Garden Blog

Hot Lips in the Garden


When people hear “Hot Lips” they undoubtedly think about different things. If you are in my generation, you might think of Major Margaret J. “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the fictional nurse in the television show, MASH, which has been variously described as a black comedy, medical drama, and satire about the Korean War. Loretta Swift played “Hot Lips Houlihan” during the long-running television series.

Hot Lips Music Sheet

Jazz aficionados might think about a popular song, “Hot Lips” a Blues Foxtrot, written by Henry Busse, Henry Lange, and Lous Davis, and first published in 1922. Others more into current music and internet videos might think about the song “Hot Lips” by the Swedish group, Pacific! If you happen to be from Portland, Oregon, I understand that to you “Hot Lips” might even mean a family-run pizza business based on sustainability principles.

Many people likely would agree with the definitions for “Hot Lips” in the Urban Dictionary: “A complimentary term used to finalize emails or text messages to a loved one. A term used when calling upon a loved one or close friend. A term used when describing an attractive female friend to ones male friends.”

Indeed, I suspect that even Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey would recommend calling your spouse “Hot Lips” once and a while to playfully spice things up and maintain marital harmony. However, if you are a horticulturist or avid gardener, “Hot Lips” means one thing: Salvia microphylla !

Hot Lips Close Up2

To gardeners, “Hot Lips” is a relatively new variety of sage that was released by the Strybing Arboretum in 2002, which is now known as the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. Although I’ve not seen a formal accounting, my understanding is that the flowers were discovered by the writer and garden designer, Richard Turner, of the Strybing Arboretum, when he noticed the flowers being kept by a friend’s housekeeper, Alta Gracia, in Mexico. The flowers were propagated and introduced by the Strybing Arboretum and you can usually locate at least one or two local nurseries on the Palouse that offer them for sale by mid-summer.

Hot Lips Flowers

Salvia is one of three genera of plants commonly called “sage” in the mint family, Lamiaceae. People in central Washington might refer to “sage” when they really mean sagebrush, but the genus for sagebrush, Artimesia, is unrelated. Many salvia or sage species have herbal and medicinal uses.

Hot Lips is aptly named. It’s difficult to find a more gaudy and audacious floral display than Hot Lips in full bloom. The crisp white and bright red bi-color contrast of the flower petals snap and pop like fireworks when in full display. You almost expect to see an American flag waving next to Hot Lips. To complete the patriotic picture, Hot Lips is nicely highlighted with a backdrop or companion of light to dark blue flowers. Hot Lips also looks nice as a patio specimen in a blue pot and it certainly works well in a bright cottage-style garden. Wherever you put it, expect it to draw attention.

Hot Lips 2

Hot Lips is generally considered a zone 7-11 perennial, so it is used as an annual on the Palouse. It grows about 2 - 2.5 feet tall and might spread about 2 -3 feet. It does well with full sun and low water, although I’ve often found that a patio specimen in a container with potting soil that dries out rapidly benefits from a little bit of afternoon shade in the intense heat of mid summer. The plant is deer resistant, but will be a butterfly magnet.

I wonder if deer don’t like Hot Lips because of the aromatic leaves. While the plant is aromatic, it is not necessarily pleasant. I find it a bit sharp and pungent, but there is little scent unless you are very close and actually rub the leaves.

White Red LipsRed Flowered Red Lips

Hot Lips has an interesting habit of changing flower color on the same plant under varying environmental conditions. In my experience, with less light and heat, some flowers will become almost completely white, while other flowers are almost entirely red. But don’t panic. With enough sun and warmth, the bi-color Hot Lips will return.

So next summer, try some Hot Lips in your garden and you won’t be disappointed!

R.D. Sayler

See more articles in the Garden Blog, Book Reviews, or Wildlife in the Arboretum.

2008 Home Tomato Report: Better Luck Next Year!


Another beautiful spring and summer has passed on the Palouse and it is already time for the 2008 Home Tomato Report. The quest to grow abundant, flavorful, red tomatoes and harvest them before the first frost, must be one of the biggest challenges for the average gardener in temperate climates. This year, I reached a new milestone in my home vegetable garden. I grew some of the smallest tomatoes ever known to horticultural science. Unfortunately, I won’t be making the Guinness Book of World Records any time soon, because everyone else in Pullman and the surrounding area reports about the same success with their tomatoes in 2008 as me.

However, rather than blame myself, I’ve got the usual scape goat lined up - weather! This summer on the Palouse was unusually cool to even cold at times. And yes, it did snow heavily on June 10th this year. Who could blame tomato plants for just sitting around for months on end, wondering when the summer heat would finally arrive? The days of 90+ temperatures (but it’s a dry heat...) were relatively few and far between this summer.

