Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Living Fossils for the Garden

     A living fossil is not your Great Aunt! It is a species that appears in the fossil record that is also a living species today, there are many living fossils like Ferns and Mosses, Lichens, Dragonflies, Cockroaches, Sharks, Alligators and the Coelacanth to name a few. Many of these plants and animals evolved many millions of years ago and remain virtually unchanged to this day. This year I am growing two living fossils in my Calgary garden, Ginko and Kentucky Coffee Tree. I read an article in the Calgary Herald about growing Ginkos in Calgary a while back and have heard of people growing them in Calgary too, both species seem cold hardy enough so I thought why not try?

     The Ginko has a long and colourful history that takes us from the beginning of tree evolution thru ancient China to the present day! Here a fossilized Ginko leaf appears unchanged from it's modern counterpart.

     Ginkos are a gymnosperm which means "naked seed", there are many gymnosperms you are familiar with including conifers and cycads as well as gnetophytes which are a very unusual plant you must google if you've never seen before! Gymnosperms deveolp their seeds on the surface of leaves or scales (cones) from wind born pollen which also means these trees are dioceous or male and female individuals. Gymnosperms evolved in the late Carboniferous and Devonian periods over 300 million years ago in an era of giant horsetail and clubmoss trees as well as the sail-backed Dimetrodon that is the ancestor of all mammals and predates the Dinosaurs. The Ginkos became their own genus in the Jurassic period about 150 to 200 million years ago and would look recognizable to us, the picture at top header with Stegosaurus is this epoch. The Ginkos reached their peak diversity with multiple species in the Cretaceous period, the last epoch of the Mesozoic with Dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops. Ginkos disappear from the fossil record in the Pliocene, 7 million years ago in North America and over 2 million years ago in Europe. It is thought that Dinosaurs were a dispersal mechanism for Ginkos, ie, they would eat the seeds and excrete them so the decline of multiple species of Ginkos coincides with the extinction of Dinosaurs.

     Fast forward to Ancient China where the Ginko Biloba, the only remaining species of Ginko in the world, was cultivated over 1,000 years ago. It is believed Ginko originates in the Tianmushan region of China, now a UNESCO biosphere reserve where semi wild stands of Ginko grow today. This region is the birthplace of Daoism, in earlier times it was also the centre of shamanic tree worship so the Ginko easily became a symbol of longevity and vitality. In more recent times the Ginko has retained status in Buddhism and Confucianism and is used in traditional Chinese medicine and as food in China and Japan. 

     Ginko was planted in Chinese temples and introduced to Japan by monks over 500 years ago. Some of the Ginkos in China are over 150 feet tall and 2,500 years old! The picture above shows an ancient Ginko in an Asian Temple shedding its brilliant yellow leaves in the fall. The Ginko is the official tree of Tokyo. In Hiroshima there are six Ginkos that survived the atomic bomb 1 to 2 km from ground zero! Now that is one tough tree!
     Ginkos were first encountered by Europeans by Engelbert Kaempfer in 1691. The German botanist brought Ginko seeds back to Holland where one of the first trees was planted at the Botanical Gardens in Utrecht where it can still be seen today. Ginko has been cultivated in Europe for over 300 years and in North America for around 200 years.

Growing Ginko Biloba in Calgary

     I have heard of a few Ginkos growing in Calgary over the years and Lois Hole had listed it as one of  her " Favourite Trees and Shrubs" in the book of the same name. These trees are rated hardy to USDA Zone 3 which is -30 to -40 and in Canada they are rated Zone 4 which is -30 to -34.5 so pretty cold tolerant, I've seen them growing as boulevard trees in Eastern Canada so with a little care they could grow here as well. Ginko grows from 60 to 115ft tall and some in China are 150 ft tall! Don't worry though I have read that they grow very slowly in our region and very few trees, especially non native trees, reach their maxium height. In cultivation Ginko likes a sunny location and apparently resents too much shade, they like a well watered and well drained environment. There are a few varieties of Ginko these days, mostly male selections to avoid messy seeds, which come in a variety of shapes and heights and bred for other pleasant qualities. It pays to shop around too, I saw potted Ginkos for sale at a local greenhouse for just over $100 but I got two Ginkos mail order from Vesey's Seed Catalogue for around $10 each, they arrived bare root in a box about 36" tall. I planted one in a sheltered and hopefully not too shady location and the other in a pot as I've heard they do very well as bonsai and I absolutely have no more room! They began leafing out in May and are doing quite well, the one in the pot is doing better than the planted one as it has more sun in the day, it just seems happier and has more growth.

