When I say sort of, I am alluding to the fact that this plant that looks like a palm is not really a palm. It is a grass that looks like a palm thus the common and not so creative name of palm grass. Palm grass or as is known in the Latin circles as Setaria palmifolia is a fast-growing annual grass. We brought our plants in as quart pots in late May of this year from Landcraft Environments, a wholesale nursery that operates on Long Island. June tends to stay relatively cool on the Maine coast and palm grass slowly starts to grow and stretch. By the end of summer, as temperatures reach the low 80’s on a daily basis, Setaria palmifolia plants are now over 3 feet tall and wide. The dark green leaves are around 3-4 inches in width, with ridges running along the leaf blades which make them resemble a palm leaf.
Having this texture in the mixed border is a nice contrast, especially in an area where palm trees seem to grow in various shades of greenish-yellow during the summer while taking on a perma-brown cast during the winter months. There is a good reason why palm trees have evolved not to live in New England. They hate the weather! That said, I love New England and I love palms so this is a seasonal compromise after our experiment growing needle palms this past winter turned into a mushy disaster.
The leaves and texture of palm grass are coarse with the plant forming a slightly upright clump. The palm grass makes for a nice backdrop for finer textured plants such as kangaroo paws, salvias, and foxgloves. Here in New England, I would grow the plants in full sun, with adequate moisture and ample nutrition. We mulch our plants early in the season with compost and then give them an extra boost with organic liquid fertilizer as soon as the temperatures start to reach their summer highs.
We are planning on digging up a couple of clumps this winter and storing them in our greenhouse for safe keeping for next summer. I am looking forward to seeing how large this clump will become next summer from an established plant. If you live in a warmer climate where palm trees grow extremely well outside, year-round (USDA zones 8 and above) I would caution you to consider sticking with your palms over the palm grass. Setaria as a genus has a tendency to be a weed grass in southeast Asia and India. There are reports of palm grass self seeding in warmer parts of the United States so I would advise against its use in these warmer climes. For us here in New England who do not have the luxury of growing palms outside, year round (maybe it is the 3 to 4 months of snow and cold that do them in as it does in most people), palm grass is a wonderful annual to provide that tropical texture in mixed plantings.
Images: Rodney Eason, Lifestyle Home
Funny how one person can say something and then more and more people start to repeat it until their words spread around. Here in Maine, I have heard several folks say that summer is almost over. Why on earth would someone say that? Could it be that millions of people are leaving Maine after having wonderful vacations and heading back to their homes, schools, and workplaces? Maybe it is the shorter hours of daylight and the fact that public schools in New England are starting back next week. Perhaps it is due to the fact that our night temperatures are starting to dip into the high 50’s on a few nights.
Whatever the reason, I want to counter that statement and say that summer is not over! Technically, we have another month of summer as the autumnal equinox does not begin until Tuesday, September 23rd. I think the best time to see perennial gardens along the eastern United States would be in late August and through September. The light is changing and more and more plants are in full flower. With the long days of summer, many plants have had just the right amount of solar energy they needed to put out one last hurrah of flowers. One plant in particular that is blooming its head off is the Anigozanthos. What is Anigozanthos, you say? I wrote quite a bit about the kangaroo paws in this Studio G post back in January of this year. You can check out that article here for more information about the genus. Let me just say that our experiment of growing Anigozanthos here along the Maine coast this summer has been outstanding. It probably helps that this summer has been similar to what one might normally have found in San Francisco. Sunny, warm days followed by cool nights. We have had adequate rain fall with just enough to keep the plants looking healthy and lush. The kangaroo paws have enjoyed this summer and some of the flowering stalks are reaching almost 4 feet in height. We planted the cultivars: ‘Big Roo Red,’ ‘Big Roo Orange,’ and ‘Joe Joe Red.’
‘Big Roo Red’ and ‘Big Roo Orange’ were later to flower but once they did, Wow! Their tall flowering stalks have our guests stopping to stare and wonder what is that flower. Only our guests from California or Australia have known what they were. Then, they usually ask if it is hardy here in Maine. Of course it will not survive our winters but it is a dynamic annual to liven up the landscape. ‘Joe Joe Red’ is a smaller cultivar with flowering stalks about 2 feet in height. I love showing kids in our Alfond Children’s Garden how the flowers look like kangaroo paws which is really cool since they are from Australia. The one problem we had with ‘Joe Joe Red’ is that rabbits absolutely love it. We had a couple of snowshoe hares set up shop early in the season and this little, red kangaroo paw was their favorite meal. Fortunately, they only ate the foliage and left all of the flowers alone. Also, once our guest traffic picked up during the summer, these hares moved on and found somewhere else to live.