It’s not that you can’t get good, flavorful tomatoes in your grocery store, or better yet, at your local farmer’s market. You certainly can. Indeed, my favorite store-bought tomato to combat winter scurvy is the Campari tomato. Slighty larger than a typical cherry tomato, these tomatoes are usually sold about 10-12 on a piece of vine. They are absolutely delicious on a salad or just eaten by themselves as a treat.

heirloom tomatoes

And you can also try samples of heirloom tomatoes, if you can get past the weird appearance of some of these old-fashioned varieties of tomatoes. The variations in flavors, textures, and uses of different tomatoes are enormous, and thanks to modern horticulture, we now have tomatoes in stores year around. But nothing can compare to the taste of a fresh, vine-ripened tomato right out of your own garden.

Next year, I’m going to go hi-tech in an all out effort to make sure I’ve got an abundance of vine-ripened tomatoes. I’m going to put plants in fairly early, cover the tomatoes with plastic hot houses, and then extend the growing season in the fall with a miniature greenhouse or plastic put over my raised bed gardens. Okay, we all know it still won’t work and I’ll be trying to get some tomatoes to ripen before the frost, but what the heck? Having an impossible quest for tomato perfection, or at least tomato abundance, gives me something to do and keeps me out of trouble.

So back to the official 2008 Home Tomato Report. Here it is: better luck next year!

The Secret to Long-Lasting Gerbera Daisies

Pink Gerbera Daisies

While reading Amy Stewart’s, Flower Confidential, I came across a tidbit of information about gerbera daisies that made me laugh. She revealed a secret about long-lasting cut gerbera daisies that I already knew about.

While covering the massive Dutch floral trade in her book, Amy describes the high-tech greenhouses and growing operations in the Netherlands, undoubtedly made famous for most people because of their association with and domination of the global tulip industry. However, gerbera daisies are a hot item in the global floral trade, ranking about fifth in cut flower use, for obvious reasons. According to Amy, Americans buy over 200 million gerbera stems a year.

A member of the Asteraceae, gerbera daisies have the prototypical daisy-shaped flower head, but modern cultivars come in a dazzling array of vivid, eye-popping colors, some of which exude an almost impossible neon brightness. While some may view the large daisy flower heads as almost too picture-perfect and excessively gaudy, nothing is quite as bright and cheerful as a gerbera daisy, whether in a mixed bouquet or as a single display specimen. Like Amy Stewart, it’s hard not to smile or feel momentary awe and admiration at the sight of a large gerbera daisy on display.

The gerbera is native to portions of South America, Asia, and South Africa, which is why it is sometimes called a Transvaal daisy. It was first described in the literature by the botanist, Robert Jameson, in the late 19th century. However, Gerbera jamesonii has been hybridized with other gerbera species to produce the essentially perfect, modern, long-lasting cut flower. Literally, hundreds of new varieties are tested in Dutch greenhouses each year to try and find new shape and color combinations that ship well and last a long time in the vase.

A Gerbera Daisy Secret

So what is the secret to long-lasting, cut gerbera daisies in your home? It’s really simple and the technique also works well with many other cut flowers displayed in a vase. My wife and I accidentally discovered this secret a few years ago and were amazed at how long the gerbera daisies lasted.

Gerbera Daisy in Vase

Here’s the secret: Place a single, long-stemmed gerbera daisy in a vase in which the water is no more than about three quarters to perhaps one inch deep. An ideal vase is one that is squat-shaped, so that the cut stem is inserted into a relatively large volume of shallow water. You must be careful of using a tiny vase with only a small reservoir of water at the bottom that may dry out and actually ruin your flower more quickly.

It turns out that cut gebera daisies can soak up water through their stems and essentially begin to weaken and decay if the water is too deep. By keeping only shallow water in the vase, this problem is reduced and the stem stays stronger much longer and continues to keep the flower robust.

Another simple little trick to extend the display life of a gerbera daisy is to watch for the cut end of the stem to discolor and look like it is getting soggy. Just snip off a little bit of the stem so that the remaining stem is strong and your gerbera daisy will continue to look fresh and amaze you for perhaps several weeks. Many other flowers also last longer when displayed as single stems or as a bouquet of the same species.

Just don’t put your flower vase near ripening fruits and vegetables on the kitchen counter. It’ll definitely shorten their vase life. But to find out why, for now anyway, I’ll send you to Amy Stewart’s book, Flower Confidential. If you read it, you’ll discover many other secrets to the vast global floral industry and you’ll understand why many of our local grocery stores do a disservice to the vase life of cut flowers by sticking them next to the fruit and vegetable section.