     This Ginko receives a half day of sun but will be well sheltered in the winter.

     This Ginko is growing in a pot so can be in the most sun possible, it has grown at least 4" or 10cm by mid July. I have overwintered many trees in pots for a few years so we're hoping for the best!

     Ginko leaves emerge in the spring like intricately folded pieces of paper.
     Here is a bonsai Ginko in the Botanical Gardens of Montreal, if you have a few decades and a lot of patience you can achieve this too!

     The second living fossil is the Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus, not as old as Ginko but still evolved from a much earlier time in North America. In the article "Trees That Miss The Mammoths" Whit Bronaugh explains how many species of trees were adapted to the mega fauna like mastodons and giant ground sloths of the earlier Pliocene epochs to eat and disperse their seeds. He cites many examples of trees that have large fruit or large seed pods that evolved to be food for these large and now extinct animals, plants like the Osage-orange and Kentucky Coffee Tree are prime examples. The article also mentions trees with large thorns such as Hawthorns which evolved to protect themselves from these large herbivorous mammals, deer for example can chew between the thorns a ground sloth or mastodon could not. Since it has only been a few million years since many of the large mammals of North America went extinct, and in the case of mammoths only a few thousand years!, trees have not changed or evolved in that short a time, that is to say evolutionarily it is a very short time.

          In a previous time the seeds of this tree would have had their coatings scratched by the teeth and stomach acid of a mastodon, there are relatives of this tree in Africa where elephants eat the seed pods so we can understand the relationship. These trees survived extinction by growing in low lying swamps and dropping their seeds where it could rot the seed coating thus aiding germination This tree is native to the Mid West and Northern areas of the Southern States of North America roughly from SE South Dakota to Minnesota and Wisconsin to Southern Ontario south to Northern  Louisiana, it was first encountered by Europeans in Kentucky hence the name. The seeds can be roasted as a coffee substitute but unroasted they are toxic to humans. The USDA lists these trees as hardy to Zone 3 -30 to -40 and I had also read hardy to -37 which is still hardy enough for our region. These trees have tri-pinnate leaves a lot like Japanese Aralia that are very large, the latin name means bare twig as when the leaves fall in the autumn the tree appears stick-like very much like the Sumac.

     These trees can grow 60 feet tall and 50 feet wide and are a unique and popular shade tree in cultivation, They are also reportedly very resilient to road salt, ice, heat, cold, drought, alkaline soil, and insects! Sounds pretty good as a street tree!!! Coffee trees bloom in small raceme like flowers and are diocious, male and female individual.

    Kentucky Coffee Trees are very late leafing and early dropping in the fall so I really wonder if we have a long enough season for the flowers let alone pods to develop, this was my experience with Amur Mackii here.

     I also ordered this tree through the mail from Vesey's for just over $10, I really think it should be a trial tree for our area but since the experimental horticulture program is long gone from Alberta I thought I would do it for you, you're welcome!

Here's an image I snagged of a mature tree, the beauty is truly amazing! The only one I remember seeing in real life was at the UBC Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, I remember thinking, I've heard about these but never seen one before! 

I'll be giving updates in the Fall and again next Spring of course so stay tuned!!!

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Wildflower Celebration

     Because I own a very active Border Collie I have to go on long walks rain or shine, sleet or snow, it keeps me up close to many species of wildflowers thru the seasons.
     Although I live in a City of over 1.2 million we have many natural areas for cycling and walking. Here's a snapshot of part of my daily walk, a wild stretch of prairie that also shares space with a memorial forest, bounded on one side by a major freeway and the other by my neighbourhood. Calgary lies on the Northwest corner of The Great Plains of  North America so is mainly a grassland, just to the West, within city limits these days, the landscape turns to Aspen Parkland as the foothills rise to the Rocky Mountains. The landscape of most of the city is originally grassland scraped flat in the last Ice Age with broad river valleys carved by the raging waters of melting glaciers, where I walk is an example of one of these Ice Age river valleys that now contain a tiny meandering creek. In the 1890's this valley was the red light district of a young pioneer town, a place for gambling, whiskey and ladies of the night.
    It's nice to have a natural area so close to the centre of the city, it keeps one in  touch with the ebb and flow of the seasons. Although there are many escaped and naturalized species from nearby gardens there are still many native and wild flower species to be found, from April to October there is often something new in bloom, as they have done for thousands of years even after the buffalo have gone and a city now surrounds!

