Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hugues Cuenod

The news came today that another famous singer of the past has died: Hugues Cuenod. He lived to be an astonishing 108 years old.

I heard Cuenod about thirty years ago in a performance here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. A then new friend had tickets for the performance, and his intended companion had cancelled. Would I like to go? I jumped at the chance, not only for the opportunity to hear the performance,  but also the chance to spend some time with this new friend. He played the viola and had a prodigious interest in opera, so there seemed to be a good chance that the evening  ahead would be a pleasure.  

The performance took place at Wolf Trap, and as we drove out from the city my friend mentioned that he was not too familiar with the opera to be presented, Cavalli’s  La Calisto. I took this as my cue to fill him in. He was one of those people - in general  both very well informed and a bit captious – who tended to dominate a conversation.  I knew him from activist circles and had been there when he upbraided many a careless speaker for clumsy grammar or a less than credible grasp of events.

I began my discussion of the opera by mentioning that it was an early seventeenth century opera… and at that point he interrupted me and said “You mean eighteenth century…” “No, I meant seventeenth century”, thank you. At that the look on his face changed: it took on a combination of perplexity and disappointment. I was never sure if this change was due to the prospect of several hours of mid-seventeenth century opera or due to the realization that he would not have such an easy time lording it over his companion for this performance. I think my subsequent comments about Cavalli, Monteverdi and Caccini went unheard.  

And how did the performance go? Cuenod was a hoot.    

Here’s a link to a recording of Monteverdi’s "Zefiro torna" made in 1937 when Ceunod was still working with  Nadia Boulanger:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First day of meteorological winter (meteorological what?)

Today is the first day of meteorological winter. Traditional winter does not begin for another three weeks. Why can't people leave well enough alone? Or if they are going to tamper with things, why do they have to usurp the name of the existing entity? Politicians do the same thing when they rename existing buildings or amenities for one another. They should have named it the "meteorological  holiday shopping season".

Fortunately for this gardener, meteorological winter is nothing like real winter: the ground is still open, and the outdoor gardening season continues. I'm still planting bulbs (and have lots to go before I finish). Yesterday I worked in the garden for several hours and had the pleasure of being bitten four times by mosquitoes. The air temperature was well above 60º F. The scent of earth is still on the air, as is the fragrance of autumn olive (should I call it "meteorological winter olive"?) Throughout the night there was rain,  yet the temperature changed little - early this morning it was still above 60.But then a cold front arrived, and the temperature quickly dropped about twenty degrees.

After the sun comes out this afternoon and things dry out a bit, I'll be out there again. There probably will not be many posts during December as long as there is work to be done in the garden - and weather to allow it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crocus oreocreticus

The little charmer above is Crocus oreocreticus, now in its fifth season here. It's a very sweetly scented member of the saffron crocus group. I was away from home yesterday, and didn't see this one coming. So it was a real pleasure to find these in bloom today. Today I noticed buds of Crocus medius on the way up, too.

If you don't grow the autumn-flowering crocuses, or if you know only C. kotschyanus (C. zonatus) or C. speciosus, then you are missing out on a big part of the crocus season. In mild years crocuses of one sort or another bloom from late September until sometime in March. If the winter is harsh, there will be a gap in mid-winter, but the potential for a crocus season nearly six months long is there.

In most years, the November blooming sorts are a sure thing. The December blooming ones are a bit chancier, and the January crocus are in many years as much a thing to be desired as something experienced in fact. The plants themselves are hardy, so if bitter weather spoils the bloom one year, the plants will be back in future years to try again.

Place them carefully: be sure they have plenty of sun. And group them with some thought: at the end of the growing season, there will not be much else in bloom, so give them the few companions available to make a spot of late year color in the garden.

Friday, November 5, 2010

November harmonies

Here’s a combination which comes close to bringing the season of substantial outdoor flowers to a close. So long as the temperatures remain above freezing, there will be something outside to admire, but as we move towards the end of the year the flowers get smaller and smaller and closer to the ground.

Closer to the ground does not describe the two shown here. The Camellia sasanqua are now a twelve foot presence in the garden. The monkshood – this one is Aconitum carmichaelii – grows to four or five feet high. At the tops of those tall stems there are smallish clusters four or five inches long of blooms. This is the one monkshood which does well in our climate. (Aconitum uncinatum, native to western Maryland, is not an easy garden plant in my experience. ) The disproportion between the length of the stems and the comparatively small clusters of bloom has probably kept it out of the ranks of really popular flowers, but for this gardener its season of bloom keeps it in the front ranks.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rosa ‘Awakening’

Sometime in the early twentieth century a rose seed germinated in the care of a skilled hybridist who was a leader in using the then relatively new Rosa wichurana (or as it was known back then, Rosa wichuraiana).  The seedling grew and made its very excellent qualities known: and before long it entered commerce with the name of the hybridizer, the 'Dr. W. Van Fleet' rose. It’s a huge shrub rose with one season of profuse bloom; the silvery pink flowers have the green apple scent characteristic of so many wichurana hybrids.

The rose ‘Dr. Van Fleet’ proved to be enormously popular, and was soon being propagated in numbers by many nurseries. Sometime in the late 1920's the stock of one nurseryman began to show a surprising and delightful characteristic: it rebloomed throughout the summer. These reblooming branches were themselves propagated.  When it became apparent that the rebloom was a reliable characteristic,  these reblooming plants were renamed ‘New Dawn’. It was introduced in 1930 and has the distinction of having been awarded the first plant patent in the United States.  To this day ‘New Dawn’ is widely held in high regard. For purposes of this discussion, keep in mind that ‘New Dawn’ is an outgrowth of that original seedling.

‘New Dawn’ became even more popular than ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’, and it too underwent extensive vegetative propagation. In the 1930’s a keen eyed Czech nurseryman noticed that one of his plants produced branches with very double flowers, flowers which had more petals than the typical ‘New Dawn’.  These branches with very double flowers were propagated. When it became apparent that the extra doubleness was a fixed characteristic, the plants grown from these branches were named ‘Awakening’. That’s what you see in the image above.

