Saturday, February 28, 2009

Adonis vernalis

When the first flowers of this Eurasian wildflower, Adonis vernalis, open, it's as if the sun itself were rising from the soil of the garden. It has the same greenish-yellow color of the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. The same color is seen in a very few daffodils, too. It's a yellow which has a glowing quality, soft and very appealing at this time of year, especially in dull weather. The blooms of this Adonis are not large, but it has no competition in the same color range at this time of year - although a particularly well-nourished dandelion, should it produce an early bloom, might be just as big, if not as subtle.

The Adonis is very tidy when it blooms, but it soon sprawls laterally: give it some room.

The propagation of this plant poses some challenges. Division works and is probably the easiest way. Seed is set freely, but there seems to be no agreement about how to get it to germinate. Evidently, even sowing freshly collected seed does not guarantee germination.

The plant shown in the image above is growing in one of the unprotected cold frames. These frames provide protection from browsing animals and bad weather, and on sunny days keep the temperature within the frame a bit above what prevails outside - but they do little if anything to moderate the temperature at night.

The dog days of winter

The walk with Biscuit this morning provided some unexpected entertainment. Biscuit has been very attentive to all other dog noises lately: if she hears another dog barking in the distance, she immediately stops and listens. If the sound is nearby, she intently searches for the source.
Well, this morning she heard some barking nearby, looked around and didn’t see a dog. I heard the barking and was similarly confused. We moved on a few paces, and the barking resumed. Clearly it was very close, but both Biscuit and I could not locate the source. I expected a door to open nearby any minute and see some little yapper come dashing out. But no dog appeared.
We moved on a few paces, and the barking resumed. This time, we both took the time to carefully figure out where the barking was coming from. Once we realized where the barking was coming from, it was apparent why neither of us had figured it out before, and it was also apparent why we had not seen a dog.
The barking was coming from a place about thirty feet away: from the branches of a tree. Biscuit and I both looked up: was she as surprised as I was? The barking was not coming from a dog. It was a crow, a crow doing a very convincing imitation of a yappy dog bark. It was not the only crow in that tree, but it seems that it was the only one which had mastered the dog bark.
During the summer we have plenty of cat birds; now we have a dog bird, too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Lenten Rose

The history of the garden hellebores is a bit of a Cinderella story. I wonder how many of the current enthusiasts for these plants realize that they are nothing new in our gardens. Mable Cabot Sedgwick’s The Garden Month by Month, compiled early in the first decade of the twentieth century, mentions several species of Helleborus and even a named garden cultivar, ‘Frau Irene Heinemann’ of H. orientalis (what we today call H. × hybridus). Sedgwick lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, so her month by month sequences are of course a bit out of line with what we experience here. But this is a wonderful book, evidently carefully researched and wondrously detailed. Boston area gardens of a century ago must have been very well stocked indeed!

And by “our gardens” I don’t simply mean our eastern North American gardens, I mean more specifically our greater Washington, D.C. gardens. Hellebores have been growing in local gardens since at least the time of the First World War. They were growing in the Washington, D.C. garden of David Griffiths back then.

You’ll have to search harder than I did to find much mention of them in eastern gardens during the next half century. Literate gardeners no doubt knew about them because these plants have long figured prominently in the British horticultural press. Mrs. Wilder celebrated them. But the gardening public seems to have been clueless.

How can that be? How can the plant which is now widely appreciated as the best late winter flowering perennial in our gardens have been all but totally overlooked? How can it be that we had this plant in our gardens a century ago and then, then what? Did we lose them? Did they not prove amenable to conditions a century ago? Was the prevailing taste in garden plants at such an appallingly low level to allow this plant to sink into obscurity?

Or was it simply a case of get-rich-quick America not being ready to embrace a plant which grows slowly, provides opportunity for only infrequent division, and takes as long to bloom from seed as a trillium or peony?

A generation ago, hardly anyone grew them. Today there is a dizzying array of garden forms available - readily available, if for a price.