Prairie Crocus, Pasque Flower, Anemone patens
     The prairie crocus were up very early this year, the first week of April when they often appear toward the end of April. The name Pasque refers to a French name for Easter, when they are usually blooming. After the flower fades long fuzzy seeds like the illustration of sperm take to the wind. This is the official flower of Manitoba and South Dakota, the cultivated variety that blooms in deep red is the official flower of the City of Calgary. A welcome and cheerful symbol of the beginning of spring on the prairies!

Scarlet Mallow, apricot mallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea
     I must say I had to look this one up in my favourite field guide, they are not exceedingly common in my park and are also only inches tall. I'm not sure where the Scarlet part of the name comes from as they appear very orange, apparently not great for livestock but a food for deer.

Richardson's Alumroot, Heuchera richardsonii
     This is really not common at all, I only noticed it because of the flower stalk and then recognized it as the ancestor of garden heucheras. You probably know heuchera as the lovely and many coloured perennial that is so easy to grow, I knew it had a prairie ancestor so was quite glad to spot this one on my walk. The second latin name comes from John Richardson, I wonder if he named the Richardson's Ground Squirell too?

Western Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm,  Monarda fistulosa L. var. menthaefolia
     I didn't know this was such a common plant in southern Alberta, I immediately recognized it as a type of Bee Balm, many of us are probably familiar with the garden varieties, no wonder they do so well here! There are many species of Monarda throughout North America, this is the only one in Alberta, the menthaefolia part means mint like leaves, next time I'm out I'm going to see if it is minty.

Bluebell, Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
      There are many types of campanula in the wild and in the garden, although this is very common in Alberta they are still a joy to see. These bluebells can form patches a foot or so around and make pleasant blue islands on the hillsides.

Gaillardia, Brown Eyed-Susan, Gaillardia aristata
     These are very common in wild areas all through the prairie, although I wouldn't have their cultivars in my garden I don't mind them in the wild. This is the only species in Alberta but there are many in cultivation of course!

Canada Anemone, Anemone canadensis
     Judging from the name in English and Latin I'm guessing this plant is common across Canada!? There are a few substantial patches in my local field blooming around June quite profusely. I have read that anemones arose from the tears shed by the goddess Venus over the death of Adonis, many of the plants we love have a Greek mythological story attached. Later in the season the seed heads become fuzzy clumps to be dispersed on the wind like natures Q-tip exploded.

 Northern Bedstraw, Galium boreale
     I kept seeing so many of these I had to wonder what they were. Lots of us are probably familiar with the cultivated Bedstraw or Sweet Woodruff  I hadn't considered there was a wild variety on our dry grasslands. Apparently these are very common throughout Alberta. These plants are only a few inches tall but bloom profusely in the early summer.

 Smooth Fleabane, Erigeron glabellus
     I saw this nice patch of Fleabane right beside the path and thought it quite showy for a plant that is only a few inches tall! There are 23 species of Fleabane in  Alberta, burning bundles of this plant was thought to repel fleas hence the name. Fleabanes come in a variety of colours from white to yellow to several purples, they can be hard to tell apart from Asters which are usually taller and have less petals.

Sticky Purple Geranium, Geranium viscosissimu
     I don't know why the common annual Geranium is also named this as it has nothing to do with the wild species!? These plants are native to South Western Alberta and the Cypress Hills. There are many cultivars of the native geranium which all do very well here of course! These plants are quite common in my local park and bloom through June quite profusely.


Common Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium
     Very common across Canada and often the first plant to spring up after a forest fire, hence the name. There are a few patches in my local field some in the open and some in the shade of a copse of native poplars. These plants have had many uses by the French Canadians and by the Natives all over Canada, there are 17 species of this plant in Alberta alone.

Gumweed, Grindelia squarrosa
     I only noticed this plant because I was flipping through my field guide and thinking I've never seen this plant! Two days later I noticed this one that is quite large. Even though it has yellow flowers I quite like it as a wild plant, the flower buds are unusual and sticky and the flowers themselves a very bright yellow. Gumweed was listed in the US as a sedative until the 1920's, I don't know what exactly that means but please don't consume wild plants as it's hard to know off hand what parts were used and how much. This is the single species in  Alberta, found mainly in the Southern half of the Province.

     And finally, the Wild Rose. Being the Provincial emblem and official flower of course they grow everywhere! I have seen them in many places across Canada so I believe them to be quite common. In my park these roses grow anywhere from a few inches high to a few feet and also come in shades of white to dark pink and everything in between. In the winter the red rosehips stay on the plant and can be used for a tea.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Battery Powered Lawn Mowers, So Awesome!!!

