Today we celebrate the man who introduced Europe to the Piggyback Plant - it’s now a popular houseplant.
We'll also learn about the man who was an early evangelist for gardening and working with Mother Nature.
We hear an excerpt from a book by a celebrated plantsman as he discusses a beloved snow gum tree.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a joyful book about permaculture.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the colorful story about the Indiana State Flower and how the Zinnia lost to the Peony.
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March 15, 1754
Today is the birthday of the Scottish surgeon, botanist, and naturalist Archibald Menzies.
Now there's a famous story about Archibald that goes something like this:
One time, Joseph Banks sent Archibald on an expedition. At some point, Joseph ended up dining with the leadership of the country of Chile. Archibald was served nuts from the Chilean Pine Tree during the meal, and these nuts were featured as part of an elaborate dessert for this grand meal that Archibald enjoyed. As Archibald is sitting there, he begins to eat some of these nuts. But then, his inner-botanist took over, and Archibald realized that the nuts were actually large seeds. And so, Archibald does what any good botanist would do: he tucks five of the nuts in his pocket.
And then, on his way back to England, Archibald planted the five seeds and started growing the Chilean Pine Tree right there on the ship. And guess what? He ended up growing them successfully.
Now, once these trees started growing in England, they became known by a new common name when people started calling them the Monkey Puzzle Tree - because someone remarked that even a monkey would not be able to climb the Chilean Pine Tree. And as a result of this, Archibald became known as the Monkey Puzzle Man.
Now today, sadly, Monkey Puzzle Trees are considered endangered. But like Archibald, gardeners still attempt to grow these curious trees from seed, and if you're fortunate, you can find those seeds online.
Now another plant that Archibald discovered is the Piggyback Plant. Today, this is a popular houseplant, and its botanical name is Tolmiea menziesii in honor of Archibald Menzies.
You may be wondering how it got the common name, the Piggyback Plant, which I think is an adorable name that is inspired by the way this plant grows.
It turns out that Piggyback Plants develop buds at the base of each leaf where it meets the stalk. Then the new plants basically piggyback off the parent leaf, which forces the stem to bend down to the ground under the weight of that new plant, and the new baby Piggyback Plant can take off from there.
Now because of its growing habit, Piggyback Plants are perfect for hanging baskets. And they really do make excellent houseplants because they like indirect light and partial shade.
Online, I noticed that the Piggyback Plant is compared to the Strawberry Begonia because they both have attractive foliage, and they are super easy to propagate - which makes them a double win in my book.
Anyway, happy heavenly birthday to Archibald Menzies - and thank you for the Monkey Puzzle Tree and the Piggyback Plant.
March 15, 1858
Today is the birthday of the American horticulturist and botanist who co-founded the American Society for Horticultural Science, Liberty, Hyde Bailey, who was born on this day, March 15th in 1858.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Liberty Hyde Bailey. He is responsible for starting so many things, including the 4-H movement, the nature study movement, parcel post, and even making sure that electricity got into rural parts of America. He truly was a pioneer.
Looking back, it's actually rather staggering to reflect on Liberty Hyde Bailey’s work. Luckily for us, we’re able to get a clear picture of his activity because he was such an excellent writer.
Liberty had some tremendous mentors in his life. First, he served as a research assistant to the great Asa Gray at Harvard in his herbarium, and he worked with Asa for over two years.
Between being at Harvard and regularly working with Asa, he got the finest horticultural education and experience that a person could get in the late 1800s in the United States.
After Harvard, Liberty went on to work in New York. Specifically, he served as the Department Chair for Horticulture at Cornell University.
And if you recall studying genetics, learning about DNA, genes, and Mendel in middle school, that is due to Liberty Hyde Bailey. This is because Liberty evaluated what Mendel had done, and he realized that it was genuinely revolutionary work. Essentially, Liberty plucks Mendel out of obscurity and puts him in a place of honor - a spot Mendel so clearly deserved.
