Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Peony season 2020

Paeonia 'Yellow Crown'

Paeonia 'Bartzella' in a neighborhood garden 

Several months ago, intending to write a piece about peonies in our gardens, I started with "Peony season 2020 will not begin for most of you for another two weeks or.  if the weather stays cold an damp (as predicted) maybe a bit more.  
So although we're still a couple of weeks away from the peak season for those voluptuous, fragrant nineteenth century French garden peonies, the peony season here began  weeks ago and we're now in the second phase (and the second month) , that of the early hybrids. 
Those marvelous nineteenth century cultivars are "pure" Paeonia lactflora. the Chinese import peony thought of as the common peony now. But back then, the common peony was Paeonia officinalis, the native European peony, the peony of history. "
And then things got crazy again for awhile and the post was never finished.
As it turned out, this year's peony season was notable for the flowering of a new plant of one of the original Itoh peonies, the one called in commerce 'Yellow Crown'. This is the only one of Itoh's hybrids which was widely distributed. There are evidently three or four more; these can be seen online, but I've never seen them for sale.
I like 'Yellow Crown' a lot. There is something about the shape of the bloom and the color which appeal to me more than the color and shape of other currently  readily available intersectional peonies. 
'Bartzella', with good reason, is currently regarded by many as the best of the intersectional yellows. This year I saw well grown plants of 'Bartzella' in a local garden which were really impressive. Those are the ones you see in the image above. According to the owner, they are about four years old.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Apple 'Cox’s Orange Pippin' has a more famous grandchild

On the left, 'Cox's Orange Pippin' on the right 'Cox's Pomona'
'Gala' apples, a grandchild of 'Cox's Orange Pippin; 
'Gala' apple slices and walnuts, a favorite treat 
The apple ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, discovered in the first half of the nineteenth century, went on in England to become one of the most famous and widely esteemed apples from then well into the twentieth century. That success was not duplicated in North America, where it does not seem to thrive as it does in parts of England.  But its qualities have been celebrated in the British literature so well and for so long that we Americans, at least those of us who read, often  harbor a curiosity about it, and it is now readily available from mail-order nurseries which specialize in fruit trees. I’ve got one in a pot on a dwarfing stock – but it has yet to fruit. My friend John W tells me that it did not do well for him when he tried it.
The top image above shows it as it appeared in George Bunyard’s Apples and Pears, number 9 in the Present Day Gardening series published around 1911. Earlier this year I was able to obtain the complete seventeen volume  Present Day Gardening series. I had acquired a few volumes over the years, but never expected to find the whole series offered. When it appeared on a British dealers list early this year,  I jumped at the chance and was successful. When I look back on my life I sometimes wonder if I have spent more money on books or on bulbs – with rarely any regret.
The excellence of ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ caused it to be widely used in hybridizing new apples. One such hybrid, raised in New Zealand in the 1930s, was 'Kidd's Orange Red'   the result of a cross of 'Cox's Orange Pippin' and 'Red Delicious'. From this  hybrid was raised what is now one of the most widely grown commercial apples,  and that’s what you see in another of the mages above: the apple ‘Gala’ So ‘Gala’ is a grandchild of ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. The parents of 'Gala' were 'Golden Delicious' and 'Kidd's Orange Red'. 
Among apple growers, the word ‘pippin’ means ‘seedling’. And ‘pips’ are seeds. George Bunyard’s little book contains recipes for using apples, and one of those recipes calls for something I’ve never seen before in a recipe: bruised apple pips. The recipe is for Apple Peel Jelly, and in addition to the apple peels and pips, it used the cores.  How’s that for frugal kitchen management! Since apple pips contain cyanogenic glycosides, I’m not sure I want to try this one before doing more research. I have a hunch that the heat used to prepare the jelly will denature the poisonous properties, but I'm not sure. 
One of my favorite apple memories involves of all things bears. Bears of course are very fond of apples. Years ago, Wayne and I drove out into the Virginia countryside to visit a friend whose place was on a mountain top accessed by a long fire road. The fire road passed through dimly lit forest for most of its length, and at the end we emerged into the clearing of several acres extent where the house is sited. In the clearing there are old apple trees here and there, and as our eyes adjusted to the suddenly bright conditions of the open field, we were treated to the enchanting sight of deer eating windfall apples under the trees. Of course, we stopped to take this in, and I’m so glad we did, because that left us privy to act two: some of the branches of one of the apple trees began to tremble, and the deer scattered. Then a fat black bear tumbled out of the tree, looked around and saw us, and then abandoned its meal and ambled off into the woods.
I think I’ve read that in the areas of central Asia where apples are thought to have originated, bears play an important part in dispersing the apple seeds.
For about a century and a half Bunyard was an important name among British fruit growers. The George Bunyard mentioned above is not to be confused with the more famous –at least among people of our times– Edward Ashdown Bunyard. For more about Edward, see here:
Parts of this post were drawn from or checked against various Wikipedia entries. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Berberis julianae C.K. Schneider

