Saturday, August 25, 2007

Monarch caterpillars

So far, this does not seem to be turning out to be a great year for monarch butterflies locally. I've seen two or three adults, but so far there are no caterpillars on the milkweed. The photo above was taken in early September last year. A day or two after the photo was taken, the caterpillars disappeared.
Casual visitors to the garden are generally clueless about plants grown to provide food for insect larvae or birds. They freak when they see a milkweed covered with caterpillars. If they are the really effete sort that faints at the sight of black-eyed-susans, they probably don't know the connection between the ragged flowers of the susans and the local goldfinches. They don't realize that there is a reason that the fritillaries are circling around the foliage of the violets.
There are those who would doubtless say that I can't have it both ways: the garden can't be both an old world pleasaunce and wildlife habitat. I can't bring myself to kill an animal just because it's a pest in the garden. And frankly, a thriving batch of caterpillars is sometimes interesting on a much deeper and more satisfying level than a bunch of plants.
However, I am about to pull up the welcome mat for deer and rabbits. But bunnies will be allowed - sometimes.

Vesper iris

The vesper iris, Iris dichotoma is blooming now. Traditionally it was thought of as the last of the irises to bloom, although the widespread availability of re-blooming bearded irises now puts the vesper iris right in the middle of the iris season. There isn't a month of the year now in which some sort of iris might not bloom, especially in gardens where they are carefully sited to take advantage of sun and wall warmth in the cold months. A cold frame will make winter bloom a certainty.

But let's get back to August and the vesper iris. It's been placed in the genus Pardanthopsis in the past, and back in the days when the blackberry lily, now Iris domestica, was called Belamcanda chinensis, the two were hybridized to produce the "bigeneric hybrid" ×Pardancanda norrisii, sometimes called "candy lilies". The "×" (strictly speaking, the multiplication sign, as in "times" or "cross") before the name Pardancanda indicates that it is a so-called nothogenus. Nothogenera are, to put it plainly, phony genera. Nothotaxa are used in horticulture to name man-made groups which do not exist in nature.

Now that the vesper iris and the blackberry lily are both placed in the genus Iris, what should the candy lily be called? Iris × norrisii maybe? That would make it a nothospecies.

I don't see the vesper iris in local gardens very often. I like any plant which comes into bloom late in the summer: they bring freshness to the garden scene, a mid-summer reminder of the vernal profusion. And the vesper iris is beautiful, useful and interesting in its own right.

This plant is often described as a perennial, although some plants die after flowering and producing lots of seed. So keep an eye on the seed pods and hold some seed just in case. They are relatively quick and easy from seed.

Why is it called vesper iris? The term vespers survived in the English language only because until relatively recently people really did attend late day or early evening liturgical services called vespers (from the Latin word for evening). The flowers of this species do not open until late in the day - around 4 P.M. here - and evidently only last part of one day: there is no matutinal service. They are visited by bumblebees.

The forms I see now are all very much alike, but in the past seed grown strains showing color variations were grown. These included forms with more or less pink and white color. I don't know if these still exist.
If I had a big garden in the country, I would be pleased to have a long border planted thickly with the dwarf and median bearded irises, roof iris, Iris brevicaulis, blackberry lilies, candy lilies and the vesper iris - with maybe some clumps of Lycoris sprengeri and L. squamigera scattered throughout. Some re-blooming bearded iris might carry the display right into the autumn.

Friday, August 24, 2007


The amazing creature above is a barred owl. This one was captured as an injured bird and nursed back to comparatively good health. It's not well enough to be returned to the wild, so it spends its life as a probably reluctant ambassador of its kind to the human population at local nature functions.

Three sorts of owls live in or around the garden. I’ve seen two of these, the barred owl and the screech owl. The third, the great horned owl, I generally only hear as a somber, oddly moving call originating off in the far distance.

For several years a screech owl lived during the fall and winter in a tree near our house. In the evening, it would move into the yew hedge along the north side of the garden. There, it would trill for hours. One night we went out with a flashlight to see if we could see it. It was only about five or so feet from the edge of our deck, and sure enough, we spotted it. It was the rufous phase, a tiny mite not much bigger than a beer can with enormous eyes.

