Disaster averted…the flowers prevail

July of 2015 turned out to be one for the record books. It was a scorcher, the hottest in Washington history. Compensating for a broken water pipe to the Medicinal Herb Garden turned out to be very difficult. There’s too much ground to cover and whole areas were drying out before I could get water to them. I suspect that some of the damage we sustained this year will not be seen until next spring, in the garden and around campus.

Luckily, Dale, from the overworked irrigation team, managed to fix the pipe to sections B and C last week, just when all looked lost. Way to go Dale, and James and Scott. Though I shake my head in disbelief whenever I think of it, there are only three people doing all of the irrigation repairs and installation for a 500 acre campus with 500 buildings. I honestly don’t know how they do it. Kudos, gentlemen. The priorities of the University of Washington are sometimes hard to fathom, but your work is appreciated by all of us who care about plants. Good work!

Salal (Gaultheria shalon) at the edible bus stop. It can handle dry conditions but the combination of extreme heat, dryness and thrips was hard.

Salal (Gaultheria shalon) at the edible bus stop. It can handle dry conditions but the combination of extreme heat, dryness, greenhouse thrips (Heliothrips haemorrhoidalis) and no irrigation was hard for it. It’s a tough plant. It should survive.

English oak (Quercus robur) at the northwest edge of section C. It's hard to imagine one hot summer without water would be enough to kill it, but it's not looking good

Oak (Quercus sp.) at the northwest edge of section C. It’s hard to imagine one hot summer without water would be enough to kill it, but it’s not looking good. Maybe it’s going into a drought-induced dormancy. Time will tell.

The lesson for me in this extremely dry, hot weather is to look closely and make note of plants that aren’t bothered by it. It will take planning to make the transition from what has been a cool Mediterranean climate to one that is hot. Water conservation is going to be so important as the population increases and the snowpack decreases in the Olympics and Cascades.

But enough about heat and drought. We’ve got both but others have it worse and we will get through it, hopefully a little wiser and better prepared for the future.

Now it’s time to look at some plants that are doing well.

Devil's bit scabious (Succisia pratensis) in section A. It's a recent addition to the garden and is flowering for the first time.

Devil’s bit scabious (Succisia pratensis) in section A. It’s a recent addition to the garden and is flowering for the first time.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in section A. It's one of four species of Silphium growing in the garden.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in section A. It’s one of four species of Silphium growing in the garden.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in section B, surrounding a tripod trellis of pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla).

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in section B, surrounding a tripod trellis of pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla).








And everyone's favorite morning glory, known as granny vine (Ipomoea tricolor) in section C, right near the...

And everyone’s favorite morning glory, known as granny vine (Ipomoea tricolor) in section C, right near the…

lion's paw/lion's ear (Leonurus nepetifolia).

lion’s paw/lion’s ear (Leonurus nepetifolia). This and the granny vine are magnets for garden visitors.

A closer look at the lion's paw flowers. Hummingbirds love this plant.

A closer look at the lion’s paw flowers. Hummingbirds love this plant.










Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in section C. It's about nine feet tall. Its other common name is gravel root because it has been used to treat gravel or kidney stones.

Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in section C. It’s about ten feet tall. Its other common name is gravel root because it has been used to treat gravel or kidney stones.

Snake gourds (Trichosanthes cucumerina) looking snakey in section B.

Snake gourds (Trichosanthes cucumerina) looking snakey in section B.

Bitter melons (Momordica charantia) in section B.

Bitter melons (Momordica charantia) in section B.







Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale var. autumnale) and wild cucumber(Echinocystis lobata) in section A.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale var. autumnale) and wild cucumber(Echinocystis lobata) in section A. The bed to the right has hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). No, it isn’t related to marijuana, not even in the same family. Its specific epithet, cannabinum, refers to the superficial resemblance of the leaves to Cannabis leaves. I’ve had to explain this to countless garden visitors. Let’s start teaching taxonomy in K-12!

The grain bed has been plundered by the birds this year. The first few years they didn't touch it but they've gotten better at foraging every year, learning to break the seed heads off and drag them to safe places to eat. Anything for the birds.

Note the broken stems. The grain bed, with six species of grain, has been frequented by the birds this year.  The first few years they didn’t touch it, but they’ve gotten better at foraging every year, learning to break the seed heads off and drag them to safe places to eat. Good for them. Anything for the birds.

The evidence. Oats (Avena sativa) seemed to go unnoticed until this year, when they have been eating everything.

The evidence. Oats (Avena sativa) seemed to go unnoticed until this year, when the birds have been eating almost every type of grain in the bed.








Chinese winter melon (Benincasa hispida) section C.

Chinese winter melon/ dong gua  (Benincasa hispida) section C.

Safflowers/hong hua (Carthamus tinctorius) section C. They grew twice as tall as last year.

Safflowers/hong hua (Carthamus tinctorius) section C. They grew twice as tall as last year.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) section C. Some of the flowers stalks are 11 feet tall. Imafine what the tall grass prairies must have been like on foot, with grasses and forbs that tall...and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) running around.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) section C. Some of the flowers stalks are 11 feet tall. Imagine what the tall grass prairies must have been likefor humans, wandering on foot in grasses and forbs that tall…and, before we forced them out and nearly into extinction, plains grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), American buffalo (Bison bison) and Great plains wolves (Canis lupus subsp. nubilus) running around. Now that’s adventure travel.



Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) in the border between sections A and B.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) in the border between sections A and B.







under prairie dock

the slumbering grizzly bear

dreams of buffalo




See you in the garden.