Berberis julianae C. K. Schneider

Once again I’m amazed at how much information can be derived from a botanical name. And I’m caught by surprise at how much I sometimes don’t know about what I think of as familiar plants.
The plants from which the branches shown here were cut are plants I’ve observed for more than twenty-five years. For almost all of that time, I knew them as the components of a low, boxy hedge under a low window, a hedge rigorously pruned yearly to maintain that low stature. When asked back then what they were, I said “Berberis julianae” but didn’t give it much thought.
This year the hedge did not get pruned, and it quickly transformed itself into something unexpected. If you look at on-line photos of this barberry, you’ll see plenty of photos which suggest that it is just another broad-leaf evergreen with little leaves. In fact, that’s the way I thought of it for all those years. In general, these photos do not give any indication of the disposition of the foliage on unpruned plants.  That formerly neatly pruned hedge has sprouted a crown of yard-long wands the length of each one punctuated at regular intervals with what at first glance seem to whorls of five leaves. The branches are bare between the “whorls”, and on closer examination these “whorls” are seen to be neat fans of leaves attached to one side of the otherwise bare stems. But there is more to it than that. Here’s what Bean says ( Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles the seventh edition from 1950. I’ve been lucky enough to have this three-volume set for over fifty years): As you read this, keep in mind that barberries and mahonias  are closely related. “ The morphology of the leaves and spines of barberry is interesting. In the true barberry group  [i.e. Berberis not Mahonia], the “leaf,” as we call it is really the terminal leaflet of a pinnate leaf, the side ones of which are suppressed, and the tuft of leaves as a whole is a branch in which the internodes are suppressed. Then the spine, (usually three-parted, but sometimes simple, sometimes much divided), in the axil of which the tuft of leaves is borne, is a metamorphosed pinnate leaf.”

About the name: yes, I had the right name, at least as far as spelling was concerned, but other than statements indicating that it was named for the wife of the taxonomist, there was not much more of interest. Bean was no help here, and his citation of Berberis julianae C. K. Schneider blinded me to something already very familiar to me.
 I wanted to know if this C. K. Schneider was an English Schneider (in which case his wife’s name would have been pronounced Juliana) or a German Schneider (in which case her name would have been pronounced You- lee-AH-na). So I turned to the Zander Handwörterbuch der Pflanzennamen  (which has been in print in various editions since 1927! I have the 15th edition of 1994.)  And there I got my answer quickly - and with it a reminder of how dense I can sometimes be. C.K. Schneider was none other than Camillo Schneider (Camillo Karl Schneider), Germany’s and probably Europe’s foremost dendrologist at that time. Among his other accomplishments: he published (from about 1920 to 1942) with Karl Foerster Gartenschönheit. I’ve been collecting issues of Gartenschönheit  for decades, and knew him as Camillo Schneider. He and Foerster also co-authored numerous popular garden books. The C. K. Schneider in the formal citation of his name in botanical nomenclature meant nothing to me. 

 Here's a view of Foerster's home garden; this is from the 1922 edition of his Vom Blütengarten der Zukunft :

In the days before WWI Schneider visited the Arnold Arboretum and worked briefly with Sargent and Wilson. His major work, on the genus Berberis, was destroyed before publication in the bombing of Berlin during WWII. He and Foerster both survived the war, but Schneider’s Berlin and Foerster’s Potsdam were in Russian held territory, and they lived out their lives in relative obscurity, seemingly little remembered here in the West. Foerster’s home garden fell into ruin, but has in recent years been renovated. Two of the most important people in central European botany/horticulture are all but unknown to Americans born after the war.
Now, more about that name julianae: that’s the spelling Schneider used when the name was published. The name is sometimes spelled julianiae. Why? It’s a case of dueling rules in the code. In general, botanical names based on a person’s family or personal name are to be treated as compound words.  The compound has at least three components: the family or personal name, the Latin connective letter “i”, and the final suffix indicating the grammatical function of the word. This is expressed in the case (usually genitive)  and gender of the of the word. For instance, in the epithet wilsonii, the name is Wilson, the connective vowel is “i”, and the suffix for grammatical function (case and gender) is “i”. Although we commonly think of this as a ‘Latinized” word,  only the final “ii” is Latin. 
Here’s the potentially conflicting rule in the code: in the example above, the “ii” was used because wilsonii is a compound word. Wilson is not Latin, so in order to “Latinize” it, one has to add the “i” to form a compound word and then add another “i” to indicate the case and gender.
But, if the name in question is a name actually used in true Latin, it is not necessary to form a compound word: one simply adds the appropriate suffix to indicate the grammatical function/ case and gender. For instance, the Roman male name Justus, if used for the name of a plant in botanical nomenclature, would be written justi, not justii or justusii.
Now back to julianae/julianiae: if you accept that the name Juliana was in fact a Roman name, then the proper spelling of the botanical name is julianae. If you insist that Juliana is not proper Latin, then the spelling julianiae (i.e as a compound non-Latin word using the “i” connective vowel – and this spelling has been used) or even julianaiae (which has not been used) are available. According to the USDA Plants Database/Plants Profile, the spelling “julianiae” is cited as an orthographic variant. The same USDA site gives as a tone deaf common name Julian’s barberry. How about Juliana’s barberry? It was named for Juliana Schneider, not Julian Schneider.
This is going on a bit, but I can’t pass without complaining about this pet peeve in the pronunciation of botanical names in the Anglophone word: in those words which end in -ii, why is the first “i” pronounced “ee” and the second “i” pronounce “eye”?   Except for the fact that the first i” is the connective vowel and the second one is the one indicating grammatical function/case - gender, they are the same Latin letter. They are not the English letter “i”, they are the Latin letter “i” which is pronounced  “eh” if short, “ee” if long.  And there is another important difference in Latin, and it’s an important one to know in order to place the stress correctly: the connective vowel “i” is short. And here’s something else handy to remember: in Latinized Greek compound words, the connective vowel is “o” and it is a short “o”. Some smarty-pants reading this might be thinking “how does anyone know if it was long or short, that was thousands of years ago?” If you know the Greek alphabet, you already know the answer: Greek has different letters for short “o” ο (omicron) and long “o” ω (omega).
Here is a link to an image of Camillo Schneider:

