First dates: Plants I’m trying this year

This week, I will share some of the plants I’m trying out in my garden for the first time.

Mina lobata

Mina lobata uses numerous aliases, including firecracker vine, Spanish flag, and exotic love vine. This sun-loving annual grows quickly to 10 feet long and produces lush, trilobed leaves similar to those of Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, to which it is related. In late summer to early fall, Mina lobata produces red flowers that fade to orange, yellow, and white. Those tubular (as in tube-shaped, not as in surfer-speak) flowers attract swarms of hungry hummingbirds, so plant it where you can enjoy the show. The vine will reseed to come back year after year, but do be mindful that the seeds are poisonous so keep them away from children and pets.

Mina lobata

By Magnus Manske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Synonymous with Ipomoea lobata, this plant is related to morning glories and I expect similar habits. I’ve not had much trouble with reseeding morning glories, but I keep an eye out so nothing gets out of hand.  Mina lobata is said to cope well with heat and humidity, which I can guarantee in my neighborhood.

I thought I first saw this plant growing at Montrose last fall, combined with Helianthus, cosmos, and other fiery flora. But upon closer inspection, I’ve discovered that what I thought I was admiring was not Mina lobata, but Cuphea micropetalum.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It's not. It's Cuphea micropetalum.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It’s not. It’s Cuphea micropetalum.

To grow from seed:

Scarify the seed (scratch with sandpaper or nick the seed coat slightly) and soak in water overnight or up to 24 hours to improve germination. Sow seed outdoors after the last frost, or sow indoors and transplant after the frost risk has passed. Give its twining stems a trellis or tuteur to climb upon, or train it against a fence or wall you’d rather not see. Like clematis, its roots prefer some shade, and it likes rich soil, neutral to slightly acid pH, and moderate water. Do not overfeed Mina lobata with high-nitrogen fertilizer, or you will have lush vines and few flowers.

If left to dry on the vine, the seed heads may be harvested, cleaned, and stored in a cool, dry place.



Know thine enemy: Common weeds to know

Here’s a terrific chart of common weeds, by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Get to know the weeds that make their homes in your garden. The more you know about them, including their life cycles and reproductive habits, the more weapons you have with which to thwart them.

And please, avoid using chemical weed controls. They can be toxic to pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and can persist in the soil for very long periods of time. Mulch and other methods of weed control are more sustainable, and healthier for you, your family, your pets, and the environment over the long term.


Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium fistulosum

Beginning birding: An app that slows me down

I have a new toy.

A smartphone app called Merlin Bird ID, released by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, coaches beginning birdwatchers in the fundamentals of bird identification by asking five basic questions:

  1. Where did you see the bird?
  2. When did you see the bird?
  3. What size is the bird? (A radio-button option allows the user to pick the size from silhouettes of various birds.)
  4. What were the main colors? (select from 1 to 3)
  5. Was the bird…?
    • Eating at a feeder
    • Swimming or wading
    • On the ground
    • In trees or bushes
    • On a fence or wire
    • Soaring or flying

marbled red birdIt then creates a list of possible birds based on the user’s location and offers a sequence of photos, including males, females, and juveniles, to confirm the bird’s identity.  Audio clips of bird songs and calls help users to distinguish between similar-looking birds. When the user clicks the button “This Is My Bird!,” the sighting data is added to the lab’s database to help build the app’s accuracy. And over time, this citizen-science approach may help scientists to detect shifts occurring due to climate change or other environmental factors.

Data shared with the lab on regular bird sightings throughout the US and Canada inform the possible choices, and help new users to learn what species to expect in their regions at particular times of year. The app also informs the user if a particular option is uncommon or rare. So far, I’ve spotted the usual suspects: male northern cardinals and American robins in particular, but also Carolina chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, and an eastern towhee. And not only is it fun to build knowledge and competence in a new subject, but bird identification requires me to slow down, be still, and observe: some things I need to do much more often.

The app is free on iTunes. An Android version is coming this spring.

Of Milkweed and Monarchs | Saving the Beneficial Butterfly

A fascinating fact about why birds don’t eat monarch larvae. Check out other recommendations from Dr. Douglas Tallamy about important species to plant for butterflies, moths, and birds, and learn more how home gardeners can support monarch populations in their migration and recovery. This is a great project for families, after-school groups, or faith groups to tackle. Every bit helps.

Garden Variety

Large-scale farming has wiped out millions of acres of native plants, including milkweed, a vital resource for monarch butterflies—contributing to their dwindling numbers. Here’s the scoop and how you can help.

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