Favorite Flora: Hardy Hibiscus

Hibiscus 'Robert Fleming'

Hibiscus ‘Robert Fleming’

Buds of Hibiscus 'Robert Fleming'

Buds of Hibiscus ‘Robert Fleming’

Hardy Hibiscus for the Midwest

It’s hard to believe – a tropical-looking hibiscus with plate-size flowers is hardy for Midwest gardens!  In fact, the showy flowers are now in bloom in area gardens.  Heartland  Gardening recently talked with Linda Johnson, co-owner of Scioto Gardens (a must-visit nursery and specialty plant supplier  in Delaware, Ohio) about these crowd pleasers.

She recommends this group of perennials for great, mid- to late-summer WOW! She says the super-sized flowers come in a range of colors from pure white to pink to bright red. Plus, they’re deer resistant and tolerate wet soils. Even though some Hibiscus are tropical, there are many cultivars that are cold hardy in the Midwest. Two species are even native to Ohio.

Linda says the plants range in size from three to six feet tall. Most have green leaves, but some have purple or reddish foliage. They grow best in full sun with average to wet soil. The stems are somewhat woody and can be cut back in the fall after the plant is dormant. Linda suggests leaving a four- to six-inch stem to mark the late emerging plant’s location. Check out her favorites:

  • ‘Robert Fleming’ is a dwarf Hibiscus getting only three feet tall. The buds emerge dark purple and then open into a deep, rich red. Known for its striking flower, this cultivar is named after one of the Fleming Brothers who were famous for their hybridizing of Hibiscus plants.

    Hibiscus 'Kopper King'

    Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’

  • ‘Kopper King’ has coppery-colored foliage that’s quite attractive throughout the season. The flowers are light pink with a dark pink center. The plants grow three to four feet.
  • ‘Plum Crazy’ Flowers are rose-purple with darker purple veining and a very dark purple central eye.
    Hibiscus 'Plum-Crazy'

    Hibiscus ‘Plum-Crazy’

    Foliage is deeply dissected, purplish green and the plants grow about three to four feet.

  • Hibiscus moscheutos is one of the species native to Ohio. It usually has flowers that are white with a dark pink center, but sometimes the flowers are pink. The flowers are conical and a bit smaller than the wide-open dinner plate flowers of the cultivars. It is typically found in marshy areas. The plants can grow three- to six-feet tall, depending on moisture and soil fertility.



All-Star Asters That Brighten Autumn

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

By Debra Knapke

Autumn is the time of golden, scarlet, and maroon leaves and shortened days. It is the time for picking apples and harvesting vegetables. We watch our gardens slowly decline, and yet there is one perennial that says “Wait, my time is now!” Enter the asters, the late summer to fall-blooming plants so loved by bees and butterflies.

We often overlook the flowers of autumn as we fill out our gardens with spring and summer blooms. Many of us buy plants in April, May and June when the spring and summer flowering plants proudly show their colors.   But we overlook the asters which are just emerging: green leaves and no flowers.

Asters are not difficult to grow. Here are a few cultivation and maintenance guidelines:

  • Asters prefer full sun, 6+ hours of light; most tolerate part sun, four to five hours of light.
  • Most asters are drought-tolerant if you keep the soil moist during the first year in the garden.
  • Asters love compost, but excessive fertilization will cause them to grow quickly and ungainly; an aster lying on the ground is not attractive!
  • The taller asters should be cut back by 1/3 in early to mid-June to promote stronger stems and to avoid the need for staking.
  • Asters are best divided in the spring.

It’s not too late to add these late bloomers to your garden, but don’t wait too long. After late August, asters may not have enough time to grow their roots into the soil and acclimate to your garden before winter arrives. If you miss the planting window this year, buy the green, leafy aster next spring.

Here are some species that are native to most of the Midwest. Many of the cultivars listed have been selected for their compact habits and richly colored flowers.

