Posts filed under ‘Horticulture’

Update on the Eastern Bluebird Trail

Eastern bluebird nesting boxes

The green roof Eastern bluebird nesting boxes before installation on the trail.

In 2012, the Smithsonian Gardens Green Team developed an Eastern Bluebird Trail at our greenhouse complex in Suitland, Maryland. The trail of ten paired nest boxes was designed to support and expand the year-round resident Eastern Bluebird population. By the end of the 2013 nest season, the bluebird population had expanded to about thirty birds.

What happened in 2014? We began monitoring the trail in March, looking for the first signs of nesting behavior. The monitoring continued through July and in that time, no Eastern Bluebirds have been seen at or around the greenhouse complex. We believe the resident population migrated to another location due to a harsh winter of repeated deep Arctic cold blasts starting in late November and persisting through March. In addition to the cold, we believe the bluebirds did not have enough food to support their population.

American beautyberry and flowering dogwood

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, top) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida, bottom) are bluebird favorites!

Bluebirds rely on fruit for more than thirty percent of their diet. In the winter, when insects are scarce, they depend on persistent fruits more than at any other time of year. The SG Green Team is committed to planting more native tree and shrub species around the facility to provide a sustainable winter habitat for the birds. Planting trees and shrubs not only provides food for birds but also provides shelter from harsh winds and cold temperatures.

-Sarah Hedean, SG Green Team Member

December 11, 2014 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

Way Down Yonder in the Paw-Paw Patch

Pawpaw tree blossoms

Pawpaw tree in bloom in the Native Landscape garden at the National Museum of the  American Indian.

Ever heard of the pawpaw tree?  Ever tasted its fruit?  Did you even know it had fruit?  Though it may not have the name recognition of an apple or a peach tree, pawpaw trees have a long and important history in the United States. In 1541, Hernando de Soto observed Mississippi Valley Native Americans growing pawpaws and eating the fruit. According to scientist Neal Peterson, the Spanish mistakenly named the pawpaw fruit “papaya.” Spanish explorers selected this name because they observed pawpaw fruit to have a similar green skin and orange flesh to a papaya. Overtime, the English language transformed the fruit and tree species name from papaya to pawpaw (Asimina triloba).

According to James A. Little in his 1905 A Treatise on the Pawpaw, pawpaw fruit helped sustain Native Americans and early American settlers in times of harvest failure. Little wrote that pawpaw trees needed little maintenance in order to survive in the wild, unlike apple, pear, or peach trees. Thanks to its resilience, Native Americans and early pioneers enjoyed pawpaw fruit as a dependable source of fiber and nourishment.  Even members of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition survived on pawpaw fruit during their long journey west in 1804-1806.

Pawpaw tree fruit

Pawpaw tree fruit at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Found between Georgia  and Northern Michigan, pawpaws extend across eastern portions of the United States. Unlike the tropical members of the Annonaceae family to which it belongs, pawpaw trees thrive in harsh conditions of snow and ice. Despite this resilience, pawpaws still struggle to reproduce. Scientists believe the tree is ineffective at attracting flies and beetles to pollinate its flowers, thus creating challenges for reproduction.
The pawpaw tree produces a very nutritious and delicious fruit, which is actually a berry.  The pawpaw berry is also called a “custard apple” and is said to taste like a mix between a banana and a pear, with a hint of vanilla.  The name custard apple derives from the creamy texture of the fruit.

Pawpaw tree foliage

The pawpaw tree has striking foliage in autumn. Pictured here on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian Gardens currently has seventeen pawpaw trees in its Tree Collection.  They can be found in the Native Landscape garden at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Butterfly Habitat Garden adjacent to the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum.

Next time you stop by one of the Smithsonian gardens keep an eye out for this beautiful tree with a deliciously-interesting past.

-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens intern

November 26, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Preparing Your Trees for Winter

Japanese coral bark maple

Japanese coral bark maple (Acer ) in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, next to the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building.

As we gaze around at the beautiful autumn colors that our trees are showing us, we’re trying not to think about the arrival of the cold and snowy weather of winter.  However, arrive it will, and now is the time to prepare your trees for those coming winter months.  Although all trees are potentially susceptible to winter injury, young and/or thin-barked, and broadleaf evergreen trees require the most preparation.

Excessively cold temperatures, wind, and quick temperature changes can cause drying, browning, and death of evergreen foliage.  This problem is most prevalent on broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, laurels, boxwoods, and hollies.  To help prevent this damage, construct a barrier of heavy burlap, like a fence, to block drying winds from their prevailing direction.  If the entirety of the plant is exposed, loosely wrap it in burlap.  In either case, be sure to leave the top of the plant exposed so light and air penetration can still occur.  In addition, it is important to keep watering your trees up until the time of the first hard frost.  A 4-6 inch layer of mulch over the root zone will also help the soil retain warmth and moisture.  (Remember not to pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree.)

Kean Hall Garden wrapped in burlap for winter.

The boxwoods in the Kean Hall Garden in Livingston, New Jersey wrapped up in burlap for the winter, 1955. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of American Collection.

