant are mushy then it needs water. If the Christmas cactus is drooping, give it more light and less water. None of this is hardcore botany, just a careful eye and caring touch. Just show them some love!

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