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Dear Friend and Gardener

Green Barriers for Function and Beauty

newly planted arborvitae

Newly planted arborvitae

Recently a friend asked if I had any suggestions for creating a sound barrier in front of his house. My first idea was arborvitae. These neat symmetrical conifers are popular because they are not only handsome, but because they are low maintenance plants. They are hardy, not fussy about soil, are fairly salt tolerant and once they are established they are drought tolerant. They also tolerate some shade but need at least four hours of sun.

Two easily available arborvitae cultivars are Emerald Green which will reach a height of about 15 feet with a three to four foot spread, growing at a rate of about a foot a year. Green Giant will reach a height of 30-40 feet with a 15-20 foot spread, and grows more rapidly.

The Leyland cedar, which has the scale-like foliage and other attributes similar to that of the arborvitae, will grow about two feet a year until it is 60 feet or more with a spread of about 20 feet. It needs full sun.

The question with any planting is how long it will take before the plants achieve your goal. One way to hurry the usefulness of a sound barrier created by these trees is to plant two rows, with the second row planted off center. Two rows planted this way will give you a solid barrier more quickly. An annual pruning will help control the height.

mature arborvitae

Mature arborvita

Evergreens make the best sound barrier, but people need other barriers if they are looking for greater privacy on small urban lots. I have seen houses here in Greenfield that have five or six foot privet hedges in front of their houses to give them privacy in their gardens.

The lots on our Greenfield street are quite narrow. Houses take up most of the width of the lot and driveways use more land next to the house. The north side of our house, where we park our car, is hardly more than an alley. Long ago our neighbor on that side planted a privet hedge which is now about seven or eight feet tall.

On the south side there is approximately 21 feet from our house to our neighbor’s driveway. Driveways are necessary and we all have them, but no one ever claimed they were things of beauty. Our answer was a deep border filled with blooming shrubs.

I began with hydrangeas which have become so popular. There are different families of hydrangea and each of them has different requirements and benefits. I was careful to choose paniculata hydrangeas which have the kind of loose, airy flower clusters that I like. I am not as fond of the familiar snowball hydrangeas. Paniculata hydrangeas are hardy and not very fussy. All three of the cultivars I chose should be pruned back slightly in the very early spring to encourage new growth, but they require little other care.

I chose three which promise to be tall and wide. Limelight has a long bloom season, producing large pale green flowers from mid-summer into the fall. Hydrangeas grow quickly and it should not take long before my Limelight reaches a height of at least five feet, and I’m hoping for seven or eight feet, with an equal spread.

Then I chose Angel’s Blush hydrangea because its label said it was one of the largest hydrangeas and would grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The large loose flower clusters turn a lovely shade of pink over the summer. It also tolerates some shade.

Since I can never resist shades of pink and red my third choice was Quick Fire. The large flowers will turn a deeper and deeper shade of pink/red over the summer. It will reach a similar height and width as Angel’s Blush.

I’ve planted lilacs and viburnams in this deep border as well, but hydrangeas will be the stars. Because these shrubs are still young, I have also used ground covers, perennials and a few annuals to cover the ground. I’d don’t want to look at bare soil any more than I do a driveway. As the shrubs fill out I will move those plants to a roomier spot. My photo of a section of this border/barrier looks a bit of a tangle, but that will change as the hydrangeas mature.

Hydrangea border

Hydrangea border

No matter how big and tall my hydrangeas get they will loose their blossoms and foliage when frigid winter storms in, but we will be keeping our heads down and rushing from car to house so we won’t be looking at the flower bed. Or my neighbor’s driveway.

We are also planning a privacy barrier with a third type of shrub at the back of our lot. The very back border is a bit of a tangle of weedy trees and Virginia creeper. I don’t object to this wildness because wild space is important to support pollinators and birds. However, it is not lovely.

Because this end of our lot is very wet we have created a kind of large raised bed that we call The Hugel. So far we have only planted groundcovers on The Hugel, but  in the spring we will plant beautiful broadleaf evergreens, rhododendrons.

The world of rhododendrons is a large one with small and tall cultivars, in a rainbow of colors like the pink Scintillation, the soft yellow Capistrano, snowy Boule de Neige, or rich Purple Passion. These low maintenance shrubs all bloom gloriously in the spring around Memorial Day in our area. Though their leaves curl in really cold weather, they will still provide an attractive barrier in front of our deciduous weediness. ###

Between the Rows   October 15, 2016

Framable Bridge of Flowers

Bridge of Flowers cycle by Carol Purington

Bridge of Flowers cycle by Carol Purington

Carol Purington, the prize winning poet who resides on a family farm in Colrain, has created this framable cycle of haiku that evoke the Bridge of Flowers through the seasons.  She begins with the Bridge itself

Arching/the Indian old river/bridge of blossoms

Arc of geese/under frosted flowers/the river too runs south

Summer-green/floats out from under the arches -/flower bridge blooms.

