It’s a beautiful day here, defying the forecast which said we would have a showery cloudy day. Seventy degrees and sunny, that’s my kind of day. We have had in the last 4 days just shy of 3 inches of rain. So we really don’t need more, although it’s forecast for almost every day this week.
I was at a gathering of great gardeners last night and we had a booming thunderstorm and heavy rain to talk over. Luckily we had a roof over us. It was the 35th anniversary of the Lapeer Horticultural Society. It was great to see so many of you gardeners again. I wanted to take pictures of the nice garden at the Garden at Suncrest, but was only able to get a few pictures between rain showers. If you have a chance to join a garden group near you, do it. It’s fun to talk to other gardeners in person.
In my garden the hydrangeas are beginning to bloom. Harebells, helanthemum, evening primrose, and common daylily are some things joining the roses and clematis in bloom. Annuals are starting to fill in and look nice. The calla lily in my ornamental pond is blooming.
The fireflies are flying now. I remember as a kid we never had fireflies up here in the north. We had to go down south to visit relatives to see them and collect them in jars. Whether they just took a while to spread north (maybe in jars hidden in the back seats of cars?) or it’s a sign of climate change I don’t know.
Potato beetles are now out and about. They are small, long beetles with yellow stripes. You can protect your potatoes with spun row covers if you get it on before the beetles arrive. Handpick beetles or use a pesticide otherwise. Potato beetles will also attack eggplants.
My strawberries are ripening and the blackberries are in bloom. When I was a child my siblings and I would go to the fields along the railroad tracks and pick wild strawberries by the bucket and my mom would spend a lot of time hulling them and making shortcakes out of bisquick. It was a special treat if we had ice cream or whipped cream to go with them.
I have my own strawberry patch now but I must admit I am not keeping it up well and the bed is full of grass. I think I will rip it all out and renovate it when they quit blooming. I may move the plants to a raised bed closer to the house I think.
The mulberry tree at the back of my garden is ripening its fruit and it’s literally covered in birds much of the day. You don’t want to have clothes on a line when the mulberries are ripe. The trees are messy when they drop fruit but I let one stay because the birds love them so. It’s the only time I see many cedar waxwings. You hear them twittering before you see them. They talk constantly as they eat.
The yellow flower blooming all along the roadsides and in fields is yellow rocket. It’s a biannual and dies after setting seed. The little lavender daisy like flower with the yellow centers that’s blooming everywhere is Daisy Fleabane. The fields around here are also filled with Ox Eye daisies. Field corn and soybeans are coming up and many farmers are cutting hay for the first time.
|Cedar Waxwings in mulberry.|
Tomorrow is the summer solstice, the official beginning of summer. In a society where people spend more time indoors than out the solstice may have become insignificant to many but the day has been noted and celebrated since the earliest communities of man. In the more northern countries the celebrations are more marked, probably because the sun is so welcome and vital in these climates and because at summer solstice in the far north the sun never seems to set.
Different cultures celebrate summer solstice in different ways. Solstice festivities almost always include fire, with bonfires a requisite of most celebrations. Oak wood is commonly used in solstice bonfires for luck and magic. People jump over the fires for luck and make talismans of the ashes. The ashes of solstice fires are spread on crops to bring a good harvest. However the astrological sign Cancer, a water sign, begins at the time of solstice so water also figures into many solstice festivities. In ancient cultures burning wheels were often rolled into water or bark boats filled with flowers and herbs were set on fire and floated down rivers.
Wreaths of flowers and herbs are included in many solstice celebrations. The wreaths are worn on the head and hung on doors and are said to bring good luck. Rue, fennel, roses, rosemary, foxglove, lemon verbena, calendula, mallow, elderberry, St. John's Wort, vervain and trefoil are plants associated with these wreaths and summer solstice. Often the flowers or wreaths were left outside to gather the dew on the night of the solstice. Washing your face with the dew collected on the night of the solstice was supposed to make you beautiful and delay aging.
The Romans dedicated the month that the summer solstice occurs in (the month we call June) to honoring the goddess Juno, patroness of marriage and fertility in women. The goddess of the hearth, Vesta was also honored. Common traditions include a couple jumping over a bonfire to make it known they were committed to each other and other rituals of fertility and marriage. (Interestingly a woman’s fertility is also highest at this time.) Conception in June results in a baby born in March, which in earlier times was a good month to give birth. Food supplies would be more plentiful as the baby began to require more milk, the weather more moderate, and the wife would be recovered enough to help with spring planting. Even today June is the month most favored for marriage.
