Monday, March 29, 2010

Hamamelis virginiana

Although witchhazel is an 'official' drug, there seems to be little agreement on it uses or efficacy. According to my book, written about 25 years ago, there are approximately a million gallons of witch-hazel produced every year in the U.S.
This is a native American plant which grows in moist, light woods everywhere except the far west. It is a large shrub/small tree that gets to be about 15 feet tall. This is a fall blooming plant, unlike the other witchhazels we grow that bloom in late winter or early spring. Just when everything else is finishing up for the season, Hamamelis virginiana is just getting started.
To use it, a tea is made from the leaves or bark. It is very astringent, which is probably why my mother swore by it for all sorts of bumps and bruises when we were little. It is also supposed to be good for getting rid of the itch in insect bites. I always found it very cool and soothing, but mostly I just love the scent - a very pleasant memory from childhood.
We have several of these growing in the gardens and they are definitely carefree. Once planted, they just sort of take care of themselves. Other than making sure they get enough water the first year, you won't have to do much. We have never had problems with insects of other pests. Flower color is almost exclusively yellow one these, unlike the spring blooming kinds.
I've not gotten in too much gardening over the past few days what with the cold and rain, but tomorrow promises to be sunny, so I hope I can spend the whole day just playing in the dirt.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Geranium maculatum

Also known as Cranesbill Geranium or Wild Geranium. The photo is a 'tame' version, but the looks are about the same. The wild ones here in the woods have lavender flowers and plain green leaves, but this would let you identify one if you ran across it.
It is a fairly good sized plant, making a mound of foliage about 18 inches tall. It grows in rich woods in the Eastern United States and Canada, about as far south as Georgia.
Medicinally, the leaves are gathered and dried to use in an infusion as a mild astringent. The infusions of the leaves are said to also be useful as a gargle for sore throat and for ulcerated mouth. The leaves are collected just before the plant flowers and when the tannin content is at hits highest.
As far as the garden variety goes, I had tried on many years ago without much success and so I avoided them as 'difficult'. That couldn't be farther from the truth. They are easy to grow, quickly forming a clump, and they flower freely starting in the spring with a full bloom, and then sproadically over the summer. Flower colors include the lavender of the wild version plus a variety of pastels including some with splashes of a second color on the petals. These are highly recommended and I will continue to add new ones to the gardens as I find places for them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gaultheria procumbens

I just love this plant, though it is really hard to grow. It will go along well for awhile and then suddenly die (at least in my garden). I finally found a semi-shady spot where it had formed a large clump - and then a rabbit ate it off to the ground over the winter and it never came back. I've ordered a bunch of it for this year and will try again. We've been using Milorganite as a fertilizer/rabbit and deer repellent and that seems to be working.
Besides being a pretty garden plant - shiny evergreen leaves, white flowers, red berries - it is also listed in my medicinal plant book. Teaberry, Partridgeberry, Boxberry, Checkerberry, Wintergreen, Pigeon Berry and other are common names. I had always known it as wintergreen, though true wintergreen is another plant all together and I wrote about it awhile back. It is often found in the wild in the areas where rhododendron and laurel grow. It flowers in July and the berries persist over the winter, or until eaten. The leaves contain oil of wintergreen which is extracted through distillation. The active ingredient is methyl salicylate. It is considered valuable as a tonic, stimulant, astringent and aromatic, and the extracted oil is used to treat rheumatism. This is hardly a home remedy because of the equipment needed to process the leaves. It is most often used now as a flavoring to cover up undesirable flavors.
This is certainly a plant worth growing, especially because it gives some green in the garden in the winter when it is definitely lacking, especially in the perennial beds. Just be sure to protect it from the bunnies.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poison Ivy

