Sunday, December 14, 2008

Discovering the Secrets of Papyrus

In recent years, ornamental grasses have become de rigueur for most modern garden designs. They are graceful, tall, and elegant – rather much the Audrey Hepburn of horticulture. But how can we translate this vertical effect to our indoor gardening environment? The solution comes replete with a rich and stunning history dating back to the ancient Nile, Pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and Moses in the bulrushes. Welcome to papyrus, one of the most important plants in early human civilization.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), is undoubtedly the most famous member of the genus Cyperus (kupeiros is Greek for sedge), which is comprised of some 4,000 to 5,000 species, several of which are well-suited for indoor and outdoor pond gardens. The species name papyrus derives from the Egyptian word meaning “that which belongs to the house,” where house alludes to the ancient ruling body or bureaucracy.

Papyrus is, of course, the source for our word paper, and was also the plant used to produce sheets of paper for thousands of years, beginning as early as 4,000 BC. In fact, a thriving and vital trade existed for this writing material until about the third century AD, when it was found easier to produce paper from plant pulp, in a process introduced into the Middle East from China via Arab traders. Papyrus-paper also faced competition from Europe and the Near East in the form of parchment or vellum, which was made from animal skins, such as calf or sheep (hence getting your diploma or “sheepskin”). Papyrus continued to be manufactured and used in ever-decreasing amounts until the 11th century.

Interestingly, the plant itself all but disappeared from Egypt during the 20th century, due to dams on the Nile and other unsustainable practices. The plants were reintroduced into the area around Cairo from thriving native plant stock in Ethiopia and the Sudan in the late 1960s by Dr. Hassan Ragab, an Egyptian inventor and scientist, who also rediscovered a method for creating papyrus, which has now reemerged as a high-end novelty product and specialty paper.

Papyrus was, however, much more than an everyday paper product. Ancient Egyptians would also use the soft pith of the stem as a foodstuff, cooked and processed like sugar cane, or eaten raw. Ancient pharmacologists, like Galen and Dioscorides, cataloged a wide variety of medicinal uses for infusions made from the plant. Egyptians also harvested and dried the woody rhizomes and culms to use as a fuel – whose ashes were also medicinal! Garlands were woven from the graceful flower heads to adorn the shrines of the gods, and for funeral observances. The stylized representation of the papyrus inflorescence, or umbel, is a central motif in the art of the period, akin to the lotus motif in Eastern art. Fibrous strands taken from the stem of the plant were used to weave sandals, ropes, plaited fans, mats, wrapping materials, and to produce, oh yes, baskets.

Lest we forget, the basket into which Mariam and Jochebed placed the infant Moses to escape the infanticide decree of Pharaoh was woven from papyrus stems. And, as you think of sister Mariam watching the basket float along the Nile and nestle into the bulrushes, keep in mind that bulrush is but another common name for papyrus. Holy Moses!

Today, papyrus can find a ready welcome far from the subtropical banks of the Nile, especially as there are closely related species of sedge which can readily fit into a water garden, pond, or even into an attractive indoor container. Actually, the true papyrus species is overwhelming, and might be more bulrush than you can handle. Under ideal conditions, Cyperus papyrus can grow between 12 and 15 feet tall, with stems approaching six inches in diameter, although most gardeners report that indoors the plant only reaches eight feet. Still, that might be a bit much for the average family room. And don’t forget that all of the papyrus-like species originated in tropical and subtropical climes, and will need to be relocated indoors before the first frost.

A species suitable for the average backyard water feature is dwarf papyrus or miniature cyperus (Cyperus prolifer), which will stay upright and well-ordered at no more than 12 to 36 inches. Like most Cyperus, the plant thrives in full sun and likes to sit in water. Pretty ideal, having a plant that cannot be overwatered! This species can also take light to partial shade in the yard, or will purr happily in a sunny indoor window.

Pygmy Egyptian papyrus (C. haspan) has a sparkling appearance much like a bright green feather duster. It will top out at about 18 inches, and feels at home in a pot filled with a rich, loose soil mix, which is then placed in a second larger container filled with water – or set into an outdoor pond.

My personal favorite Cyperus species actually hails from Madagascar, and while it bears some overall resemblance to papyrus, its leaves are thicker and lie in a flat plane, which easily led to its common name, umbrella plant (C. alternifolius).

Umbrella plant can grow to five feet or more indoors, and slightly larger outdoors, although three to five feet is more common. Another sedge, it has a triangular stem, whose shape lends structure support to keep the stem upright in strong winds, perhaps faring better than the average umbrella. It also loves to sit in water day after day.

In fact, many of us who fancy the plant actually grow it in nothing more than a cachepot or sealed container filled with water, and lined with rocks on the bottom to help stabilize plant roots. In this hydroponic setting, it’s important to fertilize somewhat regularly, especially during active growing and flowering periods. But don’t mind the flowers: nothing much exciting there, mostly a bland, tan, oat-shaped affair.

