Thursday, February 6, 2020

Balcony Herbs for You and for the Pollinators

Many of us live in apartments, without a plot of earth for a garden. If you want to treat yourself and pollinators well, what should you grow in pots or planters?

My answer is Herbs. They'll be great for you in the pot, pan, or salad, and if you manage them right, full of flowers for pollinators. Further, many herbs are very tolerant of the wind and drying conditions of an upper-floor balcony, so they'll be easier for you to grow than other flowering plants.

Basil flowers - by Natalie Ward
Basil is one of my favorites. Even though I have a back yard, it's too shady these days for basil to get the full heat and sun it needs. So, I grow it in pots on the deck.

Carpenter Bee on Basil - Gideon Pisanty,
 CC by SA 3.0
Many people trim off the basil flower spikes, because it prolongs the growth of the leaves. But the flowers are excellent in salad, and very
attractive to pollinators.

If you have a big pot, I'd recommend a mix of sweet basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, and holy basil. Put it next to your patio tomatoes to remind you to use the leaves with tomato dishes!

Thyme in a pot - Greenmars, CCbySA 3.0

I never have enough Thyme!  It's highly tolerant of drying and heat. Many varieties are winter hardy. You can find half a dozen different flavors and forms, with flowers ranging from pink to pale purple to white. As with basil, if you have a long window box, try mixing several varieties together. The flowers are edible but strong tasting, so best in soups and stews.

I hope I don't need to remind you not to use pesticides on your herbs???


Coriander/Cilantro - H. Zell, CC by SA 3.0
 A fantastic group of herbs to grow from seed in pots are the carrot family herbs dill, fennel, and coriander (Coriandrum sativum). They grow easily from early spring sown seed, but they need a but more watering than thyme does. Flowers, of course, are their way of making the yummy seeds, so do double duty on your balcony. However, these annual plants die back after the seeds ripen, so plant several waves of them spaced about two weeks apart for whole season enjoyment.

Dill in full bloom - Clement Kent, CC by SA 3.0
If you use the leaves (coriander leaves = cilantro), you can pinch one of these plants several times to get it to grow more bushy. Then when you stop pinching, you'll get an explosion of flowers.




 In summer heat, the leaves can be all too fleeting. Of course, you can dry them, but my in-laws used to freeze dill  (Anethum graveolens) just after picking, to have fresh green sprigs on potatoes or fish - an Estonian favorite!


Fennel -  K√∂hler's Medicinal Plants (1887)





"Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore." - Longfellow, The Goblet of Life, 1842

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is biennial, so it doesn't bloom until the second year. In the ground it is quite hardy but in you may need to wrap the pots to bring it through our winters. Remember, Longfellow warned you it will grow tall! Bronze Fennel is an attractive variety.




A bed of Chives in June - Clement Kent, CC by SA 3.0

Bumblebees like Chives

Garlic Chives - Clement Kent, CC by SA 3.0
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) make a good pot plant, although I find if not watered enough they get rather bitter. For the purple species, blooming is in early summer. Remove the flowers when they fade for a smaller bloom later in the summer.









Chive flowers are longish, favoring bumblebees.

At my friend Jon's cabin near northern Georgian Bay, chives have naturalized on the granite rocks where they grow in a very, very thin layer of gravel. They also grew on nearly bare granite at my parents' cabin near Thunder Bay. So I can say with complete confidence that they will be hardy in your pot on the balcony.


"He who bears chives on his breathe,
Is safe from being kissed to death."
Marcus Valerius Martialis, 80 A.D.

Martial's epigram is even more true for Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), whose leaves have the added flavor and scent of garlic. I used to grow these under the kitchen window for a milder addition to salads than a crushed garlic cloves, but they seeded so abundantly I had to exile them to the back of the yard. Flowers arrive in late summer, and are attractive to pollinators, but too strong-tasting to me to use in the kitchen.



Spanish Tarragon - George Hull, CC by SA 2.5
Did you know that there are many species of marigolds in Mexico? Tagetes lucida is also known as
Spanish Tarragon. It's completely unrelated to French Tarragon, which tends not to thrive on balconies. But the Spanish Tarragon marigold is happy in sun and baking heat. The leaves are good in many of the same recipes where you'd use a regular tarragon. And, in late summer/early fall, you get many small yellow flowers for the bees.




Wow - so many more herbs to go! For sunny planters I'd also recommend marjoram and oregano, both great bloomers and worthy in the pot or on the pizza. But let's turn to those of us whose site faces north, or an adjoining building.



Make mine Mint! There are many species of mint (Mentha) and most of them will tolerate some shade. They are better in pots than in the soil, because they tend to runner about and take over the garden if you let them. They are of course an essential of herbal and Mediterranean teas, and of many kinds of cooking recipes. There is spearmint, peppermint, lemon mint, chocolate mint...the list goes on.

