Friday, May 27, 2016

Tall bearded irises: a painterly view

Tall bearded irises May 2016

The sensory overload in my gardens now is almost overwhelming! The sense of exuberance provided by the abundance of new growth, the colors, the fragrances - it's almost too much. Thousands of rose buds are beginning to open, tall bearded irises are in full bloom. At home, the noisette roses on the south side of the house are providing an avalanche of soft yellow, sweetly fragrant blooms.
I'm taking lots of pictures, sometimes a couple of dozen in a few  minutes. Working that fast is an invitation for mistakes, and a fascinating one occurred the other day.
When I got home and downloaded that day's images, I had a couple of apparent duds. I almost deleted them, but one in particular caught my eye: it's definitely a keeper! That's the one you see above: I've already got an 18" x 24" print out hanging on the living room wall. From a few feet away, it looks like a painting, not a photo. It reminds me of the color plates sometimes seen in early twentieth-century gardening books. To my eyes this image has wonderful qualities of color and composition. And that's not self-praise: I had nothing to do with it. It was pure serendipity!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Frizzle Sizzle pansies 
This year of all years I'm glad there are pansies in the garden. They are the most cheerful thing in the garden right now. Week after week of rain has not marred their cheerful faces. If anything, they are better this year than they usually are.
This has been a rough year for some of the early bloomers: the tree peony season this year was mostly a flop: the buds developed during a period of drought and the earliest flowers were small and sometimes misshapen. And then the rains came: one by one the buds swelled with the water and then began to flop and rot. The early herbaceous peonies had the same fate.
The arillate irises would have been ruined but for the improvised rain shelters which did their job well. Last night we had hail during one of the thunderstorms: the thunder and pounding of the hail woke the dog and me up.
Early roses, day lilies, kniphofias, late herbaceous peonies  and bearded irises are blooming now, and so are cornflowers and corn cockle. When the sun returns, the first corn poppies should open.  With all the rain, the coming rose surge should be spectacular. If and when the rain ends. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Lychnis viscaria

Lychnis viscaria "splendens 'Feuer' " 

This handsome old-fashioned flower is largely neglected in our gardens now. It reminds me a bit of lavender, and a mass of it in full bloom must be striking. The one in the image above is that sold by Jelitto as "splendens 'Feuer' ". I'm beginning to take a more serious interest in the genera Lychnis and Silene: lots of charming old-timers go around under those names. 

Iris iberica elegantissima

Iris iberica elegantissima 
A few days before Iris kirkwoodiae bloomed, Iris iberica elegantissima bloomed. How's that for an embarrassment of riches?
The name of this iris might be confusing to most modern readers. It has nothing to do with the Iberian Peninsula of modern geography. The name refers to the ancient kingdom now usually called Caucasian Iberia. According to the Pacific Bulb Society wiki, this species occurs in Turkey, Iran and Armenia. 

Iris kirkwoodiae

Iris kirkwoodiae 

Iris kirkwoodiae 

Iris kirkwoodiae 
In March 2012 I posted about one of the great gardening experiences during my 20s: the flowering in my garden of Iris susiana,  the famous mourning iris. If you don't know the plant, take a look at that post to get an idea of what the excitement is all about:

Now, forty-five years after Iris susiana bloomed in the garden, one of its close relatives (perhaps one of its parents) bloomed up at my community garden plots. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I've been on the hunt for a reasonably priced rhizome of this one, Iris kirkwoodiae. It's very similar to Iris susiana; in fact, that long endured longing for the mourning iris  is now largely assuaged.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The seed game

Zinnia 'Sombrero' from seed purchased in 1996!

I acquire a lot of seeds, and most of them end up in the refrigerator. The seeds of many plants seem to retain their viability indefinitely if they are stored cold. I used to think "cold" meant frozen - some seeds stored in the freezer do remain viable for decades - and that's from my own experience. But seeds stored in the refrigerator at temperatures above freezing also last and last.
In the image above you see germinating seeds of Zinnia 'Sombrero' : those seeds were purchased in March 1996. That makes them over twenty years old (and they were probably a year old when packaged).  As you can see in the image, they are giving good germination. And they germinated quickly: it took only four days for them to show signs of life.
Some of you might be horrified by the potting medium. I use unsterilized soil mixed from whatever is available. The pots stand outside in the fresh air and sunshine, exposed to whatever weather occurs. Fresh air and sunshine keep the bad guys in check. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Like a pansy in the velvet of its medium scale...

