Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In the Butterfly Garden: Two Plants with Fall Color

Among the best plants for fall color are two that are also great plants for the butterfly garden.

The first is Senna bicapsularis (syn. Cassia bicapsularis) with the common names of Christmas senna, winter cassia and fall cassia, all indicating that this is the time of year when they are at their peak of blooming. Fall cassia can be kept pruned into a tall shrub or can be let loose to form a small tree (10-12 feet). Right down the street from me on 11th Avenue in Mount Dora are a couple of fall cassias that have been planted to beautiful effect behind a white fence:

Fall cassia is a host plant for a number of sulphur butterfly caterpillars. These butterflies usually zoom through the yard without stopping, but will stop to lay eggs and perhaps stick around for a bit of nectar from one of your nectar plants. Pictured is a female sulphur laying an egg:

The second plant with great fall color is our native firebush (Hamelia patens) with its orange flowers and black berries. Firebush gets to be a tall shrub and can be grown in either full sun or partial shade. It is a favorite nectar plant of the two passionvine butterflies in our area: the gulf fritillary and the zebra longwing.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


I was starting some nasturtium seeds today and saw on one of the packages something that reminds me how often garden things are mislabeled for Florida.

Many seed packages have a little map on the back and a chart that shows which months the seeds should be started in each area. For nasturtiums, which do best in cool weather, the package from American Seeds had it right: start seeds here Sept-Feb. This way they will be growing in the cool fall, winter and early spring and will only have to be protected on those few nights when temperatures approach freezing. But the Northrup-King seed package had it exactly backwards: start seeds here Feb-Sept. Obviously they were following the first frost dates for the northern zones and continued it for the most southern. But that would have us growing nasturtiums in late spring and summer when they will struggle in the heat.

I'm constantly running across things I think are mislabeled, especially mislabeled for Florida and I will try to post more as I run across them.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Herbal Flowers #6

Earlier in this Herb Flowers series, I showed pictures of cilantro flowers. The spiky green flowers above are from a cilantro-flavored herb called culantro (Eryngium foetidum). Culantro is native to Mexico and Central and South America where it is widely used. It is great for Florida where cilantro is quick to bolt and is extremely difficult to grow in the summer garden. While cilantro is a cool weather annual, culantro is a warm weather perennial. It will grow here all year round, but needs to be protected if the temperature dips into the 30's. Grow in partial shade; it will take the heat of our summers but not in full sun.

Culantro is a low growing plant with flower spikes that have a conical flower head surrounded by spiky leaves that can be quite prickly to the touch. The lower basal leaves have a saw-toothed edge, but are soft and edible. They are the part used in culinary applications and can be used wherever cilantro is called for. Remove the flower spikes to encourage more basal leaf growth.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thank you Lady Bird Johnson

Picture in public domain available from Johnson Library.

Thank you Lady Bird Johnson for making this country a more beautiful place. In 1998, before I opened Rabbit Hill Gardens, I went to an Herb Growing & Marketing Network conference in San Antonio which offered a bus tour that included the famed Frederickberg Herb Farm and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The tour through her beloved Texas Hill Country was definitely the best part of a great conference. Rest in peace Lady Bird.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Herbal Flowers #5

These cute little purple and white flowers belong to rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica) one of my favorite smelling herbs. Easily recognized by those familiar with Vietnamese cooking, it is unfamiliar to most of my customers. The scent is quite powerful, nearly identical to cumin, and I'm hoping to find a good recipe utilizing it. Anyone?

As the name indicates, it is native to southern Asia and grows in very wet areas. It is rated for zone 10. I was struck with the similarity between this herb and the water hyssops in our butterfly garden: similar flowers, long succulent stems, similar succulent leaves and watery habitat. Sure enough, they are in the same plant family, Plantaginaceae.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Looking for photos of roadside gardens

Sissy Willis calls it "when plants garden". You know, roadside wildflowers that pop up without being planted. Fred First is looking for pictures for his online gallery Unplanted Gardens: America's Roadside Bloomery. Go there to see a beautiful example and how to submit your own photos. And look around Fred's site for more gorgeous photos from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Herbal Flowers #4

This is Oreganum 'Kent Beauty', an ornamental oregano with beautiful flowers unlike any other oreganos. Rated for zones 5-8 (we're in 9B here in central Florida) and liking a dry, very well-drained soil, it's obviously not going to be the easiest plant to grow here, but well worth the trouble.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In the Butterfly Garden: Everyone Loves Milkweed!

The one plant that is the first to be planted in just about every butterfly garden is milkweed (Asclepias spp.). A host plant for the monarch and queen, it's also a decent nectar plant for a wide variety of butterflies. But move over, monarch caterpillar (below), there are other insects taking up residence in the milkweeds.

Aphids are a nearly constant presence on the tender ends. Normally the best control for aphids would be a spray like insecticidal soap, but in the butterfly garden I advise removing them with the garden hose. Luckily the aphids come off easily while the monarch eggs are sticky and not so easily dislodged. Unfortunately the aphids usually come back, so this can wind up being a daily process. Ladybugs will eat aphids so if you can attract them and keep them around, this can help too.

