Archive for the ‘Plants’ Category

The Gingko Tree

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Carol McPherson, North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener

I’m a North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener Intern Volunteer from Orange County, North Carolina. When I moved to Hillsborough five years ago, I went to the local nursery to buy a ginkgo tree, which I’d always longed to have. The saleswoman talked me out of it, saying that they were very slow-growing and pointing out the sparseness of the branches on the young trees in stock. How I wish now that I hadn’t been so easily dissuaded for there is literally no tree on earth with the history and characteristics of the gingko tree.


The word ginkgo comes from the Chinese word ‘xinying’ meaning silver apricot. This refers to the fruit of the female tree, not technically a ‘fruit’ in the botanical sense, by the way, but I’ll use that word today. It’s also called the maidenhair tree because its leaves are similar in shape to those of maidenhair ferns. Less flattering names are the ‘stinkbomb’ tree and adjectives such as “disgusting,” and “repulsive,” are used. But more about that later.


In the botanical world, there are only five living groups of seed plants, and ginkgo is one of them. And ginkgo is the only one that consists of only one species. It is utterly unique, not very obviously related to any living plant, but actually more similar to pines than to maples or oaks. Technically, the ginkgo is a gymnosperm, which means that that the seeds are naked—i.e., they are not enclosed within an ovary. Gymnosperm seeds generally develop on the surface of a scale or leaf, or they are modified to form cones. In the ginkgo, they develop on short stalks, each supporting a pair of tiny green orbs called ovules.

The Thrilling Reproductive Cycle of Ginkgoes

Ginkgo Biloba Leaves


It is the reproductive cycle of ginkgo trees that is especially thrilling. Think about a tree being fertilized by swimming sperm… now how unusual is THAT?


I’m going to borrow some descriptions here from Nancy Ross Hugo, author of Seeing Trees. She describes how each of the two tiny ovules secretes a droplet of sticky fluid that sits on the surface, grabs the pollen as it floats by on the breeze, and brings it into the female cells. Nothing happens for a couple of months—the pollen is carefully stored within the female tissue. When the time for fertilization arrives, the ovules grow a pollen chamber and fill it with fluid. The pollen grain then extends a tube into that chamber and releases two swimming sperm cells (complete with 1000 flagella) into the fluid. The sperm cells swim toward the narrow entrance to the egg cells, and may the best man win—only one makes its way through the portal, where it fuses with the egg and fertilizes it. The author notes that you can actually see a YouTube video of this primordial pulsing of the ginkgo sperm in the pollen chamber. I was able to find it quite easily online and you could clearly see the whirlpools created by the swimming sperm. Among woody trees, only the tropical, ancient cycads are fertilized by swimming sperm.  Interestingly enough, this fertilization miracle may also occur within unripe fruit that has fallen to the ground, so don’t be too quick to kick aside any fruits littering the sidewalk.


 Speaking of ginkgo fruits littering the sidewalk, now we come to the origin of the ginkgo’s nickname, the stinkbomb tree. When the female fruits begin to decay, they are remarkably stinky. Some people compare the smell to rancid butter, but the fruits contain large amounts of butyric acid, which is the primary unpleasant odor of vomit. Virtually no animal today eats the rotting fruit, but it is likely that in the Jurassic period, carrion-eating dinosaurs probably helped to distribute the seeds. Because of the unpleasant odor, most nurseries will only sell and plant male trees. But that, too, has some disadvantages. The pollen from male gingko trees is highly allergenic, rating a 7 out of 10 on the allergy rating scale. Female trees do not produce pollen. Also, planting only male trees means that all the trees are cloned, thus reducing the genetic diversity that keeps a species healthy and resilient.
Golden Ginkgo Leaves


Ginkgoes can grow to be quite large, normally reaching an adult height of (65–100 feet). The tree has an angular crown and long, somewhat erratic branches. The leaves are unmistakable—they are shaped like a fan and somewhat leathery. Even the vein structure in the leaves is unlike any other tree. Two parallel veins enter each blade from the point of attachment of the long leafstalk and fork repeatedly in two toward the leaf edges. Most leaves are divided into two lobes by a central notch, thus the name “biloba”. The autumn foliage of gingkos can take your breath away. In mid-October an entire tree will go from green to gold in a day or two. And again, ­in mid-November, the tree will drop all its leaves in a single day! I’ve read that if there has been a frost the night before the leaves fall, you can hear them tinkle as they land on each other below the tree.