Another issue of concern, which is also caused by rapidly fluctuating temperatures, is sunscald.  This occurs when the sun has warmed the trunk of the tree, and then that trunk is rapidly cooled upon sudden shading from a cloud, etc.  This condition results in elongated, dried and cracked areas of dead bark.  This can be prevented by wrapping the trunk with commercial tree wrap (available at most home and garden centers) or other light-colored material.  This will reflect sunlight and keep the bark at a more consistent temperature.  The wrap should be placed on the tree in the fall and removed in the spring, after the last frost.

Broadleaf evergreen foliage damage and frost cracks are influenced by many factors, including plant species, location, drainage, natural protection, and how well established a plant is in the landscape.  There is no specific temperature at which damage occurs, but if the forecast calls for temperatures below the average seasonal low (29-33°F for Washington, D.C.), it is best to utilize the protection methods outlined above.

Tree branches can be prone to breakage from heaving snow and ice loads and by strong winds.  Weakly attached, overextended and broken limbs should be pruned.  Trees with an upright form, such as juniper, arborvitae, and clump birch, can be wrapped in burlap, or held together by wrapping the branches collectively with twine or rope.  Any wrapping material should be removed in the spring.

When natural food sources grow scarce in the winter, rodents may feed on the young bark and cambial tissue of trees.  Plastic tree guards or a cylinder of ¼” wire mesh placed around the trunks of young trees will help prevent this damage.  Be sure to remove these guards once the spring has come so the tree does not wind up growing into them.

Trees possess an extraordinary ability to withstand severe winter weather, with some being more hearty than others.  However, with proper care and attention, your trees should come through the winter ready to show off their new flowers and foliage for spring.

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist & Tree Collection Manager

November 19, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

Spooky Plants Week

BOO! In honor of Halloween, we are celebrating another #SpookyPlantsWeek.  Here’s our round-up of the weird, creepy, gross, scary, and wonderful plants that we featured on Facebook this week. All can be found growing in our gardens at the Smithsonian museums or in our greenhouses in Maryland.

Tacca chantrieri plant

Tacca chantrieri, also known as the bat flower, is a member of the yam family and native to Southeast Asia. It has unusual black flowers and long whiskers. The “spooky” part about this plant (the name kind of gives it away) is that it looks like a bat. So it’s perfect for Halloween, and the fact that it’s blooming this time of the year makes it even more special. See it on display inside the Ripley Center kiosk entrance.

Brassavola nodosa  orchid

Also known as the “Lady of the Night” or “Flor de la Noche,” Brassavola nodosa has ghostly white flowers that emit a heady, nocturnal fragrance to attract night-pollinating moths. We have a few of these ethereal plants in the Orchid Collection at our greenhouses.

Cliff banana plant

The National Zoo has megafauna, but we have megaflora! Watch out, the Ensete superbum looks hungry . . . lucky for us, the plant only looks like it might be carnivorous. This herbaceous banana is native to India and more commonly known as the cliff banana. The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming. This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed. Our cliff banana caused many visitors to the Enid A. Haupt Garden to do a double-take all summer long.

Actaea pachypoda fruit

Found in the Urban Bird Habitat: Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue.’ It is also called white baneberry or doll’s eyes because the fruits look like a cluster of eyes on red stems watching your every move in the garden. Some birds find the fruit to be a tasty treat, but beware, they are poisonous to humans. (Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History Collections.)

Solanum quitoense (naranjilla)

Solanum quitoense, known as naranjilla (”little orange”) is scary in looks only. Spines and purple hairs along the stems give this member of the nightshade family an otherworldly appearance that would be more at home in the Addams Family garden rather than the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian. If you can get past the strange looks of the hairy, orange fruit, a fresh glass of naranjilla juice is a sweet treat.

 

October 31, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Pumpkin Season

With Halloween just around the corner and Thanksgiving on our minds already, we are celebrating the season of the pumpkin here at Smithsonian Gardens.

Marshall Garden, 1920. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens.

In the Archives of American Gardens, we have a beautiful glass lantern slide of pumpkins growing in a garden. Marshall Garden, Millbrook, New York, 1920. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Lois Poinier Collection.

Will you carve a pumpkin for Halloween? Jack-o’-lanterns as we know them today are rooted in European traditions. In Ireland and Scotland, people used turnips and potatoes to make scary faces that would frighten evil spirits. When immigrants from these countries came to America they began using pumpkins, a native fruit.

The modern-day pumpkin pie evolved from early recipes that arrived in the America from England and France. Pumpkins (called “pompons” in French) were stuffed with sweet fillings or were served in a pie crust along with apples. By the mid-nineteenth century the custard-style pumpkin pie (with a bottom crust and no top crust) was a familiar “Yankee” delicacy. This excerpt from the “The Pumpkin” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1850) pretty much sums up how we feel about this gorgeous gourd:

Then thanks for thy present!— none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own pumpkin-pie!

Over the years we have grown a variety of heirloom pumpkins in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History. This year keep an eye out for the ‘Long Island Cheese,’ pumpkin. Canned pumpkin has been a popular and convenient alternative to fresh pumpkin since the 1920s. For those who have the time to make a pie from scratch this season, Rebecca Sullivan, Fellow in Food History at the National Museum of American History, has a delicious recipe to share with you:

Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie with nut topping. Rebecca Sullivan, photographer.

