Monday, April 28, 2008

The wet dog bush

The wet dog bush is blooming now, just in time to join the wet dog trillium. The bush is Illicium floridanum and the trillium is Trillium erectum. They share not only the same disagreeable scent but also sufficient beauty to lure in unsuspecting flower sniffers. They are also approximately the same color, a red with a sort of garnet quality.

It comes as a surprise to most of us that the wet dog bush is hardy in local gardens. But it is, and has been for decades here. I also planted Illicium anisatum, thinking at the time that it was the source of the spice star anise. But the spice is derived from the related I. verum. It's a good thing I didn't try to home harvest seed from I. anisatum: it's toxic, as are the native I. floridanum and its cultivars.

The various Illicium make good evergreen understorey shrubs for the woodland garden. They have some of the same foliage qualities of Skimmia and the native Osmanthus americanus. Illicium bloom freely enough to attract the unwary: give them some room when they are in bloom.

The lilies of spring

Fritillaria are the lilies of spring. The last of this season's plants are blooming now, and many of the early blooming sorts are already dormant for the summer. Fritillaria will probably never be common garden plants in our climate, but if you are willing to go to a bit of trouble many will respond well. In my experience the only species likely to persist as a garden plant is Fritillaria meleagris. Most of the Fritillaria here are grown in containers in cold frames. Most start into growth very early, and it's not unknown for unprotected plants in full bloom to be caught by overnight freezes. When this happens, the plants temporarily collapse and eventually rise up again. It's hard to believe that this is good for them, but they do seem to endure such conditions without obvious ill effect.
Check on the title line above ("The lilies of spring") to link to my Fritillaria gallery: the 2008 additions will be arriving soon.

Back from the brink

About thirty years ago I began to take an interest in the wild peonies. Very few were available in the trade, and those which were were relatively expensive. Two acquisitions from those days still thrive in the garden: Paeonia emodi and the peony which is the subject of this post.

What is it? It was obtained from the old Smirnow firm under the name Paeonia peregrina. When it first bloomed long ago, I was both enchanted and disappointed. I was expecting a bright red peony, and instead there was this "pink" one. Once I got over the initial disappointment, my affection for this plant grew. For years its handsome flowers were an annual feature of the garden. Gradually its site became overgrown and shaded, and with that came decline. At first I didn't notice, and then when I did it was almost too late. The plant had become so run down that only two frail sprouts survived. It had been years since it last bloomed.

Two years ago I rescued it and moved it to a sunny location. It has bounced back nicely, and this year it is blooming again for the first time in perhaps fifteen or twenty years. I've seen a lot more peonies in the years since this one first bloomed here, and while I'm glad to see it back, it no longer has the same fascination it once did. But as long as it survives, it will be an important part of the peony story in this garden.

But what is it? If it is indeed a wild peony, I'm betting on Paeonia arietina (or P. mascula arietina if you prefer).

Camellia 'Single Red'

Years ago I somewhere saw a glorious red Camellia japonica cultivar in full bloom. When I asked about the name, I thought I heard 'Korean Red'. That was enough to start the search. It took a while, but eventually I tracked down a plant labeled 'Korean Red' and brought it home and planted it in triumph. All winter I watched the buds with growing anticipation. The buds survived the winter and survived the deer - and opened as some pink, double-flowered camellia.

Early this year a budded plant arrived from Woodlanders under the name 'Single Red'; the catalog description mentions Korea, and the illustration said "that's the plant!". When the plant bloomed last week, I could not have been more pleased: it's just what I want.

While visiting a friend's garden last week I happened to mention this Camellia 'Single Red' and my story of 'Korean Red'. As things turned out, there is an established plant of 'Korean Red' in that garden. I could see that 'Korean Red' and 'Single Red' are not the same: the flower color of 'Single Red' is a darker, more saturated red and the anthers form a more prominent mass.

At this point, I'm glad that I did not successfully acquire a plant of 'Korean Red' years ago, otherwise I might never have discovered 'Single Red'.

Red camellias in the snow are one of the loveliest sights a garden can provide.