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

  • Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) – has aromatic foliage; height 18-36”, width 12-18”; blooms Sept. to Oct.; sky blue to lavender-blue flowers;   Look for: ‘October Skies’ (compact: ht. 18”); ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  • Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) – height 2-4’, width 2-3’; performs best in part sun, but tolerates sun to shady conditions, blooms Aug. to Sept.; small light blue flowers
  • Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) – height 1-2’, width 12-18”; blooms Aug. to Oct.; white to light pink flowers; look for ‘Pink Cloud’ ‘Snow Flurry’: both are more compact selections
  • New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) – height 3-6’, width 2-3’; blooms Sept. to October; light lavender or pink to deep purple or pink flowers; if the soils dries out, this species will lose the lower leaves on their stems; look for: ‘Purple Dome’ (compact: 24-30” tall) ‘Vibrant Dome’ (compact: 18-24” tall)   ‘September Ruby’
  • Smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) – height 2-4’, width 18-24”; blooms Sept. to Oct.; striking blue-violet flowers; look for: ‘Bluebird’
  • White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) – the exception: prefers part sun to full shade; height 12”, width 18-24”; bloom Aug. to Sept.; white flowers; ‘Eastern Star’ is a more compact selection

Side Note:  The Aster Name

Not only do our native asters suffer because they lack early flowers, but they have been separated into new genera with difficult names. One of my horticulturist friends calls it the “aster disaster”. If a garden center has arranged the perennials by their botanical names, the asters will be spread across several locations on the nursery shelves. Fortunately, in most garden centers, asters still hold a place at the beginning of the alphabet instead of being scattered throughout the benches. For those who are interested the new botanical names are listed with the common names.

Gardening in the Shade

Dry Shade? Don’t Despair – Plants that thrive under shade trees

By Debra Knapke

Dry Shade – words that strike fear in amateur as well as seasoned gardeners. Some gardeners camouflage these areas with nicely fluffed, dark-colored mulch. Others opt for the dry stream bed “look” which is achieved by spreading river stone of various sizes in an artful, river-like pattern.

Even though dry shade is a challenging site, it can be enhanced by using good garden practices that work in any garden situation. It all comes down to amending the soil, choosing your plants wisely and watering them to get them established in their first year.

A dry streambed in Debra’s garden with Allegheny spurge on the right.  Notice the large silver maple trunk in the upper right.  Tree roots are much more efficient at taking up water and nutrients than shrubs and perennials.

A dry streambed in Debra’s garden with Allegheny spurge on the right. Notice the large silver maple trunk in the upper right. Tree roots are much more efficient at taking up water and nutrients than shrubs and perennials.

You’ve heard it before: amend the soil. This means incorporating organic matter in the form of leaf, mushroom or homemade compost into the existing soil. In open garden areas, you can till in organic matter without a thought to damaging existing roots. Under trees, a different technique is needed. As you plant, amend the pockets of soil that are between the roots and then cover the whole area with two to three inches of compost or hardwood mulch.

Many of the plants recommended for dry shade plants are tolerant of a wide range of garden situations. In loamy, evenly moist soils, many of these same plants can become aggressive; so, consider yourself forewarned. The below list is a sampling of plants. Don’t hesitate to ask for suggestions from personnel at your favorite garden



  • Spicebush (Lindera) – native; edible berries
  • Chokeberries (Aronia) – native; edible berries
  • Oregon grapeholly (Berberis) – semi-evergreen

Herbaceous plants (perennials)

  • Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra) – groundcover; initially a slow-grower, then takes off in third to fourth year
  • Barrenworts (Epimedium) – flowers early in spring; beautiful leaves the rest of the season
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga) – groundcover; look for the larger bronzy cultivar ‘Catlin’s Giant’ and the diminutive, maroon-leaved ‘Chocolate Chip’
  • Hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen) – a tuber; slow to establish, but worth the wait; beautiful leaves in the winter; dormant in the summer
  • Wood Ferns (Dryopteris) – once established are relatively drought tolerant
  • Hellebores (Helleborus) – great winter effect; long bloom time; hardy self-seeder
  • Crested iris (Iris) – native plant; slow spreader, but very cute!
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema) – native plant; a conversation starter in the spring garden
  • Lilyturf (Liriope) – a vigorous and tenacious grass-look-alike groundcover
  • Lily-of- the-Valley (Convallaria) – groundcover, fragrant flowers
  • Robb’s euphorbia (Euphorbia) – another assertive and tenacious groundcover

A note on “establishing” your plants in their first year in your garden: A garden rule is that newly planted gardens should receive about one inch of water per week. A rain gauge can help keep track of the rain amounts in your yard. If Mother Nature sends less rain, get out your garden hose. Water your garden in the early morning as you drink your coffee or tea. And, it is better to water two to three times a week, deeply, rather than every day with a light sprinkle.


