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Two-season pleasures

March 17, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

In a recent column I mentioned a number of perennial plants that would give lasting pleasure in winter bouquets. With spring in sight, here are a few annuals - beyond the commercially available strawflowers and globe amaranth - you might want to consider for this summer's garden and next winter's pleasure.

My favorite annual for winter use is love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena.) This easy-to-grow delight has six-petaled blue, pink or white flowers surrounded by a collar of misty green. It is lovely rising up from behind a soft, gray carpet of lamb's ears. Not as attractive, pod-wise, but interesting to grow is spicy and aromatic Nigella sativa or nutmeg flower, often used like poppy seed.

Love-in-a-mist is a symbol of perplexity but I am never puzzled about uses for the whimsical, green-and-maroon, globe-shaped pods. These are eminently useful in dried arrangements and other craft projects. Another variety that I have had more difficulty growing is N. hispanica but I will give it another try this summer.

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Another "love"-ly plant is the delicate love-in-a-puff, also called balloon vine or heart seed (Cardiospermum halicacabum). The tiny, white flowers are followed by tiny, green, balloon-like seed pods. The enclosed seeds are marked with a tiny white heart. In the fall, I pull up the vines and twine them around wreaths.

In the summer, annual poppies make a bold floral statement and their grayish, pepper-pot-shaped pods make an eye-catching winter one. The opium poppy, sometimes listed as the bread seed poppy (Papavar somiferum) was reknowned as medicine and is a symbol of forgetfulness.

All of the above plants can be sown in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. And all enthusiastically re-seed themselves. You might also want to consider re-sowing them several times during the summer.

The safflower, Carthamus tinctorius, with its spiky, golden flowers, is a symbol of welcome. The flower is used for dye and sometimes employed to adulterate the more expensive saffron. The blooms should be picked just as they open and hung upside down to dry for winter use.

The old-fashioned love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) that I was first introduced to as kiss-me-over-the garden-gate, grows from 36 to 48 inches tall. It produces exotic ropes of blood red flowers that dry well. Again, pick the stems just as the bottom flowers begin to open. This year I am going to try A. "viridis" or A. "Green Thumb" - both are reported to produce spikes of vivid green.

Another plant that will lend a touch of green to winter arrangements is ambrosia or Jerusalem oak (Chenopodium botrys). This flowerless plant, growing to just 14 inches, symbolizes love returned. Before the age of plastics, twiglets of ambrosia were dried and used to represent trees and bushes in model train lay-outs. It sometimes re-seeds but not reliably.

Another related plant, camphor-scented Chenopodium ambrosiodes or epozote, is much esteemed in Mexican bean dishes.

Last year I forgot to plant sunflowers. Both the birds and I were aggrieved by the oversight. In spite of bearing the unfortunate floral message of haughtiness and false riches, no plant makes a more uncompromising statement in the garden than our native sunflower. Tall, short, red, maroon, orange, yellow and brown, these days sunflowers come in sizes or colors to suit any taste. If you want to use them as cut flowers, try the pollen-free variety to protect your tablecloths from golden stains.

One annual plant I do not grow is Sweet Annie - Artemisia annua - as it provokes my asthma. You might want to exercise caution as well. It does have a reputation for causing breathing problems.

All of these seeds are available from Pinetree Gardens, 1-207-926-3400 (www.superseeds.com.) They offer a large selection of moderate-priced seed packets.

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