Like most sedges, umbrella plants can be propagated by dividing the substantial root masses or clumps of rhizomes, keeping the outer, younger sections for replanting, and composting the older core. Although a much more entertaining method, of which I have not tired in more than 20 years, calls for cutting off the top six inches of a stem of the plant, leaves and all, and inverting the whole into a glass or vase of water. After a few weeks, roots will form around the junction of leaves and stem, and new shoots will emerge growing up, out of the water. When well-established, carefully plant the rooted cutting into a loose soil mix and keep well watered – or immersed. You can also continue to let the plant grow in water alone.

For the record, several plants gracing the bookcases in my office are descendants from several cuttings given to me in 1979. They have, over the years, produced huge clumps of plants for my rooftop garden, and smaller, discrete potted specimens for windowsills. Scores have been propagated and given to friends and curious visitors. And the tradition lives on.

Like the Egyptian papyrus alternatives, umbrella plants are available in compact and dwarf varieties, such as sparkler grass (C. alternifolius gracilis) under 18 inches with delicate, narrow leaves, as well as in a related variegated form (C. diffusus variegatus), where both leaves and stems are striped with a touch of creamy white against a wide, light green leaf.

Whether you’re striking out to honor Osiris, or print your own Book of the Dead on homemade papyrus, or maybe just add a little excitement to your parlor window with a dwarf ‘Nana’ umbrella plant, you can find just the right plant through online sources year-round, while many fine garden centers sell potted specimens in their water garden section.

Copyright 2008, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Peaceful Urban Setting at Fort Georgetown

From The Washington Post:

Horticulturist Joe Keyser does not have to deal with the pesky deer that are the bane of many Washington area gardeners -- he grows his 30 varieties of herbs, 15 types of lavender and other assorted greenery four stories above the streets of Rosslyn.

Keyser, an environmental education specialist who writes a gardening column for the Gazette newspapers in Maryland, has lived in Arlington's Fort Georgetown apartments for 20 years. You might think a gardening expert would yearn for a yard, but he doesn't.

"Through my work I have surrogate gardens all over, but I find container gardening more of a challenge, giving me a chance to grow something more tropical," said Keyser, whose rooftop deck measures 15 feet by 26 feet. Mature trees surround his corner apartment, adding another verdant touch to the deck, even though it is within sight of Rosslyn's concrete high-rises.

"We get hummingbirds up here," he said, along with the inevitable squirrels. "They bury their acorns and forget them. Oak trees pop up in even the smallest containers."

>> Read the complete story: click here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Protect A National Treasure

Urge Congress to Pass the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact

The Great Lakes are in danger of depletion from commercial interests hooking up pipelines and sending tankers to take water out of the basin. Although the Great Lakes basin contains nearly 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water, rainfall and snowmelt replenish only about one percent of the water in the basin each year. The rest is finite and nonrenewable. There is a growing demand for water by utilities, agriculture, manufacturers, and residents throughout the region. As regional demand increases, there is growing pressure to divert water from the Great Lakes to other regions and even to other countries. Current laws are not strong enough to protect the Great Lakes and maintain enough water to meet the needs of residents and wildlife in the region.

Congress must approve the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact to protect our Great Lakes and the people, fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and economic interests that depend on them. All eight Great Lakes states have already ratified the compact, agreeing on a set of rules that everyone will follow to protect the Lakes. Ontario and Quebec have also approved an agreement with the same rules. Now, Congress must pass the Great Lakes Water Compact to finalize it.

It is vital that members of Congress hear from supporters both within and outside the Great Lakes region that we want them to protect this national treasure. Please urge your Representative and Senators to vote for the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact.

CLICK HERE to take action now!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Winter Watchfulness for a Healthier Landscape

Winter no longer seems like the season we once knew. Instead of skating and sledding, we frequently find ourselves outdoors hiking in tee-shirts or just soaking up the sun. These weird and wacky days of winter offer us a welcome opportunity to get a jump on gardening chores, with the added bonus of preventing problems before they begin.

Perhaps the first chore worth exploring is watering. As many parts of the country experience some degree of drought this year, often combined with unseasonably warm temperatures, we find our landscapes suffering from stress (as though the holiday season isn't stressful enough!), especially evident among evergreen trees and shrubs such as hollies, boxwood, and azaleas, and evergreen herbs and perennials, as well as trees and shrubs planted last fall.

While water should be conserved whenever possible, it is important to realize that evergreens do not enter a dormant phase, but continue to use and lose water through their needles and leaves. In the absence of rain, keep root systems moist and healthy by carefully and judiciously watering about once a week. Failure to supply water can result in the death of sensitive transplants and perennials, and the continued stress on other evergreens can easily lead to insect infestations.

