Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Last Day of the Year

As the weather allows, I’m still working out in the garden. Temperatures today reached the mid-forties and it was sunny. Ordinarily that would be good weather for garden work, but today the wind was terrific and relentless. I spent about two hours in the early afternoon working with the plants in the protected cold frame. It was good to see that many of the Narcissus of the cantabricus-romieuxii sorts are budded and should be in bloom soon. Two of the tazettas, 'Ziva' and Narcissus pachybolbus, have scapes up, too.

There are fresh flowers of Crocus ochroleucus in one of the unprotected frames, and some Crocus longiflorus on their last leg are still colorful. All of the fall-blooming crocuses were plated very late this year, and so in effect I lost this year of bloom (although some are still trying).

Tomorrow I’ll do the official New Year’s Day count. I’m not expecting much: the temperature is expected to drop into the low 20s F by morning.

Lycoris aurea of commerce has produced a thick clump of foliage this year, and that’s raising hopes that it might bloom next fall. This grows in the protected frame: the foliage will typically not survive our winters in the open ground. Several of these have been acquired from various sources during the last two years; they all agree in having yellow-green foliage. The plants grown in the past had much darker foliage. All of this adds to the anticipation of the first flowers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Season's Greetings Everyone!

A forty-foot pergola divides the garden into two unequal parts. The near side of the pergola forms the wall of the pool garden. In the center of this side of the pergola is an oculus, an eye-shaped opening which allows a view along the garden's main long axis. Here you see the oculus in its holiday season dress.

Welwitschia mirabilis

The Welwitschia gave me a scare about two weeks ago. It went from a healthy green to a pale, dull green with much too much yellow. It was still green, but it reminded me of pea soup.

I've had this plant for eleven years now; I acquired it as a one-year old seedling in 1997. It was raised from Silverhill seed by a member of our local rock garden group. Earlier this year I acquired more fresh seed from Silverhill, but I have not attempted to germinate it yet. I sent Rachel Saunders a photo of my eleven-year-old plant. When I did this, a little voice warned me that some envious demon lurking in the background might interpret this as the sort of boasting which merited a bit of taking down. So when my plant began to lose color, I momentarily wondered if I was getting what I asked for.

My first impression was that I might have over-watered the plant. I carefully tipped the pot sideways to see if any water would drain out. But there was no sign of water. Then I tried to remember the last time I had watered the plant. Hmmm......maybe it just needs a drink. So I watered it. Within a few days the good, healthy color began to return and I breathed a major sigh of relief. I'm very attached to this plant. I expect it to be the Gila monster of my adult life (when I was a kid I had a Gila monster which lived for a bit over twenty-five years).

Several years ago the Welwitschia put on another, more dramatic scare. Again, it was shortly after I brought it in for the winter. For several days it sat in my bedroom far from any window and without any supplementary light. And then it happened: its usual healthy green color began to change. The color became streaked with mustard yellow and rusty red. At one point most of the surface of the leaves was brilliant iridescent blue such as is seen in Selaginella uncinata. It was a bizarre sight, and I was panic stricken. But after a few days under fluorescent lights the odd colors began to fade, and eventually it was back to normal.

When I'm a very old man I might will this one to some public collection; but for now it's staying put.

Friday, November 21, 2008

November, the busiest month of this gardener's year

If you go back and look at the postings from 2007, you'll notice that there were no postings in November. Today's post might very well be the only one for November of this year. Here's why: November is the busiest month of the gardening year for me. On top of that, it's also a hard month to get good value for your time: not only are the days getting shorter, but the sun is low in the sky and frankly very annoying. Luckily, the sunshine is abundant, and it usually takes the edge off the bite in the wind. We'll soon be reaching the point where the sun will rise hours before the ground defrosts enough to work - if it defrosts at all.

This is the time of year I rework the garden; it's the time of year when the plans for next year are put in place. It's prime transplanting time for most herbaceous and woody plants. And this year, more than anything else, it's bulb planting time.

Beginning in late May, I dug as much of the bulb collection as I could. Little by little I've been replanting it during the last few weeks. There is a lot of documentation involved, and that really slows things down. New beds have been prepared.

In addition to that, I binged on tulips again this year. The last time was about five years ago. What do I mean by binging on tulips? I bought one each of every tulip on offer in local garden centers and ordered others from mail order suppliers. I do this every so often just to see what these tulips look like in real life.