Ginkgoes are surprisingly hardy. They are often planted in cities, where they don’t mind having their roots compacted under sidewalks, and where they shrug off air pollution as though it doesn’t exist. After all, they evolved during a tumultuous time for our planet, and they had to learn to thrive despite the sooty, sulphurous air of erupting volcanoes. Ginkgoes are also remarkably insect-resistant. In fact, there is almost no insect that even eat ginkgo leaves. Again, these trees evolved long before today’s leaf-eating insects were around. Ginkgoes are also resistant to temperature extremes and to wind.


So as I describe the wonders of this dinosaur-distributed, volcanic air-breathing, swimming sperm fertilized, living fossil (the gingko), I again kick myself for not purchasing that ginkgo tree five years ago. Yes, it was scrawny, but it would be five years older and five years bigger today. The tree is a wonder of nature, the only living bridge between the prehistoric plants of the ancient past and our modern plants of today. I do wish I had one of my own.


We end with a portion of a poem from Howard Nemerov, called The Consent. It was published in a book called The Western Approaches published in 1975.


Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
This is Carol McPherson and this is Tree Talk.

Carol McPherson, NC State Extension Master Gardener Intern in Orange County, NC

Carol McPherson, NC State Extension Master Gardener Intern in Orange County, NC

ALmost Wordless Wednesday: The Earth Laughs…

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

“The Earth Laughs in Flowers.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Below are just a few of the favorite blooms from gardeners across the country…  The return of spring and nearing arrival of the growing season is cause for much rejoice and laughter.


Climbing Pink Camellia courtesy of Judith Fuselier-Phillips

H.F. Young Clematis courtesy of Cheryl Day Lansdale

Peach Meringue Brugmansia courtesy of Jake Ouellete

Purple Iris courtesy of Judith Fuselier-Phillips

Amethyst Epiphyllum courtesy of Jake Ouellette


Magnolia courtesy of Angela Blue

Gerbera Daisy courtesy of Dorene Lee Harvey

Blood Lily Courtesy of Jan McMahon

Columbine courtesy of Sheila Gilliam-Landreth

Amaryllis courtesy of Eileen Hayzlett


Amaryllis courtesy of Cheryl Day Lansdale

Blooming Nectarine Tree courtesy of Terri Upchurch

Clematis courtesy of Briana Belden

Crocus courtesy of Lois Versaw

Dr. Ruppel Clematis courtesy of Jake Ouelette


 *The above images were shared with this blogger by members of the Facebook community

“The Self-Sustaining Seed Swappers”.



ALmost Wordless Wednesday: Spring!

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

This ALmost Wordless Wednesday brings us only two days away from spring!  A time of rebirth and reawakenings, and a time when all that planning and dreaming can start to take real form in the garden.

"No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow." ~ Proverb

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” ~ Proverb



One of the very first blooms of the season, the Crocus traditionally symbolizes cheerfulness and gladness, and brings both early to the garden; heralding the arrival of the growing season and of spring.


ALmost Wordless Wednesday: Cyclamen for the Holidays

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Just as poinsettias are a staple for holiday decorating, cyclamen are also a popular floral gift during the holidays. While we may be more familiar with them as a potted plant, they’re also a beautiful and hardy outdoor plant. For more information on growing cyclamen try Clemson University’s informational PDF.


Holiday Cyclamen (photo by Connie Schultz)

Holiday Cyclamen (photo by Connie Schultz)


Cyclamen blooming outdoors (Photo by Connie Schultz)

Cyclamen blooming outdoors (Photo by Connie Schultz)


Beautifully patterned Cyclamen leaves (Photo by Connie Schultz)

Beautifully patterned Cyclamen leaves (Photo by Connie Schultz)


Cyclamen persicum tuber (Photo by  Millie Davenport, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension)

Cyclamen persicum tuber showing new growth. (Photo by Millie Davenport, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension)

Submitted by Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (’95 Cornell Extension) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC

Master Gardeners grow cranberries “the size of quarters” in home garden

Monday, November 24th, 2014
A bounty of  cranberries from the home garden.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

A bounty of cranberries from the home garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

Cranberry salad … cranberry sauce … cranberry relish … cranberry juice … cranberry cocktails — aah, the holidays are upon us.

