February can be a bleak time on the East Coast. Days are short and the sky hangs low on the horizon. But there’s a small-sized perennial whose early, colorful blooms never fail to lift my mood. It’s the lovely, cup-shaped flower called hellebore, commonly known as the Lenten Rose. Continue reading →
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans on average spend 90 percent of their time indoors. And indoor environments can be poor, trapping dangerous chemical toxins as well as bacteria, pollens and mold. It’s enough to make a person sick. But, luckily for man, houseplants can offer a solution. Continue reading →
OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the tropical tree above. But in December, Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens is teeming with Christmas tree ideas. And the displays are nothing short of spectacular. Continue reading →
December 12 is National Poinsettia Day, the day Americans honor the plant that has become a symbol of the holiday season. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to marvel at the species’ growing popularity. Continue reading →
Studies show that mastering a foreign language can not only boost your brain power but also provide you with insight on how the world thinks. Unfortunately, not everyone can learn with the same facility. But there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. Colorful and often emotional, it’s called the Language of Flowers.
THE VICTORIAN LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS
Back in the Victorian era, people really knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up time, with many taboos against expressing emotions. So to get around the rules, people borrowed from an ancient language. They used flowers and floral arrangements to convey their feelings.
Mother’s Day card circa 1890
Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Language of Flowers can be traced to ancient times. This includes the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers often figure as symbols. Take, for example, this passage from the Song of Songs:
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2.As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2:1-3
Apple tree blossoms
THE TULIP’S TURKISH ROOTS
However, the practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey, where in the 16th century, the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Following their discovery in the mountains, the unusual, cup-shaped flowers became a part of many powerful peoples’ gardens.
Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople
Eventually, as Ottoman sultans began wearing tulips in their turbans, they also became a symbol of wealth and power. Indeed, the name tulip is believed to derive from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares an uncanny resemblance.
The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban
TULIPS IN THE HAREM
In the Western World, we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for introducing the language of flowers to Britain. In 1716, she accompanied her husband to Turkey where he was stationed as ambassador. Montagu’s letters back to England often contained references to the Turkish use of floral symbols. This included a reported custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
THE FIRST FLORAL DICTIONARY
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended the throne in the next century, however, that Montagu’s efforts to promote floriography were finally embraced. Seemingly overnight, books about flower symbolism began to be published. Many of these works continue to form the basis of the floral language we practice today.
The first dictionary to associate flowers with symbolic definitions appeared in 1819 with the publishing of Le Langage des Fleurs, a work attributed to Charlotte de la Tour. The author’s true identity, however, remained a mystery for years until it was revealed to be Louise Cortambert, wife of the geographer Euguen Cortambert (1805-1881). She would have been in her late thirties at the time.
1920 edition of Charlotte de la Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs
Organized by season, Le Langage de Fleurs contained illustrations and essays on different plants along with their associated meanings. There were 330 different types of emotions. Listed in alphabetical order, they ranged from messages of love, acceptance and refusal to more specific feelings or psychological states. These included such catchy phrases as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and Better to Die than Lose One’s Innocence. The book can still be purchased on Amazon today.
COMMON FLOWERS AND THEIR MEANINGS
So what are some common flowers that we Americans know how to read? Some of the following generally accepted meanings may jar your memory.
Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it cast a shadow? If a yellow tint appears, a person is supposed to love butter.
Buttercups can tell if you like butter
Or, did you ever pick off the petals of a daisy one by one while repeating the phrases She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not? A game of French origin, this practice can determine if the object of your affection returns those feelings.
Reading the daisy can tell you whether or not your affections are returned
Emerging in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the language of flowers, they can also mean Regards. Other interpretations link daffodils with chivalry, self-esteem, egotism and vanity.
Daffodils symbolize spring and also regards
Forget-me-nots’ meaning is implied in the name. The true blue flower, whose Greek name myosotis means mouse ear, is commonly associated with constancy and friendship.
Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and constancy
Often flower meanings derive from the behavior of the plant itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity since its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.
Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity
Even within the same species, colors can carry different meanings. For example, a deep red rose has been associated with the blood of Christ in paintings for centuries. These days, however, it more often expresses the intensity of romantic love.
A red rose can express strong feelings of love
While pink roses express affection.
Pink roses represent affection
And yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.
A yellow rose signifies friendship
Overachievers may like to emulate Felix in Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley. In the novel, he uses flower arrangements to convey coded messages that only his lover can decipher. This took some advanced study, however, with Felix spending days in the countryside meditating on the essence of each flower.
Regardless of your flower knowledge, the list is as long as there are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are just better expressed in the Language of Flowers.
