Friday, November 27, 2009

Where in the world is Bilbo? Milan

Now, if you'd told me a year ago that there would be a gnome on my balcony, I'd probably have laughed at you. But that was before I came across Bilbo.

Because Bilbo is no ordinary garden gnome. Bilbo is an intrepid explorer who has ben working his way around the world since April, when he left his family blog - Trials and Tribulations of a Southern Gardener - to go visiting. He's already visited blogs in eight different states in the US, Canada, Ireland and three different places in England. He's got some great stories - he's especially proud of having been to Buckingham Palace to have tea in the Queen's own café when he visited Matron. He's a bit foggy about some of the details - I can't quite work out whether Her Majesty was behind the tea urn at the time or serving the scones ...

And now he's here in Milan. He'd come all the way from Alberquerque, where he'd been to see Briana at I Can't Decide. By the time he arrived I was starting to get seriously worried. He'd been travelling for over three weeks, and only just made it in time. His sandwiches had run out the day before, and I suspect he'd been rationing them for the last week or so. He looked a bit pale and thin, so - being in Italy - a big plate of pasta was clearly called for. But after tucking into his spaghetti alla carbonara, he perked up considerably and started entertaining us with the tales of his travels.

We'd decided to let him rest for the first day, but he's a lively little chap and not the type to stay still for long. So he'd soon got us all playing hide and seek on the balcony. He won of course because he could slip into so many spaces. It took me ages to find him when he hid in my chrysanthemums ...

Then the next day we started on some serious sightseeing. Bilbo was very impressed with Milan's cathedral ...

.. and he also enjoyed Piazza della Scala. I think he was less bothered about the Opera House (top photo) though, than the giant snails we found in the square.

Bilbo will be here for another few days, but I know he's already anxious to move on. Where will he go next? He'd like to visit all your blogs and is just waiting for an invitation. I know that he'd like to visit other countries in Europe, but he also keeps talking about all the continents he's not yet seen. And then when he talks about the places has has been to he gets terribly nostalgic and says how much he'd like to go back. So wherever you are, I know he'd like to visit you.

Now, you may be wondering if it's safe for such a little chap to be gadding about the world on his own. Don't worry - his adopted Mum, Dirt Princess, has set up some strict rules and regulations to keep him safe. Turn to the Comments below and you'll see them posted there. But if you would like to have Bilbo to stay, all you need to do is leave a comment of your own and in a couple of days he'll choose where he wants to go next. The next stay will probably be quite special. If it takes as long for him to get from here to you as it did from Briana to me, then you might well be hosting him for Christmas ...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

aka Tradescantia

Half way through the week I got a message from Mr Subjunctive, over at Plants are the Strangest People. Had I any idea, he asked, why in the past few days he had had literally hundreds of hits from Italy - all for people searching for the plant Tradescantia pallida (the purple-leaved plant in the photo above). Well no, quite honestly I hadn't - but after a bit of research I managed to track it down.

A couple of days previously, the most widely read Italian newsaper - Il Corriere della Sera - (and I imagine much of the rest of the Italian press too) had published an article quoting some US research. The researchers placed T. pallida at the top of a list of the five houseplants most effective at absorbing pollutants from the atmosphere. And clearly the whole of Italy had decided it was a must-have. I spent the rest of the week imagining the hordes which would be camping outside the garden centres all night, desperate to get hold of the last puny specimen.

Tradescantia is a plant which confused me for years. I knew it even in my pre-gardening years, because Dad had it growing in the garden. It had a little purple flower and leaves a bit like those of a daylily (not that I knew what those were then). But then I heard the name being given to a houseplant with green and white stripey leaves. Oh - so that was tradescantia. Perhaps Dad got it wrong.

Then I started gardening and bought myself some gardening books. There was my stripey plant - Zebrina pendula, common name : the inch plant. Problem resolved. Dad was right all along.

But wait a moment - look at the entry for Tradescantia. It describes a species called Tradescantia fluminensis, and there's a photo. But that's a plant I'd had on the balcony for a couple of years without knowing what it was. I'd ended up ripping it out because it made such a nuisance of itself, invading the whole container and crowding out the other plants. There it is in the photo below, still under control. It's the plant in the forefront just in front of my antirrhinums. So that's Tradescantia??? What else does the book say ? Common name - the inch plant.

At this point, boy was I confused. All I can say is that I'm glad I hadn't also come across Setcreasea pallida, which Mr Subjunctive pointed out. That's it in the top photo. And yes, I know what I said before ...

