Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pangolins snuggled behind a rock...

Well, they do look a bit like the exposed tails of pangolins which have snuggled themselves behind the rock. They also look like some particularly large-scaled reptile sunning itself on a rock: the Australian pine cone skink Trachydosaurus rugosus comes to mind.

What are they? They are Euphorbia myrsinites, and in this case they are particularly well placed. Rocks set off this plant very well, although it does not require a rocky setting to grow well. This is a cold-hardy and easily grown perennial here in the greater Washington, D.C. area, although it does not seem to be long-lived. If the prospect of moving such a large boulder into the garden is daunting, try planting the plant on the flat with a mulch of crushed blue stone.

Wayne and I were visiting his mom in Bridgewater, Virginia earlier this week and these plants were seen on the grounds of the Bridgewater Home. Inside the Home we saw poinsettias everywhere; I wonder how many people realize that these "pangolin tails" are a close relative.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A thank you visit from a bird?

While working in the kitchen this morning, a flash of color just outside the big glass doors caught my attention. Something avian, relatively big, black, white and red was flapping on the bird netting. As my eyes focused I realized that it was a red-bellied woodpecker. I moved in to take a closer look, expecting the bird to fly away immediately, but it didn’t. Then I realized why: it was on the inner side of the bird netting, in the space between the bird netting and the house. It didn’t seem to realize that either end was wide open, and for a minute or two it thrashed as if it were a large insect in a spider web. Finally it figured out what to do and made a bee line for the woods. I like to think of this as a thank you visit: it was because a bird, probably a red-bellied woodpecker, slammed into the glass doors two years ago and left a bloody mark on the glass that I installed the bird netting. I’m pretty sure it has saved the lives of many birds in the meantime. It’s unlikely, but maybe the bird I saw today was the one which hit the glass years ago. Here’s a link to the original post on the bird netting:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Death by gardening

Gardening can be dangerous, often in ways which are utterly unanticipated. Modern power tools can be limb or even life threatening in the hands of an exhausted or inattentive worker. Something as simple as a hammer misdirected can mash a finger tip and make the ensuing weeks miserable for the victim.

But even when you think you're being smart and careful, things happen. Here are two stories which recount times when I did something which, had the circumstances been slightly different, might well have cost me my life.

Both stories involve my preoccupation with collecting seeds: evidently I'm part squirrel. No matter where I am, if there are seeds to be gathered, I'm probably stuffing my pockets.

Years ago there was a good harvest of seeds from one of the aconites in the garden. The members of the genus Aconitum have two notable qualities: they produce handsome flowers, usually blue, and they have been used as very effective poisons since ancient times. These form seed capsules like those of columbines or delphiniums, and I had collected lots of these capsules which were full of seed. That evening after dinner I sat down to sort out the seeds and clean them, packed them away, and then went on to make a bowl of popcorn before turning in for the night. I picked out a book to read, got into bed, started to read and munch pop corn. At first I didn't notice anything, but then it became apparent that the pop corn was atypically bitter. And then it dawned on me: I had not washed my hands after handling the aconite seed. Aconites are notorious for their potent poisons. How much does it take to kill an adult human? I lay there experiencing a combination of nervousness and downright terror: was I going to die? The thought of dying itself did not bother me so much as the thought of dying so stupidly: I could see the newspaper article: Montgomery County gardener accidentally poisons self after handling toxic plant materials.

Since you're reading this, you know how the story turned out. In fact, there were no unpleasant aftereffects from ingesting whatever the bitter substance was. But before going to bed that night I had a long, serious talk with myself about some of the stupid things I do.

Here's another one: about thirty years ago, when AIDS was just coming into public consciousness, I was down in Adams Morgan one evening walking somewhere along Columbia Rd. This is a part of the city full of night spots which draw the sort of street activities, legal and illegal, engaged in by people out for a night of pleasure. Although it was dark, the streets were well lit. There were some ginkgo trees, and they were dropping fruit. I wanted some ginkgo seeds, so I decided to look around on the ground to see if I could find them.

The seeds on the sidewalk all seemed to have been crushed, so I decided to look under a low hedge which grew along the sidewalk. Little light penetrated there, and so I was depending on my sense of touch to find the ginkgo seeds. As I ran my hand over the surface of the ground, I suddenly felt a sharp, penetrating prick. My first thought: I had been stuck by a used hypodermic syringe tossed into the bushes by an AIDS infected drug addict.

For a few terrifying, confusing moments I didn't know what to do and wondered if my life was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. I tried to see if it was in fact a hypodermic syringe, but it was too dark to see.

And then I got a good look at the hedge: even in the dark I could see what they were - they were pyracantha, the shrub aptly named fire thorn. I had been jabbed plenty of times in my life by pyracantha thorns; but this was the first time it was such a relief for it to have happened.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sedum 'Cape Blanco'

The little plant shown here is a sedum native to the west coast of North America. You will usually find it offered as Sedum spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco', but a Google search also turned up S. spathulifolium ssp. pruinosum 'Cape Blanco' and Gormania spathulifolia. Although sedums as a group are among the easiest plants to grow successfully in local gardens, this one is an exception. I've acquired it more than once over the years, and each time I soon lost it. I've mentioned this to other more experienced local growers, and their experience has been the same. It wasn't until I began to learn how to grow the bulbs from the west coast that I got a clue to what this sedum needs. What it apparently needs is a dryish summer and, probably, a bit of winter protection.

The one shown in the image above was acquired in May of this year. I kept it under the eaves (and thus in the rain shadow of the roof overhang) but in bright light for the summer. It's going to spend the winter in one of the cold frames.

The spirit of William Morris

It was cold last night; the temperature at 7:30 this morning was about 25 º F.

These cold nights bring with them a new responsibility for me: I have to remember to close the cold frames each afternoon. I do this when the sun begins to go down, ideally as soon as the sun no longer directly strikes the cold frames. Cold frames are like a dog: they don’t require much attention, but they do require your attention at least twice a day. And like dogs they are well worth it.

No, the cold frames are not bursting with bloom right now, but they are full of interest. It’s a real pleasure to go out on a cold morning and peer through the glass light and see signs of life. The cold frames here have a primary purpose of housing a wide collection of marginally hardy bulby odds and ends. But each year I slip in various things which provide a nice contrast to the largely grassy foliage of the bulbs. Certain woody plants for instance provide a good change of pace. This year the rooted cutting of Daphne odora already shows flower color. A hardy gardenia, a new Ruscus, several asarums, some Selaginella, rosemary and Cistus psilosepalus all provide foliage interest and, in the case of the flowering plants, the promise of flowers and fragrance eventually.

The cold frame also provides an answer to the question of what to do with the florist’s cyclamen. The house is too warm and the garden is too cold. It turns out that the cold frame is just right: the glass light of the cold frame bears a flourish of frost flowers on cold mornings, but under the glass the bright red flowers of the florist’s cyclamen presents a burst of intense color.

A clump of snowdrops dug from the garden this week now blooms serenely under the glass. Another sort of snow drop is all over the news now: beginning tomorrow night, we are expected to have a 5-12” snow fall.

