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".

Monday, July 27, 2009

Calla lilies

Although I’ve grown these South African plants all of my gardening life, I have never felt comfortable about them as garden plants. Long ago I realized that one of them, Zantedeschia albomaculata, was hardy in our gardens. And that realization prompted me to try a few others. But as a group, calla lilies have yet to achieve a permanent place in my garden.
It’s time to change that. Evidently they are a lot more reliable as garden plants than my limited experience has suggested. A few years ago Wayne and I saw huge, floriferous clumps in a western Virginia garden. These plants topped out at three and four feet high and had formed thick clumps. The discussions on the Internet forums suggest that they are surviving winters well north of me. Get busy, Jim…
Zantedeschia are aroids, jack-in-the-pulpit relatives. What we call the flower is in fact a colorful modified leaf, technically a spathe, which surround the real flowers. The real flowers are inconspicuous little things hidden inside that spathe. The spathe lasts in good condition much longer than any true flower: little wonder that these are popular florist flowers.
I’m now growing eight different cultivars – that’s a fraction of what’s currently available. The one in the image above is ‘Sunshine’. It was planted in late June and is in bloom already.

Tuberous begonias

Although in a recent blog I said that the tuberous begonias do not thrive in our area, in doing so I was mostly repeating uninformed gossip. The prevailing attitude is that they do not do well here. But even in the older literature from eastern North America, there were those who stood up and said that although there are problems, these plants are well worth growing,
Over fifty years ago, in the Silver Spring neighborhood where I grew up, one of my neighbors grew tuberous begonias in a big way. He ordered the bulbs from California and planted them in a long (maybe 30’) bed at the back of his garden. I sometimes saw him in the woods gathering top soil for his begonia bed. As a youngster I took these begonias for granted: I had no idea that what he was doing successfully was the exception rather than the rule.
My own first trials with tuberous begonias came long after those times. For me, they were not good garden plants, and I soon lost interest in them. But occasionally I would see photographs (especially in older books) of tuberous begonias growing luxuriously in favored climates, and this would bring on another wave of temptation.
It happened again this year: I saw picotee flowered tuberous begonias illustrated in one of the catalogs. Actually, I had been noticing them for several years. And by then I had also dreamed up some schemes which might make their successful cultivation possible here. So I ordered a half dozen earlier this year, and the first of them have been blooming for weeks.
So far they look great. And they are beginning to bloom freely.
Am I counting my chickens before they hatch? Is there some serious tuberous begonia problem in my future? We’ll see: but for now, enjoy the image above. With luck, there will be many more in the weeks ahead.

The ageing gardener

I’m at the age where it’s probably appropriate to start to think about the disposition of my goods so-to-speak. And while I don’t expect a precipitating event to occur any time soon, my sense of what old age really means has changed a lot in recent years. By “really means” what I mean is the distinction between being alive on the one hand and on the other hand being a full participant in life. Although from a perspective which takes into account only health issues, there is every reason to believe that I’ll live a lot longer, I now realize that simply being alive does not count for all that much. I’m paying a lot more attention to the lives lived by otherwise healthy older people lately, and the one thing I notice is that we experience a huge drop off in physical activity as we age.

Should I live a long time longer, and should my mind still function reasonably well, I probably won’t be doing much but sitting and reminiscing. Evidently, even for those lucky enough to retain their memory, the process of recollection even slows down. I remember hearing someone on the radio describing the adaptations needed to deal with an elderly parent: the one which fascinated me the most had to do with recall. The speaker told the story of visiting her elderly father and, at one point in the conversation, asking him a question. He did not answer. But the next day, when she was visiting him again and having another conversation, he unexpectedly and spontaneously blurted out the answer to her question of the day before.

This elderly person gave on the first day the impression that he had lost his memory. But it was not his memory which was faulty, it was the recall process. And it was not really faulty, it had just slowed down. The data were still on the disk, but there was so much else on the disk that it took longer to evoke it.

So what does this have to do with gardening? Well, for one thing, I’ve collected a lot of plants and a lot of books over the years. If I wait too long to disperse these, it will never happen with my participation. So it has occurred to me that the time to do this is before I lose both the energy to do it and the wit to do it gracefully.

That’s in another forty years, right?

Indian pipes

Because this is a gardening blog, you might be surprised to see an entry about a plant which is, in most usual senses, not in cultivation.

Yet in a sense, this one is.

For years there has been a profuse annual fruiting of a basidiomycete fungus of the genus Russula along one side of our house. This is a site which has been lawn for the last fifty years. Until recently, I had assumed that the Russula were parasitizing two Pinus palustris which grew nearby. However, the pines were removed two years ago, and the Russula persist. The only conifers nearby are a huge old Cephalotaxus and some garden yews. So perhaps one of those is serving as the host plant for the Russula.

About two weeks ago I had a huge surprise: a spot of white caught my eye near the Cephalotaxus. As I focused in on this, I could hardly believe my eyes: there was a clump of Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, emerging from the ground.

