Sunday, September 30, 2007

Some of the bulbs of autumn

Some of the colchicums and sternbergias are in full bloom now. Their colors don't do much for one another, but this old planting has given carefree color and interest for years. The ones shown in the image are the colchicum often sold under the name 'Giant' or 'The Giant' and the familiar Sternbergia lutea. Both of these grow well here, last for years, and have never failed to bloom yearly.

The name of the colchicum is in doubt. Bowles places 'The Giant' among the hybrids which resemble C. speciosum and do not show prominent tessellation. But the plate prepared for Gartenschönheit shows a pale but obviously tessellated flower. Whatever it is, it is a big one: in fact, it's has the largest flowers of all the colchicum I know.

The sternbergias produce foliage as the flowers fade; this foliage does a good Liriope imitation during the winter. Years ago I saw a bed of Sternbergia lutea about thirty feet long and perhaps six feet deep. It was in full bloom when I saw it and was a wonderful demonstration of what this plant can do.

Asters, yet again

Aster 'Bluebird' is a butterfly magnet. In fact, several sorts of nectar feeders are swarming the flowers today. The butterflies are getting all of the attention from passing humans, but the most exciting sighting on the flowers today goes mostly unnoticed: we have honeybees again, and apparently lots of them! Someone nearby must have set up a hive lately. It's been a long time since honeybees have been abundant in this garden.
The butterflies shown are all common ones; but if you don't know that, and maybe even if you do, they are still fascinating and beautiful. Top to bottom, the visitors are: buckeye, pink-edged sulfur, honeybee, skipper, bumblebee and variegated fritillary.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Asters again

My introduction to asters came about thirty years ago when my mother and I, returning home from the grocery store, slowed down to admire a field of goldenrod. The "field" was a soon to be developed construction site not far from what is now one of the busiest intersections in a very busy part of the county. We stopped to pick some goldenrod, and then saw a spot of purple-blue: it was a robust plant of the New England aster, Aster novae-angliae (aka Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). I came back later and dug the clump. It's hard to say if that plant survives in the garden now: over the years, there have been so many seedlings that it's hard to say which are pieces of the original plant and which are seedlings.

Incidentally, that natural pairing of goldenrod and aster is easily reproduced in the garden. The goldenrod 'Fireworks' makes a particularly good companion.

Other New England aster cultivars have been introduced to the garden, too, and these have crossed with the original plant to produce seedlings in an array of silvery pink, rich pink, dull purple-blue and saturated wine red. The cultivar 'Alma Potschke' provides a color unique among the New England aster cultivars, a vibrant, intense pink-red unlike any other color I know in the genus.

This species is characterized by rough, sometimes clammy, scented foliage. Plants are typically four or five feet high, sometimes more. They begin to bloom in August, although the early flowers are not numerous or conspicuous. They are still blooming in October. Left to grow without attention, they form thick clumps of rigid stems. The counsel of perfection is to divide them annually, spacing each plant about eighteen inches from its neighbor. Don't ask me if I've ever done this.

Other asters growing in the garden include Aster cordifolius (aka Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Aster divaricatus (aka Eurybia divaricata), Aster umbellatus (Doellingeria umbellata) and Aster amellus (aka Aster amellus). The names in parentheses here are old names newly revived to express more clearly the interrelationships of these plants.

Aster cordifolius seeds itself around freely and forms low mounds of smoky blue gray in October.

Aster amellus is one of the European asters, asters which have a variable track record as garden plants in this part of the country. On trial now is the cultivar 'Doktor Otto Petschek'.

One other aster once grew abundantly in this garden but was eventually expelled: the frost aster. This is the small-flowered, weedy aster often seen blooming from cracks in streets or sidewalks, or in rough dry waste places. It's not unusual to see plants blooming even in December, and so it would seem to have value as a late blooming garden plant. But once brought into the garden, it quickly sheds its former poverty and waxes lush and overbearing. When growing well, a single plant can form a four or five foot hemisphere of bloom; and at that late season these plants can be a boon to bees and other nectar foragers. In the border they produce a mist-like lightness of bloom which is very beautiful. After such prolific bloom, the borders will be full of volunteer seedlings the next year and for years thereafter. And the parent plants are rhizomatous, too, and get around freely. Eventually it dawned on me: it's high maintenance and too much of a good thing. Now I enjoy these in the local fields.


