Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Flower Power of a Cool Spring

This cool spring may not be good for wearing shorts and tank tops but the early spring flowers have never been happier! Many of the spring bulbs actually do best with temperatures around 55F so this unusual maritime-like spring is much to their liking. It is a spring more like the Pacific Northwest or England. Get out and celebrate it with all the spring blossoms at Powell

Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) are one of my favorite spring bulbs and a challenge to get started. We have several nice clumps of this beauty in the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

Pink Giant Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant') is still a small flower but big for it's species. The soft pink blooms are very reliable and it readily spreads into nice clumps. Look for it on the east end of the Island Garden.

The first daffodil of the season is again the trumpet cultivar 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation.' This is a must have for all with spring fever and it bloomed in January last year! I had to pick them before the severe cold of February last year but this winter held their bloom off until March. Look for them in many locations at the gardens -- the daffodils are poised for there best show in years and we have many thousands to come see.

The cyclamineus daffodil 'Jetfire' is also in bloom and one of the most reliable and early varieties for our region. These were on the east hill of the Island Garden.

The earliest blooming shrubs are out and the winter honeysuckles are among the best. This is the rare hybrid Lonicera x purpusii. It's flowers are deliciously lemon scented and are a very good early nectar source for honeybees. The winter honeysuckles (L. fragrantissima, L. standishii and their hybrid L. x purpusii) are not native but are not invasive like some species. They can bloom as early as January but are putting on a good show now. They are hard to find but I saw Soil Service Nursery still carries them and all three are available mailorder from Forest Farm ( which is a great source for small very rare trees and shrubs.

The cute golden flowers of the Cornelian-cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas) are also in bloom in the gardens. This small tree is much prized in Eastern Europe for its edible but tart red fruit in summer. We have several Russian & Ukrainian selections in our nurseries for the Heartland Harvest Garden.

My beloved magnolias are getting ready to flower too -- this is a picture of the bud of a Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata). The flowers are a bit frost tolerant in this species as it is native to just a couple mountaintops in Japan. Hopefully its beautiful, fragrant white flowers will be out in full in a week or so. The furry winter flower buds adorn the small trees all winter. New "tepals" (neither sepals nor petals) can have a pinkish tinge, though we have some pink-flowering cultivars on the grounds. Powell Gardens has one of the most extensive collections of magnolias outside both coasts.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Meadow Burn!

Every year we get comments that folks would like to see our prairie burn. Here's your chance to see it! Don't try this at home, we have professional and trained staff to conduct our landscape burns. We conduct our burn when the conditions are right: a combination of wind speed and direction, relative humidity, plus conditions of surrounding turf.

Jeremy West, Senior Gardener - Turf & Trails is also a fireman for the Western Johnson County Fire Protection District. The situation is actually under control with newly greened up turf and a backfire out of view as fire breaks.

The meadow pavilion in the background shows how big the flames can get. It is quite a sight as prairie grasses are meant to burn as part of their ecology. The fire recycles nutrients and invigorates the grasses for splendid growth this season. We burn the "Meadow" each spring because it is a landscape expression of prairie at Powell Gardens and we want the grasses to be full and billowing each season.

The wall of fire (head fire) through the prairie grasses rages with the wind towards the back burn. If only you could hear its crackling. The chapel is quite safe in the distance! (There is the back burn, path and turf in between).

Here Richard Heter watches over the lower meadow burn which is contained by turf, path and lake. You can see the bridge to the Island Garden in the distance.

The post burn landscape looks charred and dead but with the coming rains and springtime warmth it will quickly green up. It was a great burn when there are not any or many stalks left ; Senior Gardener, Janet Heter in charge of the meadow said "it was the second best burn ever." By next week you will see a new landscape alive with new shoots of green.

Dogwoods Bloom in the Conservatory

Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) are starting to bloom in the Powell Gardens' conservatory display. There is no better companion plant for a woodland garden theme of orchids and azaleas! Enjoy this preview of what's to come in the gardens.
The bract first emerge with an exquisite creamy green cast. As the bracts age they turn pure white with the brownish color at the end notch. The end notch is the part of the bract that was exposed to the weather all winter as it tightly encased the clusters of flower buds inside.
You can see the clusters of flower buds at the center of the four bracts. Each bud is an individual flower and if pollinated will produce a bright red fruit. Dogwoods must have cross pollination from another tree or different cultivar to produce fruit. The two dogwood pictures above are of the cultivar 'Cherokee Princess' which is a huge flowered, quite reliable, white-flowering selection. 'Ozark Spring' (a Kansas selection) may be the best white-flowering variety for our area but it is difficult to find.

