Color in the Garden

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Poisonous, Lovely Datura


My friend Cathy recently sent me this picture and asked for a plant i.d. Since I didn’t know I posted it to the Redding Garden Club Facebook page. Turns out this plant caused quite a commotion.

This is Datura stramonium and every part of it is poisonous — the leaves, flowers, stems, roots, even the seeds.

datura seed pod

Datura seed pod

“Wash your hands well,” warned a garden club member. “Seed pods are prickly,” instructed another. Several urgent links to Wiki followed. So I started to educate myself on Datura and here’s what I found:

Datura is a genus of nine species of flowering plants belonging to the family Solanaceae (also known as Nightshade).

The name Datura comes from the Hindi dhatūrā, meaning thorn-apple. You’ll hear them called Angel’s Trumpets, a name Datura shares with the closely related genus Brugmansia (whose flowers are pendulous). Datura can also be called Jimsonweed.

Datura is a herbaceous annual or short-lived perennial, found in all warm and tropical regions of the globe, possibly originating in Central America. The leaves are lobed or toothy and the flowers are moderately fragrant, especially at night.

Datura stramonium inhabits waste places and roadsides in dry soil, growing 1-5 feet tall. It flowers June through August.

Datura is deadly. Most parts of the plant contains dangerous levels of toxic hallucinogen, which can cause delirious states and death. It has a high incidence of fatal overdoses among uninformed users. Can be fatal to pets, people and livestock.


  • Aphrodisiac.  A well-known ingredient of love potions and witches’ brews. In India seeds are still ingested as an aphrodisiac. (Then again, there’s that “could be dead” thing…)
  • Sacred roles. From the Caribbean to Africa Datura have been used to induce visionary trances, see the future and reveal the causes of misfortune and disease. In Zuni tradition the rain-priests use the root of Datura inoxia when they appeal to their ancestor-spirits for rain.
  • Medicinal uses: Painkillers, narcotics and asthma control.

Despite the warnings I couldn’t find any restrictions on growing Datura. Its beautiful flowers often make it a popular container plant.

Although I believe Cathy is getting rid of this one. She thinks it’s a bit too scary to be on her property.

For More Info about Datura:
Connecticut Botanical Society
B and T World Seeds (excellent history)

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a passionate gardener and past president of the Redding Garden Club in Redding, Connecticut. When she’s not in the garden she’s teaching students how to write great college application essays and master interview skills through her business First Impressions College Consulting. She blogs on college admissions at


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Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’

Coreopsis Jethro Tull

It’s 90 degrees out. It’s even hotter on the slate walk outside my door. It’s the kind of heat that burns your feet and causes you to recoil as you violently mouth the words “hot, hot, hot…” (Whose idea was it to go barefoot anyway?)

The dog days of summer usually arrive August, but this year they arrived in June, unwelcome visitors, unaware of the concept of a temporary stay. It’s the kind of heat and humidity that makes both people and plants take stock of themselves. But not my Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull.’ Right now it’s blooming exuberantly next to the walk, in all that heat and humidity.

I love my Jethro Tull.

I fell in love with Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ several years ago at the Redding Garden Club’s plant sale. The flowers were brilliant gold – much more interesting than the yellow Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ I owned and was a bit bored with. Then I saw the fluted petals and I was hooked.

In truth,  Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ has had some setbacks in my Redding, Connecticut garden. It’s been nibbled by deer and has been susceptible to powdery mildew (although right now there’s none). And last year, much to my dismay, half of it was dug up and irretrievably mangled by a pregnant snapping turtle who decided to lay her eggs in that very spot – the one occupied by my Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull.

Thankfully it’s a resilient and hardy plant, and it’s caught a couple of breaks. This past June the turtle returned to lay her eggs elsewhere in the garden. The deer haven’t noshed on it. And it keeps flowering despite the weather. Like I said, I love this plant.

Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ is easy to grow. It needs full sun and well-drained soil, and can tolerate heat, humidity, dry soil and some drought. (It always does better when watered.) It grows to 18″ and has a compact habit, blooming early to midsummer in zones 5 to 9. Deadhead for best show.

Find more growing info at

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Poppies at Cornell

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I went to my college reunion at Cornell University. (No, I will not tell you which one, which should give you an idea.) It was a spectacular weekend, with all the trappings of a return to college youth — parties, lectures, lack of sleep, new friends, and just taking…time.