"Like a pansy in the velvet of its medium scale..." is the way early twentieth-century soprano Geraldine Farrar described the voice of Amelita Galli-Curci.
Other flowers with this velvety quality are the roses 'Tuscany' and 'Tuscany Superb'; if you like this quality in flowers, look for the Latin word "velutinus" in old lists.

This posting marks a milestone: this is the seven-hundredth post I've published since I began blogging in July 2007. 

a favorite pansy

Pansy Frizzle Sizzle Yellow/Blue Swirl

Pansies which combine blue/purple with yellow/bronze are my favorites - they remind me of some of the old breeder tulips and especially of some of the broken tulips in this color combination.  A similar strain of pansies  which does this color combination very well (and without the ruffled petals)  is Karma Blue Butterfly - in fact, I think I like the color balance in the Karma type even better. 
These are the sorts of pansies I like to have in a cold frame during the winter.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Lilium 'Muscadet'

Lilium 'Muscadet'
This one is here because of the story behind it. The bulbs were purchased in the fall of 2014 and then put in the refrigerator. I ignored them until sometime late in 2015. When I checked them in the refrigerator, they had grown a 30 inch pale green sprout. I brought them out and placed them outside in a very shady place to give the foliage a chance to green up. And then a sort of waiting game began: what would they do next? What they did was to get back to the business of producing an inflorescence as if nothing unusual had happened. By the time the first frosts arrived, they were showing signs of flower buds. I brought them in for the winter and watched the slow development of those buds. It took a long time but they finally began to open last week. The scent is great!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Narcissus 'Topolino'

Narcissus 'Topolino'

This one has grown on me over the years, and now it's a firm favorite. When the flowers are freshly picked they have a delicious scent. It's not the smallest daffodil in the garden by far, but it's still well within the cute range.
Topolino is the Italian name for Mickey Mouse. Be sure to check out the wikipedia page for Topolino: that little guy has had quite a career.

Daffodils say Hello!

Daffodils greet both spring and visitors!

A group of daffodils in a Chinese pen holder greet visitors at our front door this week. 

The Orcs among us

Anti-vine hysteria wins again 

Why do people do this? Who's teaching people that it's OK to do this? Will they vote for Trump?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A dog and frog duet

Biscuit gets her main meal of the day at about 1:30 P.M. She spends most of the morning keeping her eye on me or snoozing nearby if I'm working at my desk. She can tell time: you would not know that she is nearby most of the morning, but as 1:30 approaches she becomes more alert. She will come nearby and quietly sit there looking at me. If that does not have the desired result, she will make a soft growl. If that does not work, she will begin to bark.
Once I get the signal, we go off to the kitchen to get her meal ready. Usually that means something goes into the microwave oven. She barks while the food is warming up.
Today she had some company in the barking. Each time she barked, the wood frog in the garden pond answered. Biscuit barked, the frog croaked - over and over. It got me laughing! 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Crocus tommasinianus, the amethyst and pewter crocus

Crocus tommasinianus "amethyst and pewter' 
The crocuses in the image above are Crocus tommasinianus in one of its many forms. This crocus is sometimes seen naturalized in lawns here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. If I could have only one crocus for this season, this would be the one. 
In particular, I would want what I'm calling here the amethyst and pewter form, the ones with a marked contrast between the pewter colored outers and the vivid amethyst inners. I would not know where to send you to buy these: the named forms of Crocus tommasinianus such as 'Baur's Purple', 'Ruby Giant', 'Whitewell Purple' and so on don't show this pattern to advantage if at all.  And if you order something called Crocus tommasinianus you won't know until they bloom if they are the more delicate wild forms or simply a mixture of these named, cultivated forms. 
The ones naturalized in the garden here show this amethyst and pewter combination to varying degrees. My favorites are the ones shown above where the contrast between the pewter and the amethyst is strong. 

