Friday, October 26, 2007

Birthday plants

I celebrated my birthday this week. Over the years I've added a number of plants to the garden which bloom on my birthday: these are my birthday plants. Two are near the top of my list of favorite plants of any season: Crocus speciosus and fall-blooming Camellia sasanqua. In recent years another improbable one has emerged: Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'.

Crocus speciosus is virtually a wild flower here. It seeds itself around a bit, comes up here and there, and I'm never sure where I'll see it each year. Although this plant gives the impression of being as nearly permanent as any crocus in our climate, it's not. For years I watched plants reappear and bloom in the same places in the garden. This gave me the impression that it was capable of surviving over the long term under our conditions. Encouraged by this, years ago I planted them by the thousand in the lawns. For the first several years these plantings were spectacular. But over the years they have thinned out to the point that the viewer would never guess how many there once were. A big part of the problem is that when densely planted, the pickings are easy for the squirrels and probably voles, too. I've seen the squirrels dig them from the lawn. I've never actually seen a vole eat anything (in fact, I've actually seen voles only a few times).

The camellias here have a history which makes me proud: I raised most of them from seed. Nearly forty years ago I visited a local public garden with an extensive camellia planting in October. The plants were full of seed, seed being enthusiastically collected by squirrels, chipmunks and rats. I asked permission, got it, and filled my pockets with fresh seed of Camellia sasanqua, C. oleifera and C. japonica cultivars. Back home, I built an impromptu cold frame, sowed the seed, and then mostly forgot about it. The years passed, they accumulated into decades, and eventually the camellias began to bloom. Most are Camellia sasanqua, a few are clearly C. oleifera, and three or four are C. japonica.

The Camellia japonica have few-petaled flowers of a sort of pink-red. When a snowstorm catches them in bloom, the effect is very poetic. The C. oleifera seem to be typical examples of that species: white fragrant flowers on plants with foliage distinct in small ways from that of typical C. sasanqua.

The Camellia sasanqua are one of my birthday plants. The flowers, in various pinks and white, have only a few petals and an unusual and very agreeable scent. I esteem them more for this scent than anything else. When the bushes are in full bloom, they enliven their corner of the garden; but it's the scent I crave.

In recent years I've added another plant to my birthday list. This is the improbable one. Who would have thought that Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi' would have survived outside 24/7/365 for nearly a decade in this garden? But it has, and each year it goes up to seven or eight feet high and then, with each full moon of late summer and fall, produces its prodigiously fragrant flowers. These start out pale yellow orange and mature a rich pumpkin orange if the weather is cool. It's in bloom today in the cool rain.

The rain: finally it's raining. I won't complain if it goes on for another week. But the overcast sky means no pictures for now: I'll post photos of the Crocus, Camellia and Brugmansia later. I hope 'Charles Grimaldi' waits.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hyacinthus orientalis 'Borah'

Garden hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis, have been in this garden as long as I have. I've always liked them, and I wouldn't want to be without at least a few every spring. However, they are all pretty much cut out with the same cookie cutter, and other than color the group varies only within very narrow limits.
I've long cherished a clump of Roman hyacinths, but other than those and the score or so of typical cultivars I've grown (both single and double), I've never looked much into the variation in cultivated hyacinths.
Last night I picked up an old paperback bulb book from 1975, Rob Herwig's 128 Bulbs You Can Grow. And in reading the account of hyacinths, I was both reminded of something I had forgotten about and also prompted to think I might be understanding something in retrospect which I didn't fully understand before. Herwig discusses the hyacinth cultivar 'Borah', aka Fairy Hyacinth. What, in the greater scheme of things hyacinth, is 'Borah'?
Evidently it is not one of the so-called Cynthella hyacinths marketed during the first half of the twentieth century (Cynthella is presumably short for "hyacinthella" - "little hyacinths" and not to be confused with the genus Hyacinthella). Cynthella hyacinths were nothing more than small bulbs of the same cultivars sold as garden or forcing hyacinths. They produced smaller inflorescences than those of full-sized bulbs. As far as I'm aware, hyacinths are no longer sold in the Cynthella sizes.
Several years ago, a new class of garden hyacinths called Festival Hyacinths appeared on the market. These are not Cynthella hyacinths. They are hyacinths which whatever their bulb size produce only multiple, relatively few-flowered stems which mimic those of the old Roman hyacinths. The Festival Hyacinths are marketed in colors, as Festival Blue, Festival White and Festival Pink. I assume these are clones.
Here's where I'm going with this: is that old cultivar 'Borah' a member of the Festival group? Is 'Borah' the plant now sold as 'Festival Blue'? Or is it a precursor of the Festival Hyacinths, derived from similar breeding lines?
And finally, is 'Borah' still in commerce under that or another name?

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Wayne was moving pots on his patio the other day, and this head popped up to say hello. Luckily he had his camera handy. Wayne's garden is right beside Rock Creek Park, too, so we get some of the same visitors. It's been so dry this year that very few toads have been seen. That's true for slugs, too, although I can't imagine anyone regretting the lack of slugs.

