Mind-Boggling: A History of Plants in 50 Fossils

13-million-year-old maple leaf; the varied browns may reflect autumn coloring

My wife says I have too many books, and she’s probably right, so I tried to resist buying this one. For weeks. But I’ve been gardening since I was seven, and one of my favorite things to do in grade school was sitting with my friends on the side of an abandoned gravel road searching for what we first called “Indian beads” but soon learned were actually prehistoric crinoid stems. So eventually I bought the book, and I’m glad I did.

bark of a scale tree from about 300 million years ago; a grass-like leaf grew from the tip of each scale

If you think fossils are just dusty and dull, be prepared to have your eyes opened. The fossils in this book, each pictured in a dramatic full-page photo, are subtle, but they’re often strikingly beautiful, too. Some have a metallic gleam (such as the tiny fruits and seeds of tropical plants unearthed near London), ghostly color (soft purple, rose, and ochre on a 380-million-year-old tree trunk from the Catskills), or graphic patterns that reminded me of both Victorian wallpaper and modern art.

fern leaf from 170 million years ago; at times ferns have been the most abundant plants on earth

The text is eye-opening, too. Maybe you know that roughly 1.2 billion years ago the first plants emerged by incorporating photosynthesizing bacteria into their own cells; or that the earliest fossil flowers, so tiny that they can only be seen with a microscope, bloomed more than 100 million years ago; or that a helicopter pilot surveying the treeless Canadian Arctic in 1985 happened upon the perfectly preserved stumps of a 45-million-year-old forest – but I didn’t. The book is full of a dizzying array of information like that which left me muttering “Oh wow!’ and “Amazing!” over and over again.

Although it’s written for a general audience, it’s not an easy read. The print is small, the paragraphs long, and despite the author’s skill with words I really had to concentrate to make my way through the many unfamiliar scientific terms and concepts. It was worth it, though, and if I haven’t already scared you off I hope you’ll give it a try. Thanks to A History of Plants in 50 Fossils I now have a much greater appreciation not only of plants but of life on earth.


Will Daffodil Shows Welcome Nameless Historics?

Even if it lost its name, ‘Princeps’ would still be a treasure.

In 1989 when a few friends and I proposed adding a section for historic daffodils to all ADS shows, people said it would never happen. But it did, and since then historic daffodils have become a very popular part of those shows.

Now the chair of the ADS Historic Daffodils Committee has suggested expanding the section to include nameless daffodils – the kind that grow by the millions in backyards, old cemeteries, and abandoned sites all across the country

Writing in the June 2020 Daffodil Journal, Ian Tyler explains that recently at a show he was asked to identify three nameless historics. One he could, one matched a labeled flower in the show, but the third remained unknown.

“My mind started looking for an answer to this situation as fewer and fewer people now remember these old flowers,” he writes. “We need to expand the exposure of historic flowers to a greater audience, as the more people see them the better the chance will be of jogging a fading, faded memory!

“My idea is to allow un-named Historics to be entered into an Unknown Historic class ..., thus allowing a larger public/audience to see them and more exhibitors to show them.

“Judges assigned to Historics would be expected to give special attention to the Unknown class but would invite all judges and all viewers with experience to feel free to comment. The Unknown class would not be about winning ribbons but about getting information on the blooms…. Naming, of course, would not always be possible, but at least the flowers would be seen….

“To my mind this would be a win-win situation for Historic daffodils. Currently, if no one can identify them, these beautiful flowers [can’t be exhibited]. They need to be seen by as many people as possible, not hidden in buckets in the back room never to be seen again at a show! Something to think about – or better still, take some action!”

As you might expect, we totally agree. Let's make it happen, Ian!


Do it NOW: Protect Your Iris and Peonies
with an Easy Fall Clean-Up

We say this every fall because it’s just so darn easy and important: For more flowers and healthier plants, give your peonies and iris a simple fall clean-up.

PEONIES – Although relatively care-free, peonies can be afflicted by powdery mildew (pictured here) and other fungal diseases.

To prevent spores from overwintering, cut stems as close to the ground as possible, carefully bagging everything as you go. It’s best to do this earlier rather than later, before the leaves get dry and crumbly – or even as early as August if the foliage has been hard hit.

Disinfect your tools with rubbing alcohol or bleach between plants to avoid spreading disease. Dispose of all clippings in the trash. Do not compost!

If you’ve tried this and still have problems, you may also want to try a fungicidal spray. Mancozeb is one good choice. Drench the ground around the base of the peonies after your fall clean-up, and then spray in spring as soon as sprouts emerge and again every 7-10 days until bloom-time.

IRIS – Fall is also the best time to control iris borers which are a common pest in gardens east of the Rockies.

Borers hatch in spring from eggs laid in the fall on iris leaves and anything similar that’s nearby. To destroy them, simply (a) wait until a hard frost kills the adult moths and then (b) cut back all leaves to a couple of inches and (c) remove, bag, and throw the clippings in the trash along with any nearby debris or mulch. Do not compost!

Fungal diseases such as leaf spot may also afflict iris, and fungicides such as mancozeb can help control them, too. Spray after fall clean-up and once again in early spring.

Healthier plants look better and bloom more – so get out there and give yours a hand!


Top Designers Name
Four Favorite Bulbs to Plant This Fall

clockwise from top left: winter aconite, snake's-head fritillary, 'Thalia', Southern grape hyacinth

When Gardens Illustrated asked some of the UK’s top garden designers to name their favorite bulbs for fall planting, these four heirlooms made the cut:

Winter aconite – “Despite its diminutive nature, this aconite packs a punch by being the first early bulb to flower,” says Emily Erlam whose gardens blend seamlessly into the wider landscape. “Plant in large groups in shade or partial shade to make magical pools of rich yellow between trees or to throw up light onto a spring-flowering shrub.”

Snake’s-head fritillary – “The intricacy and complex beauty of the snake’s head fritillary never ceases to amaze me,” says Ula Maria, author of Green: Simple Ideas for Small Outdoor Spaces. “This most alien-looking plant is bound to attract everyone’s attention. Its checkered, bell-shaped flowers look impressively oversized hanging atop slender stems. Naturalized in grassy meadows, they are simply magical.”

Southern grape hyacinth (hardy NORTH through zone 5) – “I love everything about these plants,” says Jinny Blom who often works on a grand scale but is also known as a keen plantswoman. “The crimped, navy-blue, white-tipped bells look as if they’ve been drawn by a child. It’s best to naturalize them below small trees.”

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ – “This pure-white, multi-headed daffodil is all elegance and fragility, but deceptively tough,” says Andy Sturgeon who won the top prize at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. “The petals flare backwards, thrusting the trumpet forward. Wonderful in damp, partial shade among Anemone nemerosa,” wood anemone.