So that’s where Metamucil comes from

This is plantain, also known as Plantago major, and it pops up everywhere in my yard this time of year. It’s hard to dig out, it spreads like topsy, it gets really really big, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. The only plus side to plantain comes when it grows in other people’s yards far away from mine, or even better, on athletic fields, where you can pick the long flower stems and make a loop in them and “shoot” the pine-cone-like seed capsules at your kids.

But apparently, unbeknownst to me, plantain has another, very vital use in this world. The seed husks, when you add water, expand and turn into gluey mush. So the plantain Plantago psyllium is used to make the laxative and fiber supplement Metamucil. And far beyond mere regularity, new research indicates it may be efficacious in treating diabetes and in lowering cholesterol levels.(Numerous cultures, including American Indian and Indian, have used plantains for centuries to treat bowel woes of various sorts.)

It was also one of the ingredients in the “Nine Plant Charm” described in a 10th-century English pagan recipe, and scientists are studying its possible use to reduce the output of methane gas from herds of cattle. Who knew?

But still. The stuff is a pain in my ass.

Photo by Lorsh

Monarch of the backyard

Yesterday I mowed the lawn and weeded, despite the 100-degree temperatures AGAIN! Man oh man, global warming is real on the East Coast this summer. But at least I was entertained in my endeavors by three of these beauties who kept darting and fluttering around the yard. I was so excited to see them! They really were highly entertaining. I watched them approach different flowers to see if they could snag a snack from them. You could sort of sense their disappointment when it didn’t work out. They seemed very fond of the sweet peas, had no interest whatsoever in the calendula, loved the phlox, and were more or less indifferent to the zinnias. My echinacea isn’t open yet, but I think the monarchs will like them, too. Apparently they’re most fond of milkweed, but I’m not getting into that. I have been thinking of getting a butterfly bush, though I’m not sure where I’d put it. There’s one in the neighborhood that I lust after; it’s more like a butterfly tree, really, with purple flowers. I watch for it to bloom every year.

Oddly enough, while I spent the afternoon admiring my monarchs, I spent the morning solving a mystery. I’d planted a smallish planter with some nasturtium seeds—’Alaska,’ the variety with the variegated foliage—encircling a nice fat bulb of elephant ear. You have to have the patience of Job with elephant ear around here. I planted it in late April, and the first leaf is only now unfolding. But it’s the nasturtiums that were making me crazy. SOMETHING was eating them, methodically and daily. I thought it might be the neighborhood bunny, but it seemed a pretty high reach for him/her. I thought maybe bugs, but I hadn’t noticed any on the plants. But the poor things looked like skeletons, with the new leaves eaten away every morning. So yesterday, I pulled the planter out into the sunlight and took a long, hard look. And there they were: two slim caterpillars, the exact shade of green of the stems. I think they’re white cabbage moth caterpillars, from what I can tell. I pinched them off and … well, I squished them. With a boot. To save my nasturtiums. I did think of Gandhi when I did it, but Gandhi wasn’t a gardener, I don’t think. So—sorry, greater universe and lifeforce. But nobody eats my nasturtiums. Nobody.

Photo by Louise Docker licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license.

Dead plant guilt

Okay, so regular readers know I’m a trial gardener for Proven Winners, which every spring sends me a big-ass box of annuals, perennials and shrubs to assay in my garden. The box’s arrival is always one of the highlights of my year. But with plant excitement cometh plant anxiety–what if my trial plants DIE? It’s one thing if they arrive dead; then you simply check off a box on a form and send it back. But what if you dutifully plant them, and then they … die?

I’m having this little problem, you see.

One of the plants Proven Winners sent this year was an anisodontea hybrid, ‘Slightly Strawberry.’ I had my suspicions to begin with, because who’s ever heard of a plant called anisodontea? And why are we hybridizing it if I’ve never heard of it? (Okay, okay–there’s a very brief listing on Wikipedia; it’s a member of the mallow family. This is also kind of scary, because the last thing I planted that was a member of the mallow family was Malva sylvestris, and it has proven a) unattractive; and b) impossible to eradicate, as it self-seeds at the drop of a hat.)

But my anisodontea–and of course Proven Winners sent me THREE plants–while advertised as “drought tolerant and easy to grow,” has, ahem, not. Grown, that is. Or even, really, survived. And it’s supposed to be a big, hardy thing, two to three feet tall and with an 18-inch spread. Too bad–I could have used something like that in the back of my bed. But I believe my anisondontea arrived infected with some sort of bug. (Though I have to admit, my Superbells ‘Blackberry Punch’ are pretty much browned out, too.) That’s a first for Proven Winners, in my experience, and I guess at some point I’m going to have to confess. I’m just glad it wasn’t a plant I was looking forward to more eagerly.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® provenwinners.com.

