Two bulb experts, Michael Hagen, Curator of the Rock Garden and Native Plant Garden, and Marta McDowell, NYBG instructor, author, gardener, and landscape historian, recently commented on some frequently asked questions about the gorgeous spring bulbs now blossoming in the garden . Here’s what they had to say.
Q: What are some of the easiest spring/early summer bulbs to grow?
McDowell: Narcissus seem to be almost indestructible and with so many varieties, you can have them in bloom for almost two months. Other choices: Crocosmia—graceful in leaf and flower and blackberry lily (Iris domestica or Belamcanda chinensis). Great foliage, flowers, and seed pods.
Q: What are some of the most difficult bulbs to grow, aside from climate issues?
Hagen: Climate aside, the hardest to grow are the ones that our native ground squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, and gophers enjoy eating. Species tulips have been a particular challenge in the Rock Garden. If it’s a warm fall (and the chipmunks are not hibernating yet) they can be dug up and eaten right after they’ve been planted.
One of the biggest surprises is the fact that 25 percent of our prescription medicines—including many of today’s life-saving, well-known products—come from plant ingredients. The exhibition highlights dozens of plant species for their impact in promoting health or fighting disease.
A new series of photo-driven guides for the home gardener called the Plant Lover’s Guides devotes each lavishly illustrated book to a single popular plant. One of the newest installments in the series focuses on asters. It is written by Paul Picton and his daughter, Helen, specialist growers who operate prize-winning Picton Garden, near Malvern, in Herefordshire, England.
The Pictons are passionate experts in the field and their garden holds more than 400 different forms of asters that flower at their peak in the late summer and fall, right up to the frosty winter. Their book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Asters ($24.95, Timber Press), available at the Shop in the Garden, recommends the best varieties and designs for different growing conditions, along with color combinations that work well, and in-depth advice on planting and maintenance.
To the delight of all visitors, two giant caterpillar topiaries—dubbed Frida and Diego—have recently been designed and planted by NYBG gardeners, Diana Babbitt and Katie Bronson, in the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.
“We thought it would be fun to try to make a Frida caterpillar,” explains Katie. “So we looked at a lot of her pictures where she is wearing flower headdresses and we tried to make one of those.”
Frida is filled with deep purple-red coleus punctuated by bright pink Zinnia elegans that contrasts with nearly black Salviadiscolor on her body. Her raised head is softened by green ‘Round Leaf’ Hedera, and her eyes look straight ahead, portrait-style, under those famous bushy eyebrows.
Many of us got our first glimpse of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life with the award-winning 2002 biopic starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame. But the Frida now on view at The New York Botanical Garden’s exhibition, FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life, is a totally different person from the film version.
The new exhibition is the first to “re-imagine” Kahlo’s garden and to explore her appreciation of nature—including the many plants, insects, and fascinating animal imagery in her paintings.
Frida Kahlo adored the garden at her home, the Casa Azul (Blue House), in Coyoacán, Mexico. Her painting studio directly overlooked the garden with its cobalt blue walls and fabulous collection of native Mexican plants. The garden was both an inspiration and a private haven during Kahlo’s personal battles with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Every week during the school year, more than 1,200 young children participate in specially designed school programs developed and taught at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden (ECAG). And that number swells to about 1,600 during New York City’s school testing weeks in April when more students stream into ECAG’s gardens and facilities because upper grades are taking tests.
“During the spring we see a big uptick in the number of school field trips. Our facility can serve over 2,000 students per week, allowing us to deliver programming to more children than any other children’s venue within NYBG,” says Fran Agnone, Coordinator of the Adventure Garden.
When walking in the woodland area of the Native Plant Garden this time of year, you will meet up with the native fern Polystichum acrostichoides, commonly known as the Christmas fern. These ferns can form large, one- to two-foot clumps; are easy to grow; and are standouts in winter due to their evergreen leaves.
The individual leaves on each frond are stocking-shaped, reminiscent of Christmas stockings, which some people claim is the origin of the plant’s common name. But, in fact, the name “Christmas” fern comes from its having deep green fronds at Christmas time, says NYBG fern expert Robbin C. Moran.
Dr. Moran’s entertaining and enlightening book, A Natural History of Ferns, (available in the NYBG shop or by print-on-demand from Timber Press), explains how these amazing plants reproduce by actually “shooting” their very tiny spores. “The spores leap more than an inch into the air and arch downward,” Moran observes. “It is like watching popcorn popping.”
Fall is a good time to identify many of the common invasive plants and wildlife that may be threatening your garden. While you’re cleaning up your leaves and garden beds, you can spot the invaders including mile-a-minute vine, multiflora rose, Norway maple, oriental bittersweet, phragmites, porcelain berry, Tree of Heaven, winged euonymus, and more.
Many of these exotic species were intentionally introduced from other countries more than a century ago. Some were used as packing material, while others just took a ride on ships from Asia and Europe. Some plants were cultivated for their ornamental value without regard for the fact that they could out-compete important native species. A detailed list of prohibited and regulated invasive plants in New York State with pictures is provided here.
You can learn to identify some of these invasive plants right in your own backyard and then report your findings by signing up on a new smartphone app, online database, and website called iMapInvasives.
In the book, Tallamy, known as the “guru” of native plant gardening for his earlier, award-winning book, Bringing Nature Home, actually recorded as many as 20 different bird species—many beautifully photographed in the book—eating berries and insects from an alternate-leaf dogwood tree planted outside his bathroom window.
“So many birds visit this tree during the summer that our bathroom has become the hottest birding destination in our house,” he jokes. But the serious message of this story and one of most important points of his entire new book is that “our plants are our bird feeders!”
The spring trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is one of several native perennial wildflowers blooming now in the Native Plant Garden. Its flowers appear in sunny patches in the forest woodland area. At the base of each plant are its telltale leaves—speckled, elongated, and looking like brown brook trout.
The flowers come up quickly in the early spring, then produce fruit and create new leaves, all before the tall, deciduous trees leaf out and block much of the sunlight. In the heat of summer, the flowers and foliage disappear, which is why they are called ephemerals.
Some other examples of native ephemerals are blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis), liver’s leaf or hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). But the trout lily is by far my favorite for there are so many stories about it.