Tag Archives: flowers

Carnations: The Blanket of Champions

Today is the running of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in thoroughbred horseracing’s Triple Crown. This mile and a half race is known as the ‘Test of Champions,’ sorting out the speedy flashes in the pan from those that can race with endurance. Like the other two jewels of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes has its own floral tradition.

Blanket of white carnations on the Belmont Stakes winner Credit: Craiglduncan via Wikimedia commons

White Carnation Credit: Dysepsion via Wikimedia Commons

White carnations are the prize of the victor. Wow. Carnations. Dianthus caryophyllus. The ubiquitous ruffled flower used as filler in almost every floral arrangement. Personally, I am not a fan of these blooms and feel they should be relegated to their place in history as boutonnieres of the 1970s. Yes, I said it. I’m sure I’m in the minority view since carnations are economically important worldwide in the floral trade. Still, you’d think the Belmont and potential Triple Crown champion would be adorned in something more lavish like orchids or plumerias to go along with the silver bowl made by Tiffany and Co. Yet it is the fundamental characteristic of the carnation as a cut flower- endurance- that deems it the most fitting ornament for the winner. Their soft colors and delicate ruffled petals belie their stamina in the vase compared to other blooms, and this is why carnations have been a mainstay of floral arrangements for centuries to the point of being unremarkable, tacky even. Analogous hardiness and perseverance in the racehorses is critical for success in the Belmont and celebrated in the form of the carnation flower.

Carnation line drawing Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman via Wikimedia Commons

As in racehorse breeding, ornamental plant breeders are seeking to combine the desirable traits of flash and fortitude. I’ve mentioned in several other posts about the genetics behind new color patterns and flower forms, but the ultimate champions in the floral industry must have stamina in the vase. This isn’t something that plants have a natural tendency to do. The purpose of flowers is to provide a desirable visual attractant to pollinators; usually insects- plants could really care less about what people think of them.* Once pollination occurs, the flower’s job is done and there’s no need for the plant to invest the energy into maintaining firm colorful petals. Thus, after pollination the flowers begin the program of senescence, in which certain cells and tissues die and fall off of the plant. Plant scientists and horticulturists are working to understand the factors involved in order to find ways to short-circuit the process and keep cut flowers alive longer in our arrangements. The complex biochemical pathways that control floral senescence make this task about as difficult as breeding a Triple Crown winner.**

White carnations are also said to represent love and luck. Sure there is a lot of love poured into the Belmont Stakes contenders. No one will discount the chance events that aided the campaigns of the three-year-old horses up to this point, but there is a great amount of dedication, training and hard work by both species contributing to success on the racetrack.

White carnation Credit: Takkk via Wikimedia Commons



“I believe luck is a concept invented by the weak to explain their failures.” –Ron Swanson




Whatever the factors contributing to the victory, the winning horse will get a blanket of white carnations painstakingly assembled by the official florist of the New York Racing Association, Tony Green and his team the day of the race. The thousands of the best-looking carnation flowers were chosen earlier this week and have been soaking in water for the past 48 hours to ensure maximum plumpness. 700 of them will be meticulously glued onto the green fabric to form the blanket for today’s winner. That’s not the only blanket that will be made today. Florists will actually be assembling another blanket to go onto the statue of Secretariat, track and world-record holder for one and half miles on dirt. Actually, there will probably even be a third carnation blanket because Secretariat’s first carnation blanket will likely wilt in the humidity before the end of the day and need to be replaced. Not even carnations have the endurance to withstand those conditions.



*Michael Pollan might disagree. Plant-human interactions have changed quite a bit and once humans become artificial plant pollinators and propagators, the selective pressure changes tremendously.

**But remember there are some advantages of plants vs. thoroughbreds when it comes to manipulating genomes. Last I checked, transgenic technology is not allowed nor is it available for thoroughbreds.

