Monday, October 13, 2014

Have You Ever Eaten a Ground Cherry?

For several weeks this summer, my 7-year-old would wake up early, put on her rain boots, go outside (still in her pajamas!), and go straight to the garden... to pick and eat Ground Cherries.

Ground Cherry
Even though the Ground Cherry is native to most of the Americas and was eaten by Native Americans and Pilgrims, most people have never heard of this little fruit.  Indeed, I had never had one until last year, but after tasting them I immediately wanted to start growing my own!

Physalis pruinosa, also synonymous with Physalis pubescens, has many nicknames, including Ground Cherry, Husk Cherry, and Husk Tomato.  The Ground Cherry is related to Tomatoes and Tomatillos, but the little fruits are more sweet and fruity tasting.  Even though they keep well for a long time, they have likely fallen out of favor now because they are so small and each one has a papery husk on it that you have to remove before eating.

A Ground Cherry is actually about the size of a small grape.
I often hear Ground Cherries described as tasting like a cross between a pineapple and a tomato.  The taste can be rather variable.  I've tasted two different kinds.  A nearby farm grows a variety that tastes rather like a pineapple, but with an earthy flavor, rather like ripe banana.  The ones I grew this year were brighter tasting, like a cross between a pineapple and a mango - absolutely delicious!  I think the variety I grew were much tastier, but they were smaller and seedier than the farm-grown ones.  

There are only a few known named cultivars of Ground Cherries - Aunt Molly's, Cossack Pineapple, and Goldie.  (The Ground Cherry seeds that I grew were not named.)  Physalis pruinosa does also have many edible relatives, such as the similar-looking Physalis peruvianaaka Cape Gooseberry.  

Even though you grow them the same way you grow Tomatoes, Ground Cherries are hardier and much easier to grow.  They are not as picky about soil, they don't have to be staked, they don't have as many problems with disease, and critters don't eat them, since most of the plant (including the husk surrounding the fruit) is toxic.  The plants are short and wide, resembling Tomatillo plants more than Tomato plants, and the plentiful fruit look a lot like little Tomatillos.  The papery husk on them turns yellow as it ripens, and when they are totally ripe, they will fall to the ground - thus the nickname Ground Cherries.  

plants loaded down with green Ground Cherries
Ground Cherries are very versatile - they can be eaten plain or cooked in savory or sweet dishes.  According to Edible Omaha, some Native Americans tribes used Ground Cherries to make a savory relish.  A recipe from the Zuni tribe combines them with onions, chili paste, and coriander.  On the other hand, early European settlers used them to make pie and jam.  I think Ground Cherries would taste great in a salad (with some goat cheese, perhaps?).  And we all knew it was just a matter of time before someone dipped them in chocolate...

Unfortunately (for me), I was not able to collect very many Ground Cherries this year for cooking - my kids ate them all before I got the chance!  I wanted to try a pie, but even then I had to supplement my scanty leftover amount of Ground Cherries with peaches.

Ground Cherry and Peach Pie... yum!
They are supposed to reseed easily, so hopefully there will be even more Ground Cherries next year - enough for the kids and for me!

So have you ever eaten a Ground Cherry?

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Curious Case of the Color Changing Chrysanthemums

Fact:  In September I bought some white mums for my whiskey barrel planters.  
I present this picture for evidence:

Exhibit A
Fact:  Two weeks later, the WHITE mums in my two planters had somehow turned into...

Exhibit B
PINK mums!

Closeup of Exhibit B
Fact: After several more days, the flowers turned an even darker pink.

Exhibit C
Is it some sort of crazy color-changing cultivar?

Or a condition of the cooling fall climate?

Closeup of Exhibit C
Any gumshoe gardeners out there that can crack this confounding case?

I'm almost sure this isn't the scheme of my shifty, scalawag squirrels...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Winterberry Hollies

It may be officially fall, but it's beginning to look a little like Christmas in my front yard - my Winterberry Hollies are on full berry display!

