December 14, 2012

 Curcuma--The "Hidden" Ginger

C. roscoeana

Curcumas are interesting plants, and most of them are easy to grow, once you understand their growing cycle. Curiously, the complaint I hear most often is that the plants go dormant. My opinion is that for several months of the year, you don't have to do anything to maintain them ! Several of the species are widely used as a spice, such as C. domestica and C. longa, also known as Turmeric. Most of the cultivated species and selections have attractive flowers, many of which can be used as cut flowers.One of several orange species used to be popular, but has fallen out of favor for unknown reasons.

C. cordata

There are dozens of species in the genus, from petite species under a foot tall to semi-giant species over 7 feet tall. One of them, C. alismatifolia, has made it to the mass flowering plant market in many areas, erroneously called a "Thai Tulip" . More than a few people think it is indeed a tropical tulip, not a ginger. It has been produced in mass quantities by local So. Florida growers, and shows up for sale in early Summer.

The plants need abundant water and fertilizer combined with bright filtered light to grow their best. When the plants drop their leaves, the plants should be left dry for as long as possible. In containers, this is easy, but in ground beds, many species won't tolerate errant rainfall or irrigation, so a rainproof cover may be needed. The rhizomes will sprout when there is enough heat, usually May or even June in cooler climates. The plants will grow in most parts of the Gulf South, and in all of Florida.  They can be grown in containers anywhere that is frost-free in the wintertime, with warmth and sunshine in the summertime. As conservatory or tropical garden-window plants, they lend a great tropical flair in a small area.

C. alismatifolia
The Thai Tulip Ginger

C. aurantiaca

One of the problems faced by collectors is trying to find different species to purchase. There are mail order firms which can ship rhizomes almost anywhere. A comprehensive plant search on eBay or Amazon would like have some good contacts for such plants.

The species and varieties are worth a try in a subtropical garden or in a large window where there is ample light and humidity./ Choose a soil mix suitable for African Violets, mix in a controlled release fertilizer such as Dynamite or Osmocote, and keep the plants well watered. The inflorescences are of rich color and interesting true flowers. The rhizomes of turmeric ginger can be harvested  fresh for use in the kitchen. All of these species propagate readily via rhizome divisions, as with most gingers or irises. Propagate them after they have gone dormant, keep the plants dry after the foliage goes dormant, and give them plenty of resources when in active growth. The effort is well rewarded....

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

December 10, 2012

A Private Pet Peeve: Unlabeled Plants

Plant marker at Pinecrest Gardens
One of my biggest irritations in going to some public gardens or to someone's orchid or bromeliad collection is the lack of plant labels. There has been a brewing debate for years in public gardens whether to label or not label plants. The sentiment for and against the visibility of plant signs is an equal argument. In private collections I feel there should be no argument at all: label the plants because in 20 or 30 years you may not remember the details of the plant. If you give the plant to someone else or divide the plant for distribution, the new owner should have a name from which he can get more information. There are numerous ways to label plants, ranging from utilitarian to beautiful, inexpensive to pricey, simple to ornate. Unquestionably, there is a method for your needs and budget.

soft aluminum plant tags,
written with a ball-point pen

I have posited this argument at speeches in local plant societies, and have heard that labels are little use to a private grower because he can remember the names of his plants. I should ask that same person if he remembers the source, cultivar, and repotting schedule of the plant, as well all the propagations he may have made to give to friends. Multiply those data points by the number of plants in the collection, and the resulting amount of data becomes quite a burden for a memory. In the case of seedlings or tissue-cultured plants, it is impossible to discern the names of plants when they are very small. This is especially true with hybrids, where all data are important. 

