Monday, June 16, 2008

Lilium regale

Lilies are a varied group, so varied that it does not make much sense to pick one favorite. But throughout my life as a gardener, Lilium regale has always been high in my esteem. It’s typically the first of the trumpet lilies to bloom, and that’s a good thing in itself: most of the other trumpet lilies are taller and more imposing. If Lilium regale bloomed later it might not make such a good impression.

It has an interesting history. At the beginning, it was not recognized as a distinct species, and the first plants in cultivation were grown under the name Lilium myriophyllum. E.H. Wilson’s famous account of bringing the first shipments to the West down out of the mountains of western China must be the most frequently quoted passage in all of his writing – and with good reason.

Given the wealth of lilies we now enjoy, it’s hard to conceptualize the state of lilies in gardens a century ago. One had basically two choices: lilies collected from the wild were the fashionable choice. Many of these quickly proved to be intractable. The other choice was made up from a collection of dismal virus-infected hybrids, most of which had flower colors fairly described as either harsh or muddled.

The gardening world lacked a good, easily grown, handsome, fragrant garden lily. Several early introductions such as L. speciosum, Lilium henryi, and the tiger lily proved to be easily grown. But the latter two are not noted for fragrance, and Lilium speciosum, while it’s one of the most fragrant of lilies, presents cultural problems which have kept it out of the truly easily-grown class. Another early introduction, the clonal Lilium brownii, was as elegant as any lily but also unpredictable as a garden plant. Lilium longiflorum was widely regarded as a greenhouse plant, not a garden plant. Lilium hansonii, introduced early in the second half of the nineteenth century, was as easily grown as any lily, but it’s not the sort of lily to fire the public imagination.

It quickly became apparent that Lilium regale had it all: ease of culture, fragrance and poise. Early in the twentieth century there was a keenly pursued effort to establish this plant as a viable floriculture crop here in the United States. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that affordable bulbs began to become reliably available. Soon it was in all the catalogs and books and in a lot of gardens, too. Unlike so many other lilies introduced at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Lilium regale has been in continuous cultivation since its first introduction.

It was one of the first lilies I grew as a child. I still remember buying the bulbs at a local grocery store about fifty years ago. The bulbs came two or three in a box which had slits cut into the sides and no packing material. The bulbs were free to shift around inside the box. When I examined them, they were very dark purple-black and somewhat shriveled. Such roots as they had seemed to have been cut back. They were bought in the spring or early summer, and they made indifferent growth the first year. But they eventually bloomed and introduced me to one of life’s small but keenly appreciated pleasures. I can look back on a half-century of lily growing now and realize that a lot has changed. In so many ways things are much better than they ever were in the past. Yet I’m happy to say that the annual flowering of Lilium regale provides as much pleasure as it ever has, even if the plants blooming now are not those purchased so many years ago.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cistus psilosepalus

It’s a rare gardener who doesn’t at least occasionally feel a bit of that “the grass is greener" curiosity about plants we can’t typically grow well. The so-called rock roses, members of the genus Cistus, have caught my wandering eye occasionally over the years. Several trials in the past came to grief – quickly. Even sorts said to be hardy in zone 7 or zone 6 didn’t amount to anything.

Last fall at the plant exchange of our local rock garden group I spotted a non-descript little plant which no one else had yet claimed. Curious, I checked the label: a Cistus! I had space in the protected cold frame, and the Cistus seemed to be an ideal candidate for that spot. It took well to cold frame life, and throughout the winter slowly expanded.

I was pretty sure that I would finally be seeing a home-grown Cistus blooming here, and last week the first flower opened. This plant was received under the name Cistus psilosepalus, but I know nothing about these plants and can not vouch for the name. This is nice, but already I’m dissatisfied: I want one of the species with gummy, fragrant foliage. In the middle of winter it’s a pleasure to open the protected cold frame and be greeted by both color and scent.

Allium schubertii

I first grew this plant decades ago but soon lost it. That acquisition produced flower umbels about a foot in diameter, bigger than those of Allium cristophii but not by much. Some books suggested that this species might not be hardy, and I attributed the eventual loss of the plant to lack of winter hardiness. More about that below.

Two years ago, while attending a meeting in the home of some well-practiced flower arrangers, I noticed several dried umbels of Allium schubertii. But these were Allium schubertii as I had never seen it: they were huge, easily eighteen inches in diameter.

That did it. It was time to try this species again. Last fall some new bulbs were acquired – nice big bulbs. The other day I went out and measured the umbel on one: it was twenty-three inches in diameter!

This species is low growing: those huge umbels are only just barely lifted above the ground. And the very muted colors combine with the diffuse structure to produce a nearly invisible inflorescence in the garden. The photo above, for better or worse, shows that well.

Is it hardy? In the past, questions arose about the identity of the material in cultivation: is it A. schubertii or A. protensum? The former was said to be tender, the latter hardy. I have a hunch winter hardiness isn’t the issue with this plant. I’ll bet it’s intolerant of summer wet. I’m not taking any chances: once the foliage on my new plants is ripe, the bulbs will be dug, wrapped in newspaper and stored for the summer in a hot but dry spot.

Later in the summer, after I’ve harvested the mature umbels, I’ll post a better image of those tumbleweeds against a suitable background. Hmmm….that means more dust collectors in my bedroom, doesn’t it?

Scadoxus multiflorus

The garden is full of ornamental onions now; these plants bloom in mostly quiet, unassertive colors and owe their attention getting status to their intriguing forms. Hybridists have done a lot to bring us bigger flower umbels in these ornamental onions, but so far the colors have remained on the quiet side.

The image above is of Scadoxus multiflorus, an onion look-alike from southern Africa which is blooming now. If the ornamental onion breeders could combine the ease of culture of the onions with a color such as the one above, then the ornamental onions would enter a new realm of garden worthiness.

Now back to reality: the Scadoxus is easily grown. It grows in a pot filled with the local clay. I keep it wet all summer as long as the foliage is green. Occasionally it will get some fertilizer in the water. Sometime in November the foliage ripens. At that point the plant is brought inside (unless an early freeze made that necessary earlier) and allowed to dry out. It spends the winter dry. The pot goes out onto the deck in April. A good soaking generally gets things going again. This is one of those plants with a very appealing work to reward ratio: you don’t have to do much to get good results. It’s been repeating this cycle here for years, blooming yearly and sometimes setting a few fruits.

Older works sometimes list this as Haemanthus multiflorus.

Iris 'Roy Davidson'

Many years ago I bought a variety of irises from one of the local iris groups. Most but not all of my purchases that day were Japanese irises. When I planted these new irises, the labels were buried under them. I’ve never been able to find the labels, and to this day I am not sure which Japanese iris is which.

Among the non-Japanese irises purchased that day was a beardless iris which I bought thinking it would be suitable for the bog trays. It’s been in the bog trays for a long time and has sulked since day one. There have been a very few blooms on this plant over the years. Last year it finally crept out of the bog tray and rooted into the local soil – and then it took off. This year it has produced more blooms than it has in all the years past. And finally I was able to get some good pictures of the flowers.

The next question is: what is it? The label is “down there” somewhere, but I’ll never find it. In going over my journals from those many years ago, I located a likely name: ‘Roy Davidson’. A quick Google Images search confirmed that.

Iris 'Roy Davidson' is a hybrid of Iris pseudacorus. Iris pseudacorus itself is now widely regarded as little better than a weed and a potentially serious threat to wetlands. The form of Iris pseudacorus I grow has very shapely flowers with broad falls: weed or no weed, I wouldn't want to be without it.

So there he is above, ‘Roy Davidson’: I can pick ‘em, can’t I?

Spuria irises

Although irises are among my favorite plants, they share a common fault which tempers my enthusiasm for them: the flowers don’t last more than a few days, if that. Over the years I’ve explored the horticultural nooks and crannies of the genus, and a nice variety of irises now grows in the garden.

For various reasons some irises are a lot more popular in gardens than others. Availability has a lot to do with it: bearded irises are more apt to be handed over the garden fence than oncoregelias. The many bulbous irises so readily available from even local bulb sellers in the autumn are a lot more common in gardens than their long range prospects in most gardens would warrant. Should they disappear from commerce, they will quickly disappear from our gardens. “Irises” to most people simply means tall bearded irises, and you could do a lot worse than filling your space with these.

But even among those of us who have explored the genus, there are some groups of cultivated irises which remain much less common than their beauty and ease of cultivation would cause you to expect. A good example of this is the group known as spuria hybrids. These are robust, stalwart plants which bloom in a color range which includes the expected yellows and blues but also verges into unusual shades such as brown. It is the brown colored forms which quickened my interest years ago, although it was a long time before one actually bloomed in this garden.

The blooms of the spuria hybrids are sometimes compared to the blooms of the Dutch xiphium hybrids: they do look alike. And both groups offer hybrids in the bronze-brown flowered range. The handsome xiphium hybrid ‘Bronze Beauty’ is a favorite here.

The spuria hybrid shown above came from an internet friend three years ago. It’s blooming in this garden for the first time right now. It took three years for this to settle down and bloom. Now I think I understand why these otherwise easily grown plants are not common in gardens. One can mail-order tall bearded irises in late summer, plant them and expect them all to bloom beautifully the next year. Who wants to wait three years for something to bloom?

But then, take another look at that flower: I think it was worth the three-year wait.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Lilium 'Preston Yellow'

Lily season 2008 began late last week with the flowering of Lilium ‘Preston Yellow’. The honor of opening the lily season typically goes to this lily or to Lilium hansonii, one of its parents. Sometimes Lilium candidum beats these into bloom, but not this year. And sometimes little Lilium pumilum pops into bloom very early – as early as early May once. But Lilium pumilum is a bird of passage in this garden: one never knows for sure if it will reappear year after year, and when it does its performance is erratic.

This name ‘Preston Yellow’ is of the nature of a working name: I don’t think the name has ever been registered. When I mentioned it to another lily enthusiast a few years ago, she responded “ Do you mean ‘Preston Dark Yellow’? “ It has been passed around among a small group of lily growers here in the Middle Atlantic States, and it’s cherished because it takes to our conditions well – something not to be taken for granted with martagon lilies in our area. It is a survivor of the earliest days of lily hybridizing in North America. It was raised by Isabella Preston, an Anglo-Canadian plant breeder active in Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. In lily circles, Preston is perhaps best remembered for some of her Asiatic hybrids, in particular the Stenographer Series which created a real stir in the lily world of a half century ago.

The connection with Preston herself is tenuous: George Slate, active in lily circles in the mid-twentieth century, mentioned what is probably this lily (it had not been formally named) in the Yearbook of the North American Lily Society. It’s possible that it was being grown commercially at one time because I’ve been told that appeared on the lists of lilies distributed by one of the lily societies long ago. It’s also possible that any bulbs distributed originated from the garden of an amateur enthusiast – demand would probably have been very light. The stock I grow came from a friend but originated from that distribution.