Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Schlumbergera...a Christmas cactus known by another name!

Every year stores begin to celebrate Christmas seemingly earlier and earlier than the previous year. While this year some stores in my local area began to decorate and stock the shelves with Christmas gifts prior to the Halloween celebrations, the Christmas Cactus was conspicuously absent until the beginning of November.
I enjoy the Christmas cactus, properly known by the Latin name of Schlumbergera. Uniquely, it is really not a cactus as we would expect in the proper sense of the term, but is rather an epiphytic plant when clinging to trees and an epilithic when growing in the nooks of crannies of rocks.
The plant was named byCharles Lemaire (1801-1871) to honor Frederick Schlumberger, (1823-1893) an enthusiastic  French clooletor of cacti and other succulent plants.
The Christmas cactus has been a favorite in American's homes since the late 19th century, popularized as either a Thanksgiving cactus or the more popular moniker of a Christmas cactus. Throughout the years, our family has grown many colors ranging from white, to red, purples and even a salmon colored variation of Schlumbergera with many mixed results. Some have survived, some have perished but regardless of the end result of the at times forgetful care of the McNichol Clan, the Christmas cactus has become a perennial favorite in our house.
Sometimes they bloom for a short period in the Summer, perhaps due to a recessive gene that recalls the fact that it is Winter in the Southern Hemisphere. My thoughts are more pragmatic...the plant was lucky enough to survive so it is flourishing a bit of epiphytic bravado to tell us that he has indeed survived despite residence with the McNichol Clan.
The firm Aalsmeer in the Netherlands reportedly imports over 2 million Christmas cactus to the United States each year. Modern methodologies of production has reduced the price for consumers in the United States. In the late 1890's the cactus at times rivaled the cost of a green house propagated  orchid, which was also a popular plant for Victorian hobbyists, usually of the British upper class.
Today in the United States the Christmas cactus can be purchased in the range of anywhere from $2.99 in supermarkets, where they are usually even lower with a coupon to $49.00 in high end florist shops. Regardless of where you purchase your Christmas cactus, make one a welcome tradition and addition to your home in the Thanksgiving/Christmas season. The plant adds some much needed color to the indoor environment as the days of Fall wane into the darker days of Winter. Besides that, it gives everyone a project to keep the plant happy until it arrives into the Spring season when it can be placed outdoors and once again if your lucky will flourish a hint of it's colors just to show you, the owner that the Christmas cactus is indeed a survivor and is welcome in all of our homes as a welcome guest.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Easter lily, heralds the Resurrection of Christ

The Easter Lily will shortly grace Catholic and Christian churches throughout the world as a sign of the Resurrection of Christ after his passion on Good Friday.
The United States began the tradition of using lillies on Easter Sunday after a returning tourist from Philadelphia smuggled some bulbs into her luggage in the 1880's after a visit to  Bermuda. After that, the plant was commmercially grown and firmly established itslelf as the flower of choice for an Easter display in both homes and churches alike.

Traditionally, we are told legends of the lily. Reportedly, the lily sprung up in the Garden of Gethsemane whereever the beads of perspiration fell from the face of Christ during his agony in the same garden. They are considered flowers of hope and are commonly used in Christian Churches to celebrate the hope of the resurrection experienced by Christ and the hope all Christians maintain for the final resurrection at the end of time.

The ancient Romans believed that lillies were the result of spills from the lactating Juno, while feeding Hercules. Whereever the drops of Juno's breastmilk fell onto the earth, lillies were thought to have emerged. There is also speculation that the Milky Way was formed from the residual drops of Juno's breastmilk was spread throughout the stars, causing the cloudy manner in which the Milky Way is viewed from Earth. Finally, other legends associate lillies with the tears of Eve after their transgression in the Garden of Eden that resulted in Adam and Eve's expulsion from God's paradise.

Regardless of the legends and the manner through which the Easter Lily has come into our celebration of Spring, it is a welcome sign of new life, hope and of course purity. Often in Christian symbolism, the lily is associated with the Virgin Mary, and her perpetual virginity. The lily is often seen as a sign and symbol of Mary's purity of life and her consistent commitment to purity.
The Archangel Gabriel is often seen in Catholic depictions of the Annunciation extending a lily to the Blessed Mother as a sign of her vocational call towards a life of virginity and purity. Whenever the Holy Family is portrayed, a lily is present to indicate Mary's virginity even after the birth of Christ.

