Archive | 2018

March 2018: Helleborus and Naming Names.

Dear Reader,

I had knee replacement surgery in February. Recovery has been slow but sure. Sort of like the garden slowly but surely shedding the last insults of Winter.

Looking forward to April!

Until then, thought you might enjoy this March 2012 post about Helleborus and Naming Names:

Helleborus and Naming Names

Big surprise! February wasn’t the “cruellest” month, not even close. (See “Birds” (February 2012.) And now that March has arrived, Spring is just a shiver away. Let’s talk plants:

These days you can’t open a nursery catalog without seeing scores of new hellebores. Breeders have gone overboard,  producing double flowers, multicolored flowers, speckled flowers and all sorts of combinations. You name it, they’ve got it.

And the plant photos are spectacular. Which is all well and good if you are gardening in a catalog. In a garden, most of the flowers are so hangdog you can’t appreciate their beauty without first getting down on your hands and knees in order to lift their heads for a peek. I don’t know about you, but since my knees suffered through two bouts of Lyme Disease (ticks 2, Lois o) I might  be able to get down, but I sure as blazes can’t get back up.

But all is not lost. There is a fella I know (and grow), Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, who isn’t at all shy and downcast. With sturdy stems, lovely outward facing white flowers with streaks of pink and green, and blue-green foliage, he’s my kind of guy.

Ditto for H. ‘HGC Josef Lemper’, similarly endowed and possessing even larger white flowers that fade to a light green. I saw this robust hellebore featured in the Linden Hill Gardens’ exhibit at the 2012 Plant-O-Rama held at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The folks at Linden Hill told me that the plant blooms for them in Bucks County, PA, from November to May. Wow! The real Josef Lemper must be quite something.

Or, maybe not.

Breeders name plants for all sorts of reasons. Some auction off naming rights to the highest bidder and others, like Dr. Griffith Buck, the famed rose hybridizer, named plants after friends. But as Dr. Buck discovered, it didn’t always work out. One friend refused the honor because she didn’t want to hear:  “Fleeta has a weak neck, Fleeta wilts, Fleeta fades”. (Fleeta had a point.)

The most famous name-caller of all was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who, in the 18th century, devised an entirely new classification procedure for plants, the Linnaean binomial system of nomenclature, which is the basis of our modern method. As aptly stated in an informative article  by Kennedy Warne, founding editor of New Zealand Geographic, “Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago, brought order to nature’s blooming, buzzing confusion.”  (Warne, “Organization Man,” Smithsonian magazine, May 2007).

Linnaeus took advantage of his position as namer-in-chief to honor those he liked and to belittle those he didn’t. As for example, he “rewarded” one of his critics by naming a smelly weed after him. He didn’t always play nice.

(But he was quite interesting. Many of his lectures were nature studies held outdoors, walking through fields with hundreds of participants —  joyous, educational social gatherings replete with colorful banners and the jubilant sounds of trumpets, bugles and horns. Linnaeus styled these events, “inquisitions of the pastures”. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing for some. “We Swedes are a serious and slow-witted people”, protested the rector of Uppsala University. “We cannot, like others, unite the pleasurable and fun with the serious and useful”.)

In the 2012 plant catalogs, plant names are followed by plant descriptions, but I don’t think we are getting the whole story — at least not where hellebores are concerned. I much prefer John Gerard’s popular Herball of 1597, because he paid attention to the “vertues”of plants. Accordingly, hellebores were recommended “for mad men”, “for melancholy,” and “for dull persons.” In other words, it’s a great plant if you are crazy, depressed or dull. Useful information.

Hellebores prefer a sweet (alkaline) soil. So, if your soil is acidic, amend with lime, or even better, wood-ash, in order to raise the ph. Provide some shade and moisture and you are good to go. (Note: Wood-ash from the fireplace also benefits other sweet-soil lovers like lilacs and peonies).

Finally, naming names isn’t limited to plants, and Linnaeus isn’t the only name-calling meanie. On a visit to the zoo, we saw a sign on a bear’s enclosure that said “Ursus horribilis”. Now, how do you suppose the bear felt? Maybe it says “Beautiful Bear” on his side of the fence, but I doubt it. (And his common name, Grizzly, isn’t much better!).

