Thursday, August 27, 2009

Zone Denial?

For at least 6 years, most areas of the Greater Kansas City region have not had winter temperatures much below zero Fahrenheit. When I moved here 13 years ago I was constantly reminded of prior bitter cold in excess of -20F and that the area, save for some sheltered spots in the city was "zone 5" with minimum temperatures from -10F to -20F on average. Over the past 13 years of living here, the coldest we have recorded at Powell Gardens at our official weather station was -10F (rounded down). We have even had one winter with a minimum of only+17F! Have we migrated into a new warm zone 6 (average low between 0 and -5F) or are we just in a short mild stretch soon to be broken by a bitterly cold winter?

The region's plants are showing our climate change. Our crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) were just dieback perennials when I moved here but now are large shrubs and even small trees! Crape Myrtles are hardy above ground only to temperatures around -5F at best. Here, just outside our Visitor Center, gardener Shelly Bruellisauer poses next to our 'Zuni' crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica x L. faureri). Spencer Crews, Powell Gardens' former Director of Horticulture and now Director of Omaha's Lauritzen Gardens was astonished to see how large our crape myrtles have grown. It got down to -21F at their garden last winter! They cannot grow crape myrtles there.

Powell Gardens now has quite a few crape myrtles growing around the southern end of the Visitor Center and in the Perennial Garden. Acoma Crape Myrtle is a beautiful clean white blooming cultivar that is a Plant of Merit. Look for it just south of the Visitor Center's Hummingbird Garden.

Hopi Crape Myrtle is a very good pink-blooming crape myrtle and can be seen just outside the Visitor Center. All the crape myrtles with these Native American names are hybrids with more hardiness than typical species. Many of the new hybrids are from the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. but many are also from Oklahoma. Look for dazzling red 'Dynamite' crape myrtle, purple-flowering 'Catawba' crape myrtle and several other cultivars in the Perennial Garden.

Lindley Butterflybush (Buddleia lindleyana) is another tender shrub that has not died back in many years and has become quite a large fountain of its pendant lavender blue flowers. This butterflybush is a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies and can be seen just out the south end of the Visitor Center while young plants are along the steps down to the Fountain Garden. This butterflybush is sterile but does spread a bit by easily removed runners.

Mimosa (Albizzia julibrissin var. rosea) is another somewhat tender tree that is really becoming large locally. Hardy strains that originated from cold Korea are what we have at Powell Gardens -- this strain is also much more refined and not invasive like typical southern strains. We have several mimosas around the north end of the visitor center including the new cultivar 'Summer Chocolate' with deep purple leaves. Summer Chocolate mimosa is from Japan and probably not as hardy as typical.

We are tempted to try some Camellias outdoors with these moderated temperatures. Depicted is true Tea (Camellia sinensis) in bloom in the Heartland Harvest Garden's Seed to Plate Greenhouse. Yes this is the plant whose fresh young leaves are brewed into tea. Tea, Sasanqua and Oil Camellias all bloom in late summer to fall, while the large flowering C. japonica blooms in late winter into spring. We have the hardiest cultivar 'Sochi' tea from Russia that may be a good hardiness trial in a sheltered spot in our area.
I had to throw in a picture of another "first" in our Heartland Harvest Garden. The Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) have their first fruit forming. We have had a Sapodilla (its sap is the source of chicklets gum, and its fruit are a favorite in tropical climates) for many years and it has been an indestructible indoor plant with beautiful glossy leaves. Our new grafted for fruit varieties are performing as you can see. Maybe consider this plant as a good edible indoor plant -- put it out for the summer and indoors for the winter.
Come out to see Powell Gardens crape myrtles and other plants currently flourishing in our zone denial. I feel we should always be pushing the envelope with our gardens, testing and learning more each year. By writing this I feel I have baited next winter to be a really cold one--it always seems the climate here wants to make a liar out of you. If the crape myrtles die back this winter, we will let them bloom next year on new growth from their roots and be none the worse for wear. Just be leary of spending big dollars to by a tree form one at a local big box store.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cure for the Great Tomato Famine of 2009

