Sheri Ann Richerson's exotic gardening, elegant cooking, crafty creations, food preservation and animal husbandry... all on two and a half acres in Marion, Indiana!

Tropical and Exotic Plants

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There’s nothing quite like a fresh picked tomato when the weather outside is frightful – and it certainly has been here in Indiana. The catfish we put into the aquaponic system this spring didn’t make it – and with everything going on, I never bought more fish to put back in the tank. I did leave the tank running because there were plants that still needed water. I figured without the fish they would die off sooner or later. That is not the case. While it is true that the tomato plant has some dead leaves on it, it is full of flowers and fruit in different stages of ripening.

Oddly enough I have ignored that tomato plant only adding water to the tank below when it got low. I have not hand pollenated it however as we walk past to go out the door it does get bumped. Another thing I noticed is the fruit is in the center of the plant and on the far side that gets the least light. The flowers are nearer to the door so they do get some light, however they also get the first blast of cold air from outside when the door is opened. That happens twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening – when we feed the animals.

I really need to get some help to string the tomato plant up so it reaches towards the ceiling – and the grow light. That would give it more air circulation and allow me to remove some of the dead leaves. I did notice a few white fly caught in a spider nest today so I know I need to take  action now instead of waiting. I certainly don’t want a white fly infestation in my greenhouse!

In the same container with the tomato plant I saw a coffee tree was still alive. The edges of the leaves were a little brown, but that is to be expected. Obviously the humidity level isn’t high enough for that particular plant. That is ok. The rest of the leaves looked shiny and green so it is thriving even under less than ideal growing conditions. I would love to harvest coffee one day. I don’t drink it myself but would get a kick out of roasting it and giving it as a gift.

If you’re wondering about the temperature inside my little greenhouse where the tomatoes are growing, I aim for no less than 50 degrees F. It seems to be staying in the 60 to 70 degree F temperature range right now, although there was a couple times it dipped below 50 degrees F – but not for long. I keep a thermometer in there and try to keep a close eye on the temperature especially at night.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, you can still grow tomatoes year-round – right in your living room! All you need is a five gallon bucket or pot of similar size and a good grow light. I use fluorescent lights. They are four feet long and take two bulbs. I use one from the hot spectrum (red, orange or yellow colors on the bulb package) and one from the cool spectrum (blue or green colors on the package). This works just fine and saves quite a bit of money compared to buying true grow bulbs and fixtures.

In the event you didn’t save a tomato plant from your garden this year, start one from seed. Yes, it will take some time to grow into a full size plant and start producing but come spring when the last frost has passed you can move it into your garden and keep on harvesting tomatoes. I guarantee you will get the first ones on the block with a mature plant!

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Plant lovers know plants make the best gifts. You simply cannot have enough plants and there is always room to add “just one more” plant to the mix. This can drive the non-plant people in your life up the wall. Dodging bags of soil, large pots that don’t quite fit where we want them and that little matter of dealing with watering them in the winter – especially those really big pots that no one wants to move – is challenging to say the least. Usually I put saucers under my pots – but some of my pots – especially the larger or odd-shaped ones – are a bit harder to find saucers for. These require that someone move them into the bathtub at least once a month so I can shower them down.

Yes, I use the shower on my plants. It removes dust from their leaves, adds humidity for a short time and does a very good job of hydrating the soil. After I drench them for about 10 minutes four to six times, I allow the pots to sit in the tub for several hours to drain. I always end up tracking drops of water through the house when I get ready to move them back into their winter home, but those drops of water are easy to wipe up because I have a wood floor.

Yesterday another box of plants arrived. A friend had told me that another friend had the Heliconia ‘Lobster Claw’ that I so adore. I had this plant once, then lost it when my greenhouse was damaged by hail. I was so upset that I gave up trying to replace my lost plants. I was heartbroken because all the rare plants I loved and had worked so hard to keep alive died. In that one night I lost various bananas, heliconias, gingers, the true nutmeg, clove, a vanilla orchid, my Theobroma plants, a dwarf ylang-ylang and so much more. The only plants that survived were the ones in the house.

