Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Smilax laurifolia

Some of the plants I'm most proud of are apt to engender perplexity in some garden visitors. The several members of the genus Smilax which grow here are good examples. These are tough plants, not easily removed when they get in the way of horticultural or agricultural activity. Some are herbaceous, but most are thorny, more or less evergreen vining plants. Even in those forms in which the foliage does not survive the winter, the stems remain green and conspicuous.

Several of them form nearly impenetrable thickets, and several are prodigious vines. Another of these robustly vining sorts, Smilax smallii, was discussed in an earlier entry: http://mcwort.blogspot.com/2008/02/smilax-smallii.html
The subject of this entry is the biggest of the North American species, Smilax laurifolia. It goes right to the tops of trees and forms thick, trunk-like stems, bare of foliage sometimes for the first thirty or so feet. It's a stunning plant, nothing like anything else in our native flora. Surely there must be at least one Victorian writer who deemed it antediluvian. To me it looks like something from a tropical rain forest.

Back in the early '90s Wayne and I were birding in far southern eastern Virginia shortly after a big storm had gone through the area. That storm was my friend: I had been trying to collect seed of this species for years, but the seed was always forty feet up in the trees. That day I was in luck: we found a big tree which had come down in the storm, and the tree was wreathed in Smilax laurifolia. And the Smilax was full of ripe fruit.

All the Smilax I've grown from seed have been very slow, and this species is no exception. Years after the seed was sown all I had to show for my efforts were tiny plants to be measured in inches. But they got better yearly, and three years ago they finally began to put on size. Now they put on about four feet yearly. The largest is being trained into position with the idea of letting it cover part of the deck railing.

This largest plant provided a surprise this year: it bloomed for the first time. It has yet to experience a really biting winter here. But in nature it ranges at least as far north as coastal New Jersey, so I'm expecting to do well in the long run.

Iris foetidissima 'Citrina' in fruit

You wouldn't know it from the picture, but this is the form of Iris foetidissima with pale yellow flowers. The seed pods are beginning to open now, and for many gardeners the brightly colored seeds are the only reason to grow this plant. These remain interesting and colorful for months, well into the winter.

Bessera elegans

What a charmer this one is! And it's easily grown. Give it what in the old days we called "gladiolus culture" : i.e. plant the corms out in a sunny spot after the danger of severe freezes is over, and in the autumn dig the corms and after they are dry pop them into a zip-lock bag and store them inside for the winter. I started with three corms last year; they did not bloom or increase. But this year they are blooming. It's being treated as a pot plant for now: however you grow it, keep in mind that you will want to get close to it to examine it well. The foliage is nothing more than three or four rush-like leaves about eighteen inches long.

I think I first had this about forty years ago from Zephyr Gardens in San Antonio: back then, I thought of it as one of those many Mexican bulbs which at the time seemed so elusive. It's now grown as a field crop in Holland for both the cut-flower and bulb trades.

Puff pastry

Several days of cool, dry weather got me into the baking mood. Cool, dry weather is ideal for making puff pastry, and I didn’t let this spell go to waste. Here’s one of the results: a puff pastry log with walnut-raisin filling. Yummy!

Habenaria radiata

The winsome little bloom shown above is the Egret Flower, a tiny Japanese and Korean bog orchid named Habenaria radiata or Pecteilis radiata. It's very easily grown: the one shown grows in a pot of sandy peat kept moist in full sun. The plant grows from a corm about the size of a sweet pea seed. This plant is winter hardy here and can be grown in bog gardens, but it is so tiny that it is apt to be overwhelmed by neighboring plants.

Among gardeners it is widely known as Pecteilis radiata. This name Pecteilis was coined by one of the really colorful characters in the history of early nineteenth century taxomomy, Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz. He was born into an Italian family near Istanbul in 1783 and died an American citizen in 1840 in Philadelphia. He spent years in Kentucky. Rafinesque evidently didn't hesitate to name anything which came his way: those were the days when taxonomists shot from the hip, and Rafinesque shot plants, animals, whatever fell into his hands.

Achimenes 'Cattleya'

Achimenes 'Cattleya' 
On first consideration I shouldn’t like achimenes: the ones I grow are not fragrant, they are not frost hardy, they duplicate colors and growth habits seen in garden impatiens and petunias, and they are slow to come into bloom. Yet there is something about these plants which is very appealing: is it their poise? They present themselves very pertly. Allowing for a couple of quirks, I find them easy to grow.
The one shown here is Achimenes 'Cattleya' (when this post was originally made, I called it Achimines mexicana).
 Achimenes had their glory days in the mid to late nineteenth century: hybrids proliferated then, including several which are still grown today. Present-day enthusiasts live in the shadow of those days: although the color range is wider today, the number of cultivars available is much reduced.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Moire (or is it moiré?)