What a lovely topic. Well, it is a plant and it does (unfortunately) grow in my garden. The photo above shows the leaves and berries. The berries look sort of like mistletoe berries, just a little smaller and appear in the fall after the flowers. The reason I decided to write about poison ivy is that I have my first bit of it on my arms. I was doing some weeding on Sunday afternoon and pulled out what I at first thought was some Vinca, but once it was out, was pretty sure it was a runner from poison ivy. Guess I was right. I don't think I touched it except with my gloves, but the oil is just amazing in its ability to spread all over. Even a little pull on the runners, even though you don't realize it, can spray a fine mist of the oil onto your skin. Luckily I have just 2 small spots, one on each arm, so it isn't bad this time. When I was younger, I could roll in the stuff and not get it, a lovely thing I inherited from my father who never got it. In my mid 20s, about the time I started having pollen allergies, I also began to be allergic to poison ivy. Hank is not allergic, and so he is is responsible for removing any that is where it shouldn't be (which is just about any place)
The fall color is pretty nice so it's a shame we can't use it as an ornamental. I'm told that there is a variegated form that has been developed in Japan. I'm not sure I'd want it here even though I'm a sucker for any new variegated plant.
I'll skip all of the things you can find about the plant with a web search. I'll just add the best solution to the itch that I've ever found. Forget all of the pink stuff and expensive ointments. The best thing to get rid of the itch is hot water. Hard to believe, but it works. And older woman (well, she seemed older when I was in my 20s) told me this trick. It's best on hands or feet where you can just put the affected part into water that is as hot as you can stand - the hotter the better, even if you can only just dip into the water for a second at a time at first. On other parts of the body, a hot washcloth will work. Just keep the itchy part in the hot water for a little while past when the itch stops. This usually works for me for at least 12 hours. I find that if I just do dishes in really hot water twice a day, I have no problems with the itch. It just dries up and goes away in a couple of days. Really easy, cheap and effective.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cyclamen neapolitanum

A lovely, but somewhat strange plant that I just love having in my garden. The leaves come out in the fall and last through the winter. I covered mine with a spruce branch this past winter and I'm glad I did because it kept the snow from flattening the leaves. Leaves and flowers are not necessarily out at the same time.
This plant is also known by the name of Cyclamen hederifolium, which is the more proper name.
It is native to the Mediterranean region - Southern France, Italy, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, etc.
The flowers look just like the fancy florist types that won't live in our gardens around here. These, although they originate in places that are warmer than here in our zone 6 garden, are perfectly hardy here and will survive even in zone 4 with protection. It will grow in full sun or partial shade and even beneath trees. I have a clump in sun and one in shade and I do think the shady one is happier and has expanded quite a bit more than the sunny clump. A woodsy soil is best.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Iris for early Spring

These are not the large irises of summer, though the later ones have nothing on these in terms of colors and patterns. The difference is that these are all less than 6 inches tall. They bloom with the earliest of the crocuses, just after the snowdrops. This first is one that we've grown for many years. They hang around for awhile, and then disappear. Since they're not expensive, we just buy a few every couple of years so we always have some. The name is Iris danfordiae. They are pretty much all yellow, with only a tiny bit of pattern. Grow them in full sun with excellent drainage.
This next one is one of my favorites with a most unusualy color. They look pale blue here, but the color is more of a grey/blue/green, very pale and with white, yellow and darker blue markings. They thrive in about the same conditions as the first one, but seem to be able to take some shade. These seem to expand every year and luckily we haven't had anything that like to eat them, despite bunnies munching on other things in the vicinity. Her name is Iris histrioides 'Katharine Hodgkin'.
This last one is another Iris histrioides named 'George'. The color when they first come up is almost black, but after a day or so, they lighten to this nice purple. They have very distinct markings in yellow and white on the falls.

Not a clue what I'll write about tomorrow. I suppose I'll just wait and see what is blooming at lunchtime when I take a break from weeding to take pictures.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fragaria - Strawberries

