February 13, 2016

Gooseberries, Mignonette and Martian Regolith Simulant - My 2016 Projects

Gooseberries, once so popular in North America, were restricted during most of the twentieth century because of concerns that the  genus was a vector for a certain virus which affected white pines. Today, most of these concerns no longer exist, and plants can be ordered and planting in many states.  Not just green, the gooseberry continues to enjoy a large fandom in the UK, where many varieties still exit, some with fruit nearly as large as hens eggs.

It's time again to share with you some of my 'special projects' which I am planning to focus on this year. If you remember, last year I was consumed with raising my exhibition chrysanthemums, and in earlier years, I raised in-depth collections of English Sweet Peas, Belgian Endive, Columbine and alpine primroses. This year, my list is still rather ambitious, but you know me, I may only be able to attempt half, or three quarters of the ideas on this list, but what gardener doesn't feel omnipotent while relaxing on the sofa while the snow flies outside? Here then, are some of the project I am seriously thinking about undertaking in the coming year:

Prize Gooseberries!

My grandparents and parents used to raise many gooseberries here, as well as their close relatives, currants, but over time, they've moved on ( well, to be more truthful, the greenhouse now stands where they once grew). Making a bit of a comeback with enthusiasts today, now that virus rust* (please see long addendum at the end of this post). while some fears have been abated with White Pine at the greatest risk for White Pine Blister Rust, the gooseberry just might be experiencing a phoenix moment with disease resistant and immune varieties now being grown in much of New England. With Gooseberries and Currants,  don't expect these lovely berry to taste as the look on the bush, these are not exactly the most delicious fruits when snacked on in the garden. Even for kids, it will take some fortitude to overcome the sour tartness of a gooseberry, or the sharp, acidic tang of a black currant which can lead some to recall a kitty litter box. Let me put it this way - these are not fruits for hand eating out of the garden, but in the right recipe, for folded into a Fool with freshly whipped thick, Jersey cream,  or some luscious gooseberry jam, all thick and tart, spread on a flaky, buttery croissant - appreciation develops.

The flavor is more or less, sour, but when prepared in dished, pickled, preserves, jams and jellies, they are sublime. England, they certainly have their fans, which is why that is where competitive gooseberry forms rank along side the art of competitive Leek raising. Excellence is measured by size and color, first and foremost. Flavor? Well, with Gooseberries, one must remove any idea of 'berry' from ones mind. My first encounter with Gooseberries came as a young child. in the same garden where I live now, of course. Plants grew out by the old chicken coop, but never enough to eat - just more thorny than anything else.

A selection of varieties from Florist and Pomologist, 1858 shows just how many varieties of gooseberries there once were.

 There were self-seeded plants here and there appearing over the decades, but I have always removed them. It's time to reintroduce this old fashioned fruit plant now that any fears about white pine rust have been reduced. My British friends ask me when am I going to start raised some gooseberries, so all signs are pointing to a gooseberry plot in my future. Besides, the foodie in me is really pining for the new varieties, which can have fruit as large as a hens egg, and new 'ancient' varieties from Switzerland and Germany with fruits that are blush, violet, pink, golden yellow as well as green.

It's time again for me to share what some of my 'special projects'  will be for this coming year. These are more in-depth, if not 'deep-dives'  (where I really dig in and either collect many forms, or grow a large number of specimens to the finest state of perfection as I can).  I sometimes can't always get to all of these projects, which is probably a good thing given my time constraints, but I like to keep lots of options open in the beginning of the year.

In the past you may remember some of my more successful in-depth studies like English Sweet Peas, annual poppies, or Belgian Endive. Most recently, last year, my exhibition chrysanthemum project, which consumed much of my year. I will be continuing that project into this year, as well, but in addition to that, I am adding these to the list (not all will be completed, but on this snowy night, they are on my short list:

The 19th Century Method of raising Clematis in Pots

I go back and forth on this one, but for whatever reason, this appeals to me. I've never considered myself a clematis guy, and I am not sure that I want to raise many of these, but perhaps one or two specimen plants in a large tub, might be interesting. I found this chapter in a book from 1856, which inspired me to try growing a magnificent tub of clematis.

