Monday, June 8, 2009

The dragon yawns...

...and is his breath ever foul! Dracunculus vulgaris is blooming today. The flowering of this plant is always an event in the garden - a wonderful celebration of the grotesque, ribald, disgusting, exotic, outrageous, extravagant, repellent and of course hilariously vulgar... Hold your nose and enjoy it as long as you can.

Clematis 'Sieboldii'

This is the plant more often called Clematis florida sieboldii, or C. florida bicolor, or even C. florida sieboldiana. It’s doubtful that it is unhybridized Clematis florida, so I’ve listed it as you see it above.

It’s an old garden plant, how old no one really knows. It was introduced to European gardens from Japan in the early nineteenth century according to Bean. That means that it’s about two hundred years old at least. Clematis florida itself is not native to Japan, and that lends credence to the notion that this cultivar is of hybrid origin.

In the older literature it has a bipolar reputation: extravagant praise for the unusual flowers (when I Googled it I discovered that some are now calling it the passion flower clematis) combined with sourpuss comments about the difficulties encountered in growing it. Even now there seems to be uncertainty about its cold hardiness. I had to try more than once before I got a plant to settle down here.

This is not a large-flowered clematis: the blooms are about three inches wide, comparable to those of many of the viticella hybrids.

I’ve known about this plant for most of my gardening life, and it’s very nice now to have it – evidently established – in the garden.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Another dead rat story

I’m a foodie, and evidently a bit of a “super-taster”. Let me get wind of some obscure taste sensation, and I want to try it. More often that not, these “taste sensations” come from the humbler ranges of the food spectrum. Cilantro provides a good example: when I became aware of cilantro over twenty years ago, it took many trials before I could get used to its distinctive taste and smell. But get used to it I did: a day came when I smelled a bundle of fresh cilantro and began to salivate profusely. Since then, there has been no turning back.

Some people can not abide the taste and aroma of cilantro, even after many trials. I’ve been feeding Wayne cilantro, or trying to, ever since my own conversion. But to this day it’s “soap plant” to him. There is speculation that the aversion some people experience is genetic in origin: try as they might, these people will never get over their dislike of cilantro.

Cilantro has its enthusiasts, and I’m happy to count myself among them. But if it had turned out that I could not get used to it, I probably would not have cared much. But what happens when your genetic makeup denies you a pleasure which is, if not universally trumpeted, at least widely and persuasively pressed? I’ve got truffles in mind as I write this. It turns out that all the exquisite things attributed to truffles are genetically denied to some of us. To some people they are the food of the gods, evidently the naughty gods in partiuclar. To a smaller group they are nothing special. And to a third group, they are repellent. It’s my misfortune to be a member of that third group. To me, truffles smell like dead rat.

Years ago, when white truffle oil began to appear in the high end food shops, I parted with about twenty dollars for a tiny container which probably deserved the name phial. When I got home with this treasure, it was with a sense of exalted high purpose that I unscrewed the cap and brought the opening of the vessel up to my expectant nose. I sensuously inhaled the long anticipated essence - and nearly barfed. What a reek! It was not just the vague smell of rancid oil, it was the assertive scent of dead rodent. I was furious: had I been sold an out-of-date bottle? Then I tried it on someone else. I didn’t tell them what to expect. I mischievously waited for them to get the whiff of dead rat. But they seemed to like it. I tried it on the dog: the dog loved it!

What was wrong with me?

Years later I Googled truffles, began to read what other foodies were saying on their blogs about them, and discovered that I was not alone in my reaction to the aroma of truffles. In fact, I found one blog entry which described this odor exactly as I did: dead rat.

No one else complained about the odor coming from under the stove this week (see the previous entry). Were they all smelling truffles?

Dead rat story

For the last two weeks, whenever I open the cabinets under the stove where I store potatoes and onions, there has been a strong dead mammal reek. When I first noticed it, I assumed it was a potato which went bad. I took out all of the potatoes, sorted out any which had even the slightest sign of trouble, and sat back thinking the problem had been solved.

It hadn’t. Not only was the odor still there, but it seemed to be getting worse. My first thought was that it was a dead mouse. Mice follow the gas pipes which lead to the stove, and that takes them right to the potato/onion bins. I’ve never known them to bother onions, but on rare occasions a potato will show signs of gnawing. Sweet potatoes on the other hand are quickly sampled. And then there was this: the odor seemed to be getting worse. A week later it was as strong as ever. A dead mouse would not stink that long; was it a dead rat?

The vegetable bins are on one side of this space. The other side is occupied by an assortment of culinary potions which has accumulated over the years. This includes things like various vinegars (there were four different rice vinegars when I looked today), what in the bad old days were known as sauces (ten-year old oyster sauce anyone?) and various spirits ( port, sherry, rum, a very old un-opened bottle of Canadian Club, Marsala, vermouth) and the results of various impulse purchases at the import store (mostly Russian fruit syrups and juices – Aronia, black currant, sour cherry).

Convinced that the decomposing corpse of a dead rodent lay hidden among all of those bottles, I took each one out, dusted it off, checked the cap for a good seal, and put them aside. As the last few bottles came out, it was clear that there was no dead rodent. Yet the stench was still there. I got a flashlight and peered down along the gas pipes as far as I could see: there was no sign of a dead anything.

What was going on? If anything, the smell now seemed to be stronger in the kitchen itself rather than under the stove. But where in the world was it coming from? The only thing I had not examined carefully was the onion bin. I took the onions out one by one: they were Vidalia onions, an onion which has a half life of several hours in our kitchen. No, the Vidalias were fine. There was a sweet potato in the same bin – it was light and dry, well on its way to becoming a cork. There was a shallot – nothing bad there.

