‘An herb whose flowers are like to a Lions mouth when he gapeth.’
Copious Dictionary in three parts by Francis Gouldman

After the 5th mildest February in Connecticut on record for the past 113 years it felt as if we were going to just saunter into spring this year. Walking around the yard on the first day of March I saw the usual signs of late winter including the new buds of Hellebore peeping through last year’s old foliage and even a brave little slug that had emerged from the soil.

But the next day March came in like a lion with winds gusting to 74 mph at the Ledge Lighthouse in Groton courtesy of a Nor’easter that also brought snow and drenching rains, days later we had 12-18” of heavy, wet snow across the state and today, another 6-10”. Fortunately, hellebore is able to withstand a little bad weather.

Helleborus is known as winter rose, Christmas rose, and, most familiarly to me because of when it blooms, Lenten rose. Its scientific name was given by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 and comes from the Greek ‘helléboros’ which breaks down into heleîn ‘to injure’ and borά ‘food’ due to the toxic nature of all parts of the plant. Two kinds of hellebore were known before 400 BCE:  the white hellebore of the Family Melanthiaceae was believed to have been used as a laxative by Hippocrates and the black hellebore, melanorrhizon (black-rooted), a member of the Ranunculaceae family. It is the latter group that most garden hellebore belongs to, one that also gives us Delphinium and Clematis (below), Buttercups, Ranunculus, and Anemone.

Hellebore originated in the mountain areas and open woodlands of the Balkans but some species also come from Asia (H. thibetanus) and the border of Turkey and Syria (H. vesicarius). In the centuries since hellebore has found its footing in gardens around the world where it continues to be a favored choice as a ground-cover with dark, shiny, leathery leaves.

It is so popular that Helleborus x hybridus was chosen the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year from up to 400 nominations by the Perennial Plant Association. Plants are chosen by the PPA for their low-maintenance, wide range of growing climates, multiple season interest, availability, and relatively pest and disease-free care. It’s no surprise that Hellebore made the cut.

Helleborus by Dawn Pettinelli

Image by Dawn Pettinelli

It grows in USDA zones 5a to 8b which makes it very well-suited to Connecticut even though it is not native. It can tolerate shade to part-shade and does well in moist, well-drained soil with a pH range of 5.7-7.0.  Lower pH levels can lead to calcium and magnesium deficiencies. Interestingly, once established, hellebore is very drought-tolerant and even drooping leaves will bounce back unharmed when they are re-hydrated. Due to the fact that its leaves contain nasty-tasting alkaloids it does not get eaten by deer or rabbits and is considered toxic to humans and animals when ingested.

Helleborus orientalis late winter


Those same alkaloids can be a problem for people with sensitive skin so it is wise to wear gloves when working with hellebore. I trim the foliage back in late winter, at the start of March if there isn’t any snow cover, so that the emerging flower buds aren’t hidden by the old growth.

If Botrytis cinerea, a grey mold, was a problem on hellebore foliage then infected plant material should be removed in the fall so that it doesn’t overwinter.  Late winter is also a good time to apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer that will ensure ‘blooms’ that will last for a month or more.


I say ‘blooms’ because what appears to be petals are actually tepals that protect the small, barely noticeable flower buds. Sepals are usually green but when they are similar in appearance and color to petals they are called tepals. Other plants that have colored tepals are Orchids, Day lilies, Lilies, Lily of the valley, Tulips, Magnolia and Tulip poplar.

On the hellebore the vintage-looking colors of the tepals range from a pure white to a dusky rose to a deep, almost black, plum. Most tepals become green-tinged as they age and many are veined, spotted, or blotched with shades of pink, purple, or red. The 2-3” ‘blooms’ generally hang or droop down so it is sometimes hard to see the nectaries that provide food for the early pollinators.

There are few insects that bother hellebore but one is the Hellebore aphid which will feed on sap from the flowers and foliage, excreting the honeydew that may lead to the growth of sooty mold. Cucumber mosaic virus can be vectored by feeding aphids and shows itself in light and dark green mottling on Hellebore foetidus.


Image by RHS



H. foetidus, also known as stinking hellebore or dungwort is found in the wild in southern and western Europe in addition to cottage gardens. Its foliage gives off a pungent smell when crushed and it has another insect pest particular to it, the Hellebore leaf miner, which, as its name suggests, will tunnel into the foliage creating the damage shown to the left.