We are already making plans to use kangaroo paws as an annual in 2015 in some big sweeps. Did you use any kangaroo paws in your garden this summer? How did they fare for you?
I have written before about how much I like the Hartlage Wine sweetshrub. Calycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’ is still a standout performer in our Coastal Maine gardens. After seeing how well it performed here in Boothbay, Maine, I was glad to see another Calycanthus hybrid entering into the horticultural world. This time Dr. Tom Ranney, the noted plant breeder from the Fletcher, NC research station of North Carolina State University (my alma mater), wanted to improve the Hartlage Wine sweetshrub by introducing fragrance back into the flowers. Instead of using Calycanthus floridus, he used the west coast sweetshrub, Calycanthus occidentalis. He hybridized the west coast native with the Chinese species, Calycanthus chinensis. By crossing these two species, he was able to get a large, vigorous shrub with big flowers and fragrance. Thus far, the fragrance has been milder than some of the Calycanthus floridus but I am guessing that the difference in fragrance comes from C. occidentalis. Dr. Ranney named the selected cultivar ‘Aphrodite’ after the Greek goddess of love and beauty. She is certainly lovely and beautiful. The flowers are a nice, deep red with the inner petals having yellow on the tips. Each flower is large, at least 4″ in width. The leaves are massive, up to 8″ in length and a medium green. The growth rate on the shrubs is phenomenal. We planted quite a few small shrubs along our front entry walk and they have grown about 2-3′ in height and width in one growing season.
We also have 3 plants in another spot that we planted last year. They had a bit of tip dieback during the winter of 2014 when our temperatures went down to -7 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as the new leaves emerged, the plants started growing. They are now reaching almost 6′ in height. It will be interesting to see how large these shrubs will actually get over time. I am also wondering what might happen if you took Aphrodite and crossed it with a selection of Calycanthus floridus such as ‘Michael Lindsey.’ Maybe it will get darker leaves and sweeter flowers?
In the meantime, if you are looking for a beautiful, summer flowering, deciduous shrub for your landscape, run out right now and find Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ to add to your garden.
Image: Proven Winners
I think this Summer has been absolutely fantastic here in Maine. So far, there has been plenty of sunshine and enough warmth to make everything grow and prosper. The plants have leapt from the slow, cool spring to seemingly take in all that summer has to offer, just like the throngs of tourists that visit Maine. Several times per week, I walk through the gardens here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, taking notes on how gardens look, how plants are performing, and how weeds can grow at the rate of Dr. Bruce Banner morphing into the Incredible Hulk. I have mentioned several times about the winter of 2014 and how rough it was in New England and for many along the eastern coast of the United States. The cold winter and afore to mentioned spring have led to what I am calling the Monty Python effect. Remember that scene from “The Holy Grail” when a couple of men are removing the dead from a Middle Ages village? They pick up the one guy and attempt to place him in the cart when he responds: “I’m not dead yet!”
For a couple of months, I felt like there were an entire cluster of these plants that were not exactly dead yet. They had succumbed to the plague of frost and sub-zero temperatures. It seemed that daily, I was scratching the bark with my fingernail or gently cut a small branch with my Felco #2’s to see if there was any evidence of green. It is now mid-July and we have mostly removed all of the dead and pruned back all of the near-dead branches.
The flip-side to the Monty Python effect are the plants that have prospered from the cold and now mild summer. Besides the weeds, I am blown away by the colors and the growth rate of many of our hardy, perennial plants. I am going to go out on a limb and say the MVP (most valuable plant) of 2014 thus far has been Gillenia trifoliata. This fantastic, native perennial leapt from the ground in mid-spring and has been flowering for well over a month. The airy, 5-petaled, white, star-shaped flowers are soft and borne en masse above the leaves for a dramatic effect. The flowering stalks will top out at 3-4 feet in height so this is formidable perennial. The leaves are trifoliate and vary between a deep green and light green depending on exposure, soil moisture, and nutrition. Most references list this as plant for partial shade but we can get away with more sun here along the Maine coast. The stems provide a nice contrast as they are a deep, unobtrusive red. As the temperatures start to decline and the season changes to fall, Gillenia trifoliata leaves turn a brilliant red color. The common names for this MVP are Bowman’s root, Indian physic, and fawn’s breath. These common names crack me up as the first two are masculine and mysterious while the fawn’s breath has me visualizing Bambi hiding down inside of it on a frosty morn just before it wakes up and eats the entire plant down to the ground. That was just a joke. I have no idea if deer like Gillenia trifoliata. Given that it is in the rose family and somewhat related to Spiraea, deer may eat it if given the chance. I would appreciate any feedback if deer do like Bowman’s root.