I’ve known this plant from childhood: its flowering was an annual event in a pine woods near my home. Back then, the plant was thought to be a saprophyte (from the classical Greek word for rot; the word sepsis is derived from a related word.) The modern take on this is even more interesting. Although Monotropa uniflora is a higher plant (in fact, it is placed in the same botanical family as azaleas and blueberries) it has no chlorophyll and is a parasite. A parasite on what? As it turns out, it’s a parasite on fungi of the family Russulaceae.

So the Monotropa is parasitic on the Russula fungus, and the Russula fungus is parasitic on a nearby conifer.

Other than planting the likely conifer host, I had nothing to do with this. In the distant past I had scattered Monotropa seed in the garden, but not as far as I remember anywhere near the plant now blooming.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lily season 2009 brings an unexpected climax

What for me was the last of three lily shows this year took place yesterday and today at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. This is the show sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Lily Society. Off and on for the last twenty-five years I’ve participated in these shows, usually as a judge and sometimes as an exhibitor. This year I was there in both capacities. I helped judge the early part of the judging, and it was a show marked by the generally high quality of the stems. We awarded one first place ribbon after another in class after class. And then I had to step out because I had a stem in the section being judged.

When I returned to the exhibition hall about twenty minutes later, I had a very nice surprise waiting for me: the stem I brought to the show won the Longwood Award for Best Stem in Show. Although there will be lilies blooming in the garden for several more weeks, it’s hard to top that as a climax for lily season 2009!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Modern lilies

Those of you who follow this blog no doubt noticed that June was a lean month for entries. There is a reason: lilies. That is, lilies and the lily shows. Lilies bloom here in abundance and variety from early June (sometimes late May) into the earliest days of August. There are two big peaks: the first happens around the summer solstice; the second about two weeks later. We are in the throes of the second peak now: this is when the most magnificent and staggeringly beautiful lilies bloom in this garden.

I'm happy to say I've been growing lilies for over a half century, and it's been a half century marked by continual improvement in the quality and health of our garden lilies. Modern lilies show characteristics which only a few decades ago occurred mostly in our dreams. And if you are the sort of lily grower for whom bigger is always better, then you are a happy lily grower indeed. Hybridizers have successfully combined the size, fragrance and form of some of the largest flowered wild lilies with the ease of culture of some of the most garden-reliable lilies. Now anyone with sun and well drained soil can grow spectacular lilies, reliable lilies which return year after year.

Most of the lilies in the image above are the imposing cultivar 'Silk Road'. One stands under these lilies and looks up at the inflorescence.

Gardenia 'Shooting Star'

I grew up in a neighborhood where there were several keen gardeners, the sort of gardeners who were always trying something new and edgy. I remember seeing Phygelius capensis in one garden, and in that same garden there was an ongoing effort to keep a gardenia alive from year to year. It's long been known that gardenias are marginally hardy in our area: skillful mulching and covering will sometimes bring the florist's gardenia through even our winters.

I wonder what those gardeners from fifty years ago would think of the hardy gardenias we now have? There are several of these making the rounds; the best known name is 'Kleim's Hardy'. The one shown above is 'Shooting Star'. The flowers of this cultivar and those of 'Kleim's Hardy' are similar; 'Shooting Star' seems to be a more vigorous, taller plant.

You won't mistake the blooms of these plants for those of the florist's gardenia. These hardy sorts have smaller flowers, and the flowers have only five petals. But they have the luscious gardenia fragrance in abundance, and that earns them a place in this garden. They also set fruit, although I have not tested the seed to see if it is viable.

Begonia 'Bonfire'

Last year, late in the season for bedding plants, I got wind of a newish begonia suitable for summer garden and pot use in our climate. The plant in question is Begonia 'Bonfire', said to be a hybrid of Begonia boliviensis. I searched several of the local garden centers, but was unable to track down a plant. Several of the people who worked at the garden centers knew the plant - always an encouraging sign - but had no idea of where to get one so late in the season.

This year I had better luck. The plant you see in the image above was obtained in mid-May and has been dripping with bloom since then. So far it shows no sign of slowing down. This plant seems to be a better choice for our climate than the other Begonia boliviensis hybrid likely to be seen in our gardens, Begonia × bertinii (I grow the cultivar 'Skaugum').
Note: an earlier version of this post misidentified this plant as Begonia 'Fireworks'. 'Fireworks' is the name of a Begonia rex cultivar.

A new begonia on the block

That the large-flowered tuberous begonias do not thrive in our climate is a major disappointment. The so-called Non-Stop hybrids are said by some to be more easily grown, but I don’t see them much in local gardens. Local shops sell them in the spring, and they sometimes turn up in summer bedding schemes.

This year Wayne spotted some begonias in a street-side planting down in the commercial part of nearby Bethesda, Maryland. When he described them to me on the phone, I assumed that they were Non-Stop begonias. He Googled Non-Stop and decided that what he saw was a bit different; in particular, the leaves were less pointed and more rounded. That sounded to me more like one of the Rieger or Hyemalis hybrids. He Googled these and decided that while the leaves were more like those he saw, the flower colors were different.