Summer Snow

Just when you’re ready to put out your more tender garden plants for the summer, this happens! On June 10th, it was beginning to feel like summer was really here, when Pullman got dumped with a substantial snowfall. Maybe we should have consulted the Farmer’s Almanac for recommended planting dates after all. Here’s a photo of the campus at Washington State University.

Campus Snow

A Pearl of a Bush

Pearl Bush in Bloom

One of the many nice things about gardeners is that they typically don't mind sharing their gardening secrets and successes. They're all too happy to see someone else enjoy gardening as much as they do. In fact, if you like gardening, be sure to make friends with some of the experts in your area and you'll likely soon find yourself receiving free cuttings, bulbs, and divisions of this or that flower. Most gardeners, particularly those with collections of perennial flowers, are continually challenged to thin out their stock and make room for more flowers.

When fully developed, one of the practical objectives of the new WSU Arboretum and Botanical Gardens will be to test and display horticultural varieties of landscaping and ornamental plants that are well suited to the unique Palouse Prairie climate of eastern Washington, which has a climatic pendulum that swings back and forth between cold, wet winters, and hot, extremely dry summers.

Given that I've benefited from the advice of so many wonderful authors and books on gardening (and more than my fair share of trial and error!), I feel compelled to share some recommendations on trees, shrubs, and flowers that have worked well for me in our gardens. Shrubs are almost a necessary part of any garden landscaping scheme. They provide a visual foundation for the garden and carry it through seasons when you are waiting for flowers to take over the show.

I'm definitely not an expert on shrubs, but I've accidentally stumbled across one old-fashioned shrub that puts on a dependable and spectacular flower display every year. The Pearl bush (Exochorda racemosa) seems to be considered by many gardening experts as an old-fashioned classic, which kind of surprises me. Until my wife and I saw one getting ready to bloom and picked one up at a local nursery, I'd never heard of it before. But it's quickly become a spectacular spring center piece next to our patio.

Pearl Bush in Bloom

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait a few weeks to show you one of the most unique and beautiful features of this shrub, which you might guess from its name. Before blooming in spring, the branches are covered with rows of pure white flower buds that look just like pearls. These blossoms open into flowers that are bright white and reminiscent of large apple flower blossoms, but more translucent and delicate in appearance.

Pearl Bush Close Up

About the Pearl Bush

The Pearl bush is native to China, but well adapted to many garden situations here in eastern Washington. It reportedly grows 10-15 feet tall and wide, but my specimen is perhaps 4 1/2 feet tall and my wife tells me its about 6 years old. [Note: Some gardeners take detailed gardening notes every year, but I find it easier just to ask my wife.] Horticultural descriptions claim that Pearl bushes like well-drained acidic soil, but I've only got one of those two factors, very dry soil, and it's doing just fine. We definitely do not have acidic soils in our yard, but it doesn't seem to matter for this shrub.

We've got our Pearl bush planted up next to the house underneath our living room window, which is facing east to south east, so it gets early morning sun and then afternoon shade, which I find that many plants like in our hot summer climate. It's undoubtedly planted far too close to the house, being in the harsh dry zone next to the foundation, but it's beside our patio so it is easy to give it a bit of water once and a while during the heat of summer.

Pearl Bush with Bearded Iris

As you hopefully can see from the above photo, the pure white of a flowering Pearl bush makes a nice companion to many other flowers, such as the iris shown here blooming at the same time. However, I find that published horticultural descriptions are quite accurate about one aspect of this shrub - it sort of disappears after flowering.

By that I mean that after flowering, the bluish-green foliage blends into the background again and the shrub no longer stands out as a specimen. Overall, the shrub has an open, rambling, vaguely arching branching structure. Consequently, my specimen at least has an informal look about it. So don't expect it to stand out as a specimen shrub in the garden after flowering. It is better used as a magnificent seasonal display next to some other flowers that take over duties during the summer.

I probably shouldn't have shared this gardening secret or recommendation with you, because I'd actually like to pick up another Pearl bush and try it in a second location in our yard, maybe some place where it could grow substantially larger than the spot under our window, where it will soon need to be pruned. However, I've seldom seen Pearl bushes in local nurseries. In fact, I think its only been once or twice that I've noticed these shrubs in a nursery over the last 5-6 years.

So if you see one, better grab it quickly. And if its not in bloom when you buy it and you think it looks unremarkable, trust me and get it anyway. It'll be well worth finding a nice spot to put one in your flower garden. But if you think of it, please leave one in the nursery for me to buy. I definitely want another one.