     I am not a lawn guy, please don't ask me questions about grass care because my answer is "don't worry about it, we live on the grassland, it grows quite naturally!!!" I rate mowing the lawn somewhere between washing dishes and vacuuming the car, it might need to be done but I don't feel like doing it right now!
     15 years ago I bought the cheapest electric lawn mower money could buy. I grew up with the corded electric mower, always careful to never mow over the cord! I enjoyed the lightness of the machine and ease of starting but if cords aren't your thing this might be too hard for you! I always thought of it as lawn mowing crossed with rodeo. Alas, this cheap mower eventually broke, not the motor or anything technical just the thin metal eventually broke where the wheel was attached.
     A couple of years ago I bought a used gas mower from a friend at a good price. It was fine but heavy, almost too big for my complicated borders and then the gas issue. I never grew up with gas powered anything, call me sheltered, I don't like filling a jerry can, storing it and pulling that stupid cord to start it. If a gas mower doesn't start on the first couple of pulls it suddenly becomes an endurance sport akin to training for the Olympics, damn! it's flooded let's give it 10 minutes.

     This year I finally broke down and bought a battery powered, cordless, gasless, lawn mower and think it's the best thing since diswashers!

          These mowers come in 3 sizes and price ranges, we went mid range based on how long the battery stays charged for, in this case the 40 volt last about 40 minutes, just enough time to mow my front and back yards. A person can also get another battery, for a couple of hundred bucks, if you need more time. I think for the small lawns of new suburbs the low or mid range would work just fine. The batteries take about an hour to charge, or less, I haven't timed it, and also come with a light up power indicator.

     I'm not plugging a specific brand, this was what was available when we were out that day, I'm sure there are many kinds available, have a look online. What I like best about these mowers is I can easily pick it up by the handle on top, it must weigh under 40 lbs. I have so many complicated areas that a mower can't easily maneuver so picking it up suits me very well. These machines are also much quieter with no vibrations or exhaust issues, all in all I am very happy with this purchase, around 300 dollars.

     If I haven't changed your mind yet please consider these environmental factors;

From the EPA and Environment Canada sources

- Lawn mowers represent 5% of US air pollution, each weekend 54 million Americans mow their lawns using 800 million gallons of gasoline per year. Garden equipment had zero regulations until the late 1990's and produce carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

-One gas lawn mower produces the same amount of pollution in one hour of use as 11 new automobiles.

-The EPA estimates that 17 million gallons of fuel per year are spilled filling gas lawn mowers, this is more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

-According to the Ministry of the Environment-Canada, running an older model gas lawn mower  for one hour is equivalent in air pollution to driving a new car 550 km.

-Gas mowers produce intense amounts of ground Ozone which can be damaging to plants and affect the health of children, Ozone can damage your lungs.

-From the Clean Air Foundation, cordless electric mowers produce 50% less noise than their gas counterparts. Hearing damage occurs around 90 decibels and gas mowers produce sound over 100 decibels (dB).
Here are some decibel ratings;
- normal conversation 60dB
-cordless battery lawnmower 75dB
-gasoline powered lawnmower 100dB
-gasoline powered leaf blower 105dB
-car horn 110dB
-jet engine  130dB

So, it's not just me, peoples lawn mowers and leaf blowers really are loud! I don't want to hear your loud leaf blowing any more than your screaming children or constant barking dog either, so if we can't stop the latter two we can at least stop the loud equipment, no!?!?
The environmental impact was not foremost in my mind, I just wanted something easier than the giant heavy gas one I was using but now I have done just a small amount of reading I think it was a really good choice. For those of us who live in cities it is literally the least we can do for our communities and neighbours!

A Salute to June in Photos

     Ahhhh, June, she'll change her tune! If it doesn't rain for 20 some days in a row it's my favourite month. It is the opposite of what Calgary usually is, warm and humid as opposed to cold and dry, and always verdant, exploding with life and light. If only it would last just a little longer. Please enjoy these random pictures of June in all her glory, June is a visual delight. Above wildflowers in my local off leash park.

Pagoda Dogwood, Beauty Bush and Northern lights Azalea with a wild strawberry.


     Lady Slipper Orchid, Iris, Blue Delphinium and a long shot with lettuces, allium and lilac 

     A new border with annual Nicotiana, Adalaide Hoodless rose, annual yucca, Kentucky Coffee Tree and succlents.