Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Signs of Spring

Ryan Chapman, former intern for Nebraska Statewide Arboretum

        Spring-blooming bulbs are some of the best flowers to usher in spring.  Though most are not native, they tend to fit well into gardens by extending the season of interest.  If naturalizing (spreading) species are selected, bulbs can be considered low maintenance perennials.
        One of the places bulbs can be planted is into warm season turf lawns which green up slowly.  This provides early color before the grass greens up.  Foliage can be mowed when the flowers have withered and the grass breaks dormancy.    
        When selecting bulbs, there are many different types to consider.  Undoubtedly tulips are the most well-known of the bulbs.  Tulips bloom in mid to late spring, with an entourage of different colored flowers that are excellent for cutting.  Tulips that are referred to as botanical tulips should be selected for their ability to naturalize unlike the majority of tulips which are often short-lived and need periodic replacing. 
Checkered Lily (Fritillaria) is an unusual bulb with nodding flowers on slender stems.  The purple, mauve, or white flowers have a distinct checkered pattern.
Crocus (Crocus) is one of the earliest blooming bulbs, often peaking up though the snow in bicolored varieties or in pinks, purples, whites and yellows.  The buds are oval in shape when closed and open with three inner and three outer segments.  Since crocus bloom for only a few weeks, mixing varieties will extend bloom times more than a month.
Daffodil (Narcissus hybrids) flowers have a trumpet-like structure fused to overlapping petals.  They come in a variety of whites, pinks, yellows and oranges, blooming in early to mid-spring.  They make excellent cut flowers but should not be placed in water with other flowers as the daffodils’ sap will kill them.  Unlike tulips, daffodils are shown to be resistant to deer, squirrels, gophers and rabbits. 
Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) is a good neutralizer sometimes seen growing in lawns. Flowers are star-shaped with strappy petals in colors of lavender, blue and white.
Fritillaria; squill; hyacinth.
Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) emerge with the appearance of a green traffic cone that emerges in blue, pink, purple, rose or white flowers in mid-spring.  They are frequently found in grocery stores in the winter because they are easy to force.  Though they don’t naturalize, the strong fragrance makes them particularly appealing, both in the garden and as cut flowers.
Hyacinth, grape (Muscaria armeniacum) blooms in April and May with blooms of tiny bell- shaped purplish or blue flowers clustered on a stalk.  They often last more than three weeks and are excellent for cutting.
Squill or Scilla (Scilla siberica) is one of the best naturalizers, blooming with blue star to bell-shaped nodding flowers in March and April.   It is also sometimes incorporated into turf grass, offering a sign of spring throughout the yard.
Snowflakes (Leucojum sp.) are a mid-spring bloomer that naturalizes readily, with white bell-shaped flowers that dangle from long sturdy stems.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Spring Wildflowers

Bob Henrickson
Spring has finally arrived, at least according to the calendar. Spring in Nebraska is anything but predictable. A strong cold front, sometimes with rain or even snow, usually follows a week of warm, sunny weather. Perennial flowers quickly spring to life, fooled into thinking summer is right around the corner. Midwestern gardeners know it takes a hardy plant to survive our climate and still provide spring beauty. Fortunately, we have the old reliable daffodil, iris and peony to remind us what time of year it is. But there is another group of plants that have been the harbinger of spring for centuries here on the windswept prairies, savannahs and hardwood forests of Nebraska and the Great Plains—spring wildflowers. Many are discovering the beauty these native jewels bring to the perennial border and shade garden. They are a tough, reliable group of plants that are sometimes overlooked, but will more than satisfy your demand for spring color.
There are a number of native woodland wildflowers that combine well with your existing shade-lovers like hosta and astilbe. Most of these jewels decorate the woodlands of extreme eastern Nebraska, along the Missouri river bluffs. In early spring little merrybells (Uvularia sessifolia) sends its delicate arching stems up through the forest floor. Dainty 1” yellow bells hang in loose clusters atop 10” stems. The attractive, rich green leaves and arching stems look similar in appearance to Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.), another woodland beauty for the garden. Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a fine native woodland wildflower and one of the first, tall-growing columbines to flower. Their beautiful flowers, composed of yellow sepals and red spurs, are old-fashioned favorites in the garden. The large wavy-lobed leaves and waxy white flowers of bloodroot, the distinct umbrella-like leaves of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and the bluish-green, fern-like foliage of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)form a lush green tapestry on the forest floor.  To grow any of these woodland beauties simply provide a rich, organic soil and consistent moisture for best growth.
Prairie smoke (top), merrybells
Spring wildflowers are not just confined to the shady woodland understory, indeed there is an impressive array of sun-loving spring wildflowers. Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) is a real harbinger of spring with its lavender, cup-shaped flowers blooming in April. Attractive silky seed heads and fuzzy foliage remain attractive all season long on this drought-tolerant perennial. Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is a little jewel covering northern shortgrass prairies with pink “smoke” in early summer after blooming in late spring. Prairie smoke has nodding, deep pink flowers in spring that turn into pale pink plumes, giving the plant the appearance of being covered with a blanket of pink smoke. This long-lived, high-quality perennial has silky leaves, mostly in a rosette up to 12” high. The ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) blooms with clusters of slender pea-like flowers in early spring, then forms little pods that look like small plums sprawling on the ground. Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) are charming groundcover plants, forming an attractive silver-white carpet. Clusters of tiny white fuzzy flowers that are reminiscent of a cat’s toes rise above the leaves in spring. The pale green leaves of prairie blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) make this plant look like a miniature iris. The leaves emerge from the soil in early spring to form grass-like tufts up to 12” tall. Bright blue 1/2” star-shaped flowers emerge in clusters atop flattened, leafless stalks in May.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Anxious for spring? Bring a few branches indoors.