Pink Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida 'Rubra' -- more botanically accurately forma rubra) have pinkish tinged bracts and more bronze tinged foliage. Pink Dogwoods are highly variable in color from soft to deep pink. A new selection from Kansas called 'Prairie Pink' will be hitting the market soon and be a reliable selection for our area.
This cultivar 'Cherokee Brave' is a Pink Dogwood with deeper pink (almost red at first), and larger bracts with creamy white centers. The flowers age to an almost coral pink. This is a very disease resistant and sturdy cultivar, becoming widely available at local garden centers.
The pink dogwoods show some of the same greenish wash when new and backlit. Dogwoods are surely one of our most spectacular spring flowering trees. They look like a cloud of butterflies when in full bloom and since the bracts, not the petals of the tiny flowers are the show, they are one of our longest flowering trees -- often colorful for a full two weeks. The bracts emerge on leafless trees which also adds to their initial ornamental appeal.
Dogwoods are fickle to transplant but are worth the extra care. Balled & Burlaped trees planted now appear to do best! They are currently available at many local nurseries. They are woodland plants so need a rich, loose, well drained soil. They need some shelter from the wind in our region so plant them on an east exposure if possible. They do not like our scorching hot summer winds and sun either. Planting them beneath open, mature oaks and hickories (just like they grow in nature) is a great option if you are so lucky. They are a premier plant with ornamental appeal at all seasons and are great for wildlife (especially migrating birds!) too. They are the official state tree of Missouri and part of the Grow Native! program. Powell Gardens' trees should be in bloom at the end of April outside this year.
All photos taken in the Powell Gardens conservatory on March 26, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

It is Time to Plant Cool Season Annuals, Shrubs & Trees!

Don't listen to your weathermen who say to hold off on planting; NOW is the time to plant dormant shrubs and trees and to plant cool weather, frost tolerant types of annuals outside. DO heed the weatherman's advice and do not plant outside any summer annuals or frost tender plants like tomatoes, peppers, marigolds and zinnias.

Production in the Powell Gardens' greenhouses is on a springtime roll. Here Eric Perrette, Gardener-Grower, carefully gives each flat of plants the proper amount of water. It is more challenging than you might think! We are bursting at the seams and it is time for cool season plants to leave the greenhouses to make space to grow summertime's flowers.

The first step for cool season annuals is to harden them off outside. Even a frost-tolerant, cool-loving annual cannot take the abrupt move from a cozy greenhouse to the unpredictable weather outside. Frost blankets can be seen on the right and they are pulled over the plants to protect them from deer and any hard frost at night. You see no flower colors because we disbud (remove any flowers). We want the plants to put on flowers when they are put in our display beds or containers.

Ornamental cabbages and kale are ideal for planting out at this season. Ruby Perfection cabbage (left), Redbor Kale (upper right) and Chidori White Kale (lower right) show a sample of the foliage plants we use outdoors for ornament in the cool season. All these plants are edible greens, too. Planting them early helps these cool-loving plants establish well and they often last well into summer. Redbor Kale often survives all the way until next spring and is a Plant of Merit.

Who can resist the whiskers of a Viola's flower? This is one of the Sorbet Duet mix whose "faces" range from white to orange or purple and look splendid when planted together. Violas and their related pansies are great hardy flowers to plant now.

Sweet Alyssum is another good cool-loving annual. This is a new strain called 'Mulberry Mix' with a range of pink and purple flowers. We always like the soft perfume of these flowers in the spring air.

Dianthus or Pinks are another great, hardy annual to plant now. This one is called Floral Lace Picotee.
Here is a cool-loving container outside the Visitor Center. It uses Dutch Iris, a red Carnation Dianthus, lettuce, kale. and more.
Ranunculus with their crepe paper-like double flowers are some of our annual favorites at Powell Gardens. They only do well in the cool season of spring or fall.
Osteospermum or "African Daisies" also flourish in the cool weather of spring but we keep them near the building under the overhang to protect them from frost. Here is a pink flowering Osteo paired beautifully with redbor kale.
Here is a new shipment of unique plants from Fairweather Gardens. For unique and unusual mailorder plants we highly recommend the quality and size sent by Fairweather Gardens ( and they are supporters of the gardens. We also highly recommend Klehm Song Sparrow as a unique source for rare plants (
Yes it is time to plant dormant trees and shrubs (notice those in the pictures still have buds and no fresh new leaves)! It gives them time to root in before the heat of summer arrives. Dormant trees and shrubs are quite capable of taking any extreme cold that is likely lurking.
I challenge gardeners to head out to their favorite garden centers this Easter weekend and pick up their favorite cool-loving annuals, trees and shrubs. The weather is supposed to be on the cold side so why not spend it picking out the plants you will want to plant when the springtime weather returns next week. You can put together containers in a garage and place them out after this weekend's expected cold snap. Just get out and get growing this season!