Recipe for Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients:
-Filling:
2 cups pumpkin puree (steam 1 ¼ lbs. peeled pumpkin until soft, then puree)
3 eggs
1 ½ cups thickened cream
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Zest of 1 orange

-Pastry:
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons plain flour
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
¼ lb. unsalted butter (1 stick), chilled, cubed
1 egg

-Pecan, gingersnap layer and nut topping:
¼ cup pecans, toasted and ground
¼ cup crushed gingersnap cookies
½ cup almonds or in-season nuts
2 tablespoons maple syrup

-Maple cream:
1 cup light cream
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

Directions:

  • Starting with the pastry, place the flour and confectioner’s sugar in a food processor and pulse for a few seconds. Add butter and process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and process until the mixture forms a ball. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Once chilled, roll pastry out on a lightly floured workbench and use to line a lightly greased 9-inch pie pan. Place back in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill further. Next make the pecan gingersnap layer by toasting the pecans in the oven for 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and then place the pecans, along with the gingersnap cookies, in a food processor and process until finely ground. Press this mixture evenly onto the bottom and up the sides of the unbaked pie crust. Cover and return the pastry to the refrigerator while you make the pumpkin filling.
  • Line the pan with baking paper, place the almonds and a drizzle of maple syrup on top of the baking paper and blind-bake for 10 minutes. Take out of the oven and set the nuts aside for later. Increase oven temperature to 420°F. Place pumpkin puree, eggs, cream, sugar and spices in a processor and whiz until smooth. Pour into the tart shell, then bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300°F and bake for a further 30 minutes. Take out of the oven and sprinkle the nuts on top of the pie, then return to the oven for a remaining 10 minutes. The pie should be just firm when cooked.
  • Cool, and then make the maple cream by pouring the cream into a small bowl and mixing with a hand mixer. As the cream starts to thicken, slowly drizzle in the maple syrup and mix until the consistency you desire. Serve the pie in slices with the whipped maple cream.

October 22, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Dishing up New Orleans Food History

This evening marks the end of the delicious—and educational—2014 FOOD in the Garden programming in the Victory Garden. This fall we explored a different key maritime region with connections to the War of 1812 each week: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and this week, New Orleans. What contributed to the global and unique cuisine of the Big Easy? How did immigrants shape the culinary heritage of the original foodie city? Our final week we’ll be joined by Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company, Capital City Co., and Phillip Greene in the marketplace and our very own James Gagliardi will be signing copies of Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location, the first Smithsonian Gardens book on gardening.

'Carolina Gold' rice growing in the Victory Garden

‘Carolina Gold’ rice growing in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

New Orleans conjures up images of ornate cast-iron railings, boisterous brass bands, and of course, red beans and rice. The cuisine of New Orleans is a true melting pot of flavors and cultures, a product of its unique location on a major waterway and its tumultuous and storied past. Jambalaya, beignets, and chicory coffee are the confluence of hundreds of years of cross-cultural connections and shared meals steeped in French, Spanish, Caribbean, American Indian, and African traditions.

The archetypal New Orleans meal (in this author’s non-scientific, Yankee opinion) is red beans and rice. Like much of the city’s cuisine, there is debate over the origins of this nutritious & delicious one-pot dish. Precursors of the dish can be found in Spanish, Haitian, Caribbean, and African cuisine. No matter the origins, each chef has their own idea of the “perfect” recipe for Monday dinner, the traditional day to dish up this classic. Before washing machines, Monday was customarily the day to spend hours scrubbing the family clothes. Because this was an all-day process a pot of beans with a ham bone and some vegetables was set to simmer for an easy meal after a busy and sudsy day. Dishes that originated in the working class and slave communities migrated to the elegant tables of the French Quarter and into the city’s lexicon of flavor via hardworking and innovative cooks utilizing a truly global arsenal of ingredients. From the tables of stately homes to mom-and-pop joints, you’ll find this king of dishes on the menu in Louisiana homes and restaurants today.

Rice, like the apples featured on the blog last week, is a species introduced from afar but an American dietary staple through and through. The history of rice in the United States cannot be untangled from our dark history of slavery. More and more scholars argue for a West African introduction of rice cultivation techniques to the Americas, with rice being transported over the treacherous Middle Passage and grown by enslaved Africans in their small garden plots. This year we’re growing ‘Carolina Gold’ rice in the Victory Garden. It was a successful plantation crop in the Carolina Lowcountry, its sweet and clean taste complementing delicate fish stews. However, ‘Carolina Gold’ was too finicky a crop to keep up with the mechanical, modern world and was almost lost to extinction. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and a small group of rice farmers are leading the charge to put this historic rice back on the table.

New Orleans native Louis Armstrong considered red beans and rice to be his favorite dish among many favorite dishes. He loved red beans and rice so much he often signed off on letters with “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.” Not able to join us at FOOD in the Garden this evening? Whip up a pot of this New Orleans favorite with this recipe for red beans and rice from Armstrong and his wife Lucille, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and NPR.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

September 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

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

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