I opened this piece by writing that there was not much in bloom in the cold frames now. But one of the less protected cold frames offered an unexpected seasonal bouquet yesterday morning. I don't know what I did to deserve such a decorative acanthus-leaf pattern of frost flowers: it's as if the spirit of William Morris himself had worked over the under surface of the light. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Snowdrops of late autumn

The nature of our winters here on the east coast is such that any plant which tries to bloom during the winter is up against huge odds. The winter-flowering plant game is a dicey one here. Winter here almost always eventually takes a big bite out of the garden. And that seems to take a big bite out of local gardeners’ enthusiasm for winter flowering plants. Recent winters have been so mild that new gardeners will be in for a nasty surprise if old-style killer winters ever return.

Decades ago I tried two of the autumn-flowering snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis reginae-olgae (as it was called back then) and something called Galanthus nivalis corcyrensis. Neither persisted for long in the open garden. It was a real bother to acquire these from UK sources (does anyone else remember Mr. Mars of Haselmere?), and I made no rush to replace them.
Now, years later, I have a renewed interest in the snowdrops which flower at this time of year. I've selected two here which I call my Thanksgiving snowdrop and my Christmas snowdrop. They really do flower on or near the dates suggested by their names.

The Thanksgiving snowdrop is a one-spot Galanthus elwesii sort. It has a largish, slender flower but is otherwise not very prepossessing. Its only claim to my attention is its blooming season.
The Christmas snowdrop (it's just beginning to bloom now) is a typical two-spot Galanthus elwesii, with softly rounded ample flowers smaller than those of the Thanksgiving sort but more substantial.

Both of these are clumpers, and with luck there will eventually be a nice patch of each. Each of these grew for decades in the lawn; it was only when I realized that their season of bloom was not an anomaly that I marked them for cosseting. They now grow in the cold frames where their flowers are protected should the weather suddenly turn nasty.

These Galanthus elwesii forms seem to be indifferent to our local weather: plants in full bloom don't seem to suffer when the temperature plunges into the single digits F; mechanical damage is another matter. Flowers are on rare occasions destroyed by severe weather, but the plants themselves seem not to suffer at all. I suspect that in the long run these Galanthus elwesii variants will prove to be much better autumn and early winter flowering garden plants than Galanthus reginae-olgae and similar forms in our climate.
I might have another group of late-autumn snowdrops on hand. A friend gave me some plants of Galanthus elwesii sorts which, when I visited her garden a week of so ago, were in full bloom out in the open. It will be interesting to see what these do when they settle down and bloom in my garden.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Laurus nobilis

One other use for the cold frames is to get marginally hardy broad-leaf evergreens off to a good start. Newly rooted cuttings not yet sufficiently well established to spend the winter in the open garden benefit from a winter vacation in the cold frame. And newly cut branches to be rooted during the winter sometimes perform well in the cold frame.

This year I have several such newly cut branches which I hope will find life in the protected cold frame agreeable: my friend Alice gave me some cuttings of her bay tree, Laurus nobilis. The last time I saw her plant it was about head height and apparently very well sited.

Bay is one of those storied plants which any gardener who both reads and cooks must know about and want to grow. Bay is almost unknown as a garden plant in this area. Apparently there are forms of Laurus nobilis which will endure the winters here, but they are not readily available in the nursery trade. What are readily available are plants of uncertain hardiness. They are comparatively expensive, too.

Here and there in the greater Washington, D.C. area are bay trees well established and thriving. Yet as far as I know, no one has ever offered rooted cuttings of these plants commercially. I’ve heard that they are hard to root.

So those bay cuttings now inserted into the ground in the protected cold frame are a small experiment. Will they root during the cold winter months? I hope so: I’ve wanted a bay tree of my own established in the garden for a long time. And if cuttings don't root and instead die, I can always collect the leaves for cooking.

A very good ice cream can be made by infusing the milk and cream to be used for the custard base with bay leaf. It's one of my favorites.

Daphne odora

Last year my friend Hilda gave me a pot of newly rooted cuttings of Daphne odora. For her, this plant grows as if it were Forsythia. She has bushes the size of Volkswagens.

Here in my neighborhood, Daphne odora is a fickle plant: typically it thrives just long enough to beguile the grower – and then it suddenly dies. For that reason, among others, I didn’t really know what to do with the rooted cuttings she gave me. They were in a pot, so I put the pot into the protected cold frame and more or less forgot about it. There were two cuttings, and one of them quickly died. Later I noticed that the remaining cutting had flower buds; and eventually these bloomed and gave me a chance to experience the wonderful fragrance.

It’s now over a year later, and the cutting is still in the same pot. What I thought earlier were buds for leaf growth have swollen enough for me to see that they are flower buds: it’s going to bloom again! Evidently it likes life in the protected cold frame.

Another cold frame

I quickly put together another cold frame today. This one is beside the existing protected cold frame. I put it there to take advantage of the site: it’s sheltered by a thick box hedge, gets the heat reflected from the house wall and the heat which seeps from the building itself, and it gets sun much of the day during the winter. So far, I’m very favorably impressed with what I can grow in the protected cold frame.

This new frame will not be quite so cozy. For one thing, it projects beyond the house wall a couple of feet. And the part which projects does so into a raised bed – the back side of this new frame will not have the house wall to shelter its full length.

Cold frames are a valuable garden amenity at this time of year. I think of them as the ideal substitute for snow cover. In fact, they are better than snow cover because they allow the light to penetrate to the plants freely. I use the cold frames for several main purposes. For one, they house a wide variety of plants which need a cold winter but which are not adapted to the sort of winters we experience here (i.e. no reliable snow cover). Dozens of storied winter growing plants from climates like that of the Mediterranean flourish in my protected cold frame.

Cold frames are also the place to winter newly received nursery stock (i.e. all those impulse purchases you made as the season drew to an end and desperate retailers slashed their prices).

The primary intended use for the one built today is to house the overflow of marginally hardy plants such as members of the genus Arum. These plants take a lot of space; those I planted into the ground of the protected cold frame last year as small plants came back this year as big bruisers. This summer I intend to spread them out in this new frame.

The daffodil season continues...

The daffodil season continues here. The little white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils are blooming. I’m not the only one enjoying them: as soon as the buds begin to swell, little snails move in and feast of the fresh flowers. Next May we will have lived in this house for fifty years. We did not have snails until about three years ago. They probably came in with nursery stock; by now they have made themselves very much at home.

These snails bring back a childhood memory: when I was six or seven years old, I met a neighbor who kept aquarium fish. I told him about the snails I had seen around our doorsteps, and he asked me to collect some for his aquarium fish. When I gave him the snails, he let me watch as he dumped them into the aquarium and the fish (gouramis as I recall) quickly snapped them up. There was another lesson here, too: I learned the association between snails and chalky sites. The snails gathered around the door stoops which were of concrete poured only a year or so previously.

What are these little daffodils? They came under the name Narcissus albidus ver. foliosus, but current usage makes the name albidus a synonym of one of the forms of Narcissus pseudonarcissus, a very different daffodil indeed. The name Narcissus foliosus is currently accepted, and it’s used for those little white-flowered hoop petticoat daffodils from northwestern Africa once called Narcissus monophyllus. This is probably what the daffodils blooming now are, although there is a chance that they are forms of the very similar European Narcissus cantabricus. Whatever they are, I’m glad to have them.