In the past I let these tulips on their own after blooming, and as a result most did not survive for long. Then, years ago, I noticed a place in the garden where the tulips persisted indefinitely and bloomed yearly. The plants got smaller, and the clumps got thicker, but they were still there and evidently thriving. This was happening at the edge of a dry-walled raised bed: the drainage there must have been excellent. I tried another group of tulips in a different raised bed and five years later they are still blooming freely each year.

The simple truth about tulips, a truth about which almost every tulip grower in this area is in deep denial, is that under typical garden conditions tulips must be dug for the summer.

Raised beds provide one alternative to digging.

Once you realize that yes, you can grow tulips in this area and have them year after year, it's hard to resist the urge to collect them in all their wondrous variety. In a small garden such as this one, there is hardly room for one of each of everything available - and that's with close spacing. For years I tried growing them in the ground with labels buried with the clumps, but that system was not really satisfactory. For one thing, once the plants had died down, it was difficult to locate the clumps - and to be sure where one clump ended and the next began. At digging time there were always mix-ups - with the result that the stocks became mixed. And often bulbs were missed altogether.

Last year I tried planting bulbs in plastic berry baskets. I've been very pleased at what a difference this makes: now I can grow hundreds of varieties closely spaced without any serious concerns about mixing bulbs. The digging goes quickly, too.

In the image above you see the back edge of the raised north border where the main concentration of the "one-of-each" tulip collection is growing this year (the site rotates from year to year). There are over two hundred different cultivars planted here.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Clerodendron trichotomum

Wayne and I visited our friends Hilda and Charlie last week, and Hilda sent me home with a handful of seeds of Clerodendron trichotomum. This is one of those plants which is not as common in gardens as its several merits might suggest it would be. In our climate it's a low shrub. The white flowers are deliciously fragrant and are followed by bright blue fruits backed by the red calyx: as a result, it has a long season of interest. The foliage has the usual disagreeable scent of the family, but that scent is not noticeable until the foliage is rubbed or crushed.
Look carefully and you can make out a bit of the red of the now dried calyces and maybe even a bit of the now dark blue of the fruit.

Almond crown

The good baking weather continues, and this week there was this almond crown to enjoy. The filling was based on ground cardamon, almonds and orange zest - a nice, old-fashioned suite of flavors. This one disappeared very quickly!

Crocus kotschyanus with acuminate tepals

The crocus in the image above is Crocus kotschyanus, the crocus known to generations of gardeners as Crocus zonatus. I spotted this years ago in the lawn of a neighbor of a friend. I could see from a distance that it was Crocus kotschyanus, but I could also see that it was different from the usual forms I grow. When I got up close I noticed that the petals were pointed - acuminate in botanical terminology. This is not typical for this species, although it is for Crocus vallicola, a species in which the points are much drawn out. Crocus kotschyanus and Crocus vallicola share several characteristics, and their ranges overlap: is my plant from a hybrid population?

It was several years more before I was able to dig some corms for the garden, but it is now growing here well.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Woolly bear

What does the woolly bear say? I don’t know, but here is its picture and maybe you can figure it out for yourself. I found this one the other day while walking Biscuit. Now that it has had its picture taken, I’ll release it in the garden.

Crocus oreocreticus

This crocus was received in the summer of 2005 but is blooming for the first time this year. The members of the saffron group of crocuses appeal to me greatly. Crocus oreocreticus has a fragrance which suggests the typical saffron crocus fragrance with a strong overlying note of hyacinth. This and another member of the saffron group, Crocus thomasii, are worth growing for their fragrance.
One of the reasons this plant took so long to bloom might be that it grows in a pot in the cold frame. I grow the plants in the frame in a very lean medium and do not water them much. As a result, many of them give little increase and simply maintain themselves from year to year. I’m still learning how to manage these plants: this year Crocus oreocreticus will probably be planted out into a bed in the open.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tricyrtis macrantha

The genus Tricyrtis provides a number of interesting late summer-, early fall-blooming herbaceous perennials with, as a rule, upward-facing, star-shaped spotted flowers. As with so many plants touted for shade tolerance, they actually do even better with plenty of sun. As a group they are called toad lilies. The one shown here, Tricyrtis macrantha, is so different from the others that you might not realize what it is the first time you see it. The flowers remind me of those of some fritillaries or of those of Kirengeshoma palmata. If you tilt them up a bit, you will be able to see the profuse red spots on the inside - again, much in the style of some fritillaries. Not only is it beautiful and unusual, it is also easily grown.