Various common names for Fragaria vesca: wild strawberries - the common, European, field or native strawberry. This is just a variegated version which grows on several sunny banks in our gardens. I doesn't always bloom and doesn't always set fruit (which we leave for the critters since I have my own strawberry patch in my vegatable garden) but with the variegated leaves, it is quite a nice addition to the plantings. I kind of just wanders about, as strawberries have a tendency to do, rooting at the ends of the stolons as it goes. Little plants are easy to transplant once their root systems are established.
An infusion of the leaves or roots (1 ounce of dried material to 1 pint of boiling water) is said to be a mild astringent and diuretic, valuable especially for diarrhea in children and for disorders of the urinary organs. Contrariwise, the fruit eaten in quantity is likely to have a mildly laxative action. For some (like my father and I) it causes allergic reaction such as digestive disturbances or a skin rash.
Grieve's Herbal recommends strawberries as a dentifrice and cosmetic. The juice of the fresh fruit is retained for a few minutes on the teeth which are then cleaned with warm water containing a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. Cosmetically, a cut strawberry rubbed over the face after washing will whiten the skin and remove a slight sunburn.
I finally decided that I needed to find out just who this 'Grieve' was who wrote the herbal that my herb book quotes so frequently. Rather than my writing all about her (yes it is a her) just follow this link to read her story.
Back tomorrow with some tiny, early irises.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The photo above is Hamamelis 'Washington Park'. The Witchhazels were just starting to come out when we got into our acrtic snowy winter. They survived the cold and ice and snow and are now blooming and scenting the yard with their delightful fragrance.
The next one is 'Rochester', which was actually the first one to bloom, and it bloomed while there was still a lot of snow on the ground. It is at the top of a sunny bank above a pond, and one of the warmest spots in the yard. It was so nice to take a cold and snowy walk and find this one blooming. Really made my day back a few weeks ago.
Next is another of the pinks, 'Livia'. You will find more yellows than other colors since the wild form is yellow and the others are the work of wonderful hybridizers who have come up with so many different colors. One thing about the colors in witchhazel is that they can vary from year to year; always within the same sort of color, but maybe with more orange or red or lighter or darker.

This next on is 'Fire Chief', one of the best reds, with flowers that are heavier and longer than 'Livia'.

This is 'Barnstadt Gold', which is kind of weird this year as one side of the bush started blooming a week or so ahead of the other side. Not sure how to explain that.

Last for this morning is 'Strawberries and Cream'. This is a very delicate color and very well named. I thought we had lost this one - it just wasn't happy where it was. We moved it a year ago and last fall it just didn't look right again and then we realized that the understock was taking over the plant. All of these are grafted and that is always something you have to worry about with grafted stock. We cut off all of the stems below the graft and although it is a much smaller plant right now, it looks much better and has bloomed well on the stems that were left. In a year of so it should be caught up with its friends again.
Witchhazels like sun and typically bloom here starting in February. The bloom lasts until it gets warm, so on a good bloom year you can even have 3 months of bloom - and scent. They aren't the best as cut flowers, but will last a few days in a vase and will scent your room delightfully.
A note: I have started a facebook page for the nursery and so will just talk about plants here (which is really most of what I do anyway) but will post new things for sale and special sales and that sort of thing, along with photos, on the facebook page. Why not stop on over - just seach for Hoot Owl Hollow Nursery - and 'friend' us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring is Here

Just when it seemed like spring would never come, suddenly it is here. Last Saturday we still had a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures with highs around 45. This first phots of snowdrops just emerging from the snow was taken then. It was in a very sunny spot and these were the first flowers we saw this year.
Literally within days, the snow was mostly gone (only a few piles of snow in very shady spots and where it all came off the roof next to the house) and snowdrops seems to be every place. Most of ours are the double flowered kind. We dug up a lot that were getting too crowded 2 years ago and sprinkled them through the woodsy places. These clumps are still small, but increasing. Just when we were saying we were so tired of seeming white on the ground, here are the snowdrops, but despite the fact that they are white, they look really nice.
The next blossoms to appear were these early crocuses. They are almost a translucent pale lavender blue. Not as showy as they larger ones that will come later, but just lovely and coming up in all sorts of places. These are small, but have attracted all sorts of insects seeking pollen.

These were in the very back of the gardens and could easily have been overlooked since they are so tiny. I have always liked the striped ones.

Winter Aconites (this one is Eranthus cillicia) make large clumps where they are happy. This is the 3rd year for this one, so I guess I have done something right. These are growing in a shady place under conifer in a woodsy soil where they get minimal sunlight. My other good clump grows in gravelly soil in full sun, so I don't have a clue to where the best place is to plant them. I'm just glad I've found a few places they like because they are so cheery in the spring.