Winterberry Holly
The Winterberry Holly, or Ilex verticillata, is a shrub native to Eastern North America.  It is native to swampy areas, so, like many of our native hollies, Winterberries are great shrubs for poorly drained soil (hello, clay!).

So why are they called Winterberries?

Winterberry Hollies are actually deciduous.  Their leaves fall off, leaving just the gorgeous berries that remain over winter (thus Winterberries!)  I know many people prefer evergreen hollies, but I like the softer leaves of the Winterberries better than many of the stiff, glossy evergreen varieties.  And how gorgeous do these branches look with just beautiful red berries on them?

Random fact:  Of the 400 species of hollies in the world, only about 30 are deciduous.
Cut branches are often used in Christmas arrangements.  You don't even need to put them in water; dry cut branches will keep well for weeks.  Left outside, on the other hand, they will only last until the birds get to them!  Last year all of my berries were gone by February, but we had so much fun watching the birds while they were eating them.

I think the Winterberries attracted every Bluebird on this side of town!
Wanting shrubs with beautiful winter interest, I planted 'Winter Red' Winterberry Hollies on either side of my front door.  The cultivar 'Winter Red' is supposed to get between 6 to 9 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide.  Of course, being a berrying holly, 'Winter Red' is a female.  In order to get those beautiful berries, the girls need a gentleman caller, for which I have the compact 'Jim Dandy' Winterberry tucked into a corner of the yard.

('Winter Red' is actually supposed to prefer the later pollinating 'Southern Gentleman', but 'Jim Dandy' seems to do the trick for mine - either that or my girls have been seeing other males on the side, which is very possible with all the wild hollies that loiter in my neck of the woods...)

Winterberry Holly 'Winter Red'
There are quite a few different cultivars of Winterberry Holly. Some of the popular ones include the short and compact 'Red Sprite', the very berry-heavy 'Berry Heavy', and the yellow-orange berried 'Winter Gold'.

Winterberry Holly 'Winter Gold'
photo source: J. Reeves, UT Gardens
Winterberry Hollies can be grown in full sun or partial shade, but they will produce more berries with more sun.  Most cultivars are hardy from zones 3 - 9, and they have very few problems with disease.  These extremely hardy shrubs are also tolerant of air pollution, clay soil, wet soil, erosion, and zombies... (just kidding, though they are deer-resistant!)  They are relatively slow-growing shrubs, though, so it is a good thing that they are deer-tolerant!

The one thing they don't tolerate, however, is alkaline soil - only plant Winterberries in acidic soil unless you want them to turn yellow and keel over on you.  But if you are looking for a great shrub to plant this fall in one of those tough, wet, clay (and acidic) sites, Winterberry Holly just might be the ticket!

Happy Fall Gardening!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Gaze Into the Cosmos

It is now September.  Gone are the multitude of Purple Coneflowers, but in their place are now one of my favorite cottage annuals - Cosmos!

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Picotee'
I read on a garden website somewhere that if you have trouble growing Cosmos, well, you might just want to take up golf!  I, for one, am thankful for such easy to grow plants that put on such a great display with very little effort from me.

the front garden
Cosmos bipinnatus are ridiculously easy to grow from seed.  In the spring I went around the garden throwing seeds all over right before a good rain, and that was pretty much all the care I gave them.

a Cosmos bud about to open
Cosmos bipinnatus are part of the Aster family and are sometimes called Mexican asters (since they are native to Mexico).  They tolerate poor or dry soil.  Just give them plenty of sun.

The bees love them, and soon the Cosmos will be bursting with seeds and attracting Goldfinches in droves (as well as a couple children that like collecting the seeds for their next year's garden).

center of Cosmos 'Versailles Red'
If it is possible to stop gazing at the Cosmos (they are mesmerizingly beautiful), there are other things going on in the garden.  The chilly weather we've suddenly been having turns a gardener's mind to Asters and Mums, both of which went into my whisky barrel planters.