And there was a plastic bag with garlic. Uh oh, what’s this? The plastic bag had traces – stains - of some now mostly dried brown liquid all over it. When I lifted the bag, there was a nearly dry puddle of the same dark brew. The stench was now reaching the truly disgusting level. Of the three heads of garlic in the bag, two seemed fine except for the bad company they were keeping: the third head was soft and reeking.

Problem solved – well, sort of. Now that the stench is gone, the mice will no doubt return.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Clematis 'Madame Jules Correvon'

I first became aware of the excellence of this cultivar years ago when I read an article about its use at Wave Hill. It's one of the viticella group hybrids, a group known for the great vigor of its members. The best known member of this group is Clematis 'Jackmanii'. The pruning of the clematis in this group is simple: in early winter cut them down to about a foot above the ground. They respond in the spring by putting up new growth which can be fifteen feet or more long. Plants pruned in this way bloom a bit later than those not pruned, but they make much more vigorous, cleaner growth.

The clematis of this group are ideal for combining with the hybrid roses derived from Rosa luciae and Rosa wichuraiana. They nearly match them in vigor, and their colors harmonize nicely. Years ago this garden boasted a huge plant of Rosa 'New Dawn' through which grew an equally robust plant of Clematis viticella: this was a great combination.

According to "The Large-Flowered Clematis Hybrids A Tentative Checklist" by J. E. Spingarn, reprinted from The National Horticultural Magazine, January, 1935 the name of this clematis is  Clematis 'Madame Jules Correvon'; Spingarn attributes this variety to Lemoine, not Morel (although many other varieties are attributed by him to Morel).

For another opinion on the name, see this:

The wash bear

Raccoons are a common sight here: they raid the garbage cans nightly, they dig in the garden, they party on the roof, they make a mess in the pond and terrorize the gold fish. They are also charming, engaging, intelligent, quick to learn and brave but not aggressive.

They are also vulnerable to rabies, and folk wisdom says stay away from any raccoon wandering around in the daylight. The other day while walking Biscuit, I noticed a neighbor peering into the bushes around his house. He told me there was a sick raccoon in the bushes, and he was waiting for "animal control" to come and pick it up.

The one in the image above was doing just that, wandering around in broad daylight. I was sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper and out of the corner of my eye noticed something outside, something big, crossing the deck only a foot or two from where I was sitting. It was the young raccoon you see above. It looked half starved and a bit sickly. I opened the door a bit to shoo it away, and it just sat there looking up at me. And then I noticed something else: it has an open gash on its back.

I took a quick look in the refrigerator to see what I could give it, give it for what might be its last meal. A moment later it was gnawing on a piece of chicken. After it left the deck, I encountered it again in the back of the garden. I think it's a female, and I'm hoping that it will show up a few months from now with some young ones.

Lilium hansonii

Lily season 2009 opened yesterday with Lilium hansonii, Peter Hanson’s Lily, and one of its hybrid progeny, a lily I call “Preston Yellow”. Both have interesting histories.

Lilium hansonii was introduced from Japan in the 1860s. To this day there is an element of uncertainty with regard to the natural distribution of this lily. There are seemingly wild populations in both Japan and around Vladivostok on the mainland; but there is suspicion that these are introduced. The known sexually reproducing, indigenous populations are apparently all Korean.

The form of Lilium hansonii introduced to the West was evidently clonal in nature: all the bulbs introduced were pieces of one original plant. Throughout the nineteenth century it was standard practice to multiply this species from bulbs and not from seed. Viable seed was rarely set. It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that new, non-clonal material was introduced from Korea, material collected by Richard Lighty. There have been subsequent collections of non-clonal material also. These newer collections evidently did not prove to be as easily grown as the original introduction from Japan.
Nor has any effort been made to maintain a distinction between the original clone and subsequent introductions.
The lily is named for one Peter Hanson (who?), a nineteenth century Brooklyn (yes, I didn’t make that up) lily enthusiast. It gets stranger. The lily was named by Max Leichtlin, one of the bright lights of nineteenth century horticulture.
Little is known about Hanson, and what I know mostly comes from some notes put together by Marco Polo Stufano years ago. Hanson, an immigrant from Denmark, collected lilies for his Brooklyn garden. He corresponded with Henry Elwes. He grew Cardiocrinum giganteum. In Hanson, it would seem that lily culture in North America was getting off to a splendid start. But it all seems to have come to nothing: Hanson was not the harbinger of great things to come, he seems rather to have been an anomaly. If this lily had not been named for him, he probably would have been utterly forgotten. And if there was ever a "Brooklyn school of lily growing", it, too, is gone without a trace.
The old clonal form of Lilium hansonii has the reputation of being about as tolerant of garden life as any lily. This is not one of those lilies which after being planted in November bursts into glorious bloom eight months later. It’s a slow, deliberate grower. It might take several years to become truly established. But once it digs in, it stays.
It emerges very early, so early that in areas with late freezes the inflorescence is sometimes lost. The plants do not seem to suffer long-term damage from this. David Griffiths mentions that in all the years this species was grown at the Bellingham Experiment Station in Washington State, it rarely if ever bloomed because of late frosts. Yet the stock grew and increased without other problems.

Because this lily blooms so early in the lily season, it is rarely seen at the shows unless growers from north of us are in attendance. It's also hard to determine how widely this lily is grown: yet I know that it is cherished in many gardens other than my own.