Another solution, especially for broadleaf evergreens, is to apply one of the antidessicant sprays available at garden centers. The antidessicant, sometimes called an antitranspirant, provides a waxy film on the leaf surface to minimize moisture loss, allowing plants to cope more easily with drier soils and cold winds. Sprays should only be applied when the air temperature is above freezing. Antidessicants can also protect foliage from the damaging effects of “winter burn” and, as a bonus, from various forms of fungal disease.

Deciduous trees and shrubs also deserve your attention in late winter, especially when it comes to pruning, one of the most important of all gardening skills. Prime candidates include fruiting and flowering trees, including apples, crabapples, cherries, and ornamental species such as crepe myrtles, as well as wisteria, grape vines and roses. Winter provides an excellent opportunity to assess the condition of these trees, shrubs, and vines, allowing you to prune branches, while the plants are dormant.

With older trees, the primary goals are to increase the amount of light reaching into the tree’s interior and improving air circulation, which will help to minimize disease and pest problems in the future. Look for limbs which may be growing too close together, crossing or rubbing against one another, and carefully remove them with sharp, clean pruning sheers or a saw.

It might even be advisable to keep a small bucket near at hand filled with a dilute solution of bleach and water. Dip your pruning sheers or saw into the solution in-between pruning each new branch or tree to prevent any possibility of transmitting disease pathogens.

Younger trees or trees which grow quickly, such as the infamous and over-planted Bradford pear, often require diligent pruning to help establish an attractive shape or form, and to provide a healthy structure or “scaffolding.” Thin out potentially weak branches, again with an eye to facilitating the penetration of light and air. And, with both older and newer trees, eliminate any suckers, damaged or diseased limbs, and branches which hang dangerously low over sidewalks.

One of the most important winter chores is bug hunting. By locating and eliminating pests during the winter, you will be preventing a measurable amount of caterpillar damage during the traditional spring feeding frenzy.

Among the easiest pests to locate are the egg masses of tent caterpillars. Although people are most familiar with the tell-tale tents these odious creatures spin between the branch forks of cherry trees in early spring, their egg masses are actually quite distinctive – and disgusting. Look for shiny brownish-black, bubbly masses which are often wrapped completely around the small twigs and thin branches of wild and ornamental cherries, as well as apple and crabapple trees, and, to a lesser degree, on some other species like beech and willow. Sometimes these masses are mistaken for galls or some other disease. Make no mistake: each egg mass contains between 150 and 400 eggs. When feasible, try to prune off small twigs to capture the entire egg mass and destroy them through burning or crushing.

Gypsy moths await hatching in early April in fuzzy, felt-like light tan egg masses, generally found on the trunks of oak trees and other hardwood species, although they are also found in sheltered locations, including secluded corners of sheds, carports, stacks of firewood, picnic tables and other outdoor furniture.

These egg masses contain from several hundred to one thousand individual eggs. It is important when removing egg masses to thoroughly scrape them into a container for disposal. Some bug hunters favor using a coffee can filled with soapy water, which will be flushed later on. Do not simply scrape egg masses onto the ground where they may still hatch.

Fall cankerworms are sometimes best known as "loopers," "inchworms" or "measuring worms." The brownish-grey egg masses are deposited in neat, single-layered masses of 100 or so eggs in uniform rows on the branches and twigs of hardwood species including oaks, ash, maples, and hickories. Eggs can be crushed in place or scraped off for disposal.

Bagworms are most often found on junipers, cedar and arborvitae, as well as spruce, pine, and Leyland cypress. The distinctive, albeit camouflaged egg cases are roughly carrot-shaped, tannish-brown, and can reach up to two inches in length, hanging down from stems like a bag or sack. The case itself is actually quite natural-looking, as the crafty bagworm weaves its silk together with the dried needles and small twigs of the host plant to help blend in. However, careful inspection will easily locate these brownish dry casings against the lush green of the surrounding vegetation. Incidentally, each bagworm egg case may contain as many as one thousand eggs. On smaller shrubs it is quite possible to handpick all of the egg cases and eliminate any possible infestation in spring.

Of course, you may not be able to locate or reach all of the egg masses or cocoons, but removing as many as you can will go a long way to controlling pest populations without pesticides. In the cases cited above, destroying just one egg mass might be the equivalent of destroying up to one thousand voracious caterpillars.

Also, during the course of the year, you can continue your good work of controlling pests naturally by encouraging other pest predators to set up housekeeping in your yard, often by simply setting up a bluebird house or providing some other sources of habitat.

The last word in preventing problems is sanitation. Begin by cleaning out any leaves, broken branches, and other debris which may have become lodged in your shrubs and other evergreens. Much like pruning, a quick cleaning will increase the air circulation and amount of light reaching the interior area of plants, ensuring their continued health and vigor.

Next, clean up underneath trees and shrubs, removing leaves and other accumulated material which might potentially provide a hiding place for small nibbling rodents, and a unwanted habitat for various insect pests which may be overwintering in leaf litter. Collect these materials, and add them to your compost bin.

Copyright 2008, Joseph M. Keyser