False indigo for Mom

If you panicked and just remembered that today is Mother’s Day, you probably bought a florist hydrangea with its bowling ball-sized pink or blue flowers and colorful foil wrapping. Fine, but doesn’t Mom deserve more than this impulse purchase? Next year, consider giving her a false or wild indigo (Baptisia [pronounced bap-TIZZ-ee-uh]). For years I’ve written and spoken about this easy-to-grow and enjoy herbaceous perennial that blooms reliably every year during Mother’s Day.
False indigo  is a native American perennial comprised of 15 species and sbaptisia-australis_purpleeveral naturally occurring hybrids that offer a range of flower and leaf colors. Many years ago native Americans and early settlers relied on false indigo to create colorful yellow, brown, and green dyes. In fact, the scientific name is derived from the Greek word, bapto, which means “to dip” or “immerse.” Indigo, a highly sought after and rare color among natural dyes, was actually extracted from the leaves and stems of the yellow-flowered Baptisia tinctoria.
For years false indigo wallowed in obscurity, which surprised me. Depending on the species and cultivar, false indigo flowers come in deep blue to yellow (B. tinctoria) or creamy-white (B. bracteata).  At this time of year tall spikes of pealike flowers rise above the three-lobed leaves to provide a three- to four-week long display. Eventually they give rise to black seed pods that remain for most of the summer. Some folks consider the ripe, charcoal-black seed pods as having ornamental interest. I like the noise the pods make when I shake them, which reminds me of a baby rattle. When planted in a well-drained location in full sun, expect false indigo to reach a height and spread of 3 to 4 feet by the end of the season.
Besides its leaves and flowers, I love Baptisia for its drought tolerance and sheer ruggedness.  It’s a great “starter” plant for new gardeners because false indigo quickly recovers from any mistakes. For example, years ago my six-year-old son harvested all of the new shoots as they poked through its mulch blanket in mid-April. He thought that if the shoots looked like asparagus, they must be asparagus. I was mortified when I saw him carrying an armful of wild indigo shoots in his arms and a beaming smile on his face. (I was also floored by my son’s gustatory interest in asparagus.) No problem. The wild indigo responded by producing more asaparaguslike shoots that bloomed magnificently.
An added bonus to growing false indigo are the flowers that provide sustenance to bumblebees and leaves that feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and sulphurs.
In 2010 false indigo was recognized as a rising star when blue false indigo () was selected as the Perennial Plant of the Year™ by the Perennial Plant Association. Although its specific epithet, australis, is Latin for “southern,” it happens to be one of the most adaptable of native species growing across a range of USDA cold hardiness zones.
As a result of its growing popularity, from 2012 to 2015 the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware conducted a trial of 46 different selections from 11 different Baptisia species and cultivars.  For the mid-Atlantic region (USDA hardiness zone 7a/7b) the Mt. Cuba Center recommended these top 10 cultivars for their garden worthiness: ‘Screamin’ Yellow,’ ‘Lemon Meringue,’ ‘Ivory Towers,’ ‘Blue Towers,’ ‘Purple Smoke,’ ‘Cherries Jubilee,’ ‘Sunny Morning,’ ‘Blueberry Sundae,’ ‘Dutch Chocolate,’ and ‘Crème de Menthe.’
It’s not too late to get Mom a false indigo and a nice card with these words: “Mom, you remind me of false indigo. You’re tough, durable, and beautiful.”
Well, you may not want to use those exact words.  But you can’t go wrong by calling Mom and false indigo “beautiful.” Happy Mother’s Day!
Bob Polomski  © 2017

Red buckeye is a feast for gardeners and wildlife

Although red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) lacks the refined and symmetrical stature of commercially successful small ornamental trees, it makes up for it with an impressive show of 6- to 10-inch long salmon- to cherry-red floweraesculus pavia_R Polomski spikes borne at the ends of its branches. These hummingbird magnets emerge in April and coincide with the spring migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds. The nectar also fortifies other pollinators including eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.

In nature this large shrub to small tree (10 to 20 ft.) grows wild in floodplains and swamp forests throughout the southeast; however, I’ve seen it successfully cultivated en masse in woodland gardens, as accent or specimen plants in landscapes, and in downtown city parks

Once the flowers have faded I enjoy the dark green palmately compound leaves and smooth gray bark. Later in the season potato-shaped husks that arose from the flowers mature and split open in September and October to reveal 1 to 3 shiny brown nut-like seeds. The seeds are poisonous and avoided by most wildlife, but relished by squirrels.