It’s easy to imitate the trill of the screech owls, and they respond to any decent imitation. One night I sat in the garden and did this for perhaps twenty minutes in the gathering dusk. Suddenly a compact bullet of a bird shot low to the ground up one of the garden paths and flew right up behind where I was sitting.

It’s easy to understand the reputation of owls for being supernatural once you’ve been around them under the right circumstances. Years ago I was hiking along the C&O Canal in broad daylight when a slight movement just above my sight line caught my attention. I looked up just in time to see a big bird the size of a chicken take flight. At that moment my hackles rose: instinctively I was responding to the otherworldly quality of what I was experiencing. There was this really big bird only a few yards from me launching itself into the air, and it wasn’t making any noise at all that I could hear. It was as if I were watching it on TV with the volume turned off. That bird was a barred owl like the one shown above.

Last winter our neighborhood became barred owl central for a while. I heard them daily; on my evening walk with Biscuit (our dog) we passed a tree from which on several occasions a barred owl flew as we passed under it. Once one called from somewhere very near my open bedroom window and woke me from a deep sleep. Then in February a pair selected a group of old pines nearby in which to carry on. The sounds they made were amazing, nothing like the appealing woodwind tones we usually hear. Each night for about two weeks I would hear these sounds which suggested a large bird being torn apart, crying and screeching piteously all the while.

Barred owls sometimes come into the garden for a brief stay, especially in the winter. On rare occasions they will sit out in the open.

The call of the barred owl has a very distinctive sound quality: it seems to stroke your eardrum in a way which is oddly pleasurable. It’s easy to do a passable imitation of their call, too. Once while Wayne and I were birding at Huntley Meadows in nearby Virginia, I was bored and decided to call the barred owls. I think this generally embarrasses Wayne, especially when I do it in shopping malls. But sure enough, after letting out a couple of calls, I got a response from the distance. Wayne didn’t miss a beat: he said it was another birder on the other side of the property doing his own owl imitation.

More nudity in the garden

It amuses me that so many people seem to think of gardeners as reserved, dignified slow-laners. Botany in the mid-eighteenth century, improbable as it seems, was all the rage among the fashionable set. It wasn’t the plants which drew the crowd. It was the deliciously salacious nature of botanical terminology – all that emphasis on the sexual organs of plants and their functions, some of it described in language which might with equal felicity be applied to humans.

You might think that no one who has seen the underwear ads in the Sunday supplement to the newspaper would bat an eyelid at what those old books contained, but the authors of those books pursued their topics with a determination and frankness which suggests that even they might have had more than botany on the mind - more, as in political and social reform in addition to the merely naughty stuff.

So, what can we do to spice up our gardens now? I’ve never been invited to a garden party where the host read artfully selected passages from the works of Linnaeus, but who knows, it might happen. But I have planted naked ladies and naked boys, for starters. Among the more upright sorts of gardeners – probably not the ones you want to invite - these are known as lycorises and colchicums respectively. Having assembled your audience, your job is to then relate the many vernacular names in as colorful a manner as your sense of discretion allows. This recitation is best accomplished as a genteel postprandial walk through the oporanthous garden; one points shamelessly to and ogles each of the ecdysiasts as he or she is encountered. They arise tumescent and naked from the ground: there are no apparent stems or leaves to hide their glory. They blush glowingly against the bare soil of the garden.

But they are not as naughty as you might think: the naked ladies almost always depart the scene before the naked boys arrive.
In the image above is Colchicum bivonae 'Vesta', in spite of her name one of the naked boys.

Snakes in the garden

As far as I’m concerned, a garden isn’t much of a garden without snakes. The first garden had snakes, so why shouldn’t ours, too? Of course, the first garden had nudists, too, and I sometimes regret that shortcoming in my garden. In one of his stories, Beverley Nichols describes – in a rather restrained way, given the possibilities – the two strong men he hired for a day to move heavy porphyry urns in his garden. He seems to have enjoyed his supervisory function a bit too much. When he wasn’t ogling his garden help, Nichols was riding around town coaxing Dame Nellie Melba to trill for him.

