Category Archives: flowers

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Invasive Balloon Flower Takes Over the Garden

Today I tweeted that it would be good to pull weeds since it had rained buckets for the past few days, thus decreasing the heat and humidity and loosening the soil. For me, the time was ripe to pull an invasive plant from my garden, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). “Balloon flowers?” you say, “but it has such pretty blue flowers and the kids love to pop those inflated buds.” Yes, my kids did like to pop the buds on my original plants as they walked to the front door and yes, they do produce pretty blue flowers on tall stems all summer long. But after 10 years, the kids don’t see them anymore (because their heads are always bent down viewing their iPhones) and the original four have multiplied into hundreds, crowding out my other perennials in my Virginia garden.

original four plants have multiplied on left side of walkway and have tan seed pods (directly across walkway is one balloon flower from front garden bed)

Part of problem is that balloon flowers self-seed very fast. The plants could be deadheaded to prevent self-seeding but this is a nerve racking, time consuming task. Each single seed pod has to be clipped off in order to leave the remaining buds or open blossoms. It is not possible to whack the entire plants down a foot. And part of the problem is that they are deer-resistant, drought-resistant, and generally pest free but the worst part is that balloon flowers have long, large tap roots. Breaking off the stem just encourages more stems to grow from the root. Although it is easier to pull and dig after it rains, I still spent hours pulling and digging to get the whole roots out as much as I could. I suspect I did not dig deep enough though, there probably are pieces in the soil that will rise again like the phoenix.

seeds landed on front strip across walkway (blooming with blue flowers)

Interestingly, I have found little reference to its invasive attribute on the internet. I did learn that the Kitazawa Seed Company catalog sells them and according to their description, the root, called doraji, is used in Korean cuisine. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory to treat colds and is considered a cheap ginseng substitute. The root can be dried and packaged for sale in Asian markets.

Unless you want to grow your own doraji for medicinal or culinary reasons, don’t plant this invasive perennial in your garden no matter how much fun you have popping the balloons.

pulling to reveal tap root

 

Letting Your Herbs Flower to Attract Beneficial Insects

My first guest post for the Herb Society of America’s blog appeared yesterday. I was inspired by the numerous beneficial insects hovering around my herbs in my Virginia garden. Often my herbs flower before I ever get to harvest the leaves but that’s okay because their tiny flowers attract the “good” bugs. If you are interested in growing and learning more about herbs, contact the Herb Society of America (I belong to the local Potomac Unit).

Amazing Lotus Flowers and Water Lilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

On Saturday, I visited the annual water lily and lotus festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The free festival was from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and billed as a family event.  I arrived early to park nearby but there was a shuttle that ferried people from the metro station and other parking lots. The music had already started. There was a stage with a band, plenty of picnic tables, and paper lotus-shaped lanterns strung from trees. People from several local organizations were setting up tables to either inform the public of their organization, offer crafts for kids, sell or make the paper lanterns, try lotus tea, and other activities. Many families brought coolers to eat lunch; later I spied several food trucks parked on the street. Because this is a national park, there is a small gift shop, plenty of bathrooms, and very informative rangers. There also were volunteer from the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens passing out brochures.

I first saw pools of water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and then an interesting collection of cannas. I took many photos with only an iPhone — I had no idea this was THE photographic event. Swarms of professional photographers collected on the banks, setting up tripods and taking photos with large equipment.

Down the trail was a field of the sacred Asian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. There were thousands of blossoms and seed heads with leaves larger than dinner plates. Beyond that were more ponds with water lilies and more lotus. There were many other water loving plants on the paths including buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos),  and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, and plenty of birds were in view and I heard there were beavers, ducks, and herons.

Further out was a boardwalk to the Kenilworth Marsh, the last surviving tidal marsh on the Anacostia River. This wild, natural area gives a glimpse of what the river would have looked like 300 years ago when it was inhabited by Nacotchtank American Indians (Jesuit priests later changed the name to Anacostia).

The Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, located within the Anacostia Park, is the only National Park Service unit dedicated to cultivating water loving plants.  It is comprised of more than 45 ponds filled with a variety of tropical and hardy water lilies, lotus, and other aquatic species. This land was originally owned by Walter B. Shaw, a veteran of the Civil War. He had a clerical position with the U.S. Treasury Department and purchased 30 acres in the 1880’s. He planted water lilies from his hometown in Maine in a pond that was used to make ice. As he built more ponds and grew more water lilies, he developed the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds business. His daughter, Helen, managed the business and traveled the world looking for more varieties of water lilies and lotus. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to dredge the Anacostia River, threatening to destroy the gardens, Congress purchased 8 acres in 1938 to preserve the area and the plants. The National Park Service received the property and renamed the gardens Kenilworth.

Even though the annual festival is over, the water lilies and lotus are still there in full bloom. Visit in the morning as many flowers will close up in the afternoon or when temperatures are above 90 degrees. The hardy water lilies begin blooming in early May and tropical water lilies bloom from early June through early fall. The lotus bloom from late June through the end of August. I overheard a ranger say that they have the giant Amazonian water lily (Victoria trickeri) but the leaves do not reach mature size until September. If you are interested in volunteering  or learning more about their other events, contact the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

In a Vase on Monday: Small Flowered Zinnias and a Surprise Herb

I like to grow different types of zinnias each summer, particularly old-fashioned species. This year I grew a yellow-flowered Peruviana (Zinnia peruviana) and multi-colored Persian Carpet (Zinnia haageana). Tucked in this arrangement is a yellow-flowered herb, can you guess what it is? Here is a clue: This herb grows as a tangled perennial in my zone 7 Virginia garden and is just now blooming in July. #inavaseonmonday

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Four O’Clocks

yellow four o’clocks in my garden, 8:30 pm

When we were at Monticello last summer I was struck by how large Thomas Jefferson’s four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) were compared to mine. I also liked the fact that it was a plant he knew and grew and could still be grown today as an heirloom. Although I had a few small plants in dry, lean soil in full sun, I was inspired to start new plants from seed this year. I planted them in very rich soil, under morning sun and afternoon shade. Yes, Virginia, despite our heat, humidity, and lack of rain, they are growing very well. They are about 2 feet tall with light green leaves and many yellow or pink blossoms.

The only trick is that the flowers do not open in the day. Although they are named for opening at 4:00 pm, mine never do. The tubular blossoms are sensitive to light and temperature and prefer to open during the cool of the evening, usually between 4 and 8 pm, and stay open all night long. Currently we are in the midst of a heat wave so they do not seem to be opening fully.

flower begins to open in evening

Flowers come in pink, white, red, yellow, magenta, or mixed, liked speckled. They are tender perennials which means they will grow as perennials in the south but in my zone 7 garden, I can grow them as annuals that may not overwinter, dig and save the tubers for next year, or start new seed next year. Four o’clocks were cultivated and selected for various colors by the Aztecs prior to the Spanish Conquest. They were then introduced to Spain and England and were in cultivation in Europe for about 200 years before Linnaeus first described the species in 1753. Thomas Jefferson received his from France. In July 1767, exactly 250 years ago to the month, he noted in his journal “Mirabilis just opened, very clever.”

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day occurs on the 15th of the month. Garden bloggers from around the world post their articles about blossoms in their garden.

pink four o’clocks at Monticello, early afternoon

In a Vase on Monday: Black-Eyed Susans

During the Garden Bloggers Fling, I had the opportunity to get to know Susie Moffat who mentioned that Cathy at Rambling in the Garden posts a photo of flowers in a vase on Mondays and calls it “In a Vase on Monday.” Other bloggers chime in and post photos of their vases of flowers on Monday. Usually I cut flowers in my garden and bring them to the office but I just stick them in a vase; I don’t “arrange.” By Friday they have passed their prime so I do it all over again the next week. For today, July 10, I have black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta. They are very easy to grow in my Virginia garden and they are the state flower for Maryland where I work.  #inavaseonmonday