There are many commercially available varieties of hellebore and hybridizing has created a color palate that now includes reds, grays, yellows, and greens. The Picotee variety have narrow margins of a darker color. Semi- and double-flowered hellebore have two or more extra rows of tepals and the anemone-centered variety have a ring of shorter curved petals closer to the center which drop off after pollination. A visit to your favorite nursery or garden center is sure to provide you with many selections.

Helleborus by Lisa Rivers

Image by Lisa Rivers

You can put them into the ground as soon as it is workable. As Hellebore do not grow more than 18” high and have flowers that hang down they are best appreciated when viewed from close proximity. Plant them in an area that you walk past often and enjoy them for years to come.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton unless noted

Did you notice off-color leaves on your broadleaved evergreens, such as azalea, rhododendron or Andromeda last year?  These popular landscape shrubs are sometimes attacked by lace bugs and their feeding damage results in small, yellow to brown flecks on the leaves. When there are many of these, the whole leaf, and even the whole shrub, can look off color from a distance.


Leaf discoloration caused by the feeding of lace bugs. Photo credit: William Fountain, University of Kentucky, Bugwood.org

What are lace bugs? They’re insects in the family Tingidae and have piercing and sucking mouth parts. They are small – the adults are only 2-3 mm in length. They are quite distinctive looking. Adults have flattened bodies with lacy looking wings that give them their common name. The species on broadleaved evergreens appear black and white. Nymphs are quite dark in color, up to about half the size of the adults, depending on their growth stage (instar) and are covered with dark spines.


It’s easy to miss these pests as the cause of leaf discoloration because the feed and reproduce on the lower leaf surfaces. They pierce leaf cells and suck out the juicy contents, resulting in cell death. So a lot of this type of injury due to a high population can result in reduced photosynthesis that in turn leads to poor plant health, leaf drop and reduced flowering.

Lace bugs that attack broadleaved evergreens overwinter in the egg stage. Eggs are laid in the leaves of the veins, mostly on lower leaves, and then covered by the female with a cement or varnish like material. Spring hatch occurs typically in May in the northeast. Nymphs begin feeding immediately and go through five nymphal stages or instars before becoming adults. Under favorable conditions, the entire life cycle may be completed in one month. Depending on lace bug species, there may be 2-4 generations per year in Connecticut.

To protect plant health and also to prevent unsightly discoloration of the leaves, monitor for lace bugs early in the season on susceptible plants, especially if they have evidence of injury from the year before. Nymphs and adults can be sprayed off plants with a strong stream of water or they can be treated with horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Both of these products must coat the pests to kill them so thorough coverage of the leaf undersides is required. Inevitably, some individuals or eggs will survive so a second application may be necessary. Prevention of damage before it gets too severe is important because leaf discoloration will persist for a year or more.

Both azalea and rhododendron lace bugs are more likely to build up to high, damaging populations on plants in sunny locations. The Andromeda lace bug can cause a lot of trouble in both sunny and shady sites.

As mentioned above, there are a number of susceptible plants found commonly in northeast landscapes. The lace bugs have quite narrow host ranges as shown below:

               Lace bug species                                                          Host plants

Andromeda lace bug Japanese Andromeda, Leucothoe
Azalea lace bug Azalea and mountain laurel
Rhododendron lace bug Rhodendron and mountain laurel

By J. Allen

The recently held Connecticut Flower & Garden Show was a welcome late winter event with its lovely landscapes, exquisite floral arrangements and unique vendors. All the landscapes were delightful to view but I thought that the Earth Tones Native Nursery with its lighted recycled beer bottles and Aqua Scapes of CT both had especially creative exhibits.

Aqua scapes of CT jpg

Aqua Scapes of CT landscape at 2018 CT Flower & Garden Show

earth tones native nursery jpg

Earth Tones Native Nursery display at 2018 CT Flower & Garden Show

Another great feature of the flower show are the thousands of plants, bulbs and seed packets available for purchase. Several of the vendors were offering various species of tillandsias, commonly called air plants.

tillsandia 2 jpg

Tillandsias for sale

They are quite popular because not only do they look interesting and quite different from other houseplants, but they do not need soil or potting mix to grow in. So, they can be grown almost anywhere light and temperatures allow. According to Yumi Chen of Yumi Jewelry & Plants (www.yumiplants.com) air plants are a favorite of apartment dwellers and college students as they do not take up much space nor do they require a lot of care.

tillandsia jpg

Tillandsias on display at Yumi Plants

Tillandsias are a genus in the Bromeliad family. They are epiphytes which is a fancy way of saying they are plants that typically grow on other plants, often in the crotches of trees and shrubs. They may also grow on rocks, cacti and even on the ground. Tillandsias are native to parts of the southern U.S., Central and South America.