Also in bloom is one of the white-flowered Narcissus tazetta. These are noted for their intense, potent fragrance. If they are kept cool, one flower cluster can bloom for weeks. To appreciate what a treasure these are, grow them in a cold frame as cold (but above freezing) as possible. A light freeze will probably not damage them. Then, every time you open the cold frame you will be enveloped in a cloud of fragrance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Easing one's way into entomophagy

I pity those born into cultures in which highly spiced foods prevail. Once one is accustomed to such foods, the rest of the world’s foods must seem boring indeed. But to someone raised on pabulum, the world has an immense horizon of potentially new tastes. And while it’s true that American food in the early twentieth century had already progressed beyond pabulum for at least important meals, menus of the time reveal that a lot of preparations based on starches softened in various liquids were apt to appear at meals throughout the day.

As a nation we’ve come a long way from the cooking practices which prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century. With certain exceptions, any reasonably sophisticated contemporary palate stands to be utterly unimpressed by the sort of foods our grandparents esteemed. Soft, gray, bland: this is not visually exciting food. But what it lacks in visual appeal it often more than makes up in flavor. Yet those flavors tend to be gentle flavors.

It was probably Italian food, and specifically pizza, which forever changed the American palate. In early twentieth century cookbooks there are recipes for various seemingly Italian preparations, but they read as chilly, dull attempts at imitating the real thing: no sunshine, no sparkle, no wit, no attitude - and no garlic! At first glance, French cooking seems better represented, and perhaps it was. But the translations must have been poor because the results have a distinctly American middle-of-the-road quality. Some of the Indian food we encounter here now is at the same stage: tamed beyond recognition but tamed to sell.

In reading Mrs. Fox, it struck me as odd that when she discussed basil, and went on to describe its culinary uses, there is no mention of pesto. And if the word pizza appears in her work , I have not found it. In other passages it is clear that her palate is very much one of the America of her time. In the discussion of rosemary, no culinary uses are discussed. This brought to mind Elizabeth David’s comment about the unpleasant effect produced when the spiky leaves appear in food. Yet Mrs. Fox goes on later to mention culinary uses of rue of all things: people eat rue? Evidently they do (or did). She even quotes Boulestin and Hill: “chopped leaves and brown bread make good sandwiches.”

Mrs. Fox mentions crême renversée, but either the meaning of that term has changed since her time or she was simply mistaken about its meaning, for of strawberries she writes “But best of all uses is to eat the berries with sugar and the thick, clotted cream of Devonshire, called crême renversée in France.” Here’s a link to a site which discusses crême renversée and shows its similarity to caramel flan:

Here’s another example of Mrs. Fox’s solidly American palate (and of her solidly early-twentieth century grasp of grammar) : in her discussion of coriander, she wrote frankly “the leaves taste horribly, and since they look very like those of anise, one should be careful not to pick them by mistake for the salads” and in her account of chervil “ when one goes to pick the leaves of the Umbelliferae for the salad, one is apt to mistake the coriander for the leaves of the cumin, or anise, a fatal dampening of ardor for the eating of herbs.”

I wonder what she would have thought of my comparison of the smell of cilantro (coriander leaves) to the smell of brown marmorated stink bugs. Actually, what I really wonder is what she would have made of the current cilantro craze which has swept American cuisine. Are we about to become a nation of bug eaters?

Brown Marmorated Cilantro

My bedtime reading for the last few nights, Helen Morgenthau Fox’s Gardening With Herbs from 1938, was prompted by a sudden recurrence in my interest in culinary herbs. Certain herbs I grow yearly, and they are so much a part of the gardening experience that I’ve long ceased to think of them as “herbs” in a specifically culinary sense. Although I do use them in food preparation, more than that I simply like to have them around to enjoy their scents. Typically, they never even get planted into the garden but instead spend the summer in pots out on the deck. Various basils and thymes, lemon verbena, rose geranium, rosemary, chervil and chives are personal favorites. A gardening friend brought some fresh, locally grown bay cuttings to a recent meeting of our rock gardening group, and the several which came home with me give hope that one day there might be a bay tree established in the ground here.
It makes better sense to buy some herbs than give them space in the garden. Chervil and cilantro are good examples, but try to find a grocer who sells fresh chervil. Cilantro on the other hand is now readily available throughout the year.
What does cilantro taste like? Wayne calls it soap plant, and indeed it is sometimes described as having a soapy taste. But this afternoon, another – and maybe more apt – comparison occurred to me. While preparing some cilantro for a sandwich today, I noticed that cilantro smells the way the brown marmorated stink bug smells! This is not so far-fetched as it seems. Cilantro, which in American usage refers almost exclusively to the leaf, is the plant from which coriander (again, in American usage this word almost exclusively refers to the seed) is obtained. I have a hunch that some translations from European languages into English fail to make this distinction. For instance, somewhere I read that Colette is said to have said that coriander smells like bed bugs. Most accounts say that coriander (the seeds) smell like burnt orange peel. Many people who eschew the fresh leaf of cilantro use and esteem the seeds, coriander, freely. Perhaps Colette was on a first name basis with bedbugs, but the word coriander itself is derived from the classical Greek word coris which means bedbug, and surely she knew that.
Now let’s switch briefly to zoology: bed bugs and marmorated stink bugs are related: both are true bugs. Evidently they share the family body odor problem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Autumn camellias

From the beginning I've followed a self-imposed rule to show only plants grown in my own garden in these blog postings and on my web site. Over the years there have been very few exceptions. The image above is one of those exceptions. This group of camellias grows in a garden a mile or two from here. I've been watching them for years because they grow along a road I travel frequently; unfortunately for camellia watchers, that road is a much traveled commuter route, one with a history of frequent accidents. It's not the sort of road along which one might slow down and smell the roses.

As a result, my appreciation of these camellias was one based on quick sightings from a distance. The other day I stopped by to get a close look. I knocked on the door of the house but no one answered. I was already parked right beside the camellias, and I took two photos.

These are some of the Ackerman hybrids, camellias noted for their cold hardiness. The comparatively big flowers are full of petals and retain some of the fragrance of the wild forms of Camellia sasanqua and C. oleifera. When they are in full bloom, they remind me of big old plants of double flowered althea or rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus.

The plants shown here grow in full sun in a site fully exposed to wind: in other words, hardly the sort of place where one would expect a camellia to thrive. Over the years I've noticed some browning during the winter, but other than that they seem to be well adapted to these conditions.

A neighbor down the street also has one of these Ackerman camellias and it, too, is full of bloom right now. No other November-flowering shrub comes close to these for flower color effects.

Update, June 2016: all but one of these camellias was severely damaged or killed in the 2015-2016 winter. The dead/damaged plants have been removed, and only one survives at this site.

Elaeagnus season

The members of the genus Elaeagnus have had a varied history in our gardens, sometimes loved, sometimes loathed. E. umbellata is one of those shrubs which is used in the medians of interstate highways but rarely invited into gardens. E. pungens occasionally finds its way into gardnes, and just as often is eventually evicted. It's one of those plants with some very good qualities, but it is also potentially a rampant grower which, if it's to look at all cultivated, requires frequent attention with the pruning shears.
Lately I've been giving a lot of attention to the selection of an evergreen woody plant for use around the oculus of the pergola. Among the plants considered have been autumn camellias, Hedera helix, Buxus sempervirens 'Graham Blandy', Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil', yews and winter jasmine. Recently I was in another garden where Elaeagnus pungens had been effecitvely domesticated, and that got me thinking about this often overlooked plant. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed.