There are six species of snake which turn up now and then in this garden: black rat snake, northern ring-neck snake, northern brown snake, eastern garter snake, northern water snake and worm snake. I have not given up hope that the local copperhead population still hangs on, but I have not seen any evidence of that in many years. Encounters with the worm snake, a largely fossorial species, are sporadic. The northern water snakes and eastern garter snakes come and go, probably in response to the population density of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The black rat snakes are resident, very literally so – I find their shed skins in the attic. The northern ring-neck snake and northern brown snake are also probably resident. Both are small. To find the ring-neck snakes, turn over any flat objects on the ground. In late August, the young ones sometimes turn up in the basement, often tangled up in a spider web. The brown snakes turn up here and there when I’m down close to the ground or scooping up handfuls of leaves.

I take the presence of snakes in the garden as a sign of its health: the garden supports a population of toads and an occasional frog wanders in and stays awhile. Of birds, what can I say? How about this: we go through several hundred pounds of bird seed a year. Our black snakes enjoy only the plumpest, much pampered birds. No pesticides or herbicides here, thank you. Yes, there are more weeds than most self-respecting gardeners would tolerate. But how many gardeners can expect to encounter six different sorts of snake in the course of the year?

In the photograph, you see what might be birds of a feather flocking together: the eastern garter snake at the base of the dragon arum, Dracunculus vulgaris.

Oporanthous bulbs

I think I stumbled on a useful word the other day. I had to make it up, but since I did that in the conventional way, it would not surprise me to discover that someone in the past had already wandered down the same path. The word is oporanthous, meaning flowering in late summer, and it describes exactly those late-summer blooming bulbs such as Lycoris which catalogs tend to misleadingly describe as autumnal. It was a question about the meaning of the word as a Latinized botanical name which led me to it; I merely anglicized it.

We don't really have a term to describe these plants, and there are several of them. A collected suite of them in a corner of the garden makes for a rush of interest before the main flush of autumn bloomers begins. Autumn doesn't start until the third week of September, and many of the plants which deserve to be called oporanthous have finished blooming in our climate by then.

Under my conditions, Lycoris are the preeminent oporanthous bulbs. Earlier this week I drove back out to western Virginia to photograph the plants of Lycoris squamigera seen there last weekend. This area is about one hundred miles west of home. I found the plants without trouble, but I had overlooked one important consideration. The small town where I was searching was essentially a bedroom community: I knocked on four doors without a single answer. I wasn't about to barge into gardens uninvited (although none was fenced), but one of the gardens was attached to a deserted house up for rent. That one I did enter and photograph. In that garden the Lycoris squamigera had been planted in a long row in a field; the row was perhaps a hundred feet long and full of bloom from end to end. I caught the plants in full bloom. They were shorter than the plants in my home garden, and the color of the flowers was a bit different, too: the pink buds showed a stronger blue flush (but not as much as is seen in Lycoris sprengeri) and the flowers in full bloom had a pink color with an underlying tawny quality in contrast to the relatively pure, cold pink color of the flowers of the plants at home. All of the plants seen in flower in this town seemed to be the same, and all together I saw hundreds of blooming scapes, perhaps a thousand. As I stood there looking at the plants, I could not help laughing: they reminded me of an incident many years ago when I was offered some pink-flowered bearded iris with the caveat that they were the color of women's undergarments.

Although I didn't get photos of the well placed clumps in better tended gardens, I did get photos of the plants in the field row.

If you have only seen Lycoris squamigera in bloom as a single blooming stem, you probably have no idea of the powerful presence it can be when blooming in its hundreds. I've known and grown this plant all my gardening life, and I'm still impressed whenever I see a freely flowering planting. And there is something touching about these mass plantings because in many cases the person who planted them is probably long gone. Such largesse is not achieved overnight. Further evidence that the plants have outlived their planter is suggested by the often odd ways they relate to the gardens which now surround them: they have the potential to be a dominant garden presence during their season of bloom, but as often as not seem to be placed as an afterthought. But the Lycoris were probably there first, and the garden which now surrounds them is probably the afterthought.

An old seed catalog I have (do any of you remember the Rex Pearce Seed Company of New Jersey?) offers seed under the name Lycoris squamigera - with the warning that supplies are dependent on their Chinese supplier. I have never heard of this plant setting viable seed, but the ways of nature are often mysterious.