Unlike most plants that we are familiar with, tillandsias only use their roots to anchor themselves to a living or non-living object. Water and nutrients are not taken up by the roots but rather by the leaves. As a general rule of thumb, those with thicker leaves are native to drier areas while those with thinner leaves grow where there is more rainfall and humidity.

There are over 650 different species of air plants. Many have slender or strap-shaped leaves but a few larger ones have more triangular-shaped leaves. While they are grown primarily for their curious mop-like shapes, they do have interesting tubular or funnel-shaped flowers often in bright colors.

tillandsia flowers jpg

Tillandsia flowers at KC Exotic Air Plant Booth

Caring for tillandsias is not difficult as long as their basic cultural needs are met. Providing air plants with the water and nutrients they need is the key to healthy plants. Their leaves have specialized microscopic structures on them called trichomes that are hollow tissue cells that absorb any moisture they come into contact with. They also give many species of tillandsias their lovely silvery blue sheen.

Suggested watering regimes vary depending on who you talk to and which websites are visited. Keith Clark of KC Exotic Air Plants (www.airplants.biz) recommends soaking plants 3 to 4 hours every 2 weeks while Ms. Chen suggests a 30 minute weekly soaking. Other regimes include misting or placing them under a faucet of running water. Like most plants, how often they are watered depends on the species of plant as well as climate conditions. During warmer, drier periods because of home heating or summer sun, plants probably need to be watered more frequently. Also, if they are kept in humid bathrooms and kitchens, they may need less water. Since I just purchased my first air plant, I will see how it fares with a once a week half hour soaking.

till 3

Watering tillandsia by placing in a bowl of water

Both vendors as well as Tillandsia International (www.airplant.com) do stress the need to let the air plants dry out before putting them back in their pots, bowls, globes or other containers. If your tap water is chlorinated, consider using bottled, well or rain water instead.

Air plants do not require a lot of nutrients and respond well to a bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22). The easiest way to fertilizer according to Ms. Chen is to mix a quarter teaspoon of fertilizer into a gallon of water and use this solution to soak your plants in once a month from spring through fall. Plants typically are not fertilized during the winter months.

Tillandsias need bright, indirect light but few do well in full sun. Place in an east or north window or 3 to 5 feet away from more brighter southern or western exposures. They can also be grown using artificial light.

tillandsia 1 jpg

Tillandsia in a glass globe makes a nice hanging plant

Plants will develop roots but since these are only needed to anchor the plants to trees and other objects, they are often trimmed away before plants are sold. As the roots grow back, they can be left on the plant or cut off depending on how it is being displayed. Because of their unique shape and growth habits they can be placed in hanging glass globes, used to fill decorative bowls or other containers, included in succulent dish gardens or attached to wall hangings. Because they need good air circulation, they might not do well in enclosed terrariums.

Tillandsias air plants jpg

Tillandsias in open terrariums.

When an air plant finally matures, which takes about 9 to 12 months for the smaller species according to Mr. Clark, it blooms and then produces offshoots, generally referred to as pups. When these reach about one third of the size of the parent plant, they can be separated but often they are left intact creating colonies of air plants, which are more vigorous than individuals.

Cut off any dead leaves and if the plant develops brown tips, they can be trimmed off. Tillandsias are pretty tough plants but sometimes are forgotten about. Shriveled plants may be regenerated by soaking for 24 hours. Provide your plant with adequate light, water and temperatures above 45 F and these delightful plants can be employed in a variety of scenarios around the home and at the office.

Happy Spring – Almost!


Cornell Pink Azalea and Steeple

Spring is just around the corner bringing a fresh year to begin new gardening activities. Composting is a great way to recycle weeds, food waste and just about anything that was once a plant. Composting home and garden waste is one way to reduce what is picked up by the garbage truck, reducing your carbon foot print, and saving money for you if garbage collection is charged by bag, or your town in tipping costs. Tipping costs are the amount municipalities have to pay per ton to use regional trash plants. Every little bit helps. The benefits of the end product of compost can be used in gardens and lawns, returning nutrients and increasing organic matter to the soil resulting in healthier plants.

compost finished

Finished Compost.