Colchicum hungaricum, a colchicum for late winter bloom

Colchicum hungaricum 'Valentine'
If you are new to this group of plants, you probably associate the name colchicum with plants which bloom in late summer and early autumn. But there are some which bloom very late in the autumn, and some which bloom in late winter. Here's one of the late winter bloomers: Colchicum hungaricum. I grow two of the forms now making the rounds: 'Valentine' (seen above) and 'Velebit Star' (which has white flowers). These are smaller plants than the big late summer blooming hybrids, but at this time of year they have no competition from those big ones. 

Geese on the move

Geese, probably Canada geese, on their way northward. 

One of the really thrilling sounds of the season is that of geese on the move.While working out in the garden the other day, I heard them off in the distance. They flew over me before I actually spotted them - lots of them., way up there. There are about ninety geese in this chevron. This photograph was made on February 29, 2016.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Rana sylvatica has started to call

Rana sylvatica, the wood frog, started to call this evening from the garden pond. Last year I made recordings of the calling, and I'll try to post one later. This species is very cold tolerant: I've seen them walking on frozen ground. I have not yet heard peepers this year. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The robins did it...

On February 2 of this year, the heavy snow had started to pull back a bit and under shrubs and near walls bare spots appeared. When I looked out the front door that day I noticed that something had scattered dead leaves on the sidewalk. It wasn't hard to figure out who the culprits were: they were still at work around the yard: a flock of robins had flown in and they were busy scratching up bare spots in search of food. I suspect these early arrivals are on their way north: a few days after their visit, the number of robins in the yard seemed to drop suddenly.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hylocichla mustelina The suburban ornithoscopist, no. 2: wood thrush

The suburban ornithoscopist
Under the title given above I’ll be posting some of the interesting, brief natural history videos Wayne has made. Most of these will be videos of birds. These posts will be numbered and marked “video: W. Crist;  text: J. McKenney”.
Hylocicla mustelina The suburban ornithoscopist, No. 2 wood thrush
Video No. 2 was made on May 23, 2015 in Waverly-Schuylkill Park about two blocks from my home. 
The song of this bird, which sometimes reproduces to an uncanny degree of accuracy the timbre of a flute, is one of the most easily recognized and highly esteemed songs of any native bird.

Each year recently Wayne and I have tried to pay attention to the last date on which we have heard a wood thrush. This neighborhood is thick with wood thrushes; I sleep with my windows open, and during the season hear them daily until the first week of August. This year, Wayne heard one on August 6: that’s the latest date we have records of their singing here. What’s the significance of that? Does it mean that all of the wood thrushes have left the area for the year? Does it mean they are out there but not singing? Does it mean that the ones we hear in late July are migrants from farther north, and that our local wood thrushes left before that? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  But I do know that once they quiet down for the year,  it will be another eight months before we hear them again. 

The suburban ornithoscopist, No. 1 is here:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cipolline finally! Someone gets it mostly right.

cipolline, not cippolini

cipolline, not cippolini

For years these little flat onions have been marketed as "cipollini". If you know Italian, you're probably not going to like that name. The Italian word for onion is cipolla and it's feminine.  The diminutive form is cipollina, and its plural is cipolline, not "cipollini" or "cipollinis".Remember, the initial "c" is pronounced like "ch" in church: so cipolline is pronounced "chee-po-LEE-nay". The label on this sack also gives the "double plural"  "cipollines".
Oh well, finally, someone has gotten it mostly right! 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

× Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’

× Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’

I was reading an article about houseplants recently, and among the plants recommended were agaves.

No, no, no: agaves are armed with potentially dangerous spines at the tip of their leaves: if a child or pet walks into one, it might take out an eye or make a serious puncture wound.

Yet there is a way to get the agave look without the rigid leaves tipped in sabers. In the image above, you see × Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’; it’s a cross between plants which are nominally members of the genera Agave and Manfreda. It definitely has the agave look, but the leaves are oddly rubbery, and what look like spines at their tips are relatively soft and flexible.

