Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Has it ever been so easy to learn? Has it ever been so easy to track down otherwise obscure concepts or assemble tenuous scraps of connections into a meaningful whole? Or for that matter, to follow up on one concept only to find yourself wandering off onto something related but utterly unanticipated? How did we survive without the Internet, Google and Wikipedia?

One amazing aspect of all of this is that it is not only the major, important issues which get the in-depth treatment. The mundane and trivial also get a good going over.

Until today I knew, or thought I knew, about the botanical families Aceraceae (maples) and Sapindaceae (various mostly tropical trees and shrubs). What I didn’t know is that some contemporary botanists now place these two groups into one family, one family for which they use the name Sapindaceae. The term I grew up with, Aceraceae, is no longer used by those botanists.

But it is how I learned this which is the point of this piece. The other night I was skimming through a forty-year-old cook book, Latin American Cooking, from the Time/Life Foods of the World series. Much of what I read was by now a bit stale: our eating habits have changed a lot in the last forty years. Ours is a household where the tortilladora gets a frequent workout, and the diners (with one holdout) have long since made their peace with cilantro (but not hot chilies). But our knowledge of south-of-the-border cooking has a strong central American flavor; other than a few well-known national dishes, South American food does not appear on our table too often.

Now try to imagine a sixty-five year old man tasting Pepsi or Coca Cola for the first time. I had that experience today. But it wasn’t Pepsi or Coke I was tasting, it was guaraná, the Brazilian soft drink. And it was all due to what Jonathan Norton Leonard, author of Latin American Cooking, had to say about it those forty years ago: “To my palate, no commercial soft drink in the United States is nearly as good”. I was not only intrigued, I was pretty sure I had seen guaraná on the shelves of the local import store.

When I got to the store I discovered that I had two brands from which to choose. Within a hour I was home having my first sip. It’s hard to describe the taste – it’s fruity, but unlike any particular fruit I know. And it’s delicious and easy to drink. It’s also sweetened with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup.

At this point an appeal to Wikipedia was in order: what is guaraná made with? And that’s where the big tie-in happened. Guaraná is made with the fruit of a sapindaceous vine, and since one thing led to another I was soon also learning that maples are now placed in the Sapindaceae by some botanists.

To celebrate all of this I poured myself another glass of guaraná.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The little sweeties seen in the image above are true jonquils. Each flower is about the size of a penny and has a potent, characteristic fragrance.

Just when gardeners new to the genus Narcissus think they have gotten straight the usages of the words daffodil and narcissus, they no doubt encounter the generally dubious usage of the word jonquil. The etymology helps here: jonquil itself is derived from the Latin word for rush, juncus. Have you ever seen the foliage of a rush? Jonquil foliage looks like rush foliage: very thin, superficially tube-like but actually not round in cross section. From that, it’s an easy step to the point of view (encouraged here if not everywhere) that no daffodil with flat leaves is a jonquil.

Hummingbirds and columbines

The first hummingbirds appear in the neighborhood at about the same time that the native columbine comes into bloom. I assume these little birds follow the blooming of the columbines northward, although I can’t rule out the possibility that we simply notice the hummingbirds for the first time as we’re admiring the columbines. We humans are definitely drawn to red things. Hummingbirds on the other hand show virtual catholicity in their choice of flowers to patronize. The only criterion seems to be that the blooms are full of readily accessible nectar. The cobalt blooms of Salvia guaranitica are as readily visited as those of scarlet Cuphea.

In other words, I think the reason we associate hummingbirds with red flowers is because we humans are apt to be looking at the red flowers when the hummers visit. But the hummers themselves visit any suitable flower without respect for color.
That's Aquilegia canadensis in the image above.