I headed out to one of the local nurseries the other day to see if one might be available. My timing was perfect: plenty of very handsome pot grown plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' in full bloom were there to tempt me. They were however a bit bigger (and thus more expensive) than I expected, so I kept looking. I didn't find smaller plants, but I did find something else which won me over immediately: Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge'.

As a rule I'm no friend of variegated plants. The day was overcast, and that might have affected my decision because those plants glowed with an unmistakably sunny cheer. They were in gallon pots, the price was right and two came home with me. In my mind's eye I can see each of them forming one of the wall pannels of the pergola and providing lots of warm color throughout the winter.

The plants of 'Gilt Edge' were not in bloom, so I also bought one of the plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' to have the fragrance immediately. This is a strange fragrance, intense, potent, far reaching on the air: just what I like in my garden.

I'm not sure how hardy 'Gilt Edge' will prove to be: it might come to grief in a bitterly cold winter, and if the plants are not killed outright I'll have to look at sad, browning foliage until new foliage appears on whichever branches have survived. I know something is wrong here: when I look at these newly purchased plants with their clean, lustrous leaves brilliantly splashed with strong yellow, I can't help being aware that this potentially gorgeous plant is not common in our gardens. I know I'm not the first to try it, and I have a hunch I will not be the first to fail with it eventually.
Common names for Elaeagnus are confusing. In English we call them autumn olive, but they are not members of the olive family but rather members of their own family, Elaeagnaceae. In German they are called Ölweide, which I take to mean olive willow or oil willow. Another name sometimes encountered in English language texts is oleaster. This literally means second-rate olive (compare cotoneaster, poetaster and so on). E. umbellatus is sometimes grown for its edible fruit.

In the image above, you can see Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge' in the foreground and E. pungens 'Fruitland' full of blooms in the background.

Begonia boliviensis 'Bonfire'

Last year, too late to find one for sale, I heard through the grapevine about Begonia boliviensis ‘Bonfire’. I was able to obtain one this year and the short version of the story is WOW! Those of you who garden in areas congenial to summer blooming tuberous begonias might not be too impressed with this plant, but for those of us who garden under the sort of summer conditions we experience here on the East Coast, this begonia is a welcome addition to our summer garden flora. It bloomed here all summer and into the fall without a break and grew vigorously the whole time. I’ve heard that vigorous old plants produce annual growth several feet long!

After the first light frosts the above ground parts of the plant began to fall apart.

At that point, I was unsure what to do. A bit of Googling provided the answer. This species forms a corky, tuberous corm, and it’s a big one. I had planted my plant into a tall narrow blue glazed ceramic container. This highlighted the pendulous growth habit of ‘Bonfire’ handsomely. But now I have a problem: I went to check how big the corm was the other day, and it’s so big I can not pull it through the opening of the container it grows in. The corm is easily the size of a lemon, maybe bigger. It will probably spend the winter in the same container.

I’ll bet this plant would survive the winter here outside in a very protected place.

In an earlier blog entry I mistakenly called this plant 'Fireworks'.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pansies and nasturtiums

Yesterday I bought some pansies to put in one of the new cold frames for winter bloom. Pansies sometimes survive the winters outside here, but when we have severe winters the plants are obliterated. The popularity of pansies among the casual gardener crowd thus fluctuates over the years. When pansies in the open are good, they are very good; and when they are bad, they're apt to be on the verge of death.

To get around this uncertainty, I like to have a few in the cold frames during the winter. They provide both color and fragrance, and they bloom so profusely that the flowers can be cut for the house without any concern for the plants themselves.

I bought these particular pansies because among them were some with flowers in shades of brown beautifully blended with violet and rich purple and with the occasional flare of yellow. These are colors I associate with some of the most richly colored broken tulips.

Now let's be nice to ourselves and step back about a century. You've cut a small bunch of these pansies, and you've put them on your favorite reading table. The room is quiet, the chair is comfortable, the book is absorbing, and as you relax you begin to notice the scent of the pansies. It's a scent which combines the sweet and the pungent; with eyes closed it might be confused with the scent of some of the edible crucifers. After you have finished reading, the pansies can accompany you to your writing table; and when the call for the evening meal comes, they can join you at the dining table; and at the end of the day they can be your companion on your night table. Pansies are companionable.

While I was thinking about the pansies it occurred to me that in some ways they are similar to, and in other ways compliment, nasturtiums. Both pansies and nasturtiums have forms which bloom in a rare range of colors which combine red, orange and brownish tones. And they both have a fragrance which while sweet has an undertone of something sharper. And they both are worth growing simply to provide cut flowers: pansies for the cooler months, nasturtiums for the hot months. With a bit of luck, it should be possible to have a little bunch of one or the other throughout the year. I intend to try to do just that.

Aconitum carmichaelii

Late blooming plants are always welcome in this garden, not only because they extend the season so nicely, but also because my birthday occurs in late October. I think of these plants as blooming to help celebrate my birthday. The one shown here is Aconitum carmichaelii (it has other names) and is one of the few members of its genus which really thrives under our conditions. The small cluster of blooms is hardly in proportion to the five foot stems; on the other hand, if the flowers are cut for the house, most of the stem can be left on the plant.

This plant is one of several I brought from an abandoned nursery over thirty years ago. A friend and I were taking a bicycle tour of rural parts of the county, and we passed a recently abandoned nursery. This place was a real nursery where the plants sold were actually grown on the site; contrast that to the retail "nurseries" which most of us now know where plants are brought in and sold like dry goods.

The nursery was called Perennial Place, and I eventually met a relative of the former owners. She invited me to help myself to the plants which were left. The plants were all growing in the ground, each type in a bed of its own of several square yards extent. This was before the big boom in perennial plants in the 1980s, the boom which brought a bewildering array of plants into our gardens - at least briefly.

At Perennial Place I remember seeing in particular autumn anemones, epimediums, hostas and this aconite. I returned later with the car and dug and hauled as much as I could. The place was about to be razed, utterly obliterated. I drove by years later and could not even identify the site of the former nursery with certainty.

This abandoned nursery made a profound impression on me: I still dream about that place, and I daydream about the things which I saw there, things which only another gardener would notice or understand.

Crocus longiflorus

Most gardeners seem to be vaguely aware that autumn crocuses exist, but few seem to realize that they have a long season of bloom; in mild years they bloom right up into the season of the earliest of what we usually think of as winter blooming crocuses. Some forms, such as Crocus laevigatus, have forms which seem to straddle the distinction we try to make between autumn and winter flowering crocuses. With a bit of cold frame protection, it’s possible to have an unbroken succession of crocuses of various sorts in flower from late September until well into February or early March.

The one shown here, Crocus longiflorus, has long been a favorite here. It’s known for its fragrance, a quality it shares with many other crocuses. Fifty years ago, when I was first learning my crocuses, this plant was not readily available, and my eventual acquisition of a few corms was a highlight of my gardening year at the time. At the time I grew Crocus speciosus, C. sativus and C. kotschyanus; I regarded the acquisition of C. longiflorus as a big step into the seemingly ever widening world of lesser known crocuses.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The palm grove

The image above shows what I jokingly call my palm grove. Two species of palm are shown: Trachycarpus fortunei and Rhapidophyllum hystrix. The former is native to western China and the latter comes from the southeastern US. In our climate Rhapidophyllum is widely regarded as the hardiest palm.

