Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Magnolia stellata

Decades ago I planted three tiny Magnolia stellata between the sidewalk and the street. Now they form what one of the neighbors has called "the hedge" in front of our house.

The three are in full bloom now, freely scenting the air with their potent fragrance. On a warm, moist day the fragrance carries on the air freely. Passers-by frequently stop to enjoy the fragrance (and occasionally to snitch a bloom; that's fine with me).

When these were planted they were little better than eighteen-inch sticks. Two of the neighborhood boys took delight in riding their tricycles into them. A few years ago, I answered a knock on the door, and there was one of those boys - now a young man. He asked me if I remembered him: I sure did! I didn't tell him I remembered his tricycle, too.

The image I've used here is from 2007; it shows the trees with the masses of Helleborus foetidus which grow under them. This is a favorite combination.

Hacquetia epipactis 2009

I showed this to you last year; as you can see the plant is getting thicker and more floriferous.

This is a favorite. And no plant I have featured on my web site or blog has elicited as many requests for information about sources.

Some early fritillaries

The fritillary season is underway, and here are four early ones. From top to bottom they are Fritillaria montana and then the very similar F. nigra; then follow Fritillaria caucasica and F. pinardii.

F. montana and F. nigra are about eight to ten inches high at this time; F. caucasica and F. pinardii are tiny things only about three or four inches high. Fritillaria pinardii is very variable, and when this plant first bloomed I did not recognize it. I had grown this species about forty years ago, and the form I grew then was a dull mousy gray-brown with a thin yellow edge to each tepal.

Some early tulips

The first tulips to bloom this year bloomed in one of the unprotected cold frames. Their congeners in the open garden are only now coming into bloom.

First above is one of the many forms of Tulipa humilis. These do well here if given a dry summer. There are five or six readily available cultivars of this species, and even more are available if you search around a bit. There is a raised bed in the garden where a collection of these tulips grows: year after year they bloom freely and make a happy beginning to the tulip season.

Tulipa kaufmanniana is even earlier in the open garden. This year I'm trying a new cultivar named 'Ice Stick'. It's blooming today in the garden. If you know Tulipa kaufmanniana itself or the so-called kaufmanniana tulips (most of which garden cultivars are hybrids with Tulipa greigii), you know that they are characterized by very low growth: the blooms appear just above the foliage. But 'Ice Stick' has a typical kaufmanniana flower on a tall stem. I'm still getting used to it, and for now it's nickname is "the giraffe tulip"..

Gymnospermium altaicum

This odd looking little plant, Gymnospermium altaicum, is an interesting departure from the usual run of "bulbs". It's not closely related to any of the usual bulbs; it's not even a monocot. What it is is perhaps even more surprising: it's a member of the Berberidaceae. It grows from a round, corky corm and requires careful protection from summer moisture.

There are other species of Gymnospermium, and there are several related genera; and few will probably ever be grown outside the collections of confirmed collectors.

Yet more reticulate irises

Here are three more reticulate irises. Top to bottom: 'Cantab', 'Gordon' and 'Harmony'.

'Cantab' must be nearly a century old by now; 'Harmony' was in commerce about a half-century ago and 'Gordon' is a more recent cultivar.
I grow other reticulate irises, but the ones shown in these recent posts give a good idea of what is readily available. These little plants are worth a bit of extra fussing; once you have had them for several years, and have learned to look forward with confidence to their annual return, you will feel that that bit of extra trouble to keep them dry during the summer is worth it.

I hope I've got the names right on these reticulate irises: I keep hearing rumors that the commercial stocks are sometimes not true to name. The plants are no less beautiful with the wrong name.

More reticulate irises

The reticulate iris season is over by now, but this year a nice, representative selection bloomed in the cold frames. Three are shown above in images made the second week of March of this year. The top one is the cultivar 'Natascha', not quite white but rather a soft gray or skim-milk blue.

Next is one called 'Sheila Ann Germaney', and she is followed by 'Katharine Hodgkin'. Not shown is another one very similar to 'Katharine Hodgkin', this one known as 'Frank Elder'. I have plants under both names, but the flowers look alike to me.

Until recently, all of these were scarce and expensive. Now they can be purchased at the local garden center, and they are less dear than tulips or daffodils.

Reticulate irises in general seem to persist well in the garden, but they rarely bloom well after the first year or two. On the other hand, plants grown in pots or in the cold frames and kept dry during the summer do bloom well year after year.

Fritillaria raddeana

March 2009 was not all bad. The first of the Fritillaria showed easily counted buds by March 11. This was Fritillaria raddeana, and by March 18 it was in full bloom. This plant has bloomed for the last four years here. It's never been more than about a foot high, and it grows from a walnut sized bulb.

Last fall I received some comparatively huge bulbs of Fritillaria raddeana. These are emerging now, buds first, the same way the small form described above does. The sprouts from these new bulbs are big, like those of the crown imperial.

The two images above show the small form on March 11 and on March 18.

March 2009

March 2009 was a big disappointment to me. That brief mild spell we had at the very beginning of the year raised great expectations; March dampened most of them. Not only was the month cold, it was also dry and windy. There was a bit of rain towards the end of the month, and last week we had several days of slow, gentle rain which gave the garden a good soaking - and brought on a surge of growth.

Spring peepers have been in chorus now and then since March 8. Last weekend Wayne and I stopped by the local "peeper central" to check out the action. The peepers were singing in their hundreds, maybe thousands. Through the din of the peepers we could also make out chorus frogs and wood frogs. Today I heard toads calling, too.

It puzzled me that there have been no toads at the waterlily pool in the garden. Today I found out why: as I approached the pool today I heard a loud splash, the sort of noise turtles sometimes make. I didn't see anything - then. I decided to sit and watch. Several minutes passed and then suddenly, so suddenly it startled me, a muddy brown cylinder nearly as thick as my forearm shot up to the surface of the water, grabbed a quick breath, and just as suddenly disappeared. It was a snapping turtle, evidently not a small one. That no doubt explains the disappearance of most of the fifty gold fish I put into the pool last summer. Yesterday I noticed some small gray feathers floating on the pool surface.

So March this year came in like a polar bear and went out like a snapping turtle.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reticulate irises

Forget the old line about March coming in as a lamb or a lion: this year it’s coming in as a polar bear. It’s mid-day now; we woke up to a light dusting of snow. This afternoon and evening we’re expected to get several inches. How many inches is that? To the east of us it might be as much as 10-12”; in the immediate area it will probably be about 4-5”.

Last week the first of the reticulate irises began to open, open slowly over a period of several days. Two are shown above: above is ‘Pauline’ and below one which came under a now obviously incorrect name. I don’t know what this one is - yet.

Hundreds of thousands of reticulate iris bulbs must be sold annually in this country, and I’ll bet most of them get planted out into the garden. There, they bloom well the first year, maybe even for a few years after that; but most gradually disappear or fail to bloom again even when they persist.

Certain cultivars persist indefinitely and bloom annually: the old original form of Iris reticulata has been blooming here for over forty years; ‘Pauline’ also seems to be very persistent. In general, if they don’t persist on their own and re-bloom annually, we assume they are not for us. In fact, with a bit of help a nice array of these can be enjoyed annually.

Part of the problem is that they are ridiculously inexpensive: that in itself removes much of the incentive to try and learn to grow them. The formula for these is the familiar one: a bit of lime and dry conditions after the foliage ripens.