Monday, June 17, 2019

Two Hypericum

Hypericum frondosum 

Hypericum frondosum

Flowers of Hypericum kalmianum (left) and H. frondosum (right)
The multitudinous species of Hypericum are primarily spread throughout the northern hemisphere with a very few extending into the southern hemisphere. The ones likely to be seen in gardens are small shrubs, some with the reputation of having wood which is not winter hardy.  As a teenager sixty years ago much of the garden literature which most interested me was of British origin. It was there that I  learned about the (for us, tender) hybrid shrubby forms with big, very handsome flowers. These were raised from H. leschenaultii (other names are in use).
Years ago the hybrid 'Hidcote' made a big splash in local gardening circles, but it soon became apparent that its wood was not particularly winter hardy, although plants badly cut back by the cold usually sprouted from the ground later.
The two shown here, Hypericum kalmianum and H. frondosum, are native to North America. H. kalmianum is native to the northern and eastern tier of states here in the US and adjacent Canada, and one need not be concerned about its cold hardiness in local gardens. Hypericum frondosum on the other hand, is a southerner, yet it seems to thrive in local gardens. Self-sown seedlings appear now and then. Of the hypericums I know and have grown, it's the favorite. It does not suffer winter die back, and its branches with peeling bark give it the appearance of a small tree. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Magnolia 'Caerhays Belle': the debut of the Diva's daughter

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle' Photo W. Crist

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle' photo W. Crist

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle’

The 'Caerhays Belle' in my garden is approaching thirty years old. The little stick which came in the  mail back then from Gossler Farms Nursery was my tiny share of a now famed heritage. The parentage is usually given as Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta and Magnolia sprengeri var. diva. It's blooming here this year for the first time - that's a long time to wait, but if nothing else, gardening teaches us patience, doesn't it? Let's hope the diva is expressed as diva in Joan Sutherland (rarely cancels, glorious in full bloom)  and not as in Maria Callas (Madame Callas will not be receiving the public today...).

It's hard to photograph the blooms of this plant because they are about  50' from where the photographer will be standing.  The smallest jiggle of the camera (set near its maximum telescopic range) throws the field off. I've also used Wayne's birding telescope to get a good look. Of the three images, the lowest one (the one not quite in focus) is one I took this morning. The upper ones were taken a bit later today by Wayne - they are crisply in focus.

The color is hard to describe, and seems to vary throughout the day. Sometimes it's the bright pink you see in the lowest of the attached images. Sometimes it's a much darker dried-blood red. And sometimes it matches exactly the cardinals (birds) in the garden. How exactly? Although there is no shortage of roosting spots in this garden, twice I've seen male cardinals approach the developing buds and land next to them as if checking out the new competition. The first time I saw this, I thought I was looking at two magnolia buds - until one of them moved and flew away!
I'll try to get more pictures later which show the beautifully contrasting red stamens.

The Diva's daughter is quite the eye full, isn't she?

So far this debut performance consists of ten buds. Just before they start to open, the buds are maybe three inches long and the diameter of a big hen's egg. But until they start to show color they blend in very well. The buds, huge in comparison to, for instance, those of the star magnolias blooming now, are surprisingly hard to see. And they are not upright; they nod to a more nearly horizontal posture. This gives the open blooms a very fetching poise which reminds me of the blooms of the wonderful rose 'Madame Grégoire Staechelin'. Take a look here:


Friday, March 1, 2019

Is this a new pest so far unaddressed by the USDA?

It seems that March this year came in not as a lamb, not as a lion, not, as expected last night, as a snow leopard, but rather to the strains of a Rossini opera, La gazza ladra.