There are many ways to enjoy this tart native fruit during the holidays and the whole year-round that don’t include cutting off a slice from a jiggling cylinder of cranberry goo.

You can even grow your own cranberries at home, no bog required!

Vaccinium macrocarpon is the native species of cranberry in North America, and is also the one commercially grown here in the United States.

It is in the same genus as the highly regarded blueberry, the oft-reminisced huckleberry, and the lingonberry, which is famous in Scandinavian circles. It’s even related to something called a sparkleberry, which sounds like it would be grown by someone who likes glitter just a little too much.

Cranberries in cooperation

In 1930, the commercial success of cranberries changed course when three competing companies formed a cooperative called Cranberry Canners Inc. While you might have never heard of that company, I assure you they are still big in the business.

You may know them by their product line, which became the cooperative name in 1956 — Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.

The cooperative formed to develop markets for cranberries beyond the holiday season. Their first product beyond canned cranberry “sauce” was juice cocktail, giving birth to a whole new world of alcoholic concoctions. An early ad for cranberry juice proclaimed that it was “a pleasant, smooth drink with delicious flavor and sure relief from faintness, exhaustion and thirst. A glass when retiring promotes sleep and a clean mouth in the morning — even to the smoker.”

While the juice may promote a clean mouth, research is showing that its health effects when it comes to urinary tract infections might be more hype than help. There is a compound that can reduce bacterial growth (hence the “clean mouth”), but it isn’t a high enough concentration to help with bladder problems.

Cranberries at home

It is quite possible to grow cranberries in the home garden. While in the wild they do grow in acidic bogs and marshes, you don’t need those to grow them yourself.

Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.

Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.

I’ve been preaching for years that people need to grow cranberries at home. The native growth in bogs has more to do with the acidic soil than anything else, and commercial cranberries are grown in artificial bogs that are flooded for easy harvest, since ripe cranberries float.

Here in West Virginia, we have Cranberry Glades, a native bog that is home to cranberries and many other rare species, including several orchids and carnivorous plants (I highly suggest a visit). But we also have the farm of Bob and Susan Maslowski in Milton. Bob and Susan are Master Gardeners and are always friendly and smiling at meetings and conferences, eager to share their own story.

Susan started growing cranberries a few years ago in a raised bed, and has been so pleased with their success that they are adding a second raised bed of cranberries. From one single 4- by 8-foot raised bed, she raised enough cranberries to make it through the holiday season (and Susan cooks a lot — she writes a cooking article for the local paper).

The cranberries they raise are the size of a quarter — that puts what you buy at the grocery store to shame.

As Susan tells it, she even had plenty to freeze some for later use, but she found them missing from the freezer. As it turns out, Bob, a winemaker, found the cranberries and turned them into cranberry liqueur. I’m not sure what Susan was planning on cooking, but I think I like Bob’s recipe better.

Growing cranberries

Cranberries form a dense ground cover.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

Cranberries form a dense ground cover. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

You can now find cranberry plants in several garden catalogs and even at big box retailers during the growing season. The thing to remember about growing cranberries is the need for acidic soil.  They do appreciate moist soil, so you definitely need to keep them watered.

You need to test your soil, then lower the pH accordingly using something like powdered elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate. Adding in lots of peat moss may lower the pH slightly, but will provide more of the soil texture and organic matter that the plant needs than altering the pH of the soil.

It will take only a few plants to get started. While the individual plants may be small and short, they will easily spread to form a mat or groundcover (you can easily use them as a ground cover in acidic locations too — they don’t have to be stuck in a bed).

Bob and Susan are adding a second raised bed because their plants have quickly outgrown their raised-bed borders.



This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent.  You can find more of his articles archived at WV Garden Guru.  You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.

Almost Wordless Wednesday: September is National Mushroom Month!

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

We’re celebrating mushrooms this month. If you’ve ever thought about growing mushrooms yourself here’s a link to a blog from Extension Forest Farming about growing your own!