Composting is controlled decomposition. Everything eventually rots, but by knowing a bit of the science of how things break down, we can make rot happen quicker, getting more compost faster. Every compost pile or bin needs carbon, nitrogen, air and water, and soil organisms to do the dirty work of decomposition. Micro-organisms are the fungi and bacteria which feed on the stuff in the pile. They are most efficient when the pile contains a ratio of 30 carbon to 1 nitrogen.

Browns are the carbon and are from dead plant material. They are the browns of the pile. Fall leaves, newspaper, scrap paper, woodchips, dry hay, straw sawdust dried grass clippings and weeds without seeds are all browns.

newspaper for composting

leaves and caroline Dry leaves are carbon.


Newspaper is carbon. No glossy sections.

Greens provide nitrogen the microbes need to process the carbon. The nitrogen will be given back to the pile after the microbes use it, and also release more from the carbon material. Greens are green leaves, grass or weeds without seeds. Also fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and even coffee filters as they are paper, which comes from trees.

compost pile

Things  not to put in a compost pile include meats or dairy products, fats and oils, bones, weeds with seeds, diseased plant material, and dog or cat manure. Also no pesticide treated plant material.

dog, rye

Pet waste is not recommended.

Water should be added to keep the pile as moist as a wrung out sponge. Too much water and microbes drown. Too little moisture and the microbes will dry out and die. Turning the pile will incorporate more air, helping the pile to dry if too moist.


Piles can be out in the open just as a heap on the ground or contained with wire or fenced sides.

Closed container can also be used and must have drainage holes to allow water to escape it the inside become too wet from rain or watering the pile. Some containers are mounted so they can be turned, effectively turning the contents inside. Turning the container or the pile incorporates more air and distributes moisture, both of which the microbes need to do their work of decomposing. If a container is used to compost, add a few shovels of soil or finished compost to introduce healthy microbes into the organic matter of greens and browns.

Finished compost can be screened through a 1/4 inch piece of hardware screening stapled to a square made from 2×4 inch boards. Shovel the compost in, and shake or move it around to keep the larger sticks and debris out of the finer end product. Through the larger pieces back into the pile for further breaking down.

compost screened

Happy composting!

-Carol Quish

red-spotted purple

Red-spotted purple

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

question mark on window II

Question mark butterfly resembles a brown leaf with wings folded up. Note white ? on wing.

Brushfoot butterflies are ubiquitous in Connecticut, familiar to most people who spend any time outdoors in the summer. Almost one in every three butterflies in the world is a brushfoot. Members of this subfamily of butterflies, the Nymphalinae, differ from other butterflies in that their forelegs are well shorter than the other four legs and are not used for standing or walking, These forelegs have little brushes or hairs rather than feet, thus the common name, which they use for tasting and smelling. The next time you see a monarch, check out its front legs.

fritillary and diving bee on thistle late summer

Great spangled fritillary and bumblebee on thistle flower

8 fritillaries on milkweed

Great spangled fritillaries on milkweed

Many brushfoots are found in particular habits, common ringlet, which prefers open, sunny fields with plenty of flowers like goldenrods, fleabane and asters. Others may be found along open wood lines, like question marks, commas and mourning cloaks, especially where there are sap flows on tree trunks. Many brushfoots can be found just about anywhere there are open areas with flowers and caterpillar host plants.

wood nymph

The wood nymph is easily identified by the yellow patches on the fore wings that have striking eye spots

common ringlet Belding 9-5-12

The common ringlet prefers open grassy areas like fields or roadsides and may be elusive to find.

One species, the mourning cloak, is notable for overwintering as a butterfly here in the New England cold season. On warm winter days, you may see one flying in open, sunny woods. It normally does not visit flowers, but gets its nourishment from dung, rotting fruit and sap flows on trees.

Mourning cloak

Mourning cloaks may fly on warm winter days

Caterpillars of the brushfoots usually have spines, which, although menacing enough to the eye, are harmless if touched. A notable exception is the familiar monarch caterpillar which is spineless with a set of horns at both ends of the body. Some caterpillars, like those of the comma, American lady, Baltimore and red admiral, spend the daytime inside leaf shelters made by tying leaf edges or masses of leaves together. Knowing host plants is useful when looking for these caterpillars. If the shelter is opened slightly, you will find the caterpillar resting calmly inside.

comma just before pupating July 3, 2009

Caterpillar of the Eastern comma seen after opening its leaf shelter

Some members of the brush foots like the question mark and the comma butterflies have angled wings. Most are brightly colored and quite beautiful, like the common buckeye, which is a vagrant visitor here in Connecticut. Others have brown camouflage patterns on the undersides of the wings, like the question mark and the comma. When they rest on leaves or twigs with the wings folded upright, they appear to be dead leaves.

eastern comma

Eastern comma

Colors and patterns on the wings can vary dramatically on brushfoots. Often the upper wing surfaces are more brilliantly colored than the undersides. Or they can be just as colorful when viewed either on the top or underside, but have different patterns. An example is the great spangled fritillary, which is orange and black on the upper wing surfaces, but the undersides are orange with brilliant white spots.

