The Fabulously Colorful Asteraceae Plant Family

Warning: Reading this may lead to a fondness for dandelions.

What do these flowers have in common?

Zinnias

Sunflowers

Cosmos

Marigolds

Asters

Goldenrod

Dandelions

Artichokes

Artichokes?

I’ll give you a hint, the artichoke is a bud! If left to mature on the plant, it will produce hundreds of purple, narrow-tubed flowers cradled in one base.

These flowering plants are all part of the Asteraceae Family.

Plants are placed in families based on characteristics they share. These flower heads are all round and have a flat central disc. While each flower appears to be a single flower, all Asteraceae flowers are actually a composite of many small flowers, each with their own reproductive parts, packed densely into one receptacle.

The flowers in the center disc are called disc florets and those surrounding it are ray florets.

As beautiful as flowers are to us humans, flowers are trying to impress insects and birds. Pollination is the primary objective of a flower. Once pollination happens, the flower withers and dies. Pollination activates the fertilization of seeds, ensuring reproduction of the plant. Both ray and disc florets have all the necessary reproductive parts.

Another feature of plants in the Asteraceae family is their sepal-like leaves, called bracts, on the flower head’s underside. Bracts surround and protect the base of the plant where the seeds mature. They are arranged in either an overlapping or a linear pattern.
 

 

I took a few bracts off to see the seeds beneath — they are packed in there!

Rings of new disc florets emerge gradually in an orderly fashion from the disc’s outside perimeter to the center. A cone-shaped arrangement forms as the underlying seeds grow larger and require more space. This was a marvelous insight for me; one of the traits we love about zinnias is how long the flowers last. They last that long to ensure that every ovule (pre-seed) gets fertilized.

If you dissect a flower head, you can see the many seeds at various stages of maturation.

A good visual of a composite flower head is the sunflower.

Sunflowers are a bee magnet. We hear a lot about the benefits of growing “pollinator” plants in a garden. You need look no further than plants in the Asteraceae family for colorful flowers that attract insects.

The end result is hundreds of sunflower seeds to eat and ensure reproduction.

Not all Asteraceae plants have both ray and disc florets. A few species have one or the other. Dandelions, for example, are comprised of ray florets only. With my new appreciation of flowering plants, I don’t think I will be as quick to pull dandelions out of my vegetable garden anymore. After all, my Sicilian immigrant grandmothers picked dandelion leaves to eat. The leaves are a good source for vitamin C. During early times, the cool-weather plants were grown in kitchen gardens for settlers to eat to prevent scurvy.

Artichokes are comprised of all disc florets. The bristles that make up the choke are actually hundreds of very immature flowers.

Knowing this, I forevermore will say a prayer of gratitude when I remove those less edible filaments from a stuffed artichoke. For without the choke, we would not get seeds for more artichokes! THAT would be a travesty.

Studying and photographing the unfolding reproductive cycle of flowers in my garden has been a source of joy, a saving grace, and a silver lining of diversion while living through this crazy pandemic. I am grateful to my mother for instilling in me a love of gardening and to Mother Nature for providing everything I need to grow food in my backyard. I hope to inspire others, most especially children, to experience the peace and thrill of planting a seed, watching it grow, and being a witness to the beauty of the natural world.

A moth imbibing in nectar.

 

If there are cool-weather plants such as asters, cosmos, chickory, or chrysanthemums in your yard, maybe cut one open and see for yourself!

I am grateful to my fellow naturalist and Instagram friend, Rose Marie Trapani, for sending me a flowering artichoke in the MAIL so I could dissect it. That’s a whole ‘nother story! You can follow Rose Marie @oursiciliantable on Instagram.

Related Posts
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed
Winter Floral Arrangements Using Greenery from the Yard
Lemon Tree Very Pretty
Family Dirt
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

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Lemon Tree Very Pretty

Inspiration. You never know whence it will come.

Last January, my friend Colleen posted a photo of a bowl of bright Meyer lemons on Instagram with a story about a day spent making lemon shortbread and lemon zest ice cubes. The caption read the lemons were grown by our mutual friend and neighbor, Jennifer.

