Posts filed under ‘Horticulture’

The Fish Pepper

This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting heirloom plants growing in our Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History with ties to the FOOD in the Garden theme of the week. Every Thursday in September we are exploring one of four key maritime regions with connections to the War of 1812: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and New Orleans. We hope to see you tomorrow evening in the Victory Garden as we enjoy garden-fresh food, cocktails and hard cider from New Columbia Distillers and Distillery Lane Ciderworks, and learn more about two hundred years of Chesapeake Bay foodways. This week’s event is sold out, but you can follow @amhistorymuseum on Twitter for live updates. Tickets for the programs on September 18th and 24th can be purchased here.

The 'Fish' Pepper

The fish pepper in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

This spicy heirloom pepper has deep roots in African-American history, the fishing industry, and the food traditions of the Chesapeake Bay region. The fish pepper is both a decorative and culinary treasure; beautiful variegated foliage provides an attention-grabbing backdrop for the striated peppers that range from white to green to deep oranges and reds. It’s a workhorse plant that’s pretty enough to show off in the front yard as an ornamental and produces peppers with a mellow heat all summer long.

The heirloom 'fish' pepper

A young fish pepper on the left, and a more mature pepper with stripes on the right. The fruit matures to a vibrant red.

The origins of the fish pepper (Capsicum annum, the same species as the Tabasco pepper) are mysterious, but it likely arrived in North America by way of the Caribbean. A possible genetic mutation caused the plant to produce the prized spicy, light-colored peppers. African-American slaves and freedmen in Antebellum Maryland used the pepper to add an unanticipated heat to fish, shellfish—and even terrapin—stew. It was a prized “secret” ingredient in white sauces. The creamy, green young peppers added undetected heat to a white sauce without muddying the color. According to the authors of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail, the decline of the fish pepper (and its brush with extinction) is closely tied to the decline of the fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, though this heirloom is now is making a culinary comeback in the Baltimore area and is available from some seed companies.

Here are two past blog entries from Smithsonian Gardens and the National Museum of American History on the history of fish pepper. Enjoy!

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

September 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm Leave a comment

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ Pumpkin

This month we are collaborating with the National Museum of American History to present the second annual FOOD in the Garden evening series. Every Thursday in September we will explore one of four key maritime regions with connections to the War of 1812: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and New Orleans. Join us tomorrow for a relaxed evening in the Victory Garden & enjoy fresh food and cocktails as we discuss the foodways and waterways of the Long Island Sound. Every week we’ll highlight a different plant from the Victory Garden with ties to the past and present agricultural heritage of the featured region.

'Long Island Cheese' pumpkin

‘Long Island Cheese’ heirloom pumpkin in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin is a little-known heirloom with a mild, sweet flavor, making it a longstanding regional favorite for pies. This cream-colored pumpkin can be found peeking through its light-green leaves in our Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History. It was a popular variety in the Long Island Sound area in the 1800s, mentioned frequently in cookbooks and farmers’ almanacs, but is less common and harder to find in today’s modern markets. A member of the Cucurbita moschata species, this vine originated in Central or South America and made its way via trade and commerce to European and North American gardens as early as the 1500s. By the time of the Revolutionary War it was commonly found in gardens and markets up and down the Atlantic seaboard. In 1807, Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia introduced cheese pumpkin seeds to the commercial market. Cheese pumpkins made their way into seed catalogs and were popularly cultivated in the Long Island region.

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin does not, in fact, taste like cheese at all—though we think it would make an excellent filling for ravioli. The flattened shape and the ribbed, light skin of the pumpkin resemble a wheel of cheese, a common sight in early American markets. Connecticut and the New England states were famous for their dairy production, exporting their delicious cheeses to other states and territories.

The medium-sized cheese pumpkins have deep orange, stringless flesh and a sweet taste, a perfect choice for pumpkin pie. According to one D.D. Tooker in an 1855 issue of the Michigan Farmer, cheese pumpkins were the pick of the pumpkins for any self-respecting pie baker:

The ‘Sweet pumpkin,’ alias ‘Cheese pumpkin’ or ‘pie squash,’—is the only true article, in my opinion, for making that most delicious of ‘yankee notions’—pumpkin pie—and I am not alone in my opinions, for I have yet to see the individual who would not agree with me in this matter . . . The shape and color of the fruit resembles that of a small sized dairy cheese, its flesh is very firm, fine grained and brittle, is of a rich orange color, and very sweet. They will keep all winter in a cool dry cellar if picked and stored before ‘Jack Frost’ touches them.

