A Botany Blog for Plant Nerds

Are you a plant nerd? Not just a gardener, no matter how passionate, but interested in the plants that aren’t found in a garden? Are you excited about botany? Then, I have a website for you:

In Defense of Plants

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The Good Guys: Native Thistles

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Last month I wrote about Scotch Thistles, a noxious weed in Colorado and in many other states. Then there are Bull Thistles, Musk Thistles, Plumeless Thistles, and Canada Thistles, also on the Colorado noxious weed list. This begs the question, are all thistles invasive, nasty plants, or are there some good guys among them?

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Leaves of Gold

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When we think of adding warm shades to our garden—yellow and orange, gold, lime and chartreuse—we immediately start listing flowers. But it’s time to think beyond the blooms and consider the leaves. Foliage comes in a variety of warm tones, and the color lasts all season—or longer. We don’t need to wait for fall; many of these plants make spectacular focal points in the landscape all summer long.

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Container Makeovers

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We’re nearing the end of August, and both the garden and the gardener are… tired. This has been a long, hot, summer, and the entire state of Colorado is in a drought. The unending parade of 90+ degree days, unusual for our elevation, has left the plants bedraggled, the flowers faded, the leaves with crispy brown edges.

The large pots of color on our deck are the worst. The violas that looked so pretty in June are now covered with powdery mildew. In spite of what the seed packets promised, the cosmos and zinnias grew too tall, towering over the petunias, and the snapdragons stayed too short. My chard leaves are tunneled with leaf miners, and it’s nearly impossible to keep them sufficiently watered. (Memo to self—do not plant chard ‘Bright Lights’ in a container with more xeric annuals, no matter how colorful the stems or how many seedlings are left over after planting the veggie beds!)

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Social Distancing is Not for Plants

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I frequently take walks through our newly-built neighborhood. While my primary motivation is exercise, I also enjoy checking out the landscaping choices made by the new homeowners. The plants are still small, but it’s easy to imagine what the yards will eventually look like. Some clearly have potential, with trees framing a select palette of shrubs, grasses, and perennials. Others are mostly rocks, with the minimum number of widely-spaced shrubs—mostly junipers and shrubby cinquefoil—added to appease the HOA. Social distancing is great for staying healthy, but please don’t make your plants stand on their own. Even a gorgeous star needs a supporting cast.

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Big, Bad Thistles

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When I spy a thistle in my yard—or in the open space next door—my first inclination is to annihilate it. Pull out the weed killer. Put on gloves and yank. Dig out the roots. Sure, some have imposing purple flowers, but I’ve learned that if you delay your war, the thistles will conquer. Then I started reading up on thistles.

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A Plant for Butterflies

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I love a garden full of flowers, but that’s only half the story. A garden feels incomplete with just plants, no matter how pretty they are. We’ve set the stage. The background and props are in place. But where are the actors? That’s why I intentionally choose plants that attract birds and insects. (Rabbits? Not so much!) A summer day isn’t complete without the buzz of bees, the whirr of the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and especially fluttering butterflies—often as colorful as the flowers they visit.

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Committing Tree-icide: Staking & Protecting

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If we lay perfectly still for weeks and months, we know that our joints will stiffen and become less flexible. Movement will become difficult. Bending will hurt. Holding perfect still is bad for our health. And it’s bad for trees as well. Yet, every year hundreds of trees are splinted into immobility by well-intentioned gardeners. It’s no better for them than it is for us.

We have a tendency to regard a newly planted sapling as fragile, and we want to protect it as best we can. That trunk looks so flimsy, as if the first breeze will snap it in two. So what do we do? We stake it so it can’t wiggle. And that’s a very bad idea. Movement causes trunks to enlarge and strengthen. Trees that are firmly staked will never become strong.

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Springs-Specific Gardening

There is certainly no shortage of advice when it comes to gardening. Everyone has an opinion, and when that fails, there’s the Internet. When you garden in Colorado, however, you quickly learn that much of the advice available doesn’t apply. It’s aimed at gardeners on the coasts, or the Midwest, or even the south—but not a place with harsh winters, false springs, sudden freezes, minimal rainfall, hail, gale-force winds… the list goes on and on. No wonder so many people give up and plant rocks!

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Water Droplets on Leaves

Colorado State Univ. Field Day

As I was learning to garden, I repeatedly heard the “experts” telling us not to water in the middle of the day. The prevailing wisdom was that any water droplets on the foliate would act as little magnifying glasses, burning tender leaves. (Think of using a magnifying glass to start a campfire, and you get the idea.)

Then, we all learned that this was a gardening myth. Water droplets are too close to the plant tissue for sunlight to focus on the leaf and cause any damage.

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