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Black-eyed Susans

Preakness starting gate at Pimlico in May 2011. Credit: Fisherga via Wikipedia

Crab cakes and football aren’t really the only things Maryland does. Today on the track at Pimlico, the 139th Preakness race will be run. It’s the second jewel of American Thoroughbred Racing’s Triple Crown and also known as the ‘Run for the Black-eyed Susans’ because they are the state flower of Maryland.

Black-eyed Susan blossom Credit: Photo taken by user Lorax and released under the GFDL via Wikipedia

The Latin name for the Black-eyed Susan genus is Rudbeckia hirta. It’s a common American wildflower with bright yellow petals and dark domed centers. Some garden varieties are regular annuals, but many of the true wildflowers are biennials, producing only green foliage their first year and flowering their second. The blooms are frequently visited by bees, butterflies and other insects for their nectar.

Black-eyed Susans Credit: Isolino Ferreira via Flickr

But who was this Susan? Why were her eyes black? It dates back to a folk song written by John Gay popular in the early 1700s. The poor girl was saddened because her true love William was about to shove off to sea. Don’t worry, he consoles her with the fact that he will be safe and true while away. Riiiight. There’s no follow-up poem so we never know if they end up happily ever after together, but really how bad was maritime service in 1720? I’m sure he was fine. We may not know about the people, but some gardeners do favor companion planting of Black-eyed Susan flowers and Sweet Williams. At least botanically, they do well together.

All in the dawn the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving to the wind,
When Black-eyed Susan came on board,
Oh where shall I my true love find?

Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true,
If my sweet William, if my sweet William
Sails among your crew?

The Preakness also serves a cocktail called the Black-eyed Susan made with vodka, St. Germain liquer with pineapple, lime and orange juice. It sounds unbelievably sweet to me. Probably sweeter than that William guy and I could imagine how easy it would be to overindulge in them. Yet, while it boasts the name Black-eyed Susan and it is the characteristic yellow color of its namesake flower, another flower is one of the main components. For those of you unfamiliar with St. Germain liquer, it’s flavor comes from Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra).

Elderflowers Credit: Eiffel via Wikipedia

צילום: שרה גולד, צמח השדה [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For all their celebration, you will not find any real live specimens of Black-eyed Susans at Pimlico today. These wildflowers don’t bloom until later in June in Maryland. Even if they were, they are a wildflower that would be too delicate to be used in such an elaborate botanical blanket. Yet the winning horse is adorned with yellow and black flowers. These are just imposters. They are members of the chrysanthemum family (pompom mums or Viking’s daisies). They are close-enough look-alikes with their bright yellow petals, but florists painstakingly paint their centers with black shoe polish to give them their characteristic black eyes.

Yes, the real life equivalent of painting the roses red for the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. I doubt the winner cares too much, and I’m sure the flowers on the blanket look close enough to spectators especially after a few of the ‘Black-eyed Susan’ cocktails. Still- go home Maryland, you’re drunk!


Check out this link for the Run for the Roses.

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May Bouquet: Tulips

April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is one of a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day today! Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives.*

Credit: Wikipedia

Today’s post is tip-toeing through the tulips. They rank at the top of lists for most popular cut flowers and bulb plants in gardens. The flowers provide intense spring color in such uniformity that they are easy to incorporate into any arrangement- vase or plot.

Tulip Credit: John O’Neill via Wikipedia

These flowers originated in central Asia, but their introduction to Europe in the late 1500s created such a stir in the Netherlands it has come to be known as ‘tulip mania.’ The Dutch economy was good at the turn of the 17th century, so people had time to invest in aesthetics. The recently introduced tulip was the perfect medium with its dazzling capacity for intense color on a consistent form. New color varieties were introduced with names like Viceroy and Semper Augustus and demand caused their prices to skyrocket.

Semper Augustus print via Wikipedia

However, basic tenets of tulip biology made the economic speculation craze dangerous and untenable. While tulips are perennials that can be grown from bulbs year after year, it takes as along as 4-6 years to go from seed to a bulb large enough to flower. This makes introducing new varieties slow, even when vegetatively propagating them from bulb offsets. Plus, as they are flowers, their beauty is by definition fleeting. They bloom for a short time during the spring then exist as bulbs for the remainder of the year.

