Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Peonies and Ants, A Beautiful Friendship

My peonies are getting ready for their moment in the sun – and I can hardly wait. But before the flowers come, the ants arrive. And they’re here in full force.

Every spring, I get as many questions about ants on peonies as I get ants on my peonies. In other words, lots of them.

But it’s an old wives tale that peonies need ants to bloom. Ants don’t pollinate peonies – and they don’t “unglue” the flower petals like generations of gardeners believed. It’s a charming notion and it’s true that the ants are lapping up the sticky nectar produced by the leaf-like structures that cover the buds. But the blooms would open even if the ants weren’t there.

The thing to remember is that the invading armies of ants don’t hurt the plants. In fact, they actually protect the swelling buds from other less-benign soft-bodied pests. I was talking about all this the other day with David and Kasha Furman when I visited them at Cricket Hill Garden, their lovely tree peony nursery in Thomaston, Connecticut, for an upcoming column. They call their place Peony Heaven so I figured they'd have something to say about the ant-peony phenomenon. And David did. He said the ants feed the nectar to aphids, which are like "domesticated animals." Then, he said, the ants "milk the aphids" and feed the substance to their queen. So whatever you do, please don’t try to wipe out the ants with toxic pesticides.

And be patient – the ants that came marching in will soon go marching out. In the meantime, enjoy your peonies. If you’re cutting bouquets from your garden in the coming weeks, try holding the flower upside down and gently shaking out the ants so you don’t bring them inside. Or submerge the entire cut bloom upside down in a bucket of water for about five minutes to drive out the ants.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 18, 2007

Happy Birthday, Carl Linnaeus

This week's birthday boy is Carl Linnaeus -- who came up with the binomial system for naming plants. It's his 300th on Wednesday and botanists across the globe are celebrating it from the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to his native Sweden and even Japan.

As you know, each plant gets two official Latin names -- the first denoting genus, the second signifying species. Before that plant names were a linguistic gobbledygook. I explain this in my column on him in Sunday's Newsday, but thought I'd tell you a little more about his racier side. Or at least the side that made some goody-goodies gasp.

In his time, Linnaeus was, to some degree , X-rated. He came along at a time when plant life was deemed as pure as the Disney channel. The prevailing approach had been set centuries before by Aristotle who decided that because plants stayed in one spot they couldn't possibly have sex. In his personal life, Linnaeus was a devout Lutheran and by our standards something of a sexist. Listen, he didn't want his daughters to learn French because he thought it would ruin them for housekeeping. And when it came to human behavior, he had no patience with promiscuity.

But where plants were concerned, it was another matter. He knew a lot was going on in garden beds and he wasn't afraid to say so.

The Swedish pastor's son set up a new system of classifying flowers -- he did it according to the number of their male stamens and female pistils. His fellow scientists probably applauded Linnaeus' insistence that the stamens were more important than the pistils, but most of them were turned off by his use of human terms to describe plant behavior. He likened the anthers to testes, the pollen to sperm, and the stigma to the vulva. And he went so far as to compare a plant's style to a woman's vagina. In those days, you didn't go around giving monologues about vaginas. My heavens, botany was considered so pristine that it was even thought of as a fit subject for women.

He even talked about polygamy and incest -- describing flowers with multiple stamens as possessisng "twenty males or more in the same bed as the female." This was wild stuff, causing one of his critics to wonder "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?"

For more about Linnaeus, you can check out my column.

(photo credit: Krafft, 1774; copyright KVA)

Labels: ,

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Listen to Me

If you'd like to learn about disease-resistant roses, drought-tolerant plants or amazing annuals, check out the slide shows I narrated to complement my column in Newsday about master gardeners.

The master gardener's programs in Nassau and Suffolk are run by the county branches of Cornell Cooperative Extension. To find out about extension programs elsewhere, click here.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

For Newsday Subscribers

Come by and say hello.
I'll be speaking at Newsday in Melville on Wednesday, May 9, at 7 p.m.
My talk is called "Life Lessons from the Garden," but what's in a title? I suspect it will be fairly free-ranging and you can ask me all the questions you want.
Visit for free tickets.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Join Me

As those of you who read my Newsday column know, I'm a breast cancer survivor. I'm a 10-year survivor. And as both a journalist and a person who's faced the disease that is every woman's fear, I know just how important up-to-date information is.

That's why I'm privileged to be the moderator of the Adelphi Breast Cancer Program's "Ask the Experts" panel on May 8 at 7 p.m. The panel includes four specialists who will discuss the latest trends in treatment.

The forum is free and takes place in the ballroom of the University Center at Adelphi in Garden City, NY. Call 516-877-4325 for information.

Labels: ,