The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church often tells a legend that after Mary's death, her tomb was found empty and in her place bouquets of lillies were present throughout the tomb. The antlers of the plant are symbolic of the radiance of her eternal life after death and the white flowers are representative of her spotless body and soul. So in Christian iconography, the Easter Lily is present at the Annunciation, and the Assumption as an ever pervasive symbol of Mary's perpetual purity of both body and soul.

The stamens and pistils of the Easter Lily while reprsenting the glow of eternal life for iconographers are a different thing for the often prudish Victorians. They considered those parts of the Easter Lily as too representational of the sex act and were commonly removed so as not to present temptations to anyone that viewed them. More than likely, they actually realized that those parts of the Easter Lily presented a satorial concern. The stamens and the pistils of the Easter Lily stain clothing in a permanent manner, So in deference to providing a tale of sexual desires, the pragmatic reason the Victorians removed the stamens and the pistils was to avoid staining clothing.

In most cases, the Easter Lily reminds Christians of their spiritual aspirations through prayer. To the present day, lillies are viewed as intermediaries of prayer between the people of Earth to a transcendent God who receives human supplications through the beauty of the ever humble Easter Lily.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Night blooming cereus...dreams of fantasy flowers!

Dreams of fantasy flowers dance in gardeners’ heads: Real Dirt

Everyone with a green thumb has a particular plant they’d just love to be able to grow. Sonia Day pines for a Epiphyllum oxypetalum, or night blooming cereus.

Epiphyllum oxypetalum, or night blooming cereus.
Epiphyllum oxypetalum, or night blooming cereus.
What’s your “fantasy flower?”
All gardeners have one. It’s a certain flower (or shrub or vine) that we yearn to grow but can’t, for a variety of reasons. Not enough sun, perhaps. Or our garden is too small. Or we live in the wrong zone. Or the plant is rare and costs a bundle.
So we shove the thought to the back of our minds and settle for something else. But then one day a gardener comes along who actually owns the object of our desire — and we’re jealous as hell.
It happened to me recently, after spotting a post on Facebook by Toronto master gardener Tena van Andel. She reported great success with an oddball cactus named Epiphyllum oxypetalum, commonly called a night blooming cereus (although strictly speaking, it belongs to a different species from true cereus). A photo of its huge, extraordinary white flower accompanied her post — and wow, I went green with envy.
That’s because my unfulfilled fantasy is to own a cereus too. The reason? This particular plant made me realize what joy there can be in growing things. Here’s how: I lived in the Bahamas as a teenager where my Dad, a keen gardener, once persuaded the whole family to stay up till dawn, so we could witness his own cereus coming into bloom on our patio.
The experience was quite mystical. Dad’s flower (unlike Van Andel’s) had the colour and texture of creamy silk. When the petals slowly jerked open after dark, thousands of superfine stamens burst forth, looking like spun gold. I also recall an incredible perfume. But then this spectacular specimen withered away (as cereus always do) before the sun came up.
Since then, I’ve often wanted to copy Dad. But my life changed. I moved to Canada where such magical all-nighters are out of the question unless you’re lucky enough own a heated greenhouse or conservatory.
That, I discovered, is what Tena Van Andel has. And thus equipped, she says it’s not difficult to coax such cacti to bloom. The only requirement is endless patience.
“A friend gave me some pieces off her plant, which had never bloomed,” she explains. “I didn’t do anything special to them. I just planted one piece in the ground inside my greenhouse and another in a pot.
Then I just let Mother Nature do her thing. But it took three years to get a bloom.”
Van Andel named her cereus Sumi Jo, after the soprano famed for portraying the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
It’s an appropriate moniker, because Mexicans, who are blessed with many jaw-dropping cacti, call the cereus Reina de La Noche (or Queen of the Night).
Will I ever possess this captivating diva myself? Perhaps. Besides lusting after her, I now fantasize about quitting the frozen north — and acquiring a little courtyard garden down Mexico way, full of tropical exotica.
It hasn’t happened yet. But, ah, one day . . .
And if you want to hear more about Tena Van Andel’s envy-making greenhouse, she’s speaking at Canada Blooms. Her talk on orchids is part of the master gardener lecture series, on Tuesday, March 15 at 1 p.m. For more information, visit

Friday, February 26, 2016

Flowering quince...a spectacular explosion of color!

Every year in anticipation of Spring, the flowering quince just outside of the office window provides a show of color at unusual times during the year. In December, the bush was in bud and actually provided some blooms for Christmas enjoyment. With the many variables of the winter season, and unusually warm temperatures this year, the quince bush was confused and began producing blooms.
Despite the seasonal schizophrenia the plant does indeed bloom in the spring and on occasion produces a few quince fruit. Over the years I have had occasion to sample quince jellies, however have no concept on how one actually makes quince jellies! It seems that the lost art of canning and making jellies is lost in our American society, despite the fact that we indeed enjoy the gustatory delights of such efforts!