Furthermore, the most desired tulips were the ‘broken’ varieties with blooms containing streaks of two colors. During this period, the streaks were not due to some inheritable genetic mutation, but infection with Tulip Breaking Virus. It caused pleasing visual appeal, but also weakened its host. Eventually, the bulbs weakened to the point of not being able to flower or produce additional bulb offsets. Thus, the most expensive tulips in history have gone extinct. Many of the streaked varieties available on today’s market are the result of stable genetic mutations that affect flower coloration, but not the vigor of the plant. There are only a few truly ‘broken’ varieties left (like Absalon), which are infected with TBV, but for some reason the infection has not manifested itself beyond the effects on flower color pattern.

The Viceroy Credit: Wikipedia

So just how much money are we talking about? More than anyone in modern times has spent at a garden center for a single bulb. For example, records indicate that a bulb for ‘The Viceroy’ sold for approximately ten times the annual earnings of a skilled craftsman. The peak of tulip bulb speculation was the winter of 1636-1637. Of course, at this time tulips are only bulbs with no flowers at all, hardly things that look worthy of fortunes. Tulip trading was a futures market, and contracts were written based on what traders thought the bulbs would be worth to consumers at spring planting time. At some point that winter, people came to their senses. The first few that cashed in their contracts set off a selling frenzy that caused the bottom to drop out of the market.

In the end, fortunes were lost and some were left with lots of worthless bulbs. I’m sure their beauty that spring was just salt on the wound. It was even difficult to eat their losses. Tulip bulbs taste awful and when not prepared correctly, they are poisonous. They are really only a food source of last resort in extreme situations, like the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.

Today’s tulip markets are more rational, but still huge business in floriculture. New colors, shapes and patterns are being developed, but the source of the broken tulips, Tulip Breaking Virus, is no longer coveted, but eliminated. The ultimate damage this pathogen does to vigor of the tulip bulbs outweighs the production of any desirable color patterns. The spread of this infection is controlled by using pesticides and other measures to reduce aphids on the tulips that spread the virus as they eat on one plant then another. TBV is detected by experts trained to spot the symptoms in the tulip plants in the field. Infected plants are removed and destroyed. A new report out this year describes an instrument capable of scanning plants in the field for TBV to improve this laborious process.

Flaming Parrot Tulip Cultivar Credit: PierreSelim via Wikipedia

So, if tulips find their way into your bouquet today, enjoy them- just don’t go crazy.

Credit: McBeth via Flickr

Credit: McBeth via Flickr


*Maybe you’ve learned something about plants along the way. Maybe these posts have helped you remember to pick up flowers for the mothers in your life. But let me just add, if one of those mothers still has small children, say that you sired or otherwise claim, make sure your bouquet also includes species like folded laundry, extra sleep, cooked meal, clean kitchen and bathroom. These varieties, while difficult to cultivate without the help of a mother, will surely reap you returns greater than those seen during tulip mania.

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May Bouquet: Lilies

May Bouquet: Lilies

April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is one of a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day this Sunday. Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives.

It wasn’t that long ago, Lilium longiflorum was featured on this blog, but today we are moving out of the pots and into the vases where a wider world of lilies awaits. And it’s a wild world out there. Check out these different forms.


Orange Lily in full bloom showing pollen covered stamens, Ontario, Canada. June 2002. Credit: Relic38 via Wikipedia

Lilium superbum Credit: Arx Fortis via Wikipedia

Lilium tsingtauense Credit: Klaus Goldbeck via Wikipedia

Oriental hybrid Credit: Hardyplants via Wikipedia

Lilium monadelphum Credit: Arnold Trachtenberg via Wikipedia

These blooms burst with celebrate and all of these colors and shapes deserve to be seen, but it has only been relatively recently that lilies have gained ground in the cut flower industry. Some lilies had large fragrant blooms, but faced downward on the stem. Other varieties had smaller but more colorful flowers that were easier for florists to work with. In the late 1970s, Leslie Woodriff, a dedicated lily breeder developed the Stargazer hybrid lily. The combination of genetics he stumbled upon combined the most desired traits into a single plant- bold color, delightful fragrance and upward-facing bloom. In the world of cut lilies, the Stargazer is still the most popular with more than 36 million sold annually.

