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Featured Plants 2006

January 2006

Japanese pittosporum or P. tobira
A very common landscaping plant too often planted under windows. It can get 8 - 15 ft tall before it stops growing and drive you crazy trying to keep it under the windowsill. These evergreen shrubs can take severe pruning and can be kept low by shearing whenever necessary, typically in the spring, again in mid-summer, and again in late fall. Lazy as I am, I finally got rid of ours, but now that I see this mature one in the Discovery Garden pruned with this attractive open Oriental style, I have second thoughts. Once pruned to this shape, the plants do not resprout new shoots along the bare branches nearly as rapidly as oak trees do.

There are varieties with green or variegated foliage. 'Wheeler's dwarf' gets only 2 to 3 ft tall and 4 to 5 ft wide and is a good choice for a low boundary, even a ground cover and several other shorter and more compact varieties are available from most nurseries or landscapers. If you are building a new house, specify one of these for under windows.

Pittosporums are good for seaside or poolside plantings since they have high salt tolerance. They need full sun to partial shade. For some reason, they seldom bloom in Florida. I've seen flowers in only one garden here and in one in Georgia. The white jasminelike flowers have a lovely scent. No worry about frost with this one; it is hardy from Zone 8 -11 and we are in Zone 9.

Coral ardisia, Coralberry, or Ardisia crenata
An evergreen shrub that grows very slowly to 4 feet. The leaves are a dark green and small flowers hang in clusters of pinkish white in the spring. The red berries are very attractive, especially to cedar waxwings. Cultivar 'Alba' has white fruit. This one is native to India and Japan. It has low drought tolerance, which may be why mine is growing so slowly. It often naturalizes and is considered invasive in some parts of Florida. I have a hard time imagining my long nurtured by tiny specimen ever being a threat. You probably won't find this one at nurseries, but you may find it in the wild. It is one I covet even if I shouldn't. It also makes a good house plant. Many seedlings can usually be found around the base of a seed-bearing plant.

There are two other Ardisia species that are more often recommended for landscaping. Marlberry, Ardisia escallonoides, native to our area, grows to be a shrub in central and a 20 foot tree is southern Florida. It has fragrant white flowers which are followed by small purplish black berries relished by birds. It is drought tolerant once established. I've had one for two years and it is also growing very slowly along the back fence behind the grapefruit tree and has not yet bloomed.

Japanese ardisia, A. japonica, is an excellent ground cover for heavy shade and only grows 18 inches tall. It has low salt and drought tolerance but is not particular about soil. All are good plants for partial to deep shade

February 2006

Blackberry lily, Belamcanda chinensis
Blackberry lily has been used in Chinese medicine for throat conditions, coughs, wheezing, bronchitis, and mumps. This very hardy member of the iris family blooms mostly in the summer in much of Florida as well as in northern states. It has many flowering stems that can reach four feet tall with many flat, star-shaped yellow or orange flowers dotted with red and up to two inches across. Later the rather typical iris seedpods turn tan and burst open to show tenacious, shining, jet-black seeds resembling blackberries. Both flowers and seedpods are showy in the garden and good in cut flower arrangements.

Grow them from seeds, cuttings, or divisions of the rhizomes in full sun to light shade. The sword-shaped foliage is fairly attractive. Though somewhat drought tolerant, they prefer moist conditions. The seeds can be toxic so warn children not to eat them.

Johnny-jump-ups, heartease, or Viola tricolo
maller-flowered cousins of the pansy and viola, blooms so profusely and with such delicate little faces that they are among my favorite flowers. They are the kind that lift your heart just to see them. We have to grow them as annuals here. I've had people say they self seeded for them, but they never did for me, until...

Often you can find bedding plants already in bloom in nurseries. They stay low but spread nicely and bloom continuously until the hot weather ( about May). They will take full sun in winter but bloom longer in partial to light shade, especially with the heat of April and May so close.