The plant in the illustration is Aster laevis 'Blue Bird' (aka Symphyotrichum laeve 'Blue Bird'), a current favorite among the garden asters here.
A century ago, when gardens were bigger (and, some might say, the selection of plants narrower), there was big enthusiasm for asters. Books of the time give long lists of cultivars. The photographs of aster borders in the works of Gertrude Jekyll seem to show more space devoted to asters than I have to give to everything in my garden. What a sight those must have been.
It's hard to account for the comparative lack of asters in our gardens now. Yes, the plants are apt to be big, and yes, in our climate they can be a bit weedy. And although many of the modern cultivars are not the same as those grown a century ago, there are many readily available asters which are probably as good as any ever grown.
One reason asters might not be as commonly grown as they were in the past is that the knack of growing asters has largely been lost. Many people who have grown asters will laugh at that statement: what knack, they probably ask, does it take to grow asters? Asters grow themselves and then some. If you've grown asters, you know where that leads. But books of the early part of the last century give copious instructions for growing asters, instructions which include directions for proper spacing of single stem divisions, proper provision for staking, proper pinching, proper soil preparation, proper division in the fall, proper annual replanting...A lot of effort went into the culture of asters in the old days, days when even small gardens sometimes had help. Well grown asters are labor intensive and need a lot of space; need I say more?
I went out this morning to admire the clump of 'Blue Bird' shown above: it was busy with butterflies and huge bumblebees (I call - probably incorrectly - all the big, gentle, rotund black and yellow bees bumblebees). And there was something else moving about among the clusters of flowers: honey bees! We rarely see honey bees in the garden any more, but they are here today, and in numbers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

the grape soda factory expoded

The grape soda factory exploded recently. When I take Biscuit for a walk we pass a spot where I begin to notice it: the pervasive scent of grape soda. That's grape as in Concord grape, as in fox grape. Depending on the weather, the temperature, the time of day or night, the scent can have a sweet edge or a musky edge. I often wonder how many people know what it is. There are no grapes growing in the area, certainly not enough to scent hundreds of square yards.

Where is it coming from? It's coming from the surviving kudzu which grows high up into the trees which grow on a formerly abandoned lot now converted into parkland. Years ago, the kudzu sprawled over the area covering acres of space. When the area was cleaned up and opened as a park, there was an outcry to get rid of the kudzu. Much of the kudzu was removed, then the embankments over which it previously sprawled began to erode as many cubic yards of earth washed out during storms. Once the kudzu was gone, the mile-a-minute vines moved in and successfully occupied virtually every square foot formerly covered in kudzu. How's that for out of the frying pan and into the fire?

Few people are probably old enough to remember when kudzu was grown as an ornamental. One sometimes still sees it shading country porches. Since it's fully capable of completely covering any house, one wonders how much time is spent keeping it under control.

I'm tempted to host a gathering for some of my gardening friends at which I'll serve foods made with some of the less usual products of plants we grow. What will I be able to make with kudzu flour? If I decide to keep to a Japanese theme, there will also be something made with konjac, maybe something made with gobo.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


The plant in the image above is Barnardia, long a resident of our gardens and for just about as long neglected. This name Barnardia is new to most of us; recently the genus Scilla has been re-worked and the old familiar names seem likely to be replaced by new ones such as Barnardia. Generations of gardeners have called this plant Scilla chinensis, S. japonica or S. scilloides (silly scilla?). This is another of those plants which, although generally described as autumn-flowering, in fact flowers during the last weeks of summer. It blooms with some of the Liriope and Ophiopogon, and in some ways it resembles those plants. It certainly doesn't look anything like the usual late-winter, early-spring flowering Scilla of our gardens. As you can see, the flower color is not at all assertive; it takes a big group of these in flower to make much of a showing. The color of the flowers reminds me of that of two other flowers: Cotinus and Muscari comosum 'Plumosum'.