While we were in Ithaca we visited the Cornell Plantations, which consists of a 25-acre botanical garden, a 150-acre arboretum, and 4,300 acres of natural areas, including bogs, fens, gorges, glens, meadows, woodlands, and other biologically diverse ecosystems.

This was the first time I’d visited the Plantations, I’m sorry to say. (The joke at Cornell is that places like the golf course and flower gardens are a myth because they’re always hidden under snow.)

The first day we toured the Mundy Wildflower Garden, and the second day went to a class reception at the Robison York State Herb garden, which is where I saw the poppies. There are over 500 varieties of plants in this large garden, arranged into 17 themed beds, including Herbs of the Ancients, Bee Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Dye Herbs, Economic Herbs, Fragrant Herbs, Herbs in Literature, Medicinal Herbs, Herbs of Native Americans, and Sacred Herbs.

I have an ongoing love affair with poppies, and for years had a coral-pink variety that flourished and then disappeared from my garden. Not long ago I tried Icelandic Poppies, but was actually annoyed to find they act like annuals in my zone and haven’t purchased them again. (I think I’m the loser in that battle.) But the red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, is a commoner, and very much a weed in Europe. It’s also know as the corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, and Flanders poppy.

Papaver rhoeas is an annual. It grows quickly, blooms heavily, and dies with the first frost, but can regrow the next spring if the seeds falls on the ground. The plants grow in zones 3-9, preferring neutral to acid soil in full sun to partial shade, and can adapt to dry environments. Deadhead them for best show. The seed is tiny – don’t cover them when planting. 

These poppies have a delicacy about them. I love their elegance and their cheerfulness. And of course I love the their color: Bold. Red. Cornell Red.

Happy reunion.

related links:

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Peony ‘Festiva Maxima’

Peony 'fiesta'

I wish you could smell the fragrance of this bloom. Just one on my kitchen table makes me smile; a vase-full practically makes me giddy.

This is Peony ‘festiva maxima,” an old variety introduced in the 1850’s. It’s been popular for generations because of its fragrance and for its four-inch, pure-white double blossoms that are flecked with crimson.

To me, it looks like an artist spilled paint onto the whitest of palettes. There’s perfection in such randomness — the streak through the petal’s center, the outline of crimson on its edge.

Peony ‘festiva maxima needs staking, because the stems will arch toward the ground as the blossoms open and they can be driven into the ground by a hard rain (like the one we got last night). Rain always gives me a good excuse to cut the newly opening blossoms and bring them in to my kitchen. (Blooms that are just opening will last longer than if you cut blooms that are already open.)


If you have peonies you’ve probably seen the ants running in and out of the petals. Ants love peonies; they’re attracted to the waxy outer coating of the blossom which I guess is sweet, but they won’t harm the plant. The only thing the ants will harm is dinnertime if you don’t rinse the flowers before you put them on the table.  You can even dip the entire flower into water to shake off any unwanted hitchhikers.

Peonies are hardy in Zones 3-8 and need full sun and neutral to slightly sweet soil. My Connecticut garden soil tends to be acidic, so I add a handful of lime in the fall. These are strong stemmed plants that grow 34 to 36 inches tall. They flower early, but their glossy foliage lasts all season, and can almost be used like a shrubby hedge.

Lee Valley Tools makes the best peony hoops I’ve found. I’ve had mine for 15 years and they’re almost indestructible. They’re expensive (almost $40 each for the large size), but my plants are tall and wide, and these hoops are adjustable and stable even during strong winds and rain.

Want more information? The American Peony Society has a good q&a page on its website.

Enjoy your peonies. Now I’m going outside to bring in a few more from the rain.

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Colorful Plant Combinations

saponaria-montgomery spruce-heuchera 'miracle'

Saponaria officinalis, dwarf Montgomery Spruce, Heuchera ‘miracle’

Each month, in the back of their magazine, Fine Gardening publishes a full-page color photo called Captivating Combination — a layout of unusual and often stunning plant combinations. I’m often dazzled by these photos (Purple Verbena, red Texas Sage, purple Fountain grass;  pink tulips, blue Woodland Phlox, lemon yellow Globeflower; Purple Drumstick Allium, Canna, Black-eyed Susan…) Over time they’ve taught me to see in color, texture and nuance. They are small pockets of surprise, artfully combined.

Now I finally have my own “captivating combination.” I’d like to say the design was purposeful, but I can’t.  The Saponaria (on the left) was purchased two or three years ago and the dwarf Montgomery Spruce (top) has been in the garden for a while. It’s the Heuchera that’s new.