I had hoped that this would bloom with some of the autumnal gentians, but this year at least it finished before the gentians started.

Cuphea 'Fireworks'

I've purchased what appears to be this same plant under several names over the years; the name I'm using here is the name which came with the most recent acquisition. This plant is sometimes called bat flower because the two large petals suggest the ears of some bats. Cuphea belongs to the Lythraceae and is thus related to crepe myrtle and Lythrum. There is a local native species, too; it's not of much decorative value.

This year 'Fireworks' gave better results than any other sorts tried in the past. It grows in a tall, narrow terra cotta pot on the front steps; it gets plenty of sun there. It thrives in heat and humidity. It's particularly beautiful in the late afternoon sun - that's when these images were taken.

Cyclamen persicum

Hybridists have sent the wild Cyclamen persicum on a wild ride over the centuries. The wild plant, the largest of the wild cyclamens, has been bred to be even larger, and in the process the fragrance of the wild ancestor has been largely lost. The result is the so-called florist's cyclamen, a staple of the winter window-sill garden. These big plants are good for providing lots of color for months; but the typical American home is too warm for them, and thus that potential is rarely reached. And although the wild forms grow in areas which experience freezing weather, these big plants are not for the open garden in this area.

There are also dwarf forms of the florist's cyclamen, and these often have good fragrance. That same day I purchased the plant of azalea 'Autumn Belle' I spotted a tray of florist's cyclamens. I was initially drawn by the color, but as I got over the plants a very pleasant fragrance became apparent. I picked up a red-flowered plant, gave it a sniff, and quickly put it down - nothing nice there! A pink-flowered plant gave the same result. And then I tried a white-flowered plant: that's where the great fragrance was coming from. This one came home with me: that's it in the image above.

It's in the cold frame now: its chances are better there than inside the house. Will it survive the winter in the cold frame? We'll see. I hope it does because it's loaded with flower buds, enough for it to carry on for weeks and weeks it would seem. And there is a particular pleasure to be had in opening the cold frame and getting a rush of sweet fragrance.

Encore azalea 'Autumn Belle'

A trip to one of the local big box stores recently resulted in two impulse purchases which promise to make the next few weeks even more enjoyable. Here's the first of them, one of the new and much advertised Encore azaleas. These are azaleas bred to bloom off and on throughout the season. Their blooming schedule is probably like that of the old Hybrid Perpetual roses: a big splash in the spring, bloom off and on throughout the summer, then another splash in the autumn. Or is it? Time will tell.

These Encore azaleas are available in a narrow range of colors in the magenta-blue red range; there are also white-flowered sorts. Are any of them fragrant? Fragrance is not mentioned in the advertising.

The one I bought is 'Autumn Belle', a sort of warm salmon pink with red-pink spots. At the edges of the petals are white areas, which look as if they had been splashed and streaked on. The resulting pattern is striking and reminds me of the patterns caused by color breaking virus in some plants, and it also reminds me of the color patterns seen in some of the azaleas grown for winter bloom indoors as houseplants.

One use for this handsome plant immediately comes to mind: pair it with the autumn blooming camellias. Camellias and azaleas in the garden during October and November: that's going out in style!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Smilax laurifolia

Some of the plants I'm most proud of are apt to engender perplexity in some garden visitors. The several members of the genus Smilax which grow here are good examples. These are tough plants, not easily removed when they get in the way of horticultural or agricultural activity. Some are herbaceous, but most are thorny, more or less evergreen vining plants. Even in those forms in which the foliage does not survive the winter, the stems remain green and conspicuous.

Several of them form nearly impenetrable thickets, and several are prodigious vines. Another of these robustly vining sorts, Smilax smallii, was discussed in an earlier entry:
The subject of this entry is the biggest of the North American species, Smilax laurifolia. It goes right to the tops of trees and forms thick, trunk-like stems, bare of foliage sometimes for the first thirty or so feet. It's a stunning plant, nothing like anything else in our native flora. Surely there must be at least one Victorian writer who deemed it antediluvian. To me it looks like something from a tropical rain forest.

Back in the early '90s Wayne and I were birding in far southern eastern Virginia shortly after a big storm had gone through the area. That storm was my friend: I had been trying to collect seed of this species for years, but the seed was always forty feet up in the trees. That day I was in luck: we found a big tree which had come down in the storm, and the tree was wreathed in Smilax laurifolia. And the Smilax was full of ripe fruit.