The plants in the image were grown from seed; I simply scattered the seed on the ground, stepped back, and two years later the plants were large enough to bloom. Now that I've grown this plant for several years, I'm beginning to suspect that it has some potential which has largely been ignored. Isolated plants definitely fall into the "curiosity" category: they are not at all showy. But in a large group, this plant has potential. Now that I think about it, it would make a good border for an extensive planting of Begonia grandis. Another nice association is that with Iris dichotoma, although the iris is apt to reach its peak before the Barnardia starts. The earlier colchicums bloom at about the same time and mix nicely.

The Barnardia puts up foliage in the autumn, but this foliage does not persist through the winter.

Although the individual flowers of the Barnardia might remind some of those of Liriope or Ophiopogon, the seed capsules and seeds will not.

Friday, September 7, 2007

the glorie of all these kindes

The plant in the image above is Colchicum variegatum. This is almost certainly the same plant described in the early seventeenth century by John Parkinson in his Paradisus as "The checkered Medowe Saffron of Chio or Sio". His description of this plant contains a passage which is one of the more often quoted passages from the Paradisus: " it flowreth later for the most part then any of the other, even not until November, and is very hard to be preserved with us, in that for the most part the roote waxeth lesse and lesse every yeare, our cold Country being so contrary unto his naturall, that it will scarce shew his flower; yet when it flowreth any thing early, that it may have any confort of a warme Sunne, it is the glorie of all these kindes."

This species flowered here for the first time about seven years ago. That corm had come from an English source (although doubtless Dutch grown); it was small when received, and it took a year or two of TLC to bring it up to blooming size. The year after it bloomed it rotted during the summer. That plant had a much smaller flower than the one shown above but was otherwise similar.

I got a second chance last year with a corm imported from Janis Ruksans. This one too was small and did not bloom but it did grow well. During the summer I was careful to keep it dry. When checked for the penultimate time in mid August, it seemed fine. When checked again a week ago, I was crushed: the corm had shrivelled badly, leaving only a small bit of living tissue. That living scrap is now in the refrigerator in a zip-lock bag. It seems to be recuperating.

The flower shown above came as a corm in mid-August from JMcG, my source of choice for intriguing bulbs. This one has a flower about three inches in diameter - more if it's flattened out - and is everything I've been hoping for from this species. It is indeed "the glorie of all these kindes."

Bottle Gentians

For local gardeners, the genus Gentiana divides neatly into two groups: the ones we want and can't grow and all the rest. OK, it's not really as grim as that; among the ones we want to grow there are several which do well here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. The one in this group which I would recommend in particular is Gentiana scabra. If that one does not satisfy your gentian cravings, you might want to give consideration to the possibility that there are other things going on in your life which need attention.

Firmly lodged in the "all the rest" category are the bottle gentians. We would probably appreciate these much more if some of their overweeningly beautiful relatives did not exist. But the bottle gentians are like those people who exist in the shadow of a deservedly celebrated sibling: the best they can hope for is a bit of reflected glow.

I would not want to be without the bottle gentians. For one thing, they have taken care of themselves in my bog trays for years. The earliest ones are blooming now; there are others which do not bloom until late October or early November. The soft blue, curiously shaped flowers are always a pleasure in the late garden. I've never noticed a fragrance, but the local bumble bees seem to be obsessed with the flowers.

Most gentians have an elegance of bearing and form which is characteristic of the group. The bottle gentians share this: long before the flowers show color, the developing buds are very interesting. Years ago, I had a pot surfaced with one of the local mosses. In the pot grew some bottle gentians and the little Japanese orchid called egret flower (Pecteilis/Habenaria/Platanthera). The orchid and the bottle gentians didn't bloom together, but for months that little pot was the source of keen interest and pleasure.

Sweet Autumn Clematis

It certainly is sweet, but it doesn't bloom in the autumn: how about sweet late summer clematis?

What induces flowering in this plant? A few weeks ago, while I was visiting in western Virginia, I saw this plant blooming freely in local gardens. I'm pretty sure the plants at home were not even showing flower buds at that time. The area in question is south of here. You would think that the farther south you went, the later the plants would bloom, not the earlier.

And how can the scent of the flowers be described? It's a complex scent, one of those scents which elicits different descriptions from different people. To some it smells like vanilla, to others almond, to others like both of those but with a bit of lemon added; a neighbor recently mentioned that one she once had smelled like ginger.