I kept those plants going but never stopped longing for the ones I used to have. I tried to focus on plants that would thrive here in Indiana but it just wasn’t the same. Winters were awful without my greenhouse – and I missed the fragrant, often brightly colored blooms. I was lost – and so – last spring I began to propagate a few seeds of tropical plants once again. Growing plants from seed takes time and patience, but I knew if I could get them into large pots and outside this summer they would take off – and they did – but – what about those plants I didn’t have seeds for? Well – ordering plants is very expensive – and if you live in the right climate many of these plants multiply quickly – so I needed to locate some of my friends again and see what they would be willing to share.

I drug my feet. Fall came. Then I started going back over my old blog posts, updating the information, changing the photos and sharing the links on social media. This was how I found out that Robert had the Heliconia I wanted. The next step was to contact him and see if he would be willing to send me a start – which he was – and he sent a whole box of cool plants to go along with it! Opening that box made my day yesterday! I can’t thank him enough! From one plant lover to another – plants make the best gifts!

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Two pineapple plants and a small Worsleya rayneri inside a rustic looking metal birdcage.

Fall is here which means winter isn’t far off and it’s time – once again – to bring your  tropical plants indoors. We all know the drill – move the plants out in spring, redecorate, then panic once the nights begin to cool down. If you’re like me, not only have the plants you moved outdoors last spring grown drastically but you’ve added more plants to the list. Space is tight here and sometimes I truly wonder how the heck I managed the winter before – even with a greenhouse – because as we all know, in cold climates like Indiana you just can’t rely on keeping your greenhouse hot enough to keep the really tropical plants alive. Never mind the ice and heavy snowfalls that often knock the power out – and believe me, a greenhouse cools down real fast when it’s dark outside and the heater quit working.

So, what’s a plant lover to do? Make room of course. Donate or store the stuff you can’t use or don’t need. After all, the plants deserve a place in your house. The other option is to get creative. Choose indoor decor that looks good with or without plants. Now, you may be thinking what the heck does she mean. Bird cages are a great example.  You can decorate with them by themselves or fill them with live plants, nicknacks, candles or even silk flowers.

I chose to put some of my smaller plants into some rustic looking metal birdcages this year. I found them at an end of the season clearance sale for 90% off. That’s a fantastic deal in itself. I then went to our local hardware store with the greenhouse attached and found plastic square shaped plant saucers that fit perfectly in the bottom of the bird cages. Best of all, the ones I chose were just 62 cents each and had star indents in the bottom to hold a little water for extra humidity. We all know plants like humidity and the house can be a little dry over winter. These plant saucers were a perfect choice and ideally priced.

Once I was home, I set two plant saucers in the bottom of the metal bird cages, watered my plants well, let them drain and then set them on top of the saucers. I closed the lid and set my birdcage in front of a window. Besides looking really cool, the cage has a fastener on it. What a great way to keep tiny hands and pets away from my smaller plants.

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Michelia is a plant that has been on my wish list for a number of years. Although it is a member of the Magnolia family, the seeds are not near as easy to germinate.

Michelia is one tough cookie to germinate. I have literally tried everything to get this fragrant, must-have plant to grow from seed – and failed miserably every time. Of course, when I saw the seeds this year, I couldn’t resist – and thus am trying again. This time I am using a different method and the seed actually looked like it was swollen.

 

The seeds contain a germination inhibitor which is likely the reason why they are so hard to germinate.

Here is what I did:

First I ran hot tap water, placed the seeds in a small tea ball and swished them around in the sink and under the running water.

Then I filled a glass jar with hot water – not hot tap water, but hot water from the stove. It was not boiling, just simmering. I then lowered the seeds into this hot water. Michelia have a hard seed coat and I was hoping to quickly pentrate that as well as wash off the majority of the germination inhibitors.

The Michelia seeds inside the jar of hot water near the heat lamp. I felt this was necessary because my house is on the cool side and hot water cools within minutes.

I then set the glass jar close to the heat lamp I am using for my chickens. I wanted to water to remain warm.

The first sign that the Michelia seeds were swelling was the reduction of wrinkles. By the time I planted the seeds, there were cracks starting on the outer seed coat.

