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Plant Species Information

Hart’s tongue fern 101

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Plant ID fight club

Do you struggle with botanical names? I know I do. Remembering botanical names is always a fight. As soon as I learn a few new ones, I see a plant I know and it takes me several minutes to recall Liatris spicata. So, this blog post is a kind of trick. While it introduces you to an evergreen fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, it also builds my memory and yours. I hope.

Asplenium scolopendrium stands out in our gardens because its fronds are solid and evergreen. I love the way it looks.

When my residential clients asked me about plants for their shady sidewalk bed, I mentioned the Hart’s tongue fern and they bought some. Of course, after learning the botanical name Asplenium scolopendrium I picked up the plastic pot and the tag said Phyllitis scolopendrium. I shouldn’t have panicked because my Google search would soon reveal that it was just a synonym, not a different species.

Asplenium has a connection to “spleen” and scolopendrium refers to “centipedes”, presumably because the sori (spores) on the frond undersides are arranged in rows, thus resembling centipedes.

Now, I’m hoping this information will jog my memory when I walk by a specimen of Asplenium scolopendrium. If it doesn’t, I will have to Google my own blog post. But, I feel like this is a good start. Spleen and centipedes.

Caring for Asplenium scolopendrium

I could list everything here but you might as well read the tag I photographed. One key is good drainage because this fern can suffer from root rot. Otherwise, it’s disease and pest free.

Install fun

Shady corner install

Good clients listen and learn from you. When I suggested a few of my favourite shade plants, they bought them without hesitation and at hefty retail prices.

We put Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) in front and two fern species in the back: Asplenium scolopendrium and the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). They all looked fine a year later when I visited the home recently; there is adequate shade but I do wonder about road salts spilling over.

To summarize

Remembering botanical names isn’t easy but it’s important. I struggled to remember Asplenium scolopendrium but typing it out in this blog post 35 times might help. You can also think Asplenium (spleen) and scolopendrium (centipedes). That might hep jog your memory.

Another important step in remembering botanical names is actually planting the specimens in the ground. I keep plant tags whenever possible; and sometimes my wife finds them laundered and shredded at the bottom of our washing machine.

Now, when I go back to my client’s place to do bed clean-up, I should be able to blurt out Asplenium scolopendrium. I might even remember Phyllitis.

Note the sori in lines, thus the specific epithet scolopendrium which refers to centipedes.

Flannel flower

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A tattoo

It all started with a tattoo I saw on a young summer helper’s arm. You don’t often see flowers on young men’s arms so I asked a few questions, like any other plant geek. The flower in question was the Flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi). The genus Actinotus means “furnished with rays”.

Why put it on your arm? What’s so special about it? I did some research on Google to find out because the dude is no longer employed with us and I don’t recall what exactly made him choose the Flannel flower. I just remember that his father was from Australia and when they visited the country, the dude must have noticed the flowers around Sydney.

The Flannel flower is a symbol of purity used in festivals and religious ceremonies.

It’s also adaptable and enduring which is why it’s able to survive in the bushland around Sydney.

The daisy-shaped flower is also beautiful and strong which is why it’s Australia’s national symbol for the promotion of mental health awareness. The dude’s tattoo was OK but I didn’t see the beauty until I saw pictures on Pinterest. Now I understand.

Botanical notes

The Flannel flower is actually very interesting because its stems, flowers and leaves are all grey in colour; and they’re all covered in soft downy hairs. Thus the flannel name.

We know that hairs are an adaptation for avoiding water loss. That’s why the flower can survive in the bushland; and why it’s a good plant for a rock garden.

The flowers appear in spring; you can grow them from seed or cuttings and plant them in well-drained, sunny locations.

Plant lust

I think every plant on Earth is interesting and the Flannel flower definitely fits. I’m glad I asked my co-worker about his tattoo because it inspired this blog post. If you ever find yourself in Sydney, you will be ready to explore thanks to my blog post.

Late winter photo essay

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Almost spring

The older I get, the more I hate winter and cold weather. So, to cheer myself up I’ve put together a little late winter photo essay. Most of the plants are well-known in our landscapes. Only one was new to me, the fourth picture down.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) emerges before crocuses with bright yellow flowers, then come green, lobed leaves.