Wayne wrote to me asking if the colors in the images of the hybrid Japanese morning glories were accurate. I assured him that they were, and then went on to describe the watered-silk pattern of merging and blending colors seen in some of these amazing blossoms. As I was talking, I was about to use the word moiré, but realized that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. This is the word which precisely describes the watered-silk pattern.

As it turns out, the word is pronounced as both a single syllable word and a two syllable word. Evidently there is no generally recognized difference in meaning, although according to the wikipedia entry on this word the single syllable form is prevalent among those discussing fabrics, and the two syllable form (at least two syllables as pronounced in English) is prevalent in other contexts (such as this one, where I’m discussing color pattern).

Although the word came into English from French, evidently it is not a French word but rather Arabic (and some say ultimately from the Latin marmoreus, marble-like). And just as interesting, the word mohair apparently shares the same origin.

Believe it or not, the two images shown above are of the same blossom. The upper one was taken early in the morning, the lower one late in the afternoon on a rainy day. Evidently the blue pigments are not as stable as the red ones. The image of the blossom in its purple/blue phase was taken in natural light, the red phase was photographed under incandescent light with the camera light meter adjusted for that.

When the first flowers from this lot of seed began to bloom, I wasn't sure I liked them. But they have grown on me, and I can see them becoming favorites.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Japanese hybrid morning glories

The Japanese morning glories can be grouped into two sorts: those which are derived only from Ipomoea nil, and those which are hybrids of Ipomoea nil and I. purpurea. The Ipomoea nil sorts have been grown in western gardens for well over a century. The hybrids are relatively new. The name used for the hybrids is Ipomoea × imperialis.

The ones I’m growing this year are those sold as Mt. Fuji Mix. These appear to be the result of several distinct but similar breeding lines - that is to say, flower color is evidently not the only feature which distinguishes the plants. In the group planted here this year, there have been (only) two colors: a rich purple blue and a pale, dusty pink. So far the vines are at best four feet long and the sparse foliage, sometimes marked with silver-white splotches and streaks, is not much bigger than that of bindweed (although shaped differently).

I gave these what for me has in the past always been appropriate morning glory treatment: I planted the seed and then forgot them. The less than spectacular results I’m getting tell me that these Japanese hybrid sorts require better treatment. In Japan they are typically pampered as pot plants.

Google morning glory and Japan in English and you should hit some links which will get you started on seeing how they are grown and shown in Japan. If you are adventurous, confine your hits to results in Japanese. The Japanese have cultivated the arts of presentation and staging to high degree. Until the Internet made so much available, this was unknown to most of us: now a bit of time spent with a good search engine will result in glimpses of Japanese morning glory shows, tree peony shows, iris shows, chrysanthemum shows, camellia shows – even goldfish shows. Try it: I’m sure you’ll agree that it was time well spent.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Of the tropical hibiscus, this one is probably the most widely grown. The flowers now come in a bewildering range of colors, some a far cry from the plain red flowers I saw as a child. The cultivar shown here is ‘Cashmere Wind’. The beautiful blooms last only one day but are produced freely. This is a very thirsty plant: if not watered once and sometimes twice a day, it begins to show signs of desiccation. I can see why someone in a suitable climate might want to start a collection of these.

Oxblood lily

There is a range of bulbs which bloom in late summer, before the official start of fall. Many of them are amaryllids, and they bring to the garden a fresh, vivacious, flamboyant glamour which really helps to perk things up during the dog days. Even the names used for these plants have a sort of humor and spark which lift our spirits as the heat and humidity pull them down. This is hurricane season, so some of these plants are called hurricane lilies. Because they push up blooming stalks right from the earth without accompanying foliage, some have variously been called naked ladies and naked boys.

Here’s a South American variation on this theme. This is Rhodophiala bifida, a plant native to far southern South America. Curiously, sometime in the recent past (i.e. the past four hundred years) this plant was introduced to Texas and became both established and widely distributed. In the English-speaking world it is widely called oxblood lily: the color of the flowers explains that.

The spathe of this plant was poking a bit above ground several weeks ago, but nothing more happened. Last week hurricane Hanna passed nearby and brought with it nearly torrential rains. The Rhodophiala sprang into action, and almost overnight the scape had reached a height of eight or ten inches.

Here in zone 7 Maryland we are probably near the northern limit for its successful cultivation in the garden. A group I planted decades ago survived in the open near a wall for years, but eventually they became much debilitated by narcissus bulb fly and disappeared. The plant in the image grows in a cold frame, where it was planted into the soil of the frame. This seems to be an ideal arrangement in our climate.

The garden worthy flora of Chile is getting a lot of attention now, and one result of this is the importation of seed and plants of several other species of Rhodophiala in other flower colors. I’m trying some of these from seed now: maybe in a few years I’ll have some more pictures.