orchid community pot,
requires a label !
courtesy of
In a public garden, the debate over the aesthetics of plant labeling is won over by the idea of educating the public about which plant is which. In the case of Pinecrest Gardens and its position between 2 other world-class botanical gardens, we felt we should step up into the world of public garden plant labels. Both Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and the Montgomery Botanical Center use metal labels of various constructions, with Fairchild using some highly decorative interpretive signs as well. In visiting other public gardens, the plant signage may be very visible and informative, or it may be just a small metal tag with an accession number on it. In any scenario, the educated and interested consumer can get more information about almost any plant in a labeled collection, private or otherwise. 

a well-detailed plant label,
courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum
 In most cases in a public garden, there is someone who will be readily interested to get you the information about a plant, and may be able to arrange for propagation material from that plant if it's available and easy to ship to you. One of the primary functions in almost any public garden is to educate people about the garden and its plants. In a private collection, the owner may not be so interested to give out information as in a public garden, but most growers I know have an interest to talk about their plants, their history, and their potentials and problems. 

In your own home plant collection, I suggest a simple and effective system, tried and true for the last 50 years or more. I tried a dozen "permanent" markers, and almost every kind of plant label material. I still work with an ordinary # 2 pencil and a white styrene-plastic label. When written with firm pressure on a plastic label, the graphite from the pencil will remain for decades, especially in the depression left by the pencil tip. If you press the label into the soil or medium, the label will not degrade in sunlight. I've had plant labels last over 30 years using this method. 

polystyrene plant label
                                                       Whether you have a few dozen plants in your own collection, own a country estate with a formal garden, or work in a public garden, labeling is an important part of growing plants. I used to trust my memory with all things botanical, but with a 14 acre botanical garden and thousands of plants in hundreds of species, I rely on labels more and more. 
In a public garden setting, plant labels can be an integrated part of the garden experience, with the knowledge of the plant now coupled with the beauty of its place in a garden. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

a permanent, hard aluminum plant
marker for a public garden or private estate

The not-so-secret tool for writing
long-duration labels



November 19, 2012

The Surreal Pansy Orchids-
Plants for Cooler Climates

M. Celle 'Wasserfall'

Pansy orchids, in the orchid genus Miltoniopsis, are a staple at orchid shows in cooler climates. This means almost anywhere north of Florida. This plant group grows to amazing dimensions in the humid "marine"climates of both coasts, especially so in the Pacific Northwest. Pansy orchids revel in cool foggy climates with mild winters. The flower show these modest plants can produce is hard to imagine, as are the surreal colors and patterns. One breeder in Hawaii is producing plants with almost totally black "masks" on the flowers, often set against vibrant background colors. 

M. Nicholas Yuan 'Maui Moon AM/AOS
x M. Hajime Ono 'Maui Falls' AM/AOS
courtesy of Exotic Rainforest


M. phalaenopsis
the species that started the program

The species which make up this genus are native to mountainous areas, mostly in Colombia and Peru, in cool foggy area with constantly moving air. These points are key to cultivating the genus. The plants like an open and well-drained consistently moist medium, bright light , with moving humid air at all times. This group of plants likes intermediate to cool conditions, meaning their daytime temperatures should not exceed 82 F, and night temperatures should be in the the 60-65 F range, with occasional night minimums down to 55 F. Given these conditions, the plants grow well and flower well.

The species are fairly petite plants, rarely growing more than a foot tall, with 2 inch flowers. Some of the hybrids can be much larger in all respects, as much as two feet tall, several feet across, with 5 inch flowers on long stems. The range of colors in the hybrid group is impressive, ranging from pure white to a deep ruby red, sugar white to the softest yellows, and combinations in between that are hard to describe.

M. vexillaria

M. Hajime Ono 'Black Falls' AM / AOS
courtesy of Angelsorchidsphotos

Although these plants will be hard to grow well in Florida, they can be easy to grow almost everywhere else. We have a specialized climate and can grow a great many plants types here. Pansy orchids are suited for many other states, and even windowsill culture if there is enough humidity. I remember growing them in my windowsill garden in Milwaukee, and the plants thrived in the cool draft near the glass in the winter. I would grow the plants outdoors in the summer under a shade tree, and "winter" them inside in an east-facing window. If you have the conditions, consider growing a few of these plants. They need a bit of extra attention, but the rewards are worth the effort . The plants are fairly fast growing, are fairly inexpensive, and readily available via mail order nurseries.