Native Americans of the plains tribes held the Sun Dance near the summer solstice. This was a time of dancing around bonfires, prayer, fasting and tests of strength, depending on the tribe. In some tribes young men were put through grueling rituals to enter manhood at this time.
Midsummer’s eve is often confused with the summer solstice but is not the same. It generally occurs a few days later than the solstice, on June 23 or 24. It is supposed to mark the birth of John the Baptist, who is supposed to have been born six months before Jesus and is a product of Christianity adopting and adapting pagan celebrations. But there is a great mixture of fairy visits and other magic associated with Midsummers eve in folklore also. The point where the sun is farthest (yes farthest) from the earth, the aphelion, occurs on July 3 at 3 am.
You can start your own summer solstice tradition to celebrate the beginning of summer. Think sunbathing, swimming and a great bonfire at night, or attend one of Michigan’s celebrations. Kaleva, Michigan, population about 500, in Manistee County (near Interlochen), holds a solstice celebration in a county park featuring Swedish pancakes and strawberry shortcake as well as a bonfire that many tourists attend.
Tips on taking advantage of plant clearance sales
It’s the time of year when many stores, nurseries and greenhouses are trying to clear out plants left over from spring sales. You can get some great bargains this time of the year and I am fond of perusing the sales myself. But don’t get carried away by low prices and buy plants that you don’t have the right conditions for or that are beyond saving.
Annual plants left in small cell packs that are overly lanky, yellowed or half dead looking should just be passed by. They are too stressed to ever do well and you’ll spend time and money on them better spent elsewhere. Annuals that are still compact and in good shape may be worth buying if you have a spot for them. Annuals in 4 inch or larger pots that still look good are worth buying. Check plants over carefully for diseases and pests as stressed plants in poor conditions are more likely to get diseases or pests.
Vegetable plants on clearance should be carefully checked for signs of disease and pests too. You don’t want to bring that home now as your garden begins to produce. Like flower plants if vegetables are in small cell packs and quite tall, yellowed and lanky they aren’t worth buying because they will rarely make productive plants. Plants like tomatoes in large pots that still look healthy are fine to buy, but if you intend to transplant them into the garden you’ll need to be able to water them frequently because hot weather and lots of top growth will make it harder for them to re-establish themselves.
Perennial ornamental plants that are in pots can actually be planted all summer if they are kept watered as they get established. If perennials look healthy, a clearance price is a good deal. That’s if you have the right conditions in your garden for them. Many perennials on sale will have already bloomed, which makes them less likely to sell at full price. They won’t bloom again this year but can be well worth waiting for, if the price is right.
Don’t buy any bareroot, packaged trees or shrubs that are still left sitting in stores, especially if you see no green on them. They aren’t still dormant, they’re dead. Potted trees or shrubs without any growth showing are also dead. You’ll have to make a judgement call on buying potted trees and shrubs that look half dead, with wilted or dead areas. Some may recover with good care. But the price should be low to reflect the uncertainty.
The biggest problem I have with clearance sales is seeing a good deal and wanting to buy the plant even if I don’t need it or don’t really have a place to put it. Sometimes you are just going to do it, but try and convince yourself that isn’t really in your best interests. Will power, save your money and space for something you really, really want. When you don’t have a sunny spot for a sun loving plant buying one and then watching it slowly die just doesn’t make sense. Or if you have to put an addition on the house just to fit all those tropical plants inside this winter it may not be a wise move either.
I don’t recommend dumpster diving for plants. Sometimes the plants were ordered destroyed by state inspectors, because a disease or pest was found. State agricultural inspectors randomly inspect stores or inspect when they suspect or know of a problem occurring. When I ran garden stores this sometimes happened. I had our condemned plants compacted, and people didn’t get a chance to rescue them. Some stores don’t do this; they simply toss them in dumpsters. You don’t know why the plants were discarded. If you rescue them and take them home you could bring a serious disease or pest into your garden and worse into everyone else’s garden or even into farm fields.
