Friday, August 3, 2012

Bergenia - Grow Pig Squeak and Have A Little Fun

Bergenia cordifolia
When I was a child, my grandfather taught me practical uses for plants. One was how to make a cow call from a squash leaf. With his pocketknife, he cut a large leaf from a yellow squash or cushaw plant and trimmed the foliage from the long petiole. He sliced about 1 inch deep into the narrow end. After gently rubbing the little spines off, he put it into my mouth far enough so my lips wouldn't restrict the movement of the two parts. Then I blew. It sounded like a moo-cow. If the tone wasn't just right, he sliced the tip a bit deeper to improve the vibration. That provided me with about an hour of fun until the petiole wilted. Then with my own pocketknife I could make the entertaining toy whenever I wanted to, so long as I didn't ruin his squash patch. I passed this on to my own kids, but didn't give them pocketknives until they were too old to care about moo-cows any more. Sad.

Here's another fun plant toy to try, and much simpler to do. It's called Pig Squeak. All you have to do is take a fleshy leaf from Bergenia cordifolia and drag it between your thumb and forefinger with proper pressure. Or you can rub two leaves together. The emanating sound resembles a porcine squeal. Appropriately, the plant's common name is Heart-leaf Pig Squeak. "Cordifolia" (pronounced cor-di-FOL-ee-ah) means "heart-shaped leaf."

Bergenia (pronounced ber-GEN-ee-ah) was named by Konrad Moench in 1794 to honor Karl August von Bergen, a contemporary 18th century German physician and botanist. Von Bergen (1704-1759) was professor of anatomy and botany at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, and was later awarded the chair of those departments. He was also overseer of the university's botanical garden.

The genus is native to Asia, from Afghanistan to China and the Himalayas. There are 10 species of Bergenia. Bergenia cordifolia is most widely grown.

Heart-leaf Pig Squeak grows to 18 inches tall and spreads by underground rhizomes. The plump, fleshy leaves are glossy green in summer, often turning to scarlet shades in fall. Better fall color appears if plants are exposed to more sun or dry conditions. Flower clusters produced in spring to early summer range from dark pink to white. Because the evergreen foliage is so attractive, gardeners enjoy Pig Squeak as much for that as for the blooms.

If you've read some of my other blog articles, you've probably noticed that many of the scientists were both botanists and physicians. It made sense then, and it would make sense today if there was sense enough, for many plants have medicinal properties. In earlier days, actual plants were used in various preparations to treat diseases. Now the potent chemicals are more often isolated or even synthesized.

Bergenia, which contains bergenin and gallic acid, has medicinal properties. Anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-arthritic and immunomodulatory effects have been documented. Bergenia species have been used to treat kidney stones, urinary problems, gout, stomach disorders, oral diseases, skin eruptions, and maybe more. The lore is not to be dismissed, but don't try curing yourself with Pig Squeak at home. Leave it to professionals.

Though Bergenia will tolerate full sun in cooler climates, it thrives in partial shade to full shade in USDA climate zones 4 through 9 in slightly moist, well-drained, humusy soils with pH ranging from 6.1 to 9.0. Bergenia likes consistent moisture, but it's somewhat drought-tolerant when established.

Heart-leaf Pig Squeak tolerates a wide range of soil pH. But before sticking a plant in the ground it's always a good idea to know the pH level of your soil. Take a sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis. The fee is nominal.

If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8 inches deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4 inches to 6 inches of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants between 12 inches to 24 inches apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1 inch deep.

Heart-leaf Pig Squeak is a superb plant for naturalizing in moist, shady corners in the garden. The flowers are good for cutting and preserving. It attracts butterflies, so would be fine in butterfly gardens. It would also be a fine addition to Asian gardens, bog gardens, shady rain gardens, medicinal plant collections and herb gardens. And, of course, it's fun to play with the leaves.

Ajuga makes a fine companion plant.  It also combines well with such natives as Chrysogonum, Meehania, violets (Viola spp.), and ferns.

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