Flowering quince, chaenomeles cathayensis is native to western China and produces pear shaped fruits. The flowers are either white or pink. Quince bushes are most favored as ornamental plants in the local garden, and their fruits are usually disregarded by most people. The fruit when raw is sometimes bitter and astringent. Usually, after the first frost, the fruit is picked and is more palatable for preserving and making jellies. Quince fruits are bletted, which requires the ripened fruit to further ripen on an absorbent material, sometimes straw or sawdust. The process permits further ripening of the fruit and the cellular structures are changed and the fruit becomes soft and pliable. After this process the the sugars in the fruit are more dominant and permit the fruit to be eaten with a spoon, directly from the skins.

As always, plants have a particular and unique relationship to events of my own life. The quince in particular is a bush frequently represented in Chinese and Japanese drawings and many references to the fruit are made in their literary works. It is a herald of Spring in the Oriental world and is widely celebrated in artistic works and is majestically portrayed often with great celebrations of joy and anticipation, such as weddings and the birth of new children.

As far as the bush is concerned, at one time in my own experience, I took it on myself to beautify the facade of the old Upper Side at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. At the time, the landscape outside the building was void of any bushes and flowering vegetation. It was suffering from the institutional practice of just using turf to make everything green, and neglecting the landscaping that would have been there in the 19th century. So, I planted six quince bushes in order to accentuate the architectural details of the colonnade and the entablature that graced the exterior of the building. It was the customary path, all of us students used when returning from meals on the Lower Side of the campus, which was the college division of Saint Charles Seminary. The green vegetation with the contrasting floral displays the following year was a spectacular show of color and a celebration of form. The bush complimented the details of the harsh architecture of the building and softened the harshness of the stark and cold exterior of the old Upper Side.

Almost thirty-five years later, the bushes I planted are long gone at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary and once again the institutional starkness of just turf has again returned to the building. The facade has been substantially changed in the area of the Ryan Memorial Library with new adaptations which accompanied the renovation of the library which was an old friend and a place of scholarship and solitude among the many stacks of ancient volumes of theological and philosophical works. The library is now referred to as The Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua Research Center at the Ryan Memorial Library, but remains, "The Ryan," to generations of alumni of this illustrious institution.

Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary currently is undergoing a process of conslidation of both the college division and the theology division into one operating campus. The distinctions of Upper and Lower Side will soon be consigned to history and memory. However, it was the flowering quince that hold special significance of my own personal recollections of the then 150 acres plus campus. When all of the renovations and consolidations are completed, I hope the architects and the builders take the asthetics of the campus into consideration and replace the flowering quince, restore the lilac bushes, replant new multicolored rows of azaleas to not only enhance the beauty of the consolidated campus, but to remember the pastoral serenity of the old expanse of lawns and shrubbery that once graced Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in its , "days of glory!"

Perhaps the newly renovated campus will recall that when the institution began, men went to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul via  horse-drawn carriages to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This era celebrated the spiritual and personal achievements of its graduates with sacramental solemnity, submersed in traditions, pride and simple grandeur that was part of everyday life. Greenery, rolling green hills and arboreal specimens witnessed almost two centuries of events at Overbrook, along with a singular row of flowering quince...remember the history, live in the present and celebrate the future! Make the consolidated campus a place where great men, and positive memories are made that include memories of the beauty of the campus and its landscaping.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Morning glories....always a reminder of a new day.

Morning glories always remind me that every night will bring a new tomorrow. Sometimes people consider them invasive weeds and a nuisance that disturbs their well organized and often persnickety preconceptions of what a garden should look like. I love the invasive nature of these most glorious plants not just because they quite frankly., "grow where ever they want to grow!" but because they are pugilistic plants in often hostile growing environments. What I mean with that statement is not an endorsement of the ancient sport of boxing, rather it is an adulation of morning glories with their fighting desire to live, despite their often unfriendly growing environments.