Bob Henrickson

After a long, cold winter, it's time for some reminders that spring is just around the corner. The winter landscape can be beautiful, but it can also drag on for what seems like an eternity. The perfect remedy to chase away the dreary winter blues and bring some spring color into your home is to force some branches from your favorite spring-blooming shrubs.
        Almost any shrub that blooms in early spring can be forced into bloom inside. Many ornamental trees and shrubs set their flower buds during the summer for bloom the following spring, go dormant in winter and come out to bloom when exposed to warm temperatures and moisture. Late winter, the best time to prune deciduous trees and shrubs, is also the best time to cut branches for forcing. The flower buds are generally fatter and more rounded than leaf buds.
        The farther into spring you collect branches, the earlier they will open. Some woody branches will take up to three weeks to bloom, while others will flower in a week or less. No matter how long it takes, this is a great way to have a few blooms indoors while you wait for the arrival of spring.
        It's best to cut branches for forcing when the outside temperature is above freezing – they will be more pliable and make a better transition from cold outdoor temperatures to warmer indoor temperatures. When you get inside, recut the stems by a few inches under running water to prevent air from being sucked into the vessels. Make sure you cut the stem at an angle to give the branch a larger surface to drink in the water.
        After the branches are cut, hammer or split the cut ends, then submerge the branches in very warm water in the bathtub for about four hours to allow the buds to absorb water directly. If you want, you can stand the cuttings in a deep bucket of warm water with a plastic bag over the tops to increase the humidity overnight. The next day, you can stand the branches in fresh warm water with a floral preservative dissolved in it and put the container in a bright location. You should start forcing at 50 degrees Fahrenheit; higher temperatures at the start will blast the buds. After a couple of weeks, you can speed up flowering by moving the buds to a warm room. Check the branches frequently; they will need regular misting to prevent buds from drying out. You should also change the water every three days.

        Select branches that are least 1 foot long with many enlarged buds and prune branches from all sides of the shrub to maintain symmetry. Whichever shrub you choose, make sure you cut each branch all the way to the main stem. You can always shorten the branches later if they are too long for the vase.
        Pussy willow, flowering quince, and forsythia are among the most common and easiest woody plants cut for forcing. Nanking cherry, corneiliancherry dogwood, vernal witchhazel and clove currant are not as common but are very easy to force and they make excellent landscape plants as well. The spicy clove scent and rich yellow color of the clove currant will brighten any day.
        Suitable branches can also be cut from other willows, wild plum, serviceberry, cherries, lilacs, flowering quinces and red maple. It's best to wait until March or perhaps April to take cuttings from harder-to-force ornamentals such as crabapple, magnolia and redbud. Late winter is also a great time to collect the bare branches of hazelnuts, alders, birches and hornbeams to force and elongate their slim, pendulous catkin flowers.
        If you haven't forced spring blossoming shrubs before, make this the year and you'll be rewarded with colorful, fragrant flowers in your home.