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Around the garden in mid-July

July is a good month for wandering in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Some plants haven’t flowered yet and some are long past, but there’s probably more flowering in July than any other month. For the first time since I started this plant a decade ago, the bush morning glory (Ipomoea leptophylla) is flowering. The bed where it lives has a problem with tree roots filling the space and sucking it dry. Until you’ve dug into an irrigated bed that has dense tree roots growing into it, you don’t know what dry is. Bone dry and powdery, that’s what the soil is like. Many trees are planted much too close to the garden’s borders and they know a good thing when they find it, so their roots wind up where the water is. It’s too late to change that. Instead, I remove as many roots as possible from as many of the problem beds as I can get to every spring, but it’s a stalemate at best.

Bush morning glory (Ipomoaea leptophylla) in section D, flowering for the first time. I'd almost given up on it.

Bush morning glory (Ipomoaea leptophylla) in section D, flowering for the first time. I’d almost given up on it.

This year I got around to clearing roots from the bed where the bush morning glory lives and I think the extra water getting down to its large taproot during the growing season did the trick. Either that or the taproot happened to store up enough energy over the decade to finally flower this year. Or maybe it was a combination of both factors. Who knows for sure? Learning to live without the comfort of surety is…hard…but necessary if my curious mind is to have any peace in this world.

Of course, as we all know, the bush morning glory is a close relative of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), which is native to southern Mexico and naturalized throughout much of the tropical world. The bush morning glory has a native range from southern, central Canada, south to Texas and New Mexico, west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s roots are said to be sweet and edible when young, but bitter, tough and quite large, supposedly up to 40 pounds or more when older. I wonder if anyone is working on a cross between the two species that might be hardy in temperate regions, sweeter and faster growing than the bush morning glory. Maybe the amazing and inspiring Wes Jackson will take it on at the Land Institute.  http://landinstitute.org/

I’ve mentioned in the past on this blog, what a shining light of hope and determination we have in Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute. Well, I’m doing so again and will surely find a way to do so in the future.


Elecampane (Inula helenium) flowering and attracting bees in section B.

Bumblebees and honeybees are in the news a lot these days. Seems they’re not doing so well on this warming planet, constantly exposed to increasing heat and all sorts of environmental poisons like herbicides, pesticides and other residual toxins that are the result of our modern lifestyles. Alas, there’s only so much a gardener can do to help them, though I think most of us wish we could do more. But we can plant a wide array of  flowering plants from a variety of families, so the bees have the nectar and pollen they need to survive. This year, I have to say that bumblebees seem to be everywhere. I’m not sure why, but they seem to be present in greater numbers than past years, though I have no data to support my observations.


All things considered, it still looks like a pretty good life, being a bumblebee.






This coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) shot was taken at the Beacon Food Forest. The nearby catnip (Nepeta cataria) was alive with bees, probably hundreds of them, but my camera couldn’t do them justice. If you haven’t been to the Beacon Food Forest, you should get over there as soon as possible. It’s an inspiration.

chuan dang (Codonopsis tangshen) in section B is one of three species of Codonopsis in the garden. It has the fanciest flowers.

chuan dang (Codonopsis tangshen) in section B is one of three species of Codonopsis in the garden. It has the fanciest flowers.

Some perennials, like the above chuan dang, flower in their first year, while others, like the opopanax, which is flowering for the first time in this border area, take many years to flower.

opopanax (Opoponax chironium) in section A and adjacent border has a resin which was once used for medicine and is still used in perfumery, but I planted it because it is the name of one of my favorite novels, the Opopanax, by Monique Wittig.

Opopanax (Opoponax chironium) in section A and adjacent border has a resin which was once used for medicine and is still used in perfumery, but I planted it because it is the name of one of my favorite novels, The Opopanax, by Monique Wittig.

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) in the border areas is not hugely important as a medicinal herb, but it attracts hummingbirds.

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) in the border areas is not hugely important as a medicinal herb, but it attracts hummingbirds.



There’s probably a hummingbird hovering nearby. Plant scarlet sage if you want to see hummingbirds.






I wonder why they call it pineapple lily (Eucommis autumnalis)? Section A

Hmmm…I wonder why they call it pineapple lily? (Eucommis autumnalis) Section A

sacred datura flower (Datura inoxia) which is night-scented to attract its moth pollinators.

Sacred datura flower (Datura inoxia) in section C, which is night-scented to attract its moth pollinators.


Yes, that’s the extremely problematic, invasive weed, milk thistle, and it is growing in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Why?

Milk thistle flower (Silybum marianum) section A.

Milk thistle flower (Silybum marianum) section A.

Because milk thistle saves lives, that’s why. I remove the flowers before they produce seeds.

The two signs posted in the milk thistle bed.

The two signs posted in the milk thistle bed.


Pleated gentian (Gentiana affinis) in Cascara Circle is looking better every year. It seems to like being next to the canal by the bog and it has survived being stepped on. But please don’t step on it.









Mixed bed of blazing star (Liatris spicata) and button eryngo (Eryngium yuccifolium), pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and slimflower scurfpea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum) in section C

Mixed bed of blazing star (Liatris spicata) and button eryngo (Eryngium yuccifolium), pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and slimflower scurfpea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum) in section C

Wild artichoke (Cynara syriaca) floweing in section C right now.

Wild artichoke (Cynara syriaca) flowering in section C right now.


Closely related cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) in section E. The flowers smell so good that if I were a bee, I too would be sprawled out on this cardoon flower.











 flowers open to

hummingbirds and bumblebees

closing the circle




See you in the garden.







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This year, there are nine species of cucurbits growing in the Medicinal Herb Garden.  Cucurbits are representatives of the Cucurbitaceae, the plant family that supplies us with squash, melons and cucumbers. All of the species in the garden except the squirting cucumber (Ecbalium elaterium) in section C, are vines with tendrils which are grown on trellises because they would otherwise cover the pathways and get stepped on.

Starting in section A on the west side of the garden is the wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), a widespread native of North America. The spiny fruit has four large, black or brown seeds and not much else but some bitter juice. The clusters of small, white flowers are fragrant. Because they’re annuals, they can run up a fence or trellis and not cause a maintenance problem. Just pull the old foliage off after it dies back. Wild cucumber has been used in many ways by Native Americans, but perhaps most importantly as a bitter tonic.


Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) section A. Smell those flowers!

Up the steps, to the east in section B, I’m growing an annual snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina) from southeast Asia, next to bitter melon/bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) from the Old World tropics. Both are used for food and medicine and both are bitter, so best eaten when young and after cooking. Various parts of snake gourd, at different stages of maturity, are considered anti-inflammatory, anthelmintic, purgative, hypoglycemic, gastroprotective and so much more. Bitter melon is used throughout southeast Asia as a medicinal food for a variety of ailments, but most commonly, to treat diabetes.


Snake gourd flower in section B


Bitter melon flower in the same bed.







A few feet away is a vine whose foliage is considered one of the great adaptogens (plants that help our bodies adapt to all sorts of stress), with medicinal properties similar to those of ginseng (Panax spp.). Jiao gu lan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), from eastern Asia, is an herbaceous perennial which grows without much help from me. My kind of plant! Its flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, its fruit green and the size of a small pea. The leaves are commonly eaten right off the plant or brewed into an infusion while fresh or  after drying. It makes sense to dry some for the winter, when the plants are dormant. This is a plant to have on a trellis in your medicine garden at home.


Jiao gu lan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) section B. I eat a few leaves every day.

Moving east across Okanogan Lane to Section C, cucurbits are all over the place but none of them are in the same genus. In the northwest corner is the Chinese winter melon or dong gua ren (Benincasa hispida). If you’ve ever been to one of the produce markets in Seattle’s International District, you’ve seen winter melon, often cut up in large pieces because the melons can get huge. They’re eaten like squash and  when you cut them open, they smell like cucumber mixed with fresh spring air. Their flesh turns translucent when cooked and the melons are considered a food medicine with many healing powers in much of eastern Asia. The juice is used to treat peptic ulcers and the seeds to expel intestinal worms.

Chinese winter melon/dong gua ren (Benincasa hispida) in section C.

Fuzzy leaves of Chinese winter melon/dong gua ren (Benincasa hispida) in section C.


And here’s last year’s bounty of winter melons. The white blush you see on them is normal, though it looks like powdery mildew.








A few feet away are the luffas (Luffa aegyptiaca). The luffa ‘sponge’ you might buy for your shower is the same luffa eaten by millions in eastern Asia. They’re prepared in many ways, as you would zucchini. The trick is to pick them before they become tough and fibrous. Once they reach that stage, you can wait until the end of the season and harvest them to make your own luffa sponge. No, they’re not the marine organisms we know as sponges, and calling them sponges probably complicates matters. I just call them luffas.


luffa/si gua luo (Luffa aegyptiaca) section C.


Immature fruit a week later. All of the cucurbits are looking great this year. They love the heat.

This is the first year I’ve grown chayote (Sechium edule), native to Mexico but grown and eaten widely throughout the world. I got the chayote that grew into this plant from my coworker and friend Binh, who grew up in Vietnam. He prefers the spiny chayotes so that’s what he gave me. Chayotes have one big seed, like an avocado, and the seed was sprouting right out of the squash so I planted the whole thing. I’m looking forward to trying spiny chayote for the first time this year. Thanks, Binh.


Chayote growing in section C is already reaching the top of the tripod. I’ve seen them growing on a trellis in a yard in the Beacon Hill neighborhood and they produce a lot of food! If you like to grow squash, try these.










For many years I’ve been growing the eastern Asian, perennial snake gourd (Trichosanthes kirilowii), which has roots called tian hua fen and fruits called gua lou in China. Unlike the annual snake gourd in section B, the fruits of this vine, though they are used for food, are more commonly put to a wide variety of medicinal uses. Because the plants are dioecious, you must have at least one male plant to pollinate your female plants, if you want fruit. Male plants are preferred for root production. Unfortunately, even with five or six plants, all started from seeds many years ago, I still haven’t gotten fruit. The fruit form and then drop off the vine before maturity. I think it’s time to move them to a new location.


Perennial snake gourd leaves and tendrils in section C. It’s flowers resemble the annual snake gourd’s flowers…but it hasn’t flowered yet this year.

Our only Medicinal Herb Garden cucurbit that isn’t a vine, from the Mediterranean region, the inconspicuous squirting cucumber (Ecbalium elaterium) has fruit which can eject their seeds far from the plant. How far? I’m not sure but I’ve found seedlings growing in nearby beds at least ten feet away. I wear safety glasses when collecting the seeds. The cucumbers, by the way, are quite bitter and toxic, though the juice has been used medicinally in very small doses.


Squirting cucumber, like many cucurbits, is monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same plant.



These are immature fruit. When they lighten in color and the seeds are ripe, the least touch can set them off.









cucumber salad

grilled chayote and luffa

then watermelon



See you in the garden.

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Sprinklers and other strange sights

Our unseasonably hot spring has turned into unseasonably hot summer. What a year for the mainline water pipe that controls irrigation to a third of the garden beds, all surrounding borders and other areas beyond the Medicinal Herb Garden, to break. And it’s not going to be fixed any time soon. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve learned not to ask questions about budget priorities at a large institution. I just take care of the garden, come hell or high water, or in this case, drought and heat. For a couple weeks, I watered by hand with a watering wand and it took a very long time. When certain soils get too dry, they become hydrophobic, meaning they repel rather than absorb water. Watering wands put out a lot of volume and that overwhelmed the ability of the soil to soak it up. Oh, the frustration!

So I turned to sprinklers. They use up almost as much time because they need to be repositioned often. But they soak the soil more gradually than the watering wands and that means no more runoff. They also soak the gravel and everything else in the area and waste a lot of water through evaporation. Oh well…



It’s not the best sprinkler for garden beds but it will do in an emergency and this is a year of sustained emergency.