Postscript: Just read in the New York Times (3/6/2012, p.D.3) that, like me, the 5,300 year old Tyrolean Iceman had bad knees, and like me, researchers suspect that he had Lyme Disease. Wonder what he thought about hellebores.

Jan./Feb. 2018: Toxic Chemical Alert

President Lyndon Johnson once said: “A man’s judgment is no better than his information.” True enough. Unfortunately, in Washington D.C., bad judgment often prevails despite good information.

In the 2017 November/December issue of The American Gardener, Scott Aker recommended killing bindweed with an herbicide containing glyphosate, a toxic chemical known to have a probable link to cancer.

[Scott Aker is the federal bureaucrat, who, in 2010, proposed killing the entire historic collection of beautiful Glenn Dale azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum. He said the azalea display was too popular and caused parking problems. (I wonder what was next on his list? The Lincoln Memorial?). Public outrage rightly put an end to the Aker plan.]

Aker is now head of horticulture and education at the National Arboretum–which operates under the jurisdiction and control of the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.). Perhaps that explains his unfortunate embrace of glyphosate:

By executive order, President Trump mandated a widespread government deregulation review. A top official at the U.S.D.A., Rebeckah Adcock, is currently leading that Department’s “deregulation team.” Adcock was previously employed as an executive and lobbyist for CropLife America, the pesticide industry’s primary trade group.  CropLife has a vested interest in promoting pesticides and deregulation—i.e., an interest in the removal of pesticide-restrictive health and safety regulatory protections. And, as reported by The New York Times, Adcock is playing footsie with her old pals: (“At the U.S.D.A., Pesticide Lobbyists Encounter a Welcome Mat,” The New York Times, November 14, 2017, p. B1.). Republicans have applauded the deregulation teams for their “unprecedented reduction in the federal regulatory footprint.”

Note: As for Scott Aker, Monsanto, the producer of Roundup—arguably the best-selling herbicide containing glyphosate—is a member of and is represented by CropLife. Connect the dots and close the circle.

The situation at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) is even more dire. President Trump choose Scott Pruitt to head up the Agency. When Pruitt was the Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the E.P.A. at least 14 times in an attempt to block public-interest rules he is now in charge of enforcing.

Pruitt has not disappointed the President: Since he took office, “he has held back to-back meetings, briefing sessions and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from all the major economic sectors that he regulates—and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates.” ( The New York Times, October 3, 2017, p. A1.)

No surprise that the Pruitt E.P.A. will likely act in favor of industry and against the public interest, endangering the environment and American lives. And it has. Consider the Agency’s review of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos—produced by Dow—which is one of a class of chemicals developed to attack the nervous system. Much like sarin gas.

Almost twenty years ago, based on scientific evidence linking chlorpyrifos with severe human health problems—especially with children— it was banned for inside use. Since that time, because of the results of the E.P.A.’s own studies as well as other compelling scientific evidence, E.P.A. scientists determined that there must be a total ban of chlorpyrifos. This determination enjoyed considerable public support: The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, declared the pesticide “unambiguously dangerous” and called for its ban.

Scott Pruitt thought otherwise. Result: Dow: ONE. Public Health: ZERO.

Just one day after Pruitt overruled his own scientists and refused to ban chlorpyrifos, representatives of CropLife America met with him to “acknowledge the many actions taken already to correct recent regulatory overreach.” (Yes, Dow is also a member of CropLife.)

As long as pesticide producers reap billions in profits, they will saturate the market with toxic products that threaten wildlife, domestic pets, and beneficial insects—not to mention beneficial family members. The current Administration will not protect us. Until there is a change in Washington D.C., we can at least do everything within our control to protect ourselves. In the wonderful book, “The Sweet Apple Gardening Book,” Celestine Sibley said it best:

THERE’S A THEORY circulating among my friends and neighbors that I don’t rise up and do battle against the creeping, crawling, hopping, flying. boring, sucking wild life that makes free with my garden because I’m either too lazy or too squeamish.

And while there’s an element of truth in this theory, it’s not the whole truth…. I do worry that I might kill villains and heroes indiscriminately, repay the kindness of my invaluable friends, the birds, with a case of acute gastritis and possibly even jeopardize the health and well-being of those great gardening assistants, my grandchildren.