Wes Porter

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

Most Recent Articles by Wes Porter:

Invoke St. Gertrude for Gardens

Mar 3, 2018 — Wes Porter

Invoke St. Gertrude for Gardens
All good Irish along with many other envious mortals celebrate 17th March as St. Patrick’s Day. Even the English agriculturalist William Cobett admitted, “The Irish people are brave, generous, hospitable, laborious, and full of genius.” Better still for the horticultural fraternity, it is also the day dedicated to St. Gertrude of Nivelles (d.659) virgin and abbess whose name is invoked for gardens. Ask then, as they did in Finian’s Rainbow, ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra?’ and maybe, just maybe, leprechauns like Og will answer, or so maintains Irish tribal folklore

Questions We’re Often Asked: Moth Orchid Care

Feb 28, 2018 — Wes Porter

Moth Orchid Care
Moth orchids—Phalaenopsis—are everywhere these days. From supermarket to local grocery store if you want one, you won’t have far to go.

Potager du Roi: The King’s Vegetable Garden

Feb 24, 2018 — Wes Porter

Potager du Roi: The King's Vegetable Garden

Planning for a home vegetable garden this spring? Spare a thought for the French Sun King’s Potager du Roi at Versailles. Louis XIV (1643-1715) needed his 25 acres to support his vast court numbering some 10,000 nobles, officials and servants of every rank and pomposity.

Louis himself worked closely with his architect, Louis Le Vau, to create what is officially the Chateau de Versailles, although chateau seems something of an understatement for a building covering 67,000 square metres. Construction commenced in 1661 and although activities continued to 1710, the palace officially opened in May 1682 when Versailles became the capital of the kingdom, about 20 miles southwest of Paris. The surrounding 800 hectares of gardens were the work of Andre Le Notre—a story in themselves.

Poisoning by Plant Cyanogens

Feb 22, 2018 — Wes Porter

Poisoning by Plant Cyanogens

Late last year a California visitor to Montreal was hospitalized with cyanide poisoning after treating himself to a package of apricot kernels. He survived. A week later it was reported that a 70-year-old Vermont retirement home resident had been arrested for attempting to poison other residents with home-made ricin. None succumbed.

Poisons fascinate us. Fortunately, few indulge in unlawfully ending life by such means. But who has not heard of Lucretia Borgia and her arsenic? A dubious story, yes, but fictional crime fills bookshelves. Agatha Christie used poison in at least five of her many novels. As did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in two of his Sherlock Holms mysteries. And Rex Stout is to be credited with three, including Black Orchids. The very successful stage play Arsenic and Old Lace was turned into the equally successful movie filled with black humour starring Cary Grant.

The Latest Buzz on Neonicotinoids

Feb 15, 2018 — Wes Porter

The Latest Buzz on Neonicotinoids
Controversy has accompanied neonicotinoid pesticides ever since their commercial introduction in the mid-1990s. Discovered by Japanese researchers at a Bayer lab in Tokyo while working on an earlier, 1970s, pesticide created in California, it was released as imidacloprid in the 1990s. Within a decade it, along with clothianidin, also made by Bayer, and thiamethoxam from Syngenta, were accounting for 25 percent of all global insecticide sales.

Protests commenced almost as quickly, however. French apiarists blamed imidacloprid-coated sunflower seeds, introduced in 1994, for their honeybee losses. Five vears later such treated seed was banned in France.

Snowdrops and When to Plant Them

Feb 8, 2018 — Wes Porter

Snowdrops and When to Plant Them
In a Grimm Brother variation of the well-known tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the heroine is called Snowdrop. Her royal stepmother attempts to discover the future with a fairy looking-glass, which tells her:

Thou, queen, art fair, and beauteous to see,
But Snowdrop is lovely far than thee!

Gardening Improves Lives

Feb 1, 2018 — Wes Porter

the discoursing of women at sea was very unlucky and occasioned the storm
William Cowley aboard the ship Cygnet in the South Atlantic during his voyage of circumnavigation 1683-86 described how the fourteenth of February brought a “violent storm.” Cowley describe how, being Valentine’s Day, they were discoursing the intrigues of women when the tempest began. It lasted for over two weeks . . . The men concluded that “the discoursing of women at sea was very unlucky” and “occasioned the storm.”