I'll cut a long story and several hours of research short. It's another case of what I talked about before in the post On the naming of plants (and yes, I know that post is starting to obsess me. I promise not to mention it for at least another month.) The taxonomists keep changing their minds.

They're now all seen as different species of the same genus - tradescantia. There are 71 species in the genus altogether, many of which look nothing like each other - though the flowers tend to give the game away. Here, from the top, the photos show tradescantia pallida, tradescantia ohiensis, tradescantia zebrina, and tradescantia fluminensis - I think.

I mean, I did the research yesterday. They've probably all changed their names again by now.

However, whatever you call it, it seems that T. pallida is a good thing to have around. But then so are the other four on the list - and all the other plants whose anti-pollution effect people have been talking about for years. What are they and what do they do? I'll save that for another post....


Huge thanks to the photographers who made the following two photos available under
Creative Commons License on :

Tradescantia ohiensis by dmills

Tradescantia Zebrina by abbamouse

... and more.

If you want to know more about Tradescantia pallida and Tradescantia zebrina, click on the links to see posts at Plants are the Strangest People. I couldn't better them so I'm not going to try. Go see for yourself.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Don't throw those chrysanthemums away - well, not yet anyway...

Chrysanthemums have to be THE plant of the late autumn. Just when everything else is dying off, they burst into flower and - depending on what type you've got and how they've been treated - will treat you to a mass of small blooms or wow you with a smaller number of much larger ones. Not to mention a range of colours from reddy brown through yellow to creamy white - and even pink and purple, colours which are less common here. And all the different petal shapes ...

Where does the name come from? In 1753 Karl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who first started to classify plants and animals logically, combined the Greek word chrysos, meaning gold, with anthemon, meaning flower. And despite
attempts by recent taxonomists to change the plant's classification, the name has stuck.

In Italy the shops start to fill up with chrysanths in early October. Forget lilies, here chrysanthemums are the flower of the dead - the plant you take to the graves of your loved ones on November 1st. Buy them at the beginning of the month and they're cheap. By Hallowe'en the price has quadrupled.

Being the flower of the dead, it's not a flower that most people have on their balconies here. But I wouldn't be without mine. Especially my little yellow ones. I've had them for years and they go on and on and on ... If you've bought a pot of chrysanths for your balcony this year, don't even think of throwing them away after they've stopped flowering.

They do need a bit of care though. First of all, cut of the dead flower heads as soon as - well, as soon as they're dead. If you're in a fairly cold zone, they'll need covering. We have a Hardiness Zone 8 type climate - the temperature may drop well below freezing in January. Mine get moved back towards the walls of the house and covered in fleece. And don't overwater during the winter.

By March you'll notice that new shoots are starting to come up from near the base of the old plant. These are what you want for next autumn's blooms. Take them off the plant when they're about 2.5 ins long, remove the bottom two leaves and cut vertically across the stem just below the leaf joint. Dip the end in hormone rooting powder and pop them into some potting mix in a propagator to root. Keep them in a warm place.

Well, that's what the books say. But quite honestly I find it works just as well without the hormone rooting powder and with ordinary potting soil. And I don't usually bother with a propagator - quite often I'll put them straight into the pots where I want them to grow. But then, it can be quite warm here in March. But anyway, they're one of the easiest plants to root from cuttings that I know. You may lose a few this way (so take more than you expect to need), but most will be quite happy.

And then you can throw the old plant away. You could try keeping it, but the results aren't usually as good as the first year.

Once the cuttings have rooted, keep in mind that chrysanths like soil which is rich in organic matter and neither very acid nor very alkaline. You'll also need to decide whether or not to "stop" them in April. "Stopping" means pinching out the growing shoot of the plant to encourage it to put out side shoots. If you stop, you'll end up with a myriad of small flowers, If you don't, you'll get a tall stem and one, much larger flower. As you can see from the photos, I stop ...

I have a sneaking affection for these little yellow ones. Yes, I've tried others and I'm the first to admit that these aren't half as elegant as many of the larger ones . I've got some large white ones in bud which I hope will flower soon, and a couple of years ago I had some nice red-brown ones. But nothing does quite so well as these do. They don't seem to mind the heat we have all summer, they shrug off pest attacks, and don't complain at all when they're left to the hideous over-watering that my plant-sitters inflict on them when I'm away. I don't care if the neighbours do think I'm weird - my chrysanths are here to stay.

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