Happiness with hosta
When modern gardeners plant hostas it’s not about the flowers, although hosta flowers can be spectacular. Fifty years ago hostas were called Plantain Lilies or Funkia, and they were grown for their late summer flowers. Today, while hostas are the most popular perennial sold in the world, most buyers are not looking for flowers. Hostas are grown for their wonderful range of foliage color, shape and texture, and for their ability to glamorize those shady spots in the garden. Hostas are easy to grow and thrive across the United States, from zone 3-8.
Hostas are good plants to combine with spring flowering bulbs under deciduous trees. When the bulbs finish blooming the trees will leaf out and shade the hostas, which will cover the dying bulb foliage. Hostas also mix well with ferns, astilbe, heuchera, goatsbeard, tiarella, and woodland wildflowers.
Hostas are native to China, Japan and Korea and have been cultivated in those countries for thousands of years.
While hostas are known as shade plants, they will not do well if the location is very dark, such as under evergreens with low branches. Dry shade is not a good location. Hostas do best in moist soil rich in organic matter, in light shade or dappled shade. Many hosta varieties can take some sun if they are kept moist, especially in northern zones. Sunny dry areas are not suitable for hostas. They also do not do well in sunny areas where heat is reflected off a wall or pavement.
Spring is the best time to plant hostas. Gardeners should start with plants, you can find them as dormant roots or as potted plants. If the hosta is potted wait until after the last frost in your area to transplant it into the garden. Dormant root clumps can be planted outside a few weeks before the last frost is expected. Plant the hosta crown just at soil level. Keep the soil moist around hostas but don’t plant them where they will sit in waterlogged soil as they will rot.
Hostas can be grown by seed and sometimes seedlings come up in the garden if the seed pods were left on the plant. But they don’t come true to variety by seed so most hostas are propagated by dividing clumps or by tissue culture. Some gardeners enjoy collecting hosta seed and planting it just to see what form and color they get.
Hostas are slow to emerge in the spring so be sure to mark where you plant them so you won’t disturb the clumps when planting or working in the garden. As hostas begin to emerge, you can work a slow release fertilizer, or a few inches of quality compost, into the soil around them. This is helpful in areas where the hostas compete with tree roots. Hostas in deep, rich soil may do well without any fertilizer. Be patient with hostas. Hostas may take several years of growth in a location before the adult form and color of the variety is evident.
Hostas flower in mid to late summer. When hosta finish flowering, the old flower and its long stem should be removed. This concentrates the hosta energy to the foliage and not to producing seeds. However leaving the seedpods or just a few of them doesn’t hurt the plants. Some hosta varieties do not form seed pods as they are sterile hybrids
Remove dead or yellowed leaves from hosta during the growing season and after they are killed by frost in the fall. In zones 5 and above it is helpful to provide a layer of mulch to hosta crowns after the ground freezes. Straw, pine needles, oak leaves or other mulch that doesn’t matt down is best.
Hostas have few disease or pest problems when grown in the right location. If the edges of hosta leaves turn brown and crisp, the plant is probably in too much sun or it is too dry.
Slugs are a major problem of hostas in some areas. Slugs feed at night and eat holes in the leaves. If you have slug problems you should remove all mulch and debris around the hostas. Remove the leaves on each hosta where the leaf blade touches the ground. This allows the soil surface to dry and removes hiding places for slugs. You can also try mulching with sharp, small gravel such as baby chick grit or use diatomaceous earth around the hosta plants. There are slug poisons on the market but be very careful using them around children and pets. Hosta varieties with thick, wrinkled leaves are said to be less appealing to slugs.
The easiest way to propagate hostas is through division- dividing a mature plant into several smaller ones. Hosta rarely grow from cuttings, although a piece of the plant with a bit of the basal area of the crown may grow under ideal conditions. But hostas can be grown from seed; it’s the way many new varieties are produced. And many hosta are now reproduced through tissue culture.
Choosing varieties of hosta
There are literally thousands of hosta varieties on the market. When new varieties come on the market they are usually quite expensive. If you see a hosta that you like but can’t afford, look around, chances are that there is an older variety that is very similar and much less expensive.
Hostas range in color from almost white to golden green to deep green, from light blue gray to deep blue-green, and with leaf variegations combining those colors. There are some hostas with red or purplish stems. Hostas flower color ranges from white to shades of lavender and blue. The shape of hosta leaves range from small and almost round, to heart shaped, oval, long and strap like, ruffled, wrinkled and smooth. The size of hosta varies from plants that mature at only a few inches high to those that become 3’ or 4’ high.