This overhead sprinkler, like the kind we used to run through as children, works quite well but it needs to be moved a lot to cover the vast area that is without irrigation this year. I’ll do what I must to keep the plants alive.


Last week, someone passing through the garden mentioned that there were thousands of bees massing along the Burke-Gilman Trail, close to the greenhouse. That got my attention so off I ran to investigate. Bees! This is what I saw.


Honey bee (Apis mellifera) swarm on the artichoke plants (Cynara scolymus) near the southeast corner of the greenhouse.


I called our resident entomologist and beekeeping instructor, Evan Sugden. Luckily he answered his phone and agreed to come right over. I didn’t get a chance to see him wave his magic wand, but he somehow coaxed the bees into this bee box. Good work, Evan.


New home for the honeybees.


Bees slowly settling into their new space. Once they had set up house, Evan moved them to the bee village where the rest of the bee boxes are placed. Protected from extreme weather by nearby woods and surrounded by a wide variety of flowering plants, the bee boxes are in an excellent spot but will have to move soon to make room for construction of a new building. Hopefully, their new home, wherever it is, will be as well situated. Good luck, bees.










During the warm, dry days of summer, many birds take dust baths, presumably to clean their feathers and remove parasites. I often find smooth, rounded, shallow indentations in  the garden beds where there is bare ground. I used to wonder what mysterious force acted upon the soil to create these strange circles of various sizes. Hmmm… And then one day I saw this behavior.


A Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) had to do a little work to get to the dry soil beneath the forest litter. I’ve seen lots of different birds take dust baths in the garden, but most often jays, robins and crows. Sometimes the indentation is etched deeply enough that the bird appears as though it’s been flattened by a steamroller or has flown up from the netherworld and is assessing the situation before disappearing again below the surface, like a whale coming up for air and a view of the sky.


I’d rather bathe in water than dust but to each his own. Wherever the sprinkler is watering there are birds taking water baths and drinking. Maybe that’s their reward after taking a dust bath. Speaking of birds, look who wandered into the woods north of section D today.



Fledgeling great blue heron (Ardea herodias) that wandered into the woods after failing to get back to the nest on its maiden voyage. Some concerned citizens who work on campus were looking on when I took this photograph. We agreed to give it our best shot to see if there’s a sanctuary that will accept this beautiful bird. Otherwise, the raccoons will be getting a fresh meal soon. The heron rookery, under which the bird stands, seems to be thriving this year after the herons nearly deserted the area last year.


The flowers are opening from the bottom to the top of the inflorescence on this glorious Agave xylonacantha outside the west end of the Botany Greenhouse. It’s listing to the south so I had to lie on the ground to get its picture. Please stop by to see it if you get the chance.


Agave xylonacantha, a native of Mexico, flowering between the greenhouse and Kincaid Hall. The inflorescence is about 18 feet long.

It’s blazing hot and humid from yesterday morning’s brief thundershower. The ground is parched, fires are starting on the east side of the state and even on the Olympic Peninsula, in the rain forest of the Queets River valley. More than a million acres of Alaska are burning with hundreds of forest fires as I write. It’s going to be a long summer.



keep near the water

 sage words from the desert lands

whisper on the wind



See you in the garden.

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Trimming hedges, transforming weeds and eating a tamarillo…finally

Evey year, just before graduation, it’s time to trim the hedge that runs along Stevens Way from the west side of section D to the east side of section E. It’s a mixed hedge of privet (Ligustrum japonicum) holly (Ilex aquifolium) and bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). They’re all still there, but the root suckers from the many species of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) which grow adjacent to the hedge on the north side, have made their way, along with tall Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), into the privet section . It’s hedge trimmer’s choice, how to deal with these uninvited guests. My only absolute rule is to leave no gaping holes. As long as everything is more or less green, who cares? My battery powered hedge trimmer with a 24 inch blade makes the work such a pleasure compared to the manual hedge shears which I used for far too long.


My shoulders are so much happier now. This is truly a labor saving device.


The hedge gets a haircut.

Last Friday, the UW Society of Ethnobiology, of which I’m a proud member, hosted a workshop in Cascara Circle, entitled Weaving with Invasives, taught by local master weaver Melinda West. Using reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), English ivy (Hedera helix) and yellow flag (Iris pseudoacorus) harvested from around campus, participants in the workshop wove baskets and made cords from these three invasive species.


The beginnings of an ivy basket.


A little further along with some reed canary grass woven in.


Reed canary grass and yellow flag, ready for cordage and baskets. First they were dried and then soaked to make them supple.

Watching people make baskets is like watching people planting, winnowing seeds, throwing nets for fishing, stalking animals or gathering berries in the forest. These basic, fundamental human activities haven’t changed that much in thousands of years.




And what a brilliant way to transform the overabundance of certain plants into a bountiful source of raw material for crafters. There’s a lot of reed canary grass and ivy in this state.




Progression of raw materials to finished product.


Basket weavers quietly at work in Cascara Circle on a warm spring afternoon.









A great, meditative way to spend time and slow down in our crazy, fast-paced world. Perhaps there will be more events like this one soon…


Meanwhile, the garden is beginning to bloom.



Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) in Cascara Circle. There are three of them blooming right now.

Mock orange and wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) in Cascara Circle.

Mock orange and wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) in Cascara Circle.

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) along Okanogan Lane.

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) along Okanogan Lane.








A closeup of flannel bush flowers. They last a long time.

A closeup of flannel bush flowers. They last a long time.

And finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for (at least I have): one of the tamarillos was barely ripe enough to sample, so, rather than wait, I tried it and loved its complex tastes and textures. Why don’t they sell them here? Somebody should start importing them (or growing them down south) soon.

Tamarillo (Solanum betacea) not absolutely ripe but really good. It's tart, with an exotic, tropical fruit taste that I cannot describe. I'll need to eat about a dozen more.