Last fall I planted seeds, which germinated and grew slowly at first. By the time I transplanted them, there were only two little plants. But ever since Christmas I've began noticing little plants in the path that looked the same as those two seedlings across the driveway. How could this be, so far from anywhere I've ever grown them before? About Feb. 1, the first one bloomed and I was thrilled to have a good two dozen Johnnies, which have now been removed from the path and planted in various spots in the yard. Already they are starting to spread and bloom. Mine are deep purple around the edges with blue, yellow and white faces, but they come in various combinations of these colors.

Heartease was an old English favorite that held romantic connotations between courting couples. They were used medicinally for dropsy, respiratory problems, and skin eruptions. The flowers are edible and can be added to salads, used as a garnish, or candied for cake decoration.

This year I am going to gather some seeds and sprinkle them where they are most likely to get enough water and space to germinate next fall.

March 2006

Fumatory, Fumaria species
One of the weeds I've been pulling out forever but never knew by name. In contrast to the thick leaved bromeliad perennials, this is an annual with soft, finely dissected leaves on wispy, often sprawling stems and little pink to lavender flowers. The name comes from the Latin fumus terrae "smoke of the earth" either for the smoke-like smell of some species or for the gray green of the filmy leaves that are much like smoke rising from the ground. It is a member of the poppy family and closely related to Dutchman's britches.
There are about 55 species worldwide found as a weed in 33 crops, mainly cereals, vegetables and vineyards but also in our domestic gardens, waste areas, and industrial sites.
It is not a noxious weed and is easy to pull out, but in laboratory experiments seed over 2,200 years old could still germinate, so it seems we will always have it.

This is one of the weeds that is actually a herb because it has been used for stomach and liver complaints, as a laxative and a diuretic, for treatment of skin problems such as eczema and acne by cleansing the kidneys and liver. It has also been used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis. According to one source, a tea made by pouring a cup of boiling water over 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and letting it steep for 10-15 minutes may be drunk freely. For skin problems it should be drunk at least three times daily. I don't know of anyone who has taken this and some herbs are known to react with other medications, so consult a physician before taking anything internally.
The flowers of one species, F. officinalis, have been used to make yellow dye for wool.
I'm still going to be pulling fumatory out of my garden but with more respect.

Scented geraniums, Pelargonium species
One of the most fascinating group of plants, have been designated by the International Herb Association as the Herb of the Year for 2006. They are from the same genus but a different species from the common garden geranium. Brought to England from the Cape of Good Hope in 1632, they gained little fame until discovered by the French perfume industry in 1847. Their essential oils are used today in cosmetics and aromatherapy.

Scented geraniums all do well in Florida. The leaves of different kinds vary in form and color as well as scents that include rose, apple, orange, ginger, lemon, coconut, strawberry, peppermint, and many more. I had one by the front door that smelled like a sycamore tree. They are grown mostly for the fragrant foliage. Some have showy flowers as well, some flowers that are less so.
Use the leaves, even the ones that dry on the plant, in sachets, pillow, or potpourris. Some are good as seasonings or in tea. A leaf in a glass of clear jelly adds both flavor and decoration. Infuse the leaves for a mildly astringent cleanser or add some fresh ones to your bathwater.
These plants are perennial in most of Florida and thrive in full sun to partial shade with well drained soil and occasional watering. They roots easily and can also be started from seed if you are patient. Some are very effective in repelling mosquitoes. They are great in containers which you can move as needed for protection from frosts in the winter and from drenching rains in the summer, edible. Indoors or planted along garden paths and brushed often, they can scent the room or the air.

April 2006

Morning Glory, Ipomoea species
We have several native perennial morning glory vines, Ipomoea species, that grow quite rampant once started, can even be weedy. They have flowers of blue, pink, purple, red, and white. So why do I crave this annual hybrid called Heavenly Blue? The seeds have hard coats and even after soaking them in water overnight, they germinate sparsely and grow reluctantly. But they are the ones I remember from childhood and there is no match for that shade of sky blue. If I persist, I can frequently get a few vines to grow and bloom, not with 50 flowers a morning as they do in the north, but sometimes with half a dozen that lift the heart. Most recently I have been starting them in pots of gallon size or more and letting them climb over nearby plants. Success seems to know no season. I have had them bloom in the dead of winter (before frost) and the rains of summer. Renee's Garden has a Mailbox Mix of blue and white that I am presently coddling. While they take full sun in winter or in the north, they will take a small bit of shade in our summers. If you are smart, you will plant something more reliable, but if you really want these, you can have them if you keep trying.