The name of the hosta variety is not as important as it having growing characteristics that suit your garden space. A mixture of leaf texture, color and plant size is usually best if the area is to be planted only in hostas. If other plants are in the garden you must consider whether the hosta you select will be hidden under them or crowd them out, and whether the foliage color and texture complements what is already planted there. If you are going to plant hostas where they will be in sun for some part of the day, look for varieties that are marked sun tolerant. White or mostly white hosta do not do well in full sun, while many sun tolerant hosta are lime green or yellow.
There are too many varieties to list when it comes to hosta colors and leaf shapes and most people choose by selecting the ones that attract their eye in the garden shop. Just make sure to check the tag for size and other considerations to make sure that variety is a good fit for your garden. Buying assorted, unnamed mixtures of hostas that many places offer can be a good way to get a lot of hosta inexpensively, if you are not concerned with knowing variety names.
Growing hostas for their flowers
Hosta flowers come in two color varieties white and shades of lavender. Some hostas also have fragrant flowers. Flowers can take several forms also, from trumpet shaped to bell like, and are produced in clusters on a stem called a scape, above the crown. Like their foliage some hosta varieties have flowers that are large and on tall scapes or stems, and others have smaller, shorter flowers. Hosta begin blooming in June in zone 5 and continue through August, with each variety having a different bloom time. Mature plants with many crowns produce the best flower show. Hosta plantaginea varieties and hybrids with them usually have fragrant flowers. Hosta flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds by the way.
Here are some hostas known for their pretty flowers. 'Fragrant Bouquet', has white, fragrant, flowers and has spawned many color sports, ‘Fragrant Dream’ with white flowers, 'Guacamole', fragrant, pale lavender flowers, are two. 'Regal Splendor' has 5 feet high spikes of lavender flowers. 'So Sweet' is a small hosta with white, fragrant flowers. ‘Raspberry Sundae’ has red flower stalks and buds, flowers open lavender. ‘Honey Pie’ is a gold foliaged hosta with lavender, fragrant flowers. ‘Aphrodite’ has large, double pure white, deeply fragrant flowers on 2 foot stems. ‘Venus’ is similar with single white trumpet shaped flowers. ‘Diamonds are Forever’ has purple striped flowers. ‘Grape Fizz’ has fragrant purple flowers. Hosta 'Purple Lady Finger' has narrow purple flowers that don’t open up. Hosta 'Strawberry Yogurt' has pretty purple flowers on reddish scapes. Hosta 'Tickle Me Pink' has red scapes and fuchsia buds and bracts that open to reveal reddish purple flowers.
I have a hosta that was given to me and I was told it was the variety ‘Lemon-Lime’, which is known for the number of flowers it produces. The true ‘Lemon–Lime’ has a mound of flat, narrow, chartreuse leaves with loads of 18" scapes of bell-shaped, purple-striped flowers. Mine must be a sport or mutation of the variety since the leaves of mine are lime green with a lemon yellow edge. But it is loaded with purple flowers in mid-summer. Another named sport is Hosta 'Twist of Lime' which is quite compact – 4-5 inches tall - with narrow chartreuse yellow foliage edged in green and deep violet flowers in late spring.
Hosta breeders are working to improve the flower show of various species of hosta, creating varieties with pretty foliage and pretty, fragrant flowers. I think we will soon see hostas with red-purple or pinkish flowers on the market. I like to choose hostas that have both pretty foliage and nice flowers but it’s sometimes hard to find information about the flowers when looking at the descriptions in plant catalogs. I am hoping that will change as more people become interested in hosta for their flowers.
|My version of hosta Lemon Lime|
Starting hostas from seed
If you have a garden full of beautiful hostas or even one spectacular plant you may be wondering if you could reproduce that plant from seed. Many hostas cross breed easily and if you let them form seeds, you can grow a variety of new plants and maybe find something special among them. You can even hand pollinate flowers to experiment with producing new plants.
Different types of hosta flower at different times so even in a mixed group of hosta some plants won’t be able to cross. But even if all the hosta plants nearby are the same variety the plants grown from seed they produce will probably not look exactly like the parent plants.
