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Ron Smith answers questions about flowers, trees, gardens and shrubs.

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

To everything, there is a beginning and an end. The Hortiscope column started in the early 1980s but will end its run at the end of December because that is when I’ll be retiring from the NDSU Extension Service.

It all began under the competent penmanship of Don Kinzler in 1983. When Don left, it was Bob Askew who fielded the surface mails until I was hired in 1985. At first, it was a simple chore to answer eight to 12 letters a week, but then the Internet came along!

When an email came in inquiring about a good textbook to use to teach a plant propagation class, I responded with the appropriate answer that the book was available at campus bookstores or by special order through a national bookstore. The question I got back was: Even in Tokyo, Japan? That made me aware how far my responses to questions were reaching.

From there, it built to where I was answering more and more email requests from all over the globe. Questions came from Israel, England, Canada, Brazil, Russia, New Zealand and Australia, to name just a few. Folks who were contacting me from outside the country were good enough most of the time to tell me their country of origin. American inquiries came from all 50 states.

Starting with this issue of Hortiscope, I’ll do a little reminiscing on some articles and inquiries. I’ll start with a couple that Kinzler has been kind enough to send me from his archives. Here are some of his first inquiries and responses:

Q: I have a dumbcane whose leaves are turning brown faster than new ones are produced. Will new leaves start from the bottom if I cut the plant down? (Douglas, N.D.)

A: Do you know why the plant is called “dumbcane?” It has nothing to do with the plants lack of intelligence. The nickname arose because the plant contains a chemical compound that can paralyze the tongue if the stems or leaves are chewed. Another name for dumbcane is dieffenbachia. Dieffenbachia is one of the many houseplants of tropical origin that would be much more content in a steamy jungle. The lower light levels of our homes, combined with low humidity and hot blasts from the heater, are offensive to the plant. Some plants decide to give up the battle and shed the lower leaves. This leads to the common complaint that all the plant growth is at the top of a very spindly stalk. You can perform surgery by pruning the plant to about 4 inches above the soil level. Repot the plant into fresh soil, place in a bright window and, if the root system is healthy, new shoots should grow from the base. The leafy top of the plant could be placed in water or moist peat moss. Don’t get discouraged. Houseplants don’t last forever indoors, and new ones can be started or purchased. Let’s enjoy them while we’ve got them.

Q: I would like to start black walnut and chestnut trees this year. I know of trees that are producing in my area, but my seed catalogs show they aren’t hardy in our zone. Are there any particular varieties for North Dakota? (Warwick, N.D.)

A: There are very few nuts that survive in our region. I mean trees, that is. Black walnut is hardy to our area, and there are some fine specimens around the state. However, it grows slowly and is difficult to establish. Give it a protected site and plenty of attention. Black walnut trees are sold by many nurseries in our state. Chestnut trees lack hardiness and aren’t recommended for our region. If you know of one that has survived our winters, you may want to collect seed from that specimen and see if the offspring will survive.

Readers: These questions and answers were developed on a typewriter, not a word processor! I hope the typewriter was an IBM Correcting Electric that was common in those days. Anyway, Kinzler got the column off to a good start by increasing the column’s following before he left NDSU Extension.

For the remaining Hortiscope columns, I will do more reflecting on my years of answering questions. I’ll also discuss how those of you interested in horticulture, forestry, houseplants or general gardening can continue to get information that is unbiased and research-based to help you succeed.

For answers to general horticultural questions, go to

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Dec. 5, 2012

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-7971,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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