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Mickey Rathbun: In praise of callibrachoa

  • Calibrachoa Banana chocolate. Red and yellow superbells flowers. lesichkadesign—Getty Images/iStockphoto


Thursday, July 26, 2018

By mid-July, most outdoor planters look a bit the worse for wear. They’ve lost the freshness and vigor they had a month ago. Their first flush of flowers has passed, and some plants are getting leggy. Everything needs a haircut and a dose of fertilizer.

When I returned recently from a 10-day vacation, I was hardly surprised to find that the plants in my patio planters were suffering a serious case of the midsummer blues. Having been watered regularly, they had survived the killer heat wave, but most were droopy and bleached by the hot sun. The only ones that appeared as happy as the day I planted them were the callibrachoas, low-growing annuals with trumpet-shaped blossoms like small petunias. True to their common name, “Million Bells,” they were heavy with blossoms and unfazed by the heat.

I didn’t discover the joys of callibrachoa until a couple of years ago. Perhaps it was the name “Million Bells” that put me off. They were covered with flowers at the garden store, but I doubted they could keep that display going through the summer. Without abundant flowers, their meh foliage would not add much to a planter.

It was the dazzling array of colors that finally won me over.

Callibrachoas come in every imaginable hue of purple, red, pink, yellow, orange and green. Some are striped — lime green and raspberry, sunshine yellow and white; some are veined — pale yellow with purple, white with burgundy; some have different colored centers — bubblegum pink with fuchsia, apricot with crimson; some are streaky with pink, orange and yellow like a crazy sunset. Horticultural professionals must have a blast coming up with new color combinations. (I’ve yet to see a true blue one, although there are a number of “blue” varieties that, to my eye, are really purple.)

How could these brilliant plants not be welcome in a garden container? They are also ideal for filling holes in the front of the garden left by early-blooming perennials.

Callibrachoas’ hardiness comes naturally, as they originated in the temperate parts of South America, like petunias. They are perennial in USDA zones 9-11. But they also tolerate some shade, which makes them incredibly versatile in mixed containers.

I was curious about their exotic-sounding name. According to Wikipedia, they were named by Vicente Cervantes, an 18-century Spanish physician and botanist who settled in Mexico as the first professor of botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Mexico City, after Antonio de la Cal y Bracho, a Mexican botanist and pharmacologist. I love to imagine early plant hunters coming upon these vivid treasures in the wilds of Central and South America. And now, they’re for sale over the internet in colors that Vicente Cervantes never would have dreamed possible.

Next year, when you are feeling stupefied by the overwhelming assortment of gorgeous plants that might find a spot in your summer garden or planter, consider the lowly “Million Bells.” I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

The ABCs of bees

On Aug. 5, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is hosting two events centered on our mighty pollinators, native bees.

From 10 to 11:30 a.m. native bee expert Sam Droege will lead a Bee Safari through Tower Hill’s gardens and meadows to reveal the diversity of bees that live there. Bring close focusing binoculars if you have them and load this on your smartphone: http://bio2.elmira.edu/fieldbio/beesofmarylandbookversion1.pdf.

From 1 to 2 p.m., Droege will give a presentation titled “Native Bees and Native Plants: You May Be Missing Half the Equation,” that will explain the benefits of luring native bees to your garden and answer other questions about the mysterious ways of bees. Sam Droege is a wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, part of the US Geological Survey. He is widely published in journals and has been the editor of numerous government publications on birds and insects. His work cataloging and photographing native bees has been featured by NPR, The Weather Channel and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as in numerous publications including Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and Popular Science. Currently he is developing an inventory and monitoring program for native bees, online identification guides for North American bees at www.discoverlife.org, and with Jessica Zelt reviving the North American Bird Phenology Program.

Cost for each session: Members: $10/ nonmembers: $20. For more information and to register, go to towerhillbg.org.

Mammals in the backyard

On Aug. 10, 10 to 11 a.m. BBG’s Family Friday series will feature mammals in the backyard. This program is designed for all ages and highlights some of the furry creatures that inhabit the landscape with us. Traveling under cover of darkness, many of these amazing mammals seldom show themselves to humans during the day. Instructor Rick Roth will encourage families to get to know these mammals, learn about their natural history, and help develop appreciation and respect for these wild animals that often live in our own backyards.

The talk will include live specimens including a fisher cat, grey fox, skunk, flying squirrels and more. The program is free to Garden members and children under 12, and to non-members with admission.

Rick Roth, a conservationist and teacher, runs The Creature Teachers, a family-owned environmental and animal education company.

Grow Show at Berkshire Botanical Garden

BBG’s 48th annual Grow Show will take place Aug. 10 and 11. This “you grow it we show it” event is the perfect opportunity to show off your successes of the season.

This year’s theme for the Floral Design Division is ART/GARDEN, welcoming entries inspired by masterpieces found in regional museums including The Clark, Norman Rockwell, Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, Berkshire Museum, and Berkshire Botanical Garden’s own Leonhardt Gallery. The Horticulture Division offers nearly 80 classes for annuals, perennials, bulbs, roses, herbs and more. All ages welcome.

Those interested can register online ahead of time to automatically be entered into a drawing. The show will take place Aug. 10, 1 to 5 p.m. and Aug. 11, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is free with admission to the Garden. For more information, go to berkshirebotanical.org.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at Mickey.Rathbun@gmail.com.