Tamarillo (Solanum betacea), not absolutely ripe but really good. It’s tart, with an exotic, tropical fruit taste that is vaguely familiar, like kiwi crossed with papaya and honeydew melon, but not quite. It’s hard to pin it down…I’ll need to eat about a dozen more before I have the answer.


That was so, so good.



like all the best things

so hard to describe its taste

first tamarillo



See you in the garden.

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Random notes

We’ve finally gotten some rain again. It hasn’t amounted to much but it has helped, especially since the irrigation system in two sections of the garden is temporarily broken. That means I’m shuttling watering cans from the cistern in Cascara Circle to sections B and C as well as adjacent borders. When it’s warm and sunny, that’s a lot of shuttling. It’s a bit like CrossFit except I get paid to do it (and usually don’t get injured).

Most of the beds are planted, at least minimally. There are still more plants to go in but I’m waiting for the smallest seedlings to get a bit larger. The garden shed, where I leave my flats and empty pots after planting, is a bit disorganized at the moment. I’ll wait until everything is planted and then do a thorough cleanup. No, really. If you pass by and look in, don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.

Crime scene? No, just a working garden shed in May.

Crime scene? No, just a working garden shed in May.

Another view of the chaos.

Another view of the chaos.

If you view last year’s posts from around this time, you’ll get a good idea of what is flowering, but here’s some new bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in section E, donated by a friend of the Medicinal Herb Garden who lives on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Thanks, Dawn!

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an understory plant of the forests east of the Mississippi.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an understory plant of the forests from eastern and central Canada and the USA.

The herons are holding their own in the rookery, north of section D. That said, the eagles are around and causing a ruckus when they fly low over campus. They have a taste for young herons.

Believe it or not, the tamarillos are still not quite ripe, though they are ripening. They’re redder on the south and east sides of the fruit than on the north and west. I swear I’m going to eat one soon.

View of tamarillos (Solanum betacea) from the east.

View of tamarillos (Solanum betacea) from the east.








Where ever you are, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, it is spring and you should get outside if you can. Though I sometimes whine about going to work, spring reminds me of how lucky I am to work in a garden. Here are some recent photographs.


Steps between sections A and B, ensconced in an unruly border of mostly perennials. Those are English yews (Taxus baccata) at the top of the steps.


Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) and French roses (Rosa gallica) in the foreground.


Purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Purpureus’) with an understory of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) north of section B.









Xeriscape bed with flowering snowbush (Ceanothus cordulatus). Soon, in another month or so, the prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) will be flowering.


Mixed border between sections A and B.


Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum) in section A.


Maralroot (Leuzea carthamoides) displaying its first flower of the year. I can’t shake the image of Siberian reindeer munching on these spring flowers as they emerge, with snow still on the ground.










Mountain bistort (Polygonum bistorta), a close cousin of our own mountain bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) whose Latin name tells us it was discovered by Westerners after P. bistorta. The suffix, oides, means ‘like or resembling’.


Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum). Can’t have too many of these.









Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) slowly encircling Cascara Circle. Fine with me.


Salal (Gaultheria shalon) berries are good eating but the flowers are also worth a visit. Now is the time.


A few feet from the salal in Cascara Circle is the Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). They have the largest hips of the Washington native roses. And their flowers are fragrant.









That’s the news. I hope you can make it by the herb garden, but if not, I hope you can get outside. It’s amazing what a springtime walk in the fresh air can do for your spirit.



too much, not enough

that’s the way that rain comes down

the wise laugh it off



See you in the garden.


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Lomatium etc.

There are more than 70 species of Lomatium growing in western North America. Surely there are a few people who can recognize all species, but I’m not one of them. However, I’m currently growing six species in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Some, like Lomatium nudicaule, californicum, dissectum and martindalei are distinctive enough, each in their own way, that I can pick them out of a lineup, though I recently discovered that the flowers of Lomatium martindalei are usually white or ochroleucous (look it up; I did), rarely yellow except in populations from the Olympic Peninsula and nearby coastal islands. Ours at the Medicinal Herb Garden are yellow and I’d assumed that was the norm.

Lomatium martindalei

Lomatium martindalei (Cascade desert parsley, Coast Range lomatium) in section D with yellow flowers, apparently from Olympic Peninsula or coastal island seeds.

Lomatium californicum looks like a lovage plant (Levisticum officinale) and the leaves have a similar taste, like celery leaves. It does well in average, well drained soil around here and drops enough seeds that some germinate every year. It’s the only species of Lomatium in the Medicinal Herb Garden that reliably produces enough viable seeds which actually germinate outside under ‘natural’ conditions.

Lomatium californicum

Lomatium californicum (California lomatium) in section C

Lomatium dissectum also produces a lot of seeds but they have, so far, stubbornly refused to germinate outside in the garden. I’m not sure why. Maybe they need more cold stratification than they get in Seattle. Or maybe they rot in our heavy rains. It’s hard to reproduce the conditions in which they normally grow on the east side of the Cascades.

Lomatium dissectum

Lomatium dissectum (fernleaf biscuitroot)  flowering in section D. This is the species usually found in herbal tinctures. Though it is considered a powerful antiviral, antibacterial medicine plant, there has been surprisingly little published on it by medical researchers in the USA. If Lomatium were from Eurasia, I suspect much more medical testing/clinical trials would have been done on it by now. Maybe some day soon, a student at our very own University of Washington will begin researching the medicinal properties of Lomatium dissectum and other species.