The genus name is hel-LE-bo-rus. Those who pronounce the name Hell ‘il BORE us may know something I don’t – but I don’t want to visit that place to find out for myself.

And on this first day of Lent I have to ask: does anyone else still call them Lenten Roses?

The hellebore season is just getting started here: the one in the image above is one which always has bloomed well before the other garden hellebores growing here. Please don't leave a comment here on the order of "Jim, I sell hellebores I raise from seed, and I throw away the ones that look like that".
I'm happy to record that hellebores have been blooming in this garden for about forty years. For more views of hellebores here, see:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shrove Tuesday

We had the traditional pancake dinner tonight. Whenever I make pancakes, the ones to be consumed immediately are made in the usual four to five inch diameter. When I've made enough for the meal at hand, there is usually batter left over. Because this batter does not store well (even in the refrigerator it quickly molds), I pour all of it into the pan and make one gigantic pancake to use up the batter. The bottom of the ladle is used to spread the batter as thinly as possible. The result is what you see in the image above. This big pancake then reappears at lunch the next day, typically as a wrap. The filling might range from savory to sweet, depending on what's at hand or left over from other meals. If there is some leftover chicken, I'll make a quick white sauce for a savory course. If there is fresh fruit, I'll whip up some cream for sweet filling.

Since tomorrow is the beginning of Lent, tradition will frown on the whipped cream.

Early crocuses

Several years ago I discovered what a pleasure even the commonest crocuses can be when grown in the protected cold frame. There isn’t room in the protected cold frame for all of the crocuses I grow, so this year I planted many of the crocuses in an unprotected cold frame. The main difference is that in the unprotected cold frame they do not bloom as early. But they do bloom ahead of crocuses planted in the open garden. And the protection provided by the frame makes all the difference in the world. Now I can ignore the sparrows which in most years treat the flowering of the crocuses as the beginning of the salad season. And I can ignore the bunnies I saw hopping merrily around the other day – and I can ignore the deer, too. Hail, sleet, ice – forget them, the cold frame protects the crocuses from all bad weather.
Is it my imagination or do the flowers actually last longer in good condition in the cold frames? I think they do.
The crocuses with interesting markings on the outside of the outer tepals are more easily observed in the cold frame. In fact, when these plants are grown in the open garden they collapse into two main varieties on sunny days: the white ones and the yellow-orange ones. That’s because the beautiful markings are on the outside of the flowers; when the flowers open widely, they all look like white or orange-yellow crocuses.
Those with tender and exquisite colors such as ‘Weldenii Fairy’ and ‘Blue Pearl’ are more readily appreciated in the cold frames. Both of these are blooming today, and until today I never realized how beautiful they really are. They are simply too good for the open garden.
Here’s the list of familiar crocuses blooming in the cold frames today: ‘Gipsy Girl’, ‘Goldilocks’, ‘Advance’, ‘Snow Bunting’, ‘Lady Killer’, ‘Blue Pearl’, ‘Weldenii Fairy’ ‘Firefly’, ‘Uschak Orange’, ‘Blue Bird’ and ‘Whitewell Purple’. You can see some of them in the images above. From top to bottom:'Gipsy Girl', 'Weldenii Fairy', 'Lady Killer', 'Herald', 'Goldilocks', 'Blue Pearl', 'Blue Bird' and 'Advance'.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The days before spring

The first big burst of bloom has yet to occur in the garden this year: I’m still waiting. There have been many plants in bloom since the turn of the year, but they have occurred only sporadically. January and February have both been cold, windy months. My eyes are aching for a big burst of floral color.

The early snowdrops are at their peak now and have been for about a week. But try enjoying snowdrops in thirty-mile-per-hour wind gusts and a temperature in the low 40s F. When things moderate a bit I’ll put together a little bouquet of snowdrops and other early bloomers.

Crocuses are blooming in the frames - but do they count?