Shishito Peppers, from Trader Joes - but why buy them when you can grow them yourself?

The New Craze for Shishito Peppers

How these little treats snuck in under my radar, I have no idea. I can't even remember where I first read about the Shishito pepper. It was just before Christmas, so I might have been in one of my new Japanese cook books I bought myself, or it was on-line, but all I  know is that when I mentioned that I read about this craze to my good friend Rochelle Greayer over dinner one night, she said " Oh my God! My parents are SO into those right now too!", then I knew something was happening. Maybe the are hot for Shishito's on the west coast ( or in Colorado, in Rochelle's case), and they are just taking their time making it to the east, but....all I know is that I think I need to grow some of these apparently tasty, small, green peppers that took Japan by storm! They are available from Baker Creek Seeds.

'Phloxes in Pots'

Some of you might have read my post on Facebook where I freaked out about not being able to find good seed for annual phlox, but now I have some better varieties ( there was once were many sections, a hundred and fifty years ago). Mainly, I am talking about Phlox drummondii. But why you might be thinking? Again, now, a month later, I am not sure why I was so crazy for the species and it's many selections, but I do know that a good, perfect crop of P. drummondii is something I've been lusting for ever since I read about Ruth Stout growing a carpet of them in her first book, back in 1971 - that summer when my mom bought me my first gardening book.

It's just not an annual we see grown well, if not at all. If my seed comes in on time ( from the UK) and if it germinates well, I hope to share a successful bed, perhaps under the espalier apple trees. If not, I may attempt these in pots - probably bulb pans.

Erica species from South Africa have larger, showier blossoms, and the plants grow tall, perfect for cold glass greenhouses in the north, they have been difficult to find, but now, with a few nurseries carrying them, those of us who have craved these colorful tender shrubs, can now have them.

Rare South African Hummingbird Erica's  and Heaths, in pots

This started with one of those moments, when I was chatting on line with Marc Hachadorian from the New York Botanical Garden about what plants we wished we could find....and somehow, it lead my to finding sources. Actually, it began with my hunt for old border carnation varieties, and then a mad hunt for chrysanthemum cuttings after Kings Mums ran out last year. Our discussion morphed into how much we  really wanted to grow the larger erica species, the sort one needs to grow in a cool greenhouse, so yeah, these are not for everyone.

You know how I love plants which one rarely sees anymore, an especially ones which are almost exclusively good greenhouse plants, so imagine my delight when I was reading a 19th C. book on conservatory plants, when I decided to search around on line looking for a good source for these tender, South African species. Rare and spectacular, I am happy to have found a source for these terrific cool greenhouse, winter growing species such as Erica canliculata, E. curviflora, E formosa E gladiolas,, E. ventricosa

French Mignonette in Pots

Once again, this nineteenth century Victorian plant makes an appearance on my projects list (honestly, it's been a bit of a pill, to try and grow). This time, I am determined to master it, only because I want to experience it's sent. Look - along with the Tuberose, Mignonnette is like taking a whiff of history, as if one could smell was Abraham Lincoln's funeral smelled like (eww, right? Maybe not the best example, but you get the idea - maybe, this is what Abe sent Mary for Valentines Day perhaps?). Historical scents fascinate me though, and since every decent 19th century florist had cut stems and pots of Mignonette, how could you not want to experience it's scent? I've ordered a collection of scented violets this year, to round out that collection, so this will simply enhance the entire scheme of 19th century fragrant plants in the greenhouse and cut flower garden.

Exhibition Dahlias

Now that I've kickstarted this new chapter of the American Dahlia Society - the New England Dahlia Society, it should come as no surprise that this was all really just a scheme to order lots and lots of dahlia tubers. Consider that done, so expect loads of pictures this coming year of not only our new dahlia beds, but of our first dahlia show at Tower Hill in mid September.