The other insects that enjoy milkweed are milkweed seed bugs. These orange and black bugs feed on the milkweed seeds. In the picture below, there is an adult in the upper right corner and lots of young nymphs on the milkweed seed pod. Usually there are only a few to be found and they can be picked off by hand. Occasionally, however, the population gets out of hand. You can try keeping the seed pods removed; otherwise spraying with insecticidal soap may be your only recourse.

Happy Fourth of July

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Herbal Flowers #3

Echinacea spp. or purple coneflower produces beautiful flowers for any garden including the herb garden and butterfly garden. Native to the Midwest prairies, its medicinal roots were first used by native American Indians and it is considered today a major herbal immuno-stimulant. Butterflies love it as a nectar plant.

Besides the many species of true oreganos (Oreganums) there are a number of other oregano tasting plants which use the common name oregano and are often substituted for the true oreganos in culinary applications. One such herb is Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus. Originally classified as a coleus and named Coleus amboinicus, it comes in a plain green form as well as several differently variegated forms, one of which is pictured above. Plants in the Coleus and Plectranthus genera are part of the Lamiaceae (mint) family and the flowers are typical of that family. The real and year-round beauty of this plant, though, comes from its variegated leaves.

Many customers at my herb farm express surprise when they see mature rosemary plants covered in flowers. Yes, rosemary does flower and the flowers come in many colors: pink, white, light lavender, light blue and deep blue. These flower colors are reflected in many of the varietal names: Majorca Pink, Alba, Tuscan Blue, etc.

Pictured is a new variety of rosemary called Haifa which I loved right away. It's a very low-growing prostrate variety with dark glossy leaves and a kind of twisty growth habit. I loved this variety even more when it flowered. It had the largest flowers I have seen on any of my rosemarys and the stems were just solid with them. Fantastic.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Herbal Flowers #2

I think the most beautiful of all the herb flowers is foxgloves. It's an herb? you may ask. Absolutely. Digitalis purpurea is the source of the potent heart medication digitalis. But potent heart medications are dangerous and all parts of the foxglove plant should be considered poisonous. I always make sure my customers know this before they leave with these plants in hand.

Foxgloves are biennials, nearly all of them following the biennial pattern of not flowering until the second year. For those of us in Florida, this means foxgloves are rarely attempted as it is very difficult to get them though the first summer's heat and humidity. The pictured foxglove is a variety called "Foxy" and will flower the first year, allowing us to grow it as an annual.

Foxgloves are the quintessential fairy garden plant and were used for one of Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies. The spots are like little stepping stones which say to bees "Come this way, the good stuff is in here".

This intensely fragrant plant is Tagetes lemmonii with the common names lemon marigold, copper canyon daisy and mountain or lemmon's marigold. Of all the plants I've ever had in my garden, this one releases the most noticeable fragrance when barely touched or watered. Kind of a funky smell, some say a lemon scent; but the species name lemmonii comes from the botanical explorer J G Lemmon who discovered it in its native Arizona.

These flowers look similar to the ones above which is no surprise since this plant is the close relative Tagetes lucida. Commonly called Mexican mint marigold, it is used like tarragon in this area and so is also found sold under the common names Mexican, Texas, Spanish, tropical or winter tarragon.

True French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is impossible to grow in Florida. It hates our hot humid summers and requires several months of dormancy brought on by winter freezing. If you live here in Florida and buy fresh tarragon in those little packages at the grocery store, you may have been using this tarragon all along. The fresh tarragon sold in our local grocery stores is nearly always this type since most of our local herbal produce is grown in south Florida.

Mexican tarragon is not as peppery as French tarragon and has more of an anise flavor, but it makes a great substitute. I add it to my homemade tartar sauce.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Herbal Flowers #1

Lots of herb flowers in the garden now. The mints seem to be the most popular with the bees.

The fennel plants are full of flowers. Leaves (and flowers, too) have a licorace flavor, but it's the seeds that pack the big taste. If you buy fennel seeds in the store, you'll get the brown dried ones, but the less mature green ones are better tasting. If you want seeds for making more fennel plants though, you'll need to let them get to the brown dry stage.

Another herb with tasty seeds is cilantro. Fennel and cilantro are in the same plant family, Apiaceae, which has several other members with flavorful seeds: celery, dill, caraway, anise and cumin. The pretty little white flowers of cilantro are edible and have a sweet and very mild cilantro taste. The seeds of the cilantro plant, by the way, are given their own name (coriander).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

2007 Seaside Herb Society Herbal Faire

On Saturday, March 24, I set up my booth at Seaside Herb Society’s Herbal Faire. This was my second year. They have a great location: the Riverbridge Meeting House and grounds in Ormond Beach, right on the Halifax River by the Granada Street bridge.

The main features of this location are the Riverbridge House, where the ladies serve the most delicious lunch, and the stone fountain ringed with trays of herbs for sale.