Asarum nobilissimum

Gross, repellent, bizarre: there is something of all three about the flowers of the members of the genus Asarum. The fact that some members of the genus are pollinated by slugs hardly adds to their allure. But they do have allure, and it’s mostly derived from their handsome, often evergreen, foliage. The flower shown here is that of Asarum nobilissimum, one of the larger, marginally hardy forms. It grows in the protected cold frame here, and seems to be taking well to life there.

The evergreen asarums would seem to be a boon for our gardens, but I have not found them to be reliable for winter interest in our climate. Some species, notably the European Asarum europaeum, although technically evergreen, collapse during the winter: the foliage becomes thin and papery and lies flat on the ground. The foliage of other evergreen species seems to be easily damaged by below freezing temperatures if not covered by a protective mulch of some sort.

In the garden of my dreams I have them growing in an extensive battery of cold frames where throughout the winter their handsome foliage will be snug under the glass yet still plainly visible to the gardener.

Those species with deciduous foliage generally are much better garden plants in my experience. The common local species is Asarum canadense, generally if misleadingly called wild ginger (it’s not related to gingers in the botanical sense; the dried roots have been used as a ginger substitute).

Several of the other evergreen species from the southeastern United States are in commerce, but as a group they don’t seem to have caught on outside of the always acquisitive coterie of most enthusiastic gardeners.

It's very unpleasant to hear so many American speakers pronounce this name a-ZAR-um. Historically, the stress has been on the first syllable. Years ago I was very happy to hear an Italian gardener refer to the plants as A-sa-ro, with the stress on the initial A: that's where it has presumably been since before the days when Latin was morphing into Italian.

Peony 'Early Scout'

This handsome early-flowering peony has been in the garden for decades. But for most of that time it rarely bloomed; in fact, it came close to dwindling away. As the back garden became shadier over the years, several once flourishing plants began to slowly decline – among them was this otherwise fine peony.

‘Early Scout’ is a hybrid of Paeonia lactiflora ‘Richard Carvel’ and an unnamed form of P. tenuifolia. It was raised by Edwin Auten Jr. and presented in 1952 (this from The Peonies edited by John Wister). It’s been a reliable grower and bloomer here, and it’s among the first of the peonies to bloom each year. The flowers are small as garden peonies go, but at their early season they are not in competition with the big garden peonies.

The plant is worth having for its foliage alone: long after the flowers have gone the mound of finely cut foliage remains handsome and distinctive.

Peony season 2009

The first peony to open here this year was Paeonia mascula. It was followed almost immediately by three others: a white-flowered Chinese tree peony with no name (one of their utility grade peonies grown for the medicinal bark), a peony long-grown here under the dubious name P. arietina, and the little hybrid ‘Early Scout’. By now, several garden tree peonies have also joined the party.

That's the medicinal bark peony shown above.

These earliest peonies bloom when the garden is at its most tender, freshest best. There are dogwoods, redbuds, tulips, wisteria, phlox, daffodils, and a bewildering array of minor players; the foliage of the trees is still tiny and pale green, giving a magical greenish haze while allowing in plenty of light.

Little by little the migratory birds are reappearing. I sat on Wayne’s patio the other morning listening to a wood thrush and watching two male hummingbirds trying to boss each other around at the feeder. The first towhee of the year appeared on the patio the other day. The dawn choruses of birds are at their best: strong and varied and urging the sleepy-headed gardener to get out of bed and get going. The chortling of woodpeckers is now an oft repeated part of the daytime bird sound: are they poking fun at me?

Bird song is not the only aural entertainment on the air now: toads continue to call at the ponds. The call of the local toads is very soothing on the sort of nights we’re having now, nights which suggest July rather than April.

What a year: we’re just out of the first full week of spring, and the weather is saying summer. In response to this, there is another less pleasant sound now demanding attention: the whine and whirring of air conditioners has already started: what are those people thinking?

One each of how many tulips?

Tulips have been a constant thread in the fabric of my horticultural life. There have been years when it took some discernment to notice that thread, and there have been years when that thread has been one of the dominant ones in the rich tapestry of spring.

