The Dance of Night Flowers

As a “person of curiosity,” I’m easily thrown off course when little garden events prompt questions.

On summer evenings in my youth, I was sometimes encouraged to sit on the porch with grownups, to be mesmerized on rare occasions as my great-grandmother’s treasured heirloom “night blooming Cereus” unfurled its large, exotic, fragrant evening flowers. Now that’s a way to hook kids on the mysteries of the garden! And I was also shown some of the creatures that billowed or crept out of the shrubs at night to pollinate those flowers, or to hunt the pollinators.

Night blooming cereus – a tropical tree dwelling Epiphyllum

Anyway, one recent sultry summer evening, watching evening primrose flowers open at dusk and basking in the heady bouquet of four o’clocks in the still night air should have been soothing to my creative right brain. Instead, the interwoven dance of flowers, fragrance, and large, hovering sphinx moths flitting around between newly-opened flowers and avoiding voracious night-feeding geckos, kicked my analytical left brain into overdrive. 

Evening Primrose opens only at night

One of my so-far unanswered question is, what makes some plants flower at night? In addition to the primrose and four o’clocks, other of my garden’s evening flowers are moonflower vine, angel trumpets (both Datura and Brugmansia) and a scraggly night-blooming cereus (Epiphyllum) grown from a cutting from my great-grandmother; there are more, of course, in gardens of others, plus many daytime flowers that remain open all night (Cleome comes to mind).

Truth is, we still don’t know why they open at night. Best theories are that over thousands of years some plants have adapted techniques for avoiding moisture loss in hot, dry climates; and that some evolved light-colored, fragrant blossoms which open late to attract shy pollinators that venture out at night to avoid predators that are less aggressive in the darkness. Except for those insatiable, lightening-fast geckos, of course, which by the way have gotten rid of ALL the roaches that used to frequent my back garden.

Camouflaged night-feeding gecko

Anyway, while jonesing for explanations to these minor mysteries, I pored over my faded plant physiology class notes, trying to rewrap my old head around long-forgotten technical concepts.

Mysteries of Life (cover from The Moody Blues album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour)

Not to get too technical here, but plants have light sensors, called phytochromes – biological switches that turn night/day responses on and off. Full sun exposes phytochromes to lots of visible red light, which energizes plants into active growth mode; shaded or late afternoon sun has more far-red wavelengths, which tell plants it’s time to transition into night mode.

Here’s how plants tell time: Certain compounds produced during daylight hours break down slowly overnight, enabling plants to chemically “know” how many hours they spend in darkness; yeah, plants tell time by hours of darkness, not hours of daylight. Plus, as nights get successively shorter or longer, plants keep track of this stored information to gradually prepare for changes needed in approaching seasons. Horticulturists take advantage of this by using extra lighting or shading to trick poinsettias, Easter lilies, chrysanthemums, and other holiday flowers to bloom out of season.

The physics are interesting as well: Different stimuli, including temperature and humidity, trigger plants into pressurizing fluids that move into or out of “hinge cells” at the base of leaves and flowers, causing them to get bigger or smaller, longer or shorter. This is what crank flowers to open and close, leaves of some plants to fold and unfold, and stems to bend towards light.

Ah, I can go on and on until our ears start to bleed. I just think that science is so grand! Helps me sort out what’s happening, if not why. But I’ve got to relax now, try to get back to just soaking in the evening garden’s natural sensory allures.

(Sitting on the porch swing, I hear someone murmur “Don’t those four o’clocks smell nice?”)

Four o’clocks – super fragrant evening flowers
Four o’clocks visitor (photo by Paul Ingram)

Dirt in My Veins

Turns out, it’s a literal thing that “You can take the man out of the garden, but you can’t take the garden out of the man.”

My spot-on sweetheart has commented many times about how this “mucky pup” of hers loves little more than just digging in the dirt. Not necessarily planting anything, just… digging. Truth is, I have a nearly atavistic urge to turn soil over and over, beyond the expected satisfactions: it’s part of me, from how through decades of gardening I’ve slurped tons of unwashed berries, forgetfully chewed garden grime-crusted fingernails, and inhaled enough dust to start a raised bed.

Good enough to eat?

In W H Auden’s In Praise of Limestone, the poet suggests that the physical characteristics of a place shape the essence of people who live there, often without their noticing the subtle sways. Having grown up during the innovative 1960s musical melting pot of Blues, Country, Rock & Roll and military bands, I have to tip my hat to Auden’s description of music as an encompassing influence which “can be made anywhere, is invisible, and does not smell.”

But unlike my beloved Mississippi Delta’s signature Blues music, the alluvial soil of my region, kicked up by ag machinery and blown by dust storms, can be sensed physically. It clogs our fingernails, stains our britches knees, billows and swirls up to create amazing sunsets and moonrises. And, right before approaching thunderstorms, we can easily smell its peculiar pong – that fresh rain’s coming fragrance.

One of the common smells produced ahead of thunderstorms is from ozone being released by lightening and other molecular schisms, which really is a thing. But ozone has a sharp smell, almost like chlorine, or an electrical fire, not the damp, earthy smell I’m thinking about.