Red spotted purple hybrid UConn

Red-spotted purple seen from above. First picture top of page shows the undersides of the wings

Several brushfoot butterflies are migratory, going south in the late summer and early fall, and then returning the next spring. Monarchs, painted and American ladies, and red admirals are some of the migratory species. They return north when wild mustards, crabapples, invasive honeysuckles and early native plants are starting to flower.

red admiral brushfoot butterfly Pamm Cooper photo - Copy

The red admiral is one of the migratory brushfoot butterflies

One brushfoot of special concern in Connecticut is the colorful Baltimore butterfly. Smaller than many other brushfoots, the Baltimore is striking as an adult, a caterpillar and a chrysalis. Caterpillars overwinter in large groups inside shelters they make by tying leaves together with silk. Look for these butterflies in large open fields that have water nearby.

Baltimore Checkerspot July 6, 2014

Baltimore checkerspot

Baltimore uppersides Pamm Cooper copyright - Copy

Baltimore checkerspot topsides

common buckeye 2017 Coldbrook Road in Glastonbury

The common buckeye is a tropical visitor to the north

As the winter comes to a close and the spring brings us warmer days and flowers, remember to look for the arrival of the migrating brushfoot butterflies. The first to arrive are usually the red admirals and American ladies and monarchs will follow later on in mid-to-late June. You may be able to sit awhile in the sun and have a red admiral land on you- a common, which is a happy occurrence in the life of a butterfly connoisseur.

red admiral on my pants 5-6-12

Red admiral on my pants

Pamm Cooper                              all photos copyrighted by Pamm Cooper


We may be in the throes of winter but there is a place in New England where the most beautiful and delicate flowers bloom year-round. These flowers are presented in all their glory in displays that have recently been upgraded to enhance the viewing experience. These flowers and specimens will never wilt or fade, they are forever captured in a state of perfection. These are neither fresh, dried, preserved, nor photographed flowers. They are the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, the famous “Glass Flowers” of Harvard University.

I first saw the Glass Flowers several years ago when our daughter Hannah, then a student at MIT, suggested a visit to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with most natural history museums the collections ranged from wildlife specimens and fossils to minerals and gemstones. But it was the Glass Flowers exhibit that Hannah knew that I would enjoy most.


Although it is familiarly known as the Glass Flowers this exhibit actually represents over 4,000 models of 830 plant species and includes incredibly realistic and detailed models of enlarged flowers and anatomical sections of the floral and vegetative parts of the plants (clockwise from top left: Banana, Verbascum thapsus/Common mullein, and Gossypium herbaceum/Wild cotton).

Prior to 1886 the Harvard Botanical Museum, under the direction of George Lincoln Goodale, used pressed plant specimens, wax models, and papier-mache as samples for study. Pressed specimens are of limited teaching value as they are 2-dimensional, dried, and lacking in color, wax models and papier-maché were rough and didn’t stand up well. Around this time, Goodale saw some glass models of marine invertebrates in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology that had been created by the father and son partners Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from Hosterwitz near Dresden, Germany. He contacted Leopold Blaschka who then made and shipped a few botanical specimen samples which even though they were damaged in US Customs still showed the possibilities of further work.

There were other glass-blowers at the time and it was said that no-one could replicate the secret methods employed by the Blaschkas. The Boston Globe said that the glass flowers were “anatomically perfect and, given all the glass-workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible”. But in fact, there were no secret methods employed and their techniques were commonly known to other artisans. In addition to glass the Blaschkas used wire supports, glue, paint, and enamel in their work. Their method melted glass over a flame or torch which they controlled with foot-powered bellows in a technique known as lampworking. This differs from glassblowing which uses a furnace as the heat source. The molten glass was manipulated, pinched, and pulled with tools to achieve the desired forms. The finished specimens were occasionally formed from colored glass but were often hand-painted.