Toadstool (a bolete in the genus Leccinum) 2014 (photo courtesy Jeff Boyea of the Asheville Mushroom Club).

Toadstool (a bolete in the genus Leccinum) 2014 (photo courtesy Jeff Boyea of the Asheville Mushroom Club).

Here’s a little toad sitting on a toadstool. That definitely requires a photograph! Thanks Asheville (NC) Mushroom Club for sharing with us!

Toadstool (a bolete in the genus Leccinum) 2014 (photo courtesy Jeff Boyea of the Asheville Mushroom Club).

Toadstool (a bolete in the genus Leccinum) 2014 (photo courtesy Jeff Boyea of the Asheville Mushroom Club).

Submitted by Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (’95 Cornell Extension) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC

Escape the Heat by Thinking Fall Gardening

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

It seems as though the sweltering heat of summer has most of us all in a lazy, hazy fog. I know I certainly avoid being outside as much as I can when the thermometer tops 90 degrees. Just sitting outside in the shade can leave you a sticky, sweaty mess.

There’s one way to beat the sultry summer blues, though. Think ahead to fall! Believe it or not, now is the time to start planning and planting the fall vegetable garden.

I would say that a majority of gardeners in our area are the type that run out and plant everything in May, then harvest through summer, allowing the plants to hang on until they fall to some disease or finally succumb to frost. These gardeners are missing the bounty that comes with the fall garden.

Fall crops extend the harvest well after the heat of summer.

What and when to plant for fall
Some crops, like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts will thrive in the cooler weather of fall and even survive well beyond frost. Other plants like beans, squash, and tomatoes will do well in the fall, but won’t survive frost. Plants like tomatoes and squash that are planted specifically for fall will well outperform those that are left to languish from the spring planting.

Starting plants for the fall is also easier than starting them for the spring. Since the temperatures outside are warm, there’s no need to start plants indoors under light. You can simply start them in pots outside in a place where they are protected from heavy rain.

The first step is to check out the seed packet or the plant label for the maturity date. For example, I have a packet of ‘Mammoth Red Rock’ cabbage seeds that I want to start for the fall. The packet says that it matures in 90 days.

Now, here’s where the math comes in. We need to add some time for the period of harvest. Let’s say that I’m planting cabbage that I want to harvest over a two week period, so I’m going to add 14 days. Since plants grow more slowly in cooler temperatures, I also need to add another 14 days for what we will call the “fall factor”. If we were starting a warm season crop like tomatoes, we would also need to add another two weeks for the possibility of frost. When we add up the days to maturity, the harvest period, and fall factor, we get a total of 118 days, or about 16 weeks.

We then look at a calendar to schedule when to start our cabbage plants. We need to look at a calendar and count backwards from the date in which we think the plant will die from frost or we want to finish harvesting. Cool season crops like cabbage can withstand several frosts, so we can say that we want to finish growing them three or four weeks after the first frost in the fall (which for my area in West Virginia is October 10).  If it is something that is frost tender, then you definitely want to use the first frost date as a hard and fast date for calculations.  To find your first frost date, visit the NOAA National Climactic Data Center.

To get the most out of your fall garden, I would suggest that you plant small plots multiple times throughout the rest of the summer until the last feasible time to plant the crop. You can extend these calendar dates, and even over-winter cold tolerant crops like spinach, kale, and the Cole crops by using a row cover fabric.

Turn Your Zucchini or Summer Squash Into “Pasta”

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
Zucchini Spaghetti 2

Julienne slicer



Standard vegetable peeler



Large holed grater or microplane



Wide vegetable peeler



Serve uncooked as a salad….



… lightly sauteed and seasoned…



…or topped with your favorite pasta sauce.



Use your imagination!


Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico EMG

John Bartram, America’s Founding Plant Nerd

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014


“How many gentle flowers grow in an English country garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those I’ll miss I hope you’ll pardon…”

These are opening words to the delightful tune “English Country Garden” which praises the variety of flora and fauna in an English garden. But did you know that the classic English garden has its roots in America? Without American plants the English garden as we know it today would never have existed.

It’s true!