Tree peony 'Shima-Nishiki'

The amazing blossom shown above is the Japanese tree peony cultivar 'Shima-nishiki'. After several false starts in previous years, it's producing typical blooms this year for the first time. It was worth the wait. The flowers in previous years were small and either mostly white or mostly red. This year there are five flowers with a good admixture of red and white. What a sight these are!

Tulipa fosteriana 'Madame Lefeber', the Red Emperor

The tulip in the image above is the old favorite Red Emperor, or as it is officially named 'Madame Lefeber'. Although tulips have been cultivated in the Netherlands for centuries, the official naming of cultivars did not begin until as recently as the 1930s. The tulip shown here is a cultivar of the wild Tulipa fosteriana. The story behind the introduction of this cultivar is a bit sketchy, but the general outline is that what became known as Red Emperor appeared in one batch out of many of wild collected Tulipa fosteriana. Was the original Red Emperor a single plant which went on to be propagated as a clone? Or was the original Red Emperor made up of multiple plants from a distinct wild population? The early accounts I have seen do not seem to answer this question. Throughout most of my gardening life it has been better known as Red Emperor, but recently more catalogs are listing it as Madame Lefeber.

No other wild tulip which I know has larger flowers, and if there are hybrids with larger flowers I have not seen them. If I could have only one tulip, this might very well be the one.

Tulipa 'Casa Grande'

I really like big, red tulips; and there is a new one blooming in the garden this year which does red and big as well as any tulip I have ever grown. That’s it in the image above: Tulipa ‘Casa Grande’. Several of the best qualities of Tulipa greigii are shown in this cultivar: the streaked and spotted foliage, the intense red color and the distinct flower shape. Let’s hope I find big, sound bulbs when I dig them later next month.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Garden hyacinths

Garden hyacinths are blooming now, and each year my affection for these most domesticated of bulbs grows. Although there have been hyacinths in this garden since the beginning, I’ve never paid much attention to them. And until recently I’ve always taken them for granted. In our climate they generally take care of themselves: once planted, they are likely to return indefinitely.
Last year I made an effort to acquire as many different hyacinths locally as possible. Over two dozen different cultivars were on offer in local shops. The advantage of buying the bulbs locally is that you can buy one each of as many different cultivars as are on offer. In the mail order catalogs they are generally sold in units of ten or so. That’s great for those who use them for bedding plants, but it’s very inconvenient for those of us who simply want to sample the variety available in hyacinths.
Hyacinth colors range from soft and delicate to rich and saturated, and there is not a strident color among them. The oranges and reds, colors which can require careful handling in other plants, are gentle in hyacinths, partly because the reds are not really red and the oranges are so softened by a milky suffusion. The colors remind me of cake icing colors, and to my eyes they all harmonize.
I’ve found that learning to recognize hyacinth cultivars takes some practice. There are so many white, pink and blue cultivars which look alike at first glance. Come back a few days later and be prepared for them to look a bit different: hyacinth colors morph agreeably over the life of the bloom, often acquiring a silvery sheen or a white rim to the tepals. Heat and bright sun will accelerate this process. The yellow-flowered sorts in particular quickly fade to creamy white.
I was in the army in the mid-60s, stationed briefly at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. It was February. The peepers were out, and here and there on the base I would see tazetta daffodils struggling to bloom. And hyacinths: they were short, seemingly stunted plants which pushed their cones of pastel colors up through the sandy soil along the foundations of some of the residential units. Who in the world had planted them, and how long had they been there? Seeing them made me achingly nostalgic for my home garden. And it just occurred to me that although I’ve seen thousands of hyacinths in my lifetime, those are the only ones I remember vividly. Perhaps because at the time I no doubt wondered if they might be the last I would ever see.
Nothing assures a plant of a place in this garden as much as fragrance does. The fragrance among the cultivars does vary a bit, but to my senses not by much, That in part is why I’ve never been focused on the various cultivars: in the past I never cared about the colors that much and the fragrance in most is similar. But is it? One of the major mail order bulb suppliers describes the fragrance of hyacinths as like that of peaches. Peaches? I’ve never noticed that. This year I’ll be sampling from among the more than two dozen cultivars blooming or about to bloom to see if any are peachy.