Bees and hummingbirds may pollinate the plants. You can also distribute pollen from one plant to another with a small paint brush if you want to cross certain plants. Pollen is the yellow dust like substance found inside a hosta flower. Rub your clean paint brush on it then take the brush to the plant you want to be the female parent and brush the pollen on the stigma. The stigma is usually in the center of the flower. It looks like a fleshy stem with a flat, sticky top.
After pollinating a flower you should tie a tag on the flower stem with the name of the plants you crossed written on it. If you want to be really professional you will also cover the pollinated flower with a small paper bag for a few days so bees can’t add pollen from other hosta.
There are complicated genetic rules about what type of plants can produce what kind of babies. Crossing green hosta and green variegated hosta usually produce 100% green plants. Cross two variegated varieties for the best chance of variegated babies. If the seed pod produced by the cross is streaked, the chances of seedlings producing variegated foliage is higher.
Crosses of blue and gold hosta with green hosta or each other may produce a small percentage of blue or gold plants. Crossing white variegated hosta may produce hosta with all white leaves, which may die shortly, as they can’t produce food. The white hosta seen on the market usually darken to pale green in summer, so that some chlorophyll is producing food. There are more genetic “secrets” you can learn if you look up hosta breeding.
Collecting hosta seed
Wait until the seed pods are dark brown and dry. This is usually about a month after blooming. Don’t wait too long or the pods will split and the tiny seeds will scatter. Collect the pods and shake them in a bag to split the pods and release the seed. When the pods are almost dry you can cut off the flower stem and put it in a brown paper bag to finish drying and to collect any spilled seeds. Label each bag with the names of the plants you crossed or at least the name of the plant you took them from.
Be ready to plant the seeds soon after they are collected. Hosta seed has a lower germination rate than most plants and fresh seed germinates better than stored seed.
(Although germination will be lower you can also save the seeds for later planting. Let them thoroughly dry then put them in a tightly sealed container in a cool place. You can start seeds inside over the winter under lights, then transplant outside in the spring.)
Starting hosta seed
You can sprinkle hosta seed in a prepared bed directly in the ground in a protected spot. Or you can use only sterile seed starting medium in clean pots or flats to start the seed. Moisten the medium and fill the containers. Sprinkle the tiny hosta seeds over the moist medium and press lightly into the soil. You can spread the seed thickly because of the low germination rate. Mist the medium and seeds and cover flats and pots with a plastic bag or top.
Hostas germinate best with warm soil and cool air conditions, rather like fall conditions. Placing flats on the warm ground in a semi-shady spot outside can work as well as sitting the containers on a seed starting heat matt in a cool room.
The trick is to get the plants up and growing before winter weather and then getting them to over winter successfully. If the plants have a good set of leaves started and are in the ground or can be planted outside before a hard frost to develop a good root system in the ground, they can be covered with mulch and will probably over winter well.
If the plants aren’t very developed before a hard frost it may be better to keep them in containers and over winter them somewhere just above freezing, such as an unheated garage or porch. They’ll need at least some light and careful watering so they don’t get too wet or dry out. Don’t try to grow them on a window sill in a warm room although a cool greenhouse can work. Plant them outside again when the hosta in the garden have a few leaves emerged.
All new hosta varieties have to come from somewhere so if at first you don’t succeed keep plugging away. Discard the plants you don’t like or give them to friends. It can be a fun hobby that may pay off big if you produce something unusual.
Other uses for hosta
I’ll mention it here although it seems ridiculous to me, hosta are edible. If you get too many simply eat them like salad or cooked like spinach. They taste “green.” If you eat too many leaves you will damage the health of your plants. There are many other more suitable plants for salad use, but some people just like to eat everything. Maybe their edible qualities will convince a spouse to let you buy some.
Hosta leaves can be added to bouquets or used as decoration.
Almost every garden has a spot for hostas and these reliable plants are loved around the world. Don’t hesitate to plant some in your garden.
Let’s talk about sex
Look at all the beautiful flowers, swaying in the breeze. The plush, vivid colors and intoxicating scents are begging sex servants to visit them, vibrating, stroking, licking and penetrating their sex organs to assure continuity of the species. Yep, flowers are sexy. In the season of optimal plant sex it’s time for gardeners to review their knowledge of sexual reproduction in plants.