The three roses ‘Dr. Van Fleet’, ‘New Dawn’ and ‘Awakening’ form a single variable clone. Perhaps you’re wondering “How can that be, they are not exactly alike, and aren’t clones exactly alike, isn’t that what the word ‘clone’ means?”

No, that’s not what it means. The word clone (in the plant science sense) was first used  in the offices of the Department of Agriculture. One of the researchers was searching for a word to describe the group (note that, the group, not the separate plants) which arises when a plant is vegetatively propagated. One of his co-workers who knew Classical Greek suggested the Greek word for ‘branch’.  In a conventional transliteration from the Greek alphabet to the Roman alphabet, this would be written clon. Those who knew Classical Greek knew that the “o” was a long “o”. But this spelling ran afoul of the bizarre rules of spelling we have in English:  most native speakers of English who did not know Classical Greek  pronounced the word the way it looks  to them, clon with a short “o” sound. Some even spelled it klon. To correct this mispronunciation, the spelling "clone" came into use: this most native speakers of English will intuitively pronounce with a long “o” sound.

As far as I know, the name of the  USDA employee who came up with the idea to use the word clone is not recorded, although its first use in a publication is known (but the author of that paper is not the person who came up with the idea of using the word ).

Now, back to the meaning of the word. First of all, in the sense intended by the early uses of the word, it referred to the group which arises when a plant is asexually propagated. The clone was the group, not the separately propagated  elements which made up the group. Note that in contemporary street talk (and, sad to say, much scientific discussion)  the elements which make up a clone in the original sense are themselves referred to as “clones”.

This metonymy in meaning is only a part of the problem. Genetics as a science barely existed when the word clone was coined for use in plant sciences. Once genetics began to gain some steam, another blunder was perpetrated: the geneticists insisted that the elements which make up a clone must be genetically identical. Although this flew in the face of centuries of empirical observation of plants subjected to extensive vegetative propagation  (for instance, the nineteenth century tulip variety ‘Murillo’ was the source of dozens of successful commercial entities, all derived by vegetative propagation of one original seedling ), the new science prevailed. It wasn’t long before the standard belief was that the elements of a clone (in the original sense of the group) were identical.

Traditional geneticists seemed to ignore the abundant evidence provided by the variations seen in plants long propagated as clones such as  grapes, tulips and apples, just to name a few. A new field of research called epigenetics attempts to explain some of these effects. Stay tuned: this one is just beginning. 

Now back to the rose itself for a moment: rose flowers produced in the cool temperatures of autumn are often the best colored roses of the year. Rose flowers produced in the summer are often a disappointment. Do we really gain all that much from roses which bloom throughout the summer? Spring bloom followed eventually by some autumnal bloom is fine with me. 

By the way, that's natural dew on the blossom shown in the image above - it's not phony dew from a spray applicator. 

Ticker tape parade

At about 11 A.M. today I got a call from Wayne: he was about to leave for a business trip to NYC. Among other things, I associate NYC with ticker tape parades. I had offered to drive him with his baggage to the Metro station, and it was time. To get to his place I drove through the park. As I entered the place I call "the cathedral" (see here:   ) I encountered a continuous free fall of bright yellow tulip poplar leaves. It was like driving through a ticker tape parade - a very cheery one.   

October daphne and aster

October daphne and aster

Here’s a nicely harmonious combination for the late October, early November garden. The aster is Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’ (or a seedling of that). My two plants are new, a gift which came with the assured prediction that I would like it. I do.

The other plant is oddly named October daphne. It’s a sedum, Sedum (Hylotelephium)  sieboldii. I don’t know who is responsible for this name October daphne; the sedum does not look much like a daphne to me, although maybe it was thought to resemble Daphne cneorum. The sedum certainly does not have the daphne fragrance. This sedum has a long history of cultivation; when it was first introduced it was not thought to be hardy, and was at first better known as a house plant. It’s the largest of a group of late blooming, small, pink to red flowering sedums. Somewhat similar but smaller and  earlier blooming is Sedum cauticola.  In many early books Sedum cauticola was named Sedum cauticolum; but the word cauticola is a noun, and thus has its own gender and does not have to agree with the gender of the genus name. And one now sometimes sees it listed as Hylotelephium cauticola

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lemonade, as promised

Plenty of flowering branches are available now for cutting from the upstart Hamamelis virginiana sprouts which are now taking over. The bright yellow of the flowers makes a nice contrast to the sooty fireplace, doesn't it?  And they are scented: later this evening I’ll check to see to what extent this scent has filled the fire place room.

This plant is an example of what is sometimes called cauliflory: the flowers seem to spring directly from the branches of the tree. The local redbud provides another example.

The four crinkled petals of these flowers give them a very distinct appearance. During freezing weather, these petals will curl up and more or less disappear. When the weather moderates, they un-curl but retain their crinkles.  

At this time of year hikers sometimes come upon plants of this, the only Hamamelis native in this area, in full bloom. That’s probably the only time of year anyone notices it much. But a small, bushy tree in full, fragrant  bloom on a sunny, warmish late October or November day is reason enough to take a break from the hiking and enjoy the color, scent and the late autumn sunshine. If you have planned ahead, you'll have a nice tart apple to enjoy at the same time. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthday bouquet

Over the years I’ve brought in as many plants reliable for late October bloom as I can find. These are my birthday plants, plants I can expect to find in bloom on my birthday. Today is my birthday, and I would like to share some of these with you.

In the attached image, you can find (good luck!) Camellia sasanqua (home grown from seed), Crocus speciosus, Crocus goulimyi in a white-flowered form, Crocus cartwrightianus, Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, Salvia guaranitica, Dendranthema ‘Cambodian Queen; Dendranthema ‘Sheffield’, Kalimeris pinnatifida (aka Asteromoea mongolica),  Sedum sieboldii, Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’ (or maybe a seedling of that), Aster divaricatus (Eurybia divaricata), Aster oblongifolius (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), Aster tataricus,  Elaeagnus pungens, Osmanthus × fortunei, Hamamelis virginiana, red foliage of Franklinia alatamaha,  seed pods of Iris foetidissima – I think that’s everything.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The fragrance of autumn

Monday, October 11, 2010

A great voice stilled...