Seeds are still available from a variety of heirloom seed companies. Or be on the lookout for one in your local farmer’s market or pumpkin patch for the upcoming Thanksgiving baking season. As Tooker observed, this pumpkin stores very well in a cool, dry place.

Tomorrow evening, September 4th, FOOD in the Garden attendees will have the opportunity to sample spirits from Westford Hill Distillers, learn about the process of salt-making from Amagansett Sea Salt, and chat with the Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists who keep the Victory Garden growing. The evening’s panelists include Cindy Lobel, author of Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York, Stephanie Villani, co-owner of Blue Moon Fish, and Diana Whitsit of Terry Farms.

More information about the program and how to purchase tickets for “Long Island Sound: Human Impact” can be found here.

Up next week: a pepper to spice up your seafood stew just in time for “Cultural Connections: The Chesapeake” on September 11th.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

September 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm Leave a comment

Ensete superbum

 

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum). Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

This monocarpic, herbaceous banana is a wonderful specimen in any garden. Monocarpic describes plants that flower, set seed, and then die. Ensete superbum, or cliff banana, is native to India and has a conical pseudo-stem made up of overlapping leaf sheaths.  Its bright green leaves, reaching six feet in length, drop during winter.  The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming.  The inflorescence (or flower head) is a curved terminal spike with triangular oblong fruits and reddish brown bracts that persist for some time to add ornamental value.  This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed.  In some extraordinary cases, plants in the wild can go into a three to four year dormancy period.

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

The cliff banana (Ensete superbum) in its current home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

This rare plant in now on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You can see it for a limited time just inside the west entrance to the garden, close to the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

August 5, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Butterfly Garden: A Haven for Wild Bees

A bumble bee (bombus sp) foraging

A bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

In major urban landscape such as Washington, D.C., a place like the Smithsonian Institution’s Butterfly Habitat Garden serves a valuable purpose as a rich and rewarding refuge, not only for butterflies, but also for bees. With so many flowers in bloom at the end of July, it’s easy to see that bees are very important for pollination. A bee moves from flower to flower searching for nutrient-rich nectar, which it laps up with its hairy tongue. In this process, pollen will collect on the bee’s body and be transferred from one flower to another, providing for the production of the seeds that sustain many gardens and wild-flower populations. On the hind legs of some bees, there are corbiculae, or pollen baskets.  These serve a function similar to suitcases, allowing the bees to pack lots of pollen into the baskets for the flight back home to their colony where they share their newfound resource with many others.  Solitary bees do not have pollen baskets, but species like leaf-cutter bees have very hairy abdomens, which collect a large amount of pollen.  Recently the Butterfly Habitat Garden was abuzz with a large number of bee species, including bumble-, leaf-cutter, honey, and sweat bees, all collecting resources and pollinating flowers.

-Lisa Horth is a Smithsonian Gardens Enid A. Haupt Fellow and an Associate Professor of Biology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she studies plant-pollinator interactions.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa)

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa) with full pollen baskets.

Bumble bee (bombus pennsylvanicus)

Bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) foraging.

Bumble bee (Bombus sp)

Bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

Bumble bee foraging

Bumble bee foraging.

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa)

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa).

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

 

July 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm 3 comments

Explore Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Online!

At the end of April, after ten months of planning, coordinating, and troubleshooting, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) went live. No, we didn’t kill off all of the plants over the winter and revive them for this announcement . . . I mean live as in on-air, online, and freely accessible! SGOC is now available for the world to explore on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center and is the only living collection to join the multitudes of objects, specimens, and archival records that are contained within the site. Below is a snapshot of what an individual catalog record looks like:

Collection, Orchid record sample

Example of a Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection record in the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center.

Records are updated twice a month and contain basic information about each accession, such as scientific name, flower color, range (if a species), and taxonomy. One of the best parts of having the collection online is being able to peruse the beautiful images taken by our talented volunteers Gene Cross, Bryan Ramsay, and James Osen.  So far, about a third of the records have images associated with them. We only photograph the orchids when they are in bloom, but many of our orchids (especially the species) are either too small to bloom, or haven’t yet bloomed during their time at the greenhouses.

SGOC’s presence on the Collections Search Center is serving as motivation to improve Smithsonian Gardens’ collection records in BG-BASE and correct plant identification errors.  Our hope is that these records can be a valuable resource for educators, students, researchers, and curious individuals, and a source of orchid inspiration year-round.