Red buckeye checks out and goes dormant by September with no colorful fanfare. However, when provided with moist, partially shaded conditions, the leaves will turn yellow.

I accept the early departure of red buckeye as it disappears in my landscape. Its leafless branches receive quizzical looks from friends and passersby who typically ask: “Is it dead?” Despite its forlorn look in the fall and winter months, red buckeye will always have a place in my garden. Its flowers sustain my spirit and they nourish the bodies of well-traveled, winged pollinators.

Bob Polomski  © 2017

The rise and fall of the Bradford pear

Once upon a time the Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) was the darling of the nursery industry. Since its debut on the cover of American Nurseryman magazine on April 15, 1963, Bradford pear’s popularity soared as a street-tough tree that offered beauty and durability. In early spring Bradford pear trees erupted into bloom, these giant ovate snowballs of bright white flowers that were best admired from a distance because of their rotting fish aroma. The flowers, favored by honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators oblivious to the stench, gave rise to leathery, dark glossy green leaves that “present[ed] a pleasing picture, particularly as they stir in the breeze and their wavy edges catch and reflect the sun’s rays,”  according to the authors of the 1963 American Nurseryman article “Bradford ornamental pear—a promising shade tree.” In the fall the longlasting leaves exploded into shades of orange, red, and purple. The beauty of Bradford pear was matched by its unparalleled toughness: tolerance to drought, pollution, and pests, notably to fire blight, a devastating bacterial disease that injures and kills edible pears.

Bradford pear appeared to be the perfect ornamental street tree, but like kryptonite and Superman, Bradford pear’s Achille’s heel was its production of closely spaced upright branches. As these poorly attached branches grew and expanded in girth, the crown to split apart, often during snow-, ice-, and windstorms. It often happened to unpruned or poorly pruned trees when they reached 15 to 20 years of age.

In the past I counseled anyone who purchased a Bradford pear to buy a pruning saw as well. As described in the 1963 American Nurseryman article, the limbs of young trees must be selectively removed to produce branches with wider angles and stronger unions to develop a strong canopy.

To overcome this structural flaw, cultivars were developed that offered improved branching habits, such as ‘Aristocrat’ and ‘Chanticleer’, a 2005 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. Other cultivars were developed with narrower forms, such as ‘Capital‘, a U. S. National Arboretum release, that embodied the aesthetic and urban-tolerant traits of Bradford but offered applications in tight, confined locations.

This profusion of callery pear cultivars eventually led to another problem that had ecological consequences. In the past, Bradford pear rarely produced viable fruit because it’s self-infertile and cannot pollinate itself.  With the widespread planting of cultivars that were differed slightly genetically, the barrier to fertility and subequent fruit production was overcome. In some cases the callery pear understock of a Bradford pear would sprout, flower, and provide pollen. The fruits were consumed and dispersed by starlings, robins, and other animals to open, disturbed habitats where the progeny formed dense thickets.

Callery pears mature early—flowering at 3 years of age–and is one of the first trees to bloom in early spring. It’s also one of the last trees to lose its leaves. Callery pears are resistant to insects and diseases and their thorny stems and branches discourage deer-browsing. Interestingly, the “Survivor Tree” at the 9/11 Memorial is a callery pear that survived the September 11, 2001 terror attacks at the World Trade Center. In the context of the Memorial, it serves as a symbol of survival, recovery, and resilience.

Some states in the mid-Atlantic, southeast and midwest regions have declared callery pear an invasive, self-sustaining species that dominates and disrupts native flora. In South Carolina callery pear (and Bradford pear) is considered an invasive species by the  Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council (SE-EPPC).

In the past I encouraged Bradford pear owners in our state to selectively prune the branches. Now that I witnessed large tracts of land throughout our state covered like a white fog in early spring, I encourage them to prune their trees at soil level.