Jennifer has been growing citrus trees in middle Tennessee for five years. The trees summer in her backyard and are brought inside to her garage to winter-over. As soon as I saw the photo of the lemons I texted Jennifer to see if my husband and I could walk over to see her garage grove. All told she had fifteen plants: lots of lemons, a few limes, and one each of orange and tangerine.

The Meyer lemon trees were loaded with fruit. This photo was taken after the big harvest that sparked Colleen and Jennifer to spend the day making cookies for their neighbors.

Thus inspired, in late April, when local nurseries started stocking lemon trees, my husband bought two Meyer Lemons and two Mexican Key Limes.

The plants were only about ten inches tall.

Here they are on October 21 after he re-potted them for the second time. He said he fertilized them once in the fall with Miracle Grow plant food for acid-loving plants. Since we had a mild fall, he kept them outside until mid-November.

Here they are today in our unheated sun porch.

The bright, lemony, and, yes, happy fragrance of the flowers hits you when you first open the door. The smell is intoxicating.

The two lemon trees have about twenty dark green, unripe lemons and hundreds of buds; most are still closed. The lime trees are behind the lemon trees. They only have five small limes growing but have hundreds of tiny buds.

The question is, In the absence of bees or wind, how are these flowers going to get pollinated? I asked my husband, the keeper of the citrus trees, how this was getting accomplished. He said he periodically goes out to the porch and uses a Q-tip to hand pollinate the open flowers.

As a brief refresher, with flowers, the male reproductive part is called the stamen. It consists of a long, thin filament topped by a yellow pollen sack called an anther. The female reproductive part, the center tube, is called a pistil. On the tip of it is a sticky yellow stigma. In the photo, you can see the stigma is wet (it’s shiny). I wouldn’t be surprised if some flowers are being pollinated by gravity alone as the pollen grains drop from their anthers.

One Thing Led to Another

Henry David Thoreau wrote in The Succession of Forest Trees. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

On Christmas Eve I stopped by our friend’s house for a quick visit and was excited when 7th grader Simon and 8th grader Julius showed me a collection of sprouted seeds they had nurtured over the month. Why? Because it’s science and who doesn’t enjoy a front row seat to the wondrous moment in nature when a seedling pokes its head out of the dirt and its leaves begin to unfurl?!

Their labeled collection of sprouting seeds contained packages of seeds wrapped in wet paper towels and stored in clear plastic bags. To help the germination process along for the lemon seeds, the boys had split the hard seed shells open before placing them in the damp bags to sprout. They gave me a bag with four lemon seeds in it.

I kept the bag on the kitchen windowsill until January 6th when I planted the seeds in dirt. Here they are seven weeks after they were first placed in the bag to germinate.

Flying Dragon Bitter Orange Tree

It is worth mentioning there is a deciduous citrus plant that grows well in Nashville called a trifoliate orange tree, AKA a Flying Dragon Bitter Orange Tree. My Flying Dragon is three years old and has yet to set fruit. I’m hoping for fruit this summer. Per Wikipedia: “The fruits are very bitter, due in part to their poncirin content. Most people consider them inedible when fresh, but they can be made into marmalade. When dried and powdered, they can be used as a condiment.”

Germinating lemon seeds and pollinating lemon flowers have been fun winter pursuits while waiting for February 14th, the big day. Yup, that’s the time-honored date in our area to plant peas and thus begin the 2019 growing season! To learn more about starting a kitchen garden check out this page.

What to do with all those lemons?

Our favorite way to use a glut of lemons is to make Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies.

Another favorite is Lemony Grilled Chicken Breasts.

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Here is a lemony recipe I wrote for Mason Dixon KnittingSHEET PAN SUPPER: LEMON CHICKEN

This post shows you how to quickly peel citrus: How to Peel an Orange or Grapefruit Quickly.