The buds on the willows are swelling, the birds are singing more, the hellebores, witch hazels, winter aconites, tommies, winter jasmine and snowdrops are blooming.

But, not all the signs of spring are welcome! Much as I enjoy the daily increase in birdsong at this time of year, one of the ‘’avian” visitors was definitely in the non grata category: La gazza ladra has made a visit, drawn from its lair by the blooming of the snowdrops.

While checking out the hellebores and witch hazels at the back of the garden yesterday, I had a disturbing surprise: the garden was the scene of snowdrop theft recently. Right in the middle of a wide band of long-established snowdrops there is a bare space about eighteen inches long and the width of a square-tipped shovel. Scattered nearby are some separated leaves and debris.

Although this ugly event puts me in some distinguished company, I would gladly have declined membership in this group! My garden is full of plants acquired fairly from friends: these remind me of those friendships long after the friends have moved on or the friends themselves have passed. When I have garden visitors, I sometimes identify these plants by the names of their donors. Some of you reading this are remembered in this way.

Please do me a favor: if, when visiting other gardens, the garden owner should slip and identify some snowdrops as "the snowdrops I purloined from Jim", please keep it to yourself - I don't want to know this about someone.

For those of you not into Rossini, La gazza ladra means "The thieving magpie". But of course it was not a magpie which did the deed: it was Homo sapiens galanthokleptistatus, a vile, feculent creature which seems to be on the increase.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The conversation of the crows: the crow clock

A magazine to which I am subscribed ran an article on the times when different species of birds in central Europe begin singing each morning. I’ve never seen data like that for our local birds. For  years I’ve been recording now and then the early morning bird choruses, so I’ve got some raw material of my own which might be useful in working out something like that for my backyard birds. Even with recordings it won’t be easy because in addition to the their widely recognized songs, birds produce other less readily recognized sounds.
Right now I’m focused on the calls of one particular species of bird, the local crow. The local crows have had roosts nearby for at least a half century. Human construction development has caused them to move several times, but they seem to have remained in the same general area. The enormous crow flocks we had before West Nile disease nearly eliminated the local crows, jays and starlings are a thing of the past. There was a time when hundreds, maybe thousands, of crows gathered late every day in the woods in back of the house before they flew off en masse to their roost. And once the crows were gone, the patient, knowledgeable bird watcher can wait for the next act: with the crows gone, any accipiters lurking in the woods launch themselves off to their roost.  
Although the local crow population is currently small, they are still noisy. And that noise is what interests me now. About a month ago I began to notice that the crows were arriving in our neighborhood at about 7:30 A.M. As time passed, they arrived a bit earlier. Right now, they are arriving just a bit past 7 A.M. I’ve written “arriving” but actually what I’m noticing is the time I hear them for the first time. For all I know they have been sitting out there in the trees earlier than that.  What’s certain is that those first morning crow noises are getting earlier and earlier. Sunrise now is not until 7:27 A.M., so they obviously are not waiting for the sun to rise. And after a brief arrival chat, they quiet down and I don't hear them. 
By the way, when I hear these early morning crows, I'm still deeply snuggled down into my cocoon in bed. I guess they know the truth in the old adage “the early bird catches the worm”! Maybe, but  I don't want to be the  early outdoor bird watcher who catches pneumonia!  

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Chinese ginger jar and a house of my dreams

If you read this post before today, January 8, 2019, you read an earlier, somewhat truncated version. After reading that version, Wayne suggested a number of additions and other changes. Those have been woven in below.

Most of us accumulate a lot of stuff during our lifetimes; but I'll bet that few of us leave behind any sort of documentation to help others give significance (other than monetary) to those things. Here's the story behind the Chinese ginger jar in the image above. I doubt that it's worth anything on the market, so its significance is not one of dollars and cents; but it's a tangible reminder of a neat day trip Wayne and I experienced one August day a few years ago.

During the 20s and 30s of the last century magazines sometimes contained advertisements placed by lumber companies selling house kits. One example caught my eye long ago, and when I later purchased a Dover book on 20s house designs (see the image above), I found that very house described. Judge of my surprise (has anyone else used this phrase since pre-WWII times?) when a Google search turned up a surviving example about two hours away in western Virginia. It was in a small town just east of I-81, one we pass every time we visit Wayne's mom.

We had attended a family reunion held earlier in the day in the Luray, Virginia area. When we left the reunion, we headed west, with the massive Massanutten Range spread out before us. And we could see a storm roiling and churning the valley sky on the other side of the range. When we eventually got onto Route 11 beyond Massanutten, we saw plenty of evidence of what that storm must have been like for people living there.  Evidently it was yard sale day in that part of the valley. Here and there along Route 11  we began to see the havoc caused by that powerful wind storm: items for the prospective yard sales were scattered over lawns and adjacent fields. By then it was late in the day and getting dark,  and people were scurrying about picking up the pieces.

