Monday, March 31, 2008

Lilium hansonii

Lilium hansonii is typically the first lily to emerge in the late winter here. It emerges during a period when we are still experiencing overnight freezes. This has never been a problem here, but early in the twentieth century David Griffiths reported that this species, although it had been grown for decades at the Bellingham Research Station, rarely flowered because the flower buds were lost annually to cold. Yet the plants went on to make good growth otherwise.

This species has an interesting history, in some ways an improbable history. It was named by Max Leichtlin, one of the bright lights of late nineteenth century European horticulture, for Peter Hanson, an amateur lily enthusiast of Brooklyn, New York. Peter Hanson? Brooklyn, New York? Not many people would associate Brooklyn with lilies these days, but in his time Peter Hanson was a well known figure in the lily world. For instance, he is said to have corresponded with Henry Elwes and to have grown Cardiocrinum giganteum.

As far as I know, there is no viable Hanson tradition in Brooklyn or anywhere else. What he knew seems to have died with him.

Evidently the Lilium hansonii in cultivation in the west for the first century was clonal in nature. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that new material of truly wild origin was collected in Korea. Unfortunately this newly collected material and the long existing clone seem to be muddled now.

Lilium hansonii is not a common lily in gardens. It has long had a well-deserved reputation for being easily grown, but it does not appeal to the prevailing taste in lilies. It's worth growing for its handsomely whorled foliage alone.

This is often the first lily to bloom each year in this garden. The image above, made on March 31, 2008, gives an idea of how quickly it begins to grow in late winter and earliest spring.

Corydalis 'G P Baker'

The genus Corydalis is represented in this garden by several species. Those growing here are mostly rather inconspicuous plants of soft colors. The form shown here is one of the older cultivars of bright coloring.

The world of garden Corydalis is roiling. A few decades ago, only a few of the drabber wild forms were likely to be seen in American gardens. With the appearance of Janis Ruksans' list, we finally have access to some of the very numerous cultivars being developed in Europe.

The name of this plant illustrated is variously given as 'George Baker', 'G. P. Baker', 'George P. Baker' and so on. Beautiful and easily grown they are, but their garden effect is fleeting.

Hacquetia epipactis

This is a favorite plant. It belongs to that small group of plants whose interest derives not from their flowers but rather from colorful bracts. Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is another example. Hacquetia is a member of the botanical family Umbelliferae (also known as the Apiaceae).

The first time I saw Hacquetia epipactis (in a photograph in Anna Griffith’s 1965 A Guide to Rock Garden Plants) I immediately liked it. It reminded me of the winter aconites: there is the same central touch of yellow and the surrounding ruff of green. In the Hacquetia the bracts which surround the central tuft of true flowers are an electric chartreuse green: they really catch the eye.

In the garden the advantage of these plants which are grown for colorful bracts is the long period of seeming bloom. The bracts remain in good condition for weeks, long after the true flowers have faded and fallen.

When not in bloom Hacquetia is a tiny, unobtrusive thing. It’s only a few inches high. It has grown here for years and seems to be doing well. It’s not well known; I know I have found a gardening soul mate when a visitor recognizes it.

Cardiocrinum cordatum

Most of the typical lilies, the members of the genus Lilium, are only now just beginning to poke above ground. The martagons are an exception: Lilium hansonii is already about a foot out of the ground and ‘Preston Yellow’ is not far behind.

The plant in the image above is Cardiocrinum cordatum, shown in late June of 2004 as it was about to bloom. This year the plant seems unusually robust; it already has a salad-plate sized rosette of foliage up. At this stage it looks a bit like skunk cabbage. Will it bloom this year? It has bloomed twice here in the past.

This plant is above ground for a relatively short period of time, generally about three months. Non-blooming plants sometimes die down for the year just when the true lilies are coming into bloom. It last bloomed here in early July of 2004.

The structure of this plant is odd. The leaves are arranged in a false whorl about halfway up the stem. A few scattered leaves appear above the false whorl. At this time of year the foliage appears to be acauline, but later the annual stem will raise the false whorl up to about 12 to 18” above the ground; the flowers will be at the three or four foot level.

Contrary to what one reads in much of the gardening literature, Cardiocrinum are not monocarpic. A friend recently showed me a newspaper article from a major newspaper in which this misunderstanding was repeated.

The image above was made shortly before the plant bloomed in 2004. Let’s hope that there will be new images of blooms in a few months.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Gardening with books

An image posted on the Pacific Bulb Society wiki recently released a flood of memories for me.

Plants are important to me, of course; but so, too, are books. A gardening life led without books is not for me. I enjoy my plants through my books, and books as much as anything help to keep it all together. The image posted shows the daffodil ‘Snipe’, one I’ve known about for nearly fifty years. It was illustrated on plate XVIII of Patrick Synge’s Collins Guide to Bulbs, published in 1961. Back in those days, I never saw it on the daffodil lists from which I bought, although the similar-in-name and somewhat similar-in-appearance ‘Jack Snipe’ eventually became widely available. Both are cyclamineus hybrids and they have a similar color pattern, but the similarity ends there. ‘Snipe’ began to appear on the list of one of the big suppliers recently; maybe this year it will finally find its way into this garden.

On that same plate XVIII is shown Narcissus cantabricus var petunioides. A plant answering to that description is about to flower in one of the cold frames now. My gosh, it’s taken nearly fifty years for this to happen.

I mentioned all of this on the PBS forum today, and also mentioned the daffodil 'Cantatrice' (also illustrated in the Synge work) for which I would like to find a source. I grew 'Cantatrice' long ago, but it disappeared as the garden grew. Within a few minutes someone replied with a lead.