Exhibition Gladiolus

And, along with dahlias, come glads - perhaps my next passion, since I can't seem to keep my hands off of every old fashioned bulb which deserved a revisit or a makeover, and believe me, no bulb (or corm), deserves this more than the lowly glad. If you don't believe me, skip the Dutch commercial varieties available at the nurseries, glossy mail order color catalogs or from the big box stores, and visit a collectors web site - preferably a gladiolus breeder ( I suggest Pleasant Valley Dahlias and Glads, in CT). New glads, and by 'new', I mean the ones bred grown for exhibition in gladiolus shows which look nothing like any commercial glad you have seen or imagined. Forget funeral arrangements, cheap dollar-store bunches or even glamellas -instead, think of brownish bronze, super-ruffled 5 foot tall wonders -- colors like cinnamon, chocolate, dark blackberry colored eyed forms, or some with pie crusted ruffles show fancy, that each floret could be a corsage. Do it. Order a few, and let me know. I promise you, they are SO worth it!

Old Victorian Carnations

I will continue to build my collection this year of old (and new?) varieties, if I can ever find them. I suppose that I really need to get over to the UK, where I could shove some cuttings down my shorts, but until then, I need to rely on Annies Annuals and a few secret sources for what was once, American's darling cut flower 100 years ago.

Now, on my "maybe I'll try them" list

A serious collection of begonia species

After my talk to the Begonia Society here in Massachusetts last weekend, I think I stimulated some latent Begonia gene not-so-deep inside of me. So, who knows what will happen here, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a few dozen new begonias show up on a window table, or in the greenhouse this year.

Vintage Florist Techniques from the Nineteenth Century

I have been curious about this subject. Think - Downton Abbey flowers I suppose. Back in the mid to late 19th century, an arrangement or flora or greens, was generally reserved for the wealthy, those who owned a greenhouse, and the gardeners who could supply it. I'm not sure who would have made the arrangements, but most likely it was a footman, or a house maid with some skill. This was a time long before Oasis and floral foam, before Gerbera, alstroemeria and many of our standard supermarket florist flowers were introduced. Instead, damp moss and wire was tucked into  a shallow bowl, terrine, or a tiered fruit  stand, in which camellias, jasmine, and most any flower gathered in from the glasshouse or conservatory was arranged, along with bits of fern and mosses. I am curious about finding more books and reference materials about forcing plants for the conservatory, and I keep discovering chapters on these arrangements, so I wouldn't be surprised to see some of this craft appear as a study, here.

My Greenhouse Bulbs raised in Martian Regolith Simulant

A new hire at work (Samir) introduced me to this when he discovered that I liked plants. I couldn't believe that I never saw this, have you? Apparently NASA and generally, scientists are encouraging Americans to test raising plants in this  Martian Regolith Simulant. You make this stuff up. Regolith Simulants are basically fake soil, mimicking the soil conditions found on either the moon, or Mars. Surely the perfect science project theme for your kids, if you'v been looking for someway to connect your plant passions with them, right?

Go on, if you haven't yet, go Google 'Martian Regolith Simulant', and you will find everything from sources for soil, to complete kits. There are also all sorts of on-line communities for folks who are playing around with this soil. The soils seem to be coming from a volcano on Hawaii, and not from the Moon or from Mars, for that matter, which can be a little disappointing, but hey - if you are bulb collector and complaining about not being able to find pumice, this might be an alternative, and something that will certainly enhance your next presentation at the NARGS or PBS meeting. Let the scientists play with trying to raise food on Mars, I am going to see if I can raise Narcissis cantabricus when I visit there!

Exhibition and Japanese Chrysanthemums again

Yeah, this goes without saying, but oh....at a massive scale this year. Just wait!

Marigolds - strung on strings, or raising every variety that I can find
I may still do this, but losing interest in it slightly.

Alpine plants in raised vegetable containers.

*Addendum  to Gooseberrys
Ian adding this because my friend Mike Huben sent me this note fro Ecuador, where he is now living:


For some unknown reason, I can’t post a comment, so here are a couple of quibbles.