The news came today that Dame Joan Sutherland has died. It was a bit over a half century ago that I first heard that unique soprano voice, and I doubt that there has been a full week in my life since that I have not heard it in recording or memory. I still remember the first time I heard that voice.  Long ago there was a radio program called Alan Doerr Presents on the local classical music station. I was up late studying. My keen interest in baroque music was already flourishing back then, and I perked up when an aria from an opera called  Artaxerxes by Thomas Augustine Arne was announced. Vocal music from that period was a rare treat in those days. Even major opera houses made a big commotion about the performance of a Mozart opera. "Baroque music" generally meant Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

It’s no exaggeration to say that what I heard that night changed my life in a way for which I cannot easily express appropriate thanks. The aria was, of course, “The soldier tir'd”, and the voice was that of Joan Sutherland. The first radio broadcast of a Sutherland Lucia soon followed: I remember the tension and apprehension as I listened: will she really be able to pull it off? Will she really be able to do it? Not only did she do it, but it soon became apparent that this was a  singer we could rely on, one who was up to the task over and over.

People coming into opera today will probably find this hard to believe, but back then we had never heard a voice like this one. Shortly before that first hearing I was in a local record store; most record stores had a dark ghetto in the back where the classical recordings were housed (Discount Records was still in my future). I remember browsing the bins one day and seeing an album titled “The Art of the Prima Donna”. And I clearly remember scanning the contents, looking at the picture of Sutherland, and  thinking to myself,- thinking it very dismissively-  “I wonder who she thinks she is”. Perhaps only someone my age or older can understand that attitude. There was no shortage of so-called coloratura sopranos in those days. As a group, they were characterized by small, scratchy, metallic, mechanical, graceless, inflexible voices capable of producing the occasional improbably high tone. Not one of them had a true trill, and for singers specializing in a repertoire of typically heavily embroidered music, few of them sounded at all comfortable in fioratura. How wrong I was when I assumed that Sutherland was just another one of these annoying upstarts! How isolated we were back then, how difficult it was to keep current, how hard to gorge on the nutritious broth of solid, timely information. That late night radio program changed all of that in a few minutes.

I heard her in live performance for the first time in 1961 here in Washington at Constitution Hall. That huge barn of a hall is no friend to small-voiced singers. Thanks to some cancellations, I had a seat in the first balcony relatively close to the stage, very near to the presidential box (the Kennedys were not present).

I was eighteen years old, and this was my first encounter with a great singer live and going at full tilt. For years I had been listening to the reissued recordings of some of the great singers of what we thought of then as the last golden age of singing, the period leading up to and briefly after the First World War. Thanks to those recordings, I knew the repertoire. As Sutherland moved into encores it was a real thrill for me to recognize these pieces.  But there was something even more thrilling: this was a voice unlike any I had ever heard. As so many people have said about her singing, it was as if the music had been written for her.

In reading  Dr. Burney’s description of  the singing of  Lucretia Aguiari , where he wrote  that she was the only singer he had ever heard who sang extremely high notes (what Dr. Burney knew as cork cutting notes) in real voice,  I immediately thought of Sutherland.  Aguiari was one of those singers capable of singing extremely high notes (contemporary accounts say up to the C above high C). Although Sutherland never ventured into that territory, her singing was characterized by a uniquely natural, limpid quality well up into the range which most singers avoid. Whether or not it was real voice or not, it was amazingly real and natural sounding.

Old photos of the great singers of the early twentieth century, the sort of photos which appeared on old reissued record albums or in magazine articles about those singers, were frequently autographed by the singer with some pleasantry addressed to a member of the singer’s adoring public. Sutherland was always very good to her public.  I’m a nobody,  yet I met her and talked to her on a number of occasions. The last time was when she was in Washington on a book tour. The long line extended out the door and around the block. As I entered the building, I noticed the late impresario Patrick Hays standing off to the side, taking in this phenomenon. When my turn came with the great singer, she seemed genuinely reluctant to let me go: we talked, and talked, and each time I made a perfunctory attempt to end the encounter, she moved the conversation in a new direction. More than once, as recordings of her singing played in the background, she made mild, mock-disparaging comments about the high notes, as if to elicit a counter opinion from me.  I loved every second of it, and it was obvious that she did too.

When I was a teenager just getting into opera, I often read stories about those who had heard Patti or  Melba, and how families passed on from generation to generation stories about the great singers. In addition to everything else she gave us, Sutherland left a legacy of accomplishment which will no doubt run for many generations. In my dotage I hope to be sharing and enjoying still  this abundance. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Titanotrichum oldhamii

A year ago I had no idea I would ever be writing this post. The plant shown above, Titanotrichum oldhamii, falls into the category of "the fabulous plants of my youth". I've known about this plant for decades, but until a few months ago I never thought I would actually see it or grow it. It was named almost exactly a century ago for a nineteenth century collector. I learned about it from a book published in 1975: Miracle Houseplants. The authors of that book had never seen it, and did not have access to much good information about  it. They repeat the hypothesis that it might be of hybrid origin. They mention that it gets to be five feet high: that got my attention!

Now fast forward thirty-five years: it's now well known that there are thriving, sexually reproducing populations of this plant in Taiwan, mainland China and the southernmost Riuku Islands. It has been collected repeatedly, and the material in cultivation is no longer clonal. And it's available from a catalog near you; Plant Delights sells the clone they collected in Taiwan in 2008 for a pittance.

Gardening not only teaches patience, it eventually rewards it!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Seemannia nematanthodes

This little charmer, Seemannia nematanthodes,  began blooming this week. It’s worth having for the brilliance and grace of the flowers: notice the fine hairs which cloak the flower and the thin, arching stem of the bloom. And there is also this: it’s a gesneriad, and it’s said to be marginally hardy in this area. I expect that it will do well against a wall on the sunny side of the house, but I’m frankly dubious of success in the open garden. It's named for the resemblance of its flowers to those of members of the goldfish flower genus, Nematanthus.