 That storm did us a favor: I didn't have contact information about the current owners, so we just took a chance and drove by. The goal was simply to get a close look at the house, maybe even knock on the door and have a chat with the people living there now. As we approached the house, we could see activity in the driveway. We lucked out: the occupants were home and were out on the driveway picking up the pieces of their part of the yard sale. So we went up and introduced ourselves, told them why we were interested in the house, and then discovered that they evidently knew little about the history of the house.

They had no idea that nearly a century ago magazine readers would have seen that very model pictured in several publications. Those magazine photos even had a name for the house: "The House Beautiful".   When we showed them the photo of "their" house in the Dover book, it created a stir. It should have: the editors of that Dover book chose an image of that model for the front cover of their book. The book itself is a reprint of a house kit catalog originally published in 1923. Something gave me the impression that the current occupants did not own the house - maybe they were renters? And they were not prepared to have visitors inside the house. We did learn that the house had originally been built for a doctor, and he made certain changes to the basic design. These included changes to the interior floor plans and the election of an exterior other than stucco. When we saw it, the exterior had been painted with a disagreeably glossy white paint which produced a plastic-like effect on the faux block siding.

I really like stucco, and I've seen houses on the east side of the National Zoo, houses probably built a century or so ago, with stucco in good shape. I'm still hoping that a future Google search will turn up another existing example of my dream house, one in better condition and in particular one with a stucco exterior.

In the meantime, I have that Chinese ginger jar, selected from the detritus on my dream house's driveway,  to remind me to continue the search.  

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Pholcid spider's response to disturbance


Because so many of them are found in houses, spiders of the family Pholcidae are among the most frequently encountered spiders.
Although I’ve known this spider all of my adult life (it’s common in bathrooms and is widely called the cellar spider), thanks to Wikipedia I recently learned something fascinating and entertaining about it. These spiders have a messy web with no apparent pattern. Usually you’ll see them waiting near the center of the disorganized mass of web. But watch the video above to see what happens when they are disturbed. This one is in the home bathroom. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Mid-winter florist flowers and a few others

When I was a kid I was intrigued by the popularity of certain flowering house plants which in northern Europe seemed to be hugely popular but which always seemed to die quickly for me.  The Persian cyclamen is a good example: when I first tried them long ago they lasted about a week before they collapsed. The begonias of the hiemalis hybrid group are another. Back in those days I had trouble keeping these going for long, too. 

Now that I'm on a retirement income and looking for ways to economize, and now that I realize that heating an entire house twenty-four hours per day for one person is a huge waste of resources, I keep the house much cooler than most of you are probably used to. 
It took a while to get used to this, and my resolve was boosted by reading in Gilbert White's late eighteenth- century The Natural History of Selbourne of the mornings when the water kept under his bed sometimes froze on really cold nights. 

There have been some rewards to my seeming austerity. I've discovered that those Persian cyclamen from the florist thrive under these chilly conditions. So long as I keep them watered they continue to bloom for months. I've been careful to select the ones with good fragrance: the typical huge Persian cyclamens of the florists are either not scented or ill scented. The smaller sorts, closer to the wild Cyclamen persicum, sometimes have a great scent - like the fragrance of the beautician's cold cream. 

A hiemalis begonia on trial this year (the lowest of the three images above)  just gets better and better (i.e. more floriferous)  week after week. It shows no sign of slowing down.  

Right now my favorite florist flower of the season is the stock, Matthiola incana (these are probably hybrids of several Matthiola species). That's what you see in the two upper images above. The individual flowers are an inch and a half across and remind me of the blooms of Prunus mume. They are very pretty, and five stems make a handsome display. The ones in the image were purchased a week ago and still look fresh. But I've neglected to mention their best quality: the blooms have a wonderful clove scent, a scent free on the air and capable of filling the air in a still room. I've never seen these in a local garden, nor have I ever heard anyone speak of them as garden plants. Old books suggest that they are typical burn-out annuals which do not tolerate high temperatures. In the parts of England and Europe where cold summers (by eastern American standards) are the rule, they have been garden essentials for centuries. I've seen early twentieth-century German seed lists which catalog a prodigious number of varieties, few of which probably survive. 

Here's something interesting for those of you who like words: you probably know the botanical name Leucojum used for a group of early blooming amaryllis family plants. That name is derived from the old Greek words for "white" and "violet". The modern German word for stocks is Levkoje (say lef-ko-yer, where the italicized  r is not fully pronounced). It looks a lot like Leucojum, doesn't it? As it turns out, the German word is also based on the old Greek words for "white" and "violet".  I'm not sure when this word became standard in modern German; a quick look in the mid-sixteenth century herbal of Fuchs does not seem to use this word.  

The only stock I've grown in the garden is the related night-scented stock, Matthiola longipetala (long known as M. bicornis).  This is one of those annuals which one sows by scattering the seed in late winter or earliest spring. The resulting plants are nothing to look at, but when they begin to  bloom on late spring or early summer evenings,  they can stop garden visitors in their tracks - that's how powerful the delightful scent is. This used to be a garden essential, but I get the impression that few gardeners now even seem to know about it. 