The work of art is available at Shelburne Falls locations: Sawyer News; Boswells Books which also sells Carol’s books; and Heart for Art. You can also get in touch with me at commonweeder.gmail.com. This is a lovely memento of  a visit to the Bridge of Flowers, or a reminder of  the good fortune those of use who can traverse the Bridge in all seasons.

Forcing Spring Bulbs


Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Are you thinking about forcing spring bulbs? Most of us will never have a March forced bulb display the way Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges do, but visits to these heartening spring flower shows do make the point that we can create an early spring in our own houses.

October is the month to prepare to force our favorite bulbs, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, scillas, and amaryllis. The theory behind bulb forcing is that we have to fool the bulbs into thinking that winter has come, and then let them think that spring has begun. Most bulbs need twelve weeks of cold temperatures defined as between 40 to 50 degrees. These temperatures might be found in basements, or the refrigerator.

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

Potting up bulbs for forcing begins with clean pots of an appropriate size and good potting soil. Tulips can be planted three to a pot with a five inch diameter. Hyacinths and daffodils can be planted three to a pot with a seven inch diameter. The bulbs should be planted so that the tip of the bulb is exposed.

Little bulbs like crocus, grape hyacinths and scillas can be planted several to a single pot, depending on pot size and they should be covered with an inch of potting soil. Make sure you have allowed room in the pot for watering. Newly planted bulbs should be well watered after planting, but no more watering is needed while the bulbs enjoy their dormancy in a cool dark place.

Because each type of bulb has a different bloom period each pot should only contain one type of bulb. Because of the varying needs of bulbs, those in charge of the college greenhouses have a strict schedule for managing temperatures in order to have the bulbs come into bloom on the appointed dates of the shows. If you attend those shows you will also notice that the greenhouses are kept very cool throughout the run of the show to encourage as long a period of good bloom as possible.

When the long initial period of cooling is finished, and green shoots begin to appear, the pots of bulbs can be brought out into warmer and brighter rooms. If possible, put them in a fairly cool room, and never put them in direct sunlight. First the foliage will develop, then the buds appear and soon the flowers. Many of us keep our house cooler at night to save on heating bills; cool nights are very good for our growing bulbs. Some of us may have rooms that are cooler for any number of reasons and they also provide a happy location for the bulbs at night. Cool temperatures will help to prolong the bloom period.

Forced paper white narcissus

Forced paper white narcissus

Hyacinths and paper white narcissus can be forced in water as well as in soil. Hyacinths need a cooling period of only about eight weeks, but paper whites do not need any.  My own refrigerator doesn’t have room for pots of bulbs, but even I could put a some bulbs in a paper bag with a few ventilation holes in it and store them in the refrigerator. The caveat is that apples in the refrigerator will ripen the bulbs prematurely so a choice has to be made between the bulbs and the fruit.

Hyacinths look so pretty standing alone that hyacinth glasses have been invented. These glasses hold the bulb so that the bottom of the bulb can touch water and induce the growth of roots, and then the foliage and flower. Many garden centers sell these special glasses, and even pre-cooled bulbs so that you can start your forcing immediately.

Several paper white narcissus can be set on a bed of two or three inches of pebbles in a shallow pot. Cover the bulbs with just enough of the pebbles to hold them firmly in place. Then add only enough water to touch the bottom of the bulbs. You will have to keep watering as the bulbs grow. The rate and strength of growth will depend on temperature, which ideally should not be more than 70 degrees.

One year I grew paper whites in a four inch square glass vase. The vase allowed me to see the level of water, and it also provided support for the flower stems which can get floppy.

Right now garden centers are filled with boxes of potted amaryllis. These glamorous flowers come on the market intended to bloom during the December holiday season. They do not need cooling in basements or refrigerators.

Amaryllis is usually sold with its own pot with instructions to leave half of the bulb exposed. The pot only allows for about half an inch of space all around the bulb.