I first tried the Trachycarpus nearly forty years ago. That first plant survived for many years but eventually was lost in a particularly bad winter. A second trial did not last as long. The current plant in now bigger than any of its predecessors, big enough to be handsome and attract attention - and big enough to be vulnerable to a bad winter. Trachycarpus is easily protected with a pile of leaves when it is young, but once the trunk emerges from the ground there are basically two choices: elaborate protection or taking chances with an unprotected plant. I have not made any effort to protect the plant in the image above for years, and it's doing well. But recent winters have been abnormally mild.

The Rhapidophyllum is a more recent addition to the garden. It has never been protected during the winter.

The companion plants in the foreground are interesting, too. Most of what you see are Ruscus aculeatus, the European butcher's broom. Mixed among them are one of its close relatives, Danaë racemosa, the Alexandrian laurel. Most people are surprised to hear that both of these plants are monocots related to asparagus. I'm also sometimes asked why I write Danaë with two little dots over the e. Those two little dots (the dieresis) indicate that the a and the e are to be pronounced separately; in other words, it's a three syllable word.

This planting is one of those groupings which changes very little from season to season: other than the bright red fruits of the Ruscus and the Danaë during the winter, what you see here is what you will see at any time of year. These plants are now large enough that I might give in to the temptation to raid these plants for winter greens for the house. There is a long tradition of using both the Ruscus and the Danaë for that purpose, and there is an international trade in the cut branches. To this day I occasionally see branches of Danaë (with the fruits removed) in local butcher's cases. The Ruscus most often appears dried and spray painted for holiday decorations. It's a firm, even hard, spiky plant when alive and growing; when dried it is especially disagreeable.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Variegated yucca

As a rule, variegated plants do not do much for me: I can take them or leave them. Many of them have the look of virus infected plants. Yet some of them certainly have just the combination of novelty and beauty to not only catch your eye but to bring on a real bout of acquisitiveness. The variegated yucca is one which caught my eye and came home with me years ago. I had just dug out a long established clump of a non-variegated yucca, Yucca flaccida. That experience should have warned me off yuccas forever. Why in the world did I bring another one into the garden?

The variegated yucca (if it has a formal name, I don't know it) seen in the image above has grown on me over the years. It's one of those plants which looks about the same year round. In fact, it might as well be made of plastic. It always looks clean and fresh: it does not have a down season. The foliage sometimes shows tints of pink in addition to the green and the white. About the only change to be noticed is that it slowly grows bigger each year.

It's also long suffering: until this week, it had spent most of the summer hidden under a dense blanket of porcelain berry vine. When I freed it of its oppressive mantle, I had to admit that it was unexpectedly handsome and hale. It's a keeper.

Beauty in the beast

We gardeners have a lot to answer for. And the plant shown above is a good example. Take a look at gardening books of a century ago, and you will have no trouble finding authors singing the praises of the porcelain berry vine, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata. This much is still true: it's certainly very beautiful when it's festooned with those blue fruits.

That beauty was its passport into gardens all over the Eastern United States. That it proved to be adaptable and easily grown were pluses. It was also easily propagated. And as time told, it was very good at propagating itself. It is now a serious weed in this area. It has made itself at home in the local woodlands (where we already have native species of Ampelopsis). In my garden it has made itself very much at home. I spent hours the other day cutting it out. And that is only part of the solution because this plant sprouts readily from any substantial piece of root left in the ground. The battle will be continued next year.

The plant factory

I'm in the throes of what for me is the busiest part of the gardening year. This seems to perplex the neighbors, most of whom seem to think that the gardening year is coming to an end. No, it's not; it's just beginning.

This is also a prime time for sowing seeds or at least getting set up for the big sowing in late winter. To that end I've been cleaning up what I call the sunny cold frame corner of the garden. Earlier this week I readied one of the frames and soon had it filled with 450 little pots of newly planted seed. That's what you see above. With luck, next week that frame will have a mirror image facing it.

The weather this week has been ideal for getting things done, both outside and, during the rain, inside. The weather people reported record low daily highs this week - in other words, the daily high temperature on some days has been lower than ever before in recent recorded weather history. Right now we're in a period when the daily highs and lows don't move much up or down - we've been staying in the 40s F. day after day. My Scotch ancestors would probably feel right at home - I'm certainly loving it. warming, that was so last year!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Look what's new in the local grocery store

Yes, those are Brussels sprouts, in a condition a lot closer to the one in which they grow than those little green globes which we buy in boxes. They looked so fresh and succulent in the store that I brought a stem home with me. Guess what? Brussels sprouts are Brussels sprouts, on the stem or in the box. We noticed no real difference in taste.

On the other hand, when you walk into the kitchen and see a two foot log of Brussels sprouts, it's bound to get you curious.


Some bulbs have the trick of forming their new bulbs deeper and deeper year after year. In some tulips the new bulb is formed at the bottom of a downward growing growth called a dropper.
Here you see something similar in little Colchicum parlatoris after several years of pot culture. The last year or two it experienced some neglect, and as a result its bulb (in this case, technically a corm) is run down and small. What's interesting to me about this is that the old corm tunics have been preserved. The newest growth was at the left hand side of what you see above - everything to the right is old growth from prior years (and none of it is alive).

After taking the picture, the new corm was repotted in better soil and near the surface. With luck, I'll be repeating this exercise in a few years, but I hope when that time comes the new corm will be back to its normal size. It's shown above on a quarter-inch grid.

This one didn't make it

It's a sad fact that wild animals in an urban setting are more likely to be seen dead than alive. I've gotten used to this, more or less. But I still get upset when I find animals dead on the road, especially close to home. The local populations of small terrestrial vertebrates must be under relentless pressure from cats and cars.

Two days ago, as I was getting into my car (which was parked in front of the house), I noticed something familiar in the street only a few feet away: it was a dead eastern garter snake, a mature male. I see garter snakes in the garden most years, especially in the early spring and early autumn, the two seasons when cool nights followed by warm days bring the snakes out to bask in the sun.

The death of an adult snake means that years of feeding and growth are for naught. Garter snakes are however prolific and give birth to (sometimes) dozens of live young. I can only hope that some of them are lurking back in the garden now.

Too bad they can't be trained not to cross the streets: when they do, they don't have much of a chance around here.

In the images above you see not only the dead snake but also some members of the clean-up crew which quickly took advantage of the situation.

Colchicum 'Rosy Dawn'

All of my gardening life I've had a big interest in colchicums. I've grown dozens of nominally different forms over the years. So many of them are so much alike that I sometimes wonder if I will ever feel confident about their names. Yet there are some which are more or less distinct, and among those are some of my favorites. I like colchicums with big, broad tepaled flowers. The one shown here, 'Rosy Dawn' certainly fits that description. When the flowers are new, they have the shape of a newly opened tulip. And the tepals of this cultivar are particularly broad. The flowers retain their deep cup shape through the initial days of bloom, but they eventually open wider. In this wide-open phase they are less attractive to me, but they are still very showy. In my experience this cultivar is not free-flowering: each sprout rarely seems to produce more than one big flower. The flowers have a proud, stocky poise; and unlike many colchicums they remain upright as long as they endure.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Habenaria radiata 2009

Little Habenaria radiata surprised me this year. In the past the plants I've seen and grown have had only one or two flowers, at most three, per stem. One of the plants here this year produced a stem with six flowers; another produced a stem with four. And they seem to be setting seed this year.

