Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pangolins snuggled behind a rock...

Well, they do look a bit like the exposed tails of pangolins which have snuggled themselves behind the rock. They also look like some particularly large-scaled reptile sunning itself on a rock: the Australian pine cone skink Trachydosaurus rugosus comes to mind.

What are they? They are Euphorbia myrsinites, and in this case they are particularly well placed. Rocks set off this plant very well, although it does not require a rocky setting to grow well. This is a cold-hardy and easily grown perennial here in the greater Washington, D.C. area, although it does not seem to be long-lived. If the prospect of moving such a large boulder into the garden is daunting, try planting the plant on the flat with a mulch of crushed blue stone.

Wayne and I were visiting his mom in Bridgewater, Virginia earlier this week and these plants were seen on the grounds of the Bridgewater Home. Inside the Home we saw poinsettias everywhere; I wonder how many people realize that these "pangolin tails" are a close relative.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A thank you visit from a bird?

While working in the kitchen this morning, a flash of color just outside the big glass doors caught my attention. Something avian, relatively big, black, white and red was flapping on the bird netting. As my eyes focused I realized that it was a red-bellied woodpecker. I moved in to take a closer look, expecting the bird to fly away immediately, but it didn’t. Then I realized why: it was on the inner side of the bird netting, in the space between the bird netting and the house. It didn’t seem to realize that either end was wide open, and for a minute or two it thrashed as if it were a large insect in a spider web. Finally it figured out what to do and made a bee line for the woods. I like to think of this as a thank you visit: it was because a bird, probably a red-bellied woodpecker, slammed into the glass doors two years ago and left a bloody mark on the glass that I installed the bird netting. I’m pretty sure it has saved the lives of many birds in the meantime. It’s unlikely, but maybe the bird I saw today was the one which hit the glass years ago. Here’s a link to the original post on the bird netting:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Death by gardening

Gardening can be dangerous, often in ways which are utterly unanticipated. Modern power tools can be limb or even life threatening in the hands of an exhausted or inattentive worker. Something as simple as a hammer misdirected can mash a finger tip and make the ensuing weeks miserable for the victim.

But even when you think you're being smart and careful, things happen. Here are two stories which recount times when I did something which, had the circumstances been slightly different, might well have cost me my life.

Both stories involve my preoccupation with collecting seeds: evidently I'm part squirrel. No matter where I am, if there are seeds to be gathered, I'm probably stuffing my pockets.

Years ago there was a good harvest of seeds from one of the aconites in the garden. The members of the genus Aconitum have two notable qualities: they produce handsome flowers, usually blue, and they have been used as very effective poisons since ancient times. These form seed capsules like those of columbines or delphiniums, and I had collected lots of these capsules which were full of seed. That evening after dinner I sat down to sort out the seeds and clean them, packed them away, and then went on to make a bowl of popcorn before turning in for the night. I picked out a book to read, got into bed, started to read and munch pop corn. At first I didn't notice anything, but then it became apparent that the pop corn was atypically bitter. And then it dawned on me: I had not washed my hands after handling the aconite seed. Aconites are notorious for their potent poisons. How much does it take to kill an adult human? I lay there experiencing a combination of nervousness and downright terror: was I going to die? The thought of dying itself did not bother me so much as the thought of dying so stupidly: I could see the newspaper article: Montgomery County gardener accidentally poisons self after handling toxic plant materials.

Since you're reading this, you know how the story turned out. In fact, there were no unpleasant aftereffects from ingesting whatever the bitter substance was. But before going to bed that night I had a long, serious talk with myself about some of the stupid things I do.

Here's another one: about thirty years ago, when AIDS was just coming into public consciousness, I was down in Adams Morgan one evening walking somewhere along Columbia Rd. This is a part of the city full of night spots which draw the sort of street activities, legal and illegal, engaged in by people out for a night of pleasure. Although it was dark, the streets were well lit. There were some ginkgo trees, and they were dropping fruit. I wanted some ginkgo seeds, so I decided to look around on the ground to see if I could find them.

The seeds on the sidewalk all seemed to have been crushed, so I decided to look under a low hedge which grew along the sidewalk. Little light penetrated there, and so I was depending on my sense of touch to find the ginkgo seeds. As I ran my hand over the surface of the ground, I suddenly felt a sharp, penetrating prick. My first thought: I had been stuck by a used hypodermic syringe tossed into the bushes by an AIDS infected drug addict.

For a few terrifying, confusing moments I didn't know what to do and wondered if my life was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. I tried to see if it was in fact a hypodermic syringe, but it was too dark to see.