In the past I have treated amaryllis as an annual and never tried to bring it into a second season of bloom. However, last year when I was in a constant state of disorganization as we sold one house and moved into another house, the three pots of amaryllis got caught up in the waves of moving our stuff to Greenfield. This spring the pots with dry amaryllis bulbs surfaced. I watered them but had no expectations. Amazingly, two of the three bulbs sent up shoots. I set them outside and continued to give them very little attention. One of them even sent up a flower stem – which broke off when a squirrel was frolicking in the area and knocked the plant over.

Now I will experiment by cutting back the foliage and putting the potted bulbs in the basement for a nap. Will they wake up and begin a new life in 2017? We’ll see.

Between the Rows  October 8, 2016

A New Garden Room – Just in time

Garden Room

Garden Room

It was time to create a Garden Room. Yesterday I noticed that the Christmas cactus  out on the front porch had been slightly nipped by cold night time temperatures. It was time to clean out the side porch which spent the summer filled with construction materials and debris and turn it into a Garden Room. We closed the windows, and even though the temperatures never quite hit 70 degrees and substantial breezes kept our two river birches dancing, the room warmed right up. The jade tree, orchid cactus, several Christmas cacti and a begonia will be happy here for quite a while, but actually I think they will have to come inside the house eventually. Last winter we left the rosemary plant out in what was not quite a Garden Room and it sprang to life in March. Oh for the blessings of spring light and warmth after the winter.

Little Bulbs for Spring Beauty


Crocus in April

The little bulbs, those that bring us the earliest spring blooms include the familiar crocus, but they can also be from a host of other spring bloomers. Here are a handful of little bulbs that can help you get spring off to an early start.

Possibly the least well known and earliest bulbs to bloom are the winter aconites, Eranthus heymalis. These are members of the buttercup family and the bright yellow flowers look very much like buttercups but the plant is usually three or four inches tall, and never more than six inches. Because it is hardy to Zone 4 it can take temperatures of -30 degrees; it can bloom very early and may even come up through the snow.

Winter aconites like rich humsy soil that is moist and in partial shade. If it is really happy it will reseed itself. This is a very small bulb and in order to get a real show it should be planted with about 15 to a square foot. Fortunately you can get ten bulbs for $5 and 100 for $39.

Galanthus - snowdrops

Snowdrops – Galanthus

Snowdrops are a member of the Galanthus genus which includes about 20 named species, most of which are six inches tall or less.  However, Sam Arnott can reach a height of about 12 inches, as will G. nivalis Viridia-apice. These flowers are a bit larger than the aconites, and the standard is to plant 10 to a square foot in rich humusy soil in the shade. All snowdrops have nodding white blossoms with a green dot on the petals. They are hardy to Zone 3. Like aconites they may bloom in the snow early in the season. Prices vary depending on the species ranging from 50 for $36 – $107.

Crocuses have more substantial blooms about six inches tall. They come in colors from white to pale blue, to deep purple, and gold. They like dry soil, but all bulbs appreciate good humusy soil. After all, we want them to stay in the same place for years, increasing the population every year.

One species, Crocus tommasinianus, produces a small blossom but it does self- seed energetically and is a species most likely to thrive in a lawn. It blooms very early so the foliage dies back before the grass too unkempt. Other advice from the MissouriBotanical Garden, a favorite site of mine for dependable information, is that lawns planted with crocus should not be fertilized, watered or aerated. Well fed grass will out-complete the crocus.  As with any bulb the foliage must be allowed to ripen before it is mowed down. They can be planted 10 to 15 per square foot. The ‘tommies’ should definitely be planted more densely.

Squirrels can do damage to crocus bulbs, but squirrels are less likely to find those planted in the lawn than when they are planted in flower beds.

Scillas are petite, but when planted thickly they are a reflection of the spring sky. Scilla siberica which reaches a height of about 10 inches will give you that sky blue but there are others. The white Scilla siberica alba is a bit shorter and blooms slightly earlier as does the delicately pink S. bifolia Rosea which blooms in the very early spring. Again, it is not very expensive to start a mass planting of scillas beause 100 tiny bulbs will cost $50 or less, and can be planted 10 per square foot.

Grape hyacinths - muscari

Grape hyacinths – muscari

Scillas will be happy in sun or shade, don’t mind a dry site and are pest resistant. I love grape hyacinths, muscari. I used to think they came in only a shade of bright blue, but there are now many varieties including Bellevalia which is almost black, to White Magic. In between is Golden Fragrance which is self explanatory and Valerie Finis, a very pale lavender with a long bloom period and M. armeniacum is very pale at the base of the bloom. All the grape hyacinths are pest resistant. No creature will be digging up the bulbs and eating them.