Of all the woodland sprites which occasionally visit our gardens, for me toads are the most welcome. They congregate in the lily pool yearly to breed. There will come a time, usually in April, when there will be dozens of them clumsily splashing around in the water. The males will be singing, some hidden in waterside vegetation, some right out in the open. This goes on for several nights, and then in much smaller numbers for weeks. Soon the pool swarms with tiny black tadpoles, and then the day comes when the ground in the garden is alive with what at first glance look like hopping flies. I try not to go out into the garden during this time because it's just about impossible to move without stepping on a baby toad.

One of the pleasures of late winter is to sit in the garden on a mild night and listen to the toads moving slowly up through the garden to the pond. You have to listen carefully because all you'll hear is the occasional leaf moving. The males seem much less cautious than the females, and typically they arrive at the pond first. Nor do the females seem to linger at the pond as the males do.

After a shower on a mild late winter or early spring evening, parts of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park will be littered with dead and dying toads. Don't drivers ever look down at the road?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sansevieria kirkii

Years ago, probably at least twenty-five years ago, I was touring a local garden when I spotted a plant which stopped me in my tracks. At the time, I was growing some of the older Cryptanthus hybrids with large leaves in leaden colors. There in front of me was a plant I couldn't place. It sort of looked like one of the Cryptanthus, but then again it didn't. It sort of looked like a bromeliad, but not really. What was it? I asked, and the answer surprised me more: it was a Sansevieria, in particular one known as S. kirkii pulchra. I was so intrigued I forgot my manners and immediately begged a piece.
It's as easily grown as the other common members of the genus, and here it blooms almost yearly in autumn. The plant stays outside all summer, and in most years is still outside in November. I keep it outside as long as hard freezes don't occur. More than once the developing flowers have been frosted: that's not good! If the flowers are fragrant, I have not noticed it yet. I keep checking them at various times of day, but so far no fragrance.
Two of my high school teachers had the coolest rooms in the school. Miss Cross, the music teacher, had a second floor suite of rooms all to herself. All of the windows on the long side of the largest room had planters of Boston ferns. Miss Boyer, the biology teacher, had a big room with a massive old aquarium bigger than a bath tub. That room also had Sansevieria, the familiar S. trifasciata. When I returned to school after the summer break, I would notice the dried scapes of the Sansevieria: they had bloomed during the summer when the school was closed. I assume they sat there dry and neglected all summer.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More asters

Here are two more asters; these bloom in early- to mid-October. The one in the top image is 'Raydon's Favorite', a cultivar of Aster oblongifolius (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). The lower image is of Aster cordifolius (S. cordifolium). Both of these were photographed in late afternoon light when the sun was already low in the sky: this enhances the cool colors.
Aster cordifolius seeds itself around in this garden, for the most part inoffensively. The colors of the original stock were pale mauve, but the seedlings seem to be getting bluer over the years.
The late blooming asters are my favorites. Hmmm.....didn't I already say 'Bluebird' was my favorite? Any aster in full bloom is my favorite!
While looking at 'Raydon's Favorite' yesterday it occurred to me that the flowers look like those of Anemone blanda. Now I think of this aster as the Anemone blanda bush.
If you are not a botanist, you will probably be surprised (or simply confused) to hear that what we call a flower in an aster is in fact a much compressed branch with dozens of individual flowers of two types arranged in a flower-like formation. That's why the members of the greater group to which asters belong are called composites: what looks like a single flower is in fact a group of many flowers, a composition as it were.

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Mossy-cup oak

Virtually all of my life I've been lucky enough to live in close proximity to oaks. To this day I remember the important oaks of my childhood. The most massive trees in our area are apt to be oaks, and there is an oddly satisfying pleasure to be had in viewing them. Or at least there is for some of us. I had a neighbor in the past who never saw a tree he didn't want to saw down: the bigger the tree, the greater the challenge. A magnificent white oak grew on his property, and he wasn't happy until he had taken it down.

The very existence of such massive living things, things which have been there for decades - sometimes centuries - suggests that the world, if we give it a chance, is more stable than we are apt to give it credit for. At least some of us take satisfaction in that thought.

The tree shown above is the still magnificent Elkton, Virginia mossy-cup oak. The acorns shown in the lower images are from trees growing in the home garden. Botanically, the plant is Quercus macrocarpa - the macrocarpa part is a reference to the big acorns, reportedly the largest of any North American oak.

I first saw this species in the wild in central Texas about forty years ago while I was in military service. But by then I had already become aware of it from the trees which grew along the old Olmstead Walk on the grounds of the National Zoological Park. It was there that I first noticed the comparatively huge acorns with their fringed cups. Sometime in the 1970s I collected some of these acorns and planted them in the garden. Two grew, one of them much more rapidly than the other. They are now big trees, the larger one in particular. This provides some solace for the fate of the parental trees: they were cut down several years after I collected those acorns. Why?

They fruit here only erratically. This year the acorn crop is very heavy. The last heavy acorn crop here was well over ten years ago.
I've called this species mossy-cup oak in this account; the name bur (or burr) oak is more widely used.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Asters and colchicums

This composition was photographed last autumn. In addition to colchicums and asters there are hardy ageratum, morning glories and sedum. The colchicum is the one sometimes named 'byzantinum album' or 'Innocence'. For our climate it is probably the best large, white-flowered colchcium. The morning glories have been in the garden for so long I forget their source or their name. They self-sow freely. They are very attractive with garden cleome, too.