Powderpuff, Calliandra
There are several species of Calliandra or Powderpuff that do very well in both north and central Florida in sun to partial shade. This one was blooming in the abbey gardens. All are evergreen and can grow 10 to15 ft. tall and wide with compound leaves of small, oval leaflets. The showy flowers come usually in shades of red or deep pink and are mostly a pompon of stamens. There are also cultivars with white flowers and a dwarf variety 'Nana'. Buds look like raspberries and fruits are flat green pods. Powderpuff supposedly blooms winter through spring. Mine blooms almost all the time. It is nipped just a bit by frost but always grows past the damage, usually without any pruning. This plant thrives on neglect once established. It has high drought and medium salt tolerance, can be propagated by seeds, cutting, or air layering, belongs to the legume family, and is native to tropical America

May 2006

Hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla
On the day I spent at Kerby's Nursery during the Butterfly Extravaganza, many people carried out pots of these beautiful hydrangeas and many more will get them as Mother's Day gifts. They can easily and quickly grow into lovely shrubs, 5' to 6' high and wide in any part of your garden that has sun to light shade, preferably afternoon shade. But while they are still in pots, they can scare you to death. It seems you only turn your head a minute and they wilt terribly. They will need checking for water every day and if they do wilt in spite of that, put them in a sink or large kettle of water until they revive. Since they are such demanding drinkers in pots, I was amazed at how well they do in the ground with only occasional watering. If you must keep them in a container, put them in a larger one so they won't dry out so quickly.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hydrangea macrophylla is the way some plants ('Nikko Blue' is one) can indicate soil acidity. Planted in soil that is acid enough to keep azaleas and camellias happy, they produce blue flowers. In soil closer to neutral or alkaline, from pH 5.5 and higher, the flowers will be pink.

Staghorn, Platycerium
Allen Wright sent in this picture of his mother in-law, Modessa Rodgers with her staghorn fern that she has been lovingly growing for about the last 15 years. Wright had to build this ornamental frame to hold it because it had made the tree it was hanging from lean towards the house.

The staghorn genus Platycerium includes eighteen species and many varieties and hybrids. They among the most popular tropical ferns for Florida yards. In their native habitat they grow as epiphytes on tree trunks or rocks where they are sure to have good air circulation, bright subdued light and plenty of moisture. They get their nutrients from rain washing debris off of the surroundings and into their root area.

Staghorns produce both rounded, thick, sterile basal fronds that encase the roots and foliar fertile fronds that can be either erect or pendulous. Both are usually a silvery green.

These ferns do best if allowed to dry out between waterings. If in doubt, wait for a slight wilting. Once our summer rains start, nature should take care of them until the next drought or frost. P. bifurcatum is the most cold hardy of the group and can stand temperatures down to 30 degrees.

June 2006

Confederate Jasmine, Trachelospermum asiaticum
Jasmine 'Minima' or small leaf Confederate Jasmine, Trachelospermum asiaticum, is Larry Kerby's all time favorite plant. It makes an excellent groundcover for sun or shade with its small shiny green leaves. There is also a cultivar with variegated foliage, 'Bronze Beauty' with bronze new growth, some that are extra compact, and a few other named varieties. Check them out at your local nursery. While in theory all plants bloom, this one's blooms are seldom seen. If you want spring flowers and fragrance, mix a little Confederate jasmine in with it. Both of these species have medium drought and salt tolerance and will form a thick mat that eliminates weeds. Larry uses his long handled hedge trimmer to cut his back a few times a year to make it grow ever thicker.