All the Smilax I've grown from seed have been very slow, and this species is no exception. Years after the seed was sown all I had to show for my efforts were tiny plants to be measured in inches. But they got better yearly, and three years ago they finally began to put on size. Now they put on about four feet yearly. The largest is being trained into position with the idea of letting it cover part of the deck railing.

This largest plant provided a surprise this year: it bloomed for the first time. It has yet to experience a really biting winter here. But in nature it ranges at least as far north as coastal New Jersey, so I'm expecting to do well in the long run.

Iris foetidissima 'Citrina' in fruit

You wouldn't know it from the picture, but this is the form of Iris foetidissima with pale yellow flowers. The seed pods are beginning to open now, and for many gardeners the brightly colored seeds are the only reason to grow this plant. These remain interesting and colorful for months, well into the winter.

Bessera elegans

What a charmer this one is! And it's easily grown. Give it what in the old days we called "gladiolus culture" : i.e. plant the corms out in a sunny spot after the danger of severe freezes is over, and in the autumn dig the corms and after they are dry pop them into a zip-lock bag and store them inside for the winter. I started with three corms last year; they did not bloom or increase. But this year they are blooming. It's being treated as a pot plant for now: however you grow it, keep in mind that you will want to get close to it to examine it well. The foliage is nothing more than three or four rush-like leaves about eighteen inches long.

I think I first had this about forty years ago from Zephyr Gardens in San Antonio: back then, I thought of it as one of those many Mexican bulbs which at the time seemed so elusive. It's now grown as a field crop in Holland for both the cut-flower and bulb trades.

Puff pastry

Several days of cool, dry weather got me into the baking mood. Cool, dry weather is ideal for making puff pastry, and I didn’t let this spell go to waste. Here’s one of the results: a puff pastry log with walnut-raisin filling. Yummy!

Habenaria radiata

The winsome little bloom shown above is the Egret Flower, a tiny Japanese and Korean bog orchid named Habenaria radiata or Pecteilis radiata. It's very easily grown: the one shown grows in a pot of sandy peat kept moist in full sun. The plant grows from a corm about the size of a sweet pea seed. This plant is winter hardy here and can be grown in bog gardens, but it is so tiny that it is apt to be overwhelmed by neighboring plants.

Among gardeners it is widely known as Pecteilis radiata. This name Pecteilis was coined by one of the really colorful characters in the history of early nineteenth century taxomomy, Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz. He was born into an Italian family near Istanbul in 1783 and died an American citizen in 1840 in Philadelphia. He spent years in Kentucky. Rafinesque evidently didn't hesitate to name anything which came his way: those were the days when taxonomists shot from the hip, and Rafinesque shot plants, animals, whatever fell into his hands.

Achimenes 'Cattleya'

Achimenes 'Cattleya' 
On first consideration I shouldn’t like achimenes: the ones I grow are not fragrant, they are not frost hardy, they duplicate colors and growth habits seen in garden impatiens and petunias, and they are slow to come into bloom. Yet there is something about these plants which is very appealing: is it their poise? They present themselves very pertly. Allowing for a couple of quirks, I find them easy to grow.
The one shown here is Achimenes 'Cattleya' (when this post was originally made, I called it Achimines mexicana).
 Achimenes had their glory days in the mid to late nineteenth century: hybrids proliferated then, including several which are still grown today. Present-day enthusiasts live in the shadow of those days: although the color range is wider today, the number of cultivars available is much reduced.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Moire (or is it moiré?)

Wayne wrote to me asking if the colors in the images of the hybrid Japanese morning glories were accurate. I assured him that they were, and then went on to describe the watered-silk pattern of merging and blending colors seen in some of these amazing blossoms. As I was talking, I was about to use the word moiré, but realized that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. This is the word which precisely describes the watered-silk pattern.

As it turns out, the word is pronounced as both a single syllable word and a two syllable word. Evidently there is no generally recognized difference in meaning, although according to the wikipedia entry on this word the single syllable form is prevalent among those discussing fabrics, and the two syllable form (at least two syllables as pronounced in English) is prevalent in other contexts (such as this one, where I’m discussing color pattern).

Although the word came into English from French, evidently it is not a French word but rather Arabic (and some say ultimately from the Latin marmoreus, marble-like). And just as interesting, the word mohair apparently shares the same origin.