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind that grows a foot a day and needs to be dug out with a tractor. But this week, I was pleasantly surprised to have my views suddenly upended. It all started with some aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading →
Without some advance planning, fall usually spells the end of the summer garden. But I’ve learned from experience that if you plant dahlias in late spring, they’ll flower all the way through autumn. Lately, I’ve been waking up to crisp mornings only to discover more and more blooms. Who knew October could bring so many fresh flowers?
DAHLIAS BRING OUT THE CHILD
For some, dahlias may not be all that big a deal. But for me, the first time I saw the majestic, 10-foot flowers left an indelible memory. It was the 1960s, and I was a kid growing up in Delaware. Smack dab in the middle of suburbia, on the corner of two heavily-traveled streets, there was a small working farm. In the summer it produced fruits and vegetables. But in September, it became a sea of dahlias.
And these weren’t your everyday dahlias, mind you. Many were the gigantic, dinner plate size; the kind that drives a kid mad with desire to jump out of the car just to be among them. Standing as tall as adults, they gently swayed in the breeze, solemnly saluting us as we drove by.
Craning my neck out the window, I’d watch until they gradually disappeared, slowly dissolving into a sea of rainbow colors.
And thus began my love affair with these beautiful flowers.
SO MANY TYPES, SO LITTLE TIME
Dahlias are classified as tender perennials, meaning they may be annual or perennial, depending on the climate. They typically start blooming in August with other late-summer flowers. But perhaps the best thing about them is that they don’t stop blooming until the first frost, or roughly right around Thanksgiving.
And in spite of their reputation for towering stems and gigantic blooms, the plants come in all shapes and sizes. Dahlia types can range in height from the very tall specimens of my childhood to just under one foot. Planting the tubers is easy. Just dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and drop them in with the ‘eyes’ facing up. Three or more tubers per hole usually gives the most colorful effect.
FLOWERS AS BIG AS A FOOT
Still, it goes without saying that the most notable feature of all dahlias are the flowers. These can range in diameter from 2 inches to almost one foot. And among these, there are specific dahlia types, each with its own specifications. For example, there are species with single, double and semi-double petals. And there are unusual shapes like spherical or cactus. There are also types that resemble flowers such as anemones, peonies or orchids.
Waterlily dahlia ‘Pam Howden’
Despite the variety, however, one thing all dahlia types have in common are their dazzling colors. These flowers come in a seemingly infinite array, including all shades of pink, red, scarlet, orange, purple and yellow. Moreover, the flower petals often come painted with strips or tips of another color. (There are also creamy ones as well as many brilliant white species.)
In sum, with so many options to choose from, how do you decide? One way is to familiarize yourself with the most common types. You may be surprised to find that some don’t look like the ‘typical’ dahlia.
THE TEN MOST COMMON DAHLIA TYPES
Single-flowered dahlias feature a single row of flat or slightly cupped ray petals surrounding a central disc.
Semi-double dahlias have two or more rows of petals surrounding a central disc.
Mignon dahlias are similar to single dahlias except their petal florets are rounded and their disc flowers have no more than two rows.
Mignon dahlia with burgundy/black foliage
Anemone dahlias have an inner disc made up of tubular shaped florets and an outer ring of one or more rows of flat ray petals.
Anemone dahlia ‘Polka’
Orchid dahlias have open centers with just one row of ray florets surrounding a disc. The petals are often overlapping and curled for most of their length.
Collarette dahlias have one row of flat petals surrounding a disc as well as an inner wreath of shorter petals called the ‘collar’.
Collarette dahlia ‘Mary Eveline’ plum red petals with white ‘collar’
Ball and Pompon dahlias are shaped like balls and feature double flowers with rounded or blunt tipped florets. Pompons are slightly smaller than ball dahlias.
Orange ball dahlias – notice the slightly flattened shape
The perfectly round pompon dahlia ‘Franz Kafka’
Decorative dahlias are doubles that feature flat, oval petals with tips on the end. Formal varieties have regular, evenly placed petals, while informal varieties tend to be arranged in a more haphazard way. Both varieties grow to over 40 inches.
Decorative dahlia ‘Lisa Dark Pink’
Cactus and semi-cactus dahlias have narrow pointed petals that roll back on themselves, giving them a spiky look. Cactus types are rolled for their full length, while semi cactus types include a mix of flat and rolled petals. Both reach an average height of around 40 inches.
Orange cactus dahlia
Semi-cactus dahlia ‘Aloha’
There are many other varieties, including peony, waterlily and stellar, not to mention the celebrated ‘Dinner Plate’ which falls under numerous categories. The Miscellaneous Dahlias category alone includes hundreds of varieties.
Dahlias are sold as tubers and need to be planted after the ground has warmed up and there’s no danger of frost. I usually plant mine in the late spring just around the time my tulips have faded. Plant the tubers in well drained soil in full sun for best results. You can also pot them up indoors a couple weeks beforehand to give them a head start.