In addition to being a wonderful plant in the garden, the flowers work well and hold up as cuts for arrangements. Also, after the flowers fade, the red calyces persist on the stems, adding to their seasonal interest. That finest of countries which gave the world Monty Python, has also given Gillenia trifoliata the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. This is one of the highest awards that a plant can receive from the RHS.
Now, I beg your pardon, when are you adding Gillenia trifoliata to your garden?
It feels great to be home. For the past week and a half, I was on the road between Maine and Pennsylvania, Boston and Denver. Now, I am back. Feeling jetlagged but it is great to be home with my family in this wonderful Maine summer. This morning, I walked around the garden making a list of things to do and take care of for the gardens here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. While I was away for a week and a half, many of the plants in the garden took off with the summer warmth. I always have a bit of skepticism when trying a new plant in the gardens, especially en masse. One plant that we used quite a bit of this summer was cape fuchsia or Phygelius x rectus. Cape fuchsia is native to South Africa so of course I was skeptical that it would thrive in a cool, moist, Maine summer. But we have grown these plants before and since this is our year of focusing on pollinators as an overarching theme, I thought that these hummingbird attractors would make a nice addition.
When I left Maine almost a week and a half ago, the Phygelius were starting to flower. When I saw them today, they were starting to look spectacular. They may be somewhat small in stature (18-24″ in height) but the bright red flowers are just what the garden needs. The 2″ nodding, tubular flowers are borne on terminal spikes. Even though they have a common name of “fuchsia,” they are more closely related to foxgloves. The cultivar that we are using en masse is “Devil’s Tears.” This is reportedly the truest red of all cultivars. The best thing about these flowers is that they should continue to flower until frost. For us, that is over 5 months of flowering time!
Grow cape fuchsia in a warm, well-drained spot in full to part-sun. In a mild winter, Phygelius can come back from a winter dormancy here in our USDA zone 6a gardens. This past winter, our climates dipped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit and none of the Phygelius survived. After two wicked winters, we are certainly due for a pleasant, mild winter. I have high hopes that this will be true so that in 2015, our gardens will be covered with huge clumps of this gorgeous plant.
Are you growing cape fuchsia in your garden? If so, which cultivar(s) and are you in awe of it as much as I am this year?
This time of year is such a treat. It is so full of beautiful flowering trees and shrubs that it is hard to take it all in and really feel like you have enjoyed it before it fades into the green of summer.
My own garden boasts a Cercis canadensis (Eastern Red bud) that is just about to burst open with flowers, a Heptacodium miconioides (Seven Sons Tree), a gorgeous burgundy blooming crabapple of unknown variety, a hand full of voluptuous Pierus (andromeda) and a few “flowering weepers” (so-called by the previous owner who insisted that this was their proper name when I tried to get the bottom of their actual variety). It’s a nice mix, but I’m a connoisseur of the out of the ordinary and special – I believe there are quite enough Bradford pears in my corner of the world and that I am doing no one any favors by planting more. Rather, I like to surprise and experiment and with that in mind I have a lot of lists with a lot of constantly evolving plant ideas.
At the top of my ‘Spring flowering Tree List’ are the following….should I happen across one of these in the nursery at a good price it will surely find its way home with me….
Halesia is such a delicate tree that reminds me the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) (which I am similarly obsessed with). Halesia’s flowers are bell-shaped and it likes my naturally acidic soil. I’d honestly take any variety (there are some that have larger flowers, some that are tinged pink and other interesting varieties) as all I really care about is being able to stand beneath it and look up into the warren of pretty dangling flowers.
Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ was a tree I fell in love with back in my London Days. I lived in a Street called Greencroft Gardens in West Hampstead and on the way to the tube station was a huge hawthorn across from a similarly large Ceanothus. The two were such focal points for the whole road, my husband and I couldn’t help but remark about them daily. At the time I was unfamiliar with the Hawthorn and had no idea what it was – I called the giant mini rose tree (as the clustered flowers are just like roses and literally cover the tree). I’ve never seen one here in New England I’d consider it quite a find to discover one.