Favorite Flora: Wild Ginger

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): Edible… or not?

Asarum canandense resizeBy Debra Knapke

The question: “Is it true that you can use it like ginger?” The answer: “well, yes and no”. This shade-loving, native perennial has a history of culinary use as a ginger substitute. The roots have been powdered and candied, but the chemistry of wild ginger is different from the true ginger (Zingiber sp.) of South Asia. Wild ginger’s flavor has been described as potent, but Dr. Art Tucker, professor emeritus of Botany at Delaware State, cautions that only the essential oil, in small amounts, has GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. This makes me reconsider my desire to taste-test the root.

The ethnobotanical record and current use for wild ginger reads like a manual in how to cure just about anything. The most common uses have included: improving digestion and appetite; curing coughs, colds, bronchitis, and sore throats, supporting the immune system and healing wounds. But, before you go experimenting, consider that most recommendations were accompanied by this caution: contains aristolochic acid which has been found to be carcinogenic and mutagenic – causing cancer and mutations, respectively.asarum canadense flower crop 2

In the garden, wild ginger is a beautiful ground cover that increases its diameter slowly; 24-30” wide in two to four years. The curious maroon flowers are under the leaves, close to the soil where they are pollinated by beetles and flies. Look for the flowers in mid-April or so. This may necessitate getting on your knees and bowing to your garden.

Wild ginger is native in 25 states in moist woodlands. In the garden this translates to well-amended soil in shade to part shade. Ginger mapIt is tolerant of a wide range of pH, and can withstand short periods of dryness once it is established. However, wild ginger is not tolerant of flooding. Slugs and snails can be an issue, especially in wet seasons, but I have found the damage to be minimal, certainly not worth any control measures.

We all need to be aware of supporting our native insects. Wild ginger offers food to the larval stage of the gorgeous pipevine swallowtail butterfly. The caterpillar eats the leaves and thereby ingests aristolochic acid which makes it poisonous to birds. For this same reason, it is not favored by deer.

Pipevine Swallowtail Jim McCormac

Mating pipevine swallowtails that are safe from hungry birds because of their diet of wild ginger leaves and milkweed nectar. Photo credit: Jim McCormick

Multi-functional, beautiful and low-care; what more can you ask from a plant?

To learn more about wild ginger and  other rare plants, check out FloraQuest and consider signing up for the next field trip to Marblehead, Ohio, May 12-13.

Favorite Flora: Perennial Plant of 2014

Panicum virgatum Northwind Hoffman nursery2

Panicum virgatumNorthwind’ – Northwind switchgrass

By Debra Knapke

The new year is full of announcements of the various 2014 “picks”, likes and awards of plants, colors, animals and more. One announcement I eagerly await is the Perennial Plant of the Year, selected by the members of the Perennial Plant Association. This choice is based on what growers, sellers, designers and educators think is a good garden plant.Panicum virgatum fallcolor Hoffman Nursery 2

Let’s define a good garden plant:
• it can tolerate a wide range of garden conditions
• it has multiple-season interest
• it has lower maintenance requirements
• it is relatively pest and disease free
• it plays well with others in the garden
• it has stood the test of time and place, and has shown itself worthy of receiving this award

Northwind switchgrass, a child of plants that grew in a railroad easement in Illinois, is a good garden plant. The kudos go to Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Illinois who selected ‘Northwind’ from seed he collected in the early 1990’s.