Oh, sweet pea …

Won’t you dance with me? Was there ever a flower as downright flirty as the sweet pea? Despite the crushing East Coast heat, these babies–a combination of types from Renee’s Garden Seeds including Saltwater Taffy Swirls and Perfume Delight—are making me happy every single morning, when I go out to pick myself a new bouquet. (Okay, sometimes I wait two days between bouquets to let the flowers open. But still–what an abundance of happiness!) And here’s today’s version, on my kitchen table.

When I first started growing sweet peas, I was a little disappointed that the flowers weren’t as big as I imagined when I saw them in the seed catalogs. Now I wouldn’t have them any other way but dainty and petite. This little bouquet serves to perfume my entire kitchen with the indescribable scent of these beauties. It’s a little like orange flowers, a little like lily of the valley, a little like tuberose, but really a joy all its own.

And they’re so easy to grow for me! I know, they’re supposed to be all finicky and temperamental, but I swear, I plant the seeds on St. Patrick’s Day every year and pick flowers from mid-June on. It’s true that you have to keep the flowers picked; get lazy, and the flowers will go to seed and peter out. It’s also true–and strange, if you think about it–that the stems of the flowers get shorter as the summer goes on. The first flowers I pick have gorgeous long stems, as much as nine or 10 inches, but by the end of summer, I’m sticking two-inch stumps in a vase. Still, I’m willing for that gorgeous elusive scent, and for the flowers’ unmistakably feminine allure. If I had it to do over again, I’d have had a wedding bouquet of sweet peas. Speaking of which, one of the reasons they’re so appealing is that I’ve never, ever seen them offered by a florist. They’re too ephemeral, I guess. So grow your own!

A lack of portulaca

I can’t say enough about portulaca–about the gorgeous rich colors, the satiny texture of the flowers, the tenacity of those funny-looking little plants, which seem to grow in just about anything–sand, concrete, you name it. For years now, my portulaca have self-seeded, most conveniently right up against the sidewalk along my back garden, which is exactly where you want portulaca, since they only grow about two inches tall. This year: no portulaca. Weird, because this hot, dry weather is just what they seem to thrive on. I don’t know if I did too good a job of pre-digging the bed up or what, but there are none to be seen. 😦

Fortunately, today I stopped at a farmer’s market, thinking to buy some local fruit and maybe a melon. It turned out to be one of those farmers’ markets that don’t actually sell local produce, at least not this early in the season, although I did snag what I’m pretty sure is an actual local cucumber. (No wax.) HOWEVER! There were portulaca. For sale. Half-price. Which made them 75 cents a six-pack. And even though they’re more like four-packs, frankly, I can’t really fit much more in my garden, at least not in front. (The back is another story. Hope those half-price zinnias I stuck in really do branch out.)

So, I was already counting it my lucky day on account of having bought three six-packs of portulaca for the low, low price of $2.25 when, just along the time when I was thinking I’d go to the pool, the heavens opened and a regular brief but intense deluge took care of all the watering for me! And then the Phillies went on to win their game. And South Africa defeated France in the World Cup. My cup runneth over! I love working in my garden, but I find standing there with a hose and watering it as boring as hell.

Photo by Frank Vincenz licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Midsummer madness

Yesterday was the solstice, and my Druidish heart was very glad to see photos online of  pagans frolicking around at Stonehenge. You go, pagans! My favorite photo was of something known as the Mari Lwyd, or “Grey Mare” in Wales, a skeletal horse’s head that’s ribbon-bedecked and otherwise decorated festively and carried around from house to house at Christmastime. Granted, Midsummer’s Eve is the direct opposite of Christmas, but if you had one of these in your attic, wouldn’t you seize every possible opportunity to take it out? The pagans’ midsummer gathering at Stonehenge used to be spontaneous, but now I understand you have to get a numbered permit to get on the grounds, because of some regrettable heathen rowdiness a few years back.

Someday I hope to make it to Stonehenge to check it all out. My peeps hail from that part of England, so I feel a certain kinship. Meantime, I understand perfectly well why folks would want to celebrate at this time of year. The long summer days, the gardens stuffed and overflowing with beautiful flowers, the end of school (yay!), and a whole host of graduation parties for my son’s graduating class have all combined into a heady sort of delirium hereabouts. So haul out those horses’ heads, and let’s get crazy! After all, midsummer comes but once a year.

Shirley you love poppies …

I really feel I need to apologize to any faithful readers who—well, who just don’t give a damn about poppies. Because I am, at the moment, in total poppy heaven, and since it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone NOT loving poppies, I’m just going to go ahead and keep taking photos of them and posting about them for as long as they’re blooming. So there.