-Julie Rotramel, Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Contractor

July 9, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Magic of Rain Lilies

The common name rain lily comes from this plant’s tendency to bloom after a good soaking from Mother Nature.  They are native to tropical and semi-tropical regions of the Americas.   There are 3 genera commonly known as rain lilies – Zephyranthes, Habranthus, and Cooperia.  Rain lilies are a perennial bulb with a hardiness of USDA Zones 7 to 11 for most species.  They come in various colors, mostly ranging from pinks, yellows, and whites and new colors are popping up through hybridizing and breeding all the time.  Although the common name would suggest that they are in the Liliaceae (lily) family, they actually fall under Amaryllidaceae.

Zephyranthes candida

Zephyranthes candida (Kai Yan, Joseph Wong, photographers. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies are often grown in containers where they can be placed on a front porch or around a deck and will reward all season long.  I have found that if grown in containers, they seem to prefer being slightly crowded and even somewhat pot-bound.  They also look great along a pathway or in the front of a sunny border and are often used in rock gardens.  To get the finest show, Rain lilies look best planted in masses.  Most Rain lilies will bloom several times a season, usually after a good downpour.

If you live in a zone where Rain lilies are not hardy they are easy to overwinter.  When it starts getting cooler, simply bring them indoors (either the container or, if planted, the dug up plants – if possible give them a quick potting) and keep them dry all winter, then set them outside again in the spring.  You can pull off the foliage as it dies to keep them clean.  You may want to either add soil or rough the edges of the pot prior to setting them outside if the soil has shrunk over the winter.

Habranthus tubispathus

Habranthus tubispathus, also referred to as Habranthus texanus (Stan Shebs, photographer. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies grow best in full sun to partial shade.  They prefer to be kept evenly moist but can tolerate periodic dry spells without problem.  During summer months use a well-balanced fertilizer (either liquid or slow release).  The bulbs produce offsets which can be divided and planted in spring or you can sow seeds if you wish.  If you are collecting seeds, sow right away before they dry as they tend to lose the ability to germinate and may take extra time to do so.  Rain lilies are very gardener-friendly as they have no serious pest or disease issues.  I have had problems with mealy bugs, however, but that is because I start watering them earlier in the season than normal and I keep them in the greenhouse for a fuller plant come spring.  Be aware that all parts of the plant can be toxic if ingested.

After reading this, you may be eager to see some Rain lilies for yourself, so please stop by the Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian Institution this summer and enjoy their beauty.  Some of the ones we display are Zephyranthes flavissima, Habranthus robustus ‘Russell Manning’, Habranthus texanus, and Zephyranthes candida.

 

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

May 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Water Conservation at Smithsonian Gardens

Join us this Saturday, May 9th, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m for a celebration of “Water, Water, Everywhere” at Garden Fest in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. In this blog entry Sarah Tietbohl writes about just one of the many ways we try to conserve water at Smithsonian Gardens.

Moongate Fountain in the Haupt Garden

Moongate fountain in the Enid A. Haupt Garden

When I first started at Smithsonian Gardens in 2010 I was assigned the job of cleaning the Moongate fountain in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.  I was excited about this task as I would have an opportunity to learn to use a new piece of equipment and keep cool during the hot summer months.  I estimated that the fountain would need to be cleaned maybe once a month. With the pond open between April and October, that would total seven times a year. That spring, the cleaning schedule started out at once a month.  As the season went on and the temperatures climbed into the 90s, I noticed that the fountain was growing algae at a rapid pace. It turned the water a sickly slimy-green color. That once-a-month cleaning turned into scouring once or twice a week! That season, I ended up cleaning the fountain well over twenty times. The next year it was the same story.

Moongate fountain in the Haupt Garden

Sarah explains her environmentally-friendly method for maintaining the Moongate fountain.

After the summer of 2011, I really started to think about all of the water, energy, and time it takes to clean the Moongate fountain. I started to gauge the amount of water that was being used in one year to clean and fill the fountain. I calculated that it takes 2,300 gallons of water just to fill the fountain each time it is cleaned, plus 200 gallons or so to clean it. I decided to research environmentally-friendly products that would reduce the amount of algal growth, thereby cutting down on the amount of water needed to re-fill the fountain after each cleaning. Fewer cleaning sessions would also result in less emissions (and noise) generated from the power washer that runs every time the fountain is cleaned. I started experimenting with a non-toxic black pond dye. Adding black dye to the fountain reduced the amount of sunlight that was able to penetrate the water, which in turn reduced the algal growth. I found the dye to be very effective and talked my colleagues into using it in the fountains in the Ripley and Folger Gardens as well. Thanks to the black dye solution, Smithsonian Gardens has reduced fountain water use from 60,000 gallons a year to slightly less than 22,000 gallons- a terrific way for Smithsonian Gardens to employ a sustainable alternative in its operations.

-Sarah Tietbohl, Smithsonian Gardens 

 

May 7, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

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