The cool, wet season over much of the Central and Northeastern United States is responsible for what tomato connoisseur's are calling "the tomato famine of 2009." Powell Gardens' tomatoes got an early start in the greenhouse and have produced reasonably well in the Heartland Harvest Garden. Mark your calendar for this Saturday (August 22nd) to attend Powell Gardens' first "Tomato Fest" where one can observe at least 38 varieties currently producing in the garden. At noon and 2 p.m. Heartland Harvest Garden staff will conduct tomato tours throughout the garden. See for more details and a full description of all the activities from taste tests to cooking demonstrations and tomato games. Sure to be a cure for anyone suffering from this season's dearth of tomatoes.
Matt Bunch, Horticulturist for the Heartland Harvest Garden, has been "squirreling" away tomatoes from the Heartland Harvest Garden for this Saturday's event. Most are in storage for safe keeping and ripening away from potential pests. All were grown by Matt and his two gardeners: Caitlin Bailey and Barbara Fetchenhier.
A quick look at one of Matt's crate's of tomatoes reveals some beautiful fruit in a variety of colors. A quick "taste" of the Heartland Harvest Garden's prize tomatoes, based on Matt's comments (I, like many, only eat tomatoes after they have been used in cooking!) follows:

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato is a phenomenal complex tasting beefsteak type with fruit as large as 1.5 pounds.
Pink Brandywine Heirloom Tomato is a good solid standby with 1 to 2 pound fruit and a complex taste between sweet and spicy.
Flame Heirloom Tomato is very meaty so not as juicy as most beefsteak types but good flavor and exceptional color.Doctor Wyche's Yellow Heirloom Tomato has a beautiful orange-yellow coloration when ripe. Matt likes its good color and great taste!
White Tomesol Heirloom Tomato has been very prolific and has a sweet, subacid flavor.
Long Tom Heirloom Tomato defies the typical tomato shape but is a good sweet, very prolific paste tomato.
The beauty of these small New Girl Tomatoes shine better than apples or cherries.
A crate of Celebrity Tomatoes; a classic and productive hybrid readily grown in the area, ends my preview "taste" of our tomatoes. Be sure and come visit on Saturday for a literal taste and some other tomato fun. The Heartland Harvest Garden continues to grow and be sure and visit its many components and view its superior collection of our world's food plants including the cacao trees (where chocolate comes from) in the south (left) side of the Seed to Plate Greenhouse:
Two of our Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) are in bloom! The tiny white flowers emerge from trunks and branches in old leaf scars!
A side view shows how the tiny but exquisite blossom is attached to the trunk. I did not think our cacaos would bloom the first season. The flowers are pollinated by tiny insects including midges. Who knew a multi-billion dollar industry (chocolate)relies on a tiny insect! We actually have two varieties in bloom and hope some tiny insect pollinates them so we get the pods which bear the seed from which chocolate is made. Check back for an update and more on where chocolate comes from in a future blog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Festival of Butterflies 2009

The butterfly breezeway greets visitors to our annual Festival of Butterflies -- final weekend this Friday to Sunday, August 14-16. The breezeway is filled with wild Monarchs and other butterflies including all stages of a butterfly's life cycle from eggs to caterpillars, chrysalis and adult butterflies.