If you are as old as I am, for decades you knew this plant as Clematis paniculata. If you get the same catalogs I do, perhaps you remember the same confusion when you read about hybrids of Clematis paniculata which, as you read the description, sure didn't sound like the plant out in the garden. That Clematis paniculata is a New Zealand species. The plant in the garden has had many names over the years, but is now generally called C. maximowicziana.

In nearby northern Virginia, on the drive down to Alexandria, one passes areas where what seem to be acres are blanketed with a white-flowered, late-summer blooming clematis; is it this species or is it C. virginiana?

Summer in the greater Washington, D.C. area

I have no desire to be out in the garden during July and August. Outdoor gardening during those months for me consists of two things mostly: mowing the grass as infrequently as I can get away with, and quick, early morning tours of the garden before the sun comes over the trees. Here in Maryland,the overnight temperature is often in the 80s F; add to that high humidity and lots of pollution from vehicular traffic. I walk the dog early to beat the heat, but the rush hour traffic starts before 7 A.M.; on still days the exhaust from the autos pools in low lying areas - sometimes I feel dizzy after walking through such areas.

On the other hand, there is plenty to do inside in setting up databases for printing labels later, web site stuff, blogging stuff and things like that.

To me it has always seemed so odd that so many people look forward so much to summer. You can have it as far as I'm concerned. I'll never understand why anyone would take their vacation during July or August unless they are leaving this area and heading for somewhere with conditions fit for human activity. Instead, a lot of people in this area leave the metropolitan areas and head over to the ocean beaches where the conditions are even worse. Who in their right mind wants to walk on scorching sand in their bare feet during the summer? Who in their right mind would leave the areas regularly sprayed for insects and explore the marshes, the marshes which are so poetically beautiful in November but which in July and August reek of dead fish and rotting algae. Years ago I went on a bird watching trip to one of the Atlantic barrier islands. The night was still. We slept in tents. In the morning, I opened the zipper of the tent fly just enough to get my hand out and grab the outer zipper. Within seconds, the back of my hand was black with ravenous mosquitoes. What great choices: stay in the stifling tent all day to avoid the mosquitoes, slather yourself with toxic mosquito repellents, suffocate under protective clothing. The one sensible choice -decamp to the nearest McDonald's - was nixed because we hadn't seen the birds we had driven for four hours to see. I didn't mention those four hour drives to get to the beaches, did I: why does any sane person endure that?

Add to those miseries those elicited by the introduction of the Asian tiger mosquito and the upsurge in deer ticks: summer is for masochists, or at least for people in deep, very deep, denial about what's really happening around them. And what's so great about the summer flora? All those coarse, weedy, daisy things and grasses and impatiens and petunias rolled off the bolt by the square yard and vines which might inspire a new version of Laocoön statuary: I can see it now, a struggling Laocoön and his sons wreathed in bindweed and dodder, their skin lacerated by festoons of mile-a-minute plant. I would just put a trowel in the hand of one of them and re-title the statue The Gardeners Of Summer.

And then there is the dilemma of air conditioning. Generally speaking, I hate it. During that fortunately brief period when the temperature is well into the 90s F late into the evening, I sometimes give in and run the air conditioner. But is a summer being forced to stay in an air conditioned building different than so many other kinds of imprisonment? How are we supposed to hear the cicadas and katydids through tightly closed windows and over the incessant hum, rumble and whirring of the condenser and fans? Where is the sense of relief which comes with the evening and its sometimes cooler temperatures? Lightning bugs are not the same viewed through the house windows.

Summer also stinks, literally. When the neighbors have a crab feast and decide to dump the aggressively odoriferous evidence over the back fence,the entire neighborhood wakes up to vibrant reek which only a raccoon could love. Forget to cover the garbage? Want to wake up fast on a summer morning?Lift the lid of the formerly uncovered garbage can and try to suppress the retching as you count the zillions of lively maggots ravening the garbage.

And need I mention that after an hour or two of trying to slug it out on a hot summer day, I’m not about to be confused with a Sweet William myself? I’ll bet I’m not the only one who makes a bee line for the shower as soon as the lawn mower is put away.

