Sunday, August 30, 2015


          We are nearing the end of the dog days of summer -- a time during which only the prospect of a delicious garden tomato can push me outdoors voluntarily. Yet some of our prettiest flowers bloom in August. We can consider them our reward for planting we did earlier.

     Today I want to show off two quite different forms of hibiscus, both of which bloom in August and September.

     The first is familiar to most of us. Only the names are confusing. Known here as Rose of Sharon and in Britain as Rose mallow, even its Latin name  is confusing. Linnaeus, the founder  of modern taxonomy, called it Hibiscus syriacus, but it has no connection to Syria. It also has no connection to the plain of Sharon in Israel. In fact, the name first appears as a mistranslation in the King James Bible. Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea and has been cultivated there for generations.

     Besides its white to red to purple blooms, the Rose of Sharon has many other virtues for the Chicago garden: it is not picky about soil pH; it tolerates a fair amount of shade; it can get by in all but very wet and very dry soil. It is an upright shrub that  can reach 8-12 feet high while only 6-9 feet wide. And it is easy to prune in early spring  when the weather is cool and you have nothing better to do.

     The other hibiscus hardy enough to grow here has the virtue of agreement in the English speaking world on its name. Both the US and the UK call it rose mallow.  It is also called  hardy hibiscus to distinguish it from its many tropical cousins.  In Latin confusion reigns over many sub-species, but most plant are bought as commercial hybrids, so we don't care.

          My rose mallows are now about three high and may get a little higher, but there are others that can get up to 6 feet with flowers as big as dinner plates. Perennial hibiscus, too, are  tolerant of most conditions we face in Chicago. If your yard has a bit of the blah's in these dog days of summer a few hibiscus may be just what you  need.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Beverly's New Guest

Smooth Leaves

     After our very wet spring and early summer we have accumulated a number of pests -- from slugs and scale to various sorts of fungus. By the end of July, however, I was getting reports of of a new "guest", one I had not seen in a long time --- poison ivy. Once a "country cousin" not seen much outside of metro-parks, poison ivy has begun to be seen more and more in golf courses. And now it has made an unwelcome appearance in Beverly yards.

     A rather anonymous plant, poison ivy is usually recognized by one's skin before one's eyes. It has three leaflets, but these can be of several shapes -- from smooth to serrated to deeply notched. Sometimes all three leaf shapes can appear on the same plant.  It develops whitish berries -- except when it doesn't. Sometimes its stems are red -- and sometimes they aren't.

Notched leaves

     Poison ivy can grow like a shrub -- but it also can grow like a vine -- up a tree trunk and out to smack you in the face when you are looking for it on the ground. The berries produce seeds which the birds spread around, but the plant also spreads through underground stems.

Vine Form
     In addition to being sneaky poison ivy is also very hard to kill. If you try to pull it out, the pieces remaining in the ground will regenerate. Burning it creates a vapor that gets in your eyes and lungs and makes you wish you had it only on your skin.

     The only real solution is to poison it, which may take repeat spraying. The leaves eventually turn white and die, but even then they are toxic, so use gloves and long clothing any time you approach it. Seal up the remains before disposing of it.