I planted snowdrops many years ago in what we called the orchard just beyond the vegetable garden. However, I rarely got to see them because I hardly ever walked down there in the very early spring. I finally dug some of them up “in the green” which is to say when they were blooming This is the only time I would be able to see where they were growing. I was much happier having them right in front of the house in front of a low stone wall where the snow melted first. I also planted a few snowdrop bulbs in the open space beneath a shrub. I could admire those sweet blossoms from a window.

I am now preparing to plant a border of crocuses, or maybe aconite, right along the sidewalk at the edge of what is striving to be a grassless lawn. There is sun for several hours before our giant sycamore leafs out. The soil is quite dry there, but I will enrich it with compost after I remove the sod, but before I plant the bulbs. With such tiny bulbs that need to be planted in relatively large numbers, it is easier to dig a clear space and scatter the bulbs, rather than digging a hole or even making an opening with your trowel to plant them singly.

When you order your bulbs they will come with full planting information including the depth at which they should be planted. For example,crocus should be planted 2-3 inches deep.

The older I get the shorter each season seems to get. Autumn is now officially upon us and I am planning for the spring.

Between the Rows  October 1, 2016


Autumal Blooms in Early October


Autumnal blooms include annuals like Zinnias and cosmos

There are more autumnal blooms in my garden than I expected. I am trying to capture many of  them for my climate record.

Firelight hydrangea

Firelight hydrangea with white asters and pink Alma Potchke asters

Angel's Blush hydrangea

Angel’s Blush hydrangea


One of several dahlias in bloom

Perennial ageratum

Perennial ageratum climbing into yellow twig dogwood

Lion's Fairy Tale rose

Lion’s FAiry Tale rose

'The Fairy' rose

‘The Fairy’ rose

Snakeroot and  winterberry

Snake root and winterberry

We expect autumnal blooms like asters, but surprises are like the roses and zinnias.

Asters and bees

Asters and bees

By the time the sun came out and warmed the garden the bees came out to forage. There are still plenty of pollinators in  the garden when the  sun is out.  Other blooming plants include coneflowers, geraniums, cardinal flower, and joe pye weed. It gets very cool, in the 40s at night, but no frost yet.

Umbellifers – from poison to beauty

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

The family of umbellifers can take us from Socrates poison to Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Did you ever imagine that Queen Anne’s Lace, sweet cicely, golden alexanders, angelica, sea holly and poison hemlock, were all members of the same botanical family? All of these belong to the large class Apiaceae which is very large, with 300 genera and between 2500-3000 species. I will not give a lengthy lecture on taxonomy, a system used by botanists, but I will give you the hierarchy. First comes the domain, followed by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  For example, humans are in the animalia kingdom and the genus Homo as in Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis.

The class of umbellifers is familiar to any of us who have seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing by the roadside, or used dill when making pickles.

The word umbellifer refers to the shape of the flower. Botanists will say that plants with a flower similar to Queen Anne’s Lace is an inflorescence, which I think is a lovely sounding word. Once you start to think of plants with similar flowers you might first enter a world of edible plants. The herb garden holds many umbellifers including parsley, caraway, cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, celery, and chervil.

Some herbs like Angelica archangelica can grow to seven feet tall. It makes quite a statement in the herb or flower garden. It bears a resemblance to giant hogweed, but it is benign and will not cause rashes or worse. It has been used medicinally in the past. It is a biennial, or may seed itself for several years.

I grew the herb lovage in an out of the way spot in my Heath garden because it easily grew to six feet tall. I didn’t use it much, but I occasionally used the leaves when I didn’t have celery

Which brings us to the vegetable garden with celery, celeriac, fennel, parsnips, and carrots, of course.

If you have any of these umbellifers in your herb or vegetable garden you know that the flowers attract many pollinators and butterflies. Once I learned that the striking yellow and green caterpillars I saw crawling on and eating my dill would eventually turn into lovely swallowtail butterflies, I planted extra parsley and dill. Still, I remain willing to sacrifice these plants because it means I have the flowers of the sky in my garden.

Sea Holly

Sea Holly

And that just about brings us to the flowers in the garden. Sea holly (Eryngium) is an umbellifer. The silvery but bright blue umbel looks quite different from the airy and flat Queen Anne’s Lace blossom. The sea holly umbel more resembles the center of a cone flower with tiny flowers in the center surrounded by thistle-like bracts.

I bought a sea holly for my Heath garden several years ago and I’ve forgotten the particular species. There are a couple of species of sea holly that are hardy in our region.