And then I got a good look at the hedge: even in the dark I could see what they were - they were pyracantha, the shrub aptly named fire thorn. I had been jabbed plenty of times in my life by pyracantha thorns; but this was the first time it was such a relief for it to have happened.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sedum 'Cape Blanco'

The little plant shown here is a sedum native to the west coast of North America. You will usually find it offered as Sedum spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco', but a Google search also turned up S. spathulifolium ssp. pruinosum 'Cape Blanco' and Gormania spathulifolia. Although sedums as a group are among the easiest plants to grow successfully in local gardens, this one is an exception. I've acquired it more than once over the years, and each time I soon lost it. I've mentioned this to other more experienced local growers, and their experience has been the same. It wasn't until I began to learn how to grow the bulbs from the west coast that I got a clue to what this sedum needs. What it apparently needs is a dryish summer and, probably, a bit of winter protection.

The one shown in the image above was acquired in May of this year. I kept it under the eaves (and thus in the rain shadow of the roof overhang) but in bright light for the summer. It's going to spend the winter in one of the cold frames.

The spirit of William Morris

It was cold last night; the temperature at 7:30 this morning was about 25 ยบ F.

These cold nights bring with them a new responsibility for me: I have to remember to close the cold frames each afternoon. I do this when the sun begins to go down, ideally as soon as the sun no longer directly strikes the cold frames. Cold frames are like a dog: they don’t require much attention, but they do require your attention at least twice a day. And like dogs they are well worth it.

No, the cold frames are not bursting with bloom right now, but they are full of interest. It’s a real pleasure to go out on a cold morning and peer through the glass light and see signs of life. The cold frames here have a primary purpose of housing a wide collection of marginally hardy bulby odds and ends. But each year I slip in various things which provide a nice contrast to the largely grassy foliage of the bulbs. Certain woody plants for instance provide a good change of pace. This year the rooted cutting of Daphne odora already shows flower color. A hardy gardenia, a new Ruscus, several asarums, some Selaginella, rosemary and Cistus psilosepalus all provide foliage interest and, in the case of the flowering plants, the promise of flowers and fragrance eventually.

The cold frame also provides an answer to the question of what to do with the florist’s cyclamen. The house is too warm and the garden is too cold. It turns out that the cold frame is just right: the glass light of the cold frame bears a flourish of frost flowers on cold mornings, but under the glass the bright red flowers of the florist’s cyclamen presents a burst of intense color.

A clump of snowdrops dug from the garden this week now blooms serenely under the glass. Another sort of snow drop is all over the news now: beginning tomorrow night, we are expected to have a 5-12” snow fall.

I opened this piece by writing that there was not much in bloom in the cold frames now. But one of the less protected cold frames offered an unexpected seasonal bouquet yesterday morning. I don't know what I did to deserve such a decorative acanthus-leaf pattern of frost flowers: it's as if the spirit of William Morris himself had worked over the under surface of the light. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Snowdrops of late autumn

The nature of our winters here on the east coast is such that any plant which tries to bloom during the winter is up against huge odds. The winter-flowering plant game is a dicey one here. Winter here almost always eventually takes a big bite out of the garden. And that seems to take a big bite out of local gardeners’ enthusiasm for winter flowering plants. Recent winters have been so mild that new gardeners will be in for a nasty surprise if old-style killer winters ever return.

Decades ago I tried two of the autumn-flowering snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis reginae-olgae (as it was called back then) and something called Galanthus nivalis corcyrensis. Neither persisted for long in the open garden. It was a real bother to acquire these from UK sources (does anyone else remember Mr. Mars of Haselmere?), and I made no rush to replace them.
Now, years later, I have a renewed interest in the snowdrops which flower at this time of year. I've selected two here which I call my Thanksgiving snowdrop and my Christmas snowdrop. They really do flower on or near the dates suggested by their names.

The Thanksgiving snowdrop is a one-spot Galanthus elwesii sort. It has a largish, slender flower but is otherwise not very prepossessing. Its only claim to my attention is its blooming season.
The Christmas snowdrop (it's just beginning to bloom now) is a typical two-spot Galanthus elwesii, with softly rounded ample flowers smaller than those of the Thanksgiving sort but more substantial.

Both of these are clumpers, and with luck there will eventually be a nice patch of each. Each of these grew for decades in the lawn; it was only when I realized that their season of bloom was not an anomaly that I marked them for cosseting. They now grow in the cold frames where their flowers are protected should the weather suddenly turn nasty.

These Galanthus elwesii forms seem to be indifferent to our local weather: plants in full bloom don't seem to suffer when the temperature plunges into the single digits F; mechanical damage is another matter. Flowers are on rare occasions destroyed by severe weather, but the plants themselves seem not to suffer at all. I suspect that in the long run these Galanthus elwesii variants will prove to be much better autumn and early winter flowering garden plants than Galanthus reginae-olgae and similar forms in our climate.
I might have another group of late-autumn snowdrops on hand. A friend gave me some plants of Galanthus elwesii sorts which, when I visited her garden a week of so ago, were in full bloom out in the open. It will be interesting to see what these do when they settle down and bloom in my garden.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Laurus nobilis

One other use for the cold frames is to get marginally hardy broad-leaf evergreens off to a good start. Newly rooted cuttings not yet sufficiently well established to spend the winter in the open garden benefit from a winter vacation in the cold frame. And newly cut branches to be rooted during the winter sometimes perform well in the cold frame.