The glorification and eventual demonization of  Bradford pear is the result of our unwillingness to foster biodiversity in our urban environments. While we make our communities more livable for people, we don’t do the same for trees. We disregard decades of arboricultural research and practices and continue to shoe-horn trees into unsustainable 4 square ft. tree pits that are better suited for traffic lights, signs, and streetlights than trees. It’s the survival of the fittest, and only a handful of tree species can exist in these inhospitable conditions. Bradford pear is one of them. This monocultural approach that relies on a single or limited number of species or cultivars had already led to catastrophic losses in our urban forests as witnessed by the demise of American elms to Dutch elm disease and ashes to emerald ash borer. However, we continue to rely on a handful of nearly indestructible species and cultivars that thrive in wretched conditions. Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica cultivars and hybrids), Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima), and Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) have supplanted Bradford pear as street-tough urban warriors.

Because cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions but comprise only 2% of the world’s land mass (Time; Dec. 26, 2016/Jan. 2, 2017), we rely on trees to assume a greater role as ecological engineers in our urban communities. It’s important that communities create growing conditions that support a diverse population of native and noninvasive adapted tree species that provide environmental services and not ecological messes.

Bob Polomski  © 2017

Follow this Rx for your Spring fever

Despite “season creep,” Nature reminded me today that Spring has not officially arrived yet. At 7:26 a.m. it’s 38 degrees F and snowing. Despite this wintry mix, I still have Spring fever. It reminds me of the ”More Cowbell” Saturday Night Live sketch with “famed producer Bruce Dickinson” played by Christopher Walken. I find myself saying: “I got a fever! And the only prescription…is to get outside and garden.”

Fill your prescription for Spring fever after this unexpected unpleasantness passes with this short “to do” list of gardening activities.


  • Buy seed potatoes and cut them into egg-sized pieces containing one or two eyes. Allow the cuts to dry and callous for a day or two beHyssop seedlings in flat 3_2_2016fore planting. Plant them when the soil temperature remains above 50o
  • Set out transplants of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower as well, up to four weeks before the last spring freeze.
  • Sow seeds of carrots, lettuce (leaf and head), garden peas, mustard, radishes, rutabaga, and spinach.
  • Sow warm-season vegetables in flats or trays—try eggplant, New Zealand spinach (a heat-tolerant substitute for spinach), pepper, and tomato.
  • Vegetables that resent any root disturbance, such as cucumber, muskmelon, summer squash, and watermelon, should be sown in individual pots or peat pellets.
  • Sweet potatoes are started from “slips”—shoots that sprouted from last year’s crop. Purchase them as transplants or start your own by placing a sweet potato in a glass half-filled with water. Place it in bright light. Detach the plants from the mother root when they are 6 to 8 inches long, pot them up, and then plant them in the garden about three weeks after the last freeze.
  • Sow parsley and dill. To encourage parsley seeds to sprout more rapidly, soften the seeds by soaking them overnight in warm water. Refer to the Planting Chart — Dates to Plant in SC for more information (hgic.clemson.edu).


  • After flowering, the leaves of your spring-flowering bulbs will turn an unsightly yellow. Temper your urge to remove the leaves, or braid them into attractive ponytails. The bulbs need the leaves to harvest energy that’s channeled to the bulb for next year’s flowers.

Perennials and Ornamental Grasses

  • Dig up, divide, and replant established perennials if they’ve become too crowded and flowering has been sparse. Some fast-growing perennials need to be divided between one and three years after planting—these include aster, astilbe, beebalm, boltonia, garden mum, garden phlox, rudbeckia, Shasta daisy, and many others. To avoid interrupting flowering, dig up summer- and fall-blooming perennials when the new growth is a few inches high.
  • Divide ornamental grasses before new growth emerges. Cut back the old culms to within 4 to 6 inches of the ground and use a sharp shovel or large knife to slice one or more wedges out of the crown. Immediately plant them elsewhere.


  • Dense shrubs should not be planted close to the foundation or siding, or in front of foundation vents because they can obstruct air flow around and beneath your home, which can lead to moisture problems. Prune these shrubs or move them to another area in the landscape. If you move them to south- or west-facing walls to insulate your house from summer’s heat, keep them away from foundation vents and at least 4 feet from the foundation.
  • Keep shrubs away from the compressor on your split-system air conditioner. While the shade cast by the shrubs can reduce energy consumption, they should be planted far enough away so they won’t obstruct air flow or service.

Bob Polomski © 2017



Engage your neighbors with Harry Lauder’s walking stick.

Some shrubs and trees that have shed their leaves look forlorn and miserable in winter. However, there is an exception: Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana  ‘Contorta’). This bizarre-looking small tree or large thicket-forming shrub looks its best after it sheds it leaves. Harry Lauder’s walking stick produces an assortment of twisted, curly twigs and dangling male flowers called catkins that creates a spectacular come-outside-and-look sight. This living sculpture becomes even more sublime with every passing year.