Eryngium Big Blue will grow to nearly three feet with a two foot spread. Eryngium yuccifolium has yucca-like foliage with small, pale greenish-white umbels and no bracts. Both of these are very hardy and do well in ordinary soil that drains well. It is an ideal plant for the dry garden.

There is another sea holly nicknamed Miss Willmott’s Ghost. This plant is quite famous in England where the wealthy Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934) lived and gardened. She was a passionate gardener and it has been said that she had 200 gardeners working in her Warley Place gardens.

One of her favorite plants was Erynium giganteum and it was well known that she often scattered the seeds of this plant in the gardens that she visited. I have heard different stories about her habit of spreading the seed of this favorite plant. Some say she did it because she loved it so much she wanted to share it with all her friends. Others say she did it to irritate people. Either way, the big pale holly became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost. She became more and more eccentric as she lived, and ultimately died a pauper.

Some of the umbellifers are so similar in appearance that they can be mistaken for a poisonous member of the family. A couple of years ago there was a great concern about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which grows to ten feet with a flower that resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. This is a phototoxic plant. When the sap gets on your skin and then is exposed to sunlight the damage it causes looks like a bad burn and is very painful.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) was used on purpose in 399 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Socrates who had been convicted of corrupting Athenian youth. Plato was with Socrates when he took the deadly drink and watched him stroll around the room until he felt his strength waning. He lay down and was soon dead.

Those who read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley may remember that the epic story of a farming family also includes murder by poison hemlock.

Water hemock (Cicuta) is considered the most deadly poisonous plant in the United States. The deaths that occur are because the roots are mistaken for edible vegetables.  It takes hardly more than a bite before it attacks the nervous system causing vomiting and seizures.

My advice is to stick to parsley and parsnips in the kitchen, and sea holly in the garden.

Between the Rows   September 24, 2016

Chrysanthemums and Beyond


Chrysanthemum at 2009 Kiku exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

Chrysanthemums are an iconic autumn flower. You can see potted mums for sale everywhere including the supermarkets where ranks of mums in shades of lemon, tangerine and plum cluster around the entrances. A friend reminded me of a quote from Maggie Smith  in the 1969 movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I never saw. A student had given Miss Brodie a bouquet(?) of chrysanthemums and her response was, “Chrysanthemums. Such a serviceable flower.”

Miss Brodie did not seem impressed, but at the very least chrysanthemums are indeed serviceable, providing bright welcomes on porches, cheering at football games with their giant blossoms on coats, a golden or ruby glow in candlelight in dinner table bouquets.


Dahlias in perennial ageratum tangle

In 1972 Miss Smith starred in Travels With My Aunt in which she played another character who had strong opinions about flowers. While strolling in the garden of her dahlia loving nephew, Henry, she sniffed and with disdainful look said, “Dahlias are so vulgar.”

Happily by 2011 Miss Smith’s characters may not have been any less waspish, but she seemed at least to have gentler feelings about bright flowers when she starred in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie that glowed with the warm light of marigolds. I don’t recall that she made any comments about the marigolds at all.

All three of these plants, chrysanthemums, dahlias and deep golden marigolds can bring color and drama to the autumnal garden. While potted mums are on sale everywhere at this time of the year, there are many chrysanthemum flower forms that bring special interest to the garden in addition to their colors. There are neat little pom poms, others with each floret (petal) ending in a spoon, or tubular florets called quills or incurved blossoms that will remind you of a Japanese brocade. There are 14 unusual varieties which will probably have to turn to online nurseries such as King’s Mums, or Garden Harvest Supply to see what unusual perennial varieties are available.

It is too late to order any of these fancy mums now, but you can get an idea of what they look like at the Smith College Chrysanthemum Show that includes the stunning chrysanthemum cascades and will run from November 5-20.

Recently I have been writing about Eric Greene’s dahlias which are so hardy and glamorous. Many of his dahlias originally came from Swan Island Dahlias. Like mums, dahlias can be organized by size with the largest measuring more than 10 inches or more, down to less than 4 inches across. They are also organized by type from collarette which is usually a single form, to waterlily form to petite pom-poms.

Dahlias can add rich and fiery blooms to the autumnal garden, but they have tender personalities as well. Those are the colors I always end up planting even though I am an admirer of scarlets and royal purples in the catalogs.