Believe it or not, the two images shown above are of the same blossom. The upper one was taken early in the morning, the lower one late in the afternoon on a rainy day. Evidently the blue pigments are not as stable as the red ones. The image of the blossom in its purple/blue phase was taken in natural light, the red phase was photographed under incandescent light with the camera light meter adjusted for that.

When the first flowers from this lot of seed began to bloom, I wasn't sure I liked them. But they have grown on me, and I can see them becoming favorites.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Japanese hybrid morning glories

The Japanese morning glories can be grouped into two sorts: those which are derived only from Ipomoea nil, and those which are hybrids of Ipomoea nil and I. purpurea. The Ipomoea nil sorts have been grown in western gardens for well over a century. The hybrids are relatively new. The name used for the hybrids is Ipomoea × imperialis.

The ones I’m growing this year are those sold as Mt. Fuji Mix. These appear to be the result of several distinct but similar breeding lines - that is to say, flower color is evidently not the only feature which distinguishes the plants. In the group planted here this year, there have been (only) two colors: a rich purple blue and a pale, dusty pink. So far the vines are at best four feet long and the sparse foliage, sometimes marked with silver-white splotches and streaks, is not much bigger than that of bindweed (although shaped differently).

I gave these what for me has in the past always been appropriate morning glory treatment: I planted the seed and then forgot them. The less than spectacular results I’m getting tell me that these Japanese hybrid sorts require better treatment. In Japan they are typically pampered as pot plants.

Google morning glory and Japan in English and you should hit some links which will get you started on seeing how they are grown and shown in Japan. If you are adventurous, confine your hits to results in Japanese. The Japanese have cultivated the arts of presentation and staging to high degree. Until the Internet made so much available, this was unknown to most of us: now a bit of time spent with a good search engine will result in glimpses of Japanese morning glory shows, tree peony shows, iris shows, chrysanthemum shows, camellia shows – even goldfish shows. Try it: I’m sure you’ll agree that it was time well spent.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Of the tropical hibiscus, this one is probably the most widely grown. The flowers now come in a bewildering range of colors, some a far cry from the plain red flowers I saw as a child. The cultivar shown here is ‘Cashmere Wind’. The beautiful blooms last only one day but are produced freely. This is a very thirsty plant: if not watered once and sometimes twice a day, it begins to show signs of desiccation. I can see why someone in a suitable climate might want to start a collection of these.

Oxblood lily

There is a range of bulbs which bloom in late summer, before the official start of fall. Many of them are amaryllids, and they bring to the garden a fresh, vivacious, flamboyant glamour which really helps to perk things up during the dog days. Even the names used for these plants have a sort of humor and spark which lift our spirits as the heat and humidity pull them down. This is hurricane season, so some of these plants are called hurricane lilies. Because they push up blooming stalks right from the earth without accompanying foliage, some have variously been called naked ladies and naked boys.

Here’s a South American variation on this theme. This is Rhodophiala bifida, a plant native to far southern South America. Curiously, sometime in the recent past (i.e. the past four hundred years) this plant was introduced to Texas and became both established and widely distributed. In the English-speaking world it is widely called oxblood lily: the color of the flowers explains that.

The spathe of this plant was poking a bit above ground several weeks ago, but nothing more happened. Last week hurricane Hanna passed nearby and brought with it nearly torrential rains. The Rhodophiala sprang into action, and almost overnight the scape had reached a height of eight or ten inches.

Here in zone 7 Maryland we are probably near the northern limit for its successful cultivation in the garden. A group I planted decades ago survived in the open near a wall for years, but eventually they became much debilitated by narcissus bulb fly and disappeared. The plant in the image grows in a cold frame, where it was planted into the soil of the frame. This seems to be an ideal arrangement in our climate.

The garden worthy flora of Chile is getting a lot of attention now, and one result of this is the importation of seed and plants of several other species of Rhodophiala in other flower colors. I’m trying some of these from seed now: maybe in a few years I’ll have some more pictures.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


What would summer be without tomatoes, corn, peaches - and crabs, plenty of salty, succulent Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. My niece and her hubby live near the water and love to crab. And the rest of us love to eat crabs: what a team! Mema, the matriarch of our family, celebrates her birthday in early July (this year, the 88th), and for the last couple of years we've enjoyed a big crab feast to mark the event. This year it was about a month late, but it was worth the wait.