Once I saw the seeds were beginning to swell (within minutes), I removed the jar and allowed the water to cool. I then poured the water off, put the seeds into the tea ball and repeated the swishing process. I did this five or six times over the course of 24 hours – each time allowing the water to cool naturally.

Once the 24 hours was up, I gave the seeds one final swish under the hot tap water, then planted them in a seed starting mix. I pushed the seed into the soil, making sure I could still see the top of the seed (but it was even with the top of the soil). I then covered the seed with a thin layer of vermculite and set the seed starting flat on a heat mat under grow lights.

Now I wait – impatiently – to see if this method worked. I hope it did. I really want to grow this plant and harvest the flowers to distill once it becomes large enough. Until then, I simply want to enjoy the flowers on the tree and inhale the magnificant fragrance.

Have you successfully germinated Michelia? What was your technique?

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A small round Black Spanish Radish harvested from the open garden in late November.

Those of us who grow vegetables year-round are really no different than those who grow seasonally other than we choose to grow varieties that – like us – brave the cold weather. Figuring out which varieties do well for us in our individual climates does take some experimentation. We can learn what works well for others by reading articles, blogs and of course participating in online discussion groups – but even then, what works for one person may not work for another.

Here in Marion, Indiana I have found the round Black Spanish Radish does quite well over winter – even in the open ground without protection. I love the dark black color of the skin – and the spicy taste of the flesh. Often though I find it necessary to remove the skin from these radishes before I eat them – it really depends on how tough the skin is – and you can tell by looking.

This is the very first Black Spanish Radish I grew. I harvested it a bit early, however I was quite anxious to taste it.

The ideal time to sow seeds of the Black Spanish Winter Radish is August or September. These radish do get larger than the typical round radishes you see in the stores. In fact, they are close to the size of a small turnip when they are ready to harvest. I find one radish is more than enough to use in an entire salad – and when I eat them sliced, the radish often lasts three to four days.

Adding a dash of salt seems to lessen the spiciness of this particular radish – but let me tell you, if you grow it during the summer, the radish is downright hot. So hot, in fact, I refuse to grow this variety during the summer months. Another thing I have noticed about this variety is – just like other radish – they do self-seed. If you’ve grown them and had them go to seed, head out to your garden this winter and look around to see if some are coming up on their own.

Once you acquire seeds of this particular variety, it is a good idea to save some seeds from the plants you grew. This is not the easiest radish seed to find. Saving radish seed is very easy – but you must be aware if you let more than one variety go to seed at the same time you do risk cross-pollination.

These are fresh radish pods – and they are edible. Harvest them at this stage for salads or stir-frys. Allow them to remain on the plant and dry to produce seeds.

To save radish seed simply allow the plant to flower, make sure pollination is occuring (you will know it is if you see bees visiting the flowers), allow the flowers to remain on the plant once they have faded and soon you will see long pods forming where the flowers once were. Inside of these pods, seeds are forming. Allow them to remain on the plant until they begin to turn brown.

Cut off the toe of the pantyhose, place it over the forming seed pod and secure it around the stem taking care not to damage any part of the plant. This keeps seeds from falling onto the ground in the event the seed pod bursts open before you have a chance to harvest the seeds.

At this point, cover the seed pods with pantyhose and secure the pantyhose at the bottom with a twist-tie – just be gentle and make sure you do not pinch the plant stem in the process.

Once the seeds – and stems – are completely brown, cut the stem below the pantyhose, turn the entire bunch upside down and shake gently. Many of the seed pods may have popped open already and this will help shake those seeds down into the pantyhose and away from the twist-tie. Now you can untie the pantyhose and gently remove the stems and pods.

Although these are pea seeds, I wanted to show you how I lay seeds out to dry on a styrofoam plate. Be sure to turn the seeds several times a day while they are drying so moisture does not build up underneath them. The label you see has yet to be attached to the plate – and often I attach it with tape so I can use the actual sticky label on the container I store the seeds in.