Quail Grass, Celosia argentea
Lagos spinach, quail grass, or Celosia argentea is very close in flowers to Celosia spicata or 'Flamingo Flower' which is available from Thompson & Morgan's catalog. But years ago I got seeds of the C. argentea species from ECHO Farms in North Ft. Myers (www.echonet.org) to grow it as a vegetable.

It is easy to grow, does well over the summer, and blooms into the winter. People always ask me about it when they visit my garden in fall when the leaves have turned dark red and each plant has produced dozens of narrow deep pink, rose, and white 4 to 6 inch flower spikes. These are good in bouquets and dry easily as everlastings. The plants grow five to six feet tall. If you pinch them early and often they stay more compact. Otherwise they may sprawl but will still be lovely. My last one faded in January last year, but young seedlings are now sprouting from selfsown seeds. They are easily transplanted or started from cuttings.

The large leaves on the young annual plants are multicolored, red, yellow, and green and edible boiled and used instead of spinach during hot weather when spinach will not grow. The taste and color are excellent. If leaves are not immersed in the cooking water, however, they will be black and unappealing rather than the usual attractive pale green color (so do not steam them). If you want the plant primarily as a vegetable, pinch off the flower bugs as long as you can. New leaves are small once the plant begins to bloom. Lagos spinach is an African relative of the celosia or cockscomb of flower fame. Lagos spinach is quite susceptible to nematodes and should be planted in soil with high amounts of organic matter if nematodes are a serious problem. They have never hurt it in my garden. I save seeds and will be glad to share them with anyone who sends a STAMPED self addressed envelope to me at 1508 Burning Tree Lane.

July 2006

Stromanche sanquinea 'Tricolor'
This is a tender tropical perennial that likes constantly moist soil and partial to full shade. It grows only 12 to 18 inches tall but spreads up to 24 inches with gorgeous foliage, smooth, glossy, leathery leaves of cream green and pink with burgundy undersides that show on newly opening leaves. Grown mostly for the foliage, it does sometimes have a beautiful flower in early spring that is a panicle of small white flowers with red bracts fading to pink. It is supposedly hardy to 25 degrees, but I'd sure cover this one during frost to be sure. Propagate it by dividing the clump of carefully digging away the offsets. It is a member of the maranta family and grow much like prayer plant or peacock ginger except it doesn't go dormant. It is also good as a house plant or a container plants.

Gloriosa lily, Gloriosa superba
Whether you call it gloriosa lily, Malabar glory lily, flame of the woods, or Gloriosa superba is a tropical vine that does well in Florida and is treasured as a pot plant in the rest of the country. It grows only 4 to 6 ft tall from tubers that can stay in the ground here and will expand for more bloom every year, though one grower feels it does even better if you dig up the tuber a few weeks after the vine dies down and replant it in a different place. It does best in sun to light shade. All parts are poisonous but are not tempting to children. The leaves are long and thin with a tendril at the end and prominent lengthwise veins. The tendril elongate and coil around any support: trellis, shrub, or another vine.

The most common cultivar is Rothchildiana. It's buds have pale green petals facing downward. As the blossom matures, the petals elongate and wrinkle and then arch backward while the color changes from green to yellow to scarlet. The stamens are very prominent and spread outward in graceful curves. Flowers can be 3 to 5 inches. 'Lutea' has all yellow flowers, 'Citrina' has is yellow with dark red markings, and there is also a dwarf 'Nana'.

Cuttings won't root. These must be propagated from divisions of the tuber or from seeds, which can bloom in two years' time, but sometimes take longer. Kerby's usually has bulbs in early spring. If you can't find them locally, you can get them mailorder through Mellinger Inc (2310 W. South Range Rd. North Lima, Ohio 44452) or Brundy's Exotics (P.O. Box 820874, Houston, TX 77282).

Give them moist but well drained soil with plenty of decomposing leaf mold and bark. Once established, the vine does even better with feeding but will survive on neglect. The tops will die back at intervals but then new shoots start. They bloom best during the warm months, but that means off and on almost all year in Florida.
They are true members of the lily family and native to the tropical jungles of Africa.