My niece Ashley and her hubby Drew got up at about 4 A.M., drove out to the bay, crossed the bay and set up off Kent Island. They use crab pots, and they're good at it. Half a hundred crabs later they're back in the car and on the way home. Sometime in the early afternoon the unmistakable aroma of steamed crabs begins to permeate their yard. Soon the picnic table is covered with coarse brown paper, the hammers, knives and napkins are out, the drinks appear (soon to disappear and be replaced!) and the expectant crowd surrounds the table. Then Drew, master crab cooker, opens the pot and begins to arrange the crabs on the table. There were a lot of them this year, lots of huge Jimmys heavy with yummy crab meat.

And then begins the merry clatter of a summer afternoon of crab picking, something we Marylanders know how to get into. Last summer my friend Hilda in Virginia taught me to pick crabs Northern Neck style, and I tried to demonstrate - but the crabs were so good that the lesson quickly disappeared into my mouth.
In the top picture, you see Ashley and her Mema; in the next one, left to right, Ashley, Mema and Drew; the next picture shows some of the crabs; then there are photos of remains after five stuffed Marylanders have kicked back and settled into a postprandial near coma. Boy they were good! In the last picture, nine-month old Ashton Frederick perks up as if to say "what smells so good?"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Northern Ring-neck Snake

One of the advantages of gardening green and living next to a park is that all sorts of interesting little creatures move into the garden and take up residence. It’s mid-August now, and that means it’s baby ring neck snake time. For years I’ve been finding these in the basement at this time of year. When I find them they are often tangled up in a spider web. Wayne, who lives about a mile south of me and on the same side of the creek around which the park is centered, finds them in his bedroom and living room tangled up in the fibers of the carpet. He rescued the one shown above from the carpet: after taking the image above he released the snake.

The ring neck snake here is the northern ring-neck snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi. The generic name is an allusion to the bright golden ring around the neck (think diadem), and the specific epithet is a reference to the spots on the abdomen in some other subspecies but not on the northern subspecies.

These small snakes are probably a lot more common than we realize, but they are very secretive. If you are in likely habitat, turn over any flat objects lying on the ground: these snakes are often found in such situations. They are relatively slow moving (at least when first uncovered) and harmless to humans. They might however excrete a malodorous fluid if molested.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t remember when I first became aware of garden nasturtiums. They were among the familiar flowers which grew in the neighborhood gardens of my childhood, and they might in fact have been among the plants my mother planted each year around our Silver Spring home. And I think I remember the thick clusters of black aphids which cluster under the leaves as well as I remember the flowers, their fragrance or their taste.

Nasturtiums have personality: they are distinctive, and you’re unlikely to confuse them with anything else. The seeds are so big and easily grown that generations of writers have recommended them for children’s gardens. The seeds look like small chick peas. They bloom in familiar colors; I think of their color range as the color range of wall flowers – reds, yellows and those very dark red-browns and tans. They manage to be easily grown and familiar, and yet at the same time they retain a mysterious, sophisticated quality.

The ones shown here are from a packet of seed labeled “Jewel Mix” as distributed by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Garden nasturtiums, which are by nature perennials, are available in climbing forms, semi-climbing forms and forms which grow as compact clumps. The flowers are single or semi-double in the usual seed raised forms, but fully double forms propagated from cuttings are sometimes available. The flowers come with and without spurs; the ones without spurs are apt to face upright. My favorites are the ones in dark, muted colors, single, with spurs and fragrant.

In the very old days, garden nasturtiums were sometimes called “Indian cress”. The peppery fragrance causes some people to scrunch up their nose when they smell them, and that in effect is what the Latin term nasturtium means. Botanically, cress, as in watercress, is a crucifer, Nasturtium officinale. On the other hand, our garden nasturtiums are botanically Tropaeolum majus. In old books the names T. minus and T. lobbianum (or T. peltophorum) appear: these are species sometimes cited in the ancestry of the garden nasturtium. Tropaeolum are generally placed in their own family Tropaeolaceae which is related to geraniums of the Geraniaceae. If you look closely at one of the images you can make out foliage of Oxalis lasiandra: the Oxalidaceae are also closely related to these plants.

