Monday, December 7, 2020 3 comments

This year more than ever, Poinsettias brighten holiday homes


When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths, and fragrant firs or pine. But in addition to traditional greenery, one plant has become a Christmas icon: the poinsettia. With more than 65 million sold each year, this colorful plant has moved from the desert into three-quarters of American homes to become a holiday superstar.

Today more than ever, with the Covid virus dominating our worries and Christmas travel plans cancelled, poinsettias can add touches of welcome color to any house, apartment or dorm room. Best of all, during these tough times, poinsettias are available to fit any budget. I bought a lovely deep red mini poinsettia at the grocery store for $1.98. It's perfect for the kitchen counter. 

The poinsettia is a Euphorbia, a succulent from the arid regions of Central America. It was named after Joel R. Poinsett, a Charleston, S.C. native who was appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett was a keen gardener who was captivated by the plant’s vivid color. The bright scarlet objects many thought to be “flowers” were not flowers at all, but petal-like leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are those little yellow dots at the center of the bracts.

Because the yellow flowers and attractive bracts emerge during the holiday season, the poinsettia has been a part of Christian celebrations for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Franciscan priests in Mexico carried poinsettias in nativity processions. The Aztecs were said to have prized the plant for its color and medicinal properties. 

Red is still the fave.
Although poinsettias were well known in Mexico and Central America, it was a family of German immigrants who spied the plants in the desert and created the Christmas favorite we know today.

In the early 1900s, Albert Ecke and his family left Germany to establish a farm in California.  One day his son Paul noticed an unusual plant growing in the wild and decided to develop it as a cut flower. Before long, the family’s fields of poinsettias in Hollywood became a huge tourist attraction.
Of course, the traditional red poinsettia remains the top holiday choice, but interest in white, cream, pink, and mottled varieties is on the increase. In fact, the popularity of the red poinsettia has been steadily falling over the past decade thanks to the introduction of new and more colorful varieties each year. 
This is just wrong!
Along with eye-grabbing new colors (PLEASE no glitter-laden or phony blue varieties!) we can thank breeders for giving us plants that last longer and are more vigorous.

A new addition in the US for 2020 is Christmas Mouse with its unique oval “mouse ear” bracts. It made its debut in Europe last year to rave reviews. Another is Alaska, the whitest poinsettia to date. Its dark green leaves contrast beautifully with the brilliant white
New for 2020, 'Mouse Ears'

Today’s poinsettias aren’t too fussy and are relatively easy to care for. Above all, don’t overwater -- plants should be kept on the dry side but don’t allow them to get bone dry. Keep them away from drafts and sources of heat like a fireplace.

My pick for this holiday season, but I don't know the name

 Poinsettias like bright light and will drop leaves and get leggy in a location that’s too dark. A window will provide the light and cool nighttime temperatures plants need to thrive.

It’s possible to keep a poinsettia alive and blooming from year to year, but like most people, I toss mine out about mid-February. It seems sad and cruel to throw away something that was so lovely during the holidays. But by next Christmas, another showy poinsettia will catch my eye, and this year’s beautiful blooms will be just a happy memory.

I hope your holiday season will be safe and filled with lovely memories, too. And that 2021 will be a happier year for us all.
White poinsettias like 'Alaska' account for 20% of sales

P.S. We’ve all heard the rumors that poinsettias are poisonous. Apparently this urban legend started in 1919 when it was reported that a 2-year-old had died after eating a leaf. According to the American Society of Florists, poinsettias have been tested more than any other plant, and the verdict is they are safe for people and pets. But you still wouldn’t want to eat one.


Sunday, October 4, 2020 6 comments

Dusting off my winter weather crystal ball

Friends, it is only July but I have already been seeing colorful maple leaves on the road when I take my walk. Also lots of very small acorns. I wonder what that means as far as the upcoming winter is concerned. I decided to bring back this posting from 3 years ago to  take another look. Enjoy.

For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing lots of acorns on the road while taking my morning walk. It seemed to me there were more than I remember seeing last year. So, I was wondering if this meant we are in for a bad winter, or if there are just a ton of acorns around.

We’ve only lived full-time in the mountains since 2011, but I have been visiting this breathtaking area of the country since I was in high school. I’ve spent many a happy day sitting by a waterfall listening to tales of catamounts, panthers, owls and wildflowers that possess magical powers.


You can’t help but be fascinated by the stories, superstitions and mountain lore handed down from generation to generation. For example, legend holds that if you see a butterfly first in spring, you will be smart. But if you spy a fence lizard first, you will be lazy.


Extra large spiderwebs signal bad weather
 Of course, much of this lore deals with atmospheric conditions and the behavior of animals. So, after seeing all those acorns around, I decided to revisit some of the signs old timers rely on for predicting the weather.


Here are a few of my favorites:


* If robins are seen near a house during the fall, the winter will be cold.


* If October 9 is a sunny day, the following winter will be cold and snowy.