Nature developed flowers to allow immobile living things to be able to mate and share genetic material. Most flowers that are showy and/or fragrant are meant to attract pollinators, which are little sex servants to help plants mate. Flowers are the sex organs of plants. Since plants can’t move to the mate of their dreams they use flowers to attract helpers, or to distribute their male genetic material in the wind or water.
Flowers use rewards to lure insects and other animals to them. The rewards can be real like nectar or pollen, or illusionary. Some flowers are tricksters, using their shape to fool an insect into thinking it’s another insect, or producing pheromones to make an insect think a mate is near. Some plants use heat, like the skunk cabbage, to lure insects into a warm flower for protection in colder weather. Some collect water in their flowers for thirsty animals to drink.
Some flowers can use just about any species of animal to pollinate them. Others can only be pollinated by one family of animals like bees or butterflies and some by only one specific species within that family, such as a certain type of moth. Each species of orchid can only be pollinated by one species of insect, one particular moth or bee for example.
Pollinators are not always insects. Small animals, birds and bats can be pollinators. Elephants pollinate some plants in their environments which collect water in large flower “basins”, with pollen floating on top. And humans can pollinate flowers deliberately using a brush or other means or accidentally when you stick your nose in one flower and then another.
To sex a flower you can just look inside it. The sex organs are generally in the middle and are prominent if you know what you are looking for. Some flowers have only one type of sex organs, male or female. Some flowers have both male and female parts. In a plant that has flowers with both sex organs in each flower, the plant is hermaphroditic.
A plant that has separate male and female flowers on the same plant is called monoecious. If a plant has only flowers of one sex, either male or female, it is called dioecious. The flowers of dioecious and monoecious plants are incomplete flowers. A flower is called a complete flower if it has male and female parts, sepals and petals. Whew, but we aren’t done yet.
The male sexual organ of a plant is called the stamen. It is made up of anthers, thick cushiony rod shaped areas where pollen is produced and filaments, which are the little “stems” that attach the anthers to the flower base. Each flower can have one stamen, many stamens or no stamens. A flower with only male parts is called staminate.
Pollen is found on the stamens. Pollen is composed of “packets” of male genetic material combined in many cases with things that attract pollinators. It is similar to the sperm of animal species. Each species of plant has pollen grains with their own distinctive shape. The identification of pollen may be part of forensic evidence.
Pollen is commonly yellow but may be many different colors. Wind pollinated plants have small, light pollen grains so they can float on the breeze. It’s that pollen that most often causes allergies. Insect pollinated plants have heavier pollen that is enriched with fats and proteins to better attract insects who want to eat it. The pollen sticks to feet and backs of insects or beaks of birds and is carried from plant to plant.
A plant often produces nectar, a sweet sticky substance, to attract pollinators to flowers. Some flowers have glands which produce nectar at their base. Nectar glands are sometimes found in leaf joints or along stems too. When pollinators visit plants looking for nectar they collect pollen grains on their feet or backs and then carry it to the next plants they visit. It’s an interesting fact that most bees, like honey bees, tend to feed on one type of flower the whole day. This is nature’s way of preventing pollen from being wasted by it being transferred to a plant of another species that it can’t reproduce with.
The female sexual organ of a plant is called the pistil. It consists of the ovary, which is attached to the base of the flower and is filled with one or many eggs, the style which is a stem of varying lengths between the ovary and the organ at the end of the style, called the stigma.
The stigma is where pollen, containing sperm cells, is deposited. It is analogous to the vagina of animals or cloacae of birds. In some flowers the stigma is large and showy, often a vivid color contrasting with the petal color. It may have several lobes or sections. In other flowers the stigma is barely visible at the end of the style. A flower may have one or many pistils or no pistils if it is a male flower. A flower with all female parts is called pistillate.
Plants which have flowers of only one sex need a plant of the opposite sex near them to reproduce. Only female flowers or flowers with both male and female parts can produce fruit and seeds.
|Tropical hibiscus- the stamens are yellow, pistils red.|
Even when a flower has both sexual organs inside it, they may not be able to self-fertilize. Sometimes the pollen and egg cells mature at different times in the same flower. Sometimes the sexual parts are arranged within the flower so they are unlikely to fertilize each other. And other times the plant produces a hormone that prevents fertilization by a plant with too similar genetic material.