Stargazer Lily Credit: Dogmadic via Wikimedia

The success of the Stargazer lily opened the floodgates for lily breeders to experiment with other hybrids. Today there are more than 7000 registered lily varieties to choose from when it comes to designing bouquets for all occasions. The new classes of hybrids bring together color patterns, fragrance and bloom shapes in all combinations. One of the newer famous lily varieties to come out of the labors of master Dutch hybridizers is the ‘Robina,’ a large dark pink lily. There’s still no transgenic technology involved, but a lot of science still goes into cultivating the new hybrid seeds that would otherwise have a difficult time growing in standard conditions.


Robina Liliy Credit: Caroline via Flickr

Robina Liliy
Credit: Caroline via Flickr

Of course, there is one thing that still plagues the use of lilies in floral arrangements for formal occasions- the prodigious amounts of bright yellow to dark brown pollen on their large anthers. When it dusts off onto fabrics like white tablecloths or expensive wedding gowns, it can cause a stain that is quite difficult to remove.* Of course, this is not a ‘problem’ for the plants, only for the humans that choose to enjoy them. In fact, the pollen is quite essential for the lilies because it is necessary for their sexual reproduction. Pollen is the plant-equivalent of sperm. Hopefully this doesn’t ruin the whole bouquet-thing for you, but in case you hadn’t made the connection yet… bouquets are just plant reproductive organs on display.** So, yeah, about that lily pollen on your wedding dress, “Ugh. and Eww.” Nobody wants that stain.

Regardless of the utility of pollen to the lilies, scandalous stain potential has prompted extreme measures to get rid of the pollen. Some florists may perform the tedious task of clipping off the anthers from each open lily flower, but I know exactly how many lily flowers (one, maybe two) I would have to emasculate to start thinking, “There’s gotta be a better way!” So, lily breeders have been on the genetic hunt for varieties that do not produce pollen. There are some varieties on the market and generally this produces sterile flowers. (Not to worry because they are perennials that can grow from bulbs, these plants can still be propagated.) Some varieties, like Elodie, make normal-looking lilies that just appear to have completely bare anthers. Other varieties have a double petal pattern, in which the extra set of petals bends upward to the center of the bloom modestly enclosing all of the anthers and stamens.

Elodie Lily Credit: Diana Beideman via Flickr

Elodie Lily
Credit: Diana Beideman via Flickr

Suffice it to say that there are many lilies to choose from for your bouquet, and breeders are ensuring that there will be even more choices in the future. Just enjoy the colors and the fragrance and try not to focus so much on their biological utility.



*FYI- brush it off with something dry, adding moisture will cause the stain to set.

**What can I say, plant reproductive parts are just more beautiful than those of any other kingdom of life. It also adds a deeper meaning to the giving of bouquets in celebration of holidays like Valentine’s day, Mother’s Day, weddings and anniversaries, but I’m just here for the plant science.

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May Bouquet: Hibiscus

April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is part of a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day this Sunday. Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives.

Pink Hibiscus Credit: Johnna Roose

Pink Hibiscus
Credit: Johnna Roose

Today’s featured flower is the hibiscus. These large and colorful blooms demand notice and are the opposite botanical personality of the shrinking violet. They are synonymous with the tropics, prominently featured on Hawaiian print fabrics, more so than even palm trees and pineapples. In fact, a yellow hibiscus native to the islands (Hibiscus brackenridgei) is the official state flower of Hawaii. Hibiscus plants make great additions to any garden, but if you plan to keep them for multiple growing seasons, they are easier to manage as potted plants. This is because they are sensitive to cold and will have to be protected in most climates during the winter.