All photographs taken on March 21, 2008, at Powell Gardens.

Where does a Hazelnut or Filbert come from?

One of our first flowering shrubs to bloom are the Hazelnuts and Filberts (Corylus spp.). Their flowers are not very ornamental but that is where the tasty nuts begin. We have one native species, the American Hazel (C. americana), found wild and it has delicious nuts if you can beat the squirrels to them. The classic Hazelnut (C. avellana) and the Filbert (C. maxima) are both from Europe. They are hybridized into quite an array of cultivars so they are pretty much interchangeable. We have about three dozen plants in the Heartland Harvest Garden nursery scheduled to be moved to the new garden. We have had them for several years and already have learned which do well here. The native hazelnut is bred into the hybrids for disease resistance and adaptability to our wild climate.

Hazelnuts have separate male and female flowers on each shrub. The female flower of the Hazelnut is depicted above. Yep, that reddish, spider-looking thing at the tip of the "bud" is it! It looks like a foliage bud but is actually the female catkin comprised of the stigma's of the pistils out to grab pollen blowing on the wind. The hazelnut or filbert fruit will develop from this catkin over the summer.

The male flowers are also beginning to bloom! They are classic catkins as hazelnuts are in the birch family (Betulaceae). Catkins are produced the prior season and hang dormant (see the left one of the three in the picture) through the winter. In early spring they "bloom" by elongating and producing pollen to blow off in the wind. If you tap them a cloud of yellow pollen dust will be released. A shrub in full bloom with catkins is actually quite interesting looking; as if adorned with golden strings.

Now you know where your hazelnut comes from! Think of it next time you enjoy them in your coffee, chocolates or just in wholesome raw form.
Photographs taken by Alan Branhagen in the Heartland Harvest Garden Nursery on March 20, 2008.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Welcome Spring's Earliest Flowers

Ah, spring arrived last night and the day has reflected a new beginning for the sunny half of the year. The Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) opened their flowers to the buzz of honeybees and other insects. Thousands of flowers are now in bloom in the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

The Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are in full bloom in sparkling drifts throughout the Rock & Waterfall Garden's woodland floor. The water is now cascading through the Rock & Waterfall Garden's streams and adds a wonderful ambiance to the experience. The first Hellebores, Daffodil and Cornelian-cherry Dogwood flowers all came into bloom today as well (more on them later).

Danford Iris (Iris danfordae) sprinkle the Island Garden with delightful yellow flowers. All the dwarf iris are squirrel and deer proof! Remember to buy at least 100 for planting next fall.

Reticulate Iris (Iris reticulata) comes in many hybrid and select cultivar forms. This one with a touch of light aqua blue is a quite refreshing for spring. Look for masses of it east of the Island Garden's pools above the living wall.

The deep blue cultivars of Reticulate Iris (Iris reticulata) are still my favorites with their deep blue flowers. Look for masses of these east of the Island Garden's pools but below the walk (between the lake and the walk). Powell Gardens is amassing an amazing collection of the world's iris and will soon have its collections registered by the North American Plant Collections Consortium as the repository for all the hardy species and best cultivars of iris available. The iris is the official flower of Kansas City!

The first Turkey Vultures "buzzards" glided over the gardens today and a Mourning Cloak butterfly was also on the wing: more sure signs of spring!

These photographs were taken on the last day of winter at Powell Gardens by Alan Branhagen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Start Your Plant Picks for the Plant Sale!

The list of all the plants being grown for Powell Gardens' spring plant sale is now available:! For the first time the annual and tropical plants will be represented on the Web. Special thanks to volunteer Jody Marshall who input all the annual plant information for us. Below are a few images of some of the many annuals/tropicals being grown for the sale in our greenhouses.

Chenille Plant (Acalypha repens) makes a great hanging basket or window box plant. I will always remember Horticulturist Duane Hoover's use of this plant in the arbor boxes at the Kauffman Memorial Garden, where this plant cascaded down with silvery leaved Silver Falls Dichondra. A stunning plant combination!

This Blue "Hibiscus" (Alyogyne huegelii) is a stunning tropical plant that blooms all summer for us outside. It is hard to get affordable smaller plants and we will have them! What a refreshing cool colored flower as the "thriller" plant in a summertime container.

Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha) is a classic late summer and fall flowering annual. It blooms now in the greenhouse because of the short days but won't rebloom for you until shorter days next fall encourage its velvety soft purple and white flowers. It is a major nectar plant for migrating Monarch butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. It is worth it to plant in spring because it is very easy to grow and will become a large shrub covered in bloom by late September.

This little tropical plant is a "new" Cigar Flower or Micky Mouse Plant (Cuphea cyanea). Its two burgundy petals look like little ears at the yellowed tip of its pink flowers.