When pollen from an apple flower lands on a receptive stigma, the stigma may not allow it to complete the fertilization process. (We don’t know quite how the plant stigma “reads” the pollen genetics.) If the pollen is genetically similar to that of the plant that produced the stigma it is rejected. So a McIntosh apple cannot breed with itself or another McIntosh apple but might breed with a Red Delicious apple. That’s why you must have 2 different varieties of apples fairly close by to get fruit.
Nature made flowers so that plants could share genetic material between plants, which insures genetic diversity and allows for changes over time through natural selection. But some flowers are able to self-fertilize if they have both sexual organs or if the plant has both sexes of flowers. The plant prefers to use this as a last resort, when unfamiliar pollen isn’t available.
Other flower parts
The colorful petals of a flower are part of the sex organ, meant to lure insects by their color. Sometimes they have markings on them that direct insects to their reward of nectar or pollen, and the flowers sex organs. While eating, the insect or other animal picks up pollen and deposits pollen from other plants.
Look at the “cats face” on a pansy for example. All of the little dark lines are pointing towards the center of the flower where it is hoped the insect will travel, picking up pollen and depositing some from another plant. Many flowers have a bull’s eye pattern on them that gets darker closer to the source of nectar or pollen.
Insects learn to recognize patterns on petals that direct them to food quickly. It saves time for everyone. Sometimes petals are marked with ultraviolet patterns that the human eye doesn’t see but some insects see very well.
Petals also protect the sex organs of the flower before they mature. Some close around the sex parts in bad weather or at night. Some petals may restrict the type of pollinator that gets near the sex organs, if a plant prefers one pollinator over another. The sex organs and nectar or pollen may be at the end of a petal “tube” that only certain insects fit in or have a tongue long enough to reach down.
Sepals are the generally green leaf-like parts on the base of the flower. They protect flower buds and help hold up or support a flower. They protect the ovary at the base of the flower with immature seeds inside. In some species of flowers the sepals have evolved to look exactly like petals. Lilies and tulips have sepals that look like petals.
|Notice the markings on this viola that direct a pollinator to the prize.|
How flowers mate
When male flower organs are mature and ready to mate their pollen becomes fluffy, sticky, and easily detached from the anther. It may change color, from greenish to bright yellow or from pink to dark red for example. It’s ready to be picked up by a visiting insect or other animal.
Pollinators visiting flowers may accidentally pick up pollen on their bodies or deliberately collect it for food like bees do. Plants have many methods for ensuring that pollen leaves with a pollinator. Some trap insects inside them for a while. Some make them run a gauntlet of anthers to reach their reward. Some anthers are spring loaded and strike the back of an insect that lands on a stigma. Some flowers even intoxicate insects so that they buzz around crazily and lounge around in a flower for a while.
Some flowers dangle their male parts in the wind or drop their pollen into water so it can make its way to a female plant. Usually these flowers are not showy; many people fail to recognize them as flowers. Consider the corn plant. On the top of the plant is the tassle, a group of all male corn flowers who dangle their sex organs downward toward the female corn flowers, which are the “silks” at the end of each ear, (also not very flower-like). Their hope is that the wind will shake pollen down on the female flower or carry it to another corn plants female flower.
When a female sex organ on a flower is mature and ready to accept mating the stigma becomes covered with a clear sticky fluid, the better to grab and hold pollen grains. Sometimes the stigma swells or changes color also.
If all goes well something carrying pollen from another plant of the same species will land on a stigma open for business. Mating in a plant is called pollination. It’s when the mature pollen from a flower lands on a receptive stigma of another flower. Some flowers produce pollen or remain receptive to pollen for only a few hours, others will carry on for many days.
Just like every animal mating does not produce offspring every pollination event does not produce seeds. It’s only when the genetic material from sperm cells in the pollen unite with egg cells in the ovary of a flower that fertilization happens and possibly a new seed will form.
Each grain of pollen contains 3 cells. One cell is responsible for boring a tube from the top of the stigma where the pollen grain lands through the style down to the egg inside the ovary of the flower. One cell carries the genetic material, similar to an animal sperm cell, which forms the embryonic plant when it unites with the egg. The other cell will make the food supply around the embryo, which we call a seed.