* If squirrels eat the bark off a tree, look for a cold winter coming up. (Also, if a squirrel has an exceptionally bushy tail, watch out.)


*   When hogs carry sticks in their mouths, bad weather is ahead.


*    If smoke blows to the ground, it will soon snow.


* If you see raccoons and possums feeding during the day, there will be bad weather within 12 hours.


* When the new moon rises with its points turned up, there will be no rain.

Owls hooting late in fall is a bad weather omen

*There will be a winter snow for every morning fog in August.


*If you harvest onions with thin skins, the winter will be mild.


*The brighter the fall foliage, the colder the winter.

We had a snowy winter the year I took this photo


*If the woolly worm has a narrow brown or orange band, winter will be harsh.


The woolly worm stories have been around since Colonial times.

   Thin brown bands supposedly mean bad weather is ahead. Wide brown bands indicate a mild winter is in store. A totally black woolly worm weather tells us weather will be severe. And you’ll need to break out the snow shovels if you see a worm with light brown or white bands.


The legend was bolstered in the late 40s when a Dr. Charles Curran of  the American Museum of Natural History studied woolly worms for eight years and said they predicted the weather with 80% accuracy. Since that time, other researchers have not been able to replicate his results.


    Today, the National Weather Service says the worm’s coloring and band size are based on its age and the length of time it has been feeding. The caterpillars shed their skins a number of times before they become adults and their colors can change. 


  According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, woolly worms or banded wooly bears are not really worms at all. They are caterpillars, the larva of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) and can survive temps as low as -90 degrees. Isabella moths are common from northern Mexico to the southern third of Canada.


    Okay, so woolly worms can’t predict if I need to buy a heavier winter coat. What about the acorns?


A recent article from News5Cleveland explains: "Most trees and shrubs form their fruit and flower blossoms that bloom in spring during the previous summer. If the weather was warm and the rains abundant, then the tree was not stressed and formed enough fruit buds to produce this big acorn crop this year.”


I take that to mean the fruit buds that resulted in this year’s bumper crop of acorns may have been formed by the tree in 2019. That makes sense since some varieties of oaks require two growing seasons for acorns to mature and drop.

I also understand that every few years, for no apparent reason, oaks produce an overabundance of acorns  Evidently this has more to do with self-preservation than weather. Scientists have yet to explain exactly why this happens.

So, it looks like there will be no glam winter coat for me!

This final bit of weather lore was a new one on me. Apparently if you cut open a persimmon you’ll either see what looks like a fork, spoon or knife. The explanation of what weather may follow (depending which utensil you spy) is too complex for my teeny brain.


Here is my suggestion for determining whether we’ll have a bummer winter or balmy winter: slice a few persimmons, check out the tails of every squirrel that wanders by, look at all your trees to see if bark is heavier on the north side, and make a note of any halos around the moon.


Then, flip a coin. 


Copyright 2020 








Tuesday, September 1, 2020 10 comments

Gardening in the time of Covid


This past January 23rd, I traveled up to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville to judge the roses that were part of the Biltmore International Rose Trials.


To many it seemed strange to be evaluating roses in the middle of winter and folks wondered what in the heck there was to see. I explained that as part of the trials, we judged four times a year and in January, I was looking for vigor and diseased foliage.


It took no time at all to eyeball the few dozen bushes in the trials and write down my observations. So before long I was off to admire all the gorgeous plants blooming in the Conservatory. Then I took a spin around the garden gift shop to see what treasures I couldn’t live without.


Little did I know it would be my last trip to the Biltmore and my last evaluation after almost nine years as part of the International Trials. We did not know then what was lurking around the corner.


It was business usual in late January and early February when the hellebores bloomed. 



By late February my pansies needed to be refreshed and the local garden center was happy to oblige with some perky new plants. I was already thinking about spring and all the perennials I wanted to add to the garden. 



That garden shopping spree never happened.


Instead, when we were in lockdown, I had to be content with the garden as it was. But I am not complaining. I am grateful. Having my little patch of earth to tend was a blessing in strange, difficult and sometimes frightening times.


No matter how disconcerting the news, the garden chugged along, unveiling the pleasures of spring with each passing day.


The clematis bloomed. 





Then the roses. 



                       'The Lark Ascending'



                                 'Edward Degas' 


And in the forest, I found intriguing new discoveries like the Barometer Earth Star (Astraeus hygrometricus) fungus.



The hydrangeas were the best ever. The daylilies, too.






Dahlias and coneflowers are now signaling summer is on the way out and fall is in view.



What will happen in the next few months? Unfortunately, my crystal ball is on the blink. 




But the garden will be there, getting ready for its long winter nap. 

And I will be grateful.















Tuesday, July 7, 2020 24 comments

Seeing rhododendrons through rose-colored glasses

Roses give you more bang for your buck than most any other plant in the garden.  I have been preaching this fact for many years. That’s why very few “seasonal” plants reside at Chez Hunt. Even my daylilies and clematis repeat bloom. 