I was puzzled. As it turned out, I had been admiring some begonias in a neighbor’s garden recently, all the while assuming that they were Non-Stop hybrids. When I showed these to Wayne by flashlight one night while walking Biscuit, the owner of the garden suddenly appeared out of nowhere to see what was going on. Luckily, I knew him well, although I suspect that he was not sure he was not interrupting a begonia-napping.

We could see that they were not Non-Stop begonias, but what were they? The owner of the plants we saw did not have a name for them. A few days later I talked to his lawn and garden man to see if he knew the name: no luck there, either.

It was time to go for professional help. I asked about begonias at one of the big garden centers. Finally, someone who might know about them was located. He knew about the Hyemalis Hybrids and took me over to see a handsome display of these. When I told him that we were getting closer but had still not found the right plant, he mentioned that earlier in the season they had been selling some bedding begonias which looked a bit like the Hyemalis Hybrids. We went searching for these and finally found some mixed in among some Non-Stop begonias. At last I had a name: Solenia Begonias.

I purchased two and headed home. A quick Google search turned up plenty of information although not enough. For instance, how sun tolerant are these plants? Will they perform well throughout our summers? And are they tuberous or not? Later in the year I’ll post the results I get here.

Wayne now has three of them (pale yellow, light red and dark red) and I’ve got one (the dark red, a really beautiful color called Velvet Red). If these turn out to be good garden or pot plants here, they will be a valuable addition to our summer garden flora.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mema and the cardinal

We no longer feed the birds with seed. We stopped this practice over a year ago because of the rodent problem. Squirrels are bad enough, but the other ones which come at night are even worse. We were making it too easy for them.

Now we feed the birds by smearing peanut butter on the deck railing. This has the advantage of making it harder for the squirrels to dominate the feeding stations, and there is nothing to fall to the ground for the mice and rats to eat. So far, the peanut butter seems to appeal to a limited variety of local birds: cardinals in particular seem to appreciate it.

In the image above you can see Mema putting out the peanut butter. About six feet to her right you can see an impatient male cardinal waiting for her to leave. The cardinals seem to recognize her: as soon as she comes into the kitchen in the morning, they fly up to the big glass doors and call to get her attention. When she goes out with the peanut butter, they sit nearby and seem relatively fearless.

Campanula trachelium 'Bernice'

Campanula trachelium ‘Bernice’

This plant has surprised me by growing well here, but it has disappointed me because the flowers bleach so rapidly in the sun and heat. It’s a pity because double flowered plants typically last in good condition much longer than their single-flowered congeners.

This is a relatively short cultivar, only about eighteen inches high here. Each flower is about the size of a big pecan. The single flower shown above does not suggest as much, but it's a floriferous plant.

Why didn’t I already know this?

A while back I was having a discussion with a gardening friend about the specialized requirements of certain plants. The conversation wandered into the realm of those plants which require acidic conditions. And then my friend dropped the bomb: in response to my complaint about the sometimes indifferent results I get with these plants, he pointed out that the local tap water had a neutral pH. Every time I watered a bed carefully prepared for acid loving plants, I was unintentionally raising the pH in the bed.

I noticed an interesting demonstration of this phenomenon lately. Several months ago I bought a plant of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Forever and Ever Blue’ which had a brilliant blue inflorescence when I purchased it. That inflorescence faded and was removed. A new one began to develop recently. The new one is not brilliant blue: it’s a sort of purplish blue. I attribute this change to the influence of our tap water.

We Americans butcher this word hydrangea. It's commonly pronounced as a three syllable word: high-DRAN-ja. To begin with, it's a four syllable word. If you follow the traditional rules for the pronunciation of Latinized Greek, the stress is on the ge: hy-dran-GE-a. The y is pronounced like the e in hero, and the ge is pronounced gay. Now when was the last time you heard that?

The upper image (taken May 10) shows the inflorescence as purchased; the lower one (taken July 6) shows the influence of our local tap water.

My favorite daylily

My favorite daylily isn’t a daylily at all in the contemporary sense of the word daylily. It’s a hosta, Hosta ventricosa. If you read garden books from a century ago, you’ll see that hostas were called daylilies back then. They were so-called for the same reason Hemerocallis were called daylilies: their flowers are very short lived. But the flowers of Hosta ventricosa are born abundantly and bring a rare color to the July garden. The scapes will top three feet, and when the plants are in full bloom they produce a very appealing haze of cool color. I don’t know Hosta cultivars well, but if there is a better flowering plant in the genus, I don’t know it. The foliage is sun tolerant, and the plant is also seemingly very drought tolerant for such a broad-leaved plant.

This plant sets viable seed abundantly. If I were starting a new garden, I would raise it from seed in order to have it in broad masses. The foliage seems to be more pest resistant than that of some cultivars; and it’s a pleasing dark green, not at all like the foliage of the glaucous sorts or the yellow-green of the August lily. Deer and rabbits so far have not bothered the foliage very much here – although the deer do browse the budded scapes. The blooms of this plant combine surprisingly well with a wide variety of other flower colors. It is also very handsome as you see it in one of the images above, with nothing but other foliage to enhance its handsome form.
Please note that the genus name, Hosta, honors a Mr. Host, not a Mr. Hast.