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
Walking through New York city brings to mind a unique combination of good and bad smells. Cooking onions and sausages from street food vendors, fresh roasted coffee from the one of a kind coffee shop, and of course, urine from the subway and parks. Maybe it was the sense of smell that set the High Line apart from all of the other experiences I had while in New York. The first time I walked up the stairs to the High Line was probably in the early fall of 2009. The garden plantings were still fairly new but the experience was memorable. Up above the city was a place away from traffic and the smells of the city. I noticed at this time, a most unusual smell. After meeting with the staff of the High Line, I asked them where that unusual smell was coming from. It was an earthy smell, kind of like popcorn without butter or even coriander. I like toasted, earthy smells and this smell was one of them. The gardening crew from the High Line told me that was the flowers of a native grass called prairie dropseed or Sporobolus heterolepis. At the time, I was working at Longwood Gardens and we later added some plants to a dry, parking lot planter. Over the next couple of years, they filled in and on cue each fall they provided that nostalgic smell of the High Line.
To even go farther down nostalgia lane, I think my affinity for these smells is due to the fact that my grandpa always wore English Leather aftershave. That woodsy, clean scent always made me feel comfortable as my grandfather and I used to go off exploring in the North Carolina mountains around Boone, where he lived. In our gardens at Coastal Maine, we have a couple of mass plantings of prairie dropseed and have even added a few more this past spring. Sporobolus heterolepis is an easy to grow, perennial grass native to most of the eastern and middle states of the US. Once established, the plants can survive drought and reach 3 feet in height and width. In late summer, airy, white inflorescences emerge above the dark green wiry foliage. Once in flower, the wonderful scent of the High Line and my grandpa’s English Leather starts to waft through the garden. After flowering, the plants set seeds which are a good food source for seed eating birds.
As a post script, when I think of this plant, I not only think of the High Line and my grandpa, but the ever-present, High Line horticulturist with the hipster haircut and Wayfarer glasses, Johnny Linville. I met Johnny during my first visit and we corresponded occasionally about various gardening matters. During our last trip to New York in May of this year, a group of us were fortunate enough to spend time with Johnny and Thomas Smarr, walking the entire length of the High Line. Johnny passed away suddenly in August at a very young age. Johnny, you are missed.
Images: The High Line, Rodney Eason
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?
Which plant is literally on fire in our garden right now? Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel.’ I admittedly ordered this plant on a whim when we needed some more late season color to our new planting beds. After looking through the availability listings, this one sounded like it would go with our new plantings which included dark-leaved Phormium, ‘Black Madras’ rice, bright red kangaroo paws, and stop-light red Coreopsis. When we got the plants, they immediately caught our guests attention. This hibiscus has a dark red leaf color like that of some of the non-hardy Hibiscus acetosella cultivars. Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’ differs from H. acetosella in that it does not have dissected leaves. The leaves are over 6″ wide and a deep, wine-red. As with most red leaved plants, be sure to site this plant in full sun so it captures as many of the ultraviolet rays as are available. Too much shade will cause the foliage to look pale, weak, and exhibit spotty orange colors.
As summer went on, our plants continued to grow and are now over 4 feet tall. Various reports state that these plants will ultimately reach 6 feet tall so we will monitor its growth over the coming years. The real show is once it starts to flower. Gorgeous, 8″ wide hibiscus flowers emerge from various spots on the plant. The flowers are a bright red that stops our guests in their tracks. Whenever I am talking with folks about these plants, I always throw in the fact that they are perennials. No one can believe that they are cold-hardy to at least USDA zone 5. The flowers are reminiscent of the Chinese hibiscus which only grows in tropical areas. Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’ is a hybrid between H. ‘Cranberry Crush’ and H. ‘Summer Storm.’ From these two plants, the ‘Midnight Marvel’ gets its dark foliage and big, bright-red flowers. The combination is amazing and this may well be one of the top perennial introductions in years.
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