I’m very happy now, happy as only someone who has known such long denial can understand. Never doubt the important role of patience in gardening.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Red Back Salamander

It rained all night the other night; when I went to bed we were under tornado warnings. The rain was heavy at times, and as expected there was seepage in the basement. I had taken up the rugs as a precaution.

That the garden the next morning was full of newly emerged sprouts did not surprise me. But the little one waiting for me on the front porch did. This is Plethodon cinereus, variously called the red back salamander, the red backed wood salamander or combinations thereof. Yes, it has two color phases, and this is the dark gray/black one. But look closely: it really isn’t black: it’s sprinkled with very fine gray speckles.

This is probably one of the more abundant amphibians in our area. But it is above ground only during a brief period in late winter-early spring and again in the fall. It’s very unusual to find one during the summer, and who’s looking during the winter?

If you are standing up and looking down, they look a lot like earthworms. When you take a closer look, you can see the tiny legs and the eyes.

Years ago I had a big collection of bromeliads which spent the frost-free season outside on the patio. During late October and November, it was not unusual to find these little salamanders crawling all over the bromeliads. This was particularly interesting because Plethodon has a Neotropical relative called Dendrotriton which is evidently adapted to life among bromeliads.

Jewel box gardening

Corydalis popovii
Tecophilaea cyanocrocus

Tecophilaea cyanocrocus

Narcissus jonquilla

The vast literature on bulbs covers so much ground that it would be hard to characterize it. But extensive reading soon shows that few writers on bulbs have been able to resist the jewel metaphor. I got to the point where I really disliked it. And then, one day earlier this year, I was opening the protected cold frame after a cold night. I lifted the lid and the perfume of tazetta daffodils enveloped me. And as I peered into the frame, the scattered bits of brilliant color made me feel as if I had opened a jewel box. It came so naturally I didn’t resist it. “Treasures” crept into an earlier blog entry; "gems" will no doubt follow.

Here are some of the jewels in bloom today: Corydalis popovii, which I first saw in my friend Bobbie’s former Fairfax, Virginia garden years ago. I remember her plant as having blooms several times larger than mine, but that’s what the first sighting of an exciting plant will do to some of us. This one has been in the frame since its receipt in 2005. It gets better yearly, but it does not divide.

If you crave blue, there are certain plants which you will want to try sooner or later. The one here is the Chilean blue crocus, Tecophilaea cyanocrocus. It’s not a crocus; currently it’s placed in a family of its own. Many early attempts to grow this plant were failures; and many of those trying were writers who, unfortunately, gave the plant a bad name. As it turns out, it’s not difficult at all to grow. If I can keep it going, anyone can. In the recent past this plant was thought to be extinct in the wild, although recently reports of wild populations have been circulating. Its biggest enemies are collectors and cattle.

Those of you fastidious about pronunciation will perhaps appreciate knowing that the o in crocus is short: thus ky-an-รณ-cro-cus. One typically hears sigh-an-no-crow’-cuss, the last syllable of which expresses my sentiments well when I hear it.

If you want to try the Chilean crocus, be prepared to lighten your wallet a bit. A single corm will not cost more than lunch for two at McDonald’s, but that’s still more than most of us are used to paying for one tiny bulb.

If the price bothers you, keep in mind that this same gorgeous color is yours virtually for free. In mid summer, look around for a patch of the weed called Asiatic day flower, Commelina communis; or check the seed catalogs for its relative Commelina coelestis. Not only is the color similar; the texture of the colored petals is also very close.

The little daffodil is a form of Narcissus jonquilla received under the name henriquezii. The name, as with so many daffodil names, is dubious. This plant is very free flowering and seems much easier to grow than some of the bigger forms of Narcissus jonquilla. This species has a strong, characteristic fragrance which I prize as one of the great floral scents.

That’s enough for a first peek. All of these were on the upper tray of the jewel box; there are plenty more to come.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Parkland in low morning sun

Here’s a bit of parkland I enjoy every morning and evening while walking the dog. In these images, the early morning sun catches the undulations in the topography well. It’s not unusual to see deer or an occasional fox passing through this lot. A simple scene such as this one is full of enchantment for some of us.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Meteorological spring

I read the newspaper with a quick and critical eye. Sometimes it’s too quick: this morning I had to back up and read again, because I thought I had read that today was the first day of spring. The re-read provided this annoyance: it’s the first day of meteorological spring. It’s not clear to me why the meteorologists should have their own first day of spring. The equinoctial spring has served us well for centuries: why change it now?

If we’re going to do this, why not have a first day of spring for the cardinals? Several weeks ago the cardinals began to sing in earnest in the morning. That was the first day of cardinal spring. A bit later they were joined on different days by the chickadees, titmice, song sparrows and mourning doves. Each should have its own first day of spring. When the peepers start, that will be a major first day of spring for them and for me.

It really annoys me when people try to rename things by piggybacking onto existing things. Why should public amenities built generations ago be renamed for current celebrities and politicians? If the celebrities and politicians in question had a prominent hand in building something, then let that something be named for them. Otherwise, it's grave robbing, stealing from the dead.

Why try to muddle the age-old date of the beginning of spring? Is Toronto’s “meteorological spring” the same as ours? Is Atlanta’s?

Those of us who observe the natural world don’t need to be told the date of the arrival of spring. That’s one of those things which is meaningful only in a very local sense, and it varies from year to year. A fixed date for the arrival of spring is by its very nature an unnatural thing. We already have one, we don’t need another one.