The plant you see here came from Woodlanders and is evidently clonally distinct from the more widely grown clone named 'Evita'.

This is one of the several gesneriads I’m considering for use as rock garden plants. It’s easy enough to dig them and store them inside for the winter, but the real goal is to raise hardier seedlings which have potential to become real garden plants.

If there are still hummingbirds around, they will no doubt be glad to find these flowers.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Familiar as ham is, it comes as a surprise to realize how ambiguous the word ham really is. I’ll attempt a definition suitable for its uses in a culinary context: a cured pork product prepared from a hind limb of a pig.
But wait a minute: is ham always cured? Is it always from the hind leg? Is it always from a pig?

As it turns out, although a good argument can be made that my first definition above is the one which shows the greatest respect for both history and etymology, in actual practice, the word often means something else. To begin with, ham is not always cured. Fresh pig leg meat is marketed, confusingly, as ham. Since it is not cured meat but rather fresh meat, it’s tempting to call it raw or uncooked ham. But there are cured hams which are uncooked/ raw. American country hams, such as the one shown above, are cured but uncooked and raw, as is Italian prosciutto crudo . The product sold as “ham” in the deli department of the grocery store might be ham, but there is also a good chance that it’s scraps of ham (probably scraped from the knives and saws used to cut up whole hams) mixed with a binding agent (gelatin) and flavoring. To my mind that makes it a ham product, not ham.

Is cured pork leg prepared from the front legs properly called ham? I say no; the front legs have a different pattern of musculature and even when given a ham cure do not have the same taste. They can be just as good in their own way, and certainly are more economical for a small family than a ham, but they are not ham.

Believe it or not there is something called halal ham: imagine my surprise as I read down the list of potential pizza toppings posted in the neighborhood pizza place. Boldly stated at the top of the list is the statement “All of our meats are halal”. And one of them is called ham. I wonder if this product also does duty as “kosher ham”? Comments will be appreciated.

Above I mentioned Italian prosciutto crudo. The Italian word for leg is gamba. In the slang of succeeding generations of Italian American men, this came to be shortened to “gams” in reference to the shapely ones sported by pin-up celebrities of the World War II period. The dictionaries I consulted don’t say as much, but it’s tempting to wonder if the English word “ham” might not have had at least one Italian parent. I wonder the same about the word gammon.

It can be difficult to sit through a viola da gamba concert if I have not had at least a light meal beforehand. The name of the instrument is an allusion to the way it is positioned for playing: against the leg in contrast to the position of the viola da braccio which is held against the arm/shoulder. The shapely viola da gamba has something of the shape of a ham, and its handsome varnish suggests a culinary glazing. Will I last until the end of the concert? Which of the appetites will prevail? And will dinner be ham da gamba or ham da braccio?

The ham in the image above is the real thing: a North Carolina cured country ham. My dad grew up in the country ham tradition, but the hams we had at home when I was a kid were mild-, wet-cure hams. The one exception is still celebrated in bad memory: we tried to cook a country ham “from the book”, and it did not go well. My first encounters with genuine country ham were not felicitous, and it was not until well into adulthood that I acquired, slowly, a taste for this delicacy. And I remember the events of my adult epiphany well: I was attending a lily show being held at the University of Virginia. Someone from the show committee had prepared a huge plate of thin biscuits with very thinly sliced country ham. I didn’t find them until after my show responsibilities had been completed. They seem not to have been touched. Curious, I tried one. The mild saltiness of the ham was a perfect compliment to the gentle biscuit: for the first time in my life I understood why this particular combination is so highly esteemed. All the while the handsome matron in charge of the food table had been watching me: I had greeted her, but otherwise there had been no conversation. She could clearly read the enjoyment on my face as I savored that first ham biscuit. And I chuckled to myself as her eyebrows arched momentarily, her eyes sparkled a bit, and the tiniest hint of a grin wiggled merrily at the corners of her mouth as I stuffed the pockets of my suit (yes, my suit) with enough more to keep me happy during my subsequent walking tour of Thomas Jefferson’s campus.

That I did not like country ham and wine when younger is not surprising: ham and wine (especially red wine) share a taste characteristic which I could not abide as a youngster. Both have a distinct aftertaste of rot: ham that of rotting flesh and wine that of rotting vegetation. A taste for a whiff of rot in meat is deeply embedded in our culinary traditions: think of the whole woodcock hung until gravity separates the body from the legs, or the dry-hung beef which has turned purple and developed a hard crust. White truffle to me smells of dead rat. No doubt it helps to grow up in the tradition: I didn’t. When I was growing up, nothing the least bit tainted went into my mouth for long.

Now, thirty years later, I still remember a dinner I attended at which was served, with some ceremony, the last batch of wine the family’s grandfather had prepared. Nonno had died a few years before this meal, and the wine, a red wine, reeked of the compost heap. The savor was not simply vegetal, is was recently-rotted vegetal. And yet the family members, who had evidently been drinking it for years, found it palatable and good. Nonno’s delightful wife, daughter and two granddaughters were there with us, and Nonna’s pride in the wine was so obvious that I did everything I could to smile and feign enjoyment. Did I mention that I did not grow up in a wine drinking family?

In case anyone reading this has not heard the oldest ham joke in the book, here it is: “What’s the definition of eternity? Two people and a ham” With that in mind, I cut the ham shown in the image above into four sections: the bony tip and three meaty pieces. I kept one meaty piece for household use and distributed the rest to my sister and niece.

Every country ham is different, and so it is with a bit of trepidation that I cut into one for the first time. This one turned out to be very good indeed: I’ve been whittling away at our piece daily. The texture of cured ham is very peculiar: it suggests the texture of firm cheese rather than that of meat. That’s an advantage in the sense that it makes it possible to easily cut paper-thin slices. The piece I kept will not be baked: I’ll continue to cut nearly transparent slices and pan fry them until it’s all used.