Purpureum Elegans
So in the past, my head has not been turned by peonies, azaleas, iris or rhododendrons.

This year, I’ve been giving the rhodys a second look. Maybe it’s because we had a very strange winter with the lockdown and I was dying to see something in bloom. Or maybe it’s because until now, I hadn’t appreciated the variety of colors available.

Catawbiense Album
Rhododendron is a genus of over 1,000 species of woody plants in the heath family. Although they are native to many areas of the world, most of the rhododendrons grown in gardens today are hybrids. 

 According to the Royal Horticultural Society there are more than 28,000 cultivars in the international registry, most bred for the showy flowers.

I saw a bright yellow one outside the grocery store a few weeks ago and almost bought it, thinking how it would be a perfect companion for my native flame azalea. But alas, by the time I made up my mind, it was gone.

Percy Wiseman

My friend Margaret refers to the hybrid rhododendrons (like the yellow beauty) as the “tame” ones in contrast to the native varieties that are just now starting to show color here in the mountains.

The Rosebay is the most common rhododendron in the Smokies. It is one of the largest and hardiest of shrubs, believed to be able to tolerate temperatures of 40 below zero. (Although the leaves do “collapse” and look wilted on super cold days.)

Nova Zembia
 Rosebay thrives near streams and ravines at elevations below 5,000 feet. The flowers range from white to purplish-pink and the wood has been used to make tool handles. I noticed the first few blooms last week.

Native rhodys can vary in color

Last year, there were very few flowers, and I wondered if it was due to the unusual June heat. Now I’ve learned that this variety only puts out a “big bloom” every two to four years. No one knows when the extravaganza will happen, or why.

The name rhododendron comes from the Greek and means rose tree. Rosebay is the variety that is growing all around me.

Rosebay native rhody

Maybe the "rose trees" and the Rosebay are trying to tell this rose lover something.

This year, I am paying attention.

Saturday, May 9, 2020 10 comments

The melodic beauty of my Appalachian spring

Dear Readers, The Dirt Diaries was selected to be featured in The Ultimate Landscaping Inspiration Guide! I am very honored to be included. It is an excellent guide full of gardening inspiration and ideas. Please stop by and take a look.

Solomon's Seal is a native that blooms in April and May

The ballet score Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945 and remains one of the most inspiring works in American history.

But composer Aaron Copeland didn’t have mountains or forests in mind when he started working on the orchestral suite in 1942.

He initially called the score “Ballet for Martha” for the ballet’s choreographer and lead dancer, Martha Graham.

Graham suggested the name the day before the ballet premiered.

Copeland once said “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”

And he was often told he’d brilliantly captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music.

As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter that this region wasn’t the inspiration for his masterpiece. 

Every time I hear Appalachian Spring I envision the beauty of the mountains. Especially this time of year.

Diverse and dramatic

The mountains that surround me make up one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world with more than 1,600 flowering plants.

For me, visions of violets begin the season of rebirth. The Halberd-leaf Yellow Violet is usually the first flower I see.

Halberd-leaf Violet
Apparently the arrowhead leaves are reminiscent of a battle-ax type weapon used in the 15th and 16th centuries. I’ll have to take the historians at their word.

The humble violet has been celebrated in myths and literature from ancient times, a symbol of modesty and simplicity. Longfellow wrote that it “lurks among all the lovely children of the shade.”

Shakespeare described the violet as “forward” as it trumpets the awakening of the earth following winter. He also writes the violet is “sweet, not lasting. The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.”

Confederate Violet

So we should gather our halberd-leaf yellow violets while we may. Along with the other violets that grow along my trail including Confederate, Common Blue. Pale and several other varieties.

Trillium heaven

A couple of years ago according to folks in the know, a very warm winter caused many wildflowers to go into a tizzy.

Apparently many species flowered up to three weeks early and because of the warmth, the bloom period was very short. Trilliums also appeared early and were quickly devoured by hungry deer.

At that time I was new to the mountains, so I didn’t know what I was missing. Now I do and eagerly anticipate the gorgeous, distinctive blooms.

Catesby's Trillium (maybe)

Trilliums are members of the Lily family and are among the showiest of springtime wildflowers. The local natives sport three distinctive leaves and when they bloom, the flowers have three petals.

American Indians used the plant as an eye medication and women boiled the roots to make a love potion. Mountain folk say if you pick a trillium you will bring on a rainstorm.

Stinking Benjamin
Wake Robin, favorite from last year, is back with its deep burgundy blooms. Apparently that is the “nice” name because I’ve learned it is also known as Stinking Benjamin or Stinking Willie because of the putrid smelling flower. Early herbalists use it to treat gangrene.

A number of Painted Trilliums are growing down by the path. It was a happy surprise because I didn’t see any last year. I’m delighted to have them because experts say they have been virtually bulldozed or picked into extinction.

The white and pink trilliums nearby are beautiful,too. But I’ve become partial to the Painteds.

Every time I see one, I hear music.

Painted Trillium