Episode 7 – Living Plant Fossils, Temple of Bloom, and Ivy Issues

Ground Breaking Banter

We’re still talking fall, but shifting our attentions to conifers that lose their leaves. Yes, you read that right: not every evergreen is truly evergreen. Most conifers lose their oldest needles in late autumn, and this tends to be most obvious on white pines and arborvitae. As long as that yellowing stays confined to the innermost portions of the plant, it’s not a cause for concern.

We then shift our discussion to truly deciduous conifers – coniferous trees that naturally lose their leaves each year, like larch (Larix laricina – not Larix decidua, like Stacey mistakenly says in the episode – d’oh!) and dawn redwood. Also known as Metasequoia glyptostroboides, dawn redwood is a true living fossil: it was only known from the fossil record and was thought to be extinct until the 1940s, when a grove was discovered in China. The first specimen that was sent to the US was sent to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. You can still see that plant today! Dawn redwood is an excellent choice for your home landscaping, if you have room for a large and unique conifer. They are easy to grow, have beautiful bark, lovely salmon-hued fall color before its needles drop in autumn, and it makes a great conversation piece when your neighbors and passersby ask you what it is.

All this talk about leaves calls for sharing a plant in this episode that will not just give you some valuable leaves for your leaf pile or new bed projects, but beautiful, sturdy, long-lasting leaves, at that. And it’s one of my favorite of all the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice variety: Temple of Bloom heptacodium, also known as seven son flower. This small tree is hard to beat for four-season beauty: in spring, its thick, leathery foliage emerges and carries it handsomely through summer. As August winds down, the flowers start to appear – fragrant white blooms that are small but abundant. They attract a ton of pollinators, including hummingbirds. Once the flowers fall off, they leave behind a star-like bract that soon ages to a dusty red-pink color for fall, which creates what looks like a second bloom on the plant. The foliage turns deep yellow, then drops, all the better to enjoy the distinctive peeling bark.

There’s a lot going on in the names here. The scientific name, Heptacodium, translates from the Greek “seven-headed one”, and that brings us to the common name, seven-son flower. Each flower is part of a many-headed inflorescence, but they don’t stick neatly to that seven rule – you’ll find varying numbers, so it’s more like a catchy name than an accurate description.

Temple of Bloom is another Proven Winners shrub that was developed right here in Michigan, and it took nearly 20 years to create it. That’s because there’s really only one species – Heptacodium miconioides, which has been grown over time, so it took a lot of time and effort to induce the qualities that make it different – namely, the brighter red color of the fall bracts and the smaller habit. It’s still a big plant – 6-10’ tall compared to 15’ or more for the original, but that’s pretty small for a tree and a nice size for most home landscaping.

How to grow: You are going to want to plant Temple of Bloom seven son flower in full sun, but as far as soil goes, any will do, as long as it is well-drained. It’s very deer resistant, and because it’s a tree, probably won’t be bothered by rabbits, either, unless you start with a very young and small specimen.

Ready to add Temple of Bloom seven-son flower to your landscape? Ask for this Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrub at your favorite local garden center.

Gardening Mail Bag

Today’s mail bag brings two questions about English ivy – one listener who is struggling to grow it, and one who is struggling to get rid of it. There’s a cautionary tale here: ivy can be notoriously obnoxious when it’s happy, and is considered an invasive weed in many areas. And, as you’ll find out, it’s not easy to get rid of if you plant it and change your mind.

Mike asks: I have a question about Hedera helix (aka English ivy). I took a cutting maybe twelve years ago from a very robust plant and had been growing it indoors, but I have not been able to get it to take off outside. I’ve probably cloned this plant maybe ten times or more, and each time, I can make the plant take right off, but as soon as I get it outside, it seems to struggle and it’s very stunted. In fact, any shoots that are on the plant die off, and it dies back to the ground and maybe a couple of leaves will come out, but that’s about it. I’m trying to grow these at the south fence line of my property, at the edge of some woods, so I should be seeing sufficient sun. The other plants in the area where I’m trying to get this going are mostly dune grass and some sassafras trees as well as some pines. Any insight you can give would be fantastic.

While it’s not ideal to answer a question with more questions, it’s often necessary in horticulture! So Stacey asks two questions, one, wondering about the original ivy plant the cutting was from, since not all ivy is suitable for growing outdoors, especially in Michigan. There are a number of tender ivy varieties that will struggle in our outdoor conditions, especially when it comes to winter. Second, she asks how Mike is rooting the cuttings, whether in soil or water – it’s not uncommon for cuttings rooted in water to have difficulty rooting in soil, especially when it comes to woody plants like ivy. So if you are rooting in water, try doing it in soil and see if those cuttings are easier to transplant into the ground.

As far as getting it to take outside, ivy likes organic matter and richer soils than we tend to have out here on the lakeshore, and the closer you are to the lake, the sandier your soil is. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get ivy going in it, and once it is going, it won’t need a lot of care, but you will need to work harder to get it there. We suggest digging in some compost or composted manure, or even top soil. 

Kenzie wants to know: How do I remove English Ivy? It is currently not alive, just the roots are showing. I see sprouts shooting up at times.

English ivy is, hands-down, one of the hardest plants to remove – especially if it was used as a ground cover. Even if you are inclined to use herbicides, they don’t typically work on it, unless you can trace plants back to a thick “trunk,” cut off the plant, and then immediately paint the cut stump with undiluted herbicide. But that’s not usually the case with ground cover. So really the only option is just to stay on top of it. Every time you see those new shoots coming up, get out there and pull them. Try to chase them back into the ground as far as you can. Whatever you do, do not till the soil! Practically every piece that you create will sprout into a new ivy plant and make it even more difficult to remove, so pulling by hand, as often as needed, really is your only option. I know that’s disheartening, but sooner or later, you will conquer it.

Brittany writes: I purchased 3 Summerific Hardy Hibiscus (2 Holy Grail and 1 Candy Crush), it’s their 2nd year in the ground, planted last summer. They don’t seem to be growing much bigger than the size I purchased them, two were 3 gallon, one was 1 gallon I believe. They did bloom well though. Am I doing something wrong? Is they something I can do differently to help their growth or do they just need more time?

Hardy hibiscus are water lovers, so my first thought is that they perhaps need more water. That’s often the case when plants aren’t growing much. Another possibility to consider is underground activity from voles, mice, groundhogs, or even moles. Moles don’t eat plant roots, but they do tunnel, and those tunnels beneath and around the roots can lead to air pockets that keep the soil overly dry. I think the fact that they bloomed well is a good indicator that they are overall healthy and happy plants and they need more time to develop. The more mature your hibiscus plants get, the more buds they will create on their tuberous roots and the bigger and “stemmier” the plant will get.

Branching News

  1. We look at a survey of how many salads Americans eat each week (four!) and what they like them to be made of (iceberg – really? and kale – really?) and favorite toppings (croutons, naturally, followed by veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots). 
  2. In more serious news, a fire at a pumpkin patch in drought-stricken Texas destroys over 70 cars. Fortunately, no one was hurt, which is amazing when you see the extent of the destruction.
  3. An unscrupulous hunter in New York was caught by police baiting bears with donuts. Not only did the hunter not have a permit to hunt bears, but baiting them is always illegal. We’re not sure if a bear with a powdered sugar-covered muzzle was what gave him away, but he was charged with a long list of violations.
  4. Gardeners tend to keep a couple of special vases handy for arranging flowers and stems from the garden, but not usually this type – an auction house employee severely undervalued a Chinese vase. He put a price of $1900 on it, believing it was a fake or reproduction, but the market decided it was the real deal and it ended up going for $7.5 million. Yikes! The employee was, not surprisingly, fired. 

As we close, Stacey and Rick talk about the weekend’s unseasonably mild weather – both days are going to be around 70°F and sunny – and what they’ll be doing in the garden. Rick’s going to be raking, preserving some vegetables, and lifting summer bulbs like dahlias; Stacey plans to plant and get her garlic bed ready for planting in a few weeks. Tune in for our next episode on Saturday, October 28 to learn more about growing garlic – it’s easy, fun, and a great way to save some money!