Yellow Hibiscus Credit: Johnna Roose

Yellow Hibiscus
Credit: Johnna Roose

Yellow Hibiscus Credit: Johnna Roose

Yellow Hibiscus
Credit: Johnna Roose

If you are looking for a plant to turn any area into a tropical oasis, hibiscus is the right choice. They are available in all types of bold colors- yellow, pink, red, and coral. Hibiscus breeders and hybridizers have been busy generating new varieties in all shapes, sizes and color combinations. There are a large number of distinct species of Hibiscus, but the majority of the ornamental varieties found in garden centers are likely to be Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Genetically, it is a polyploid. This means it has multiple copies (>2) of genomes and not just the single copy from each parent (diploid) like we are. This wealth of genetic material means that these plants have a seemingly bottomless bag out of which to pull tricks when it comes to flower form and color. Crosses and hybrids of plants can yield all kinds of color combinations; thus, when grown from seed, you never know what you’ll get. If you like surprises, that’s great. If you had your heart set on a particular color, then go with a grafted plant that has been propagated to give the type you would like. Check out some of the links below for more hibiscus flower eye candy.

Red Hibiscus Bloom Credit: Monica Russell

Red Hibiscus Bloom
Credit: Monica Russell

Can’t pick just one favorite color or combination? You may not have to. Some plants have several different varieties grafted onto main rootstock bases to give you a single plant with red blooms on one stem, yellow on another and coral on yet another.

Multicolored Hibiscus Credit: Monica Russell

Multicolored Hibiscus
Credit: Monica Russell

Don’t these flowers just look good enough to eat? Well, you can. The flowers are used as the base for hibiscus tea and dried flowers are also candied and used as garnishes. Humans aren’t the only species that appreciate the taste of the hibiscus. These plants are also attractants for butterflies and birds. If your landscape is frequented by deer, prepare to go to battle to protect your beautiful and tasty blooms from them as well.

Pink Hibiscus Credit: Johnna Roose

Pink Hibiscus
Credit: Johnna Roose

If you’re inspired to grow your own, check your local garden centers now. For my Baton Rouge area friends, we’ve apparently just missed (May 4th) the Red Stick Hibiscus Society’s show and sale, but the shows of the New Orleans and Acadiana Chapters are still to come this month. Or if you are really serious about hibiscus, you may just want to join the American Hibiscus Society. FYI, their national convention will be held in Lafayette, LA in June of this year. Check here for details.



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May Bouquet: Alstroemeria

April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is part of a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day next Sunday. Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives.

Alstroemeria aurea ‘Saturne’ in southern Tasmania, Australia Credit: JJ Harrison via Wikipedia

Today we’ll have a look at the flower prevalent in many mixed-flower bouquets whose name you never learned- alstroemeria or Lily of the Incas. There are numerous species and cultivars, but they are native to South America. The different cultivars sport a variety of bloom sizes and markings. Alstroemeria are far more popular as cut flowers than garden plants, but they can be safely grown outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 8 – 11. They may tolerate the southern part of Zone 7 if the bulbs or rhizomes are adequately protected with layers of mulch during the winter months. Everyone else will just have to enjoy them as cut flowers or be prepared to host them indoors during winter.

Alstroemeria aurea in southern Tasmania, Australia Credit: JJ Harrison via Wikipedia

The pictures provide ample evidence as to why alstroemeria are popular cut flowers. They come in all colors and have beautiful spot patterns on the petals. Take a closer look at some of the flowers. There is a method to the madness when it comes to the spot pattern for many alstromeria blooms. Notice how (at least for these varieties) only three of the petals have the spotted pattern, two on the top half of the flower and one on the bottom? How do you think the flowers know their orientation and produce those markings?