I've put multiple mints in one pot, and this works fine for the first year. But by the second and later years one has driven the others extinct.

Flowering happens frequently, and I like to add the flower spikes to fresh mint-water for summer hot days. But, please pick them off when they are done, or your plants will tend to get woody and leggy.

There are many other herbs, of course - every culture around the world has its favorites. Try some that bloom well on your balcony, and share your herbs with the pollinators!


Friday, January 24, 2020

Hops and Spice, Pipes and Paws: How Large a Tale will you Swallow?

Smoking in a Tavern: David Teniers the Younger
What image comes to mind, Dear Reader, when I speak to you of hops and spice, pipes and paws? For me it is one of those archetypal Dutch Tavern scenes of perhaps four centuries ago. The pipes of the smokers, the dog on the floor (proving that taverns in old Holland and restaurants in present day France are more civilized than we overly prissy Canadians), the jugs of spiced wine or the mugs of hopped ale were essential elements of a school of Pays Bas artists such as Matthijs Wulfraet, David Teniers the Younger, and Gerrit Dou (a student of Rembrandt).



Self Portrait - Gerrit Dou
Let’s start with pipes, shall we? Although pipes had been used for smoking substances such as hashish in Asia and the Middle East, it’s fair to say they were invented by Native Americans, who domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana rustica). Native Americans were also one of many groups that domesticated the Calabash Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) for containers and food, but I find no records of their using gourds as pipes. Instead, South Africans seem to have placed a meerschaum bowl inside a curved calabash holder to create the classic calabash pipe, which became a fad when adopted by King Edward VII. This is now associated with Sherlock Holmes because it is a large but light pipe easy to clench between your teeth while delivering lines on stage. But, its use postdates the naming of the Pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla, which I will sadly concede was named in recognition of its floral form matching clay or meerschaum pipes, not Sherlock Holmes’ calabash.


The big-leaved pipevine was commonly planted in North America a century or two ago, to shade a porch or verandah and give partial privacy. The large green leaves grow exuberantly and the peculiar fly-pollinated flowers provide sculptural interest. The leaves drop in the fall, allowing winter light to reach the porch.

But it’s not for its fly pollinators that I recommend this native vine to gardeners. Instead, its third merit to me is the fact that its leaves are the sole food the caterpillars of the beautiful Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, will eat.

Battus philenor. John Abbott, 1797
There are many pipevine species in North America and the Pipevine swallowtail likes all of them. Pipevines make a toxin, aristolochic acid, that deters herbivores. But the swallowtail caterpillars take it up and store it, the same way monarch caterpillars store cardiac glycoside from milkweed leaves. The adult swallowtails also taste bad to birds.

Around the world there are many swallowtail species whose caterpillars eat pipevine plants, and share the unpalatability to birds, but the Pipevine swallowtail is our only member of the group. But although it is relatively rare, you will see other swallowtails and unrelated butterfly species that mimic the Pipevine swallowtail. This is an example of what is called Batesian mimicry, where the mimic species gets the benefit (avoiding being eaten by birds) without the cost (methods to handle and store the toxic compounds). The Viceroy butterfly is a Batesian mimic of the Monarch, and the Spicebush swallowtail is a mimic of the Pipevine.

So, from pipes to spice we go!

Spicebush swallowtail - Benny Mazur, CC by SA 2.0
Several native shrubs have the common name “Spicebush”, but here we’re interested in Lindera benzoin, which gets the common name from the aromatic fragrance of its leaves. Lindera grows in
partial tree shade but blooms more abundantly early in spring if it gets some sunlight. The dainty yellow-green flowers don’t make a huge show but are pleasant when winter is ending. This native Carolinian forest shrub should be used more in our parks and ravines, so we can enjoy the Spicebush swallowtails that will come to it.

I’m writing this during the winter holiday, when of course spiced wine has been popular since the time of the Romans. So I can’t resist a spicy diversion. In 1,390 a mediaeval cookbook (by "the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II") gave this recipe for Ypocras: “Pur fait Ypocras …grinding together cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, and grains of paradise ("spykenard de Spayn", rosemary may be substituted). This is mixed with red wine and sugar”. I have read of this drink as “hippocras” - after steeping the spices in the sweetened wine for a day, the spices are strained out through a conical cloth filter bag called a manicum hippocraticum or Hippocratic sleeve (originally devised by the 5th century BC Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water).

"...we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon,
over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!"
Ebenezer Scrooge offered Bob Crachit a variant on hippocras called smoking bishop which was popular in 19th century England.