M. Jean Inouye 'Kalapana'
courtesy Angelsorchidsphotos

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

October 22, 2012

The Grandest Flower Show-
"The Philadelphia"
Part 1- The Spectacle

For the last 5 years, I've had the honor of judging horticulture entries at the Philadelphia Flower Show. It is the grandest flower show in the New World, exceeded only by the Chelsea Show in London, and some of the Dutch floral exhibitions. The "Philly", as it is known locally, is held in March in a massive convention hall that covers 15 acres. The first impression as you walk into the hall is to gasp at the sheer magnitude of the show, the size of the exhibits, and the stunning complexity of the entire affair. Some of the landscape exhibits are larger than my backyard, yet the exhibits have been set up for less than a week. As your eyes scan to the distant walls, you see great display rifts of flowering bulbs, venerable hanging plants that have been well tended for many decades, and the Marrakesh that is made up of hundreds of vendors selling their garden wares. There are hundreds of plants entered for judging, evaluated by judges from around the country. The entries range from miniature alpine gardens the size of a baseball to formal topiary trees to myriad succulents, ferns, flowering bulbs, and the iconic tulips, jonquils, and Spring annuals.     

Everywhere on the streets in the local vicinity, you see people walking with bunches of flowers and flowering plants purchased at the Show, or people walking to the show as if it were Mecca. The Show is the largest attractor of visitors to Philadelphia in a given year, and the attendance is almost equal to the city's population ! The show is a truly a destination attraction, and the visitors' reactions are interesting to watch as they ogle and photograph the overwhelming displays of plants.       

Main entrance feature, 2012

The show has been staged for over 140 years, likely making it the longest running flower show in the New World, exceeded in longevity only by the Chelsea Flower Show. The "Philly" has morphed over the ages, as have almost all flower shows. The competitive entries for judged plants have decreased, where landscape displays and the vendor's markets have increased. In the years I have judged the competitive entries in several classes, I still marvel at the grandest specimens of some plants I have ever seen. One of the grand champions every year is an impressive Clivia miniata of giant dimensions, movable only by several strong people or a small forklift.

One of the grand landscape displays

The overall impression one gets as you enter the show is awe, followed by a sense of wonder at how the show is staged in less than 10 days from a flat concrete floor, followed by a sense of urgency to see everything as fast as possible. The show is enormous and diverse and overwhelming, but cool, fragrant and exciting at the same time. It is truly a destination to see at least once in a lifetime. I have the honor of seeing the show before the public is admitted as well as working with some of the finest plant people in the business and art of horticulture.      

It is no small feat to get these dazzling plants to flower at this early time of the year. It takes months, if not years, to stage and groom and schedule plants for flowering in the late winter months. To get the flowering bulbs to the show in show-quality shape is an awardable feat unto itself. The artistry, talent, logistics, and costs of staging these displays is commendable on the parts of the vendors and artisans who show their work. If you wish to visit one of the grandest shows in the free world, visit the Philly, in the chilly month of March. The visual and fragrance overload is worth the price of admission alone. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    

October 16, 2012

Giants and Dwarfs- A Tale of Heliconias, Part 3
The "Mediums"

H. caribea 'Yellow'

H. pendula
 As with so many plant groups, there is a wide range of sizes to choose from when planning a garden or selecting a plant for the landscape. This is especially true in Heliconias, where there are species as small as 2 feet, and as tall as 50 feet. In South Florida, we can grow a great many varieties of Heliconias, primarily limited by their tolerances to cold weather and windstorms. There are 2 basic growth types in the genus: running-rhizome and clumping-rhizome.