Enjoy!

Fragrant plants for a shady garden

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Plants matter

Plant knowledge is very important in gardening and landscaping. I still shake my head when I recall how a fourth level apprentice in landscape horticulture dismissed plants. Standing in a planted bed, he flat out told me that me telling him plant names had no meaning at all. He didn’t care; which, I suspect, is one reason he is struggling to pass the Red Seal exam.

Now, let’s talk about my new residential client. She found me through Google My Business and happens to be a mobile detailer. So it makes sense that someone like that would like to have fragrant plants in her mostly shady garden.

Suggestions

I openly admit to not being a garden designer. I often have to consult my notes at home before offering plant suggestions. My day-job boss, on the other hand, expects a detailed list on the spot.

One fragrant plant that came to my mind right away is Cimicifuga which flowers in late summer. It’s best planted in multiples, not as a single specimen. It will send out a flower spike and the fragrance is amazing. Intoxicating even. When I stop to enjoy it, I linger there, completely ignoring the fact that I’m there on company time.

An obvious choice for early summer are Lilacs (Syringa).

The owner bought two specimens of Sarcococca, which flowers now, in February. For some reason, some people can’t enjoy the fragrance. Incredibly, last week I had to level an entire corner just to please a caretaker who argued he was suffering from allergic reactions.

Sarcococca

Most gardeners enjoy the Sarcococca fragrance, including me. The key is to mass plant them so I told the client to plant in odd groups. Three is better than two.

Viburnum bodnantense is an awesome shrub. It pushes out fragrant, trumpet like flowers while the branches are bare. The first time I saw it, it looked like a mistake.

Viburnum bodnantense

Also fragrant is the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) which also looks stunning with its spider-like flowers. It never gets old.

Hamamelis mollis

Daphne is smaller than the two shrubs above and smells awesome. I wish I could describe fragrances well, but I can’t.

Daphne

Experiment

I always recommend that clients experiment in their gardens. Buy a few fragrant plants and see how you like them; and how they establish in their semi-shade home.

I expect to be around the garden doing regular maintenance and hope to enjoy the changes. It might inspire a few future blog posts.

The ugly sister of landscape plants

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Say my name

I feel like Leucothoe is the ugly sister of landscape plants because nobody seems to remember its name. Incredibly, this includes experienced foremen who see the evergreen shrubs on their sites all year. As soon as I come to help, they ask me what the shrub is called. Thus the ugly sister label.

Its common name ‘dog hobble’ is so bad, sticking with Leucothoe makes more sense.

And Leucothoe is hardly an ugly plant. It’s a native of the Appalachian mountains where it grows in moist forests. I like that it’s evergreen and forms nice clumps. It’s a shade plant but it can survive in semi-shade. The specimen below is planted, incorrectly, out in the open so no wonder it isn’t forming a full mound.

Not much shade for this Leucothoe.

Details

Leucothoe is best mass-planted in the shade, under your trees. In May it pushes out flowers; and it has great winter interest. Depending on the species or variety, Leucothoe changes color in winter, usually into something maroon.

Occasionally I shear the shrub to keep it off lawn edges but, overall, it’s a low maintenance shrub. It also doesn’t have any serious insect or disease problems. When air circulation is bad around the shrub, it can suffer from leaf spots.

Leucothoe works well as a hedge or a woodland garden shrub. You can also let it naturalize.

Most strata complexes have a few groupings of Leucothoe but people don’t seem to remember its name. Perhaps because it’s a shade plant, usually parked under tree canopies. I feel like people asked me to identify it in the field more than any other plant. When I refer to it as an ugly sister, I do it jokingly. I like the way the shrub cascades and clumps up nicely with its laurel-like glossy evergreen leaves. It totally fits in a moist forest.

So, please say the name Leucothoe and practice it. It sounds better than dog hobble.

Instant plant ID!

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Under 1 minute

I love this! It took me less than a minute to reply to a message on WhatsApp asking what the tree species name was. Take a look. Do you know it?

What’s the tree species?

Does this close up shot help?