January Hortic Birthdays

Jan 31, 2018 — Wes Porter

January Hortic Birthdays
A tip of the garden hat to a few of those who have improved our gardens, health and lives in general: “Whoever could make two ears of corn grow where only one grew before would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” Jonathan Swift 1667-1745

Ganapathi Thanikaimoni 1 January 1938—5 September 1986

A leading Indian palynologist, who studied contemporary and fossil pollens, killed age 48 during a military assault after terrorists hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 from Karachi. He was reportedly helping a child when hit by fragments of a grenade set off by the terrorists.

Johann Heinrich Heucher 1 January 1677—22 February 1747

German physician and natural scientist, professor of medicine at Wittenberg, physician to King Augustus the Strong of Dresden; if you have Heuchera in the garden, the genus is named in his honour.

Alice Eastwood, Canadian-American Botanist

Jan 29, 2018 — Wes Porter

Alice Eastwood, Canadian-American Botanist
Toronto’s Necropolis is the last resting place for many a distinguished person. One such is Alice Eastwood, acclaimed Canadian-American botanist credited, amongst many other achievements, with building the botanical collection at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.

Her path to a successful botanical career was not an easy one. Born in Toronto on 19th January 1859 her father was a steward at the Toronto Asylum for the Insane on Queen Street. His wife died when Alice was but six, so she spent some time living with a physician uncle, an ‘avid gardener and amateur botanist’ who introduced her to botany and scientific terminology. At eight, she and her younger sister were sent to board at a convent in neighbouring Oshawa. This was another stroke of good fortune since there she met a young priest who was another amateur botanist as well as naturalist.

Turning the Heat on Firewood

Jan 22, 2018 — Wes Porter

Turning the Heat on Firewood
There is something about a wood fire that appeals deep down inside most of us. As Jerry Smith has observed, “Playing with fire is bad for those who burn themselves. For the rest of us, it is a very great pleasure.”

First though there is the fuel for the fire. This comes down to two considerations: which wood and how is it supplied?

Questions We’re Often Asked: Slugs as Pollinators

Jan 15, 2018 — Wes Porter

Questions We're Often Asked: Slugs as Pollinators
Slugs pollinate aspidistras. The assertion dates back about a hundred years to Europe. Observers there noticed slugs around the ground-level flowers of the popular houseplant and concluded this was their mode of pollination. (Hopefully this was in a greenhouse and not a dwelling). Amongst flowering plants, this remains unique—or is it?

A September 2014 paper in the American Journal of Botany labelled it “highly controversial” while admitting to a “most unusual pollination biology” for this complicated genus. Researchers cited mollusks, crustaceans, flies, collembolans; a species from Vietnam was confirmed as being pollinated by gall midges.

Spanish Moss: Decorator’s Delight

Jan 8, 2018 — Wes Porter

Spanish Moss: Decorator's Delight
Neither Spanish nor a moss Tillandsia usneoides, along with peach trees and live oaks, is often associated with the U.S. antebellum South. Nevertheless, those travelling further afield will discover its silvery-grey thread-like masses trailing at every vantage point southwards as far as Argentina and Chile.

Strands up to 25-feet long absorb moisture from the air so effectively that they can dispense with roots. Indeed, so efficient are they that it can happily exist and even flourish on telephone lines and power wires, much to the displeasure of utility companies, who are forced to repeatedly clear them.


Jan 1, 2018 — Wes Porter

Delicious scents of hyacinths and narcissus
Supermarket floral sections and local grocery stores are bursting forth with pots of spring-flowering bulbs. Delicious scents of hyacinths and narcissus are wafted to distract from the winter weather. Any and all add a similar touch to the home. True they will be fleeting visitors, but their sojourn can be prolonged with a little of the proverbial tender loving care. Bulbs are amazingly thirsty. Check twice a day. Position in bright light and keep as cool as possible. Avoid radiators or hot air vents. Flower stems will continue to elongate, and some support may be required. When the blooms fade, trim back their stalks but retain the foliage. Keep watering until the leaves fade, then allow to dry and store in a cool, dry place until they can be planted out in the garden. They may take a year or two to recover but why waste?

Questions We’re Often Asked: Christmas Trees

Dec 30, 2017 — Wes Porter

Readers of these columns will be gratified to learn that people are coming back to the natural tree. Whether it’s plastic pollution, pricey artificial imports or simple nostalgia for the real thing, everywhere sales of live pines, spruce, firs and hemlock are climbing.

And why not? Christmas tree farming is environmentally sound. The stands, often on land little suited for anything else, provide a welcoming habitat for vast array of wildlife as well as employment in areas where such opportunities are often scarce on the ground. Cut-your-own operations not only offer an additional source of revenue to tree farmers but to surrounding communities where the visitors stop to shop. Once home, they bring joy and happiness before finally ending their days biodegraded as municipal mulch.