Now, if you're having trouble remembering what Mendel accomplished, here’s a quick little primer. Mendel discovered the basic principles of heredity, and he did that by working with peas in his garden at an Augustinian monastery in Burno, in the Czech Republic.
Over the course of seven years, Mendel grew nearly 30,000 pea plants. As he grew the peas, he documented everything about them - jotting notes about their height and shape and color, and all of this work resulted in what we now know as the laws of heredity.
In fact, it was actually Mendel who came up with the genetic terms and the terminology that we still use today - like dominant and recessive genes. Mendel is a fascinating person to talk about with kids who are interested in gardening because he really was, at heart, a gardener. Mendel grew so many plants and took such pains to document everything about them; that’s a great story to share with any young gardeners that you may be working with this year.
Anyway, back to Liberty Hyde Bailey. There was an excellent book that was written in 2019 that revived Liberty’s best essays, and it was edited by two men named John: John Stepien and John Linstrom. These two men pulled together Liberty’s writings which reveal a man who was a passionate evangelist for gardening.
Indeed, Liberty loved gardening, and he wanted everyone else to love gardening, too. In fact, one of his famous quotes is that “Every family can have a garden.” This quote reminds me of the little phrase from the movie Ratatouille, “Everyone can cook.”
Now, before I share a few more of Liberty's great quotes, I just wanted to read to you what the publisher said about Liberty's work.
“Liberty Hyde Bailey built a reputation as the father of modern horticulture. And an evangelist for what he called the “garden sentiment,” the desire to raise plants from the good earth for the sheer joy of it, and for the love of the plants themselves.”
Here are a few wonderful garden quotes that Liberty wrote.
“If a person cannot love a plant after he has pruned it, then he's either done a poor job or is devoid of emotion.”
And here's one of my favorites.
"A person cannot love a plant after he has pruned it, then he has either done a poor job or is devoid of emotion."
When I read that quote, it reminded me of my relationship with Creeping Charlie. A few summers ago, it was driving me crazy, and then I found a way to change my mindset around it - kind of like the way I ended up making peace with the rabbits in my garden.
Somehow, I managed to reframe my thinking around Creeping Charlie, and I really think it all boiled down to learning about its medicinal qualities and how it was used and valued in gardens in the 1700s and 1800s.
Now, I have one more additional quote by Liberty Hyde Bailey that I thought would be a great one to wrap up the segment on botanical history today, and it's a little verse that he wrote about spring.
Yesterday the twig was brown and bare;
Today the glint of green is there;
Tomorrow will be leaflets spare;
I know no thing so wondrous fair,
No miracle so strangely rare.
I wonder what will next be there!
One of my favorite trees in the Hillier Gardens and also popular with visitors, especially children, was the snow gum from the Australian Alps of New South Wales.
Planted small from a pot in 1962, it had achieved a height of around 19 feet with several branches but had a distinct lean, enabling small children to sit astride its lower stem. Its exfoliating bark exhibited several shades of green, creamy-white, and silvery-gray, which I used to liken to the skin of a python.
It was also solid and cool to the cheek, especially so on a hot summer's day. On one occasion, I introduced a group of partially-sighted visitors to this tree, encouraging them to stroke or hug the stem and to listen to the sound of the scimitar-shaped, leathery leaves shaking in the breeze. It was a special moment for them and me.
Nearby grew a tall-stemmed Apache pine... The pine is today [a champion tree] while the snow gum, despite being supported, eventually blew down in a gale.
— Roy Lancaster, My Life with Plants, Chapter: Spreading My Wings
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2009, and the subtitle is A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.
Now, this book is one of my favorites. It truly is a garden classic, and I think it belongs in every Gardner's home library.
Today most of us have had a decent amount of exposure to permaculture. But back in 2009, it still was a novel topic for many gardeners. Now the principle that is underlying every page of Gaia's garden is this: working with nature and not against her results in more beautiful, abundant, and forgiving gardens.