Place the dried plant material on a paper plate or screen and break open the seed pods that are still closed. Once you have gathered all the seeds, lay them out on a paper plate or screen to dry for about a week. Be sure to label them so you don’t forget what they are. Once they are dry, put them into a container that already has a thin layer of dichotomous earth in the bottom of it (DE is a pest preventative) , place a label in or on the container and seal it. Store the container in a cool, dark, dry place.

That’s all there is to saving radish seed. Remember that seed saved from your own garden is adapted to your local growing environment and thus is better able to withstand the growing conditions in your area and local pests.

If you want to know more, be sure to pick up a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting – and don’t forget you can download a free sample chapter for your Kindle device.

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Rosemary seedlings that were winter sown.

You read that right folks, December – even in cold climates – is the right time to start sowing seeds outdoors! Now there are a few things you need to know such as what types of seeds to sow, the types of containers you need and a general idea of how winter sowing actually works.

If you’ve read either The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Year-Round Gardening or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting, you already have a good idea how winter sowing works. If not, read on.

The official winter sowing date is December 21. Now, if you were like us here in Indiana on December 21 this year, you know it was still warm enough outside that waiting a bit longer to begin winter sowing was best. We have snow now – and cold temperatures – so I think it is safe to begin.

The idea behind winter sowing is you plant perennial seeds – which are seeds from plants that return year after year in your specific United States Department Of Agriculture Hardiness Zone. If you’re not sure what your USDA hardiness zone is, you can use our app to find out. There is also a really cool seed calculator, in addition to the hardiness zone finder, that you can use to determine how many seeds you need to plant.

Once you know what your USDA hardiness zone is, then you can choose seeds that are hardy in that zone. Once you have the perennial seeds you wish to sow, here is how you do it.

1. Collect a variety of clear or semi-clear containers with lids. Plastic milk jugs, juice bottles and 2-liter bottles work well. Wash them out with hot soapy water and allow them to dry so you can be sure they are completely clean. Dirty containers attract pests, not to mention the fact that bacteria and fungus could form which would then lead to disease problems with the plants you are trying to grow.

2.   Allow the containers and caps to thoroughly air dry.

3.   With a marking pen, make six dots on the shoulder of the container (the part that begins to widen out, just below the neck) and six dots on the bottom of the container. Make sure these dots are evenly spaced.

Drilling holes into the container is essential so air can circulate and excess moisture can drain.

4.   Use a 1/8-inch drill bit to drill holes where the dots are.

Marking the area you intend to cut before you actually begin cutting is a good idea.

5.   Hold the container in your hand and draw a line with your marker around the center of the container; try to make it as even as possible.

When you are done cutting the container in half, the top half should still be attached to the bottom half, but it should be able to be bent backwards so you can access the bottom half of the container.

6.   With a box knife or scissors, cut along the line you just drew; leave an inch or two uncut on one side. This creates a kind of flap, allowing you to flip the top back and up again. You should now have two connected halves, a top half and a bottom half.

7.   Put a couple of inches of your preferred seed starting mix in the bottom half of the container; the soil should come up about halfway to the edge. For best results, moisten the seed-starting mix before putting it into the container.

8.   Sprinkle just enough vermiculite on top of the seed-starting mix to barely cover it. If the seed-starting mix is adequately moist, the vermiculite will absorb some of the water; if remains dry, gently water it.

Keep in mind that some seeds, such as these Rosemary seeds, need light to germinate, thus it is best to simply sprinkle them on top of the vermiculite and not cover them.

9.  Plant your seeds according to the package directions, avoiding planting them too close together; they need room to grow and develop. Remember that some seeds need light to germinate and some need darkness.

10. Place a label inside the container. Use either a botanical pen or permanent marker to write on them. It’s also a good idea to label the outside of the container as well. Place a piece of clear tape over the label, to protect it from fading and water damage.

Once the seeds are planted, the label is secure inside the container, then seal the cut you made with clear packing tape to create a mini-greenhouse environment.

11.  Flip the top half of your new mini-greenhouse back over the bottom half and tape it up using clear packing tape.  Put the cap back on.

12.  Set the container outside in a protected area, such as up against the side of your house or a fence. The ideal area will protect the containers from getting too much rain, too much sun, and from being knocked over.

13.  Check the containers several times a week for three things:

– Moist soil.