Children, parents and grandparents happily enter to find a beautiful space filled with butterfly nectar and host plants and accompanying butterflies. An expert guide is always on hand during the festival to answer questions and point out unique eggs, caterpillars and to identify plants in the display.
The tiny white spot on this leaf is actually a Monarch butterfly egg. All butterflies begin their life as an egg, laid by their mother on the appropriate plant for them to eat (in this case, a tropical milkweed). There is no parental care so this egg is on its own and subject to a whole parade of predators.
We have some unusual caterpillars on display including this large Pandorus Sphinx caterpillar. It was found in our vineyard eating the grape leaves and moved into the breezeway where visitors can view it. It is now feeding on the leaves of a potted grape. It will grow up to be a beautiful moth that flies with hummingbird -like grace at dusk.
Children (and adults too!) can get there "butterfly groove" on by making an antennae headband to wear at the Festival.
In the conservatory where we display butterflies from Florida, Texas and Blue Morphos from Central America, be sure to see the chrysalises hung in their hatching cages. These Zebra Heliconian chrysalises look like bugs with large pinchers on their head; presumably to deter predators. The reflective, metallic-looking spots on their back look like evil eyes glowing in the dark.
The elaborate chrysalises of Variegated Fritillary look gilded in real gold; presumably to look inedible to a predator.
Approximately 25 species of butterflies and moths are now in flight in the conservatory. The Atala butterfly depicted is one of our most unusual and as difficult to find as Waldo in the Where's Waldo books. The glowing blue spots are actually phosphorescent, while the bright red body warns would be predators that this is a toxic butterfly. Atala is a conservation success story as this butterfly was once thought to be extinct in its only American range in South Florida. Its caterpillars fed on uncommon wild cycads but suddenly switched to eating cultivated ornamental cycads found in yards and gardens. The butterfly is now prevalent in the Gold Coast of South Florida but limited by any freezing winter weather to spread northward.
We received cocoons of the Cecropia from Florida: the largest moth in North America. Many have emerged and they sit and while away the day and are active only at night. Easy to photograph, they are a visitor favorite in the conservatory. Cecropia are native throughout eastern North America and found wild at Powell Gardens but in low numbers and only from May-June; rarely as late as the Fourth of July.
The beautiful female Promethia moth is also in flight in the conservatory. This female is only perched on a Verbena flower. Promethia (and the prior cecropia moth) are wild silk moths that have no mouth. They emerge from their cocoons only to breed and carry on the species -- only their caterpillars eat. Promethia is found wild east of here in Central and Eastern Missouri though our cocoons came from Florida.
The male Promethia moth looks completely different and flies in the late afternoon to search for his mate. I have always admired the purple sheen to this dark brown moth and will never forget when my dad brought me home one he had caught with his hand while golfing one afternoon. I have been interested in butterflies and moths since childhood in Decorah, Iowa!
North America's largest butterfly is also in flight in the conservatory: Giant Swallowtail. Visitors have made me see the clown face smile of spots on this butterfly, something I had never noticed in over 30 years of acquaintance with this butterfly. Here is a freshly released butterfly perched on the chrysalis hatching cage. Giant Swallowtails until relatively recently were solely a tropical butterfly. They have since become residents through much of the central and southern United States as far north as Southeastern Minnesota. If you plant citrus family plants (herb rue, hoptree or prickly-ash) in your yard and garden you will attract this butterfly and its unique bird-dropping-look-alike caterpillars. We should have these weird caterpillars on display at the festival too.
Our final "butterfly house" is the Caterpillar Petting Zoo and Monarch Watch Science Center. Here volunteers from the Johnson County, Kansas Extension Master Gardeners guide visitors to actually touch caterpillars -- guaranteeing a close encounter (and carefully monitoring and switching them out so none get overhandled). Monarch Watch from KU in Lawrence, Kansas is also present here and will demonstrate how to hold and tag Monarch butterflies. They have many chrysalises waiting to emerge right before your eyes....
All eyes and cameras are on a Monarch chrysalis as it emerges. Monarch Watch staff will call out when a Monarch emerges and if you stick around long enough you will observe this miraculous event.
The Insectaries - butterfly Garden surrounding the fountain continues to attract a wide array of wild butterflies. Linda Williams, local Missouri Master Naturalist will take you on a camera safari to see and photograph the creatures of this garden (10a.m. Friday and Saturday; 1p.m. Sunday).
The hot weather last weekend made the Fountain Garden and exquisite place to cool off! This weekend's seasonal weather will also invite visitors for a splash.
Stop in to also cool off in the Visitor Center's air conditioning and visit the Butterfly Museum. Here you will meet Betsy Betros, local author and naturalist and she will show you some interesting caterpillars and local butterfly and moth collections. Betsy wrote the local book A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies of the Kansas City Region. Consider purchasing this beautiful and great resource and have her sign it on the spot!