Recently I attended the stupa dedication at Lilian Jackman’s Wilder Hill Gardens. There I admired her tall, large flowered golden marigolds reminiscent of the marigolds The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Marigolds will bloom into the fall and will also have a place in the autumnal garden. Marigolds are so easy to grow that they are a perfect flower for a child to grow. How happy and proud children are when their tiny seed grows into something so big and golden.

There is no problem in finding marigold seed from American Meadow, Park’s or Burpee Seeds.

Zinnias are another tough annual that will bloom long into the fall in golden shades like the marigold, or in a riot of hot or pastel shades. They also come in a range of flower forms from a neat single to shaggy cactus-flowers and dahlia-type flowers. I have made a promise to myself to always have zinnias in my garden.

All of these, mums, dahlias, marigolds and zinnias, are brilliant in the garden and make great cut flowers as well.

Without thinking too much about it I seem to have a number of asters in my new garden. I brought two clumps of the bright pink Alma Potschke with me from Heath as well as the low growing Wood’s Blue, which is a strong grower and makes a good ground cover even when it is not in bloom.

I added a white aster which has fine white flowers and was a bit disappointing. I also planted two pots of a purple aster which are just coming into bloom.

And then there is the much watched weed in my hell strip. For most of the summer I dubiously watched it grow. I wasn’t sure enough it was a weed and so did not rip it out. My procrastination has paid off because it is now producing very sweet small purple flowers, making more of a show that my new white aster. All the asters attract lots of pollinators.

Before I close I must confess to a lack of organization and record-keeping. The mystery groundcover that I mentioned last week revealed its name once planted where it was no longer crowed and got more sun. A small blossom surprised me. It is an osteospurmum which I planted in the spring, inspired by the hardiness and dramatic beauty of the osteospurmums on the Bridge of Flowers.  Obviously osteospurmums are another annual that will bloom into the fall.

Between the Rows   September 17, 2016

Blues in the Autumn

Wood's Blue aster

Wood’s Blue aster

Blues in the autumn strike a different mood from that of  the traditional expectation of reds and golds of the fall. And yet, there are many blues in the autumnal palette.

Perennial ageratum

Perennial ageratum with dahlias

The very blue perennial ageratum, or mistflower have tumbled in the heat to embrace the dahlias.

Russian sage

Russian sage, perovskia

Some may call it a shade of lavender, but I consider my Russian sage a part of my autumnal blues.



If I allow lavender Russian sage I will also allow purple asters. I love asters in any color.

Is your garden blue in the fall?

Flower Power in the Medicine Cabinet

Artemesia annua

Artemesia annua aka Sweet Annie, a cure for malaria even in modern times

Flower Power has been a hippy anthem but it is also a reminder that we should not underestimate the power of plants as medicine. Antibiotics have been a gift to doctors and patients for decades, but that gift has been abused. Through the overuse of antibiotics for the sick, or possibly sick, and as a preventative in livestock many bacteria strains have developed resistance to these ever more powerful and available antibiotics.

In the New York Times Magazine article (September 18, 2016), Flower Power  Ferris Jabr lays out dangers that we might face. He interviewed ethnobotantist Cassandra Quave about the threat and consequences of loosing our effective antibiotics. Experts say that they (resistant bacterias) currently cause 700,000 lives a year globally and that number will only grow. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era. We just haven’t fallen off yet, Quave said.

Anti-biotics have been around since the 1940s, but herbal medicines have been around as long as the human race has existed. Even animals like members of the raccoon family in panama know to rub a minty tree resin through their fur to deter fleas and ticks. Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating back to 3000 B.C. list prescriptions, and in c. 50 A.D. the Roman surgeon Dioscordes was putting together his De Materia Medica which gave the medical benefits of 600 plants. This information was used for 1500 years until the Renaissance began to supplant it with revised herbals.

Quave says we need to turn to plants again to create new medicines. Some are skeptical and smell “a whiff of mumbo-jumbo folklore,” and some see the difficulties and expense that will be necessary to understand and use the complicated plant chemistry to make these new medicines.

Fortunately the work has begun and Jabr’s article describes some of them. For instance, Quave found that in southern Italy healers used blackberry roots to treat boils. She collected and worked with those roots in her lab and found that while the resulting product did not kill MRSA bacteria it did prevent them from adhering to living tissue and medical equipment in hospitals. This keeps the level of bacteria down to such a low level that they are no longer dangerous.

Quave said this is a new way of looking at the problem. “We’ve been in the mindset that we need to kill microbes. What we need is to find a balance.”

This is such a fascinating article because it shows us that we should not dismiss the power of plants, and that we might need to take a different approach to managing bacteria.