Once the weather moderates in the spring it goes back outside. This plant can take freezes without harm, but I bring it in for the winter. While inside it gets no water – it remains turgid and attractive, and the lack of water prevents the production of soft, new growth in the poor interior light. It’s about as care-free as a houseplant can get.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The flowers of New Year's Day 2016

With a bit of help from the cold frames, the garden had a lot to offer on New Year's Day 2016. In addition to these photos from my garden, a friend reports the beginning of bloom on Edgeworthia chrysantha (one of the red forms) and Loropetalum chinense, Crocus imperati and tommies in full bloom.
Iris cretensis

Iris unguicularis 

Jasminum nudiflorum and plum yew 

Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' 

Helleborus foetidus

Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper' (or is it 'Jacob'?)' 

a garden hellebore home-raised from seed

another garden hellebore

Mahonia bealei 

Magnolia stellata almost in bloom -  sorry for the poor quality of this one! 

Camellia sasanqua home grown from seed planted on October 16, 1973

Galanthus elwesii elwesii  in the lawn: the monostictus sorts bloomed weeks earlier. 

The next five are favorite plants for winter foliage:

Arum italicium 

Rohdea japonica 

Smilax smallii

Smilax pumila 

Smilax laurifolia 
A corner of one of the cold frames with primulas and Cyclamen persicum from the grocery store: these will probably hold up well for months! The primulas sell for $2.50 each, so how could I resist?
Here's a Christmas cactus doing its thing right on schedule; that's winter jasmine behind it. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Storeria dekayi Northern brown snake: not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse - but this snake was!

This northern brown snake was up and about in Wayne's garden on Christmas Day. His garden is home to a stable population of ringneck snakes, but he sees the northern brown snake less frequently. He released the snake after the video was made.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Schlumbergera Christmas cactus blooming right on schedule

I was given this Christmas cactus in 2014. It bloomed well last year, and as you can see it's blooming well this year, too. This little video was made on December 30, 2015. The winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, in the background is in full bloom.
Schlumbergera × Buckleyi Group

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Winter jasmine and Santa Claus

It got cold last night, as cold as it’s gotten so far this season. I got up at about 4:15 and checked the thermometer: ours read 31̊° F. When I talked to Wayne later this morning, he told me his read 24° F. The readings here are generally higher than down there (he’s downstream from here,  at a lower level and south of here,  so it’s down in at least three senses). We had been getting such disparate readings for months, so we decided to use a third thermometer to check out our readings. It turns out that the differences are real and our thermometers are accurate.
It was brisk when I walked Biscuit this morning, but the sun was out and warm; at about 11 A.M. I let her out again, and this time I sat outside to keep an eye on her. The winter jasmine has over a hundred flowers open near the front door, so I moved my chair so that I could enjoy this view. Every time I go out or come in through the front door I pass this plant, and it’s had flowers for me for the last month. It is sheltered by the house wall and the huge fastigiate (but now with a much expanded waistline) Cephalotaxus, so the house entrance is in a little protected nook and its own microclimate. As I sat there, the sun quickly warmed my jacket, and I comfortably settled down into this cozy little niche.
Soon I heard the sirens at the end of our street, and I remembered that this must be the day that Santa Clause comes through the neighborhood on a fire truck – he is accompanied by helpers who distribute candy canes. This has probably happened every year since we moved here – over a half century ago! Mom loved Christmas, and she probably never missed Santa’s annual visit and the candy cane distribution.  So I decided to wait and greet Santa and get a candy cane.
I can remember from long ago seeing groups of people, family groups, lining the street awaiting Santa’s arrival. Today I was the only one out there on our block. At the far end of the street I saw what might have been two other people waiting at the curbside; otherwise the street was deserted. As Santa went by on his fire truck I got some pictures and a candy cane. I got the pictures because I could not help but wonder how much longer this tradition will continue.