Growing up in the city of Philadelphia, the Gray's Ferry section, I was always fascinated with the great morning glories that continued to grow up and over the concrete block fence at Mrs. McCullough's house on Newkirk Street. We lived on 28th Street, and every morning in the Spring when I looked out the window, there they were, back to back with our concrete fence, Mrs. McCullough's Morning Glories growing in victorious splendor despite the concrete, asphalt, local oil refineries, chemical plants and other indicators of the Industrial Age. To the best of my knowledge, Mrs. McCullough never watered them, took care of them or for all I know ever took an extended look at the cascading vine, always filled with deep purple flowers that spread into the neighbors yard and tumbled into the alley that separated our yards. Morning Glories are determined plants despite the odds that they should never survive in the concrete world of the city. However, they indeed have the last laugh!

Gray's Ferry was a neighborhood that grew as a result of the Industrial Revolution. According to the historical recollections of the 18th century, the area was rural, with great trees and meadows. The famous botanist John Bartram (and his sons) created the first botanical garden in the United States on the western side of the Schuylkill River. Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson and Franklin frequented visits to Bartram's Farm in the colonial era, and purchased seeds for their own plantations to plant during the growing season. With the rise of industrialism, Gray's Ferry and Bartram's Gardens was surrounded by urban growth and development and nature took a back seat as the city became more populated.

Despite industrialization many residents attempted to maintain some color in their paved backyards, with concrete blocks often used as fencing materials. Raised beds were often constructed to raise a few plants like tomatoes and carrots and sometimes cabbage. Homes of Italian ancestry sometimes had magnificent fig trees growing in the back year, often side by side with some grape vines from which wine was often made. If course the potted geraniums were part of the community, simply because they grew easily, offered some color to the gray world of city living and just looked darned nice. My paternal great-grandmother Mary Bendsen often grew African Violets in the kitchen window and they too offered the opportunity for colors throughout the year.

Walking in a city neighborhood, wild plants grew on abandoned lots, some were saplings of ginko trees, some were just large weeds and others were struggling native plants of the area trying to make a stand, surviving in a world in which they were slowing becoming familiar. All of these plants were delights to see, a sensory carnival that never depraved anyone with morning glories, fig trees, even colorfully flowering weeds that survived in Gray's Ferry.

In the 1970's the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority thought it would be a good idea to insert trees into the many neighborhoods in the city that lacked urban greenery. A great idea that honestly should be emulated everywhere. Trees soon were planted on every block and color was infused once again into the former Orwellian Gray that was seemingly common to the Industrial Era. Flora and fauna once again began to establish themselves within city neighborhoods. Around the same time, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society created ,"Green Scene," a program to utilize vacant lots as a place to grow produce and plants to assist the local community. After 100 years, Gray's Ferry as well as many other neighborhoods in Philadelphia say limited agriculture as part of the urban landscape.

Morning glories are now more pervasive in the neighborhood where I lived in my youth. There is a planned program of growing veggies for local sales and consumption. Families are planting ornamental roses and other plants to brighten up their homes and yards. With all of this I like to think it is a distant recollection of Mrs. McCullough's Morning Glories that tenaciously survived through the years offering bursts of color that made people smile when they glimpsed the overflowing plants.
Plants and trees, bushes and shrubs belong in the city, not just because they offer a delightful array of colorful diversions, but because they too are part of our cultural and agricultural heritage.

Plant some Morning Glories...they will bring smiles to you, your family and friends and people that pass by...just for the heck of it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Seckel Pears...part of Philadelphia's Immigration History!

Image result for seckel pear
Seckel pears are always a great treat when they can be found in local produce sections of the market. What most people don't realize is that this minute pear species is not a fruit tree that is native to the United States . Seemingly it was brought to the United States by immigrants from Germany and settled in the Philadelphia area around 1790. It is part of the unique agricultural history of the Philadelphia area and uniquely linked with the migration of German speaking immigrants from Philadelphia to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area in the late 18th century.
According to the story, this pear tree was discovered along the trail taken by migrating Germans to fertile farming areas in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When discovered, it was growing presumably as a result of throwing the cores of these pears along side of the road after the intensely sweet fruit was consumed.
The fruit of the tree was so highly regarded, the location of the trees were closely guarded by local residents in order to keep the tasty fruits all to themselves. The tree was also grown at Bartram's Gardens as well on the western side of the Schulykill River near Gray's Ferry. Today, the tree is available from many orchards and fruit tree specialists online.
As a horticultural hobbyist I thought it would be a great idea to try growing a dwarfed specimen of this tree this year in a container. I am patiently waiting for the shipment from Stark Brothers that is due sometime after February 23rd. If you like unique plants, you might want to try growing this tree with a great American legacy. as the season develops and hopefully my tree takes root...I will keep you posted. If you want to buy the tree online...act quickly they sell out fast. I waited from last year to purchase my tree....