This year I have several such newly cut branches which I hope will find life in the protected cold frame agreeable: my friend Alice gave me some cuttings of her bay tree, Laurus nobilis. The last time I saw her plant it was about head height and apparently very well sited.

Bay is one of those storied plants which any gardener who both reads and cooks must know about and want to grow. Bay is almost unknown as a garden plant in this area. Apparently there are forms of Laurus nobilis which will endure the winters here, but they are not readily available in the nursery trade. What are readily available are plants of uncertain hardiness. They are comparatively expensive, too.

Here and there in the greater Washington, D.C. area are bay trees well established and thriving. Yet as far as I know, no one has ever offered rooted cuttings of these plants commercially. I’ve heard that they are hard to root.

So those bay cuttings now inserted into the ground in the protected cold frame are a small experiment. Will they root during the cold winter months? I hope so: I’ve wanted a bay tree of my own established in the garden for a long time. And if cuttings don't root and instead die, I can always collect the leaves for cooking.

A very good ice cream can be made by infusing the milk and cream to be used for the custard base with bay leaf. It's one of my favorites.

Daphne odora

Last year my friend Hilda gave me a pot of newly rooted cuttings of Daphne odora. For her, this plant grows as if it were Forsythia. She has bushes the size of Volkswagens.

Here in my neighborhood, Daphne odora is a fickle plant: typically it thrives just long enough to beguile the grower – and then it suddenly dies. For that reason, among others, I didn’t really know what to do with the rooted cuttings she gave me. They were in a pot, so I put the pot into the protected cold frame and more or less forgot about it. There were two cuttings, and one of them quickly died. Later I noticed that the remaining cutting had flower buds; and eventually these bloomed and gave me a chance to experience the wonderful fragrance.

It’s now over a year later, and the cutting is still in the same pot. What I thought earlier were buds for leaf growth have swollen enough for me to see that they are flower buds: it’s going to bloom again! Evidently it likes life in the protected cold frame.

Another cold frame

I quickly put together another cold frame today. This one is beside the existing protected cold frame. I put it there to take advantage of the site: it’s sheltered by a thick box hedge, gets the heat reflected from the house wall and the heat which seeps from the building itself, and it gets sun much of the day during the winter. So far, I’m very favorably impressed with what I can grow in the protected cold frame.

This new frame will not be quite so cozy. For one thing, it projects beyond the house wall a couple of feet. And the part which projects does so into a raised bed – the back side of this new frame will not have the house wall to shelter its full length.

Cold frames are a valuable garden amenity at this time of year. I think of them as the ideal substitute for snow cover. In fact, they are better than snow cover because they allow the light to penetrate to the plants freely. I use the cold frames for several main purposes. For one, they house a wide variety of plants which need a cold winter but which are not adapted to the sort of winters we experience here (i.e. no reliable snow cover). Dozens of storied winter growing plants from climates like that of the Mediterranean flourish in my protected cold frame.

Cold frames are also the place to winter newly received nursery stock (i.e. all those impulse purchases you made as the season drew to an end and desperate retailers slashed their prices).

The primary intended use for the one built today is to house the overflow of marginally hardy plants such as members of the genus Arum. These plants take a lot of space; those I planted into the ground of the protected cold frame last year as small plants came back this year as big bruisers. This summer I intend to spread them out in this new frame.

The daffodil season continues...

The daffodil season continues here. The little white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils are blooming. I’m not the only one enjoying them: as soon as the buds begin to swell, little snails move in and feast of the fresh flowers. Next May we will have lived in this house for fifty years. We did not have snails until about three years ago. They probably came in with nursery stock; by now they have made themselves very much at home.

These snails bring back a childhood memory: when I was six or seven years old, I met a neighbor who kept aquarium fish. I told him about the snails I had seen around our doorsteps, and he asked me to collect some for his aquarium fish. When I gave him the snails, he let me watch as he dumped them into the aquarium and the fish (gouramis as I recall) quickly snapped them up. There was another lesson here, too: I learned the association between snails and chalky sites. The snails gathered around the door stoops which were of concrete poured only a year or so previously.

What are these little daffodils? They came under the name Narcissus albidus ver. foliosus, but current usage makes the name albidus a synonym of one of the forms of Narcissus pseudonarcissus, a very different daffodil indeed. The name Narcissus foliosus is currently accepted, and it’s used for those little white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils from northwestern Africa once called Narcissus monophyllus. This is probably what the daffodils blooming now are, although there is a chance that they are forms of the very similar European Narcissus cantabricus. Whatever they are, I’m glad to have them.

Also in bloom is one of the white-flowered Narcissus tazetta. These are noted for their intense, potent fragrance. If they are kept cool, one flower cluster can bloom for weeks. To appreciate what a treasure these are, grow them in a cold frame as cold (but above freezing) as possible. A light freeze will probably not damage them. Then, every time you open the cold frame you will be enveloped in a cloud of fragrance.