Our native switchgrass is beautiful. In the late summer you can still see it in open fields – and railway easements – with its arching habit and its soft pink to purple flowers that mature to golden seedheads. This is a plant that takes care of itself and is part of the native fabric of our prairies. Some of the earlier selections were not able to adjust to the good life of the perennial garden – lots of water, fertilizer and sometimes, not enough sun. They flopped. Northwind is different with its upright habit, golden flowers and olive toned leaves that are shaded with blue. It tolerates moist to dry soils, and grows best in full sun where it will show its colors.

mapKorean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis cultivars) is often the first choice when a strong vertical line is desired in the garden. Northwind switchgrass is an alternative that also offers excellent fall color. And Northwind’s native pedigree will make it a good choice for gardeners who want to focus on using native plants and creating landscape habitats such as rain gardens, meadows and wildlife refuges.

Photo Credits: Thanks to John Hoffman of Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

Favorite Flora: Indoor Blooms

Cure winter blahs beautifully

By Michael Leach

The “Christmas” in my antique Christmas cactus is a misnomer. Some years, this living heirloom from my great-grandmother flowers by Dec. 25, in others Jan. 25. This year a few blooms opened the week after Thanksgiving.

Such uncertainty is OK. After all, an important ingredient of holiday magic is surprise. Sadly, some growers never get a Christmas cactus to rebloom. Even my parents and grandmother rarely were rewarded with flowers.

What’s my secret formula? Rain water whenever possible; monthly doses of a granular, organic fertilizer during the growing season; and cold temperatures. I leave the sprawling plant on the north-facing front porch until autumn readings regularly dip into the low 30s. Only after sub-freezing nightly temps make schlepping a pain, do I put it in the coolish dining room beside a west window until spring’s return.

Fortunately I don’t have to wait for blossoms on this old, cantankerous Schlumbergera bridgesii to ensure living color during the dormancy of winter, not when instant gratification with fresh flowers costs only a few dollars and is actually good for your health.

According to a Harvard University study cited on the America in Bloom website, “… people feel more compassionate toward others, have less worry and anxiety, and feel less depressed when flowers are present in the home.”holiday floral

Cures for winter blues await in florist shops and supermarkets for fast-food items, often less. These fresh bargains are usually long-lasting carnations and alstoemeria, yawners among the horticultural elite. But pair a flower or two with a bit of greenery snipped from your landscape or florist fern fronds and suddenly the sun comes out on the grayest day.

For about the cost of a multi-item fast-food meal you can buy a potted orchid, African violet, cyclamen or other plant that lasts almost long as silk imitations.

A friend who returned to her Midwest roots after several years in Florida said fresh flowers each week kept her sane during the first winter. Can’t say that about hamburgers and french fries — plus flowers won’t clog arteries or add pounds.

(Writer’s note: This is another of our now-and-then posts that focuses on why you H.A.V.E. to garden — to benefit your health, attitude, property values and environment.)

Favorite Flora: Candy Cane Verbena

Verbena 'Lanai Candy Cane'

Verbena ‘Lanai Candy Cane’

By Teresa Woodard

2013 American Garden Award Winners

As the year draws to a close, we wanted to share the three winners of the 2013 American Garden Awards presented by All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. This summer, the public was invited to vote for their favorite varieties on display at the 31 participating gardens, including Midwestern ones like Missouri Botanical Garden and Cleveland Botanical Garden.  Here are the winners:

  • First Place: Verbena ‘Lanai® Candy Cane’ by Syngenta Flowers — Offers a truly unique flower pattern which commands curbside attention.

    Zinnia 'Zahara Cherry'

    Zinnia ‘Zahara Cherry’

  • Second Place: Zinnia ‘Zahara™ Cherry’ by PanAmerican Seed — Grows fast and offers continuous blooms in both containers and landscape beds, or just about any other sunny location where you want loads of bold color.
  • Third Place Winner: Impatiens ‘SunPatiens® Compact Electric Orange’ by Sakata Ornamentals — Brings a new color – a vibrant, deep orange — to the popular SunPatiens® line.

    Impatiens ‘SunPatiens® Compact Electric Orange'

    Impatiens ‘SunPatiens® Compact Electric Orange’


Favorite Flora: Heirloom Tomatoes

When is a green tomato ripe?