I remember thinking the first time I read this book that Toby is such a joyful gardener - and this comes through on every page.
That's why this book still remains a book that I recommend to beginning gardeners - as well as established gardeners — looking to refine and hone their gardening skills.
Gaia's Garden shares everything you need to know to create a beautiful backyard ecosystem. And if you started gardening in 2020 during the pandemic, and you'd like to learn more about permaculture, Toby's book is a must-have.
And I just have to share that one of my favorite garden experts, Robert Kourik, said this about Toby's book,
“Permaculture gardens are no longer a thing of the future. They are here to stay and flourish. Gaia's Garden is enlightening and required reading for all people who desire to make their home landscape healthy, sustainable, and healing — and that perfectly encapsulates Toby's book.”
This book is 313 pages of a garden classic, introducing best practices in gardening — working with mother nature to strengthen and sustain ecosystems in your own backyard.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
March 15, 1957
It was on this day that the peony became Indiana's fourth state flower.
The story of how the peony became selected as the state flower of Indiana is actually rather quite interesting. Apparently, the fine people of Indiana had initially considered the Zinnia for the honor, but when that was struck down, they started talking about the bloom of the redbud. But then that caused a ruckus because people could not figure out whether the redbud was a flower or a tree, or a shrub.
This is when a young, distinguished member of the Indiana legislature in Indiana named Lawrence Baker, who happened to be a peony grower, suggested the peony. And that is how the peony ended up on the ballot.
Now in 2016, the Daily Journal wrote an excellent article, and it was called “Indiana State Flower has a Colorful Past.” I thought you would get a kick out of it.
The Indiana legislature has adjourned for another year. It was a turbulent session. But at least the lawmakers did not have to grapple with the thorny issue of the State Flower.
It was March of 1957 that Governor Handley signed a bill, which designated the peony as the official State Flower of Indiana. The act surprised a lot of Hoosier's suddenly uprooted was the reigning State Flower, the Zinnia.
What followed was quite a tempest in a flower pot.
It is a tale that smells of intrigue, and the garden editor of the Indianapolis Star blamed the flower switch on a “small cult of Zinnia-haters.
Perhaps a little history is an order. Every state in the union has an official flower, from the Camillia and Alabama to the Indian Paintbrush in Wyoming. Back home in the Hoosier state. We can't seem to make up our minds.
In 1913 we picked the carnation. Ten years later, we favored the tulip tree blossom. Then, in 1931, lawmakers gave the nod to the Zinnia.
Motives for these changes seem to be lost in the midst of time. There appears to have been a trade-off in 1931 when we dropped the tulip tree blossom as the state flower. In that same year, the tulip poplar became the official state tree. That probably salved the hurt feelings of tulip blossom fans.
Zinnia lovers were caught off guard when the flower switch came in 1957. The director of the Farm Bureau pet and hobby clubs put up a protest. “We have 650 clubs with about 10,000 members,” she complained, “and one of our projects for years has been to provide the children with Zinnia seeds to grow. Imagine the children growing peonies!”
Officials at Indiana National Bank already had ordered huge amounts of Zinnia seeds to be given out at the Indianapolis Home Show that year. They could not cancel that order, so they carried on.
Now, if you're a Zinnia lover, you'll be happy to know that Indiana's Zinnia fans did not go down without a fight. They began a letter-writing campaign for newspapers all around the state.
In fact, a woman named Meredith Haskett felt compelled to wax poetic about the switch.
Somehow the men seem quite impelled
The Zinnia to discard
As Indiana's flower and
I think they should be barred.
From making further boo-boos;
I'd fire them all, perhaps —
If I could have my say.
I'd probably call them saps
For spending time and money
To make the Peony queen;
She lasts a day or two in the spring —
That’s all — no more she’s seen.
Indiana is a proud state,
Colorful and strong
And sturdy as a Zinnia;
Somebody’s done her wrong.
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