– Heat build up; if you see too much moisture forming on the side of the bottle, remove the cap.

– Germination. Maturity of the seedling will dictate when it’s time to be moved.

That’s all there is to it! So, what are you waiting for? Get your seeds and seed sowing supplies together so you can get a head start on the growing season. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to have plants you grew from seed in bloom this coming summer?

If you want to know more, be sure to pick up a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting – and don’t forget you can download a free sample chapter for your Kindle device.

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Even on the coldest day of the year, it is possible to find signs of life in my Indiana garden. This is the Christmas Rose – a lovely hellebore that is sure to burst into bloom in late November or early December.

It is a cold, dreary day here in my Indiana garden – yet, I know I must put on my coat and head outside to wander through my garden – after all, if I do not go today, I may miss a garden treasure. November is an exciting time in my garden. Although it is cold – and we have already had some snow and heavy frosts, there is still something in bloom. In addition to being able to see what is blooming, there are flower buds forming and young seedlings germinating – yes, perennial seeds often germinate in the fall or over winter.

Colorful bittersweet generally persists in the garden throughout the entire winter.

This morning I was greeted by the orange and red berries of the bittersweet I planted on a trellis right off the ramp. This particular trellis is also right beside the pathway that leads from the driveway to the ramp that leads to the front door, so everyone who visits us is sure to see the colorful berries all winter long – unless of course the birds eat them first.

Speaking of the birds, they love to sit on the branches of the bittersweet vine and sometimes even nest in the branches in the summer when it is covered in a thick layer of leaves. The birds don’t seem to mind the people walking past. I guess they feel secure enough knowing how hard it would be to see their nests if one were not looking for them.

As I wandered on down the curving path past the front of the deck, I took note of a few hardy phlox still in bloom – both pink and purple. The dried chive flower heads still held tight to some of the shiny black seeds they produced. Although I should have cut the flower heads off before they had a chance to set seed, I decided this year I would let them spread. Once spring arrives and I am removing massive amounts of chives from my garden, I may regret this choice. Until then, they do look lovely in the garden especially when they are covered in snow.

Witch hazel Autumn Embers preparing to open the first witch hazel flowers of the season last January.

The next stop was the witch hazels. There are three in my garden. The common witchhazel that has not produced a single bloom or flower bud in the three years it has been here; Autumn Embers and Arnold’s Promise – both of which are prolific bloomers and have been since the second year they were planted. I can count on these bursting into full bloom sometime between January and February. They are still small – as they are slow growers – but I look forward to the time when they are large enough to be seen from the street. I am sure seeing masses of colorful blooms in the middle of winter will be a traffic stopper. Luckily the street I live on is not too busy.

The first hellebore to flower this season. It is a double.

The lungwort and daphne still held tight to their colorful leaves. The hellebore and arum leaves were protruding above the masses of leaves in anticipation of the exact moment when they would burst into bloom. In fact, a few of the hellebore were already sporting blooms and will continue to do so throughout the winter months.

The colorful blooms of the sedum still persisted.

As I continued walking through the garden colorful sedum blooms welcomed me. The seeds of the money plant – round and papery – gently rustled in the wind. The magnolia trees had small furry flower buds forming on them and the viburnum leaves were a lucious red color. Everywhere I looked there was life of some sort. I even saw signs of columbine seedlings growing in anticipation of spring.

Although the pansies appear to be frozen stiff in the morning – and are indeed covered with frost – by mid-morning they are standing tall again.

As I began to climb the ramp heading towards the front door, my eye was drawn to the window boxes filled with pansies that are easily visiable from inside the front door. Their cheerful flowers in shades of yellows and purples danced in the wind. These plants will bloom on and off all winter as well and even provide early spring color before they fade.

Nothing helps knock the chill off – after spending time in the winter garden – better than a steaming cup of peppermint hot chocolate!

As I entered the house, Bubba barked happily, the sounds of Boy George singing White Christmas greeted me and I knew I wanted a steaming cup of peppermint hot chocolate to knock the chill off.

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This particular witch hazel – Autumn Embers – shows off some of the vibrant fall colors Indiana is so well known for.