When I start seeds of any of the six Lomatium species that I grow, I sow them in flats, water them and commit them to the refrigerator, encased in a plastic bag for 90-120 days, then remove the bags and put them out in an unheated cold frame to face the oscillating temperatures of late winter to early spring. It has worked for me. Timing seems important in my efforts to start plants from seeds. For many species, it’s good to have their cold stratification in the refrigerator ending as temperatures are slowly starting to warm up outside. Some seeds can come out of the refrigerator and go directly into the heated greenhouse to germinate, but others are cool-soil germinators, meaning they will start to germinate after a certain (mysterious) period of cold, sometimes in complete darkness in the refrigerator, before the soil warms up. If they go directly into warm temperatures before the mysterious trigger point occurs, they are unlikely to come up. Truly. This has been my hard experience. That said, I don’t discard difficult seeds until they have passed through at least two winters and two spring/summers. Yes, some seeds need to go through more than one period of cold stratification. Even then, before discarding anything, I sift through the soil to be sure the seeds have rotted. If they still look solid, I don’t give up. Some seeds can last for decades or even centuries in the soil. And some need to be abraded (scarified) or subjected to fire or smoke or hot water or who knows what..maybe a little fist shaking or benedictions….or maledictions for that matter. I’d hop around on one leg in my birthday suit, singing the theme song from Sesame Street if it would help get the seeds of certain stubborn plants to germinate. And that’s not the half of it. Starting seeds can become an obsession that leads to a very deep, dark rabbit hole. I went down that rabbit hole long ago and haven’t found my way out yet and don’t expect to until I breathe my last. We all need a quest of some kind.

While there is some information on the web about how to propagate wild plants from seeds, much of it appears, in my humble opinion, to be pure hokum, often third party hokum at that, and the number of variables involved is…variable…and mysterious. It helps to imagine the place where the plant grows, the weather, flowering time etc. and think about the conditions the seeds are subject to, leading up to the point when they germinate. How can we replicate those conditions? We can’t, but we can approximate them to the best of our abilities…and keep trying…and keep good notes. Spend enough years starting wild plants from seeds and you will enter a place of paradox: a robust and well earned confidence born of experimentation and empirical validation mingles with a vague but dawning realization that much of the phenomenal world we experience is, functionally, beyond our feeble powers of reckoning. We don’t live nearly long enough to run all the trials it would take to gain an understanding of the complexities of seed germination.  Getting some of the seeds started most of the time is likely about as good as it will get for many of us. And that’s alright with me.

Lomatium macrocarpum

Lomatium macrocarpum in section D. Yes, I grow three species of Lomatium in the same section of the garden, but it’s ok, they don’t all flower at the same time.

The similar, ferny foliage of many Lomatium species on the east side of the Cascades makes for difficulty identifying them. If they all flowered at the same time and we could  see them together at that moment, with our taxonomy books and our thinking caps and some strong coffee, we might work our way through them more easily. Luckily, many are endemics with tiny ranges, so, knowing the precise location of a Lomatium species you’re trying to identify will probably eliminate some lookalike contenders.

It’s Lomatium flowering time in the lowlands. Get out to the east side if you can. April in the lower elevations, with the phlox and balsamroot, phacelia and serviceberry, anemones and so much more, what a treat before the sun dries them up until next year.


Lomatium cous

Lomatium cous (cous biscuitroot) in section C has taken several years to flower. Maybe it will produce some viable seed this summer. Or maybe not. The root is a traditional food of many western Native Americans.



 on rocky scrublands

soaking up the desert sun

biscuitroot flowers




See you in the garden.

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Tamarillos, aphids and IPM

As you probably know, in addition to medicinal plants, there are fiber, dye, ceremonial and food plants in the Medicinal Herb Garden. In recent years I’ve been growing a bed of South American food plants, including oca (Oxalis tuberosa), yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia), jaborosa (Jaborosa sativa), tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis), anyu (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and most recently, tamarillo (Solanum betacea). Early last year, I started some tamarillos from seeds. Only one survived but it was a keeper. It grew to 4 feet in the garden before the cold weather set in, so I potted it up and put it on a bench in the greenhouse. It soon grew another 2 feet and started putting out flowers…then the aphids (I’m not sure which of the many genera of aphids, let alone what species we have) hit. Not just a few aphids but thousands. Every leaf was covered top and bottom. Even the flowers were covered.

But just as I was considering jetting them off with a high pressure water hose, I started to notice the aphids were turning silver and when I looked closely, I could see little holes on top of them. Some creatures were parasitizing them. They were taking care of the problem quietly and efficiently and doing a much better job than I could have with my hose.

In the Botany Greenhouse, we have at least two aphid predators. One is a species of gall-midge known as Aphidoletes aphidimyza. The larvae of these gall-midges inject poison into aphids that dissolves their insides. They then suck the aphids dry, leaving empty aphid mummies. I didn’t look closely enough to get a good idea of what percentage of aphids had been killed by gall-midges.

What I first noticed were the holes on the backs of the dead aphids and the change in color from green to silvery, obviously the work of different predators, larvae of a tiny wasp.  The adult wasps, a species of Aphidius, probably either matricariae or colemani or both, are so small  that you have to look very closely to see them. By the way, you have nothing to fear from them…unless you’re an aphid. If you’ve seen the movie, Alien, you know that a human was the host for the alien. Pretty gross. That’s the way that aphids are hosts for Aphidius larvae. Better them than us!

Look closely at the aphid mummies. The holes on their backs are the escape hatches for the wasp that has eaten its way out of the aphid. It started its life cycle as an egg laid by its mother on the back of an aphid. After the egg hatches, the larva feeds inside the aphid, ultimately killing it. Then it chews its way out and flies away to deal more death and destruction to aphids.

Look at the aphid mummies. The holes on their backs are the escape hatches for the wasp that has eaten its way out of the aphid. It started its life cycle as an egg laid by its mother on the back of an aphid. After the egg hatches, the larva feeds inside the aphid, ultimately killing it. Then it chews its way out and flies away to deal more death and destruction to aphids. If you click on the image and look closely, you can see a larva of either a gall-midge or a lacewing (Chrysoperia rufrilabris).