There are other intensely fragrant crucifers which have similar fragrances. The dame's violet, Hesperis matronalis, is one of them. Once a garden favorite, it's apt to be given weed status now, but that amazing fragrance earns it a place somewhere in many gardens. 

Years ago, I tried to puzzle out the Russian name for a lily ( an obscure early twentieth- century hybrid raised by Russia's Luther Burbank, Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, Иван Владимирович Мичурин). The lily name was Romanized as "Fialkovaya" .  The "Fialko-" part of the name is the Russian word for violet,  фиалка.  A bad translation of the name is "orchid lily" as if the lily were named for the color orchid. But the lily was really named for its scent, and while it might have been named for violet in the sense of sweet violet or Parma violet,  I have a hunch it was named for the scent of Hesperis, a scent often likened to that of sweet violet. 

One modern Russian name for Hesperis matronalis is ночна́я фиа́лка (night violet), but a good Google search turns up other translations with a vaguely suggestive sense ( such as "mattress party violet" !). 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Grumpy celebrates Halloween

I really didn't do this, but I was so tempted.
Back in July, I was diagnosed with diabetes 2. I was tempted to put this little  horror show by the front door to greet all the little sugar bees.  

A vanishing ecosystem

Pinewoods have a distinctive flora, and when I was a kid I lived near a block of remnant pine growth. There I got to know some of the distinctive plants which grew there. When we moved to the present home in 1961, I found myself surrounded by a new flora. Sadly, many of the plants once common here are now rare or gone - I blame the deer and the  wildflower vandals.
But some of the disappearances are due to a different cause, the natural ageing out of a once dominant flora. Within easy walking distance of the house there is a patch of remnant pine growth. I've been visiting this spot for over a half century, if only for the memories it recalls. Only a few of the pines themselves survive, and under them a few of the plants characteristic of pine woods. Here you see two of them: the partridge berry, Mitchella repens and one of the pipsissewas, Chimaphila maculata. The partridge berry seems to be taking the changes in stride; the pipsissewa not so much so. That's not surprising: for success, the partridge berry mostly needs lack of competition from taller plants. The pipsissewa on the other hand evidently lives in association with soil fungi which themselves form relationships with the pines. When the soil fungi go, so too will the pipsissewas.
By then, I'll probably be gone, too. 

Watch where you step!

It was probably fifty years ago when I first read Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring. The image above provoked a memory of one of the stories in the book. It seems that the Lorenz residence included many of the animals curious zoologists tend to accumulate, including graylag geese. The geese had the run of the ground floor of the house, and their deposits littered the floor. Lorenz's grandfather, whose vision was failing, had frequent, unsanitary  encounters with these.
So when I first saw what you see in the image above, it was easy to imagine that a flock of thousands of well-fed geese had recently roosted on those ball fields.
But geese are not to blame. An aerator had recently worked the fields, and the results when wet will be just as messy as what geese leave. 


When I stepped out onto the front porch the other day, I saw this draped over the front steps. It's a black rat snake, our largest local snake. But it's probably not just any black rat snake. It's probably "our" black rat snake. And if it is, it has been seen here over and over  since it was a hatchling.  It and"our" garter snakes can be seen in the bushes along the front of the house in April and in October. They bask in the bushes, and I'm pretty sure they hibernate at the house foundation. I've long regarded the presence of snakes as proof of a well managed garden. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Terrapene carolina the box turtle

You'll probably have no idea how happy this makes me. It's been years, many years, since I've seen a live box turtle in this neighborhood. I'm glad to also say that it's been years since I've seen a dead one on local roads. If you had asked me recently about box turtles, I would have said that they probably no longer survive here. So I'm very happy today.
This one looks like a female to me. I hope she thinks this is a good place to lay her eggs.
A couple of hours after I took this picture I went back to take another look, but she had already moved on.
This made my day!  

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Passerina cyanea the indigo bunting and the urban ornithoscopist

While absentmindedly staring out the bedroom window the other day, this bit of gorgeous blue caught my eye. It was only about eight feet away, out on the deck eating grass seeds. I walked to the other end of the house to get a better view, and just then I heard the front door opening: Wayne was coming in.  I grabbed him by the arm and motioned for him to keep quiet as I whispered "indigo bunting" and dragged him to a window with a good view. I gave him the camera and he took the video you see here.

Anna waving goodbye

Friday, January 12, 2018

Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek: best buds pranking and pulling a fast one?