August 2006

Rangoon creeper, Quisqualis indica
A woody evergreen vine with abundant foliage, fascinating blooms, and nuts that are edible if you get them before the squirrels. I brought home a few nuts from a Rare Fruit meeting years ago and have had this plant ever since. I never saw a squirrel in my yard before this bloomed and, I assume, bore fruit. Now I have many squirrels and never have gotten another taste of the nuts.

It's a good thing the flowers alone are worth having the plant. They open white in the morning, turn pink by noon, and maroon by evening. They stay on the vine for several days, so each cluster is primarily maroon. Some say they have a fragrance like ripe apples, but fragrance is like taste, different for each person. I have to sink my nose right into these and still don't notice much fragrance. Children in Cuba make the flowers into chains and necklaces as northern children do with clover blossoms.

The 5 to 6 inches long leaves are bright green, opposite and have smooth edges. There are some small leaves in the photo that are from another plant.
The vine will quickly cover a strong trellis or wall and can make a natural cover for a porch. It quickly gets woody and thorny. It roots easily from cuttings, needs full sun to very light shade, and can be a pain to keep pruned. Parts are also supposedly poisonous but only the nuts are tempting, and I found them quite tasty and harmless.

Butterfly Gaura, Gaura
A pretty perennial that grows in a clump 2-4 ft tall with a spread of 2-3 ft. The slender, wiry stems are covered with tiny hairs and the leaves are spoon shaped with toothed margins. They vary in color throughout the year from maroon to green or mottled. The buds are also maroon. The flowers are produced above the foliage on erect spikes, 8-24 in. long, that continue to elongate throughout the extended blooming period. Individual flowers are about an inch across and have four reflexed petals that are white when they open at dawn, and fade to rose-pink by the end of the day. Only a few flowers are open at any one time, and each drops off after blooming, but it still pays to cut the spent stems back whenever blooms decrease.

A few cultivars cultivars include 'Corrie's Gold' which has leaves with golden-yellow markings. 'Swirling Butterflies' is smaller than the species, growing to only 2 ft tall and has red sepals and flowers more profusely. 'Siskiyou Pink' is also lower growing with light pink flowers and 'Pretty in Pink' is even pinker. A recent selection from an Australian plantsman is "Crimson Butterflies". There are about 20 species of gaura, all native and sometimes growing wild in the Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico.

Gauras bloom best in full sun but will take partial shade in Florida. They are drought tolerant. Poorly drained soil or overwatering will kill them. Propagate by seeds or by stem cuttings in the spring. It is possible but tricky to divide the clump because of one long tap root.

Dawn Renee cut this one back drastically a few weeks ago to take flowers to the church, and it grew back bushier with twice as many flowers. After blooming through summer and fall, plants may look a bit spent. At that time cut them back hard and they will spring back. They are very hardy. Besides producing long-lived cut flowers for bouquets, gaura also attracts bees and butterflies.

September 2006

Red Bauhinia, Bauhinia punctata
One of Laurel Cecelski's favorite plants. She was working at a USF sale and one of the people she helped offered to buy her a plant. In the whole sale, this was the one she wanted. A cousin of the orchid trees, everything about this plant is smaller. The rounded leaves with two almost overlapping sections are smaller and so are the flowers. While the others are trees growing from15 to 35 feet tall, this one is an sprawling, vine-like evergreen shrub that can grow as high as 7 feet but can also be kept as low as 4 feet. The orange-red flowers are a bit smaller and appear through the spring, summer and fall. It needs full sun and has high drought tolerance. A member of the Bean Family, it is native to Tropical Africa.

Prickly Pears, Opuntia
Whether you call them prickly pears, cactus pears or Indian figs, Opuntia species are easy to grow, dramatically ornamental, especially with Spanish architecture, and edible. Most kinds are also very thorny, though some places such as ECHO farms in North Ft. Myers sometimes have thornless varieties. If you have a friend with a plant, you can take a section, let the cut portion heal for a few days, ant then put it right side up in slight damp sand. They can also be propagated from seeds but germination can take up to six months. The plants need excellent drainage and full sun, but not much else. They can grow 3 to 15 feet tall with green or gray-green pads or leaves. In the spring they bloom along the edges with flowers that look like large portulacas and the fruit follows.