Image from Tomatogrowers.com

Image from Tomatogrowers.com

By Teresa Woodard

Thanks to Master Gardener intern and nutritionist Shirley Kindrick I now know when to pick a Green Giant and other non-red heirloom tomatoes.  She says to start by knowing if the tomato plants are early, mid-season or later ripeners.  Another clue is to check the “days to maturity”. For example, on the back of the seed packet for the classic Brandywine – a late-season heirloom tomato, the “days to maturity” is 90 days.  So, if the tomato plant is planted on May 15, the harvest date would likely be August 15.tomato tasting

Shirley also advises to know the tomato’s color when ripe.  Finally, she says to feel the tomatoes, and pick them when they are a little soft to the touch.  They ripen from the inside out.

Shirley closed her presentation with a tasting of several heirloom varieties.  Our favorites included Anna’s Noire, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Green Giant and Valencia.

Favorite Flora: Fuss-free Roses

By Michael Leach

Roses are back! No way, you might say. But it’s true.

Many newer roses are distinctly low-care, high-performance plants that are erasing the dreadful popular image of chemically dependent divas. Little wonder that Knock Out roses are some of the best-selling shrubs in America.knockoutroses

Given the challenges of Midwestern growing conditions it shouldn’t be surprising that developers of two lines of these super tough roses come from our part of the world.

Griffith Buck taught at Iowa State University and developed more than 85 roses, while he was there. His plants are noted for their free-flowering habit, disease resistance and sub-zero winter hardiness, according to Iowa State University Extension.

William Radler, breeder of the Knock Out rose family, started growing roses at the age of 9. At 17 he became a charter member of Milwaukee’s North Shore Rose Society and won lots of blue ribbons from the 200 roses he grew.

His breeding efforts were inspired by the amount of work it took. He used 18 different sprays to prevent disease and pests.  “I wanted to breed the maintenance out of roses so I wouldn’t have to cut back as the years passed,” he says in an article at the Conard-Pyle website.

Now some of their plants are being evaluated in Columbus for inclusion as Earth-Kind roses, plants that need virtually no care once established. For more, please read Michael’s article in Columbus Monthly.


Earth-Kind roses are going global. To see the extent of Earth-Kind trial gardens, please visit  http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkindroses/field-trials/trial-gardens/.

Only Minnesota and Wisconsin are Heartland states without an Earth-Kind garden, according to the map at the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension site.

Texas is where the testing program started, but the idea is too big even for the enormous Lone Star State. Now Bermuda, Canada, India and New Zealand have test gardens.

Who says roses have to be pampered?

Favorite Flora: Memorial Day bouquets

peonies (1)By Michael Leach

I wonder how many people take family heirlooms to the cemetery on Memorial Day? These are blossoms from plants handed down from one generation to the next. Most gardens have such plants. Felder Rushing, a Mississippi gardener and writer, calls them pass-alongs.

Weather permitting, peonies were always among the Memorial Day bouquets for my family. At the family home place where I live, all of them came from my grandparents or great-grandparents. They readily shared these cast-iron standards along with garden phlox and iris, plants growing in my garden today.

Maybe that’s why I never feel lonely as I garden in blessed solitude. Memories return with the fragrance of the masses of sweet violets that grew so thickly around Auntie’s back door they perfumed the air and took away my breath. Dreams of tropical places enchanted me as a child, and so I was attracted to Grandpa’s yucca. I suppose the spiky leaves resembled some type of palm to a 10-year-old boy. I had to grow much taller before I could smell the sweetness of their satin white flowers, a much-anticipated annual event.

Unlike the yuccas, the peonies are slowly declining. Ever-increasing shade, a boon and bane, has nearly eliminated most of the 60 or so plants of perhaps a half-dozen varieties that graced beds and borders. I suppose no one needs that many reminders of long-gone contributors.

Besides these family treasures, my garden grows memories of other gardeners who shared columbines, brunneras, roses, wildflowers and day lilies. Even indoors heirlooms whisper old tales. My great-grandmother’s sprawling Christmas cactus blooms every year, usually starting in January. Such a lapse can be forgiven a grand dame who may be 100 or so.

Unlike funeral flowers, such plants make me smile. Perhaps because I remember the donors in their gardening years, active, yet at peace, working in their little Edens.

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