In this medium-size, non-running group, often comprised of the H. caribea and H.bihai  hybrid lineage, there are dozens and dozens of plants available which grow comfortably in the 7-14 foot height range. I would arbitrarily call these the "medium" height group, as opposed to the "giants", from 14 to 30 feet. 

This group is fairly easy to grow, the clumps of stems stay tight together without spreading too much, and the flowers are quite flashy. The group has both upright and pendant flowers, although the pendant-flower plants tend to grow more erect and taller than the upright-flower types. They like a lot of strong light, and will grow nicely in all-day sunlight, if there is ample water and protection from strong wind, especially in the winter. 

One of the biggest keys to success is to keep the plants well fertilized. A well grown clump of Heliconia will require more fertilizer than almost any plant in your garden, and equaled only by bananas as gluttons for food. In our area, we install a new plant with several pounds of controlled-release fertilizer in the planting soil, along with an equal amount of organic fertilizer such as compost, activated sludge, or rose fertilizer. The plants grow into their new homes quickly, but we still maintain a quarterly liquid fertilizer program heavy on magnesium and potassium, 2 components that Heliconias really need. 

H. rostrata 'Mishualli'
can grow to 15 feet
To reiterate the basic needs to grow this genus successfully, be prepared to water and fertilize the larger species often, give them plenty of space, abundant mulch and organic material, and some occasional removal of old stems. Once they are well established, this genus will put on a show of flowers unrivaled in the landscape world. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 20, 2012

Giants and Dwarfs-A Tale of Heliconias- part 2- the Dwarfs 

H. aurantiaca
a petite cane type, 
growing to 6 feet
 In the substantial Heliconia genus of 300+ species, there is a wide variance in just about all aspects of plant size and growing habits. Like bamboos, there are dwarf and giant types, spreading and clumping types. Some species are prized specimens and some are invasive weeds. In this blog, I'll look at the "dwarf" size group ( under 6 feet tall). As with many plant groups, some are very petite and fairly fragile, while some others are of modest size and quite robust. Most of these species make decent nursery plants in large containers, provided that the potting soil is rich and well drained, with an even supply of moisture. Growing this group in the ground can be easy enough, if there is wind protection, good humidity and deep soil with great drainage.  

H. longiflora
an understory grower,
growing to 4 feet tall

One of the down sides to growing this group of species is their short supply; seeds and rhizomes are uncommon. There are a number of Heliconia growers in Puerto Rico who collectively have a vast array of species and export seeds, so there is hope to see more of these species in cultivation. There are many species of small stature, and some of the more robust species, such as H. angusta, are available from tissue-culture and appear in retail stores in garden centers in this area with some regularity.

H. angusta
The Christmas Heliconia
 The stalwart 'Jamaica Dwarf' can actually grow to 4 or 5 feet with enough water and fertilizer, but is more commonly seen at 2-3 feet. In an odd twist, some of the fast-spreading species in the psittacorum / choconiana section are widely marketed in flower in very small pots, as small as 6 inches. These "petite" plants have been chemically treated to regulate their growth, resulting in a plant that flowers prematurely at a fraction of its mature height. This chemical regulation wears off, and the dwarf can grow into a substantial plant in short order !

'Dwarf Jamaican'

'Carli's Sharonii'

As flashy landscape plants, Heliconias are peerless; few other plants can make such a statement. Given a bit of growing know-how, a gardener can enjoy the color and panache of this group of plants in fairly small confines. Remember that the plants need rather tropical conditions: heat ( above 55 F at all times), bright filtered light, even moisture, rich and well-drained soil, and plenty of room to grow. Heliconias are not a set-and-forget plant, but with a little attention you get a lot of reward. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens   

