Garden Talk: December 16, 2010

From NGA Editors

Poinsettias for Polar Bears

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Want to decorate for the holidays and support endangered polar bears at the same time? Look for the 'Eckespoint® Polar Bear' poinsettia. This stunning new white poinsettia, bred by Ecke Ranch, blends in beautifully with other holiday plants and decorations. The company's whitest poinsettia that still features dark green leaves, 'Polar Bear' has good structure and vigor.

Best of all, a portion of the proceeds from its sale goes to Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization dedicated to the world-wide conservation of these magnificent animals. Ecke Ranch hopes the sale of these new poinsettias will help bring worldwide attention to the challenges these Arctic dwellers are confronting in the face of global warming. Their donations will go to fund research and education projects in support of the bears.

So look for the blue tag with a picture of a polar bear when you're buying holiday plants this year so you and the bears can have a "beary" merry Christmas!

For more information on 'Polar Bear' poinsettias, go to: National Garden Bureau. For more information on Polar Bears International, go to Polar Bears International.

Up with Foxgloves

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Foxgloves are quintessential cottage garden plants, their tall spires of softly-hued flowers adding a vertical accent to the billowing silhouettes of so many other bloomers in early summer. But on most varieties the bell-shaped florets point downward on the stalks.

Now comes a new variety from Thompson and Morgan with unique, upward facing flowers in a delectable mix of pink, rose, white and lilac. Digitalis purpurea 'Mountains Mixed' will fill the garden with 36 to 56 inch tall spires of bloom in early to mid-summer, their upturned blossoms making it easy to appreciate the entire floret, inside and out.

'Mountains Mixed' foxglove is a hardy biennial that does well in zones 4-8. Started from seed 8-10 weeks before the last frost date, it may occasionally bloom the first year. Foxgloves thrive in sun or part shade and average soil and mix well with many early summer bloomers, including other cottage garden favorites such as roses, catmint, peonies and bleeding heart.

For more information on 'Mountains Mixed' foxglove, go to: National Garden Bureau.

Hooray for Holly

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It is a Christmas tradition to "deck the halls with boughs of holly," although the custom of using holly as a decoration for winter time festivals and celebrations goes back to the Druids of ancient Britain, the Romans, even the Chinese. Evergreen hollies were the plants used in these customs and are still used today for our Yuletide decorating.

But all hollies are not evergreen. Within the genus Ilex are deciduous hollies that are not only great landscape plants but are useful for holiday decorating as well. In fact, the Holly Society of America, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to collect, promote and disseminate information on all kinds of hollies, has chosen the deciduous winterberry holly Ilex verticillata 'Winter Sprite' as its 2010 Holly of the Year.

'Winter Sprite' winterberry is a dwarf form that grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, with a dense, rounded habit. In summer it is clothed in green leaves that change to yellow in the fall. But its large, bright red berries are the real show, borne in abundance on female plants well into winter. This dazzling display is also attractive to many birds as a source of winter food, and cut branches are perfect for adding color to holiday greenery. An early flowering male winterberry cultivar, such as 'Jim Dandy' or 'Skipjack,' is needed nearby to ensure fruit set on 'Winter Sprite.' Hardy in zones 3-9, this winterberry thrives in moist, acid soil in full sun to part shade.

To find out more about 'Winter Sprite' winterberry, go to: Holly Society of America.

Social Sagebrush and other Curiosities

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Most of us don't think of our plants as having a social life. But some new research shows that, while your beans and begonias may not updating their Facebook pages, some plants are aware of who's hanging out in their neighborhood. Scientists are just beginning to understand how the plants can tell who's nearby.

As reported in the November, 2010 issue of Discover Magazine, biologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found that certain tropical tree species grow best in soil collected near mature trees of a different species rather than their own. Interestingly, the tree seedlings did not seem to be responding negatively to chemicals released by their own species but instead to the particular soil micro-organisms that flourished near the roots of the mature trees. The researchers hypothesized that this process evolved as a way to keep seedlings from sprouting too close to the parent tree and suffering from its competition.

Sagebrush, on the other hand, enjoys the company of its own kind. Scientists at the University of California at Davis found that these plants sent out airborne chemicals that helped to protect them from insect attacks. But the researchers also noted that, like siblings watching out for each other, when two genetically-identical sagebrush plants grew side by side, they fended off pests more effectively than if grown next to an unrelated plant. They speculate that the ability of sagebrush to respond to defense signals from other members of their species encourages the plants to grow near to each other to enhance their survival.

Ultimately, this kind of research may lead to better ways to grow plants and keep them safe from pests. But it's also a fascinating peek into the intricacy and complexity of natural world.

To read more on the research on trees and soil, go to: Smithsonian. To read more about the research on sagebrush, go to: Science Daily.

 
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