Category Archives: Conservation

Ramble: Echinacea, and the Bees

EchinaceaDear Readers, It was REALLY hard to write about Echinacea and stay on topic! There was an idea running through my head which I tried to pin down for you, but so many intriguing subjects popped up. Herbal medicine, ethnobotanical uses of the plant, wildlife food value, stories about plant breeders, plant marketing, “snake oil salesmen”, morphology of the Asteraceae, scanning electron microscope photos of pollen…

Echinacea — a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the Asteraceae family. Commonly called Coneflowers, there are 9 species in the genus (according to USDA PLANTS) and they are endemic to Eastern and Central North America. The word Echinacea comes from a Greek word meaning “spiny”, (as in Echinoidea, the word for sea urchin,  ) and refers to the stiff, bristly center disk of the flower.

EchinaceaEchinacea is a great perennial garden plant. It is tough, drought tolerant, cold tolerant, and not invasive! They are impressively able to hold their own against insects and diseases as well. Three species —Echinacea purpureaEchinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida, have been utilized in creating new garden cultivars. There have been so many cultivars released in the past 10-12 years that it’s hard to keep track. One website I checked had 28, and another lists 53!

Echinacea trialThere are a few Echinaceas which can be started from seed in January to flower the first season. ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is one. This is unusual in a perennial plant and lots of fun for the gardener! Seeds for the All- America Selections Display Garden have arrived and they include the appealing ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ Echinacea cultivar. It’s shorter and stockier than the species Echinaceas, which can be 3 or even 4 feet tall. It is a rainbow of warm color tones, rich orangey red, paler orange, yellow, gold, pink, and cream. A sturdy little plant with long-lasting pretty flowers –what could be better?

EchinaceaWell…

It’s not so busy in the garden and I have been thinking a lot and reading a lot about honey bees, being a beekeeper as well as a gardener. Everyone knows that it is hard times for the bees! Diseases, mites, lack of forage, and chemicals of all kinds are combining to take their toll.  Last year I observed that bees and other pollinators love Echinacea purpurea, which we have here in the garden. But the ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ and other recent cultivars had no pollinators visiting them. Like many flowers that have been “engineered” for certain qualities by plant breeders, they may no longer be particularly attractive to insects.

butterfly on echinacea“…When it comes to ornamental flowers, plant breeders select for beauty. What you lose in this process are many of the characteristics that made the flower attractive to pollinators in the first place. By selecting only for beauty, for example, you may lose fragrance, sweet nectar, nutritious pollen—or any number of things that the pollinators liked. This loss of pollinator-attracting features … happens in all sorts of flowers from roses to pansies. It is the main reason why people interested in planting native bee habitat or wild pollinator habitat are encouraged to plant either native species or heirloom species that have not been highly manipulated. The important thing to remember is that the flowers most attractive to humans are often not those most attractive to pollinators.” (From “Who Pollinates the Daffodils?” by Rusty Berlew of Honey Bee Suite. Read the original article here.)

echinaceaIt seems to me that much has been lost in this type of “improvement”.  I am certainly not against improvement; for example, some hybrid vegetables have a welcome place in my garden. Disease resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance; these are plant “improvements” that we probably could not live without. And I am not against beauty, but I think in this case I find the beauty in Nature and her system of plants and pollinators who go hand-in-hand.

honey bee on echinaceaTo conclude, I will just say that I don’t want “beautiful” to outweigh “useful” in my garden. I want both! I would love to know what plants and varieties you find attractive to honeybees and other pollinators in your gardens. And another day I will fill you in on some of those other topics which distracted me today.

 

Real Rain

That’s what everybody here is walking around saying, with a smile and a grateful look at the gray skies. Yes, it’s been quite a while. I like having a rain day to focus on the greenhouse, dividing and potting up plants, rearranging, cleaning up, and taking cuttings. Here are some greenhouse plants which caught my eye today.

Tibouchina

Tibouchina/ Princess Flower

Mimosa

Mimosa / Sensitive Plant

Anthurium

Anthurium

Canna

Canna

Cactus

Cactus–unlabeled!

Justicia

Justicia carnea / Plume Flower

Polypodium

Polypodium Fern

Featured Plant: Mountain Laurel

Yesterday, I was doing my best to have a real day off.  Most of the family (missing the one off at college!) was home so we cranked up the woodstove against the damp chill and sat around. I did some knitting but then true to form got restless and had to head outside. Bundled up, I walked through the back and out around the edge of the turf fields. Then up along the side of one pond and away from the road to head to the edge of another pond deep in the woods. Most of this area between the ponds is filled with Mountain Laurel. What a beautiful plant! With so many trees bare of leaves, this lovely evergreen shrub with twisting branches really stood out in yesterday’s dull overcast light.

kalmia latifoliaKalmia latifolia is an Ericaceous plant native to the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida. In my mind it is associated with Rhododendrons (and they are closely related), but Mountain Laurel generally grows at higher elevations and tolerates drier soil.  It is a slow-growing understory shrub here, although farther south it does reach tree size. Kalmia flowers in late May/early June, often heavily. The flowers  of the native species range from white to pink, with variable red markings.

kalmia latifolia

photo courtesy of Connecticut Botanical Society

kalmia latifolia

photo courtesy Janet Novak

Spring time and flowers are far off, but even in winter, I find Kalmia beautiful. As the PlantFinder says, it’s a

…”Superior flowering native shrub for groups or massing in shrub borders, cottage gardens, woodland areas or wild/naturalized areas. Compliments rhododendrons and azaleas.”

In any area with acidic soil, some moisture, and a bit of shade, it will do well. In the swampy woods of southern Rhode Island, it’s a treat to see even on the greyest day.

mountain laurel

Out the Window

On the north end of the greenhouses is the Greenhouse Building. I have a desk there in the room we call “The Lab”, even though it’s not really being used as a lab any more. It is full of plants, odds and ends, equipment used for the Plant Propagation class, pictures of plants, and the engraver. It’s my home base.

The window in the lab faces north, toward Flagg Road and the “North Woods”. There’s an arborvitae up against the building, which is full of birds, partly blocking the view. But here’s some of what I can see:lawn behind greenhousebehind greenhouse

trees behind greenhousedriveway behind greenhousee

I just want to let you know that it’s all going to be paved. If you read this post from January, or this one from August, you know that I am not really a “tree hugger”. Sometimes trees need to be cut down — I’ve got no problem with that. But if you read this post from November, you’ll know how I feel about paving open space for no good reason. (The destruction of URI’s Agronomy Research Farm for parking came at a time when the number of small (tiny) farms in RI is actually growing…and here’s a picture of that parking lot at 11:30 AM on Monday September 9. First full week of classes.)

parking lot

Looking Northwest.

parking lot

From Plains Road.

Somebody thinks the area behind the greenhouse is needed for more parking. Between the 30 or so paved acres at the bottom of Kingston Hill and the 10 at the top behind the Fine Arts building, haven’t we done enough damage? Isn’t it time to think about at the very least, a parking garage instead of more asphalt sprawl — or consider the bigger picture of adequate public transportation?

sweet gum tree

Sweet Gum (Liquidamber) behind the Greenhouse Building.

Each day when I turn on my computer and open up URI’s homepage, I see the words “green” and “sustainable”. I’m not buying it.