It was on the table again tonight: I minced a few ounces of the ham, crisped it in a pan, then added a head of roughly chopped escarole; this was cooked until the escarole wilted. Some cooked rice rounded out the meal. Yummy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A rose mystery solved

In April of this year I received some rooted rose cuttings from a supplier on the west coast. Included gratis was a plant without a label, a mystery rose. When it bloomed I did not recognize it, although I immediately liked it and decided it was a keeper. Not only was the flower beautiful; the foliage somehow seemed colorful and handsome. I took several pictures and then began to search for a name on the web site of the supplier. I had a hunch what I was looking for was a species hybrid or a shrub rose of some sort. But that first search turned up nothing promising.
Months passed. I’ve been reviewing rose catalogs intently lately because there are several roses I would like for the garden which are not readily available. And then when these do become available they sell out quickly. The early twentieth century hybrid tea ‘Mari Dot’ is an example. When I check these catalogs, I check out every nook and cranny and read all of the text for every variety.

I also do Google image searches, and these frequently link to the sites of other amateur collectors. These photos tend not to be grouped in the usual rose categories – all sorts of roses appear side by side. While absentmindedly going over yet more of these photographs, some rose foliage caught my eye: immediately I thought “I’ve seen that foliage somewhere”. Then I looked at the name of the rose: it was a name I knew. At that point I pulled up some of the images I took early this year when my mystery rose was blooming: bingo, a match!

My mystery rose is 'Thérèse Bugnet', a rose I’ve known about for maybe forty years. It was released in 1950, and I frequently saw the name in catalogs when I was young. It was generally marketed as a rose notable for its great cold hardiness, a rose for zone 4 or even 3 in Canada.

Long before I ever saw this rose as a living plant it played an amusing part in one of my life’s little social dramas. About twenty-five years ago a friend introduced me to a Canadian plant scientist from Guelph. We talked plants, talked intently, ranging over a wide field of favorite garden and crop plants. At one point in the conversation my new friend suddenly shifted the tone of his voice: suddenly it took on a folksier quality as he momentarily played the country bumpkin. “Do you know the rose Therese Bug Net?” he slyly asked. I didn’t miss a beat, and promptly responded “Surely you mean ‘Thérèse Bugnet’ “, giving the name its proper pronunciation. As we both had a good laugh over this, I merrily went on to inquire about Bug Net’s cousin, Bug Loss and his pet ox, Alice.

The rose ‘Thérèse Bugnet’ thus becomes one of those plants which I cherish not only for its intrinsic qualities but also as a reminder of a happy day long ago.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Was Ellen Shipman ever here?

Here’s a scene from a garden I visited yesterday. The owner had generously given up hours of his time to take a small group of us on tour. It’s an old garden, a very old garden indeed. The signs of long habitation and cultivation are, while not obtrusive, very persuasive. The garden is separated into numerous compartments or rooms, and the one which made the greatest impression on me is shown above. In a surprisingly satisfying contrast, bold, broad, handsome, rock steps lead down into this little fern garden. The gently rounded path is green with moss; the two parallel borders are planted to ferns and companion plants, with the ferns dominating. To my eyes it’s a design straight out of the early twentieth century, when the then newly celebrated idea of firmly defined edges softened with exuberant free-form plantings was all the rage. I found it very Ellen Shipman-esque.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Four commelinids

The four plants shown here are related to the familiar tradescantias.

Above is Commelina communis, the Asiatic day flower, which is widespread in ruderal situations throughout eastern North America. Its flowers are open early in the day and soon (within a few hours on hot days) shrivel. Their blue color is as beautiful as that of any blue flower, and in this case “any” includes any gentian I've seen, the Chilean blue crocus and Heavenly Blue morning glory.

Pollia japonica, above,  looks like nothing else in the garden. Without knowing what it is, you would probably have a hard time placing it. In some ways it looks like a cross between a knotweed and a bamboo. By this time of year the plants have reached four or five feet in height and are blooming. The plants have wonderful poise. The individual flowers are not impressive, but the inflorescence is nevertheless interesting and catches the light beautifully. The foliage is unusually clean and handsome; the plant has no serious pests - or the pests have not yet developed a taste for it. It moves around freely in this garden by both stolons and seeds, and that makes me wonder if in the future it might become a pest. In a sense it bears the mark of the pest: it has small round blue fruits like those of the mile-a-minute vine or those of Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.
Tinantia pringlei, above, has been in this garden for only a few years, but it is making a very good impression. Is it an annual or a perennial under our conditions? It seems to be a perennial, although self-sown seedlings appear here and there. Each plant forms a mound about eighteen inches in diameter, and the lavender blue flowers are borne freely enough to make a good effect. At least one related species is known to be invasive and difficult to control, but so far this one seems well behaved. Bob Faden introduced this Mexican plant to our group.

Tinantia leiocalyx, above,  is new this year for me. It’s very attractive in bud – when the flower actually opens the effect is hardly better. To me, the bud in the middle in the lower of the two images immediately above looks like a reddish-purple coffee bean. This is another Mexican species,  and Bob Faden, who introduced it to our circle, says it is an annual under our conditions. The one shown here is in a pot: will it get bigger in the ground? This one is worth growing for its foliage, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A good match

Earlier this year one of the local big box stores put out some handsome 6' tall Dipladenia. The price was too steep for me ($50), but the handsome plants caught my eye every time I visited that store. As time passed it became obvious that people were not buying them. Weeks passed, and the plants began to twine into the chain fence against which they leaned. Eventually they were put on sale for $20 each, and they began to find new homes quickly. I bought one pink and one red. It took me the better part of an hour to untangle the stems from the chain link fence, but that bit of bother paid off handsomely in preserving the developing flower buds.

I planted them in big tubs on the deck. The red one has a corner to itself. The pink one was planted in front of the crepe myrtle. I took a chance in doing this: the color of the crepe myrtle does not blend with many other flowers. But when the crepe myrtle came into bloom, the two combined beautifully,.

In the image above you don't see many flowers on the Dipladenia. That is because another member of the household has taken to picking bunches of flowers dialy. And when the flower is picked with a stem, it takes not only the blooming flower but all of the buds developing on that stem.