What should we be calling this plant? It's been placed in the genera Habenaria, Platanthera and Pecteilis. Each of those names still seems to be in use for other orchids, and that suggests that there is someone out there who considers them to be good genera.

One of my email correspondents says he has hybridized Habenaria radiata and Platanthera blephariglottis. I hope some idiot does not announce this as a "bi-generic hybrid" instead of doing the more reasonable thing - acknowledging that two plants which hybridize to produce viable offspring do not belong in different genera. In fact, some might say that in spite of whatever morphological differences exist between them, the ability to "hybridize" and produce viable offspring is a good sign that they are in fact the same species.

The daffodil season begins

I'll bet that most of you wouldn't know what the plant shown above is without my telling you. And then when I told you, you might think I'm a bit off and refuse to believe me. But it is a daffodil, at least in the current, usual arrangement of things. It's Narcissus serotinus, a plant which has been known to European plant enthusiasts since at least the end of the sixteenth century. It's in the old herbals, but few transalpine gardeners back in those days had probably seen it as a living plant. And there is a hint in those herbals which lends credence to that point of view. The illustration used in the old herbals was drawn from a dried plant. How do we know? First of all, notice that I wrote "illustration" rather than "illustrations". The illustration prepared by the Antwerp publisher Plantin for the works of Clusius shows an error, and that error (in the form of copies of this illustration in various degrees of fidelity to the original) was perpetuated for well into the eighteenth century. The error is this: if you look at that illustration, it seems as if the stem of the flower is jointed, somewhat like a bamboo stem. No daffodil has such a jointed scape. But it's now known that if the fresh, blooming scape is dried, it sometimes does develop wrinkles which in an illustration do look like joints. But so few people had actually seen the plant back in those days that the error persisted for centuries. See the account in Bowles' A Handbook of Narcissus (from which I've taken most of the information in this paragraph) for more details.

And why had so few people seen it? At first glance, it does seem strange: this species has an extremely wide range, from Portugal to Israel on both sides of the Mediterranean and on many Mediterranean islands. But it's a tiny plant; as daffodils go, it's hardly a prepossessing one. For another thing, it blooms in the autumn. But the third reason is the clincher: it does not grow as a garden plant in northern Europe. It requires very careful protection to be grown at all in cold, dull climates.

The first image above shows the blossom; the image below it shows the illustration used in the Historia of Clusius (the 1604 edition). According to Bowles, Clusius had first used this same illustration in 1576.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jim to the rescue...

While out in the back garden today I looked down and saw something neat: a huge black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta (aka Pantherophis obsoletus) . It surprised me by not making any attempt to get away (they often do that - as snakes go, they have a very laid-back disposition). Then I saw why: it had crawled into some of that bird netting I use to protect plants from deer and was trapped in it.

I carefully lifted the snake and netting from the ground; then I could see that it was really seriously entangled. The netting had cut into its skin in several places.

I put it down and went into the house to get some scissors. Then I very carefully began to cut the snake out of the netting. About eight inches of the front end of the snake (the business end!) were free, and although it maintained a striking pose through most of the ordeal as I cut, it never bit me. There were times when I felt as if I were doing surgery.

When I finally got the snake free, I took it in to show Mema. Then I got her to take my picture with the snake. Unfortunately she had trouble pointing the camera (at one point she was pointing it at a tree and kept saying "I can't see you"). The picture with me isn't great because it does not show the length of the snake - easily five feet. And it was a fat heavy one.
Black rat snake, Pantherophis obsoletus (Elaphe obsoleta)

After all of this I returned the snake to the back garden. I put it on a vine, and it made a nice pose. I ran back in to get my camera, but in the meantime the snake had disappeared.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mystic dahlias

I'm not really into dahlias. I admire the flowers, but I seem to get indifferent results in growing them. I've learned that there is nothing to be gained in our climate by planting them early: they make great growth initially, but when the summer weather arrives they go into a slump. They can be revived by cutting them back severely (at the height of summer, not exactly when one wants to do that sort of thing), watering them generously and feeding them. With luck, they bounce back for an encore during the autumn.

A simpler approach is to wait until early summer to plant them. This year I waited until the last week of June to plant my dahlias, and the result has been steady growth which is now blooming freely.

The dahlias you see above are representatives of a new group raised in New Zealand by Dr. Keith Hammett and called the Mystic series. I bought my plants last year and grew them that first year in pots. This year they are in the ground and are better for it. These Mystic dahlias are characterized by finely divided very dark foliage. This dark foliage makes a nice contrast to the vivid flowers. They look a lot like some of the Mexican wild dahlias.
The one shown above is 'Mystic Desire'.

More food for a hungry man

I prepare all of my own meals when I'm at home. I almost never eat out. I enjoy cooking, too, but sometimes it presents a dilemma: cooking takes time, and sometimes it's time better spent doing something else. And so the question often arises: what can I fix for dinner which is tasty but which won't keep me in the kitchen for hours?

You see one answer to that question above: popovers. It takes about ten minutes to whip up a batch of popover batter. One then simply pours it into the pans, puts it in the oven, and then comes back about an hour later to enjoy the result.

Popovers are one of those foods which can with equal success be treated as a savory or a sweet food. The batch above was made with a bit of blue cheese, an addition which nicely spiked the flavor profile. Mom and I ate the first ones slathered with butter; the remainder were eaten with orange marmalade.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The plant shown in the image above is one of the hybrids known as ×Amarcrinum. The little times sign indicates that it is of hybrid origin; the name itself is derived from the names of the its parents, Amaryllis belladonna and Crinum moorei. This hybrid has been produced at least twice, and it is sometimes called ×Crinodonna.

Amaryllis belladonna itself does not seem to settle down in our gardens to become a good garden plant. Numerous Crinum grow well here, but their foliage is hugely out of proportion to their flowers - and none of the Crinum I've grown as garden plants could be called free blooming.

×Amarcrinum combines the fragrance, late season and manageable size of the Amaryllis belladonna parent with the ease of culture of the Crinum parent. For small local gardens it's a better choice than either parent. The foliage goes down during the winter and the plants make strong growth during our summers.

For more views of these plants, which I photographed today in a local garden, see here:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Two more glads

As more of the new glads come into bloom, I'm reminded of what I've been missing during the years I have ignored these plants. Two blooming this week show really startling color combinations. Above you see 'Flevo Kosmic' and below that is 'Velvet Eyes'. Of the two, 'Flevo Kosmic' is definitely a keeper.

I'm not so sure about 'Velvet Eyes': it's an interesting color but the color pattern on this one reminds me of that of a virus infected tulip. This cultivar is a reminder that glads provide a source of really good purples during the summer; that color combined with their tall stature and elegant bearing makes them tempting candidates for livening up late summer borders.

Impressive as these glads are, I still have my doubts about their role in our gardens. In our climate, the flowers don't last long - when it's really hot they seem to come and go within a day or two. It has long been known that as cut flowers they have the advantage of opening to the last flower in the spike; maybe the best place for them is in a vase.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Food for a hungry man

Last week I had been traveling back and forth between home and western Virginia; my hours were irregular and my eating was even less so. I fell prey to fast food repeatedly. When I got home for good, I wanted a meal high in bulk and fiber and low on fat - something interesting, flavorful and satisfying. Something as simple as a baked potato fills the bill, but it also means an hour wait for it to bake. Yet potato satisfies as few other foods do, so it had to be potato in some form.