Dahlia tubers need to winter indoors in a cool, but not cold, space
Dahlias are considered tender in my neck of the woods (Zone 6), but hardy outdoors in zones 8 to 10. That means that once they’re done flowering in the fall (or right after the first frost), I must dig them up. I then label them and store them in a dry spot in the basement. Click here for the USDA Plant Hardiness Map to see where you fit.
One of the many things I love about late summer are the throngs of colorful, star-shaped flowers that spring up all over the landscape. Most of us are familiar with the yellow ones (sunflowers). But did you know that the same plant family also includes varieties in purple, pink, red and white? These flowers are all part of the Aster family, Asteraceae, the largest and most diverse group in the plant kingdom.
THE ASTER FAMILY STORY
Indeed, the Aster family is exceedingly large, with numbers in the tens of thousands. According to The Plant List, there are currently over 27,000 known species. You may have noticed some of the flowers’ shared characteristics. Many feature a round central disk surrounded by colorful petal rays.
Gaillardia is a member of the aster family.
However from there, things can get confusing. Although the botanical name, Asteraceae, comes from a Greek word meaning star, people often refer to asters by their common name, daisy.
Still others refer to asters as Compositae. That’s because their blooms are composed of many tiny, individual flowers. (More on that below.)
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT ASTERS
In fact, though they may appear as one flower, asters are actually made up of many, all inserted on a single flower head (disk). There are two types of flowers: tubular and ray. Tubular florets are located in the center of the disk. And the ray-shaped florets are found at the perimeter. The ray-shaped florets are what we often refer to as petals.
Zoom in on the photo and you’ll see that the disk is not flat, but domed. And it’s made up of hundreds of tiny tubular flowers.
Leucanthemum (daisy) displaying both tubular and ray florets.
Moreover, within the family, there are many variations. Some members have only tubular florets while others have only ray. And then there are family members like daisies, coneflowers, common sunflowers and asters that have both disks and rays.
The flower head of Globe Thistle contains no petal florets.
Scientists believe that the aster flower head, which also contains seeds and nutrients, helps the plants store energy during periods of drought. It also may contribute to their longevity. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that once established, my aster family members like coneflower, daisy and blanket flower require very little water. And certainly the abundant roadside sunflowers, daisies and asters are living proof of these flowers’ remarkable survival ability.
UNEXPECTED FAMILY MEMBERS
Of course every family has its outliers, and the Aster family has a few. These include the food crops lettuce, chicory and globe artichokes. Notice the two types of florets, both tubular and ray, on the mountain lettuce bloom below.
TAKE THE ASTER FAMILY QUIZ!
Still, despite all these variations, I find that it’s the yellow aster members that are the hardest to identify. Superficially, many of the flowers look alike. But on closer inspection, their disk and ray flowers are all slightly different.
Below are some well-known Aster family members that bloom in late summer and early fall. Can you identify them? (For answers, please see below.)
If you’d like to add some of these beautiful flowers to your garden (or just be able to identify some more members of the family), following is a list of well-known aster species and their value in the garden.
These popular flowers can be found in gardens all over the world. Popular members include: New England Aster, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Cosmos, Daisy, Fleabane, Dahlia, Coreopsis, Liatris, Blanket Flower, Fleabane, Zinnia, Chrysanthemum, Oxeye daisy and Yarrow.
HERBAL TEAS, MEDICINE AND FOOD
Aster flowers, leaves and roots have been used for millennia to treat various ailments and diseases. These species include Calendula (Pot marigold), Chamomile, Echinacea, Arnica, Endive, Lettuce and Artemisia.
GREAT NECTOR PRODUCERS
Since they bloom late in the summer and into the fall, asters are a great source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. Some of the best producers are Helianthus annus (Sunflower), Goldenrod, New England Aster and Fleabane.
French marigold, Tagetes patula
Some asters are great at repelling insects. The most well-known among them are marigolds. French marigolds are known to repel whiteflies while Mexican marigolds are said to not only stave off insects but rabbits as well. Other effective ‘insecticidal’ species include Tanacetum, False Fleabane and Chrysanthemum.
Ragweed is a member of the aster family.
Weeds are members, too. Dandelion, Ragwort, Ragweed and Sneezeweed are also part of the Aster family.
Want to know more? For a detailed list of Asteraceae, its genera and where the family fits in the plant kingdom, click here for the USDA Natural Resources Conversation Service.
They look like they jumped out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on long flexible stems. Alliums can be startling the first time you encounter them. But there’s so much to love about these drought tolerant plants, including long bloom period and resistance to most pests and diseases. And their whimsical appeal can sure liven up a garden. Continue reading →