The answer is Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Now, I know this site really well and it also happens to be the only site in our portfolio planted with Sourwood. That’s why it’s easy to remember.

Of course, the fall colors are also stunning.

And while it looks good to answer the question quickly, it’s not a contest with prizes. Plant identification skills are important because to properly care for our landscape plants, we first have to know what they are. It’s our starting point.

Imagine how stunned I was when a fourth level apprentice in landscape horticulture told me he didn’t care about the plants I named nearby. It didn’t do anything for him. What? Horticulture is about plants. I would love it if someone would show me all of the plant species on site. Sadly, I’m the go-to guy and, as it turns out, it’s not really appreciated. It pains to write these lines.

First encounter

I remember my first encounter with Sourwood as if it was yesterday. It actually happened in 2014, when I worked for the City of Coquitlam parks department. My city gardener boss pulled up to a small city park and the only tree in the parking lot was a huge Sourwood specimen.

As was her habit, my boss quizzed me immediately, but I drew a blank. Now I have the city gardener boss-failure-Sourwood association burned into my brain. And that also frees me to learn other plant names; and there are many more to learn about. Recall that gardening starts with plants!

To have success in horticulture and gardening, you will have to learn about plants. That’s obvious. If you’re interested in one or both, it’s probably because you love plants. So, keep going and feel free to share your discoveries in the comments section.

My goal is to ace every plant ID inquiry on WhatsApp in under a minute!

On native fern resilience

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Mutilation

My Dec 21, 2020 blog post covered the whole fern mutilation affair so please read it to get the whole story. I will only recap the key points here.

Our West Coast forests are full of the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It does fine in the wild and in our managed landscapes. Except when experienced landscapers don’t use their heads and power shear it.

Imagine the horror when I discovered that the fronds had been halved by power shears- in winter- and the mess was never cleaned up. And we’re talking about experienced workers, not new dudes. It’s not clear what happened but clearly there was a breakdown somewhere.

Finished product

I’m sorry, but this kind of shoddy work can not be tolerated. Here’s why.

  1. Use hand snips to take out the brown fronds, if they bother you. It does make the sword ferns look neater. Don’t power shear ferns. Ever! I don’t care if it takes longer.
  2. The fronds only make sense when they are intact, not halved. It looks freaky.
  3. Not cleaning things up is the ultimate sin. How people walk away from this carnage is beyond me. Clearly, there were some problems with the crew. Pruning and clean-up go hand in hand. Both should be fantastic.
  4. The timing is awful. If you look at the base of the ferns, you should see next season’s fronds tightly packed together. When they pop up in spring, then you can take out the old brown fronds. Not in winter. Since nothing new emerges until spring, the residents get to look at halved sword ferns all winter. That’s just bizarre.

Good news!

Because plants are resilient, we have some good news to report a year later. I’m happy to report that the sword ferns recovered nicely! And the crews are under strict orders not to touch them until next spring. Hopefully, they learned their lesson.

Like nothing happened.

Left alone until spring, these sword ferns look great all winter.

Now you know how to handle our native sword ferns. Use snips in spring to prune out the brown fronds. That’s it. Then enjoy them for the rest of the year.

Never dismiss plant ID skills

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A crazy confession

“Vas, when you tell me the names of landscape plants, it means nothing to me.” What a shocker from an experienced landscaper and Red Seal candidate. This blog post will make the case for improving your plant identification, and for never dismissing it.

This is what my buddy missed. If he had looked at the bigger picture, he would have realized that everything starts with plant names. You can’t provide proper care and maintenance to plants when you don’t even know what they’re called. Names allow you to dig deeper; or you can let Siri do some of the digging for you. If you like plants, your discoveries might please you. My buddy is missing out.

Plant examples

Fully grown, Acanthus is an imposing plant, but at its baby stage, it could easily be mistaken for a weed. This actually happened to us in the field in a bed with just one specimen.

Since I was able to find out the plant name, we didn’t pull it. I stood my ground and defended it.

One patch of Oxalis wasn’t so lucky. Beautifully spread out under Rhododendrons, it was doing its thing in the shade it loves. Unfortunately, the leaves look like clover to the untrained eye. So, it went missing and the owner quickly noticed. Oops.