I brought a white wrought iron planter stand filled with scented geraniums, but outside of that I didn’t bring herbs to sell. The rest of my booth was filled with items from my store – our handmade herbal goods, herbal gadgets as well as herb books and herbal cookbooks. And I used my new Provence theme with colorful Provence tablecloths and some of my own "Provence" items: lavender bunches tied up with Provence fabric, lavender buds in a Provence fabric bag and little jars of Suzanne's Herbes de Provence.

There was an herbalist set up outside the meeting house dispensing herbal advice.

I always liked doing herb fairs when Maggie from Maggie’s Herbs in St Augustine showed up. She always had something out of the ordinary. Recently, Maggie’s Herbs was purchased by a young woman named Dora who stayed with this tradition. I picked up some coconut scented geraniums and a variegated mugwort. [Note on coconut scented geraniums: I read an article once that talked about how scented geraniums are named for fruits, nuts, etc but often don’t really smell like their namesakes. It gave coconut geranium as an example – one of the few that really does smell like its name!]

Dora is also a potter and had several of her things at the show including this birdbath:

Holly from Herbal Creations also in St Augustine was there with her great herbal jellies and jams and herbal mixes. YUM!

One of my neighbors had herbal crafts including a delicious blood orange marmalade.

I liked this booth with cute handmade birdhouses and beautiful painted stones.

The ladies from the Tempting Tub were there again this year with their lovely body care products.

I’ve seen these hypertufa planters at several herb shows now. They’re the perfect containers for herbs – lightweight and earthy. I’m sorry I don’t have the artist’s name; I’m going to have to do better about getting names for my little blog entries here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

2007 Spring Fever in the Garden

On March 31 and April 1, I took my herbs and a few herbal books and other goodies to the 7th Annual Spring Fever in the Garden in historic downtown Winter Garden. This garden show was put on by the Bloom N Grow Garden Society whose members could not have been more helpful and accommodating. They also attracted a good crowd, all of which meant I not only had a good show saleswise, but had fun doing the show, too. They have a website for the Spring Fever which is really spectacular.

I love a good historic downtown area and Winter Garden has a very nice one. Lots of little restaurants, including the Moon Cricket Grille across from my booth with an owner who traded me a lunch for some herbs.

The show took place, appropriately enough, on Plant Street, a brick street with

a beautiful island down the middle and places like

the Garden Theater which welcomed the show.

I was fortunate to be near one of the performers, singer Grant Livingston, who kept me entertained both days with his humorous songs.

My booth was filled mostly with herbs and I tried to bring a good selection of the favorites that everyone wants along with a few unusual things to delight those herb gardeners seeking something different. The biggest hit seemed to be the tray of nasturtiums.

I also brought a few herb books, some herbal gadgets (like herb keepers and mortars and pestles), a few of my Provence crafts and some great vintage wooden herb carriers.

Of course, no garden show would be complete without orchids

or roses and there were many other plant booths, too, although I wasn't able to get away from my booth for very long to take pictures of them all.

Being a potter myself, I was especially interested in several booths that had ceramics:

I've been designing several plant labels including some with herb names in French to coincide with my Herbes de Provence store theme. This artist had several very cute ceramic labels (some with French herb names!) although they're much different than the ones I'm planning. I even made a trade here.

This artist makes large funky brightly-colored ceramic sculptures for the garden including totem-like stakes and a working fountain.

I love this potter's great birdbaths with painted and three-dimensional flowers, turtles and frogs.

Really, the ceramic stuff was terrific and would brighten up any garden.

Also brightening up a garden would be any of the adirondak chairs that were up for (silent) auction:

including my favorite:

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Spectacular Pink Tabebuia

In 1999, I planted two pink Tabebuia trees at Rabbit Hill Gardens, one by the herb shop and one out by the street. For the last several years, the one at the front of the shop has been blossoming spectacularly but the one by the street has only had a few easy-to-overlook flowers. Well, this year the street specimen has redeemed itself. In clear view as you drive around the curve on 19-A, this tree has lost every leaf and is solidly covered in gorgeous pink trumpet flowers in a beautiful round form.

In full flower, Tabebuia trees are surely some of the most beautiful trees in Florida. Several yellow Tabs are seen around Mount Dora and there are probably other pink Tabs but I haven't seen any. Tabebuias belong to the Bignoniaceae family of which another spectacular tree, the purple Jacaranda, belongs. The pink Tabebuia is a much smaller tree than the Jacaranda and both could be damaged if we have a hard freeze into the teens or below. Several vines with very colorful trumpet-shaped flowers also belong to the Bignoniaceae family, with common names like trumpet-, bower-, cross-, or flame-vine.

I went back to the grower where I had gotten my Tabs and was able to find some for the nursery. He is only just now beginning to have Tabs available after being devestated by the hurricanes two years ago. We have a few small trees for sale in 3 gallon size. Tabebuias need to be staked to keep the growth upright and should be pruned to allow just one trunk.