This hellebore looks pretty much like an average flower, but it is different. It is a seedling and we noticed from across the yard since the flowers are almost 3 inches across. Just huge for a hellebore. The second day the blooms were out they started turning pink. This was also one of the first to be in full bloom, but there are buds everyplace and with the inch of rain we got overnight, I expect there will be plenty of blooms in a day or two.

This smaller pink hellebore if from Tibet. I have several different clones, this one being the palest pink. It is usually the first to bloom, and they goes dormant in the summer, unlike our other ones that keep their nice green leaves all year.

More flowers coming every day. I worried a bit when we had snow on the ground most of the time since mid December, but it seems to have done a lot of good. I know snow cover is good for things, but this was so deep and icy, I did worry a bit. It seems I had nothing to worry about. Our biggest problem was with broken branches (that we're still cleaning up) from the weight of the snow and ice.
I'm going to keep up with the medicinal plants thread on days when I have time to write and I don't have new spring flowers, but I expect that there will be lots of new blossoms to photograph for the next few days. Tomorrow I'll post all of the lovely Witchhazels that are filling the gardens with the lovliest scent right now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


OK. So this isn't one of the wild forms, but rather a variegated one we grow in the garden. However, if you imaginve the leaves treen, you pretty much have the same plant. There are actually two Eupatoriums that grow around here, perfoliatum also known as boneset and purpureum also known a joepye weed, which is related to the one in the photo.
Boneset is found throughout most of the U.S., and likes swamps, marshes and low grounds. Here it also grows just about anywhere else, including the shady edges of woods. It usually grows about 3-4 feet tall. It's name would seem to indicate that it would help in setting broken bones, but rather, it refers to the plant's value in treating colds and flu which in early days were known as 'break-bone fevers.' In 1798, a Dr. Barton wrote "this medicine is used by our Indians in intermittent fevers." Someone else mentioned that boneset tea, often taken at night to break up a cold Iwhich it usually did) was surely bitter enough so it should do something. To make the tea, the upper leaves and flowering tops are dried, and infusions made at the rate of 1 ounce of the dried herb to 1 pint of boiling water, taken in doses of a wineglassful. Take hot to induce perspiration for colds.
Joepye also is widely distributed , but does not seem to grow in the most southern parts of this country and is slightly larger than it's cousin, often reaching 6 feet. It blooms in August with purplish to white flower heads. The Latin name eupatorium is said to have come from Mithridates Eupator, a king of Pontus, the first to use the plant medicinally. "Joe Pye" is said to be the name of a Native American who cured typhus fever with extractions of the root.
Unlike it's cousin where the leaves are used, in Joe Pye it is the roots. It seems to have been used for 'urinary disorders', accoring to old herbals, and as a nervine or tonic.
The roots smell like old hay and have a slightly bitter, aromatic taste. While not poisonous, overdoses cause nausea, pains in the stomach, increased heart action and a run-down feeling. Another reminder that although these are 'just herbs', they are very powerful and can be dangerous to those who don't know enough about them.
The cultivated forms of these are easy to grow and, especially nice, the variegated form comes true from seed. We often find a plant (or two or three or twenty) popping up elsewhere in the garden.
This sunny and slightly warm weather has been wonderful for starting the spring cleanup in the yard. I still find it hard to believe that we'll be opening for the season in just a few weeks. We still have a lot of snow in anyplace that is shady and ice in places where we've walked, but it is going away and the snowdrops are blooming and the early daffodils have buds, so spring is sort of officially here, at least in the hollow.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Common names - Horsetail, Scouring Rush, Jointweed, Bullpipes, Shavebrush, Pewterwort, and a number of others. This is a varied group, from the tall (up to about 3 feet) one in the photo above, that seems to prefer damp places and will grow in light shade, to the one below, a miniature form, probably about 6 inches tall at most, that likes damp places also, but that will grow in full sun. Both are sometimes a little tricky to get started, but once settled in, are quite long lived. The tall one seems to make wide-spread colonies, a stem here and another there, while the miniature one makes a mat, which very nicely chokes out most weeds. Neither bloom with anything resembling a flower and are grown for their interesting stems only. These are quite ancient plants, from the very beginnings of when the flowering plants first appeared.
Horsetail seems to be poisonous to animals which is good because nothing seems to eat it, but which would also seem to urge caution in using it in any medicinal way. The dried, powdered stems have sometimes been used to stop bleeding, though I'm not sure if this is through any action of the chemicals in the plant, or just the action of putting a powder on a wound.
Their main use has always been related to their common name of scouring rush and pewterwort. The plant contains high amounts of silica which is what makes the stems so good for scrubbing. I first learned about this when I used to spend a lot of time camping in the woods and didn't want to carry too much with me.
It is an interesting accent to other leafy things and we have small colonies in several places. Although it spreads, I would never consider it invasive, but always have enough, especially of the miniature one, to share.
Jane - where the sun is shining and it will be warm and sunny enough to hang the wash outside today - YEAH!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dryopteris Filix-mas