The Nicotania is still going in the mailbox garden.  
(That stuff is seriously like the Energizer bunny of the plant world!)

The Caryopteris 'Worcester Gold' is in bloom, to the delight of many different types of bees.

Carpenter bee on Caryopteris
This time of the year is also when the Goldenrod blooms.  I didn't personally plant any Goldenrod in my garden (in fact I weeded some out), but all the wild areas around the yard are full of the beautiful golden flowers.

Plasterer bee on Goldenrod
It's hard to believe that the summer is pretty much over.  There's a nip in the air, and newscasters are already talking of possible frost.  I refuse to believe it!  

I'm going back to gazing at my Cosmos and thinking summery thoughts!
I hope you all are enjoying the last few days of summer gardening!

To see what other garden bloggers around the world have blooming in their garden, visit Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day over at May Dreams Gardens blog.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leaves of Three, Let It...Bloom?

Growing up, I was never allergic to poison ivy, so when I started gardening as an adult, I never bothered to learn what it looked like.  After an intense weeding session several years ago, however, all of that changed.  I was apparently no longer immune to poison ivy - and I was bound and determined to never suffer such a bout of itchy miserableness again!  I quickly learned to spot the infamous 'leaves of three'!

This area is known for having copious amounts of poison ivy (as many fellow gardeners told me after moving up here to the Northeast), so I was dismayed but not surprised when many 'leaves of three' popped up this spring in the shady area under my back deck.

Every few weeks I went into the backyard carefully armed and protected with gloves and plastic bags and removed all the offensive seedlings.  My kids were not allowed to play there under the deck, and when we had to stain the wooden deck supports this summer, Mr. Red House and I wore protective boots and dreamed about our future patio that would smother all of this poison ivy.

Then the other day I noticed a very curious thing.  I spotted a poison ivy plant that I had missed in my weeding, and it was... blooming?

All those plants under my deck weren't poison ivy at all!  Those impostors were actually Bidens frondosa - I had been most carefully pulling up a harmless native wildflower.

Bidens frondosa
An annual native to North America, Bidens frondosa is also known under such descriptive names as Devil's Beggarticks, Common Beggar-ticks, Devil's Pitchfork, Sticktights, Bur Marigold, and Pitchfork Weed.  I somehow get the impression people are not very fond of it...

This Bidens has been introduced into other parts of the world, such as Europe, Asia, and New Zealand, and has proved to be a noxious weed there, as it grows so readily.  The seeds of this Beggar-tick are much like all the other similarly nicknamed plants - they cling onto animal fur or clothing or anything that brushes up against them and can be a pain to get off.  (That, and the fact that the seeds are shaped vaguely like a pitchfork, is probably what earned it the nicknames 'Devil's Beggarticks' and 'Devil's Pitchfork'.)  As you can see, this is one of the non-showy Bidens, as it doesn't have outer yellow petals like some other Bidens have.  Thus the flowers are not really noticeable or that pretty (unless you are a pollinator, anyway).

Bidens frondosa prefers moist soil and will grow easily in light shade or in full sun.  It has compound leaves, usually with either 3 or 5 leaflets.  Thus it can sometimes be mistaken by certain gardeners for poison ivy...

So how can you tell the difference between this wildflower and poison ivy?  Well, apparently the leaves of poison ivy alternate along the stem, while the leaves of Bidens frondosa are opposite each other.

Aha! Leaves are directly opposite each other = not poison ivy!
Well, I am thankful that our backyard is not as infested with poison ivy as I thought.  I do wonder about this plant in the front yard though...

It looks rather suspicious...
What do you guys think?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


To the delight of my kids, Dewberry season is upon us!  In our backyard, Dewberries grow rampant in the open, sunny parts surrounding our detention pond.  Closely related to blackberries, these small berries are a little on the sour side, but still a delectable find to small children who like to roam the wild places and forage for food.