The other day I was browsing a WWII era cookbook and came on a recipe which combined mashed potatoes and peanut butter. I was having trouble getting that taste combination in my head, so as soon as I had the chance I tried it. The potatoes were cubed and boiled in chicken stock. When the potatoes were getting soft, they and the stock were put into the food processor. About two tablespoons of peanut butter were added and the mixture was processed enough to make a thin puree. It was too thin, so I added some chunks of stale baguette to thicken it a bit. This basic peanut butter mashed potato combination is good in a bland sort of way. But I wanted something with a bit more presence on the palate. I began to make additions…

Talk about fusion food. Earlier that same day I had been reading a Greek cookbook (think skordalia and taramosalata), and unconsciously those preparations must have guided my next additions. The first additions were a bit of olive oil and some chopped garlic. The result? Good, but I knew it could be better. Then I added some chopped cilantro and the juice of a lime. Now I was getting somewhere.

But it still needed something, and that something was serendipitously on hand: kippers, smoked kippers if that’s not redundant. I say serendipitously because I’m probably the only person in our family who even knows what a kipper is. I broke the kipper up into small pieces and ran the food processor enough to incorporate it thoroughly into the potato mixture.

The final result was comfort food of the best sort – a nice combination of the familiar flavors of the potato, peanut butter and garlic combined with the intriguing, sprightly flavors of the cilantro and lime and the smoky quality imparted by the kippers.

What we didn’t eat right away appeared at lunch the next day, this time as little balls rolled in flour and fried until crisp in olive oil. These were delicious spread on celery.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Glamini glads

This year I’m trialing various garden glads. This week a form new to me has started to bloom. These are sold under the name Glamini Glads.

Experienced gardeners generally have plenty of stories to tell about the absurdities of the mass-distribution catalogs: the hyperbole, the misidentifications, the outrageous colors (blue tulips, roses and dahlias, anyone?) and the dubious hardiness claims. Why this happens is beyond me because, in most cases, the plants themselves deserve better than this shabby treatment.

The catalog entry for these Glamini glads provides a good example. It shows what seem to be typical garden glads cut down and stuffed into a container; such foliage as can be seen is suspiciously short, and the stumpy, graceless inflorescences squirm artlessly upwards as if to distance themselves from the deception taking place below them.

Forget all of that. In the garden these Glamini glads are really graceful and beautiful. They measure over 30” high with three inch flowers. The flower colors are appealing: they remind me of sherbet colors.

Count these as a good addition to our garden flora (at least until the thrips find them).

I purchased these as a mix and then went back to the catalog to identify them as they bloomed. So take the cultivar names given here with a grain of salt. If I've got them right, the one above is 'Emily' and the one below is 'Zoe'.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I wonder where I got it...

Late this afternoon I wandered into the kitchen to look for something. There on the kitchen table was the paper napkin and rows of leaves you see above. Mom had been out in the garden and picked up some crepe myrtle leaves which were showing early color. She has an eye for leaves showing unusual color patterns or particularly vivid color. In a few weeks she'll be bringing in leaves of the Franklin tree (glorious, waxy scarlet) and any others which catch her eye.

I have memories from early childhood of short neighborhood trips mom, my sister and I took to collect leaves, acorns, grasses, feathers - whatever chance and the season offered. My sister would have been in the Taylor Tot at that age, I would have been four or five.

Mom got us pointed in the right direction at an early age.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Satin'

A plant of Hibiscus syriacus ‘Blue Satin’ was obtained earlier this year. I’ve had my eye on this cultivar for several years, and I’ve always hesitated. Why have I hesitated? Because Hibiscus syriacus cultivars, with the exception of some notable cultivars to be mentioned later, have the potential to infest your garden with hundreds of unwanted seedlings. This small shrub is one of the ultimate pass-along plants: so much so that there is inescapably something trashy and weedy about it. It’s often seen flourishing on abandoned inner-city lots and other waste places. It’s widely known as Rose of Sharon or called Althaea, a name sometimes used as the generic name of hollyhocks. They are both members of the mallow (hibiscus) family, Malvaceae.

These blue-flowered cultivars of Hibiscus syriacus (there is also ‘Blue Bird’) become a nuisance once they begin to bloom freely. One must either pick off the spent blooms frequently or be prepared to pull seedlings for years. But are there any other large-flowered, blue-flowered hardy shrubs for their season? I can’t think of any with large flowers. There are the various Buddleja, Vitex and Caryopteris, but all of those depend on flower clusters for effect: the individual flowers are tiny.

Individual blooms of ‘Blue Satin’ are about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. The color is hard to describe. Early in the morning, out of direct sun light, they seem blue, the sort of blue seen in some hardy Geranium. By noon, in bright sunlight the magenta tones are strengthened, and the color, to my eyes at least, is much less attractive. The same thing happens with the blue-flowered garden geraniums I know. Of the images shown above, the upper one was made before the sun struck the bloom, the lower one was made in full sunlight.

Something really exciting happened in the Rose-of-Sharon world in 1970: the United States National Arboretum named and introduced the beautiful triploid cultivar ‘Diana’. Not only was it beautiful, it rarely produces seed. No trash plant this, it’s a beautiful addition to our summer garden flora. The tantalizing excitement continued in 1980 when the Arboretum introduced three more of these triploid cultivars, ‘Aphrodite’, ‘Helene’ and ‘Minerva’.

Exciting as these cultivrs are, they are not the plant for which some of us were patiently waiting. The untimely death of Donald R. Egolf, who had guided the development of these cultivars, evidently brought an end to this line of breeding. What we are still waiting for, of course, is a triploid, seed-free, blue-flowered Hibiscus syriacus.

Until that happens, if you want a blue-flowered Rose of Sharon be prepared to spend a lot of time cleaning up after its prodigious seedling production.

For more information about the US National Arboretum introductions, check out these links:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lycoris squamigera is a tough one!

When I left the garden shown in the Lycoris squamigera in a country garden series, I was carrying a bag of Lycoris squamigera bulbs. My hostess offered them to me with the comment that they had been dug earlier in the spring. As she returned from the house with the bulbs, my expectations rose because she had a plastic grocery bag with what seemed to be a muskmelon-sized lump. As soon as she handed the bag to me, my hopes were dashed: the bag weighed about as much as a peanut and, as a discrete squeeze revealed, seemed to contain only chaff.
When I got to the car, I took a closer look. Yes, the bulbs were extremely desiccated; but they seemed to have a solid core. Maybe a bit of life lurked in some of them.
I soaked them at the first chance, and something amazing happened. Within a few hours those bulbs went from featherweight ghosts to heavy, plump, seemingly normal bulbs. I was amazed, although I should not have been. I’ve known Nerine to do the same thing: shrink down from a two inch diameter bulb to a pencil-thin core during the dry season and then miraculously plump up with the first good soaking.
Those Lycoris squamigera bulbs are not wasting any time: they are already sprouting new roots!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lycoris squamigera in a country garden

At about this time last year I stumbled upon a small country garden full of Lycoris squamigera. A knock on the door of the house did not bring an answer, and I was reluctant to enter the garden without permission. It was very tempting, especially since the garden was unfenced and very welcoming.

I was in the same area this weekend and took a detour from my planned route to see if I could find this same garden this year. Not only did I find it; this time the mistress of the garden was on hand to invite me in and tell me a bit about the history of the garden and its plants. I was probably there for about two hours: an hour and forty-five minutes chatting and fifteen minutes photographing plants.