And how about a nice citrus salad to tide us over while we wait for homegrown tomatoes? Grapefruit and Greens: A Refreshing Winter Salad 

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Morning Rounds in the Garden, July

The July edition of Morning Rounds should begin with a feature photo of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes piled high on a platter, the raison d’être of the Italian summer garden. But, there are no tomatoes this year. They have all been devoured by four-legged creatures with long tails. Instead of peaceful, meditative walkabouts in my vegetable gardens each morning, I begin my day with a quick check of catch and release traps. It’s like setting out baited hooks at dusk when we jugfish for catfish and checking them with bated breath the next morning. Only we eat the catfish.

That’s an opossum’s tail!

In past years, this photo of a squirrel eating a green tomato on the railing of the front garden was an anomaly; now it’s the norm. I considered it quaint; now it makes me growl.

This is a telltale sign that a squirrel is eating your garden produce.

The rabbits have a different modus operandi. They eat the leaves and leave the stems. Currently, they are loving on my peanut plants.

On a much happier note, I do welcome this type of wildlife in my garden. It equals POLLINATION which equals fruits and vegetables in the garden.

I’m very thankful for the bees. If it weren’t for their hind legs collecting and depositing yellow pollen grains as they fly from flower to flower looking for nectar, we would not have zucchini, or Patty Pan squashes, or pumpkins, all gourds in the cucurbit family. Vegetables in the cucurbit family have distinct male and female flowers growing on the same plant. The flower on the right is the male and the one on the left is the female. The bees unwittingly connect them.

Beneath the female flower of this Patty Pan squash is an immature fruit. If pollinated, the fruit will grow to maturity. If not, it will wither and die. I call that failure to launch. Blessed be the pollinators, for they will have honey in heaven.

One morning I shot this short video after I saw a bumblebee fly into a pumpkin flower poking through the fence surrounding the compost pile. Wait for it. Oh, the things you can observe in the garden.

 

 

The Front Garden: The Italian Vegetable Garden

Moving onto other vegetables growing in the front garden, there are the swoon-worthy Tri-Color string beans and Fairy Tale eggplants,.

and the sweet peppers.

In the photos below, you’ll see buds, flowers, and small fruit growing on the single stems of eggplants, string beans, and sweet peppers. While bees visit these plants, their male and female reproduction parts are within the same flower and gravity and wind often does the job of spreading the pollen.


Other News

I harvested the soft-neck garlic bulbs at the end of June. The bulb heads are small because they had a short growing season. I planted them in the spring. If they are planted in the fall and allowed to winter over, they should grow much larger bulbs.

Sadly, by mid-July, my raised bed of squash and cucumbers plants became so unruly, due to overcrowding, that I pulled all the plants. Plants need air circulation. They need room to grow. My problem is I have a hard time thinning plants. Lesson learned. I felt so relieved when I finally pulled them. I knew from the beginning I should have thinned the seedlings.

In other good news, the Brown Turkey fig tree is loaded with almost-ripe figs.

The fig tree is at at least twenty feet tall. I planted it in front of a southern-facing brick wall, and it has survived in this spot for over ten years. Every few years, I have to cut it back after we have a super cold winter. While I don’t have an irrigation system, the tree is watered by the steady drip of condensate from our air-conditioner. It remains lush all summer long.

The Muscadine grapes are looking great. I gave them lots of room to grow along a fence.

The Back Garden: Commercial Crops and their Flowers

I am growing a variety of commercial crops for the sheer joy of seeing how they grow.

Cotton

Sugar Cane

Peanuts

Corn

Tobacco (hasn’t flowered, yet)

Indigo (hasn’t flowered, yet)

Soybeans (missed a flowering photo)

Rice (this crop failed)

A morning haul of food. I look at this assortment of vegetables and wait for them to tell me what I should cook for dinner. I love the entire process of growing and cooking vegetables.

For ideas about how to prepare summer vegetables check out vegetable sides and pasta dishes on the blog Menu.

I’ll close with a video of my backyard composters eating their favorite food.

 

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Related Stories
Morning Rounds in the Garden, June
Morning Rounds in the Garden, May
Morning Rounds in the Garden, April
Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Family Dirt

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Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.