Norse God Baldr Killed by a Mistletoe Dart

Dec 23, 2017 — Wes Porter

Today, we associate mistletoe with the kiss of love. Yet, according to the ancient Norse, it once brought death to the Aesir’s most beloved member.

Even the most ferocious of the Norse Pantheon, the Aesir, recognized the essential goodness, even gentleness, of Baldr. Son of Odin and Frigga, twin brother of Hodur who had been born blind, he demonstrated the use of medicinal plants to the men and women who dwelt in Midgard. The healing chamomile was called Baldr’s brow for its beneficial qualities.

Brussels Sprouts

Dec 16, 2017 — Wes Porter

Brussels Sprouts
Britons eat more Choux de Bruxelles than anyone else in Europe. It is a traditional accompaniment with Christmas turkey in Britain. But, ask some over there, how will Christmas dinner be different after Brexit? No Brussels. Groan.

Botanically, they are the edible buds of a member of the cabbage family, Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera. While their forerunners were likely cultivated in Ancient Rome, that mine of veggie information Rebecca Rupp (1987), notes that Mark Antony ate ballata gemmifera (‘diamond-makers’ since they were said to enhance mental powers), unsuccessfully, before meeting August Caesar at the Battle of Actium, but the Roman references may have been describing a very small form of heading cabbage.

Norfolk Island Pine—Living Christmas Tree

Dec 9, 2017 — Wes Porter

Norfolk Island Pine--Living Christmas Tree
There are 126 species of true pine plus some three dozen experts can’t make up their minds about. The Norfolk Island Pine is not one of these. In fact, botanically it is not a pine at all.

Instead it is an exceedingly popular houseplant, so much so that in Britain it is often sold under the name of ‘House Pine.’ In North America, tens of thousands are raised in Florida for the foliage plant trade. There they are named after their native home substituted towards December every year by ‘Tropical Christmas Tree.’ This is preferable since, unlike true pines, it will not tolerate cold temperatures, although its requirements are by no means tropical. Indeed, it will flourish in temperatures 21ºC days down to 13ºC at night.


Dec 2, 2017 — Wes Porter

“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody” observed Samuel Pepys in his famous diary.

But before indulging in festive activities (or working off earlier ones) there are still a few chores remaining outside. Pull the last persistent weeds from flower beds and borders and cut back any remaining perennials other than ornamental grasses and euphorbias. Prune any dead, dying or diseased growth off shrubs and small trees. Clean bird baths and feeders with a light solution of bleach. If squirrels are a problem raiding feeders, treat the seed with cayenne or chilli pepper powder. Rake any last leaves into the composter. Move empty clay and concrete planters into the garage or shed to prevent wet surfaces flaking and cracking in the cold.

Questions We’re Often Asked: Mulch Ado

Nov 30, 2017 — Wes Porter

Questions We're Often Asked: Mulch Ado
“To mulch or not to mulch, aye, that is the rub,” might have quoth the Bard had he experienced climate change. A few decades ago, northern gardeners could count on snow cover to protect perennials from frost damage during winter months. Indeed, many discovered that they could successfully overwinter plants that further south succumbed without such protection. “This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news,” really did write William Shakespeare.

Nothing is permanent, things change as gardeners are forced to admit. As Ogden Nash lamented:

The Gardens of Gwyn

Nov 19, 2017 — Wes Porter

The Gardens of Gwyn
Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn was many things in her time. She has remained so for more than 350 years. Commencing literally as a Cinderella—sifting ashes for unburnt fuel, she progressed to peddling turnips, selling ‘strong’ drinks in her mother’s brothel, to leading actress and, for seventeen years, mistress of the ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II. She also became something of a gardener, owning a fair-sized property with her London townhouse and 40 acres of landscaped grounds up the Thames River at Burford House, Windsor. Both were gifts of Charles.

Born in 1650, little is known of her early life. By the age of 13, she was an orange girl, peddling the then exotic fruit for an exorbitant six pence each to gallants in the theatre audience. She would have been required to work six days a week, receiving a penny for each of her sales. This did not last for long. By April 1665 she had acquired fame as an actress among theatre goers. Within two years, aged just 17, she had found fame, if not fortune, on the London stage. Doubtlessly, this is where the king first saw her. Fascinated with this witty, petite performer Charles first sent for her as an entertainer. She became his long-lasting mistress. The rest, as they say, is history.