When I bought these plants a little voice told me that I probably would regret it. The problem is that I have no idea what to do with them during the winter. They are already really too big to bring into the house. Will cuttings root? It will be heartbreaking to leave them out to freeze.

But for now let's enjoy them.

Coleus on the deck

One simple solution to the problem of keeping color going in the mid-summer garden  is to rely on colorful foliage. It's hard to beat coleus for this purpose, and so many distinctive and striking cultivars are now available that it's tempting to attempt a coleus garden. In the old days they were sometimes known as flame nettles and were as likely to be seen in the house during the winter gathering dust as they were to be seen in the shady summer garden. It took gardeners a while to realize that to get the best from these plants they should get at least a few hours of sun.

Here they are grown in a medium made up mostly of leaf grow, the local soil and wood chips. If you want really big plants, select varieties which are known to put on size. Many of the traditional seed grown types top out at about a foot no matter how generously you treat them. Some of the clonally propagated sorts easily go up to three feet. And the 'Kong' series is a must if you like huge foliage.

Generations of gardeners knew these plants as coleus. They are currently placed in the genus Solenostemon.

This year there are about a half dozen big pots of them grouped on the deck. They are at their best in late summer, and it is certainly easier to enjoy them  after the weather has cooled down a bit. 

The dog days of August

There is a group of funguses called stink-horns which naughty mycologists have had some fun with: one genus is called Phallus, and other genera have vernacular names which combine the name of some mammal with whatever vulgar name is current in the community in question for the male reproductive parts. These vernacular names are ancient and predate modern botanical nomenclature. I can't help but wonder what the doctrine of signatures had to say about the uses of these funguses.

The one shown above is Mutinus caninus, named as you can guess from the name for the dog. And it fruits during the dog days. Their appearance is disgusting enough, but just in case, be warned: they are poisonous.

Mushroom season, part 1

Plenty of rain during the middle of August has brought up plenty of mushrooms. There is a place which Biscuit and I pass during our walks which was slathered with wood chips last summer. I've kept an eye on it since then waiting to see what might sprout up.

In the pictures above you see Leucoagaricus americanus in profusion. This species is edible, but the quality varies. I took one home and sauteed it in butter; it releases a savory woodsy-mushroomy aroma while cooking. But one bite was all it took for me to spit it out. It had the same disagreeable taste that I have sometimes noticed in the stems of shiitake mushrooms from the grocery store.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rhubarb in August?

Well, there it was in the grocery store, rhubarb in August! And it was good quality rhubarb, thick, fresh and plump. I have a weakness for rhubarb, so a nice fat bundle of it came home with me.

And then it sat in the refrigerator for two days. It was too hot to think about cooking. I bought that rhubarb with the idea of making a rhubarb pie. But after the second day, and with no motivation to make a pie or for that matter to turn on the oven for any reason, I began to worry about the rhubarb going bad.

So I took the easy, time-honored way out: I simply chopped the rhubarb with some sugar and stewed it. The result can be seen above, spread out on some fresh biscuits. What I did not use was packed away in zip-lock bags for storage in the freezer. The prospect of the winter ahead suddenly seems a bit less daunting.

Zabaglione and white peaches

While visiting in western Virginia last weekend, Wayne, his mom and I had lunch at a local pizza place. The food, both in quality and in variety, was just what you would expect in such a place – and it was just what I was in the mood for. After sharing a pizza and an eggplant Parmesan sub, I took a look at the desert menu. Tiramisu was listed, but the rest of the party did not seem interested. And then I spotted something on the menu which really surprised me: zabaglione. I have a thing for zabaglione, and immediately I began to imagine the possibility of zabaglione dripping languidly over a ripe white peach. But the pizza place version came with strawberries, and at that the tiramisu began to sound better. So we split the tiramisu: one part for Wayne’s mom, one part for Wayne and ten parts for Jim.

Later that day we visited a local grocery store and guess what was there: local Virginia peaches. There was one bin of yellow peaches and one bin of white peaches. I bought a couple of pounds of each. I couldn’t wait to get home and whip up a pot of zabaglione.

There are no doubt plenty of sensible people who would say that a perfectly ripe peach needs no further adornment: it can be made different but it cannot be made better. These peaches turned out to be very good indeed: so juicy that as I peeled them I made a real mess with the freely flowing juices.

In the photo above you see the zabaglione with one of the white peaches. I suppose if I were a professional photographer doing a food magazine cover I would have at best halved the peach and shown just a bit of the zabaglione slinking down the side of the peach. But from the standpoint of the person about to eat this, what I did was better. The sliced peaches were carefully arrayed around the edge of the bowl leaving a deep well in the center which was filled with the zabaglione. A sprig of mint provided a nice flavor contrast. Yummy…

And what is zabaglione? It’s a very simple custard sauce made with nothing more than egg yolks, sugar and a bit of spirits for flavoring. Marsala is traditional and that’s what I used on the first trial; on the second, I added some orange zest and a bit of vanilla. Both were great. Mix the ingredients until the eggs begin to thicken a bit and get pale, then very carefully warm the mixture over the steam from a double boiler whipping it the whole time. Watch it carefully; in a few minutes it will begin to thicken even more. Once it reaches the desired thickness, it’s ready to go.

Custard sauces are one of those old-fashioned things which seem to have disappeared from contemporary American cooking. It’s hard to see why since they are easily prepared, use familiar ingredients and are all but universally appreciated. The word “custard” might be the problem: custards are notorious for curdling, collapsing and so on. These things happen to people who talk on the phone or watch the television while cooking. These are the people who regard the preparation of Hollandaise sauce as requiring unattainably advanced culinary techniques. These are the people who shop in the “prepared food” aisles of the grocery stores.

Whew! Writing all of that was a lot of work; I need a simple reward to cheer me up – something with fresh ripe peaches and a nice custard sauce…

The song of the wood thrush

What happened to July? It's August already! Early July was very busy for me; and the weather kept me out of the garden for the most part. Wow what punishing weather we've had this year. And most of August is still ahead of us. Already I can sense the shortening days, and the instinct to hoard food for the winter ahead is making itself felt.