Leopold Blaschka credited their ability in this way, “get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.” Schultes, Richard Evans; Davis, William A.; Burger, Hillel (1982). The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: Dutton.

(at right, Caroline and Leopold Blaschka, seated, Rudolf Blaschka, standing)


The original 10-year contract between the Blaschkas and Harvard commissioned the work at a rate of 8,800 marks per year ($3,533 US dollars) or approximately $91,565 in 2017. The funding came from a former Radcliffe College botany student of Goodale’s, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Cabot Ware, members of a wealthy Boston family. Additionally, all freight charges were covered by Harvard.

So, the artisans have been commissioned. Remember, the year is now 1890, film photography is in its infancy and it is about 100 years before the internet is available to the public. So how do two glassmakers in Germany research botanical specimens from all over the world? Well, some plants were sent from America and raised in the Blaschka’s garden. Other plants that were tropical or exotic were viewed in the royal gardens and greenhouses of the nearby Pillnitz Palace (below images). Rudolf Blaschka traveled to Jamaica and the United States in 1892 to make drawings and collect specimens. Leopold died in 1895 but Rudolf continued to work until his retirement in 1936. Rudolf had no children and had never taken on an apprentice so there was no one to take over from him ending a 400-year-old dynasty.

But the legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka lives on in over 10,000 glass models that are in museums the world over. Although the greater number of these are marine specimens it is the Glass Flowers that are most famed. The Glass Flowers encompass 164 families and 780 species in 850 full-time models. There are 4300 detailed models of individual floral and vegetative parts that capture every detail, right down to a grain of pollen as in the example of Lupinus mutabilis (Lupine) shown below.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

There are models that show the fungal and bacterial diseases of fruits in the Rosaceae family that includes apples and pears (The Rotten Apples, shown below).
Rotten apples

Others show insects in the act of pollination such as their depiction of a male fruit fly on an orchid, top image, or the bee on Scotch broom, below. Plants are exhibited from the simplest to the most advanced in the order of evolution.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom) with bees

This is not an exhibit that you would speed through. Each specimen is so enthralling that it is difficult to move on to the next one. The fact that every item there was created by only two men is mind-blowing and can be attested to by the tens of thousands of visitors each year. If you haven’t been to the exhibit I highly recommend it and if you have been in the past in would be worth going to see it in its restored glory. Visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History site for additional information and to view their videos of the Restoration and the Rotten Apples.

Susan Pelton

The Glass Flower images shown here are the property of Harvard University.

I bought some yellow fleshed beets at a nice farm stand in the fall. They looked good to me on the outside. Once I cooked and cut them open, though, this very dark (at least after cooking!) hollow center was revealed. It was present in all of the several beets in the bunch. The good news is that it could just be cut out and the beets were still delicious.


Photo by Joan Allen, UConn

But what might have caused this symptom? There are a couple of possibilities and the cause was not determined. Those that come to mind include inconsistent water supply and boron deficiency. Sometimes when a crop is growing slowly due to limited rain or irrigation followed by a sudden plentiful supply of water, the growth rate can suddenly increase and result in this ‘hollow heart’ symptom or disorder. I know this happens in potato but I’m not sure whether it’s likely in beet. There’s a major difference between the two….potatoes, while they grow underground, are actually stem tissue. You can tell because they have buds, what we commonly call the eyes. Beets, on the other hand, are root tissue.

Boron is a micronutrient for plants and a deficiency has been associated with hollow sections of stems or roots in some crops. Beets are listed among those crops that have a high boron requirement relative to others. Factors that can influence the availability of boron to plants include soil pH, sandiness of the soil, and soil organic matter content. A consistent and adequate amount of water uptake by the plant is necessary to take in boron from the soil. This is influenced by transpiration, the loss of water from the leaves. Conditions that reduce transpiration, such as humid, cloudy or cool weather, can be related to deficiency. High pH (alkaline) reduces availability of boron. Sandy soils or those with low organic matter content are more prone to boron deficiency.

How could the cause in this case have been figured out? Soil and tissue analysis can be used to measure nutrient availability and content in the plant parts. Soil tests can check not only nutrient content but also organic matter levels. UConn’s soil and tissue analysis lab info can be found at www.soiltest.uconn.edu. If a boron deficiency is confirmed, soil can be amended using borax, boric acid or Solubor. Different vegetables have different boron requirements. Lists of those most likely to develop a deficiency can be found in this fact sheet from UMass.

J. Allen