Yesterday Wayne and I went down to the National Gallery to see the exhibit VERMEER AND THE MASTERS OF GENRE PAINTING. It was time well and enjoyably spent. Dogs of a brown and white spaniel sort appear in several of the pictures, and we heard someone joking that the several painters all used the same dog, borrowing it one after another. This morning's Washington Post had an article on two breeds of dog now newly recognized by the American Kennel Club: one is the nederlandse kooikerhondje, a brown and white spaniel which looks just like the dogs in the mid-seventeenth century paintings. I was about to write a letter to the Post pointing out that the dogs in the Post picture looked a lot like the dogs in the paintings. When I pointed this out to my friend Jane, she responded that the Post did mention (in the later edition she read) that the dogs sometimes appeared in old paintings: in other words, as she put it, someone beat me to it.
There were also parrots in some of the paintings. The first one I spotted, from a distance, looked like an African Gray Parrot to me. But on closer inspection, it appeared to be green. Is this a case of an originally gray pigment ageing to green?
Earlier today I was looking at pictures of poppies in an on-line seed catalog. That reminded me that there is a Vermeer at the National Gallery which was not included in the exhibit: his Girl with the Red Hat. I did a post about this in 2016; take a look here:

As I looked at that face this morning, I had a bit of startling insight - or was it delusion? To me that face was familiar. And it was something I saw in the exhibit yesterday which seemed to bring several things together. The exhibit included the famous paintings The Astronomer and The Geographer. There is a tradition that A. Van Leeuwenhoek was the model for the men portrayed in these paintings. Not a lot seems to be known about the connection between Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer, but this much is known: the records of their births appear on the same page of the registry in the Delft church where these were recorded. And Van Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer's will.
Girl with the Red Hat is a bit of a puzzle. The subject of the painting is wearing an outlandish get up: there is no reason to believe that the citizens of Delft went around dressed that way. That pretty much rules out its genesis as a portrait. Nor is it a typical genre piece. The painting seems not to emphasize the quality of the garments so much as it obviously gives the artist the opportunity to display some exquisite brush work. And what is that hat made of? But what really catches the eye is that beautifully rendered face. No female face in the exhibit comes close to this one: it's so natural, so warm and alive, so real. And when I look at that face I see the same face looking out from the painting of The Geographer, the face,  it seems to me,  of a young, comely Van Leeuwenhoek.
Were Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek best buds? Are they pranking here and trying to pull off a fast one on us?
You've got until January 21 to get down to the museum and see all three paintings for yourself. The Astronomer and the The Geographer are in the big exhibit,  Girl with the Red Hat is in Gallery 50A. And is this the first time all three have been under the same roof at the same time since they left Vermeer's studio?

Monday, December 4, 2017

A mile post

My bedtime reading last night was from Richardson Wright's 1933 Another Gardener's Bed-Book. In the opening chapter he notes that the sum of the pieces he had by then written in his two Bed-Books was 730. Each of his Bed-Books contains 365 pieces, one for each day of the year.
This blog is not written on a daily basis; lately I've been lucky to do a couple of entries per month. But here's what prompted me to make this blog entry: I've now made over 730 blog posts since I started back in 2007! And while it took a lot longer for me to reach this point, at least I'm still at it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Colchicum tessellation

Tessellation in Colchicum 'Beaconsfield'

Colchicum 'Rosy Dawn' a massive but untessellated cultivar.
The two images here show the difference between tessellated and untessellated flowers in colchicums. In the image of 'Beaconsfield' you can easily see the checkerboard pattern of the color. The intensity and clarity of this pattern varies with the age of the blossom and the light conditions. In addition to 'Beaconsfield', other cultivars which show this pattern well are 'Disraeli' 'The Giant' and 'Glory of Heemstede'. In 'Glory of Heemstede' the pattern is somewhat smudged but the overall color is very good. In 'The Giant',  overall the color is pale and so the tessellation is not distinct unless the blossom is examined closely.

For contrast, the lower image shows 'Rosy Dawn', an untessellated variety. Note the lack of the checkerboard color pattern. Grow this cultivar for its massive blooms: the outer tepals are more than an inch wide in well grown examples. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Colchicum : Six large-flowered hybrids

Six large-flowered hybrid colchicums
I suspect that only those with a high tolerance for nomenclatural instability will persist long in an enthusiasm for the wild forms of the genus Colchicum. This uncertainty extends to the garden hybrids, too. Above you see six of these hybrids, six very well worth having. Some of the names date back to the pre-WWI hybridizing work of the Zocher firm. Whatever they are, they are wonderful. The enthusiasm for these plants when they were introduced  and the  sometimes hyperbolic naming  might seem excessive to us, but keep in mind that a century ago, the only colchicums likely to be seen in European gardens were forms of the diminutive European wildflower Colchicum autumnale and the ancient Colchicum byzantinum, aka Colchicum autumnale major . In comparison to those pale little ones, these big, richly colored and sometimes tessellated  hybrids are glorious, wondrous giants indeed.
In the image above you see, left to right, 'Rosy Dawn', 'Glory of Heemstede;  'Beaconsfield', 'Jochem Hof', 'The Giant' and 'Disraeli'. 'Glory of Heemstede', 'Beaconsfield', 'The Giant' and 'Disraeli' are all characterized by conspicuous tessellation.  'Jochem Hof' is notable for its intense, dark coloration. 'Rosy Dawn' is remarkable for the width of the tepals: some are over an inch wide!  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The interconnectedness of things: a bite of pizza takes me back to WWII intrigues

 PizzaCS's Margherita pizza

Jim's favorite part 

Last night Wayne and I went for pizza. There are several top-notch pizza places within a five or ten minute drive from here, and last night we tried PizzaCS  again. CS in this case stands for the Italian come sempre meaning “as always”, an allusion to their membership in the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani.  If there are such  people as pizza geeks, this is probably where they dine. There’s nothing fancy about this place, but you can get a pizza made with mozzarella di bufala and the crusts are wonderful. 

