Thursday, July 16, 2009

Growing moonflowers the slow and tedious way (A.K.A. the only way)

My first "official" garden entry is devoted to my namesake flower, the moonflower. This series is called "Gardening My Way" or "The Acrid Gardener," which means that I'm going to write about how I garden (which may or may not be correct) perhaps weekly or biweekly or monthly or yearly, depending on how busy gardening (or how lazy!) I am. Thumbs of all colors are welcome here.

Cultivating moonflowers is a bit of a process, albeit a worthwhile one. If you live in the far north, you can just forget it. You won't get a profusion of blooms. I know this because when I lived in Illinois I got about 5 flowers for the summer, and in Tennessee where the summers are unbearably hot I got new flowers almost everyday along with seeds at the end of the season. Moonflowers love HOT humid days, not the sissy 80's, but the beefy 90's. Just don't let them go dry in that kind-of heat, otherwise it doesn't matter what kind of day you have, because you will no longer have any moonflowers to speak of. They can be forgiving though, and if you do happen to bring them to the brink of death sometimes a little water and an overnight rest heals them.

Moonflower seeds. The cream and brown-colored ones are viable. The black one to the right came from one of my flowers last year. I had opened the seed pod immediately after pulling it off the plant, and I think it dried out too fast. When moonflower seeds are first harvested, their outer seed coat is soft. Exposure to the air is best done little by little. Let's move onto the actual growing of the seeds now.

The moonflower seeds must first be scored. No, this is not an activity that involves illegal substances. To score a seed means to make a tiny notch in the seed coat (A.K.A.--the actual seed), so that water can get inside the seed, and when the first leaves begin to grow out they will be able to break through the seed coat. Moonflower seeds are about 1/2 to 1 cm in diameter, and look and feel like little rocks. If you try to push them down into the soil and think that a little watering is going to start them, you will be looking at bare soil for a very long time.

To score a seed, all you need is a small steak knife and a willingness to sacrifice a bit of the skin on your index finger that is holding the seed. If your ear is itching while cutting, resist the temptation to dig. The combination of ear wax and a steak knife can be disastrous, and if you show up in the ER where I work I am going to just plain ignore you for not following directions.

Drop the seeds into a cup of water and let them sit there overnight.

Moisten a paper towel so that it is dripping wet, and lay it flat on a plate. Arrange the softened seeds on the plate, and cover them with another moist paper towel. Then wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap (like Saran wrap) to keep the paper towel from drying out when you are not around. Within 3 days, if you have decent temperatures in your house or sunroom (meaning that you don't need to be wearing a coat to be comfortable in there) you will see the sprouts breaking forth from the seeds. Hallelujah!

If you are forgetful like I am, you might happen to cut the top off a package of moonflower seeds and leave it standing upright on the kitchen counter in a moment of distraction. When you return to the package a half an hour later, after you have scored the first set of seeds, located a relaxing CD to listen to, poured yourself a drink of overpriced flavored soy milk, and visited the bathroom, you have forgotten that the seed package is still full. You grab it up by the bottom to throw it away, essentially spilling all the seeds across the floor. The redeeming part about this situation is that they are large and easy to locate. The problem part is that they are large and easy to locate. Make sure that you get them all up, because they could be a choking hazard to small children, and a hallucinogenic hazard to teenagers left home alone. Yes, you read that right, moonflower seeds can be toxic when ingested, leading to hallucinations and anti-cholinergic effects (according to the Merck Manual of Health and Aging, these include "confusion, blurred vision, constipation, dry mouth, light-headedness, difficulty starting and continuing to urinate, and loss of bladder control. Most of these effects are undesirable."). Undesirable unless you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

As the sprouts continue to grow and the seed coat falls off, you can see the cotelydons, or seed leaves. As you can see in the photo above, they resemble a brain and a spinal cord (can you tell I'm a medical person yet?). As photosynthesis begins to occur, the leaves begin to turn green from the pale yellow they once were.

I placed my moonflower sprouts in a sunny window surrounded by a moist paper towel above and below. I found that by the end of the day the paper towel was dried out and the seeds were becoming shriveled, so I learned that the best way to allow the sprouts to grow safely is to cover the whole "apparatus" with plastic wrap during the day, and take the wrap off at night to allow everything to breathe and avoid mold growth.

An army of baby moonflower plants

I wish I could say that the "lesson" was finished, but unfortunately, there is a sadder ending.

If you look at the photos above of the seedlings, some of their stems curl around. This makes for difficulty when planting. Many of the plants above were placed very shallowly in the soil because of this, so that when I watered them they would tumble about, flop over, and get their leaves covered in moist soil. Dirty leaves prevent respiration from occurring in a plant, you know-- breathing, something even plants must do. Please consult your plant biology textbook for more information, as this is not meant to be a boring botany lesson.

Not only that, but I noticed that even though peat pots are convenient and better for the earth, they don't seem to hold water as well as plastic pots, so the soil would dry out rapidly. Not to bash peat pots so much, but they're pretty nasty when they start growing mold up the sides too!

Long story short, about half of the original seedlings died.

The moral of this lesson is to make sure you start lots of seeds, and don't give them pet names until their roots have become firmly established!


BellahhGoesRawr said...

you are funny

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