Friday through Sunday, August 14-16 will be the last weekend of our Festival of Butterflies so come out for a close encounter with these remarkable and beautiful creatures. The butterflies (including the brilliant blue tropical morphos --see prior blog) in the conservatory will be at peak and the breezeway and science center are filled with wild Monarchs and other butterflies. Powell Gardens also is exuberant with lush plantings in flower and fruit so be sure and walk the grounds from the Heartland Harvest Garden to the Perennial Garden. The conservatory butterflies will remain on display from now through Sunday, August 23 but without the activities and experts to interpret them. The butterfly breezeway and science center will be open only through this Sunday (August 16).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Butterflies and a Benevolent Season

Powell Gardens' annual Festival of Butterflies opens on Friday, August 7th at 9:00 a.m. Hundreds of butterflies shipped in as chrysalises are in flight in our conservatory including the spectacular tropical Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) below.

Blue Morphos are still considered one of the world's most beautiful butterflies. Their large size, buoyant flight and friendly nature make them a visitor sensation in our Conservatory. Their bright coloring comes solely from ambient light. The distance between their layered wing scales (the dust that rubs off in your hand when you touch a butterfly) determines which light is reflected into your eye resulting in the shimmering iridescent blues. We have copied this natural phenomenon in our technology of small handheld electronics to create pixel screens that require less battery power and are easy to read in bright sunlight!

When Blue Morphos rest with their wings closed they are a cryptic brown with marvelous eyespots that may help deter predators.

A visit to the Festival of Butterflies will also ensure you see all the stages of the miraculous metamorphosis process that all butterflies and moths go through from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis or cocoon and adult. This Cecropia moth caterpillar is one "big dude" for a caterpillar with orange, blue and yellow tubercles decorating its body. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to guide any close encounter you wish to make with these fascinating creatures. You will be encouraged to touch them in the Caterpillar Petting Zoo & Monarch Watch Science Center (please do not touch or handle the butterflies at any other location).

Here is a Black Swallowtail chrysalis which we've sewn on to the screen over our butterfly breezeway. The chrysalis is the stage where the caterpillar morphs into the butterfly. Summer Black Swallowtail chrysalises will emerge in about a week. In the fall, this is how they spend the winter to emerge the following spring!

The entrance Butterfly Breezeway features local wild butterflies we have reared from the gardens. It is planted in a beautiful manner with some of the best plants that provide nectar for butterflies. There are also some host plants here -- host plants are the plants which the caterpillars eat to grow from egg to chrysalis stage. Each species of butterfly may have only a few specific plants which it can eat.

The Insectaries Garden surrounding the Fountain Garden is more exuberant then ever! This benevolent season of abundant rainfall and moderate temperatures have allowed all of Powell Gardens plantings to be more spectacular then we have ever seen. The insectaries garden is our butterfly garden where nectar rich plants attract butterflies and all the important pollinators for our Heartland Harvest Garden and all the plants throughout the gardens. Remember these creatures are needed to produce nearly all our fruit.
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is one spectacular nectar annual you will see that attracts many butterflies, hummingbirds and even goldfinches once it has gone to seed. You will learn the best plants you can plant to attract butterflies to nectar on as well those plants which host the caterpillars.
Be sure to take time and see all the beautiful beds of summer-loving flowers around the Visitor Center (this view is the north side of the building).
The north bed of the building always has a red theme and this season brilliant Righteous Red Zinnias are enhanced by white Angelonia.
Vines are the theme of the 2009 display beds so look for many varieties including this species morning glory known as Cypress Vine (Ipomoea coccinea). Its ferny leaves combined with hummingbird attracting red flowers make it a garden sensation.
A visit in the morning will show the aptly named Heavenly Blue Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor).
A mass of vining Purple Hyacinth Bean (Lablab purpureus) smothers the south wall of the visitor center.
Watch for hummingbirds in the Hummingbird Garden outside Cafe Thyme. If you enlarge this image or look closely you can see a hummingbird on the feeder.

A view of the south side of the Visitor Center depicts the lush nature of the plantings this season: be sure to see the Praying Preying Mantis Sculpture.
Take time to walk all the gardens from the Heartland Harvest Garden to the Perennial Garden. I had to take this shot this morning of our placid lake, the lush Island Garden and peaceful chapel. You will experience why your visit to Powell Gardens is not only educational but a "roadtrip for the soul."