Alstroemeria magnifica Credit: Pato Novoa via Wikipedia

Well, the truth involves knowing a little bit more about plant flower development. You’re not really looking at a flower with six true petals. Only three of them are petals (the ones with the spots). The other three are derived from tissue that would normally be sepals (special leaves at the base of most flowers that appear to hold the buds and blossoms together). In the case of alstroemeria blossoms, the sepals follow a developmental program that makes them look more like petals than leaves. Of course, botany has a name for this situation- tepals (when the sepals and petals cannot really be distinguished from one another as flower components in the perianth). If you would like an even closer look, check out this link with stunning photos and microscopic images of alstroemeria flowers.

The main parts of a mature flower Credit: Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats via Wikipedia

Alstroemeria pelegrina L. Credit: Pato Novoa via Wikipedia


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May Bouquet: Roses

April showers have brought May flowers… to the blog. Today’s post is the first entry in a May Bouquet series focused on flowers one might find in a bouquet. Y’know, leading up to Mother’s Day next Sunday. Think of these posts as daily reminders with wonderful suggestions on ways to honor the mothers in your lives. Let’s get started with one of the most popular bouquet flowers no matter the day of the year- roses.

Red roses by Eistreter via Wikipedia

I’ve written previously about the journey these blooms make from fields and greenhouses in Ecuador to the vases on your countertops. Today, roses are pulling double duty as holiday plants because today is Derby Day. The Kentucky Derby has also become known as the Run for the Roses because of the garland and enormous bouquet of red roses bestowed on the winner. Sure, Derby Day is filled with news coverage of the various moving backstories of the entrants, owners, trainers and jockeys for the three-year-old thoroughbreds. The scenes are filled with women in outlandish hats sipping mint juleps* and there’s even more speculation on odds for the gambling crowd. But as for the roses, that tradition has been standardized such that there is essentially no guesswork involved.

Roses made their first appearance at the 1896 running of the Kentucky Derby, but they were pink and white, not red. The red rose was adopted as the official flower of the race in 1904, and the term “Run for the Roses” was coined in 1925. The elaborate ‘garland,’ which actually looks more like a blanket than the image the word garland conjures, began in 1932.

The garland is comprised of more than 400 intensely red Freedom roses sewn into a green stain backing by florists from the Kroger Company. For those readers interested in floral arrangements as a spectator’s sport, you can mark your calendars for next year’s Kentucky Derby Eve. If one were to show up that Friday afternoon and evening at the Louisville Kroger store (12501 Shelbyville Road), you could watch a dozen florists carefully assemble the elaborate garland. All this, after they have spent hours carefully selecting only the most perfect and uniform roses from thousands of potential buds. Even with this host of skilled workers, it will take about 7 hours to incorporate the roses into a 122-inch by 22-inch garland. Each rose has its own water vial that is carefully hand-sewn into the fabric backing. The garland may appear to be a sea of uniform red flowers, but it does include a ‘crown’ at the top with a single red rose that rises above the rest to symbolize the struggle and sacrifice it takes to stand above all the others. All told, the final garland weighs about 40 lbs, an extra weight in the saddle that every entrant would be glad to add at the end of the race.

These flowers are the perfect symbol for the fleeting fame of Derby winners. As a spectacle, it’s a great day and racing enthusiasts are filled with hope that this year may be the year a Triple Crown winner is coronated. Yet, many years pass and many great Derby horses turn out to be only flashes in the pan. For those winners, however, their garlands don’t have to be. In the past, winners received a silk replica to have for posterity, but freeze-drying is the way to do these days. At least one winner has had a rose from their garland dipped in silver to preserve its glory (currently on display at the Derby Museum).

Enjoy the race today. When they drape the roses on the winner today**, you can just nod appreciatively at the garland and all the effort that went into its creation.


*Note: Mint Juleps also have more than their fair share of plant products. I’ve written previously about mint and sugar on this blog as well. Feel free to read those links and share your knowledge with your friends as you sip your refreshing beverage.

**My pick: Ride on Curlin. His sire was a great racer and his Jockey is Louisiana’s own Calvin Borel.

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