September 13, 2012

Giants and Dwarfs- A Tale of Heliconias
Part 1- the Giants

H. longissima
the flower stems are over 7 feet long,
and start halfway up the plant

Heliconias are hard to resist regarding their flashy flowers and grand stature. There are 400 + species in the genus, but not all species are giant plants with brilliant flowers. There are odd combinations of color and plant size at both ends of the spectrum, but let's start with some of the larger species, with plant sizes over 6 meters tall. If you visit the wet New World tropics, you'll see these plants festooning the hillsides, and the plants look petite from a distance. The problem is that in the forested tropics, distances are deceiving; the closer you get to a "small" plant, the same effect as when approaching a mountain or volcano, the larger it gets. In many cases, it would be hard to get far enough away from a mountain Heliconia to see it clearly, since there is often a lot of plant growth around it.

Since many of the giant species grow in montane areas, often in protected valleys, they are protected from strong winds, with the plants often bathed in fog. The stems can grow to enormous dimensions, some species grow to 30 to 40 feet tall, with flower stems 10 feet or more in length. With such conditions, the plants have no tolerance for dry winds, cold weather, or storm damage. This makes growing them in the subtropics a real challenge. 

H. pogonantha
var. pogonantha
 Growing these species in the seasonal sub-tropics means that a grower has to choose a site carefully, preferably on the south side of a building or otherwise protected from the cold north winds. There should be windbreak plantings on all sides, but with sunlight at least 4 hours per day. Ideally there should be morning light until 11 a.m., high shade for the hottest afternoon sun from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then sunlight until sunset. The planting soil should be well-drained, but still hold water, or the plant should be irrigated daily during hot weather. The soil should be not only plentiful in the growing area, but fairly deep, with at least 50% of the soil volume as organic material, with balanced-analysis fertilizer mixed in. Controlled-release fertilizers such as Nutricote, Osmocote, Plantacote and Scott-Kote are all well suited to this purpose. Choose a 6-month release and the "high" rates for fertilizer incorporation.  

a hybrid of H. pogonantha and H. mariae,
aptly called 'Dinosaur'
 Although many of the really giant species are pendant-flower types, there are several giant upright-flower types, and one of the easiest to grow is 'Criswick Red'. This is a stout grower and can grow to 20 feet in shaded areas, 10-12 feet in sunny areas. The inflorescence is regal, deep red, and up to 18 bracts in height. This vigorous hybrid is a cross of the species bihai and caribaea, with the grex yielding many dozens of excellent and vigorous offspring.     

'Criswick Red'
 If you have the conditions to grow this group of Heliconias, their inflorescences are amazing, colorful, and surprisingly long lasting. Be informed that the plants need special care, but are worth the effort.There are many mail order firms that sell rhizomes, and seeds are shipped easily worldwide. These are resource-intensive plants, suited for those with the time, climate and skill to grow them. I always encourage growers to try one or two of them, give them their due needs, and wait for the "fireworks".

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens



August 30, 2012

The Beautiful Blue Marble Tree

Blue Marble Tree seeds

I have a rare and delightful job as a horticulturist in a public garden, in which I can grow a great many species of plants. I can also experiment with new species, trialing them for planting in the local area. One such experiment has been modestly successful so far, with the Blue Marble Tree. This majestic tree has a lot of good qualities as a large  tree, but only the coming years will show if has longevity, sturdiness and the other attributes which make a good "landscape" tree versus a specimen for a garden or street tree. 

Blue Marble Tree flowers

The botanical name for this tree is Elaeocarpus grandis, one of dozens of species in the genus, all of which are tropical or subtropical, all are Old World, most are from from Asia and the Indo-China area. One other species, E. decipiens, The Japanese Blueberry Tree, is a bit more common in the landscape trade in Florida where it shows a lot of promise as a street or courtyard tree. It is of modest size, has a well-rounded crown and seems trouble-free after about 15 years in cultivation in Florida and other states. 