The faintly sweet, earthy smell is caused by bacteria and fungi that create an oily substance called geosmin, which has a distinct musty odor most people can easily smell at low concentrations. It’s what gives plowed fields, compost, mushrooms, catfish, and warm lake water their faint earthy scents. And when big raindrops hit exposed dirt, or a low-pressure front ahead of a summer storm “degasses” the soil and pulls geosmin into the air, we inhale a compound of it called petrichor.

So, I’m thinking, if George Harrison’s (from Savoy Truffle) phrase “of what we eat, we are” can also apply to what we smell, then, yeah – in a way, my garden is not only in my heart and mind, but also coursing through my veins.  

Gotta go. Dirt is in my hungry blood, and it’s calling me back to the garden.

Of what you eat – and smell – you are

Worth reading: Maverick Gardeners – New Book by Felder Rushing – Felder Rushing’s Blog

Maverick Gardeners: Dr. Dirt and Other Determined Independent Gardeners by Felder Rushing

I’m sharing this book review by Jessica Russell – thanks for your kind words, Jessica! Hope to see some of you at the Eudora Welty House and Garden, from 1-3pm today.

Clarion-Ledger / Hattiesburg American Mississippi Books Page

A review of
Maverick Gardeners: Dr. Dirt and Other Determined Independent Gardeners
by Felder Rushing
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback

Maverick Gardenerscelebrates gardening offbeat, on purpose

By Jessica Russell
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK

At last, Mississippi’s favorite offbeat horticulturist takes us behind the vine-wrapped gates of some of the funkiest private gardens in the South. Suffice it to say, this is not your mama’s garden guide.

With a profusion of interesting and unexpected themes planted densely together, it reads rather like a cottage garden grows: A memoir here, a tribute there. Some history. Some recipes. And plenty of good laughs in between—thanks to Rushing’s signature narrative style.

Nestled among eye-popping photographs of unconventionally beautiful gardens are personal stories of the maverick gardeners who tend them. Between these fanciful encounters, like a well-placed garden bench, the author provides space to pause and reflect. To think…

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NEW BOOK is out! Maverick Gardeners – “Keepers of the Garden Flame”

Hold onto your hat, this book is…different.

Maverick Gardeners Book Cover

 

Maverick Gardeners is my way of celebrating the weird, wild and wonderful things that we gardeners often do. In every corner of the world, in every village and neighborhood, across all cultures and social differences, maverick gardeners exemplify a spirit that, more or less, runs through us all. I call them DIGrs (Determined Independent Gardeners).

These nonconformist souls see no sense in trying to fit in and follow the footpaths of others, yet are well worth getting to know. Some are celebrated like the late, great Dr. Dirt whose passion for his flamboyant garden and sharing with others are at the heart of the book. During the ten years of our rollicking cross-cultural collaboration of swapping plants and rubbing shoulders with fellow DIGrs we unraveled a shared humanity, and spread the word through co-hosting a weekly live National Public Radio broadcast and lecturing across the country.

Dirt in his garden

There are also in-depth interviews with a guerilla gardener who shares food he grows on a vacant parking lot, a woman whose “grief garden” for a lost son is accessorized with countless birdhouses, a neighbor who works at a garden center to feed her plant passion and then uses her miniature horse to weed out those that are not worth growing, and a Jamaican immigrant whose jungle garden is her home-away-from-home.

You probably have a DIGr in your neighborhood as well. A few hints might be their smorgasbord of “passalong” plants – including many in assorted (often recycled) containers, and a packed row of plants languishing in hope for a garden spot to open up soon. And quirky home-made garden art. And a hose that is never rolled up. And a somewhat humble, somewhat defiant attitude.

How neighbors see DIGrs

While each may garden alone, these seeming outliers are a loosely-affiliated tribe bound by plants and attitude, and a love of sharing with others. They’re what I call modern-day “keepers of the flame.”

In the course of writing Maverick Gardeners I discovered for myself some keys to enjoying the journey and its side trips as much or more than the destination. There have been some weird moments, including clashes of umbrage between Master Gardeners and “dirt” gardeners, miscommunications that hurt feelings, waves of astonishment over amazingly simple discoveries, and laughter. Lots of laughter.

My hope in writing the book, then, is to share my take on the experiences, challenges, joys, and frustrations of these exuberant gardeners who joyfully color outside the lines, and to interpret them for those who “don’t get it” but are willing to learn.

And yeah, we ALL have a bit of Maverick in us – so you will most certainly find something in this unique book that will be helpful for your own gardening muse!

For more details and comments on the book, or to find a way to get a copy, go to this page.

A Maverick Gardener's accessorized garden entrance
Mavericks aren’t afraid to accessorize

SPECIAL NOTE: To celebrate my new book, Maverick Gardeners, my NPR Gestalt Gardener producer Java Chapman and I are taking our weekly garden party on the road, and everyone’s invited. At several of the venues we’ll be broadcasting the Gestalt Gardener radio show from my antique green pickup truck and its overstuffed garden (transmission permitting). 