It’s a tribute to the efforts of Doug Ewing, the former Botany Greenhouse manager, and his amazing staff, that so many counterbalancing predators have been introduced to the greenhouse to keep the vast array of plant pests in check. This strategy of using biological controls is part of an overall system known as Integrated Pest Management or IPM. Everyone employing IPM has a different threshold for acceptable levels of herbivory. In the greenhouse where research is conducted, the threshold is often quite low, so it’s also sometimes necessary to spray insecticides in the research rooms when pest populations get out of control. It’s difficult to keep a state of  perfectly balanced equilibrium at all times. In fact, it’s impossible.

In the Medicinal Herb Garden I have a lot more leeway to let things go. I use no pesticides except, rarely, in spring, when seedlings are first transplanted into the garden, an organically certified pyrethrum product to kill destructive ants. My tolerance for pests is high and populations are low due to the wide variety of plants that attract beneficial insects and the open air that allows freedom of travel for all sorts of organisms. The constant warmth, closed environment and close spacing in the greenhouse is much more conducive to sudden explosions of pests. In the garden, it isn’t long after the aphids find their favorite plants that lady beetles (Coccinella spp.) arrive. The larvae of lady beetles are voracious predators of aphids. They look a little like miniature, crinkly gila monsters with extra legs. But very small birds, known as bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), are also quite effective at aphid control, and they often come through the garden in flocks. They love to take water baths when the irrigation sprinklers are turned on and are, in all ways, a joyous presence in the garden. Thank you, bushtits.

Other than aphids and pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) that will girdle the stems and kill certain seedlings, and slugs (usually Arion hortensis) that can be a problem, especially in cool weather when young plants are growing slowly, the Medicinal Herb Garden is largely free of noticeable pests. If they’re not noticeable, who cares? I can usually hand pick anything that is causing serious problems, at least until the beneficial predators show up. The wider the variety of plant families, the more diverse the fauna, and diverse ecosystems, managed or natural, have, in my limited observations, proven to be the most resilient and balanced.

Thanks to a nearly invisible wasp, we will be able to finally try the fruit of the tamarillo at the Botany Greenhouse. When we do, I’ll let you know how they taste.


Stuck in the southeast corner of the greenhouse, it's doing well.

Stuck in the southeast corner of the greenhouse, the tamarillo is doing well.

Immature tamarillos that better ripen if they know what's good for them. I want to try a tamarillo.

Immature tamarillos that better ripen if they know what’s good for them. I want to try a tamarillo.








Still green, two weeks later but they will ripen...they must ripen.

Still green, two weeks later but they will ripen…they must ripen.



keeping a balance

not as easy as it sounds

but it all works out






See you in the garden.

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The flow of spring

April air around the Medicinal Herb Garden and Botany Greenhouse is rich with the scent of cottonwoods (Populus spp.) whose fragrant, sticky buds  smell like beeswax infused with jasmine flowers.  On these warming days, the hum of bees, the bird songs, the brilliant green of new foliage and the sudden opening of flowers all make for dreamy times. It’s hard not to contemplate the possibility of putting down the tools and going for a long, long journey. Spring has that effect on some of us.

A couple weeks ago, when many honeybees in the area were swarming and lighting out for the territory to find new homes, some of the UW Beekeepers’ bees got into the act. Losing your bees can be a blow, but after a small swarm of ours left, a swarm from somewhere else arrived to take their place. It doesn’t always happen like this but sometimes the stars are aligned. Evan Sugden, entomologist, beekeeper and teacher of the UW  scientific beekeeping classes, has the calm demeanor we expect of beekeepers. He seemed unsurprised that the bees had swarmed away and unsurprised that a new swarm had arrived. Usually only about half of the colony leaves with the old queen and the remaining bees produce a new queen, so, while swarming is not ideal, neither is it the end of the world. Bees leave because they’re feeling overcrowded. May they find the space they need.

Swarm taking over a newly empty hive. Ina perfect world, our swarm would wind up in the hive these bees left behind.

Swarm of new bees waiting patiently on the side of an occupied hive. They didn’t have to wait long for Evan to coax them into an empty hive, their new home. Hopefully, the bees that left here in a swarm have found a good home.


In spring the energy rises up and suddenly takes flight, like a tornado, to do what it has to do, create or destroy or just move on, or all of the above. Seems like that’s pretty much life in a nutshell.

In March and April I take stock of the winter’s wreckage in the garden, often unnoticeable, without looking closely, until plants fail to produce new growth. In addition to seeds recently gathered in trade and the usual annuals and biennials, I start more seeds of plants that didn’t make it through the winter. In the natural world, seeds dropped by plants each year would form a seed bank that would germinate over time, maybe after a disturbance like a wildfire or a landslide, a flood or an animal digging in the soil. But in a public garden, it’s up to the gardener to keep the beds filled with plants, otherwise it starts to look shabby.


Seed flats, potted seedlings, tropical perennials etc. awaiting the proper time for resettlement in the Medicinal Herb Garden.



The far end of the growing bench. Growing plants is a pleasure, an obsession and sometimes an addiction, though a fairly benign one (so far…I think). Last week, I collected seeds of fragrant, spiny Ceanothus fendleri in the Chiricahua Mountains and I will grow them if I can. I also collected seeds from a species of Vitex (not a species I’m familiar with) growing in a planter outside a coffee house in Bisbee, Arizona. Why? Because they were there! Look for both in the garden, this year or next.


That’s one reason I go to the mountains. I’ve never seen a garden designed and created by a human that can rival the random perfection of a subalpine meadow in the Cascades or Olympics, certainly not a formal arrangement like the Medicinal Herb Garden with its wooden borders and gravel pathways. If I had permission, I’d rip the whole thing out and start over with a more natural setting, following some basic patterns of the natural world.

Still, the same forces are at work, even in the most domesticated landscape: birth, death, entropy, all leading to another season of renewal in spring. This is a good time to visit the garden. Look closely and you’ll see the sun’s energy, stored from last year in roots and branches, as it transforms into new growth, rising up to draw sustenance from this year’s rays and nutrients from past autumns’ decayed leaves; the cycle continues, on and on and on.