Our garden nasturtiums are “cress” only in the culinary sense: all parts of the plants appear to be edible and palatable and do have a peppery quality which is a refreshing addition to salads or chopped into cream cheese for sandwiches. Even the seeds (sometimes pickled as a caper substitute) are edible.
The flowers in the images above were photographed early in the morning; the orange ones still show the crinkled petals which have not yet full expanded. These remind me of opening poppy flowers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sedum pachyclados

I found this little plant, Sedum pachyclados, in a nursery in western Virginia earlier this year. What is there about sedums which makes them so collectible? I find it hard to resist them. The small ones in particular catch my eye. At the meetings of our local rock garden group they often appear in the plant exchanges – and rarely have either names or the compact growth which characterizes commercially grown plants. Although there are a few which are properly shade plants, in general they are for full sun and show their best habit when grown right out in the open with nothing between them and the sun. Move the ones adapted to full sun into the shade and the growth form changes: the compact mass you plant soon becomes a rangy tangle of brittle stems.

One of these days I hope to have a long narrow border planted with all of these small miscellaneous plants I’ve accumulated over the years. Not just sedums but sempervivums, small bulbs tolerant of summer wet, Delospermum and company, Nierembergia rivularis, small erodiums, tiny alliums and hundreds of others. The weeding will probably be a nightmare.

The Jaguar Flower

This startling flower, Tigridia pavonia, has been known in the English-speaking world since at least the sixteenth century: there is a crude drawing of it in the Elizabethan edition of Gerard’s Herball. I would not be surprised to learn that Tigridia had been introduced to Europe long before that by the Spanish, but I can’t cite a source for an actual date of introduction.

In the English-speaking world the name Tigridia has traditionally been interpreted as having reference to tigers – and more than one merry commentator has noted that tigers have stripes, not the spots seen in these flowers. I think a more sensible interpretation takes into consideration the likelihood that the first descriptions in a European language were in Spanish, and in Spanish the jaguar is called El Tigre. And jaguars are spotted. That explains my choice of title for this post.


Our little dog Biscuit provided some unexpected merriment yesterday. Wayne and I were examining a plant of patchouli, Pogostemon cablin: this is the plant which provides the scent many people associate with the smell of hippies. It’s a scent which evokes mixed reactions: Mrs. Wilder wrote "Valuable India shawls used to be distinguished by their odour [sic] of Patchouli and it is one of the commonest perfumes found in the bazaars, a most peculiar fragrance, vary disagreeable to some persons." Years ago I asked an Indian co-worker about patchouli: before I could finish my inquiry, I was being told that only “they” (i.e. not her “we”) use it; and “they” use it because “they” don’t bathe. One of these days I’ll ask one of “them” for their side of the story.

Wayne and I decided to make Biscuit a hippie dog, so I rubbed her with a patchouli leaf. I then showed her the leaf, and she took a keen interest in it. She tried to eat it in fact. And she became very frisky and playful. “Catnip for dogs” Wayne speculated.

I had never read anything about patchouli being toxic to humans or dogs, but I wasn’t about to let Biscuit eat it without knowing for sure about its effect on dogs. A Google search was in order: it didn’t take long to discover that there are plenty of canine grooming products out there which contain patchouli. I even ran across a blog posting asserting that dogs love patchouli. Who would have known?
So I rubbed some patchouli scent on one of her balls; off she went, suddenly energized and full of it.

Now begins the wait to see if she can find the plant on her own and crop it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Newly dug bulbs

For this gardener there are few pleasures keener than that experienced when he's digging bulbs and big, fat bulbs come out of the ground. The images above show some bulbs dug earlier this summer. They have been dried briefly but not cleaned.

Earlier this year an image of Tulipa 'Casa Grande' was posted. Now you can see the bulbs: they are very nice ones, too.

Of the fritillaries shown, Fritillaria persica has been known to persist in this area for years left in the ground. That has not been my experience in this garden, so I dig them.
Top to bottom, the bulbs shown are: Tulipa 'Casa Grande', Allium stipitatum 'White Giant', Fritillaria cf. acmopetala, Fritillaria persica 'Ivory Bells', Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' and Fritillaria liliacea.

The bulbs were photographed against a quarter-inch grid.

Bulbs in storage

This year I made an effort to inventory the entire bulb collection. I never finished, but I dug and stored so many bulbs that I've heard lots of complaints about the continuing mess in the basement. It is a mess, too. There are heaps of little paper packets of alliums, crocus, fritillaries, hyacinths, muscaris, tulips plus smaller mounds for those groups of which I grow fewer varieties.