We are very lucky in that the wood thrush is one of the common local birds. For the last several years I've been trying to keep track of when the last wood thrush song is heard. In most recent years I've heard the last wood thrush in late July: one day they are there, the next the song (and maybe the bird itself) is gone for the year.

Wayne called me this morning to tell me that he heard a wood thrush this morning. So now for the first time I have an August date for the song of the wood thrush.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tagetes 'Disco Orange'

The sort of weather we’re having now, weather characterized by extreme heat, is the sort of weather which helps us to appreciate some of the plants grown as annuals. Hardy perennials are nice, although I think their value to the garden has been hugely exaggerated. Perennials in general are like determinate tomatoes: they do their thing and that’s all you get.

The plants grown as annuals have the advantage of blooming all summer and into the autumn until cut by frost. As long as they are watered, the better ones take care of themselves and continue to produce.

Tagetes marigolds (in contrast to Calendula marigolds) as every beginning gardener quickly learns, perform in our climate as well as anything. If I had a big garden I would have a big, long planting of nothing but these Mexican marigolds in all of their varieties.

As it is, I have room for one pot full of them. A few years ago I spotted some single-flowered marigolds which looked a bit bigger than the single-flowered forms I had grown in the past. This was my introduction to Tagetes ‘Disco Orange’, a current favorite. That's what you see in the image above.

Is it a sign of ageing? I’ve learned to like the pungent, bracing fragrance of Tagetes marigolds. When I was younger I used to think that these were the plants which should have gotten the name nasturtium (literally nose-scruncher). A little bit goes a long way, but I like that little bit.

Torenia ‘Clown Blue’

I’ve been growing Torenia fournieri off and on since I was a kid. In recent years the old seed grown typical form has been replaced by seed grown strains such as the ‘Clown’ series. In my experience these have a tendency to produce the occasional deformed flower, but they are bigger than the plants I remember from my childhood.

The first edition of the wonderful Bush-Brown America’s Garden Book had good things to say about Torenia fournieri, and that’s what got me started with it. I used to save home grown seed (produced by the zillion as it were) and sow it on the ground in the late spring. The resulting plants did not come into bloom until well into the summer, but they were care free from sowing until they were cut by frost.

Now I’m a bit ashamed to say I buy a few plants each year from growers of bedding plants. They are well worth having for their cool colors, interesting form and sturdy poise. And they have a curious trick they perform if you know how to get them to do it. The stigma has two flaps; touch the inside of the flaps gently and the flaps will slowly begin to close up over the “pollen” you have deposited there with your touch. This is the sort of thing a high-minded Victorian parent would have taught the children.

Hypericum frondosum

This post is out of chronological order: it should have been done a few weeks ago when the plant shown was actually in bloom. The plant in question is Hypericum frondosum. It’s native to the eastern United States with a distribution which ranges from Texas to New England – but apparently not in Maryland.

This is another one of those native plants which, in spite of all of its good qualities, is not often seen in gardens. I first saw it used well in many of the gardens on the quadrangle of the University of Virginia. A plant in full bloom is very handsome. It forms a low woody shrub, often with only one main stem up to several feet high – this gives it a sort of bonsai quality. The flowers are about two inches across and are produced so abundantly that it’s hard to find space between them.

The plant in the image above is a self sown seedling. It appeared in one of the bog trays years ago. Another one appeared in some nearby brickwork. It's not weedy at all, and these volunteers are always welcome.

Cactus Flower

The other day I was in a big box store and noticed some trays of those Canadian grown cactuses and succulents. Many of them had been stuck with dried flowers of straw flowers (Helichrysum). This gives a fair imitation of a cactus in bloom, and for me it brought back memories of the baby turtles with painted shells which were sold in all the five and dime stores when I was a kid. There was muffled outrage against this back then, but the practice continued. It took a "medical excuse" to get the job done: once baby turtles were publicized as a potential source of salmonella infections, they disappeared from the stores. The fate of the turtles has probably not changed much: you don't see the baby ones sold en masse  for pets anymore, but neither do you see the thousands trapped in the summer or dredged from the mud in the winter and exported  to Asian stew pots.

But now back to those Canadian cactuses: as I glanced over them, I noticed that one or two actually had genuine flowers. When I was a kid, the flowering of a cactus was viewed as a near miracle.

In the image above is one of the so-called chin cactuses, members of the genus Gymnocalycium. I have no idea which one this is, and I’ve had it for so long – easily twenty-five years – that I don’t even remember where I got it. This might be the first time this one has bloomed.

Generally speaking, I don’t do well with houseplants. Some begonias and selaginellas in big glass jars have survived for decades, and several cactuses and other succulents have hung on since who knows when. There are several exceptions, but typical houseplants don’t have a chance here as a rule.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Are there any other smilax enthusiasts out there? In the old days this genus was included in the Liliaceae, but now it gets a family of its own, the Smilacaceae. Some are reviled as obnoxious weeds, some are hugely ornamental. The ones I grow range in size from little S. pumila and S. bifolia to mighty S. smallii which covers the side of our house and part of the roof, tangled with noisette roses and Campsis 'Mme Galen'. The smilax is the boss of that group.

Most species have black fruits, but S. walteri has very ornamental red fruits. It’s a treat to visit the black water swamps of the southeastern states during the winter and find broad tangles of this species spangled with the bright red fruits – but at first you’ll probably be tricked by the more numerous red-fruited deciduous hollies.

Some of the southern species flower regularly here and set fruit, but the resulting seed do not survive the winters here.

I’ve always liked these plants and had a few in the garden. It’s hard to find anyone else with much of an interest in them. Professional horticulturists in general neglect them, although in the early twentieth century no less a luminary than Beatrix Farrand used them on some of the walls of Princeton University (or so I recall reading).

Most I grow in the open, but little S. pumila gets cold frame treatment. Its mottled leaves (in the style of some Asarum) make it worth the space. It will survive indefinitely in the open here in a sheltered spot, but the fruit will not ripen in the open air and bad winters can damage the plant severely.

I’m training S. laurifolia onto the deck: so far, it has climbed to the 10’ level. Mature plants in the wild are awesome, like something out of some lost world fantasy. The canes sometimes go thirty or more feet straight up into trees – I assume they have grown up with the trees. I grew my plants from seed collected more than fifteen years ago after a storm had brought down some smilax festooned trees – otherwise I never would have been able to reach the seed. This species has great ornamental value but is almost completely neglected. The foliage suggests that of Clematis armandii or Holboellia – it’s a rare garden visitor who has any idea what it is. There is nothing else like it in our indigenous flora.

The flowers of S. smallii are sweetly fragrant. Other species such as S. herbacea smell of carrion. When I was a kid I used to think of S. herbacea as “hardy philodendron” – it resembles that house plant (the heart-leaf climber) a lot.

Are they geophytes? Some grow from clusters of banana like tuberous growths.

Sarsaparilla was (still is?) made from some tropical species.

In the photo above is little Smilax bifolia, which is small enough to be used, potted, as table decoration.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

King of the lilies

Here’s what I see when I look out my bedroom window this week: that’s Lilium ‘Leslie Woodriff’, a lily which will keep green the memory of not only Leslie Woodriff but also of the hybridizer who raised it, Robert Griesbach. If you are looking for an easily grown, reliable and tall lily with a potentially huge inflorescence, this is it.

Two weeks ago this lily had developed sufficiently for me to see that it had Best in Show potential. But that wasn’t meant to be: it was not open in time to exhibit at the show.

It’s now over eight feet high and has several dozen buds.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lily Show Season 2010, part 2, more silver

If you have never entered a competitive flower show, you can have no idea of how stressful, comically stressful, it can be. The flowers develop at their own pace. Good planning will place the show date at a propitious time, but variable weather can play all sorts of tricks on the aspiring entrant.

As the date for the show approaches, the grower keeps a nervous eye on his best stems. Should the weather turn unusually cool, the best stems might not be open in time for the show. More likely in our climate, unseasonably hot weather will push the plants into bloom too soon. Small stems can be kept in the refrigerator for a while, but many modern lilies are so big they will not fit into the home refrigerator, even an empty refrigerator. And a day or two at 90º F plus temperatures will ruin the flowers for show purposes.

Our home show, the show of the Potomac Lily Society, took place last weekend. As the show date drew near, one particularly huge lily in my garden seemed just about ready to go. It had Best in Show written all over it: the plant in the garden was approaching nine feet tall, there were over two dozen buds, all arranged perfectly.

I was really feeling the pressure. If the plant did not bloom in time for our local show, the next show was two weeks away. There is no way I could keep such a huge stem in show condition for two weeks.

Meanwhile, there was another lily about to bloom which I intended to take to the show. My first idea was to take it just to let people see it and not enter it into competition. That lily was a pot grown plant of Lilium canadense, a form with a beautiful red flower. It came into bloom a week before the show, and I put it into the refrigerator right away. Although this species is native to Maryland, very few people have ever seen it. I blogged about it here:

I was up and about early on the day of the show. The huge lily on which I had based my hopes was just beginning to open a first flower. The rules require that at least one bloom be open to its typical form for the stem to be judged. At 6:30 A.M. this one was not ready. Nor was it ready at 7:45 when I left for the show.

So I resigned myself to taking my “show and tell” lily with me and abandoning almost all hope for my best Best in Show candidate.

At about 10 A.M. I dashed home for one last look: had it opened enough to show? No, it had not.

As a member of the show committee, I had a lot to do the morning of the show. I was helping with staging, classification and judges. I was so busy I was not paying much attention to everything else going on around me. I decided to enter my “show and tell” lily into the show in the pot class. About twenty minutes before the judging started, a friend mentioned to me that I should check my entry for “livestock”. I did. Oh my gosh: my pot lily which had been in the refrigerator for a week was filthy with aphids: hidden on the underside of each leaf, they coated the under surface in their huddled masses. I worked as quickly as I could to remove all traces of them. At one point they seemed to be everywhere – on the lily, on the table, on me. But I got the job done – and just in time.

When the judging started, I took a break and faded into the background. I didn’t pay any attention to the judging, although at one point I did take a quick look and noticed what seemed to be a blue ribbon beside my show and tell lily.

After the judging was over, people began to come up to me to congratulate me. I though they were congratulating me for the blue ribbon. Then I went over to the awards table to take a look: there was my little pot lily, thoroughly beribboned, standing tall as Best in Show! I still can’t believe it.

In 2008 one of our members, Kathy Digges, donated a huge silver tray to the society to be awarded to the exhibitor winning Best in Show. Kathy did not live to see the tray awarded for the first time in 2009 to my friend Kathleen Hoxie. The tray will be engraved, showing my name as the winner for 2010. That's it in the image above (and as you can see I did not compensate for the light).

And the lily on which I had showered all my hopes in the weeks leading up to the show: it’s blooming now outside my bedroom window. I’ll post more about that one later.

Lily Show Season 2010, part 1

For the competitive lily grower, what could be better than winning a big award at a major lily show? How about having a big award named for you? The Lily Group of the Garden Club of Virginia did just that this year: they have established a perpetual award in my name for the best LA hybrid in the show exhibited by a GCV member.
How cool is that?

LA hybrids are hybrids derived from crosses, difficult crosses, between Lilium longiflorum and Asiatic Hybrid lilies. Because these lilies are not easily hybridized, they have remained a specialty of certain Dutch commercial growers. As a group they are big, vigorous, many flowered, bodacious, buxom and typically softly fragrant hybrids that are easily grown in our climate. The individual flowers can be huge, and strong plants can have literally dozens of them. The name LA has nothing to do with Los Angeles or Hollywood, but these lilies definitely have that sort of glamour.

When I was new to lily shows I remember seeing the annual lineup of old silver arrayed on the awards table, silver engraved with the names of famous persons in our lily world. Now I’m one of them. I feel as if I have been promoted into the lily pantheon.

That’s “my” award in the image above, in the center.

Please keep the jokes about my rapidly enlarging head to yourself.