But what are we to do if we want native tastes in our holiday drinks? If you are lucky enough to have a male and female spicebush plant, the berries from the female can be used as spice. If you don’t have berries, the twigs and leaves can be steeped to make a tea. When my bush is bigger, I shall make this and call it “swallowtail tea”!






Hildegarde v. Bingen,
by W. Marshall
Some people enjoy hopped ales more than spiced wines. The seed clusters of the hopvine have been used in beers in Germany at least since renowned herbalist, mystic, abbess, and composer Hildegarde von Bingen wrote of them in the 11th century AD.

Giant Swallowtail near Ottawa - Gordon Robertson
When Europeans arrived here, they found shrubs and small trees whose seed clusters looked just like hops, and named them Hop Trees (Ptelea trifoliata). They grow wild along the Lake Erie shore in places like Point Pelee and Turkey Point parks, but with climate warming now survive Toronto winters. The seed pods are more decorative than the flowers, but I want to see them in our cityscape because the caterpillars of our largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail Papilio cresphontes eat the leaves. I wrote about hoptrees and giant swallowtails last fall.


I’ve taken us from pipes to spice to hops, with some deviations on the way. But what about paws? Admittedly, I am dreaming about getting a puppy in the new year, but here I’m thinking of the delicious and underused native Carolinian fruit tree, the Pawpaw or Asimina triloba. Pawpaw is now being grown in Toronto by connoisseurs who value the wonderful fruit. It fits into this article because of the beautiful native Zebra swallowtail  butterfly, whose caterpillars eat only pawpaw leaves.
Pawpaw flower - Krzystof Ziarnek CC-by-SA 4.0

I first saw these  lovelies during my two year exile in Virginia. The Palace of Neurons where I worked had large grounds running down to the Potomac River. In the moister soil near the river, Pawpaws grew in abundance as an understory tree. That’s plant geek for “grows OK mostly in the shade of big trees”. Pawpaw trees are very rare in Carolinian Canada, but we know our indigenous peoples used the fruit, because there are little-known groves of pawpaw trees next to some of the canoe trade routes inland from Lake Erie. In the spring, male Zebras patrolled streams leading to the Potomac Pawpaw groves, looking for newly emerged females. In summer, second brood adults perched on blue pickerelweed flowers (Pontederia) in the
Zebra Swallowtail - Clement Kent, CC by SA 3.0
ponds.

Given the delicious fruit and the spectacular butterfly, we definitely needs more “paws” in the ravines running down to High Park and in partly shaded places in our gardens.

There are two gardening notes to the pawpaw, though. It needs to be cross-pollinated so two genetically different trees should be planted within half a block or less of each other. And, it suckers from root runners. My trees do this but I find pruning the suckers at ground level once or twice a year controls them nicely. For a very nice dive into pawpaws, go here.


So, Dear Reader, that’s my tale: of Hops and Spice, Pipes and Paws.

Clement Kent

p.s. if you missed the previous post on Project Swallowtail, please give it a look. Project Swallowtail will be increasing the host plants above in order to have more of these beautiful butterflies.

Project Swallowtail!

Giant Swallowtail - Gordon Robertson
Today  it's my pleasure to pre-announce Project Swallowtail!
Zebra Swallowtail - Megan McCarty
This initiative to increase pollinator habitat in a large chunk of downtown west Toronto is led by WWF Canada in collaboration with many other groups, including my own Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto.






Blue dots on the map show just some of the gardens and Block Ambassadors already included.


Kathy's Garden, Stanley Park - Clement Kent
What are we going to do? Simply, we're going to help your block get a much higher density of pollinator-friendly plants over the next several years, with the goal of greatly increasing pollinator numbers and health. We want to do this in a way that allows birds, butterflies, and bees to move
freely for park to park and home to home. And, we'll be using some locally rare but very visible species such as the swallowtail butterflies shown above to make it easy to see when your block has become a hotspot of pollinator diversity.

LEAF Young Urban
Forest Leaders
We're also going to involve local kids and young adults in several ways. Mobile apps to help them identify plants and pollinators will be rolled out, with awards going to young pollinator experts.

Perhaps your block will become part of a neighbourhood where collaborator LEAF helps young naturalists learn about, map, and plant an urban forest?

Or maybe your or your neighbours' kids will go to High Park to learn about native plants and animals from H.P. Nature?

Block Ambassadors

Would you like to help us enrich your block for pollinators? We need Block Ambassadors! You don't need to be a gardener or a naturalist - just someone who likes talking with neighbours and promoting this project. We'll ask you to donate a few hours a month of your time to helping your neighbours get the plants and the help they need. You can reach us at clementfkent@gmail.com [this address will change very soon now!] See our map of ambassadors in your vicinity.


Collaborators: