The Heinz “57 Varieties” slogan is well known but not well understood, which is just as well for a slogan, especially since it doesn’t mean anything particularly. The slogan was meant to evoke in the consumer’s mind a satisfied feeling that the H.J. Heinz Company offered them a lot of products, in great variety. People seem to want that feeling, and corporate America has been willing to oblige them.
An illustration of Cherries of the “Heart” variety fromThe Encyclopedia of Food, a 1923 book by Artemas Ward. In this case, the reason for enclosing the word “Heart” in double quotation marks has to do with reference to the shape of the fruit, not to a cultivar, in which case only single quotation marks would be the practice. Botanical nomenclature can be confusing.
Horticultural companies and plant breeders have tried to fulfill that desire as well, for a variety of reasons, from interest in making a profit from patented cultivars to academic interest in genetics and in improving plant varieties. To speak of cultivars and varieties is not to use two words for the same thing, since varieties are naturally occurring while cultivated varieties are cultivars, a portmanteau word. To create cultivars, however, companies and breeders often take advantage of naturally occurring varieties.
A cultivar is not always an improvement in the long run, as shown by rose bushes which cannot stay healthy without human intervention in the form of applying copious amounts of pesticides and fungicides, some of them environmentally costly, as well as expensive to purchase. It has been short-sighted to breed roses for traits like flower shape and fullness and repeat blooming at the expense of plant vigor. it has been unforgivable to lose fragrance in many rose cultivars along the path to achieving other less salient rose traits. What is a rose, after all?
Fortunately, most plant geneticists are not like Dr. Alphonse Mephesto, a fictional scientist who produced useless anomalies for the gratification of his own ego and morbid curiosity on the animated television show South Park. The Green Revolution of the 1950s through the 1960s was fueled by botanists in academia and the private sector working hard to forestall what they perceived as the imminent possibility of widespread starvation as worldwide population exploded.
Cutting cinnamon sticks, another illustration from The Encyclopedia of Food, by Artemas Ward. Cinnamon identification has been confusing over the years, with several closely related plants being called cinnamon in the spice trade.
The Green Revolution scientists and horticultural companies did important work, even though the problem with alleviating hunger has rarely ever been horticultural primarily, but a problem of human greed and lack of empathy in the distribution of food and other resources. Abundant food rots in granaries and warehouses on one half of the world while the other half starves, often for no reason other than to enrich already wealthy speculators. It’s good to have a wealth of choices and to be able to choose a healthier plant over a weaker one, but what really needs changing are our choices about what to do with what we already have.
How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.
If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.
A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.
Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.
The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants. Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.
For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting. — Izzy
There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.
Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. Such gardeners are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a hybrid rose bush.
Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.
One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.
Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movieBack to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
Every gardenerwill at one time or other have to contend with wildlife or neighborhood pets causing problems in their yard and garden. Vegetable gardens are especially apt to be browsed by wildlife, obviously, and the legal options for backyard gardeners in coping with unwelcome visitors are much more limited than the options available to a farmer whose livelihood is at stake. Today as in the past a farmer can dispose of a varmint chewing up his or her crops with a well-aimed shot from a .22 caliber rifle and law enforcement or neighbors are unlikely to interfere. That option is not generally available to the urban or suburban gardener tending a small plot in close proximity to neighbors’ houses.
What is a varmint?A varmint is any animal whose survival habits conflict with your own, just like a weed is a plant out of place. Some people are thrilled to see deer browsing in their back yard, at least for a while, but to others those same deer have long since crossed over into varminthood after they have eaten hostas down to the ground, nibbled away rosebuds on the cusp of bloom, and used their antlers to rub the bark off young fruit trees, killing them. Garden enemies are not limited to deer, although they are probably at the top of most peoples’ lists, and a by no means complete catalog of varmints would for most folks have to include groundhogs (woodchucks), gophers, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, skunks, dogs, cats, poisonous snakes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, inattentive drivers, and unsupervised children.
Bill Murray as a golf course groundskeeper in the 1980 movie Caddyshack plots the destruction of the gophers who have been disfiguring the fairways and greens.
For some of these varmints, the critter kind, there are no shortage of chemical and mechanical repellents manufactured by companies eager to help out a distressed gardener and incidentally make a buck on a continuing basis, because all of them require regular re-application or constant tweaking to keep up their effectiveness. Gardeners who have wised up to this laborious and expensive treadmill may look instead to fencing, the only truly effective solution, though effective only in the sense of diminished and insecure expectations. No fence is a 100% effective deterrent for all critters at all times in all situations, as any convict will tell you, although in this case the malefactors seek to break in rather than out.
Some gardenerswill try to remove the problem from the garden by relocating it, or by hiring someone to do so. Although this practice is illegal nearly everywhere, the gardener can feel smugly humane about it. Unfortunately, it is a poor strategy for everyone concerned. The varmint, let’s say a groundhog, is trapped in a humane trap, but sometimes the animal injures itself in some way in its panic to escape. Injury to a wild animal is often a slow death sentence. The gardener, or his or her proxy, then takes the groundhog out to some countrified place and releases it, feeling good about him or herself, even if the groundhog begs to differ. This is likely another slow death sentence for the groundhog, because for one thing it is not familiar with the new territory, and for another the territory, if it is any good, is likely already occupied by another groundhog or two who will not treat an interloper kindly. The gardener then, with a warm and fuzzy feeling brought on by reflecting on the newfound happiness of the groundhog he or she has just released to frolic in fields of daisies in the countryside, returns home where another groundhog from a neighboring yard eyes the newly unoccupied territory and its fresh crop of tasty vegetation.
There are all sorts of other strategiesfor dealing with varmint pressure on the garden, such as companion plantings or planting only things offensive to them. It can seem the options come down to living in a fenced-in or foul-smelling compound, or giving up on planting old garden favorites like roses and daylilies. There is another option involving compromise and a relinquishing of control, and in the end it may be the only sensible option whether the gardener is willing to acknowledge it or not. It doesn’t mean giving up, but merely giving in where other options are inhumane, or too expensive or unsightly, or just plain idiotic insistence on controlling every little thing. The critters – varmints, if you insist – have just as much right to be here as we do, and that’s true whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Putting up a fight is fine, but try to retain perspective on who is supposed to be the rational creature capable of long-term, ethical considerations. ― Izzy
One of the Varmint Cong, or a Beloved Creature? A white tailed deer fawn, Odocoileus virginianus, in Raleigh, North Carolina; photo by Clay Heaton.