This year the tulips are here in both abundance and variety. Over the decades I have occasionally done something unorthodox to enhance my tulip experience: I’ve gone out in the autumn and bought one each of every different tulip sold in local shops. I did this to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and I did it again last autumn. The result is that there are well over two hundred different tulips blooming in the garden here this year.

In the view above you can see the main planting of these one-each tulips.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Well-reconciled Troad?

Words fail me on this one, so I'll let Reginald Farrer take it: "They are a doomed and lonely race of irreconcilable Troades in weeds of silken crape, sullenly and grandly unresigned to exile and captivity, passing out of their captor's hands in a last defiant blaze of dark and tragic magnificence. They are chief mourners in their own funeral-pomps, wistful and sombre and royal in an unearthly beauty of their own, native to the Syrian hills that have seen the birth of gods, but strange and hostile to the cruder colder lands. They are the maidens that went down into hell with Persephone, and yearly in her train they return to make a carpet for her feet across the limestones of the Levant. But not for ours - their loyalty to their mistress holds only good in Syria; they do not recognise her in the rain-cloaks that she wears in the West, and lands of younger divinities shall never twice re-greet such children of mystery as these."

Nobody does purple as well as Farrer! And let's hope that his "lands of younger divinities shall never twice re-greet such children of mystery as these", appropriate as it might have been for Farrer's Scotland, finds an exception here in warm, sunny Maryland.

And so what is the glorious creation shown above? She is a hybrid of Iris kirkwoodii and Iris hermona, two oncocyclus irises. The internet bulb forum friend who raised it from seed sent me a piece last fall; if he reads this, I hope he realizes that my not mentioning his name is an act of kindness on my part, not one of ingratitude. How, indeed, does one express gratitude for such largess?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Eating locally

While walking Biscuit this evening, we stopped at one of our usual corners; Biscuit seemed undecided about which way she wanted to go. While waiting for her to make up her mind, I was absentmindedly scanning the vegetation in the area. I noticed a patch of seemingly dead grass, and then, on second look, I noticed something else, something exciting. There, pushing up through the grass at the edge of the dead grass patch were morels, several big, fat morels.

I pass this place as a rule twice a day when walking Biscuit. The morels were not newly emerged - to judge by the bit of dryness on some of them, they had probably been up a day or two. But they were still fresh and esculent.

Now to get out some cream, butter, eggs and maybe a bit of chives and parsley - some thick, crusty, toasted, real bread will serve to soak up all the goodness.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fritillaria michailovskyi

This plant, Fritillaria michailovskyi, is a good example of the power of modern growing practices. Twenty years ago it was still a rarity. Now it is one of the commonest Fritillaria in commerce. I've heard grumbling from long-time growers that the plant in commerce is a much pumped-up version of the original.

Fritillaries are a bit like tropical fish: once you start to collect them, it's hard to stop.

Tulipa cretica

Tulipa cretica is a small tulip, smaller even than its two relations Tulipa saxatilis and Tulipa 'Lilac Wonder'. It has grown here for several years now, and seems to be a good doer. However, so far it has always had the advantage of a cold frame: at first in the protected cold frame and last winter in one of the unprotected frames. As does Tulipa saxatilis, it produces above-ground foliage in the late autumn. Unlike Tulipa saxatilis, it blooms yearly.

More frits

The peak season for Fritillaria bloom is fast approaching. Here are four winsome, dainty species which would get lost in the garden. Top to bottom they are Fritillaria kittaniae, F. forbesii, F. carica and F. bithynica. They are a lot alike, aren't they? Once the collector's urge sets in, the names sometimes come to mean more than the plants themselves.

Not only are they winsome and dainty, they are tiny. The plant of Fritillaria carica shown here was all of three inches high - if that - when its picture was taken. Frits have a way of expanding in size as they mature, and some are noted for emerging from the ground buds-first, only rising to their full height later.