To harvest the pads in spring or the fruits in fall, wear leather gloves. Rub with rough canvas to remove the bristles and then wash to remove the residue. Cut up and boil the pads and serve them with salt, pepper, and butter. The taste is unique but most closely resembles green beans. The fruits have lush red, orange or yellow flesh that is sweet but very seedy. It can be eaten fresh, canned, or made into jelly. You might find them as canned napoles in Mexican markets.

Most are cold hardy even much father north. They can be grown in containers where they will stay smaller. They are excellent as barrier plants.

October 2006

Miracle fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum
Sometimes called miraculous berry. One oval red fruit, smaller than an olive, has a rather insignificant taste, but it does strange things to a person's taste buds, and very soon afterwards sour things such as lemons and limes taste wonderfully sweet. It will not make sweet things taste sweeter and can make beer taste flat. This effect usually lasts about 30 minutes but can last as long as two hours.

This evergreen shrub can grow 20 feet tall in its native West Africa but usually stays under five feet in Florida. With low drought and salt tolerance, it produces two crops a year, after the end of each rainy season in Africa. It starts bearing very young and almost always has some fruit on it. It grows in full sun to light shade, likes very acid soil, and has been known to survive down to -10 degrees F. Flowers are white and not showy. One grower in Vancouver, Canada, just kept starting new trees from cuttings and gave many away. From the four he kept they pick about 8 ice cream buckets of fruit in a year.

The Miracle fruit has been used to sweeten bitter medicines and theoretically has great potential as a sweetener, but heat destroys the active ingredient so that cooking or drying are not possible and the berry itself has a short shelf life. Still, the possibilities are amazing and someone will someday find a way for this to make life sweeter for many people.

This shelf of Chiritas in Jay Sespico's collection shows just a bit of the variety. The small C. tamiana blooms all year and stays under 6 inches in height. The larger leaves of 'Silver', the second plant behind it, are attractive without any bloom. Chiritas are among the latest Gesneriads introduced to the market and the new name was what drew me to Jay Sespico's table at the Lake Park Festival last spring. I had to stand in line, for people were there asking him questions for most of both days. Chiritas are grown both for their attractive leathery foliage, sometimes mottled with silver, and for their delicate and beautiful tube-shaped flowers that come in lavender, white, and yellow and are produced in clusters, sometimes on long, slender stalks. Both leaves and stems are hairy. There are some 150 different species. Most are native to China and the surrounding area. They take much the same care as African violets and can be propagated by leaf cuttings.

November 2006

Blue ginger, Dichorisandra thyrsiflora
Sometimes called false ginger. It isn't even in the ginger family but is an evergreen perennial of the Commelinaceae, the spiderwort family, and native to Brazil. It likes partial to light shade and can get 5 to 8 feet tall. Lucy Hoyt, Master Gardener, cuts hers back by half in the spring, even though this is sometimes lower than the leaves. Hers grow back thick and bloom abundantly with these spires of deep blue, long-lasting flowers that are quite beautiful. They have been blooming all over my yard, all cuttings from the first one I was afraid would not last its first winter. None of mine have been harmed by frost yet and, unlike true gingers, will root from cuttings. At first mine only bloomed in late fall and winter, but it seems every year they bloom earlier. In early October I counted 45 spires throughout the yard. I'm hoping some will still be blooming when you come. They have medium drought tolerance and low salt tolerance but will grow in very poor soil. I will have plants of these for sale.

Chinese Hat Plant, Holmskioldia sanguinea
Chinese hat plant, parasol plant, or Holmskioldia sanguinea (holm-skee-OLD-ee-a), is an evergreen shrub that gets 7 to 10' tall with graceful arching branches and flowers that can look similar to bougainvillea from a distance, but it is thornless. It is actually a woody cousin of the trailing verbena. The lime green one in my backyard has been a hit at every garden open house and is blooming more than ever. I have a little bit of the orange flowered one by the front door and by the new gate, but it takes many of my plants several years to really look great. I have several on their way though.