Last year it appeared that the blue herons had abandoned their rookery but they’re back. Before the leaves fill in the deciduous trees, wander over to the woods north of the giant sequoia in section D and look up. You’ll probably hear them before you see them, but their nests are hard to miss. Let’s hope they can fend off the eagles without the loss of too many chicks this year. The first awkward flight of the fledgelings is a nail biter, as the crows and seagulls try to force them down to the ground. It’s not for the faint of heart but it’s pretty exciting when they make it back to the nest.




 tumult of springtime

whirlwind spinning life and death

tightly into one



See you in the garden.


























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Greens etc.

From the remote trailsides and meadows of national forests and parks to suburban lawns and abandoned lots in temperate regions here and around the world,  dandelions (generally Taraxacum officinale in this country)  make themselves at home.




They appear to be almost everywhere. For some who are compelled by their occupation as gardeners to weed dandelions, this is a challenge we accept. There is no other choice. But a slight shift in consciousness allows us to see these excellent plants not as an encroaching enemy but as our helpful friends. It feels a lot better to be surrounded by allies than invading enemies. Dandelions provide us with food, medicine and dye. And they begin flowering early, offering bees a source of nectar and pollen before a lot of other plants are blooming.

Dandelion reproduction is…not so straight forward. Apparently, they’re more likely to reproduce sexually back home in certain parts of Eurasia (though asexually in other parts). Here in North America, they generally, but not always, reproduce asexually. I am not a geneticist, not even close, so I won’t embarrass myself trying to explain what I don’t fully understand.

Here you have it succinctly and clearly by Dr. T. Ombrello  of the Union County College (NJ) Biology Department in the Plant of the Week column:

Most dandelions produce seeds by apomixis, where unfertilized egg cells in the ovaries produce viable seeds that will germinate to become clones of the parent plant. The plants reproducing by apomixis are polyploids (mostly triploids) with an irregular number of chromosomes in their cells. A population of dandelions can contain plants reproducing by both methods. This flexibility in seed production, with both asexually and sexually reproducing individuals in a population, allows for some diversity within each generation, while permitting adapted asexually reproducing individuals to clone themselves. This is just another little feature of this amazing species that makes it so successful.

Agreed, it is an amazing species. It treats our livers and gall bladders, contains beta- carotene, calcium, manganese, zinc, iron and potassium, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K and more. How strange, the effort we put into growing less nutritionally robust, domesticated greens that are plagued with pests, require large amounts of supplemental water, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides (organic or conventional), soil that has been tilled or otherwise loosened, and much of our time and energy.

Maybe more of us should be growing dandelions in our vegetable gardens alongside the beets and spinach instead of weeding them out of our lawns. Or, better yet, we should be harvesting what we weed. They get bitter when they flower, so pick the greens before the plant flowers (unless you like really bitter greens, as some of us do) and the root between fall and early spring, when the previous year’s energy is stored before moving upward to create new spring foliage and flowers.  Fresh or dried, the roots can be used to make a tea/tisane/infusion/decoction or whatever you choose to call the liquid you get when you steep or simmer fresh or dried herbs in hot water. When roasted, dandelion roots can be steeped or simmered in hot water to make dandelion ‘coffee’.

To prepare  a batch, harvest as many dandelion roots as you need, wash and chop them  into small pieces, then run them through a food processor until they are ground up. How you roast them is up to you. You could pan roast them as the Japanese do with hojicha green tea, or put them in a thin layer, up to half an inch deep, on a baking sheet in the oven with the door cracked at 250 degrees (or higher or lower, depending on how light or dark a roast you want your ‘coffee’ to be) for a couple of hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Once cool, store them in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark place. They last for a long, long time. Dandelion coffee has no caffeine but it does have that rich depth of flavor that coffee drinkers crave. The flowers too are edible and many people use them to make wine and for dyeing. The unopened flower buds can be pickled as you would capers (the unopened flower buds of  the Eurasiafrican shrub, Capparis spinosa).

It feels like spring today, as this mild winter continues. Dandelions and a lot of other wild greens are growing nearby, maybe in your yard or nearby park. There’s so much bounty free for the taking but mostly we walk past or over it on our way to the grocery store.

With the huge, seasonal aggregations of salmon and other species of anadromous fish largely gone from our dammed and polluted rivers (at least in the lower 48 states), our cities covered in concrete, much of our available land contaminated with toxic chemicals, our peri-urban and suburban spaces filled in with lawns and ornamental landscapes, it’s not possible to seriously pursue a hunting/gathering way of life here in Seattle or in the other dense population centers of North America, though the freakish explosion of white-tailed deer numbers on much of the east coast might warrant it and a very rare, careful, ingenious, tenacious but statistically insignificant person might pull it off on the fringes for a while with some raccoon, squirrel, possum, mallard, Canada goose and whatever else is abundant in their neck of the woods added for variety.

Even so, we can use common sense to harvest what we know is edible (get a good field guide at your local, independent bookstore or public library) from safe places to supplement our increasingly uniform diets with some plants that haven’t had all the flavor and nutritional qualities bred out of them. Nettle season is in full swing!

If you’re local and have some time tomorrow, stop by Anderson Hall at the UW and attend Jo Robinson’s talk about eating healthier plants that still bear some of the nutritional attributes of their wild relatives :

Jo Robinson, author of the bestselling Eating on the Wild Side and resident of Vashon Island, will be the guest speaker at the UW Society of Ethnobiology’s Winter Speaker Event on Tuesday, March 10. The event is from 1:30-3:00pm in Anderson Hall, Forest Club Room (floor 2). A reception and poster session follows.



 eyes out for wild greens

creeping over the wastelands

as we did before


See you in the garden.

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