. . . also known as Male Fern, Knotty Brake, Male Shielf-fern, Sweet Brake, Shield Root, Marginal Shield-fern and European Aspidium. One of those ferns that grow in the woods around here.
This plant has definite medicinal value which has been recognized for centuries and which entitles it to its present place in the United States Pharmacopoeia. Properties found in the rhizome of this fern are definitely deadly to intestinal worms, and it is therefore valuable as an anthelmintic, teniacide, or worm medicine. Containing a poison, the drug must be used with certain cautions.
The Male Fern is found growing everywhere in the United States and Europe. Mor medicinal purposes the useful species include not only D. Filix-mas, but also the similar marginal shield-fern or evergreen wood-fern, D. marginalis.

The roots of the fern are dug in the autumn and carefully cleaned of all root hairs, old leaf bases, and dirt, and then split and dried carefully at a temperature of 70 degrees F. The best extraction of the oleoresin is obtained through the use of ether. (Not exactly a home remedy, this one)
The seeds (spores) of this fern are so tiny as to be almost invisible, and the "Doctrine of Signatures" states that use of the fern will confer invisibility. Hence, in Henry IV act 2, scene 1, "We have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible." There you have your literary/botany lesson for the day.
Like most ferns, this one likes shady, woodsy places and seems otherwise not very particular about where it lives. It is quite common here along with Christmas Ferns and Maidenhair Ferns. It seems to prefer adequate moisture or even places that are a little wet in the spring.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Iris cristata

I've got sidetracked by some pretty flowers this morning. We got an order of irises from Joe Pye Weeds Garden last fall, and knew that it was not the time to plant them out, so we've kept them in the greenhouse. They sat under a bench for the first couple of months, and then as they've started to put out new growth, we've moved them up under the lights. This first one is Iris cristata 'Edgar Anderson'. The cristatas are tiny things - these are in 4 inch pots and are about 6 inches tall, but are blooming wonderfully. Just what I need with all of this snow and ice. Several more are budded, so I should have more photos soon.

This second one is called Iris cristata 'Blue Giant' and though the 'giant' is relative, it is bigger than the normal cristata blooms. I love the pattern of the colors and the icy blue. You will occasionally find a white one. They will all get planted out in the spring, once the frosts are past (and once this stupid snow finally melts).
These irises will grow in zones 3-9 and are native to the northeastern US. In general they are about 6 inches tall and bloom in the spring. The color ranges through the blues and lavenders for the most part, though you will find some with a bit more patterning than others. They like full sun to part shade, though here they seem to grow best in part shade, especially if you want the flowers to look their best. If grown in full sun, you need to be sure they are getting enough moisture. In the wild I often have seen them growing at the edge of the woods. They will naturalize in a place where they are happy. They're nice in a rock garden or woodland garden. The only problem, and if can be a big one, is snails and slugs. Suround them with a coarse grit mulch - like chicken grit from the feed store - to discourage those slimy pests.
They are listed as an endangered species in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and because they are notoriously difficult to transplant in any case, and very inexpensive, I would recommend just buying an assortment from an iris nursery.