My choice was pizza Margherita, and as I munched it I absentmindedly made one of those connections that I should have made long ago. Have you ever wondered who the eponymous Margherita was? She was none other than Margherita Di Savoia, Queen of Italy at the end of the nineteenth century.

About forty years ago, with little more with me than a Eurail Pass, a camera, some cash and seemingly unlimited optimism and enthusiasm,  I spent six weeks  in England and western Europe.  While in England, the “vegetarian hostel” in which I stayed (it had an opium poppy growing in the cracks of the front steps – I’ve got a photo to keep the memory keen) had a beat-up old upright piano in the basement. Out of curiosity,  I opened the piano bench and there I struck gold: volume I of Parisotti’s 1885 Arie Antiche. My offer to purchase it was declined: "You can have it" was the proprietor/manager's response. Two pages from this are shown here, including the page dedicating the work to Margherita Di Savoia, Regina D’Italia. 

Dedication page

Title page of Parisotti's  1885 Arie Antiche

For more about Parisotti, check out this link:


For more about Queen Margherita,  check out this link:

This book might carry even more history:  written inside the cover is this: “June Forbes-Sempill, München 1939”. Is this the Hon.  June Mary Forbes-Sempill, daughter of William Francis Forbes-Sempill, 19th Lord Sempill? Was she one of the many  aristocratic young English women sent by pro-German families to Germany in the 1930s for finishing? If so, her death in 1941 at age 18, "killed by enemy action", was ironic (from thepeerage.com). Her father, Lord Sempill, was a notorious British spy employed by the Japanese. He was so well connected that he never faced charges for his traitorous activities. 

Hemerocallis in mid-September

Mid-September daylilies with companion plants
Here are some late blooming Hemerocallis combined with others plants also blooming now. The smaller yellow daylilies are 'Autumn Prince', the larger orange ones are 'Autumn King'. Mixed with them are some hardy ageratum, Tatarian aster, a lone bellflower, common bindweed, Salvia guaranitica and several sedums. 

Colchicums 2017

Colchicums with companion plants. 
Colchicums have been blooming for about two weeks now: some of the earliest ones are already over for this year. I gathered these early this morning and quickly put together this grouping. Now I'll be able to enjoy them throughout the year. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sinningia trio

Sinningia trio
I've grown to like these tall, lanky Sinningia. So far, the best way to use them in the garden has eluded me. They remind me of salvias, penstemons and even Phygelius.
The three you see here, left to right, are 'Butter and Cream', Sinningia sellovii and 'Scarlett O'Hara'. There are others, and I'm beginning to think I want them all.
They have yet to be tested by a winter in the garden; I know from experience that when dry they survive easily in a cold frame, but in recent years it's been easier to keep them dry in zip lock plastic bags at room temperature. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Smilax laurifolia

Smilax laurifolia 
Smilax laurifolia

The light green growths you see in this image are this year’s new growth on Smilax laurifolia. It’s making lots of strong new growth this year, and as you can see in the image it’s having its way with the crepe myrtle. The area caught in this image is at about the 12'-15' level. Were you to look at the top of the crepe myrtle, you would see the topmost strands of the vine waving in the breeze. It has just about reached the size where I’ll be comfortable cutting it for house decoration.  

Huernia keniensis

Huernia keniensis

My track record as a champion house plant killer notwithstanding, this little plant has survived here for over a half century. Another plant of this species was among the first items I photographed with my then new Kodak Retina Reflex camera. Those slides were processed in January 1964. Other images in that box include several of Scrapper (the family dog), a mata-mata turtle, Vipera ammodytes, and two Christmas scenes. I'll try to scan those slides and add them to this post later. 

The Huernia blooms now and then, and every few years I break it up and repot the pieces.

Huernia look like cactuses, but they are asclepiads,  related to the milkweeds. As the specific epithet suggests, this species is from Kenya in Africa. 

Gloriosa modesta

Gloriosa modesta

Gloriosa modesta

Long known as Littonia modesta, this little charmer from southern Africa at first glance hardly resembles the other members of its genus. For comparison, look here to see its more flamboyant relative, the gloriosa lily: http://mcwort.blogspot.com/2016/09/gloriosa-superba.html
Once included in the lily family, they are now in the Colchicaceae.
The flowers of this little orange one did not prove to be very enduring - they lasted only three days. The flowers of the big showy gloriosa lilies last much longer than that.
This is a new plant for me: it came from the bulb exchange of the Pacific Bulb Society; thanks, MSI!