I mentioned deep denial above; summer is the season when even the most optimistic among us in this area abjures the word "alpine". Yes, it's a thing much to be desired. Just the thing to include in your vacation plans. But for those of us who stay put, summer invites us to wake up and smell the coffee, the roses, or more likely a gag-inducing whiff of the now-well-scattered remains of the small mammal which inauspiciously took shelter in that lawn mower.

Ever heard of aestivation? I recommend it highly.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Darlow's Enigma

The patch of white at the top of this image is a group of flowers of the rose 'Darlow's Enigma'. Some of you are perhaps thinking to yourselves as you view this "I can't see the roses". That's partly because the roses are not meant to be seen. 'Darlow's Enigma' is nothing to look at; it's grown for it fragrance and long season of bloom. And its fragrance is one of those rose scents which is very free on the air. When I selected roses for the pergola, freedom of fragrance was the main consideration.

I don't know who Darlow is or was, but I can partially explain the enigma. There has long been controversy among rosarians about the identity of the so-called musk rose. At the end of the nineteenth century, there still existed a rose which had been grown in British gardens for a long time, perhaps centuries, and was known as musk rose. Under British conditions, this rose began to bloom late in the season, sometimes not until August. One of the puzzles of modern horticulture is whether this plant still exists. There is a plant making the rounds which seems to fit the old descriptions; evidently it is not reliably hardy here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. This is one of the parents of the Noisette roses.

My guess is that 'Darlow's Enigma' was a candidate at one time for consideration as the true musk rose. Do any of you know the whole story?

Several years ago, an internet friend, Joe, was in the area and came by to see the garden. As we took the tour, I was pointing out things here and there; as we passed under the pergola, Joe offhandedly said "Oh, I see you have 'Darlow's Enigma'!" I was dumbfounded. First of all, as roses go, 'Darlow's Enigma' is rather nondescript. I would be reluctant to identify it in another garden. For another, I doubt that many people grow it. How in the world did he even know about it? It turns out that in an earlier incarnation he had managed an antique rose collection.

The chrome-yellow flowers in this image are one of the "yellow" forms of Campsis radicans. Catalogs often illustrate a bright lemon yellow campsis, and if such a thing exists, I would very much like to have it. The color of this chrome-yellow form is a disappointment to me.

A peek out onto the deck

The weather has been very agreeable lately, and that means meals out on the deck. This morning it was cool until the sun came over the trees. Then the umbrella was brought out. I was sorting Fritillaria bulbs for about an hour and making plant labels.

It just happens that the colors of the umbrella harmonize nicely with those of the crepe myrtle which can be seen in the background.

While so many others were battling heavy traffic to get to expensive, crowded holiday sites, I was reading the paper and enjoying the varied vocalizations of the Carolina wrens.

Milkweed bugs

The little guys shown above in their Halloween colors are milkweed bugs. And yes, they are true bugs. The photo was taken last year in October, but I was reminded of it when a friend who gardens in nearby northern Virginia sent me a photo of the ones in her garden. So far, there is no indication that we will have them in the garden again this year. In the photo above they are shown on the seed pods of Asclepias tuberosa, the so-called butterfly weed.

Salvia guaranitica

The realization that Salvia guaranitica is hardy in our gardens was a great day for me. Among easily grown garden plants there is nothing like it: the flower color is unique among the easily grown, hardy perennials of late summer. The intense cobalt blue of the flowers is a real treat when seen in combination with many other colors other than most of those called "blue". Right now a big patch of Eupatorium coelestinum is blooming beside some of the salvia: after seeing this, you won't call the Eupatorium blue any more.

Hummingbirds and bumble bees give Salvia guaranitica a real workout.

Impressive as the intense flower color is, it disappears when the plants are viewed from any distance. And it takes a lot of flowers in this color to make much of a splash. But there is a real sense of satisfaction to be had in viewing such a vibrant blue in the garden.

It has taken a while for me to become comfortable with the idea that this is a reliably hardy perennial in our climate. But local gardeners have been growing this plant for at least twenty years that I know of. If we go back to having severe winters, perhaps we'll lose them; but for now, I'm using this plant freely in some of the borders.

The one shown in the image above is the one called 'Black and Blue'. I also grow the form with a green calyx and the same intense cobalt corolla color. The pale blue of 'Argentine Skies' is a lovely color, too, but it does not move me the way the cobalt-colored forms do.