A full list of dates, times, and places – all free, and socially distanced, of course – is available on the MPB website. Click on the Felder caricature for more details of our community road show.

Hope to see you!

Yeah, it snows in Mississippi

…but, in a “stuck here in the middle with you” scenario, halfway between our Northern friends’ undulating mounds of snow, and the non-stop tropical flowers of SoCal and Florida, we have stuff to keep our pineal glands puffed up, staving off Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Front Garden in Snow
Front Garden in Snow

This week it dropped from the low 70s to 9, which kicked hard on plants that which are normally hardy but had lost their cold conditioning.

frozen Camellia japonica with ice
Camellia shrubs can take cold that the flowers may not

So the day the sleet and snow started falling I went around my garden and neighborhood and collected a few flowers that flower naturally in January and February, capturing them in the still-life of a vase.

Continue reading “Yeah, it snows in Mississippi”

Holiday Ornaments from Garden Gleanings

Making Christmas tree decorations was a boring-day activity put into play by my mom, who worked tirelessly at keeping four restless kids occupied during wintry holidays What we made weren’t great, mind you, but they were originals.

Among the different creations, were hard-tack flour-and-salt cookie ornaments and garlands of chains made from glued rings of colorful strips of craft paper.

Easy Ornaments from Garden Gleanings

The Santa face, painted on a dried okra pod by Sherry Battista from Crystal Springs Mississippi, is a “must have” favorite of all who see it.

Did I mention this was way before the Internet, when we only got a handful of black-and-white TV channels?

Continue reading “Holiday Ornaments from Garden Gleanings”

Kids Gardening Brochure

Stuck at home with kids who are bouncing off the walls when not on their electronic devices? I’ve simplified some pages from two of my children’s garden books and prepared a brochure of gardening projects that can keep young people occupied and learning during the stay-at-home days – we’re all in this together, right?

Vine Teepee

Just drop me a line via the website contact form, or at garden@mbponline.org. (Your e-mail will not be used for any other purpose.)

These extracts give a flavor of the brochure:

Way before it was proven science, every time a new child was born into our family my parents would have a small fresh load of real topsoil – D-I-R-T – delivered to their big back yard, and for several years it was that kid’s personal pile to scatter with toys and garden tools. The yard looked like a giant fire ant colony but when the kids got older, they helped their granddad move the pile around to fill low areas and tree stump holes. What started out as personal playgrounds ended up as a lesson in taking responsibility and helping with community work.  Continue reading “Kids Gardening Brochure”

Plant Swap Treasures – Memes of the Garden (with update from England)

Pssst! I got jewels of Opar and a string of pearls… wanna make a deal?

My garden is stuffed with hard-to-find plants that came to me with sweet folk names and back stories.Their charms have been spread over and under fences around the world, cutting across cultures and languages.

But worthy as they are, many are not easily found for sale – to get a start, you gotta have informal connections.

They are passed around like the simple string game which has no written instructions yet is known by children worldwide.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Simple and easily transferable

For decades, as the co-author of the Passalong Plants book, I’ve been overseeing small and large-scale plant swaps. Often there is little in common between participants except a love of plants.

True anecdote: Some years back the Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty told me over dinner that her mother “stopped going to her garden club meetings when they stopped swapping plants.”

But not to worry, thanks to folks with generous spirits, the tradition is alive and well at plant swaps around the world.  I’m featuring just three here.

Felder at the first Flora Plant Swap, 1990
Felder at the first Flora Plant Swap, 1990

Continue reading “Plant Swap Treasures – Memes of the Garden (with update from England)”

Worming Their Way Into My Affections

There be monsters underfoot.

Night Crawler Earthworm from My Garden
Handful of a year-old night crawler from my garden

While checking on my garden’s rainfall drainage patterns during a recent downpour, I caught one of the longest worms I have ever seen as it ventured out of a sodden raised bed. When I tried to gently tug the foot-long creature out of the soil, it resisted, clinging, alarmed, to the sides of its burrow with tiny, claw-like bristles similar to those that so swiftly propel “graboids” (Caederus mexicana, the twenty-foot long terrors of the Mojave Desert). Continue reading “Worming Their Way Into My Affections”

Stonehenge and the Return of Grian: The Season for a Reason

Welcome back, Grian!Stonehenge

It’s nothing new, marking the turning of seasons by the waxing and waning appearance of the sun. Certainly the most striking is during the morning of the winter solstice, when once-lengthening nights roll over into ever-lengthening days and the promise of warmth, new crops, and renewed life. So of course ancient people celebrated the midwinter return of the sun.

And where better to experience it than through the carefully-aligned great trilithon, the largest of the standing stones of Stonehenge? It and the others were lined up thousands of years ago to pinpoint the specific morning that for eons has heralded the return of Grian – which Celtic people called the sun.

Grian is Risen
Grian is Risen

Continue reading “Stonehenge and the Return of Grian: The Season for a Reason”