Swamp Dewberries
There are several different types of Dewberries, but in our yard we have Swamp Dewberries, Rubus hispidus.  Also called Bristly Dewberries or Swamp Blackberries, they are native to the Eastern half of the U.S. and Canada.  This Dewberry plant is a low-growing, trailing vine that is covered in prickly hairs and spreads to form a low groundcover.

As indicated by the name, the Swamp Dewberry likes swampy places.  They are frequently found on the edge of wetlands (such as my detention pond).  In early summer, the plants are covered in white flowers, small but pretty.

As with so many native berrying plants, Dewberries are beloved by wildlife.  Native bees use the leaves for nesting material, and the flowers attract many different kinds of bees, small butterflies, and other assorted creatures in search of pollen and nectar.

Honeybee on Dewberry flower
The berries that result from the pollinated flowers are an important source of food for a large variety of songbirds and gamebirds.  Small animals such as chipmunks, mice, and raccoons also eat Dewberries.  The leaves of the Dewberry plant are also eaten by rabbits and deer.

a tiny bee on the Dewberry flower
I honestly would not grow Dewberries in a garden setting, as it spreads quite rapidly and would become weedy and take over.  If one needed a groundcover for a large wild area, however, this would do the trick.  Dewberries are one of those pioneer plants that are first to reestablish after a fire or after an area has been cleared.  They prevent erosion of soil and establish conditions for other, larger plants to move in.

I am glad to have a lot of Dewberries in the backyard, however.  I like having plants for the enjoyment of wildlife, as well as for the enjoyment of two (sometimes wild) children!

Happy Wildflower Wednesday!  
To see native wildflowers growing in other bloggers' yards, visit Clay and Limestone's site.

Friday, August 15, 2014

An August Turn About the Front Gardens

It's been a nice, cool summer this year, and while that hasn't been so great for all my spicy pepper plants, the flowers are loving it.

In the front of the house, the Purple Coneflowers and Nicotiana are still going strong, and the Cosmos are starting to bloom.  The rockstar of the front garden right now, though, is my Hibiscus 'Cranberry Crush'.  Is it possible to outshine this?

'Cranberry Crush' Hibiscus
This Hibiscus is a hybrid cultivar.  Its parentage includes various hybrids of the native species H. moscheutos, H. coccineus, and H. laevis.  I absolutely love the billowy, cupped shape of the flowers, and the foliage is even quite pretty, with a reddish tint to the leaves.

On the other side of the driveway, though, my blue garden is trying it's best not to be outshone.  The blue Balloon Flower has been blooming nearly all summer long, and next to it is blooming some amazingly blue Salvia.  (The seed packet was labeled 'Sky Blue' Salvia, but I'm guessing it is the same as Salvia farinacea 'Victoria'.)  They look absolutely beautiful next to the 'Worcester Gold' Caryopteris with its contrasting golden leaves!

Sadly, the blue Salvia are so little that they really need a mass of plants to make more of an impact.  Very few of the seeds in the packet even germinated so I didn't get too many plants, but what can you say?  It was one of those impulse seed packet buys from a grocery store.  (You know we've all done it!) Thus the moral of the story is to stick with seeds from reputable dealers only...

Thankfully, my Balloon Flower has quite a presence!
In addition to working on the bed around my new red greenhouse, I've also been determined to do something this summer with the strip between the road and the sidewalk (known in the gardening world as 'the hellstrip') next to my mailbox.  I've planted some grasses, more Purple Coneflowers, Coreopsis, Nicotiana, and Yarrow there.  I can't wait until my plants get large enough to choke out all the weeds that have been constantly springing up!  (The weeds love this weather, too!)

I've also transplanted a few rocks that I found growing in my yard.  So far out of everything they seem to grow the best here, no matter the weather.  The rocks do quite fine with transplanting - the gardener, not so much.  It seems anytime I move rocks around my yard, it irritates the tendonitis in my wrists, so I am back to being good for a few weeks.

I hope all of your gardens are enjoying the summer weather as much as mine is!  For more of what's blooming in gardens around the world, check out Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day over at May Dreams Gardens blog.

Happy Gardening!

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