The tulip mound is the biggest.

If there is a secret to growing summer dormant bulbs such as tulips in our climate, it's simply this: get them out of the ground by the end of May. I used to think that the bulbs were eaten by voles during the summer, or that they eventually rotted well into the summer. But years ago I began to keep track of when I was digging the bulbs, and I noticed that certain stocks, tulips in particular, often showed extensive rotting even in early June. And in general, it's the biggest bulbs which rot first.

This early rotting is consistent with the usual history of garden tulips in our gardens: glorious bloom the first year (thank the Dutch growers for these), sporadic if any bloom the second year, and nothing or leaves only from then on in most cases.

No one in my circle grows tulips as far as I am aware. Everyone plants them and enjoys the first season display, but no one I know tries to keep them going from year to year. The annual digging wrecks the garden just as it is coming into its early summer beauty, so it's not surprising that so many gardeners leave the tulips in the ground and replace them yearly.

The digging is not as much work as you might think. I grow my bulbs in little plastic berry baskets. The digging itself goes quickly: it's the sorting, labeling, record keeping and summer packaging which take the time.

The image above shows bulbs in their summer packages, a wrapping of newspaper. After the bulbs are dug they are spread out to dry slowly in a shady place outside or even in the basement. This prompt drying-out is important: the bulbs come out of the ground heavy with moisture, and if not dried promptly the bulbs rot. It's a big mistake to store the newly dug bulbs in plastic bags: that's an invitation to trouble. But once the bulbs have dried a bit, some benefit from being transferred to plastic bags to prevent further desiccation.

What keeps this interesting to the hobbyist are the varying requirements of the different bulbs. Tulips are very tolerant of dry summer storage. Fritillaries on the other hand are a lot touchier. The treatment which works for tulips won't work without modification for most fritillaries.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lilium superbum

Lilium superbum, which still grows wild here in the greater Washington, D.C. area, is blooming now in the garden. How is it that this lily, which is one of the most spectacular of all lilies, is so rarely seen in local gardens? Even in my circle of lily-growing friends, it's all but unknown.

In the wild it is generally associated with water in some way. I've seen it on floodplains, along streams or drainage ditches, in steeply sloping seepage areas in the mountains, once even growing right out of the flowing water of a stream. But water is not necessary for it: I've also seen it growing in dry, sun-baked fields. If nothing else, it's adaptable. Plants in deep shade are sometimes six or more feet high - and often have but three or four blooms. Plants in sunny sites are apt to be shorter but with more flowers. The usual flower color is a vivid orange, but plants with a strong red suffusion such as the one shown above are not uncommon in some areas.

Another native lily, Lilium canadense, seems to have been known to English gardeners as early as the early seventeenth century. But Lilium superbum, a much grander and more conspicuous plant, was evidently not recorded in England as a living plant until about a century later.

Add my name to the long list of commentators who have been puzzled by the low regard in which we hold our native flora.

Cardiocrinum cordatum

This odd Japanese woodlander is blooming here for the third time this year. It first bloomed in 2000, then again in 2004. As Cardiocrinum go, this species is a small one: my plant is evidently the typical form, Cardiocrinum c. cordatum. It has never been more than about thirty inches tall when in bloom. The northern subspecies glehnii is apparently taller.

So far, the flowers have never opened here any more than what can be seen in the image above. The three upper tepals are separated from the three lower tepals by a long opening along the side of the blossom. This reminds me of the mouth of a hand puppet or the beaks of ducks and geese: I almost expect to hear these flowers quacking or honking at me.

That this plant has proven to be so easy to grow comes as a surprise: why has it taken so long for this species to be introduced to our garden flora? That the Chinese species have remained obscure is understandable. But surely you would think that someone along the way would have introduced this Japanese species.

This plant has a very odd growth cycle. The foliage emerges in late winter or earliest spring. It remains huddled on the ground until early June. At this phase it suggests a clump of skunk cabbage. Then in early June the annual stem of plants which will bloom begins to elongate under the foliage; this elongation lifts the false whorl of foliage up about a foot or more above ground. At this stage it looks like a hosta on a stick. Then sometime in late June the annual stem begins to elongate above the false whorl of leaves: this elongation eventually develops into the inflorescence.

As I've grown it here, it has always been few-flowered, with two or three flowers per inflorescence. But the sweetly scented flowers are big: each is about seven inches long.

One of these days I hope to have a nice group of these.