I’m a little surprised that you wrote at least twice about gooseberries carrying a virus that affects pines: rust fungi are not viruses.  And later you did talk about the rust fungi.  Here’s an excerpt from the wikipedia article on gooseberries:

"Like most Ribes, the gooseberry is an alternate host for white pine blister rust, which can cause serious damage to American white pines.[11]Gooseberry cultivation is thus illegal in some areas of the U.S and quarantines are in place to help control this disease. Maine law prohibits the planting and cultivation of currants and gooseberries in most of southern Maine, and prohibits the planting and cultivation of European black currants and their hybrids anywhere within the state.”

I’d be curious to know why you say "now that virus fears have been abated with White Pines”: I haven’t heard that and would like to know.

Mike, first of all, you are right. There is no excuse for me missing that fact, and I should have known better - excuse really was, it was late at night, and i felt that I had better post something, since I had missed an entire week of posts! Plus, as I wrote it, I knew that I would have to go back and correct it ini the morning - I was working off of my memory, that A. Gooseberries and Currants are again showing up in mail order catalogs without the shipping restrictions for Massachusetts, and B. I knew that I had read about the rust concerns being at least, reduced or lifted for one reason or another. Now, I had to go do some homework to confirm this.

Here are a few facts which i found both on the Cornell.edu site, and from other sources.


White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR) is a decimating fungus which infects white pine (Pinis strobes) in the North East.It also infects the genus Ribes, which includes Gooseberries and currants. Many states have prohibited planted Ribes for most of the 20th century due to this relationship, as the White Pine is a important forest and wood tree in North American forests.

In the 1900's, state and federal laws outlawd the cultivation of currants and gooseberries to prevent the spread of the devastating  white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). Many of can remember seeing these laws briefly explained in most any fruit tree catalog  where consumers were often told that they could only plant gooseberries or currants if they lived a certain distance from the nearest white pine.

The federal ban was rescinded in 1966, but a few New England states continued the ban, yet only for black currants.

In 2003, the state of New York modified its ban to allow commercial growers as well as home growers to grow newer red currants, gooseberries and immune or resistant varieties of black currants.

As for Gooseberries, there are two types the American (Ribes hirtellum) and the European (Ribes ova-crispa). American types have smaller fruit, and are known to be more resistant to mildew. Overall, they are known as healthier plants, being more productive. The varieties suggested as the finest for home growing are: 'Poorman'. Oregon Champion', Hinnonmaki Red', 'Hinnonmaki Yellow', 'Captivator', and 'Pixwell', the variety most commonly available as it propagates easily.

The finest European varieties, which will have much larger fruits and far better flavor, are:
'Invicta' (best flavor), Leveller', 'Careless', Early Sulfur', 'Catherina', and 'Achilles'.

Cornell University lists sources for these plants here:

1, There are new 'Immune' varieties  now available, so the restrictions have been lifted in most states except Main.
2. There are studies looking at a new mutation fungus, which does infect the new 'immune' varieties. (figures), but it can be controlled with fungicide applications.

Mr. Hueben also noted that I wrote this: 'Hummingbirds do not occur in Africa: the biological equivalent there are the Sunbirds, and the Ericas there have probably co-eveolved with them."

Mike , good catch! I will say that I thought twice about saying 'hummingbird erica's, as I am well aware, as a birder and a lifetime amateur ornithologist,that someone would catch that! Here's why I used hummingbird instead of Sunbird. The nursery, which I forgot to list as a source, either has trademarked their erica's as Hummingbird Heaths ™ or lists them as Hummingbird heather and heathers.  Naturally, I many tubular blossoms from South Africa, particularly many of the geophytes you know that I collect ( lachenalia, clivia) are all pollinated by the sunbirds found in the cape area of South Africa. I probably should have made this clear to readers, even though most won't catch the error, and yes - most, if they do grow any of these Erica's either in their Californian gardens, outside in the south west, or even in our country of the far, cold northeast, will indeed only see hummingbirds visit their plants ( well, maybe not in the northeast, since they will be blooming in the winter under glass in a greenhouse!>

As always, I welcome your notes and geekyness, Mike!

