March 31, 2011

What's In A Name? Spring Bulbs' Botanic Meanings

I was walking my dog in the neighborhood recently, enjoying the spring bulbs that come up so quickly and change so fast.  Snowdrops, then crocuses, then daffodils, and soon tulips.  I started thinking about their names.  Snowdrops I understand, but what does its botanic name Galanthus mean?  Crocus is a rather odd sounding word.  Daffodil evokes images of spring by just saying it. And its botanic name Narcissus conjures images of its own.  So I did some research on the origins of bulb names, both botanic and common. 

In order to understand the origin of any botanic name you first have to know about Carolus Linnaeus. “Carl” was a Swedish naturalist in the mid-eighteenth century.  He is responsible for the universally accepted naming system we use today to describe and classify plants.  While the genus category was already around, he created species names to categorize plants within a genus more specifically, and give descriptions of plant characteristics and uses as well. This system is called Binomial Nomenclature.  Apparently he classified himself too since he was born as Carl von Linne.  These names are referred to as botanic or scientific names.  Many call them Latin but they are really a combination of Latin, Greek, and some made up by Linnaeus to describe the ever-expanding world of discovered plants at that time.

Common names are what most of us grow up learning.  They are often descriptive and easier to recall.  But they can cause confusion.  Common names vary not at the very least by region.  In Ireland, impatiens are called busy lizzies.  In the south, lilyturf is monkey grass.  Some plants have two or three common names even in the same area.  It behooves us to learn the botanic names – at least the genera.  Many garden centers and books organize plants by these names.  And more and more I am seeing them used as the common name.  Heuchera is often heard instead of coral bells (a name that is not usually accurate anymore since most are bred for colored leaves but usually the flowers are ivory).

So back to bulbs.  Galanthus nivalis is the botanic name for snowdrops.  These nodding, white, teardrop-shaped flowers are among the earliest we see.  They often bloom in the snow.  Galanthus is Greek for milk flower.  Nivalis means snowy or snow-covered.  This Linnaeus creation is certainly in line with its common name.

Crocus is also a Greek word meaning saffron or yellow.  The common name here is the same.  The ancient crocus that produces saffron is a fall blooming bulb, Crocus sativus, meaning cultivated crocus. There is another fall bulb called autumn crocus, but it is another genus entirely.  (Those pesky common names again).  The rare and pricey saffron is obtained from its stigmas for dyes, flavoring, and medicinal use.  It takes around 4000 stigmas for an ounce of saffron.  There are many species of crocus and most plants we purchase today as spring blooming bulbs are cultivars.  Cultivars are manmade hybrids formerly referred to as varieties.

Narcissus is the botanic name for daffodil.  Here the common name daffodil is itself derived from another genus name most likely by way of a Dutch alteration.  It certainly is not a common name that evokes an image we can relate to like snowdrops.  Narcissus is of course the handsome youth in Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection at his own peril.  This flower was named in his honor.

Tulips have a unique history of their own.  And I will delve into that story in my next post.

March 23, 2011

Spring Gardening Tips and To-Dos

The outdoor gardening season is finally coming for those of us in the Chicago area.  March weather is iffy here, but there are things you can do now to prepare your garden, and get yourself energized for another season.  Here is a short list of To-Dos for March and April:

Cut back ornamental grasses now or when you see new growth. Leaving up grasses adds winter interest and may help protect the plant during this season.  But it is time to let air and light in to the new shoots that will be coming up.  Be careful not to cut any new growth in the process.  The dried grasses can be cut in to 10-12 inch strips and left out in your yard for birds.  They are starting to build their nests now so the easily accessible materials will be appreciated.

Trees and shrubs that do not bloom in spring can be pruned now.  Remove dead, broken, or crossed branches, and shape as needed. It is easier to see the branches and the shape before the plants leaf out.  Spring bloomers form buds on old wood, meaning last year's branches.  You may see their buds already. (e.g., forsythia). Cutting these now will cut off the future flowers.  Prune them after blooming.

Some plants with shallow crowns, like heuchera, can heave out of the ground over winter if we have frost and thaw cycles.  Take a look in your garden for this, and gently press any such plants in to the ground. You want the roots protected, especially since we may well have more snow.

Keep in mind that the soil is wet now and walking on it is not advised.  It compacts the soil which makes it harder for roots to spread and nutrients to be taken up.  As much as possible, avoid walking in your garden unless you have paths or stones.

Clear away fallen leaves or leaf mulch covering plants over the winter.  Wet leaf debris can harbor pests and disease. Pull mulch back from perennial plant crowns as weather warms.

Now is the time to address your roses.  When the forsythia blooms, uncover rose bushes if they have been mounded up with mulch or soil for winter protection.  Spring is the best time for pruning roses before the leaf buds open.  Maximum energy will be put in to new growth. Cut out broken or darkened canes and dead tips.

This is a good time to plant, divide, or move perennials.  The weather and soil have warmed some, making for a more hospitable environment. Also, less top growth on your existing plants makes them easier to work with and less likely to be damaged when moving or dividing them.  Be sure to water new or transplanted perennials in well, and keep a keen eye on their watering needs to help them adjust to their new home.

Last year's organic mulch can be worked in to the soil to break down further.  Wood chips should not be worked in because they rob your soil of much needed nitrogen.  When you have completed your planting, apply fresh mulch around the plants.  Do not put it up against stems and trunks though or pests and disease could be a problem.

Now sit back and enjoy your efforts and your freshly manicured garden!

March 15, 2011

Color My World

Lady Slipper Orchid
Years ago my grade school friend, Nancy, who also grew up to be a gardener, turned me on to a simple but brilliant idea to get through winter in the Chicagoland area.  Every year at that time she goes somewhere to just "smell soil."  I have made that a part of my winter routine and the benefits are immediate.  From making a trek to the old Jamaican Gardens with it's waterfall surrounded by tropical plants, to just popping into the local plant rental place while running errands, that quick fix really does the soul good.

So I suggested a field trip that would give us those wonderful feelings gained from the smell of fresh soil, the feeling of humidity, and a burst of color.  We went to Orchids By Hausermann in Villa Park. They are famous for their orchid choices and expertise.  Nancy is a regular, but I had never been.  

Hausermann's has several greenhouses full of orchids categorized by species, and a nice selection of sale plants too.  Since we were in between their two open house weekends, they even had an extra greenhouse open with a gorgeous display of varied orchid species.  It reminded me of a Flower & Garden Show display. All throughout there are lovely vignettes with orchids surrounding fountains and garden sculpture.

Open House Display
Not surprisingly, I adopted two orchids to bring home.  Each are Phalaenopsis which is the easiest of the species to grow in your home.  They do not want too much water and they can take our sometimes cooler indoor winter temperatures well.  And they reward you with months of graceful blooms.  A great selection of complementary pots made it fun to pick and choose.  And the salesperson added Spanish Moss and even shined up the foliage for me. 

I asked the gentleman about the connection I had heard of between vanilla and orchids. He told us vanilla comes from a vining orchid called Vanilla planifolia, and kindly pulled one of the plants for us to see.  It is an average looking green vine and will need to grow for a few years before it will bloom.  The flowers have to be hand pollinated to produce vanilla beans.  Now I understand why vanilla can be so costly.

I highly recommend this store for a quick education in orchids, and a wonderful walk through rows of beautiful and sometimes scented specimens. And a bit of fantasy.  Certainly we can all use that during our often dreary Chicago winters.