Marble Tree foliage;
older leaves turn scarlet
   For the larger E. grandis, the tree will easily grow to 50 feet or more, and has both brilliant red senescing leaves as well as deep green foliage, set against a very dark straight trunk. The trees are fairly hard to come by, but are worth the cost and time to locate them. We are fortunate to have gotten some seed from a tree I planted here in 2005 and the seedlings are already 7 feet tall after 18 months. I look forward to planting them in the Gardens as well as other parks in Pinecrest next Spring. The trees are undemanding in their culture, but do like regular watering and plenty of sunlight. The seeds are fickle regarding germination; they can take 4-12 months to sprout even with  bottom heat and scarifying the seeds.

There are hundreds of tree species available for planting in this area of the country, and I hope to some day see a few dozen Blue Marble Trees dominating the treescape, their canopies stretching up and over their competitors. The effect would be compelling; the foliage and stature of the tree merit a closer look at planting them in parks. Their very tall growth precludes their use as a street tree in the event of a storm, they would eclipse an entire road. The next decade holds exciting new introductions for this area. Consider a Blue Marble Tree for your garden if space and climate permit planting one. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    

August 13, 2012

Dyckias: Not Bad.......Just Misunderstood

The magnificent Dyckia 'Cherry Coke'

In some ways, bromeliads are like cactus: people only remember the spines, and overlook the benefits; even a thorny plant can have the reward of beautiful flowers. Such, I believe, is the case of the often-feared Dyckia group of bromeliads. For many people, looking closely at a well-grown Dyckia is usually cause for a wincing look or perhaps a long pause, followed by a cautious distance from the plant. Yet, in the nursery at Pinecrest Gardens, we bare-hand Dyckias without bloodshed or fear; we've learned how to stay clear of the spiny parts. The teeth of this plant group are no more dangerous than a carpenter's saw, and just as stationary; know where the teeth are, and stay away from them. My college mentor in Gainesville would have given me stern counsel: "you know about the danger, so deal with it ! Don't use it as an excuse to stay away from the plant, just work around it."

Dyckia 'Brittle Star'

As with cactus and succulents, you learn to stay away from the sharp parts, and learn patience when maintaining the plants in the ground or in pots. A few specialized tools will help in removing debris and weeds amongst the teeth, but in reality, the teeth of these plants are more fearsome looking than actually sharp.

On the contrary, I've met some some cacti that I truly believe have the ability to reach out and grab you from several feet away, using some level of diabolical plant intelligence. Dyckias are less menacing, and if you pick up potted plants from underneath, you'll find that the plants aren't as fearsome as they look. Dyckias have all the feel and look of being succulents, and many come from rather hostile native habitats, just like succulents or cacti.  

the beautiful and oh-so-silver
D. marnier-lapostollei
One of the most surprising aspects about this group of plants is that they like more water and larger pots than the conventional dry succulent /cactus culture dogma might call for. I failed with growing Dyckias for years until my great friend Mike McCaffery in Gainesville kindly reminded me that Dyckias hadn't read the books about how succulents should grow; they instead prefer to grow fairly well-watered and well fertilized. In such conditions, Dyckias grow rather fast, and send up beautiful flowers which do a grand job of attracting hummingbirds. 

D. 'Moonglow'
from Yuccado Nursery

D. platypoda flowers,
indicative of the style and color
of the genus

 The flowers are usually very bright colors, often yellow or orange, on 3-7 foot tall spikes, some of which are branched. The plants often set seed easily, and the seed is fairly easy to sprout. The major problem in getting pure strains of seed is out-crossing between species if several species have open flowers at one  time. There are plant sizes for every size of landscape or plant collection, from miniature plants a few inches across to giants as large as a wheelbarrow. Some species are hardy to USDA Zone 7. Once again, we have a plant group with  wide diversity in growing conditions and plant sizes available for you to grow. I wonder how many readers knew of this group, and how many have actually grown some of the species ?

long surgical hemostats useful for
weeding amongst spiny plants

a not-so-secret weapon
to remove weeds around Dyckia plants

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens