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.

A summer meal

Here's a simple meal full of the flavors of the season. The peppers are stuffed with jasmine rice, sautéed eggplant, roasted red pepper and cilantro. The chicken was slathered in mustard and then given a coating of home-made breadcrumbs (old chiabatta bread, garlic and a bit of thyme ground in the food processor). It was then baked in the gas grill at very high temperature (over 450º F) for about forty minutes, then for another thirty minutes at about 350º F.

The clafouti, shown here with a cigale, was a nod to the trip my niece and her hubby took to Provence last summer.

We ate out on the deck in the gathering dusk; there were few mosquitoes as we listened to the katydids take up where the cicadas left off. The day had been warm and humid, but once the sun went down it was pleasant. Some dark purple petunias nearby began to pour out their vanilla-clove scent as the dark closed in. Time flies very agreeably in our little green bower.

Friday, July 18, 2008


The lily shows are over, the crepe myrtle and the Franklin tree are blooming, we had blueberry pancakes for breakfast, the cicadas and katydids are calling, the wood thrushes are still tuning up their flutes, the first flushes of rain lilies are withering on their stems, the newly mowed grass has a beguiling sweetness, local tomatoes, corn, peaches and steamed crabs are in our immediate future: it's summer.

The mystery sound

The other day while sitting in the kitchen reading the paper and absentmindedly nibbling on something I heard a noise in the house. It's summer, and all the doors and windows were open to let in the cool morning air. At first it sounded as if a bird had come into the house; that happens occasionally, and the bird usually turns out to be either a wren, a starling or an appropriately-named house sparrow. The sound seemed to have both a fluttering quality and a ventriloqual quality - at least in the sense that I was having trouble deciding where it was coming from. When I got up to investigate, the sound would continue for a moment, then stop. At one point I went down to the basement to see if something was caught in the curtains over the door (which happen to be just under the spot where I had been sitting). Eventually, by triangulating the sound, I narrowed it down to a spot where there were a pile of papers and a bag of bird seed. The bird seed was the obvious candidate, so I boldly scooped through the seed to see if anything was in there. For a moment I thought I felt something lumpy pass through my fingers - but there was no subsequent movement. Then I investigated the pile of papers: nothing there either. Suddenly, the sound started again. And this time, there was no mistaking that it was coming from the bag of bird seed. I began to think insect: surely, no mammal or bird would be so oblivious to the nearby presence of the master predator.

Without touching the bird seed bag, I peeped into the bag: there it was, quivering at the edge of the bag. It was a young deer mouse, almost full grown but evidently not yet old enough to have learned how the world works. I got a glass jar and gently scooped it out. Camera in hand, I took it outside to get some photos. But while I was fooling with the camera, the little mouse got out of the jar. I was out on the deck, using the wire-mesh table there as a work surface. The mouse stopped as soon as it touched the table top: the table was wet from the last night's rain. Although I was standing only about a foot away, the mouse began to lick rain drops from the wire mesh. Then it made a sudden dash to the underside of the mesh grid and continued to drink.

I got a few pictures, but the mouse was hardly posed as I wanted. Then I watched it scamper off to the far side of the deck - whence it no doubt eventually made its way back into the house.

Zephyranthes atamasco

This is the native Zephyranthes atamasco. The upper image shows it blooming in the protected cold frame. The lower images show it blooming very beautifully along the road side in northern North Carolina. My friend Mary and her artist friend John and I were on our way to visit a famous garden in the area. Traveling with keen gardeners/botanists can be an occasionally harrowing experience, as when one quickly slows the car and veers off the road to park, all the while yelling the name of some plant. Only confirmed birders are worse. In our case, the plant was spotted on the trip down; we were sensible enough to postpone the pullover for the trip back.

Until a few years ago I did not realize that this was a native plant (in the sense "native to Maryland"). A seemingly wild population turned up about twenty years ago on the Eastern Shore.

The name of the plant has appeared in some publications recently as Zephyranthes atamasca (rather than atamasco). The explanation for this is long and convoluted, but the simple version is that Linnaeus published the name Amaryllis atamasca for this plant. That is almost certainly either a typo for Amaryllis atamasco or a failure on the part of Linnaeus to recognize that the word atamasco is a noun, not an adjective. The word atamasco, or variants of it, had been in use for a century and a half before Linnaeus. If authors other than Linnaeus have used atamasca, I'm not aware of it. Phillip Miller, the Linnaeus of gardening, spelled the word with a final o, although there are seeming typos in his account also.

Unlike most of the neotropical members of the genus, this species flowers in mid-winter through early spring, depending on location. I've seen it growing as a lawn weed in parched, hardscrabble, run down southern towns and also growing out the sphagnum moss of roadside bogs. If there is no rain, it simply remains dormant from year to year. The plants in my protected cold frame did this: they got little if any water during the summer, and the time came when they simply no longer appeared above ground at all. After an absence of nearly two seasons, I dug them out. The bulbs had shrunk down to the size of peas, but otherwise seemed sound. I planted them in a pot with some bog plants - and a week later the first foliage began to appear.

Rain lilies

Throughout those warmer parts of the New World which are characterized by periodic droughts, the native amaryllids have developed the ability to bloom opportunistically in response to rain. When I was in the Army forty years ago stationed in central Texas, I had the chance to witness the flowering of the rain lilies on many occasions. It's really charming: a day or two after a deluge the ground would be spangled with egg-sized flowers bobbing and swaying over the ground on foot-high stalks. Some of them were deliciously fragrant at night.

The name rain lily might be a misnomer: there is controversy about exactly what it is which triggers bloom in these plants. The plant shown above is Zephyranthes grandiflora, and it spent the winter in full leaf in the protected cold frame. That cold frame is covered during the summer to keep rain out: most of the plants in the frame are summer dormant plants which do not tolerate summer wet. Although the Zephyranthes was not moistened by the recent rains, it did bloom with the rains. It surprised me to see this plant blooming from a clod of hard, dry clay.

Zephyranthes grandiflora is one of the commonest and least expensive members of the genus in cultivation. It's one of those plants which has a cult-like following. Once you learn how to cultivate it, and you have built your stocks up to dozens or hundreds of bulbs, you can count on them to put on an impressive mass display yearly. It's not reliably hardy here, but it takes very well to container culture. When I first wrote that I wrote "pot culture". But as often as not, the prolific bulbs end up in some improvised, bigger container. During the cold part of the year simply store the entire container - bulbs, soil and all - dry in the basement.

There are other Zephyranthes in the collection here, including the Maryland native Z. atamasco. The flowers of all of these are of such fleeting duration that they always catch me by surprise. One day they are not there, the next day they are. Individual flowers last only for about two and a half days.

Hymenocallis liriosme

The plant shown above is Hymenocallis liriosme, a native of Texas. An email friend, Joe, sent this to me a few years ago. I first had this plant forty or so years ago from Thad Howard's Zephyr Gardens. I grow it as a pot plant, although it will survive the winter easily near the house foundation and maybe even out in the open if planted deeply. It probably benefits from a prolonged dry season. The sweetly scented flowers are very fragile: the staminal cup begins to show signs of wear shortly after the blooms open. It's about three feet high when in bloom, and the foliage suggests that of a garden amaryllis.

Kangaroo paws

While checking out a local nursery last week I spotted the plant shown above. This is one of the Australian kangaroo paws, members of the genus Anigozanthos of the family Haemodoraceae. The plant did not have a tag giving a name; by the looks if it it's a dwarf cultivar. That suits me just fine: I intend to winter it in the protected cold frame. The nursery in question is a sprawling, somewhat disorganized affair: I searched in vain for more plants in other colors, in particular for some red, green or black forms, but found only one more yellow. I've read that some Anigozanthos are somewhat freeze tolerant: they would make really impressive additions to our garden flora, but I don't expect to see that anytime soon.