I brought the candy cane in and put it beside mom’s picture. I could still hear the sirens off in the distance, and then nearby I heard the voices of excited children. I peeked out the door and saw my neighbor with her two children at the curbside. She was peering down the street, evidently trying to decide which way Santa was going. I went out and let them know that Santa had already passed. At that, her daughter piped up and said that she wanted a candy cane. So at that I went in and got “mom’s” candy cane and gave it to them. That’s something mom would have done!   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A mid-December bouquet

Mid-December gleanings 
I made a quick tour of the garden yesterday afternoon to look for things in bloom. I was not disappointed; the things collected were quickly arranged on the platter seen above. Then I took it to a meeting of our rock garden club that evening. By the time I got around to photographing it, things had shifted around a bit. If you are patient, you can make out Helleborus niger, Helleborus foetidus, Jasminum nudiflorum, Camellia sasanqua, Iris unguicularis and I. cretensis and a leaf of Arum italicum. The Camellia sasanqua is one home-grown from seed (the seed was planted on October 16, 1973!).

Bignonia capreolata

Bignonia capreolata 

As a boy I knew this plant as Bignonia capreolata. Then, for much of the last half of the twentieth century, it was Anisostichus capreolatus. It's apparently now back to Bignonia.
In October, 1980, when I drove down to Clemmons North Carolina to meet Wayne's parents, I climbed up into a tree to collect seeds of this plant. Plants raised from those seeds now cover the facade of the house.
While working in the garden today I noticed something interesting. Some of the usually evergreen foliage of this plant is coloring up, and the colors are very close to the color of the blossoms.
Half of December has passed, and we have yet to have prolonged freezes. One result of this is that many woody plants are ripening their foliage much later than usual - and in the process are showing unusual leaf colors. Some seedling oaks which in the past were never notable for autumn color have been very attractive this year. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Camellia japonica 'Morris Mercury'

Camellia japonica 'Morris Mercury' 

This is a new arrival here, from Camellia Forest earlier this year. It has the potential to be an important part of the garden in the long run. For one thing, it will probably prove to be cold hardy here. It was named at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia: if it can take the winters there, it should have no trouble here. For another, it's got red flowers. Red-flowered camellias blooming in the snow are one of my favorite camellia effects. For another, it's a fall-blooming cultivar of Korean stock Camellia japonica. There are red-flowered Camellia sasanqua - 'Yuletide' is the one usually seen locally; 'Yuletide' has good flower color, but it seems to lack hardiness. I've never seen a big one locally. 'Morris Mercury' has bright red flowers which are larger than those of 'Yuletide', and if it proves to be hardier than 'Yuletide' it should eventually make a large shrub. A large, hardy, evergreen shrub with red flowers in late November and December: what's not to like?
I hope if I'm writing about this one five years from now all of my expectations have been fulfilled!
The flower in the image was taken today - I expect later blooms to have better form; it's from a plant still in the pot in which it was shipped.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tulipa doerfleri

Tulipa doerfleri

Doerfler's tulip is a Cretan endemic, and so far as I am aware it has not appeared in the trade. Mine came from a friend (thanks, Alice!) It's a handsome addition to the expanding list of small wild tulips suitable for our gardens. All these plants need is sun and moisture during the growing season and a reasonably dry summer. 

Wayne and Jim get married!

Wayne on the left, Jim on the right 
It took long enough: we met thirty-eight years ago, but it took the law nearly that long to catch up with our intentions. Earlier this year we took care of a lot of legal stuff - our wills, domestic partnership stuff and so on. From the beginning we wanted the wedding to be small; as it turned out, it was very small indeed. We opted for a self-officiated wedding (look it up - it's the opposite of Bridezilla's wedding). We went down to the wedding licence office in the District of Columbia on Monday, November 16, and after about twenty minutes with the clerk we had our wedding licence. We didn't expect that to happen so fast. The wedding had to take place in Washington, D.C. so we quickly considered several possibilities. Wayne suggested we go to the place we met: 1724 20th Street NW. Those of you who know the history of the local gay community and other activist groups should recognize that address: many organizations had temporary quarters there "back in the day".
So, here we are thirty-eight years later, a married couple: it's like getting an honorary degree!