Harry Lauder’s walking stick was discovered by Victorian gardener Canon Ellacombe growing in a hedgerow around 1863 near Frocester, in Gloucester, England. Apparently it was a “sport” or mutation of the European filbert (C. avellana), which is cultivated for its delicious nuts.

The twisted, misshapen twigs were not named after a famous contortionist, as you would assume, but in honor of the Scottish entertainer, Harry Lauder (1870-1950). Actually, it was named after Sir Lauder’s twisted walking stick, his companion on stage as this Scottish baritone sang ballads and comic songs.

Despite its English roots, Harry Lauder’s walking stick performs well in the Carolinas. Expect it to grow 10 ft. high and wide. Because ‘Harry Lauder’ is almost always grafted on European filbert understock, it suckers heavily. The suckers should be promptly removed at the base to prevent the slower-growing scion from being crowded out by the more vigorous understock.

Although Harry Lauder does not bear any edible nuts, it acts like a magnet to attract inquisitive neighbors and passersby. Harry Lauder’s walking stick will get people talking.

Bob Polomski © 2017

Beware of the importance of American Holly now and next year

While the Christmas tree takes front-and-center stage during this holiday season, supported by a cast of poinsettias, cyclamens, kalanchoes, Christmas  cactuses, and amaryllises, hollies often find themselves relegated to wreaths, garlands, and candle adornments. Years ago, as I learned from Fred Galle’s tome, Hollies: The Genus Ilex (Timber Press, OR 1997), hollies were quintessential Christmas symbols extensively used for centuries in holiday wreaths and Christmas decorations. Galle wrote that in London in 1851, 250,000 bunches of hollies were sold and adorned houses, churches, street corners, and market places.

Ilex opaca 12_2_2014

Use American holly for decorating indoors and outdoors for feeding grouse, quail, wild turkeys, and other songbirds.

If you decorated your home with holly this year and happen to be superstitious, don’t remove the holly from your home tonight unless you wish to experience dire consequences. In some parts of England residents retained the holly sprigs until the following year to protect their homes from lightning strikes. In Louisiana, residents saved holly berries at Christmastime to receive good luck throughout the year.

I consider our American holly (Ilex opaca)–not the English holly (Ilex aquifolium)–our signature holly of Christmas. It can be found growing wild from Massachusetts south to Florida and west to Texas and Missouri and north to Tennessee and Indiana. It’s commonly found as an understory tree growing in mixed hardwood forests in a variety of habitats that include dry woodlands, stream and creek banks, and even swamps.

American holly grows slowly, which is unfortunate for nursery producers and consumers. Nevertheless, it was introduced into the trade in 1744 and presently there are more than 1,000 cultivars. Some cultivars will exceed 50 ft. in height, while others, such as ‘Maryland Dwarf’, grows 3 to 5 ft. high and 8 ft. wide. The fruit on female American hollies is commonly red, but some cultivars bear orange or yellow berries. American holly, like many evergreen hollies that include the yaupon, Japanese, inkberry, and lusterleaf are dioecious–separate male and female plants. The males produce pollen and the females produce berries. So, if you’re wondering why you’ve never seen fruit on your American holly, it could be a male that will never produce fruit. There’s also a chance that it’s a female that had not been fertilized by a male. Holly flowers are insect- or wind-pollinated, so it’s important that the separate sexes are within 30 to 40 feet of each other for fertilization and subsequent berry set to occur. To improve your chances at berry set, bring the pollen source closer by selectively removing flowering shoots from the males and placing them in a bucket of water at the foot of the female hollies.

In the past, people in Germany and England called the prickly holly varieties “he-hollies” and the smooth-leaved kinds “she-hollies.” (Interestingly, English hollies produce out-of-reach, smooth-margined adult leaves at the top of mature trees.) The type of leaf brought indoors determined who was to dominate the home in the upcoming year. If the holly leaf had a smooth margin, the wife was in charge. (She should be if she was able to reach the spineless leaves in the uppermost reaches of the

tree). If the holly was prickly, the husband ruled the roost for the year. Obviously you can’t tell the difference between male and female hollies by examining their leaves; you have to examine the flowers that emerge in May. Male hollies tend to produce a prolific number of flowers. These many-branched cymes emanate from the leaf axils-the points where the leaf attaches to the stem. Each flower has four stamens sticking up between the petals. When the anthers ripen and split open, sticky yellow pollen appears. Generally, female hollies produce fewer blooms, and these solitary flowers occur in the leaf axils.  A green pealike pistil, which develops into the berry, rests in the center of each flower and is surrounded by four nonfunctional stamens.