Hope everything is working out terrifically for you in your new adventurous life in Ecuador - your plants are doing well in our garden, if they can survive our -16 below zero temps last night!


  1. I thought it was just me with these project lists for the garden instead of just hunting down the current year's "it" plant! I am surprised you have not succumbed to clematis before. I highly recommend c. alpine 'Blue Dancer' and 'Alionushka'.

  2. all very exciting - and your pics are getting sooooo colorful now. i'm growing shisitos too and the idea of doing clematis in pots i love! somehow they don't do well in s. cali it may be that mildews and molds are too robust here. i'll be following your gooseberry and currant posts closely too. left two plants in nj and trying to figure out how to grow them here. another rarity in this part of the world. the native currants seem to be eaten/raised only for birds. it's always a treat to stop here.

  3. I have tried several varieties of gooseberries over the years. I would say that the one that does best for me is "Invicta". As I used them for jam, I pick them when they are still tart.

  4. I started working on my Dianthus collection a few months before you posted about the Malmaison carnations. That just fueled the fire. I've been able to track down about 50-60 taxa, though few are D. caryophyllus. I've reviewed the import constraints on Dianthus and apparently there are strict controls on imports from the UK specifically due to several diseases. Maybe you can visit the Malmaison national collection in Suffolk.

  5. Anonymous5:25 PM

    dear matt,
    thanks for the status update on currants/gooseberries--very helpful. was wondering about that, especially for MA.
    was also wondering if you have any food-based special projects in mind for the coming season.
    our "next big thing" seems to be kimchi.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

    1. My list is still incomplete, but I felt that I needed to share some of it. Yes, yes, yes, there will be many food projects - as for Kimchi, I may grow a second crop of Napa cabbage in the fall if I have time, or room, as I did in 2010 - that made great kimchi, but I make so much of it now, (3 batches this winter already), that I just haven't felt that it was special enough to blog about. I've been thinking about persimmons (to dry on strings, as they do in Japan), forcing Sea Kale, if I can get my half dozen of plants to grow larger! Many heirloom tomatoes, of course. Heirloom melons again in the greenhouse. I'm raising many heirloom warty squashes for an upcoming exhibition at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, and I'm on the hunt for a corn variety that colleague of mine asked for which is common in India - a hard, yellow corn, he says. Oh, and I am also on the hunt for Bergamot Trees, and most any, sour unusual citrus, since they do so well in the greenhouse. Which reminds me, (I made 20 jars of Mandarin and Meyer Marmalade tonight!). Blueberries might line a path to the chicken coop. Oh, I wish I had room, or a farm, and that I didn't live in Worcester! But, maybe that limits me! Cheers! More food projects to come later.

  6. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Gustavo Woltmann loves mulberries and thinks this is a great post about them!

  7. Thanks for the update! I hadn't known about immune varieties.

  8. The scent of mignonette really is wonderful but they are tough to grow. After several attempts I was finally successful last summer - sort of. Two plants made it and produced three flower spikes. I am going to try again this year. As for gooseberries, my dad absolutely loves them, and when I was a kid and we lived in Germany we had a red-fruited variety. My dad would leave them on the bush until they were almost purple and very soft and then eat them fresh out of the garden. I never liked them, but I love red and white currants, which I would eat by the bowl full just macerated with some sugar. They are probably the single thing I miss most about Germany, because here even when some fancy store sells them it is in such tiny portions at such exorbitant prices that one can hardly do more with them than use them as a garnish.

  9. Anonymous7:23 AM

    Re wishing you didn't live in Worcester: I for one am glad that you do because it is such a punishing, "icebox of MA" climate that what you can pull off shows the rest of us what is possible. And while being in a neighborhood is limiting, it is also inspiring for those who can only dream of a rural life.
    ~ 02568

  10. I had to laugh at your comment about not eating gooseberries by the handful; as kids, we did just that and loved it! We used to pick them for in the summer for my grandpa to sell at the local farmer's market to earn money for a swimming pool. All those pucker-inducing sour candies they sell now have never held any terror for me after growing up on gooseberries and fresh rhubarb in the summer.


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