It’s funny what a difference climate change has made in Indiana. When I first started gardening, the northern part of Indiana that I reside in was a U.S. Department of Agricultural hardiness zone 5a. Several years ago, this same area became a USDA hardiness zone 6a – and believe me, that makes a difference in what you can grow – especially if you are pushing hardiness zones like I am. Bananas, gingers and palm trees have survived over the winter months in my garden. Of course, they had to be mulched well and covered with a make-shift cold frame – but hey, getting these awesome tropical plants to survive in the ground in Indiana made the extra work well worth it!

Of course, I grow so much more than just ornamentals over winter. Everyone knows store bought produce never tastes quite as good as produce that comes from your own garden – and this is true regardless of the season. In fact, winter-grown greens have a sweeter taste and – in my opinion – are far more tender than those that are forced in a greenhouse or grown during the other three seasons. Today I have peppers forming, tomatoes ripening, lettuce that is ready to pick – all inside a cold frame. Outside in the garden kale, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) and Brussels sprouts are still growing – and will continue to thrive throughout the winter without protection. Best of all, frost actually sweetens the taste of these three vegetables.

Even though we have had frost and temperatures in the lower 30’s here already there are still a lot of flowers in bloom. The main part of the garden has not died back yet and from indoors it still looks like summer in the garden. Here are a few photos I took today in various parts of my garden.

Bittersweet

 

Rosa Oso Easy® Cherry Pie From Proven Winners – one awesome – continual blooming – beauty!

 

The deadly monkshood! I love the deep blue flowers!

 

Helleborus Midnight Ruffles from Walter’s Gardens – best of all, it blooms the first year in the garden!

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Amazon Chocolate (top), Snowberry (white/yellow cherry) and Chocolate Cherry Tomatoes.

Waiting for the first tomatoes of the season to ripen – especially if you are growing new varieties – is hard. I grow a lot of heirloom varieties on the farm and always try to have some black or purple varieties. I prefer them because they taste sweeter – but not too sweet. This year I also tried a white/yellow variety called Snowberry. I figured – since I was setting up at the Marion Open Air Market on Saturday’s I needed a unique product that other vendors’ would not have – thus a mixture of white, black/purple and red cherry tomatoes was going to be my “special product.”

Snowberry produces a cherry tomato that is a creamy yellow.

The Snowberry tomato was one of the first to produce. It is a mild tomato without much of a real tomato taste. In fact, the ones that were really ripe tasted a bit more like a grape than a tomato. It was not what I had expected, but they were not bad and the plant produces an abundant supply. In fact, most of the tomatoes I am picking right now are coming from this plant. I don’t know if I will grow it again next year or not. I am going to wait and see how it goes over at market.

Chocolate Cherry is an heirloom variety.

The next small cherry tomato I grew was the heirloom variety Chocolate Cherry. The tomatoes I picked weren’t as dark as I had hoped they would be – and maybe that was my fault for picking them too soon, but they seemed ripe enough. The tomatoes were juicy and sweet with an earthy taste. I’m not getting a lot of tomatoes from this plant right now, but hopefully as the season goes on it will produce more. This is one that I am likely to save seeds from and grow in the future.

Amazon Chocolate Tomato

The winner though – at least out of these three varieties – was the Amazon Chocolate tomato. This was my first year growing it and it was pure angony watching it slowly ripen day after day. It did not turn color near as fast as some of the red tomato varieties I am growing. In fact, it took a good week after I noticed it starting to change color before it seemed ripe enough to pick. Given the size of the tomato, I guess the wait was not so bad – after all, it would only take one slice for a sandwich. Yes, it was that big! The Amazon Chocolate tomato had a slightly sweet taste and was quite meaty – making it an ideal addition to sauces such as pizza or spaghetti. I did save seeds from it, but I forgot I still had them fermenting in water to remove the flesh and they germinated. I will be planting those seeds and – depending on how fast they grow – either transplanting them into the garden or growing them on in pots in the greenhouse.

 

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Normally this hellebore blooms around Christmas. This year it bloomed early in November.

Helleborus niger in bloom on November 25, 2011 in my Indiana garden.

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