Let’s set the clock back to 1733 where we see Mr. John Bartram of Pennsylvania sending two boxes of seeds to his London friend, Mr. Peter Collinson. (Mr. Collinson supports his personal gardening and plant collecting addiction by selling cloth.) Over the next 40 years Mr. Bartram will send hundreds of these seed boxes to Mr. Collinson. These are the seeds which will transform English gardens.

Howard Pyle's illustration of John Bartram shows the famed botanist in a marsh holding a plant which he's studying with the aid of a magnifying glass. Ca. 1879 Taken from the February 1880 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.

Howard Pyle’s 1879 illustration of John Bartram. 
No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.

John Bartram (1699-1777) lived on a farm outside of Philadelphia and every fall he would go plant collecting. His wanderings eventually took him from Lake Ontario to Florida in search of new plant species for himself and Mr Collinson. Each winter dozens of seed boxes made the trip across the Atlantic to London where Mr. Collinson and his English gardening friends eagerly awaited their arrival.


“…the Botanick fire set me in such A flame as is not to be quenched untill death or I explore most of the South western vegitative treasures in No. America.” John Bartram, 1761.

For the first time English gardeners had a huge choice of plants which would provide year-round beauty in their gardens. With Winter blooming shrubs, blazing Fall foliage and a successive parade of blooms in the Spring and Summer, many an English gardener’s dreams were beginning to come true.  By the end of the 1800’s England had become a nation of gardeners.

Mr. Bartram’s trees and flowers laid the foundations for the English garden and by the time of his death his American plants were available across Britain. The English gardening style was widely copied across Europe. “Le jardin anglais”, “il giardino inglese” and “der Englische garten” were all recreations of an English garden filled with American plants.


In the late 1700’s garden touring became popular, so much so that in 1786 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went on a tour of English gardens. Mr. Jefferson soon realized that the beautiful gardens they were seeing were more American than English. He said to recreate the look in America, “we have only to cut out the superabundant plants”. With many of our early leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others setting the example, Americans soon turned into plant collectors.


Colonial Williamsburg garden

John Bartram’s garden is the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. It’s near Philadelphia, PA and is located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. It covers 46 acres which include an historic botanical garden and an 8 acre arboretum which was established in 1728. Three generations of the Bartram family have continued the garden as the premier collection of North American plant species in the world. The current collection contains a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. Most were listed in the Bartrams’ 1783 Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants and subsequent editions.

BartramsGarden2 Image

If you’re in the area, plan to see the the American birthplace of the English garden!

For more info: Bartram’s Garden

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico Master Gardener



Wild Seed Collecting

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Believe it or not, it’s time to start seed collecting. Collection requires observation and timing, seed must ripe to be viable, but if we wait too long they’ll be eaten or scattered


Sophora secundiflora

Sophora secundiflora


Seeds have to maintain the population and feed wildlife so how much should be collected? A good rule is to always collect less than 10% of any population and never collect seeds from plants that number fewer  than 10 in a population in a given area. In the US, it’s against the law under the Endangered Species Act to collect from protected or endangered species.


Yucca elata

Yucca elata


Be sure you know what the seeds and seed pods you want look like. Do your research before you go collecting. Keep in mind that not all plants reproduce successfully from seed! Again, a little research on your part will go a long way to ensure your success.

Bouteloua eriopoda

Are these seeds?


Fallugia paradoxa

Or are these seeds?

Always ask permission before collecting on private land and check local regulations before collecting along roadsides. If you do collect along the road, wear brightly colored clothing or a safety vest. You can purchase one for just a few dollars and it will last your lifetime, which it will help to prolong. As an additional safety measure don’t go seed collecting on your own, take along a friend.

Little River Basin Texas Master Gardeners-Millenium Seed Bank

Little River Basin Texas Master Gardeners gathering seed for the Millenium Seed Bank project

Store your collected seeds in a paper bag or envelope until they’re completely cleaned and dried. Don’t use plastic bags.  Remember to label them with the species, the collection date and location. After cleaning and drying, store the seeds in labeled glass jars in a dry, cool, dark place, but not the freezer. Since labels on the outside of containers can get ruined, write the collection info on a slip of paper and put it inside the jar with the seeds as a backup. You can also store dry seed in plastic bags but be sure rodents won’t find them.





Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico Master Gardener