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MARTHA SEZ: Keeping an eye on the bleeding hearts

April 27, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

What's the weather supposed to do today? Are we getting frost tonight?

I've just been reading about the bleeding heart (dicentra spectabilis) plant in my handy reference book "The Exuberant Garden," by Nick Woodin, beautifully and exuberantly illustrated by Alee Corballis, and it says here that new growth will die back in a frost.

"... careful gardeners," Woodin writes, "drape a sheet over them (bleeding heart plants) when a frost is predicted."

As we all know, asking what the weather is going to do is a joke here in the Adirondacks. We do it anyway. We just can't help it. We really want to know. We wait for Tom Messner's NBC report on Channel 5, we go to on our cellphones and iPads and we watch the storms, displayed in graduated color bands indicating type and intensity of precip, as they proceed across the USA from the West to the East. If it's accuracy we want, though, we might as well look out the window.

I recently returned from California, where people think they have been getting a lot of rain. I was out there for a week, and it never did rain during that time-no snow either, although I have heard that it snowed in the mountains over the winter. California did get a lot more rain than usual in recent months, which broke the drought, and residents are watering their lawns and filling their children's wading pools again without fear of recrimination from their neighbors. Still, we wouldn't call it rain. "Call that rain?" we'd say.

Say you are a weather person in Southern California. All you have to do, day after day, is report, "Sunny and temperate today, with clear skies overnight," and you will be right most of the time.

Weathermen and weatherwomen on California television look glamorous and confident. They don't have that peculiar hangdog look we sometimes associate with our own weatherpeople. They don't look as if they are accustomed to wearing a lot of bulky underwear and layering outer garments, or as if they have just been desperately battling hat hair after running into the building to take another stab at forecasting the weather. They don't even know what hat hair is.

It is true that on my recent visit to Los Angeles I was struck by the extravagance of the wildflowers on the hillsides. Lawns and mountain slopes were transformed from their characteristic baked adobe brown hue to a brilliant green. This just goes to show that California plant life knows how to survive on minimum moisture and extreme doses of ultraviolet light, as a result of evolving under extreme conditions through many millennia.

If our native plants received no more than that pitiful amount of precipitation they would shrivel up and die, never to rise again. A xeric, or desert, plant, of the type commonly found in California, however, requires only one tiny drop of moisture to practically explode into bloom.

By the same token, one day of exposure to California sunlight, without screening or protection of any kind, would be enough to shrivel and burn our tender northern plants. This explains why it is so difficult for us to keep potted florist shop plants like orchids clinging to life while they flourish in California, and why plants hardy enough to overwinter perfectly well in subzero Adirondack temperatures fail to thrive in LA.

The bleeding heart, named for the pink and white valentine-shaped flowers hanging along its graceful, slender stems, is an old-fashioned cottage garden favorite up North.

"I had become somewhat dismissive of them, they seemed so obvious," Woodin writes. "And the name!"

Nonetheless, he figures that he grew and sold a thousand or so bleeding hearts over the years by dividing mature plants.

As usual, Woodin, in "The Exuberant Garden," has given me some excellent information for gardening in this specific, very Northern climate. It's different here, not only different from California, but from most other places, and over the years I have found this book to be a godsend.

I, not in the least dismissive of the bleeding heart (far from it), am happy to read that even if freezing temperatures kill the budding and blooming branches, more will grow from lower on the stalk, and eventually the plant will flower.

On the other hand, I have never yet succeeded in growing a tomato, and I will not try again this year. This time, I really mean it.

Have a good week.



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