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Q&A with Bob Polomski 15

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Extension Consumer Horticulturist, Clemson University

I purchased a plant called winter red hot poker (Veltheimia bracteata). What kind of care does it need? -E.R., Bernardsville, NJ

Answer: This bulb, also known as forest lily, is a South African native of the coastal forests on the eastern Cape. Within three to four months after V. bracteata resumes growth in the fall, a 12- to 15-inch-tall flower stalk emerges from the basal rosette of shiny, bright green leaves. The flower stalk is mottled with reddish purple and topped by a large, densely packed conical truss of 50 to 60 pendent, pink-purple tubular flowers tipped with green.

The bulb is best planted in fall, in a five-inch pot of well-drained, fertile, soilless mix. One-third of the bulb should be above the surface. Water it well, and place it in a location receiving 65°F daytime temperatures and 50°F nighttime lows. Provide at least three or four hours of bright direct sunlight in a southern or western exposure. High light and cool temperatures will keep the plants sturdy and compact. Water more frequently after the leaves have emerged, and apply a slow-release houseplant fertilizer.

After the plant flowers, in late winter or early spring, remove the flower stalk. When the leaves begin to fade in the summer, reduce the frequency of watering until they wither. Remove the dead leaves and with-hold all water until the fall. Before the plant begins another growth cycle, scrape some of the potting mix from the surface and replace it with fresh mix. Then resume watering. This bulb resents any root disturbance, so repot it only when offsets need to be removed.

How can I deter rabbits? I would like to know how to keep them from chewing my lilies and other plants. -B.M., Avalon, WI

Answer: Your options include habitat modification, barriers, and repellents. Any well-landscaped yard provides good cover for rabbits. Removing brush piles may deprive them of some shelter; fences provide more certain protection. A two-foot-high fence of chicken wire or rectangular rabbit wire, fit snugly to the ground or buried a couple of inches deep at its lower edge, will keep rabbits out of both flower beds and vegetable gardens.

Rabbits are especially attracted to young, thin-barked trees, particularly in fall and winter. Telltale signs of feeding include gnaw marks in the trunk and clean, angled cuts in young stems (deer leave a ragged tear). A two-foot-tall cylinder of hardware cloth around young trunks will provide protection.

You can also try one of the commercially available mammal repellents, such as Miller's Hot Sauce Animal Repellent or Ropel. The fungicides thiram and ziram can also be used as repellents. To make your own repellent, mix two tablespoons of hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco) per gallon of water, or blend two or three rotten eggs in a gallon of water, and spray it on your plants. Rainfall or new growth will necessitate repeat applications of any repellent.

I admire the spectacular display of fringe tree. Is it possible to propagate the tree from cuttings? -K.F., by e-mail

Answer: Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a large deciduous shrub or multistemmed small tree that reaches a height and spread of 12 to 20 feet. Although fringe tree is hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, its natural range extends from Ohio and Pennsylvania, south to Florida, and west to Texas and Missouri. It can be found in moist wooded areas and along the edges of swamps. A moist, acid, well-drained location in full sun to part shade is ideal.

As the leaves emerge in the spring, fringe tree bears six- to eight-inch-long drooping panicles of fragrant, creamy white, wispy flower petals. The species is dioecious; the male staminate flowers have larger petals than the pistillate flowers. The female flowers give rise to green, fleshy, 5/8-inch-long plumlike fruits. These ripen to dark blue to purple and contain a stonelike seed.

Fringe tree is difficult to propagate, especially from cuttings, which has hampered the selection and distribution of desirable selections. Seeds have a double dormancy requirement, and so will germinate in the second spring after fall planting. A shortcut is to remove the fleshy pulp and nick the seed coat, then put the seed in a food storage bag filled with moistened sphagnum peat moss. Keep it at 70°F for three months. This will ripen the underdeveloped embryo. Then place the bag in the refrigerator for a three-month stratification period. The stratification medium should not be allowed to dry out. After this treatment, sow the seeds in a flat and keep at room temperature until they sprout. Seed-propagated fringe trees take five to seven years to flower, and will vary in appearance.

While most fringe trees are difficult to propagate from cuttings, certain ones respond more readily. You can try by taking three- to six-inch-long semihardwood cuttings in midsummer. Remove the lowest leaves, injure the lower portion of the shoot by removing a one-half- to one-inch-long sliver of bark from one side, and apply rooting hormone.

Our front yard is very wet, often with standing water. Can you suggest a few native shrubs and flowers that will tolerate these damp conditions? -E.B., Chagrin Fall, OH

Answer: Selecting plants that tolerate the waterlogged soil of your yard is an ecologically wise choice, and much less expensive than modifying the terrain to accommodate plants that demand good drainage.

For shrubs, I recommend buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), gray dogwood (C. racemosa), red osier dogwood (C. sericea), common winterberry (Ilex verticillata), northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), and withe rod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides). Herbaceous perennials adapted to wet soils include marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), turtlehead (Chelone glabra), and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). H