This is the first of my Shirley poppies to bloom. When I first began gardening, I thought they were called “Shirley poppies” because they’re so frilly and girly. Hah. Turns out they’re called Shirley poppies because they were originally bred by a proper British vicar, the Reverend William Wilks, of the parish of Shirley, England. He found a variant form of the wild red “corn poppy” growing in one of his garden beds near what the Brits call a “corn” field but for us would be a wheat field. The variant had a white rim around it. Wilks, one of that diligent group of 1800s genetic plant pioneers, painstakingly bred and crossbred its seeds to develop a strain without the black blotch at the center in colors ranging from white to pink to purple and red.

Shirley poppies may be my favorites of all poppies. Oh, I should not say that! I love all my poppies equally, really I do. Each day, whatever has bloomed is my favorite. But this pretty lady struck me as particularly graceful and lacy, so I snapped her. There was a slight breeze, which kicked up her skirts like Marilyn Monroe’s. 🙂

A proper poppy

The first of my maybe-opium poppies opened two days ago, but it was so windy that half the petals blew away before I could get out the back door to seem it! It was a very strange-looking flower, with the petals deeply fringed. I wouldn’t say it was especially attractive, but it was eye-catching. This beauty, however, is Take Two of the maybe-0pium poppies, and I think it’s lovely. (You can see Take Three, a purply version, in the background to the right.) I love the way the big, heavy buds hang on loops of stem–you can see one at the very bottom of the photo–and then straighten up once they open up.

Sometimes my love for poppies blinds me to the fact that as flowers go, they’re pretty ephemeral. Or maybe it’s that their ephemeralness (ephemerality?) is what makes me love them so. Now I face a true dilemma. I usually deadhead poppies to keep the flowers coming. But if I want my own poppy seeds from these puppies, I’m going to have to forego some later show. Hmmm … have to think about this one for a while … Either way, it’s going to be a testament to delayed gratification!

Looking out my front door

Okay, it’s not the greatest photo in the world, largely because I took it my own self, with my cell phone. But it marks a media milestone! It’s the first time I’ve managed to send myself a photo I took–up until now, I’ve asked my son to do it. So I am feeling all mighty at the moment, and will even get to post a photo of Jake with those sunflowers I wrote about later on! But for now, I’d like to talk about how insanely happy this planter makes me every time I see it. I planted it with two ‘Nonstop’ tuberous begonias from Home Depot, one lovely sky-blue lobelia, also from Home Depot, purple and a light-green sweet-potato vines from Home Depot, and one of the coleus sent me to trial by Proven Winners: Colorblaze® ‘Alligator Tears.’ I’m not sure why this combination works so well for me, but I think it has to do with the many different shapes and weights of leaves–the sword-sharp, thick begonias, the soft heart-shaped vines, the two-tone coleus, the tiny lobelia foliage–and the colors of those begonias against the warm red brick of the house. When I bought them, I was worried they were too close in color, and that the pinks would clash. But that ain’t happening! And every time I come up from front steps, which on an average day is about 18 times, I get a big smile on my face just from looking at this planter. 🙂

Um … opium?

So, I ordered some seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds in the spring, for a variety of poppy called ‘Heirloom Pepperbox.’ The draw, besides the word “heirloom,” which I’m always a complete sucker for, is that you can get poppy seeds from these poppies. (The sketch also showed a very pretty single poppy in shades of red, pink and purple, like the photo above.) I adore poppy seeds and envisioned myself making yeast breads from scratch and adorning them with my homegrown poppy seeds.

My ‘Pepperboxes’ are right on the verge of blooming–the buds are full and round and drooping on fragile stems. The stems and leaves are an interesting shade of pale gray-green. I think I’m going to love these poppies–IF they ever bloom. Those teasing buds have kept me waiting and waiting … for so long that today, out of curiosity, I looked “poppy seed” up on Wikipedia and discovered … that poppy seeds come from opium poppies.

Already I hear police sirens in the distance.

The Renee’s listing makes no mention of this alternate use for ‘Pepperbox.’ It just so happens I’m the owner of a 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that has extremely detailed instructions on how to extract opium from opium poppies and then refine it into heroin. (Those Brits. They did love to share valuable knowledge. There are even lots of helpful photos.) So I’m wondering, just idly, not actually with any criminal intent–could I get opium from my poppy pods?

I remember reading a news clipping years ago about a grandmother in Oregon who was prosecuted by police for growing opium poppies. Her defense was that they were simply an heirloom variety she’d been growing, and saving seed from, for decades. I can’t remember what became of her. But if this blog ends abruptly, scan the local papers for news about a law-abiding citizen who was caught growing opium poppies in her backyard!

Photo by Alvesgaspar licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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