Tag Archives: horticulture

Featured Plant: Maxillaria tenuifolia

maxillaria tenuifoliaMaxillaria tenuifolia, also known as the Coconut Orchid. It has a strong fragrance (especially when it first opens) which smells like just like coconut suntan lotion. This species of orchid was discovered near Veracruz, Mexico by Karl Theodore Hartweg, a German botanist who collected plants throughout Mexico, Central America, and California, in the 1830s and 40s. It grows at low elevations from Mexico to Central America.

maxillaria tenuifoliaOrchids in the genus Maxillaria are not difficult to grow. The hard part is believing that they can get by with so little water! They like humidity but not wet soil. Because they are epiphytes,  they can be grown mounted on bark or branches, or in coarse, well draining substrates such as pine bark or small stones, mixed with a little bit of potting soil. Bright indirect light is best. Maxillaria tenuifolia is propagated by the division of the pseudobulbs which you can see at the base of the leaves, growing from the creeping rhizome. The overall plant appears a bit straggly but looks nice in a hanging basket.

maxillaria tenuifoliaCoconut Orchid has long strappy grasslike leaves, and the flowers are hidden in among the foliage. They are dark red to rust-colored, with a speckled lip. They are only about an inch and a half in diameter, but the fragrance is wonderful and delicious.

maxillaria tenuifolia







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/ Princess Flower


Mimosa / Sensitive Plant








Justicia carnea / Plume Flower


Polypodium Fern

Why We Love Rhododendrons

rhododendronAn early explorer of Narragansett Bay, Giovanni da Verrazzano, saw the islands covered with Rhododendrons and was reminded of the Mediterranean Isle of Rhodes… or so goes one of our beloved mythologies of how our little state came to be named Rhode Island. Another story says that Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer for whom Block Island is named, referred to a “red island” in Narragansett Bay, Roodt Eylant in Dutch. Either way, we love Rhododendrons.

rhododendronThere are native Rhododendrons, R. maximum, in the understory of wooded areas all over the state. Tales are told that these groves of Rhododendrons were so big in colonial times that a person could become lost in them! The Ell and Long Pond area in Hopkinton has huge Rhodies which give a hint of this possibility.


Photo by Lauren Weeks

The cultivated Rhododendrons are also very much at home in our maritime climate. They thrive here, for the most part, and are widely planted as ornamentals. Their incredible tropical flowers are a big part of the late spring/early summer landscape, and I love seeing them as we approach the longest days of the year.

rhododendronRhodies come in a wide spectrum of colors. There are probably thousands of different pinks, along with whites of every variety, and purples from light to dark and approaching blue. There are some warm tones, like the deep red ‘Francesca’, and even orange and yellow, which are not often seen around here. Sometimes Rhododendron flower buds are a different color than the open flower. All have a splotch or eye which is sometimes highly contrasting with the flower color and sometimes barely visible.


Photo by Lauren Weeks


Photo by Lauren Weeks

Shallow-rooted, Rhodies like moist soil but not “wet feet”. They like a little bit of shade, being an understory plant. They will grow in full shade but flower more with some sun. They prefer acid soil, with good organic matter, and don’t like to dry out. They are mostly evergreen, with leathery long deep green leaves (although this varies from one species to another). Like other evergreens, they are susceptible to “winter kill” leaf damage when the ground is frozen. Planting in an area protected from strong winter winds helps prevent this.


Photo by Lauren Weeks

Being well adapted to our climate (zone 6-6A), many Rhodies grow fast. And what many home gardeners don’t realize is that they can be cut back hard. How hard? Down to little stumps! I love to tell bore students with the story of how my first job at East Farm was to cut down the Rhododendrons along the fence leading to the gate. I was horrified but they came back better than ever. So if they are covering the first floor windows of your house, don’t be afraid to cut back, AFTER they flower.

rhododendronThere are thousands of Rhododendron species around the world, native to environments  from the tropics to the Himalayas. There are a multitude of hybrids and cultivars, especially if you count Azaleas, which are Rhododendrons (that’s another post). Most likely there is one you can grow at your house! The best way to find the right Rhododendron for your climate would be to visit your local nursery or greenhouse.


Photo by Lauren Weeks





May Time

There are very few blog entries for May in the archives. There is so much to do it makes my head spin, but the garden is positively enchanting at this time of year! Here’s a look at what is happening right now:

ericaceous garden

Azaleas and Rhododendrons blooming together.

Ruth May Azalea

‘Ruth May’ Azalea –interesting color…

Geisha azalea

‘Geisha’ Azalea, one of my favorites, just because.

Davidia involucrata

The flowers of the Dove Tree / Davidia involucrata.


Bright red new growth on Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’.

Calycanthus floridus

Woody flowers of Carolina Allspice / Calycanthus floridus.

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Cold-hardy banana (Musa basjoo) survived the winter!


Also looking good after a very tough winter: Opuntia humifusa, the Eastern Prickly Pear, native to RI.

shady side

Shade garden…Solomon’s Seal and more coming up through a carpet of Sweet Woodruff / Galium odoratum.

