Monday, April 25, 2011


We've had an unusually long and cold winter in Seattle this year. So when my beloved 'Carol Mackie' daphne began blooming this week, I was thrilled. The sweet scent of her flowers is a sure sign of spring.

When I moved into my house 9 years ago, I found this plant nearly dead in the front yard. It was barely 6 inches tall and looked so sickly that I almost tossed it into the compost bin. But with a limited plant budget at the time, I thought it was worth trying to save. So I dug it up and moved it into a protected area in the back garden, where it has been living happily ever after. It is now about 4 feet tall and wide, and would be bigger, except that I prune it each year after it blooms to keep it from overtaking the walkway.

Hundreds of tiny pink buds on this Daphne 'Carol Mackie' will open gradually over a 3 to 4 week period, depending on weather, filling my back garden with fragrance. 

My daphne (formally known as Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie') is not as common in Seattle gardens as Daphne odora, or winter daphne. Winter daphne blooms earlier in the year, usually in February. You will find several wonderful specimens in the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum.

Although daphnes are popular shrubs in the Northwest, they have a reputation for being fussy. They can be planted with all the loving care and attention you can muster, and yet fail to grow. They don't like soil that is too wet, but they don't like to dry out, either. They seem to be doing well, then suddenly, without warning, die.

There is a trick, however, that you can use to increase the odds of your daphne's survival. I've been using this trick with great success for almost 20 years. It is simply this, plant your daphne near a concrete walkway or (better) throw a couple of pieces of concrete rubble into the planting hole. That's what I did with the happy plant you see above.

Why does this work? The soils in the Northwest are acidic, perfect for acid lovers like rhododendrons, azaleas and blueberries. But plants like daphne, that prefer more alkaline soil, struggle. The lime contained in the concrete leaches into the soil a little bit each time it rains or when you water. That lime sweetens the soil around your daphne slightly, making for a happier plant. And when Daphne is happy, she brings beauty to your garden.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Is This a Weed?

Horsetail and henbit and shot weed, oh my! Nettles that sting, geraniums gone wild, and "dandy" lions - these are a few of the plants referred to as "weeds" in the Northwest. Can you identify them in your yard? Here's a quick tutorial.

This is horsetail (Equisetum hymale), one of the oldest plants on earth. If you have ever tried to get rid of it, you understand how it has survived since prehistoric times. This is one tough plant. Chemicals won't kill it. Pulling it out like a regular weed stimulates the plant to send up even more new shoots. The most effective way to get rid of it is to starve it out by cutting stems to the ground so leaves cannot photosynthesize. Covering the area with layers of newspaper topped with bark and leaving it alone for several months may finish the job.

This is red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), a cousin of henbit. This plant is not invasive and can easily be pulled out if it is not to your liking. You'll note that it has square stems as do all members of the mint family. The stem tips and flowers are edible but not particularly flavorful. This is the only weed I know of that has its own Facebook page.

Shotweed (Cardimine hirstuta) is hard to photograph because its stems and flowers are so delicate they all but disappear. You can easily recognize the tight rosette of leaves at the base, however, and once those little white flowers fade, you can't miss the explosive burst of seed that comes your way when you touch the plant. The seed explosion is, of course, how it gets its name, shot weed. It also explains how it manages to be so invasive - seed goes everywhere. It is edible as a bitter herb.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioecia) can certainly get your attention. Tiny hairs on the stems and leaves act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin, among other chemicals, into the skin which produces a profound stinging sensation. In spite of that, this plant has a long history of medicinal uses including pain relief, easing arthritis symptoms, hay fever and skin problems. Stinging nettles are edible - the chemicals responsible for the sting go away when the plant is immersed in water and/or cooked. The flavor is said to be similar to spinach and it is used in soups, polenta and even cheese making.
Wild geranium (Geranium robertianum) is also known as Robert's herb or "stinky Bob" because of the strong odor emitted when you pull it up or brush against it. In late spring, this lacy plant blooms with small, star-shaped, 5-petaled pink flowers. It is shallow rooted and probably the easiest plant to pull out of the ground there is. It isn't a particular problem in urban gardens, but in the forest it will quickly overtake native ground cover.

Of course, everyone knows this one, the dandelion (Taraxicum official). Much loved by children for their sunny, yellow flowers and big, puffy, seed heads, these plants present a problem for gardeners who let their populations get out of control. However, a soil knife  or dandelion weeder will easily pop them out. All you need is time and patience. If you have a particularly large crop, you might consider exploring this plant's various culinary and medicinal properties. Dandelion greens have long been used as a spring tonic. And the flowers are used to make wine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Magnolia Stellata

In Latin, the word "stellata" means starry. (For more on Latin botanical names, look here.) Knowing this makes it easy to identify this small, shrubby member of the Magnolia family. Instead of the well known, cup-shaped flowers magnolias are famous for, this lovely little tree has flowers that look like stars.

In bloom right now in Seattle, these Star Magnolias are wonderful additions to small gardens and mixed borders. There are several varieties, all deciduous and slow growing. They can reach 10- 20 feet high, with a spread from 10- 20 feet. Be sure to check plant labels for specific sizes before you buy one.

These trees add interest to the winter garden with a profusion of fat, fuzzy flower buds that resemble pussy willows. The buds open in early spring with flowers that light up the landscape and, depending on the variety, scent the garden with a light fragrance. Most trees have white flowers, but there are pink forms as well.

As with all flowering plants, it is best to buy them in bloom to be sure you get the color and fragrance you want. If you can, plant this magnolia where you can see it from your window because it is truly one of the stars of the spring garden.