One or two blooms develop in each leave joint. Since most of the color comes from a calyx or outer whorl of showy petals at the base of the actual flowers, they last for months. This is one of those shrubs that can also be trained as a vine if it is supported. No pests of any note bother it, and the more sun it has, the more bloom you get. It roots easily from cuttings. It doesn't like to be overcrowded and needs sever pruning once a year after it finishes blooming.

December 2006

Garlic vine, Cydista aequinoctialis
An evergreen vine from the Caribbean region, a member of the trumpet vine family. Fast growing, it blooms in spring and again in fall with clusters of lavender flowers that fade to white as they age. All parts of the vine are garlic scented when bruised. The plant does best in full sun to light shade and has high drought tolerance but low salt tolerance. It can be grown in containers and should be trimmed after the flowers fade. This is one that could be damaged by freezing temperatures. I had never seen one in full flower, but Kerby's had some beauties, and I couldn't leave without one just before my garden was to be opened. I twined it around the trellis at the end of the path in the back yard and will plant it there eventually. Maybe I'll keep it in the pot over the winter so I can bring it indoors if necessary. I will also take some cuttings, just in case. I don't know if my open garden makes other people buy more plants, but it sure makes me a good nursery customer. And now, every place a visitor dug out an extra plant, I'll have room for a new one.

Poinsettias, Euphorbia pullcherrima
Our traditional Christmas flowers, were discovered growing wild in Mexico in 1828 by Joel Poinsett while he served as the first U.S. Minister to that country. They do very well in Florida indoors because we have less drying heat in our houses and almost no cold drafts. They do even better outdoors as long as the temperatures remain above freezing, and even then will usually survive with covering. You can just sink them, pots and all, in the soil and then, if necessary, you can pull them up and bring them in if it gets that cold.

Once they are blooming, you can put them in bright light indoors for the Christmas season and they will be fine. But for bloom next year, they must have sun to grow, be pruned back two or three times to keep them bushy, but not after August, and most important, not be in a place where artificial light lengthens the day. They absolutely require natural darkness for long nights to set blooms. The poinsettia flower itself is the rather inconspicuous inside circle. The color is in the bracts.

Plant breeders have done wonders with this plant just in the last few decades. Some of us can remember when we were lucky to keep a poinsettia from shedding all its leaves and flowers between Christmas and New Years, but now you can choose from over 50 different variations of color and markings and enjoy them for weeks to months, sometimes into May.

Borage, B. officinalis
Borage was a herb I grew in Iowa, an annual that automatically reseeded and came up again every spring. Borage has been known through the ages as an antidepressant, a herb of gladness and comfort for sorrow. Ancient soldiers drank borage wine to calm their fears, give them courage, and lift their spirits. I drink borage tea to give me energy when I have a long day ahead. It tastes good and really helps change a grueling day into a pleasant one.

The loveliest borage I ever saw was in a hanging basket where the nodding clusters of flowers made full impact on the eye. The one inch flowers are star shaped and delicate, borne in profusion in lovely nodding clusters. They are sometimes all a deep blue with a touch of white and black in the center, but sometimes come out pink and then turn blue. There is also a white-flowered variety, but I've only seen pictures of it.

The flowers and leaves are both edible with a slight cucumber flavor. Flowers are fun to freeze in ice cubes and put in clear drinks, but first remove the thorny back part. Sprinkle the flowers fresh onto drinks or meats or into salads after you stir in the dressing or candy them for cakes.

In Florida we have to reseed borage every fall, but it grows easily and quickly from fat black seeds. Give it full sun in winter, increasing shade in the spring. It prefers a slightly alkaline soil, is drought resistant, but will occasionally need watering even in the ground in the dry heat of April and May or every few days if it is in a container. Harvest and dry the large, soft, gray-green leaves for tea or use them fresh in salads.