Oxalis

The last example is hilarious. Thinking the tree was a lilac (Syringa) the foreman responsible for the site let it grow until his horrified boss arrived to set him straight. The tree was actually a fast-growing cottonwood (Populus) invader. Left alone, it would eventually overwhelm its spot. It had to go once it was clearly identified as a cottonwood tree, not a lilac shrub. Yes, plant identification skills make maintenance easier.

Cottonwood or lilac?

Quotes

After receiving a number of plant name requests through text from another landscape manager, I wondered what was happening. Did she lose access to Google? I sent my answers back and let it go.

Months later I discovered that the plant names were required for a quote. It’s difficult to make a quote without proper plant names. Nurseries require botanical names, otherwise they can’t give you any prices. That makes sense.

In this case, the quote couldn’t be written up without proper plant names. No quote, no project and no extra income. There you go buddy. Now you know.

Expert on call

No, you’ll never know all plants but strata landscape plants tend to repeat so you have a great shot at becoming an expert. And your clients will likely approach you for help. So get ready.

If my buddy becomes a Red Seal landscape horticulturist with poor plant identification skills, he won’t be able to deliver great value to his employer. Personally, I love plants, so I work on my plant identification all the time. It’s an important skill. Trust me. So work on it.

Don’t miss the late season color show

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Leaf clean up over. Now what?

As I look outside on the first December 2021 weekend, all I see are bare trees in the park across the street. Sadly, the fall color show is over. Now what?

Fear not! I’m about to show you some color you can see in the landscape right now. Go outside without your smartphone and pay attention. You might be surprised. Like I was, when I first encountered Viburnum bodnantense in the winter landscape.

At first, I thought it was a mistake. Bare brown branches sporting small clusters of white flowers. Seriously? I had to look it up to believe it.

Viburnum bodnantense

Fatsia japonica also flowers in winter. I still remember entering a sad looking yard on an old strata site and there it was, a specimen of Fatsia japonica with its white flowers. Again, I thought it was a mistake. Something about micro-climates.

Fatsia japonica

Camellias are also flowering now and they’re stealing the show.

Camellia

Strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) are also fun to look at with their edible strawberries. No, I’ve never tried them.

Arbutus unedo

Here’s a combination I discovered by a water feature. Red Pyracantha and purple Callicarpa.

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is also hard to miss.

Hellebores can lighten up a shady corner.

Cotoneaster

Yew cones (Taxus) are also cute.

Taxus

Rhododendron

I shot the above pictures while working out in the landscape. I’m sure your own gardens have some winter color. Enjoy it while you can.

Gunnera: late season step

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Gunnera

In your face plant

I love Gunneras. They almost make me laugh because they’re so big and imposing with their huge umbrella-like leaves. I happened to run into a few specimens at a garden in Morgan Creek, Surrey, last week but the show was clearly over.

Many of the spent leaves, now completely brown, were drooping into the pond. And this is already a hint: Gunneras require moist soil conditions.

They also need space and shelter. So, whoever designed this large water feature garden knew what she was doing. I found the plants at the pond edge, under deciduous trees where they have shade or semi-shade conditions. They all had plenty of space.

Gunneras work best as specimen plants. Fully grown, they’re hard to miss.

Last step

Gunnera buds are tightly packed around the crown. So, remember this one last step: cut back the leaves and stack them over top of the crown to protect it from frost.

I remember seeing a pile of giant Gunnera leaves stacked high by a creek at Como Lake, in Coquitlam. My first reaction was that someone forgot to clear away the debris. Now I know better, years later. The giant leaves protect the crown from frost.

Because Gunnera require lots of space, we don’t get to cut them back very often. Most strata (multi-family) complexes don’t have large gardens that would fit Gunnera specimens. This one does, so we had some fun cutting it back.

You can tell from the rough leaf piles that we need more practice. Twelve months from now, we’ll try to stack the leaves nicely. I always tell my apprentices to do everything in the field; and experience as many new things as possible. This was one such experience. Now they can file away Gunnera and remember the one critical late season step.

I hope you do, too.

Gunnera crowns

Cut back leaves stacked over the top of the crowns.