Featured Plant: Justicia brandegeeana

Here is the “Shrimp Plant”, Justicia brandegeeana, blooming in the Conservatory. I’ve never seen it looking so good!Justicia brandegeeanaThis Justicia is native to Mexico. It likes soil with lots of organic matter, lots of moisture, and partial shade. It tends to be leggy and brittle but responds very well to pruning to keep it in shape.  As an added bonus, the pruned cuttings are easy to root.

Justicia brandegeeanaThe flowers are the thin white petals with maroon speckles which you can see hanging from the very showy bracts.  (Clearly the bracts are what gives it the name Shrimp Plant!) The Shrimp Plant will bloom on and off all year round. It is not hardy here in Rhode Island but  makes a good houseplant since it does not need full sun and tolerates a bit of neglect. It will also grow well outside in a large container, where it will attract hummingbirds.

Justicia brandegeeanaThe Shrimp Plant is in the Acanthaceae family. The genus Justicia is named for James Justice, an 18th Century Scottish horticulturist. The species honors the American botanist Townsend Brandegee, who lived from 1843 to 1925.

At the End of the Year

For the last blog of the year here are a few favorite pictures from 2013. Some of them are of beautiful things and some of them just make me smile, like the picture of all the seedlings coming up for the plant sale.  Happy New Year!

Jan 24 2013 012

January 24th 2013, frost patterns on the glass inside the Conservatory. Temperature outside was -3 F.

blizzard 2013

February 8th, 2013, the Blizzard left about 18 inches (?) of snow in South County and damaged many, many trees

hamamelis/witch hazel

March , signs of spring!

seedlings in greenhouse

April, seedlings for plant sale.

solomon seal


May is glorious!

June, midsummer, green.

June, midsummer, green.

July, full of colors.

July, full of colors.



August 8 2013-012

sedum 'Autumn Joy'


PLS 351

October–fall is the best time to plant!

dahlia tubers

November, putting away the dahlias for the winter.



Good Help Is….

I was thumbing through a copy of “The New Organic Grower” by Eliot Coleman the other day. (This little book, which was published in 1989, is worth a read, just for attitude!) What caught my eye was: “A good employee who is familiar with your operation is worth three who are not.” Obviously this is true, and it is one of the  challenges of working in an educational setting. Students come and go! I have often wished I could just hire a particular student to work with me as a regular employee, but that’s not how it is. They work part time, in between classes. They take time off during exams (first week of May–how inconvenient!). They find jobs “at home” and move away. They graduate!

This year, I have been really fortunate to have great students working with me, and plenty of help. I have three volunteers, and three student employees. A few of them worked with me last year and that is where the work that goes into training a new employee really pays off –when they stay and become the one who is “familiar with your operation”. So, let me introduce them and their answers to the question “What do you like about working in the Gardens/Greenhouse?”

laurenLauren is a senior from South Kingstown, RI, studying Studio Art with a double minor in Horticulture and Italian (!). She was an intern at the Phipps Conservatory last summer, came back to URI in September offering to volunteer at the Gardens, and was quickly offered a student employee position. Lauren said, “I like working at the greenhouse because it is very rewarding and I learn things every time I’m here.” She is a fearless slayer of insects.

AdamAdam is a junior from Cumberland, RI, studying Horticulture. He came to the Greenhouse looking for a job, any job, decided he liked it, and stayed. Adam said, “I like working at the Garden, because, along with providing work that is rewarding, it gives me a place to “escape” to. Devoid of the typical hustle and bustle sensibilities, it lets me be myself and work with very interesting people who I thoroughly enjoy and respect.” If you see Adam, ask him what’s on the ipod.

denniseDennise is a senior from Pawtucket, RI, studying Animal Science, pre-Vet. She is a dedicated volunteer who also volunteers with the Biocontrol program here at the greenhouse. Dennise said, “For all the years I’ve spent at URI, the Garden has served as an escape from the madness that surrounds college life. It reminds me to sit still and be patient because, not unlike the foliage surrounding those weathered but sturdy benches, growth takes time. Every seed planted holds a promise of a new beginning, if given the proper care. This is why it is an honor for me to be a part of a process that reminds me to continue to grow despite rough weather. In the classroom, we are constantly urged to “wake up and smell the coffee”, but I’ve found it far more rewarding to “stop and smell the flowers”.”  In addition to animals and plants, Dennise loves music and plays the piano.

benBen is a sophomore from South Kingstown, RI, studying Landscape Architecture. He spent last summer working 60-70 hours a week for a high end landscaping company near Albany, NY. Ben said, “I like learning about the care and maintenance of plants in the greenhouse setting. It gives me a lot of real world experience that I don’t find in the classroom.” He is planning to start his own landscape construction business.

samanthaSamantha is a junior from Washington, DC, studying Environmental Science. She began volunteering last year and came back again in September to continue. Samantha said, “Volunteering at the Greenhouse is a great way to learn more about plants and how to complete tasks like propagating and pruning. It is also a way for me to decompress and take a break from my stressful week.” Samantha came to Rhode Island hoping for more snowy, wintery winters than in Washington.

As I was beginning this post, another volunteer, Emily, told me that she wouldn’t be able to come in any more until next semester. I know, school comes first, that’s why you are here! So a special thanks to all of you who help us keep the Gardens and Greenhouses looking good and running smoothly.