Pollen is on the wane; peonies show off on Martha’s Vineyard

A sensational intersectional peony 'Keiko' in the Sauniers' border at Heather Gardens.— Photo by Susan Safford

Pollen is a ubiquitous material. It is everywhere indoors and out, including in our sinuses, tonsils, and bronchial tubes, clinging onto our tissues with its minute hooks, pins, and grappling devices. If one lives in woodland the scent of it — presumed to be decaying — is pervasive at this time.

Yet, pollen grains from millions of years ago remain intact, in bogs, ice cores, the fossil record. How is it that something organic, the Ur-material of life, does not decompose and rot away? The study of pollen has a name: palynology. Palynologists and paleo-ecologists know what species grew where, and when, and which of them are still with us on earth today, based on the confirmation contained in grains of pollen. This is persistent stuff!

According to the author and taxonomist Arthur Haines, (“Flora Novae Angliae”; “Ancestral Plants”) in his recent wild plant foraging talk and class at Polly Hill Arboretum, pollen is a nutritious substance. That of pines, rich in phyto-androgens, is collected and sprinkled over food in many Asian cuisines, an advantage we may avail ourselves of in spring with the pollen “cones” of native white pine, Pinus strobus. They are juicy and slightly resiny if picked before they open to shed their yellow pollen.

Torrential rains in the last week have washed zillions of pollen grains down into hidden resting places in puddles, leaf debris, and pond bottoms, and there they remain until the palynologists of the future find and study them. Will they conclude that the earthly air we breathe today is thick with increasing quantities of it? Or will the evidence, when viewed in the future, show that we were lucky to live in a relatively pollen-free time?

Other changes are more direct. For most of the past decade, meteorologists have warned that hurricane seasons should be generating more and stronger storms, with higher winds and more torrential rains. 2013 will be a test of that. Already this year we have received lots of rain, dumped in big splashes. The remnants of tropical storm Andrea dumped 2.1 inches of rain late Friday and into Saturday, according to my rain gauge, and another 1.7 inches fell late Monday and early Tuesday.

Encourage rainfall to percolate instead of running off, by resisting the urge to unnecessarily clear land, especially slope. “Cleaning the woods” has unwelcome ecological consequences: erosion, loss of topsoil, and degraded brooks and streams. De-forested land contributes, in the grand scheme of things, to cycles of heat, drought, and flood, such as Europe and the American Midwest have recently experienced.

Peony season

One of our most sumptuous flowers of spring garden and flower vase, the peony brings glamour, flare, and color. I should follow my own advice and spread out the show in my garden with a broader-based peony calendar. Most peony descriptions include a time frame based on early, mid, late or “week 1,” “week 6,” and so on. My garden contains primarily older varieties of earlies, of which the main drawbacks are size and height, in view of the inevitably coinciding heavy rains.

Modern peony breeding has striven to produce compact plants suitable for today’s smaller gardens, with an emphasis on sturdy stems that do not require staking. Which would you prefer, one huge 38-inch ‘Alexander Fleming’ or three 24-inch ‘Westhill’? Flower forms vary considerably too, with “Japanese,” “single,” and “anemone” being lighter and catching less water than varieties with huge, doubled or rose-form flowers.

The most exciting development of modern peony breeding has produced the intersectional hybrids (‘Keiko’ in the photo) made by the Japanese hybridizer Toichi Itoh, between tree and herbaceous peonies. They remain a reasonable size yet produce many, many more blooms on strong stems, for a prolonged flowering season. The color range includes gorgeous shades of both tree and herbaceous peonies.

In the Garden

Thin fruits of orchard trees. If pollination conditions have been good in your garden, there will be multiple baby fruits on the branches. Look them over and remove the weak, deformed, or extra ones so the tree can direct its energy into making one good fruit, rather than three crummy ones. Peaches especially are prone to heavy bearing and benefit from this practice, which also reduces the weight load on bearing branches. Clean up any drops from the bases of trees.

Garlic plants are maturing rapidly in my garden, where the soil temperature is now around 70F. When harvested, they will leave a big space for summer crops, such as squashes, bush beans, more greens such as kales and radicchio, or beets, turnips, and carrots. If you start seedlings in modules elsewhere you can plug the plants in immediately after the garlic harvest.

Alternatively, you could do a quick buckwheat cover-crop, the seeds being sown even before the garlic is harvested. Let it grow a week or two, incorporate, and then proceed with planting the next crop.

Continue with pruning and tying tomato plants. Remove the lower leaf fronds and axillary shoots up to the first flower cluster. Pay attention, to prevent “stopping” a plant.

Strawberries are ripening and benefit from straw or pine needle mulch laid previously to keep fruit away from soil. When a pine in your neighborhood sheds its needles, collect and store them to have on hand for a new planting. Floating row cover or netting will produce more berries for humans and fewer for birds. In the Permaculture sense, strawberries make an effective, food-producing groundcover, so think outside the box (of the vegetable garden) for a location.

Deadhead and de-stalk perennials such as poppy, bearded, and Siberian iris. Remove the flowering stems of stachys (lambs’-ears) if you prefer the look of a solid silver mat of foliage. Scout oriental lilies for larval red lily beetles, which mess the foliage and weaken the plants. Scrape them off and destroy.


Last meeting of the year Sunday, June 16, at Agricultural Hall, 4–6 pm.