I would not be surprised to hear that others have seen similar gardens in the small towns nestled in farming country across the land. The garden I visited Friday was bright with phlox, August lilies, physostegia, perennial herbaceous hibiscus and balloon flower. But the real show came from the hundreds of Lycoris squamigera.

I hope everyone enjoys these pictures. They are a glimpse of a form of gardening which is probably slowly disappearing. And only someone with very deep pockets indeed would be able to plant Lycoris squamigera in this quantity now.
Be sure to click on the images to see the enlarged version.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lycoris longituba

The genus Lycoris has had an interesting history in our gardens. Some, such as Lycoris squamigera and L. sanguinea, were well known in New England gardens a century ago. Others, such as L. radiata, became naturalized in the Gulf states. L. squamigera became the common Lycoris of the North and L. radiata became the common species in the South. Other species were imported occasionally, but the stocks were typically mixed, there were the usual problems with accurate nomenclature, and commercial nurserymen here in the US did not take them up enthusiastically. Nor, it seems, did the gardening public. Was there ever a "Lycoris Society" ? I don't think so. One Sam Caldwell made a stir about forty years ago by showing a nice range of hybrids. Few people back then had ever seen a Lycoris seed, much less a home grown hybrid. Nothing permanent seems to have come from Caldwell's work.
Now there are probably more varied Lycoris available than at any time in the past. Hardy yellow-flowered Lycoris, long a holy grail of Lycoris enthusiasts, are now readily available. More to the point, there are now several Lycoris forms readily available which set viable seed: these promise an even brighter future for these plants in our gardens.

The plant shown here, Lycoris longituba, is a relatively new arrival in my garden. These were obtained in 2007 and are blooming here for the first time this year. This Lycoris longituba is said to be a good species, good in the sense that it sets viable seed which, if grown on, produce more Lycoris longituba. But from what I've read, the cultivated stocks seem to be variable.

The catalog description led me to expect white-flowered plants. Indeed, from a distance they do look white. But close up it becomes apparent that the color is more complex: the white is suffused with orange and yellow, giving an orange-juice-in-milk effect. It's very beautiful.

The fragrance of this one is pleasant, a quality it does not share with all of its relatives. The plant we call Lycoris squamigera, for instance, has a scent which to me is the scent of vinyl.

For the future: there are at least two different (purportedly) yellow-flowered species growing here: I'll show those when and if they bloom.

What triggers bloom in Lycoris? So far, it seems to be an unsolved mystery.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt'

The hummingbirds and I both like this plant a lot.

As a group, fuchsias are little grown in our local gardens. One sees them in numbers around Mother’s Day: the local nurseries sell loads of them. About a month and a half later one sees those same plants dangling from some porch rafter in a hanging basket, hanging on not only to the rafter but to dear life, mostly defoliated, partially dried up, a pathetic sight ready for the trash bin. Evidently there are cultivars which can be successfully grown here, but they don’t seem to be catching on with local gardeners.

One which does very well here is shown above. This is 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt', an old hybrid of Fuchsia triphylla. It has the potential to bloom year round: the plant in the image above has done just that. The blooming period typically begins here sometime in June as the newest growth begins to produce flower buds. Bloom continues steadily right into the new year (it comes inside sometime in November; indoor life slows it down but the blooms keep coming). In most years it will take a break from February to May or so, but last year it bloomed throughout the winter and early spring, too.

The genus Fuchsia is named for Leonhard Fuchs, a sixteenth century German botanist. The plant was not known to Fuchs; it was discovered about a century and a half after his death. The typical American pronunciation is FEW-sha; Herr Fuchs would be better remembered if we were to pronounce it FOOKS-e-a. If you know how to do the glottal ch, so much the better.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lilium 'Black Beauty', Salvia guaranitica

If I’m ever asked to recommend a lily for a public planting, or if a gardener new to lilies asks me to recommend a good starter lily, I won’t hesitate in picking one: it’s got to be ‘Black Beauty’. To my eyes it’s much more attractive than the hybrids derived from it. It retains from its wild parents poise which is lacking in its descendants. It’s fragrant, but not overweeningly so. It’s as reliable and vigorous as any lily known to horticulture. It’s big enough to make a show in the garden, yet its innate grace saves it from being a lout.

It’s also just about the last reliable lily to bloom each year in the garden. This year it’s making a particularly good show with some nearby Salvia guaranitica. The color of this salvia does not carry, but up close it’s the sort of color on which the eye can feast. The salvia and the lily are about the same height, with the sparse inflorescence of the salvia at about the same height as the lily flowers. This is a combination I’ve grown to like very much.

Eustoma grandiflorum

Forty years ago I was in the Army stationed in central Texas. I was there for a full year, and thus had the chance to see the local flora (and some of the fauna, too) through an entire yearly cycle. For someone who grew up east of the Mississippi, this first glimpse of life west of the river was a real eye-opener. I spent every spare minute out in the field collecting and soaking it all in.
One day in the barracks I noticed that I was not the only one who collected the local vegetation. There was briefly a Japanese man in our unit, and one day I noticed that he was carefully pasting a sample of the local vegetation into what appeared to be a letter. I mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that his interests were botanical; as it turned out, he was finishing up a letter to someone back home (he was very reticent about it all) and all I could gather was that the blade of grass and blossom I noticed had a purely sentimental or poetic significance for him.
Those months in Texas certainly made a good impression on me. There were so many exciting discoveries: my life back then reminds me of a certain risible boy’s book published in the early twentieth century, a book where on every page a rattlesnake, tarantula or Gila monster wanders into the story to liven things up. In the book it was ridiculous, but in real life it was just that, real. Gila monsters don’t live in Texas, and I never saw a wild rattlesnake, but there were the occasional Texas copperheads (very beautiful, much more so than the local Maryland ones), plenty of tarantulas if you knew where to look (I quickly figured that out), and scorpions.
The flora was mostly new to me. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing Eustoma grandiflorum in full bloom in a dry summer field. The plants were about three feet high and full of dark purple bloom. I didn’t know what it was when I first found it, but it didn’t take long to find out.
Eustoma is nothing new in cultivation – seed lists from the early part of the twentieth century sometimes list them. But the modern cultivated strains are the result of more modern effort to commercialize this plant. I have no idea why they are marketed under the old name Lisianthus. And, I believe, these modern strains were first developed in Japan.
And that makes me wonder if that Japanese man I saw putting local flora into his letters had anything to do with it: wouldn’t it be an amazing coincidence if he did!

The plants you see in the image above were a Mothers' Day gift from my sister and brother in law to Mom.
If you are new to botanical nomenclature but trying to learn, you are perhaps puzzled why the genus name ends in the letter a (suggesting that it is feminine) yet the species name ends in -um suggesting it is neuter. The Greek word stoma (which usually means mouth) is neuter, so the adjective modifying it must be neuter also. If a botanical family should ever be established based on this name, it would be spelled Eustomataceae, not Eustomaceae because the oblique stem of stoma is stomat-.
When the author of a botanical name does not explicitly state the meaning of the name, there can be no certainty about what it means. Various publications have given "meanings" for the word Eustoma, most of them focusing on the usual meaning of the Greek word stoma (mouth). These meanings tend to be infelicitous (I'm reminded of the German Maultasch) . But stoma can also mean the entire face, and with that in mind I prefer to think that Eustoma means "pretty face".