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.