Monday, July 5, 2010

Tagetes 'Disco Orange'

The sort of weather we’re having now, weather characterized by extreme heat, is the sort of weather which helps us to appreciate some of the plants grown as annuals. Hardy perennials are nice, although I think their value to the garden has been hugely exaggerated. Perennials in general are like determinate tomatoes: they do their thing and that’s all you get.

The plants grown as annuals have the advantage of blooming all summer and into the autumn until cut by frost. As long as they are watered, the better ones take care of themselves and continue to produce.

Tagetes marigolds (in contrast to Calendula marigolds) as every beginning gardener quickly learns, perform in our climate as well as anything. If I had a big garden I would have a big, long planting of nothing but these Mexican marigolds in all of their varieties.

As it is, I have room for one pot full of them. A few years ago I spotted some single-flowered marigolds which looked a bit bigger than the single-flowered forms I had grown in the past. This was my introduction to Tagetes ‘Disco Orange’, a current favorite. That's what you see in the image above.

Is it a sign of ageing? I’ve learned to like the pungent, bracing fragrance of Tagetes marigolds. When I was younger I used to think that these were the plants which should have gotten the name nasturtium (literally nose-scruncher). A little bit goes a long way, but I like that little bit.

Torenia ‘Clown Blue’

I’ve been growing Torenia fournieri off and on since I was a kid. In recent years the old seed grown typical form has been replaced by seed grown strains such as the ‘Clown’ series. In my experience these have a tendency to produce the occasional deformed flower, but they are bigger than the plants I remember from my childhood.

The first edition of the wonderful Bush-Brown America’s Garden Book had good things to say about Torenia fournieri, and that’s what got me started with it. I used to save home grown seed (produced by the zillion as it were) and sow it on the ground in the late spring. The resulting plants did not come into bloom until well into the summer, but they were care free from sowing until they were cut by frost.

Now I’m a bit ashamed to say I buy a few plants each year from growers of bedding plants. They are well worth having for their cool colors, interesting form and sturdy poise. And they have a curious trick they perform if you know how to get them to do it. The stigma has two flaps; touch the inside of the flaps gently and the flaps will slowly begin to close up over the “pollen” you have deposited there with your touch. This is the sort of thing a high-minded Victorian parent would have taught the children.

Hypericum frondosum

This post is out of chronological order: it should have been done a few weeks ago when the plant shown was actually in bloom. The plant in question is Hypericum frondosum. It’s native to the eastern United States with a distribution which ranges from Texas to New England – but apparently not in Maryland.

This is another one of those native plants which, in spite of all of its good qualities, is not often seen in gardens. I first saw it used well in many of the gardens on the quadrangle of the University of Virginia. A plant in full bloom is very handsome. It forms a low woody shrub, often with only one main stem up to several feet high – this gives it a sort of bonsai quality. The flowers are about two inches across and are produced so abundantly that it’s hard to find space between them.

The plant in the image above is a self sown seedling. It appeared in one of the bog trays years ago. Another one appeared in some nearby brickwork. It's not weedy at all, and these volunteers are always welcome.

Cactus Flower

The other day I was in a big box store and noticed some trays of those Canadian grown cactuses and succulents. Many of them had been stuck with dried flowers of straw flowers (Helichrysum). This gives a fair imitation of a cactus in bloom, and for me it brought back memories of the baby turtles with painted shells which were sold in all the five and dime stores when I was a kid. There was muffled outrage against this back then, but the practice continued. It took a "medical excuse" to get the job done: once baby turtles were publicized as a potential source of salmonella infections, they disappeared from the stores. The fate of the turtles has probably not changed much: you don't see the baby ones sold en masse  for pets anymore, but neither do you see the thousands trapped in the summer or dredged from the mud in the winter and exported  to Asian stew pots.

But now back to those Canadian cactuses: as I glanced over them, I noticed that one or two actually had genuine flowers. When I was a kid, the flowering of a cactus was viewed as a near miracle.

In the image above is one of the so-called chin cactuses, members of the genus Gymnocalycium. I have no idea which one this is, and I’ve had it for so long – easily twenty-five years – that I don’t even remember where I got it. This might be the first time this one has bloomed.

Generally speaking, I don’t do well with houseplants. Some begonias and selaginellas in big glass jars have survived for decades, and several cactuses and other succulents have hung on since who knows when. There are several exceptions, but typical houseplants don’t have a chance here as a rule.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Are there any other smilax enthusiasts out there? In the old days this genus was included in the Liliaceae, but now it gets a family of its own, the Smilacaceae. Some are reviled as obnoxious weeds, some are hugely ornamental. The ones I grow range in size from little S. pumila and S. bifolia to mighty S. smallii which covers the side of our house and part of the roof, tangled with noisette roses and Campsis 'Mme Galen'. The smilax is the boss of that group.

Most species have black fruits, but S. walteri has very ornamental red fruits. It’s a treat to visit the black water swamps of the southeastern states during the winter and find broad tangles of this species spangled with the bright red fruits – but at first you’ll probably be tricked by the more numerous red-fruited deciduous hollies.

Some of the southern species flower regularly here and set fruit, but the resulting seed do not survive the winters here.

I’ve always liked these plants and had a few in the garden. It’s hard to find anyone else with much of an interest in them. Professional horticulturists in general neglect them, although in the early twentieth century no less a luminary than Beatrix Farrand used them on some of the walls of Princeton University (or so I recall reading).

Most I grow in the open, but little S. pumila gets cold frame treatment. Its mottled leaves (in the style of some Asarum) make it worth the space. It will survive indefinitely in the open here in a sheltered spot, but the fruit will not ripen in the open air and bad winters can damage the plant severely.

I’m training S. laurifolia onto the deck: so far, it has climbed to the 10’ level. Mature plants in the wild are awesome, like something out of some lost world fantasy. The canes sometimes go thirty or more feet straight up into trees – I assume they have grown up with the trees. I grew my plants from seed collected more than fifteen years ago after a storm had brought down some smilax festooned trees – otherwise I never would have been able to reach the seed. This species has great ornamental value but is almost completely neglected. The foliage suggests that of Clematis armandii or Holboellia – it’s a rare garden visitor who has any idea what it is. There is nothing else like it in our indigenous flora.

The flowers of S. smallii are sweetly fragrant. Other species such as S. herbacea smell of carrion. When I was a kid I used to think of S. herbacea as “hardy philodendron” – it resembles that house plant (the heart-leaf climber) a lot.

Are they geophytes? Some grow from clusters of banana like tuberous growths.

Sarsaparilla was (still is?) made from some tropical species.

In the photo above is little Smilax bifolia, which is small enough to be used, potted, as table decoration.