So, while some of you are contemplating the gender of the hollies in your landscape or neighborhood, I am heading outside to remove a few of the lower branches of my American hollies in the backyard. It’s not too late to deck the halls with boughs of prickly he-holly sprigs.

Copyright © 2016 Bob Polomski

During dry spells, prioritizing is the key to a successful garden

The scant rainfall and torrid weather has taken a toll on a number of my landscape plants. Because I value potable water, I prioritize its use. Edibles and newly planted shrubs and trees, which are highly vulnerable to drought stress, earn the right to receive water from my spigot. When plants become established, meaning that they’ve regenerated enough roots to sustain themselves without supplemental irrigation, they’re watered only when the need arises.

I follow this rule regarding tree establishment: for every inch of trunk caliper (trunk diameter measured six inches above the ground), it takes at least 6 months before a tree becomes established. During the establishment period, I apply 2 to 3 gallons of water per inch trunk diameter (for example, 2 to 6 gallons for a 2-inch tree) over the root ball. After a few months of frequent irrigation, I water weekly until the plants are established.

After experiencing several dry summers that spanned more than a quarter century, I know that even established shrubs and trees may succumb to hot, dry summers, which means that you need to visit your landscape often and be on the lookout for the initial signs of water stress:  curling or crinkling leaves, yellowing or off-colored, du

Scorched magnolia

Newly planted trees, such as this southern magnolia, will experience “scorching” or browning of leaves during dry spells.

ll-looking leaves, and brown or scorched areas along the leaf margins. Obviously when you see azalea leaves that look like brown potato chips or Florida anise leaves that look like wilted leaf lettuce, the damage is already done. More severe signs of water stress include leaf drop and branch dieback. These aboveground signs are only a reflection of the unseen damage belowground, particularly to the fine, water- and mineral-absorbing roots.

Despite my hardline approach to avoid watering established plants—or at best, only when absolutely necessary, I did lose some treasured specimens this summer. Less than a week ago I cut down a seven-foot tall Atlantic white-cedar (Chamacyparis thyoides) that I planted in 2012 from a 3-gallon container. Atlantic white-cedar, native to swamps and low lying areas along the coast from Maine to Florida, was a gift from the horticulturists at Moore Farms Botanic Garden in Lake City. A photo of this conifer accompanied my July 24, 2015 post on bagworms. Sadly, I never appreciated its bright green needles and natural pyramidal habit until it turned completely brown.

Pinus pinea 7_8_2016

Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea)

While it was difficult to lose this treasured specimen and a few others, I am comforted by the gain in planting space. I have about 30 replacements that need a permanent home. In a 20-square foot area beneath a small trio of northern red, Shumard, and overcup oaks, I have a variety of potted species and cultivars that I started from seed, rooted from cuttings, or received as passalong plants. I can only hope they’ll be amendable to my tough love approach to watering.

One tree that has survived for the past four years without any supplemental irrigation is an Italian Stone pine (Pinus pinea). I purchased it in a one-gallon decorative pot right after the Christmas holiday season. This Colorado blue spruce lookalike was on the discounted table surrounded by poinsettias and rosemaries sheared into miniature Christmas trees. After two bitterly c

Pinus pinea1

New shoot growth of Pinus pinea.

old winters where temperatures dropped to 8 degrees F, this Mediterranean native is now three-and-a-half feet tall and thriving. It morphed from the cute, short-needled blue conifer into a shaggy-looking green-needled attention-getting specimen. Unlike other plants that have stopped blooming and growing, my Italian stone pine has 3 to 4 inch long expanding new shoots studded with short blue needles. I can’t wait for it to reach reproductive maturity so I can harvest its delectable pignolia or pine nuts for pesto.

Interestingly, I’ve read comments from a variety of “experts” on the internet who nearly dissuaded me from growing this Italian stone pine, which is widely planted in California and not expected to thrive east of the Mississippi, let alone in the southeast. Fortunately, Italian stone pines can’t read.

Copyright © 2016 Bob Polomski