R. Sayler

Horticultural Senility: Snowdrops and Dwarf Iris

Every year in early spring, after a long winter of daydreaming about gardening, I see the first flowers appear and then I swear to myself that come fall I will remember to plant more bulbs for next spring. But by fall, I seem to forget my resolution to plant hundreds, or better yet, thousands of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in our yard. So instead, I'm forced to walk around our neighborhood in spring feeling envious of those people with either better horticultural memories, or stronger determination for planting bulbs in fall.

One unknown homeowner a few blocks away even tolerated me kneeling down on the sidewalk in their front yard to snap the pictures of blooming snowdrops (above) and crocus now appearing in our spring photo gallery, "Spring Is Here". Of course, it doesn't help that the clay-based soil in my excavated urban lot is quite literally hard as concrete in early fall. But that's another story. Oh well, maybe this coming fall.....

Even without snowdrops, each spring, my wife and I are surprised by the first blossoms appearing in our garden. Inevitably, we sit at our breakfast table and look out the window onto the flower garden lining the wooden fence and notice a bright spot of color. And one of us says, "Oh look, a crocus!" But when we rush out the door and investigate, it's always a dwarf iris.

Dwarf Iris

Dwarf irises, along with snowdrops and early crocus, are among the very first flowers to bloom in the Moscow-Pullman area. The two species that people commonly see are Iris reticulata and Iris danfordiae. I've got both in my garden, but I don't know how they got there. Being a research scientist, I've got two theories.

One is that my advancing age is leading to horticultural senility. Here's my reasoning. It's my garden and no one one else other than my wife and I have planted flowers there, so perhaps I must be subject to horticultural senility. Unfortunately, my wife, who as an amateur botanist has an excellent memory for flowers and scientific names, also is no help because she doesn't remember how they got there either. So it seems likely that I planted them in some empty spot in the garden after buying a small pot of flowering dwarf iris in late winter at our local grocery store. By the next spring when they pop forth and flower in the garden, I've simply forgotten that I put them there.

Another likely explanation for isolated clumps of dwarf iris spreading into new spots in my garden is that I accidentally dig up some of the bulbs each summer as I try to find a spot to squeeze just one more summer flower into the garden. So some of the iris bulbs get put into small empty spots in the garden only to magically appear in new places next spring.

My other theory for not remembering where dwarf iris are in my garden is that there must be Iris elves that take great delight in planting iris in my garden and then watching my confusion in spring when blooms pop up unexpectedly here and there. How else could a single iris appear in this, that, or the other spot in the garden any other way? Of the two theories, I certainly prefer the latter explanation in preference to senility, but instead of setting up an experiment to test the two hypotheses, I'm simply going to enjoy the surprise of dwarf iris appearing in unexpected spots in my garden every spring. I hope you do too.

Now if only there were Snowdrop elves........

More on Dwarf Iris

Wild Iris reticulata were originally found in the Caucasus mountain region in and around Turkey. The Dutch have cultivated dwarf irises for centuries and there are now many shades of blues and purples in modern cultivars. If you have dwarf iris in your garden and see bright canary yellow blossoms with green spots on the petals (below), you probably also have Iris danfordiae, which often occur in fall bulb collections or pots of mixed dwarf iris sold in stores.

Dwarf iris should be treated much like tulips in the garden. After flowering, the grass-like leaves will shoot up to almost a foot in height and then eventually wither and turn brown later in spring and early summer. By then, cutting or removing the leaves does not harm the plant.

Iris danfordiae

Dwarf iris are readily forced for indoor blooming by planting bulbs in small pots with potting soil and then placing them in a cold frame or refrigerator for about 15 weeks. Keep the potting soil moist, but not drenched. After that, move them to a warm, sunny spot indoors for blooming. However, for greater longevity of indoor blooms, move them to indirect light and keep them on the cool side if possible. No hot, sunny window sills!

The planted bulbs do well in ordinary, well-drained garden soil in full sun, but you should avoid perpetually wet soil. The yellow blossoms of Iris danfordiae are more prone to being toppled by the wind or being downed by heavy rains than Iris reticulata, but even if more delicate, they are well worth adding to the spring garden.

A Dwarf Iris Secret

While I've had dwarf iris in my garden for years, I've only recently learned a little secret about them. I suppose I didn't know this tiny secret because until today, I hadn't yet taken a towel out into the garden and kneeled down on the moist soil to smell the absolutely delightful scent coming from these bright little flowers. Don't worry about your neighbor thinking that you've lost your mind when she peers over the fence and sees you kneeling face down in your garden. Dwarf iris have a wonderful scent - but only close up. Just tell her that you lost a contact lens in the garden and she probably won't think much about it - at least until she sees you do it again.

R. Sayler