Each type of plant has a threshold at which it will allow a fertilized egg to turn into a seed with its enclosed embryonic plant. In a plant with a single seed in the ovary one sperm cell uniting with an egg will probably set seed making in motion. In an ovary with many egg cells a certain number of eggs may need to be fertilized before the plant will begin forming a fruit around them and seed completion is allowed.
Making a fruit around a seed or group of seeds is energy intensive for a plant. Fruits protect seeds and act as dispersal mechanisms in many cases. But if a certain number of seeds aren’t fertilized within the ovary the plant decides the energy expenditure isn’t worth it and aborts the fruit and immature seeds.
In a watermelon, for example, about 100 seeds will need to be fertilized in a flowers ovary for a watermelon fruit to form and the seeds mature. That means at least 100 grains of pollen had to fall on that watermelon flowers receptive stigma. See how important our pollinators are?
(Note: We have bred watermelon varieties and other types of fruit to need less pollination or no pollination to make fruit producing “seedless” watermelon/fruit. There are actually immature seeds, technically unfertilized eggs, in such fruits.)
Some plants have even fussier pollination/fertilization requirements. An apple flower has a stigma divided into 5 lobes or sections. Two grains of pollen need to fall on each lobe and successful fertilization occur before an apple begins forming. Slice open an apple and you can see the 5 sections of the ovary divided by thick membranes with 2 or more seeds in each section.
With all the complications involved in plant sex it’s a miracle that we get the abundance of fruits and seeds that plants produce. When you are out walking in the garden admire the flowers not only for their beauty, but for the extremely complex organs of reproduction that they are.
Traditional strawberry jam
A candy or jelly thermometer, found in most stores, is advised for jam making. Don’t double jam recipes, the flavor is better if jam is made in small batches because it doesn’t need to cook as long.
First clean and sterilize 8 half pint glass canning jars and new lids. Place the jars into a large kettle of boiling water, making sure they are filled and covered with water and boil for ten minutes. Drop lids in just before the time is up. Turn off the water but leave jars covered with the hot water until ready to use. You can also use a dishwasher to sterilize jars if it has a sterilize cycle. Keep jars in dishwasher until ready to use.
Clean and slice about 16 cups or 4 quarts of fresh berries. Measure out 8 cups of berries after slicing and place in a large saucepan with 6 cups of white sugar. You must use this ratio to get a good “gel.”
Crush the strawberries with a potato masher or large spoon until you get lots of juice and stir until most of the sugar is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil slowly, stirring constantly. Then turn the heat to a medium setting and cook the mixture about 35 minutes, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking to the pan. Check the mixture often with the candy/jelly thermometer - or leave it in the pan attached to the pan rim with a clip. Turn off the heat when the temperature reaches 220ºF.
If you don’t have a thermometer cook until the jam is thick and shiny. Jam gets thicker as it cools. You can check for the right consistency by placing a spoonful in a freezer and testing in 5 minutes. If it is as thick as store jam it’s done. You can turn off the heat under the jam while you are testing. Bring the pot back just to a boil before filling jars if it’s thick enough.
Don’t overcook jam, it will get grainy and may taste like burnt sugar. Jam that is too thin can be cooked a bit longer but overcooked jam can’t be fixed.
When the jam is the right consistency/ temperature pour it hot into your sterilized jars. (Drain out water first). Fill to 1/4 inch from the jar rim, wipe the rim of the jar and then add the lids, first the flat piece, seal side down, then the screw band. Tighten screw bands.
Place the jars in a water bath canner. A water bath canner is a large pot that will hold all the jars with about 2 inches of water over the top of them. This can be the pot you sterilized the jars in. A rack that holds the jars is advised- it keeps them from knocking together or turning over. These are found with canning supplies.
The water should be brought to a boil, and then timed for exactly ten minutes. Turn off the heat, lift the jars out with tongs and place on a dishcloth set on a table or counter. Don’t handle the jars until you hear a ping, or see a depression in the center of the lid, meaning the jar has sealed.
Label the jars with the contents and a date. Then store in a dark place where temperatures remain above freezing.
You can avoid all the canning hassle by pouring your jam into freezer containers and freezing it. It must be stored in the freezer until used. Thaw before use. All opened jam should be stored in the refrigerator, including canned jam.
Remember to collect that dew tomorrow morning so you can wash your face and delay aging.
“He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero
© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.
And So On….
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