You see, I bought five Heuchera ‘miracle’ last year, and planted them in a different part of my garden. But their roots were quickly disturbed (something burrowing? tunneling? hungry?). By the time I realized their distress, three of the Heuchera were destined for the compost pile. I wasn’t sure where to move the survivors, so I tucked this one under the spruce, hoping that a bit more shade and protection would nurse it back to health.

And now here it is — a picture that stopped me in my tracks last week on my way out the front door. I love these colors. I love these textures. And today only, I’m allowing myself to pretend that I have the “Captivating Combination” photo in Fine Gardening magazine.

plants in the photo (in my Redding, Connecticut garden):

Heuchera ‘miracle”: This is very interesting Heuchera (also known as coral bells). During the cooler weather in spring and fall the foliage is brick-red with bright chartreuse to gold edges and silvered undersides. During the warmer months the leaves turn green.  ‘Miracle’ produces pink flowers in midsummer. Zones 4-9.

Montgomery Blue Spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’): An evergreen conifer dwarf that forms a dense, symmetrical cone shape.  Attractive, pointed gray-blue needles. Hardy in zones 2-8. Very slow growing to 3 to 4 ft. tall, 3 ft. wide.

Saponaria officinalis: Also known as Soapwort, this is actually a member of the carnation family. It contains high concentrations of saponin, which creates foam in water and has mild cleansing properties. Before the soap-making process was known, Saponaria’s crushed roots were soaked in water in order to do the laundry. The herb is a laxative, but it can be toxic, so internal use isn’t recommended. (info from The Complete Herb Encyclopedia) Can be used as a ground cover. Moderately fertile, well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade. Zones 3-8.

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Cornflower Blue

I love this blue. It’s the blue of the perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana)  — vibrant, strong and utterly happy. In the photo above it’s about to fully open. (I love how it looks as if it’s exploding out of  a tiny pineapple!)

The perennial cornflower, Centaurea montana, is also commonly known as Bachelor’s Button. Don’t confuse it with the annual cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, which also is known as Bachelor’s Button.

I didn’t know a thing about cornflowers until I inherited two leftover pots from our garden club’s annual plant sale (Redding Garden Club – very awesome club and website). The pots didn’t have any tags and no one knew what they were, so I took them home and stuck them in the ground. When they bloomed the following spring I was smitten. Since then I’ve divided and replanted, and divided again, and they still make me happy just looking at them.

They bloom late spring to midsummer (early and often). They get floppy, though. I haven’t figured out the best way to stake them, since part of their charm is that they look loose, like they’re having a bit of a free-for-all, and staking can make them look like they have a stake up their —  …Well, anyway, I’m working on it.

Centaurea montana loves sun and will tolerate light shade and some drought. It’s been very hardy in my garden and they’re easy to divide. Fine Gardening lists their hardiness as zones 3-9.

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Rohodendron Blooming

This is a blossom from one of the rhododendrons growing outside my front door. I haven’t seen these blossoms in 3 years.

They’re old-timers; about 30 years. The original owners used them as foundation plantings under the windows, which meant they had to be continually pruned or else they’d reach at least 15 feet high. (Now you can find smaller cultivars.) Over time their branches grew thick and impossible to prune without a chainsaw. Not one to endanger my fingers I let them grow, which led to the fateful day I looked out my window and saw the rhodys staring back at me. The view was not so super.

Cutting them back was the only option. You can do that with rhododendrons — in fact, you can prune them almost to the ground and new leaves will sprout from dormant buds. The entire plant will be rejuvenated.

So two years ago we pruned them to about two and half feet and used a fertilizer designed to help the roots. This spring, I gently pruned again. (I’d left some old wood and wanted to get rid of it.)

And now they’re blooming.

I’ve missed these blooms. I’m glad they’re back. I’m glad to see the buzzing bees and other insects enjoying their company as much as I do. And I’m glad I can look out my window and see my rhododendrons — and the view is more than super.

Rhododendron Facts
In Greek, rhododendron means Rose Tree.
Climate: Rhododendron species are found in the wild from the arctic regions to the tropics. There are several species native to New England (and probably to your region) so they’re a good choice when looking to plant native.
Soil: Best in light, well-drained soils with good soil aeration and an ample supply of soil moisture during the summer. In general, they require an acid soil.
source: American Rhododendron Society