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‘Scratch & sniff’ plant is a popcorn lover’s delight

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Dig This!
by Jeanne Duffey

Katie Steinhoff with Ashleigh Torres, a volunteer at the gardens admire the 'popcorn' plant in the raised beds on the rooftop of the botanical center.

Katie Steinhoff, coordinator at the Springfield Botanical Gardens, and Ashleigh Torres, a volunteer at the gardens, admire the ‘popcorn’ plant in the raised beds on the rooftop of the botanical center.

You’re always hearing about plants that smell like this and that and sometimes they don’t live up to their hype. But Senna didymobotrya, commonly known as the popcorn plant, lives up to its moniker and more.

Rub a leaf and take a whiff! You will think you’ve just been handed a bucket of buttery popcorn at the movies. Smell the canary yellow spires of flowers and you’ll swear you’ve just opened a jar of peanut butter.

Where can you behold this “scratch and sniff” wonder? Two of these tree-like shrubs share two large silvery fiberglass containers with other sub-tropical plants on the Roof Plaza of the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center in Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park. And there’s another one at the Bill Roston Native Butterfly House because it’s a caterpillar host plant for the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly.

Steinert’s Nursery donated the plants.

“That aroma is extraordinary,” says George Freeman, founder and editor of this venerable publication. “For years, I have though that if someone brought a popcorn air freshener or after-shave lotion to market, they would become wealthy, wise and, perhaps, even healthy. If you want to draw a crowd, just pop some corn, salt and add butter. But the popcorn plant is even better because it’s not fattening.”

Springfield-Greene County Park Board employee Mark Berryhill and volunteer Ashleigh Torres water the plants daily. Botanical Center Coordinator Katie Steinhoff, who created the container garden on the Roof Plaza, says the popcorn plants were less than 6 or 8 inches when she planted them; now they reach 3 to 4 feet tall.

Many of the annuals and some of the other plantings are trial gardens for the Missouri State University horticultural department, explained Horticultural Interpreter Peter Longley. “The large containers fascinate me most. . .Katie has mixed an interesting blend of sub-tropicals that are eye-catchers.”

Steinhoff had no control over the plants or plant colors – yellow, pink, black, purple – that she was given, but she has managed to create vivid combinations amid the red umbrella-topped patio tables. She modestly says that container gardening is simple – “something goes up, something goes over the edge.” Or you can follow the formula of “thriller, spiller and filler.”

The popcorn plant is in the “thriller” category, but its planting instructions seem rather ordinary: Soak seeds and sow them 3 to 4 inches deep in good quality soil in a pot with good drainage. Keep lightly moist in a light, warm place, 64 to 70 degrees F., no lower than 61 degrees. Water freely and fertilize once a month.

The rooftop gardens are at their best in the fall as they reach maturity, says Longley. “The assorted hybrid petunias, zinnias, baby wing white begonias, pink, orange and yellow treasure flowers and red celosia, backed by tall canna lilies with their showy red flowers and dark foliage, are at the height of their full summer glory. The interesting groupings of parsley allowed to grow up to seed, show once again how interesting a mix of herbs and flowers can be.”

I wondered where the water goes as it drains from the pots. The ever-informative and knowledgeable Steinhoff pointed down to what she called “the forgotten west patio,” where a non-potable 10,000-gallon cistern under the patio tiles on the lower level receives the runoff from the containers. What an effective system!

One more thing about the Roof Plaza: views of the 114-acre public park are fabulous. Take a seat and enjoy the vista on a fall day.

Jeanne Duffey is contributing editor of GREENE Magazine. She is a Master Garden and a board member of Friends of the Garden. Her recently published cookbook is “Cook Like a Greek! Traditional family recipes made modern for the Greek in all of us.”

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