Here is a mass of the Cuphea cyanea. It's sure to be an interesting container or summer bedding plant and its flower shape lends it to hummingbird pollination.

The perennials are in and growing well too and I will blog more about them later. Visit our Web site and start your picks for Powell Gardens' spring plant sale 2008 (May 3 and 4). Members will have the best selection at the members-only preview sale at 5-7 p.m. on May 2. Join Friends of Powell Gardens now if you haven't already!

All photographs taken March 19, 2008, in the Powell Gardens greenhouses.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Immerse Yourself in Spring: Orchid & Azalea Display

We would like to welcome Anne Wildeboor back to Powell Gardens as Horticulturist- Seasonal Displays and Events. She has been busy finalizing the installation of the Woodland Orchid and Azalea Display scheduled to open on Saturday, March 15, in our conservatory. Anne says: "It's a very innovative and new design (for our conservatory), definitely inviting for spring."

Tracy Flowers, Gardener in the Visitor Center Seasonal Display Beds, has been busy installing the display, too. Here she is tucking in various slipper orchids with a backdrop of our fabulous Tropical Joe Pyeweeds (Eupatorium sp.). Tracy says the display is "a fresh breath of spring air -- to brighten up this often dreary time of year."

We get lots of comments about our tropical Joe Pye -- it only blooms on short days so is just a foliage plant if planted outside in summer. You need a greenhouse to coax it into bloom. Remember tropical days are short -- 12 hours! Give me our long summer days!

Here's a quick overview of the display. It really has the flavor of spring! Ami Zumalt, former Horticulturist for Seasonal Displays and Events, did the concept and plant ordering for this display. She has since set out with her husband on her new design-build business: Designs That Last, LLC. We wish her well.

The azaleas for the display have swollen buds but are not yet in bloom. It has been so cloudy this spring that even plants in the greenhouses are behind schedule. This is a closeup of the beautiful variegated azalea 'Ashley Marie.' This exhibit will be on display through Mother's Day and we guarantee a parade of wonderful spring woodland flowers the whole time.

The orchids for the display are in full bloom! This is a new phalaenopsis with stunning luminous red hued flowers with a shocking purple lip!

The slipper orchids lend themselves well to this woodland display. This is a Phragmipedium orchid whose side sepals will continue to lengthen as the flower ages.

This Paphiopedilum Orchid looks like the Showy Lady's Slipper (the state flower of Minnesota).

Another Paphiopedilum Orchid with exquisite details! There are far too many cultivars of orchids to depict in this blog. You will have to come check them out for yourself! This is the peak bloom time for our extensive collection of orchids and they are tucked in everywhere in the display. They come in every color in the rainbow and many unique forms that never fail to boggle my mind.

Don't miss the yellow and white freesias in this display! Freesias have delicious orange scented flowers and really help with the spring ambiance of the conservatory.

All photographs taken by Alan Branhagen on Friday, March 14, 2008.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Flowers of Late Winter

Many of the earliest flowers are beginning the parade of bloom for 2008 at Powell Gardens. Here Purple Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis 'Purpurea,' a selection of our native Ozark witchhazel) is backlit in the winter sun. Because of last year's Easter freeze we do not have any hybrid witchhazels with full bloom this spring (they spent all year recovering and didn't set flower buds for this spring). Yes, we have to wait until 1:48 a.m. in our sleep on Thursday, March 20, to usher in the Vernal Equinox and thus spring for 2008. The first flowers of spring are actually late winter flowers and are easily two weeks behind "normal" this year.

The tiny purple flowers of the "Tommy" Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) are one of the early, species type crocus to bloom. We like them because they are our only "squirrel proof" crocus. You need a planting of at least 100 to look like anything! In fact only on the Island Garden can we safely grow other crocuses, otherwise the squirrels are quick to run off with them!

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is also one of our earliest flowers and it has begun to self sow in the Rock & Waterfall Garden. I photographed this one in bud but the flowers do open up to the sunshine and look somewhat like buttercups. We have thousands of winter aconite in the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

It has been a long winter with more clouds and precipitation than normal. So much that our greenhouse plants are even behind schedule! These first blooms outdoors for the 2008 season are especially welcome this year. We are thankful for all the moisture!

I just saw the first hatchling butterfly of the year but it was too quick for me to identify -- a little hairstreak or elfin. The robins are back on the lawns out here and Killdeer back at their stations on the dam of our lake. Eastern Phoebes came back yesterday -- a true insect eating bird so you know spring cannot be far off now. Come out and enjoy the splendors of late winter at Powell Gardens, a sight for sore eyes this season.

Photographs taken by Alan Branhagen in the Rock & Waterfall Garden at Powell Gardens.