Last Friday Wayne and I drove down to visit his mom in western Virginia. Along the way we passed brilliant, green fields of what I assume is winter rye. It’s a real treat to see such an intense green spread out over acre after acre. The greens of summer never seem so bright, so intense and so pure.

Back in the home garden the prevailing colors are dingy browns and grays. But little Ranunculus ficaria is rapidly leafing out, and soon there will be plenty of green in the garden. And at that point I’ll be trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Scallions, green onions, spring onions, Welsh onions, shallots

I’ve noticed that the grocery stores where I shop no longer sell something called scallions. What they sell now are called green onions. If you know your onions, you know that green onions and scallions are not necessarily the same thing.

Green onions and spring onions should be immature Allium cepa (this is the botanical name for culinary onions).

Scallions, on the other hand, are either those certain forms of Allium cepa which do not bulb or (and this is where it gets confusing) forms of a related species Allium fistulosum, the so-called (i.e. misnamed) Welsh onion. This “Welsh onion” is actually native to Siberia.

Where do shallots fit into this picture? Many texts currently attribute shallots to Allium cepa as a “Group” called Aggregatum. A Group in this sense - notice the capital G - is an assemblage of forms which might or might not share the same origin but which share so many similarities that for practical purposes they are treated as essentially the same thing until someone parses their ancestry and interrelationships. This usage of Group is not taxonomic: these Groups do not fall into the traditional taxonomic hierarchy.

The old name for shallots was Allium ascalonicum. Ascalon was an ancient Mediterranean port city in what is now modern Israel. Notice the similarity between the words scallion and ascalonicum: it’s no accident. Scallion is ultimately derived from the old name ascalonicum. In English, it’s not a direct borrowing: the word had to travel through several languages before it made its way into English. You would therefore think that shallots are the rightful claimants to the name scallion, but I can’t recall any recent American text which calls shallots scallions.

After writing the above, I Googled shallot and read the wikipedia account. The writer of that account assigns the French gray shallot to Allium oschaninii and the other shallots to Allium cepa.

The plot thickens…

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Takoma Park Garden Club Daffodil Show

“…the Garden Club of Takoma Park, outside of Washington, which has for nine years past had its annual Daffodil Show…”

Those were the words which quickly brought me out of my bedtime reverie last night, as I lay in bed reading Mrs. Francis King’s 1925 Chronicles of the Garden. I grew up a stone’s throw from Takoma Park; some of my grammar schoolmates probably lived there. Even now, over eighty years after Chronicles was written, Takoma Park has retained both a very distinct identity and a vigorous enthusiasm for gardening.

It was Mr. Benjamin Y. Morrison, again quoting from Mrs. King “one of our finest amateurs and an authority in horticulture”, who wrote those words. There was something comical about her description of Morrison as an amateur: he went on to become one of the leading lights in twentieth century horticulture during a career which culminated in his becoming the first director of the U.S. National Arboretum - not bad for an amateur.

Does Takoma Park still have daffodil shows? If they do, I don’t know about it. The greater Washington, D.C. area does have a big, active daffodil society, The Washington Daffodil Society. The WDS was organized in 1950 – “ it grew out of the first daffodil show in the Washington area, sponsored by three local garden clubs” reads the account on the WDS website. This was twenty-five years after the events described by Morrison, and it thus seems unlikely that the show sponsored by three local garden clubs could have been the ones in which Morrison participated. Here’s a link to a page giving the early history of the WDS:

and then click on About Us.

Don’t miss the photo of the founders: the clothing reminds me so much of family photos we have from those days.

It’s hard to believe that the Takoma show would have been anything like the shows of the WDS: for decades these shows have exhibited hundreds of cultivars yearly. This should surprise no one: not only is the daffodil charming, it generally makes itself very much at home in local gardens.

All of this talk about daffodils: there are no daffodils blooming in the garden right now, but two forms of Narcissus cantabricus are blooming today in the protected cold frame.

Am I cheating if I announce the beginning of daffodil season 2009 in my garden based on these somewhat coddled darlings?