Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brain coral sedums

There are a lot of good reasons to like sedums, and here’s one of them. The big border sedums, after they have put on a few years of growth, form wide mats dense with sprouts. Early in the year, just before they put on much new growth, they go through their “brain coral” stage. It doesn’t last long, but it’s totally cool as long as it does.

Here you see Sedum ‘Munstead Dark Red’, a form or hybrid of Sedum telephium I think. Other good sedums for this effect are S. sieboldii, S. spectabile, S. ‘Autumn Joy’, S. cauticola and its close relations, S. ‘Vera Jameson’ and similar forms – there are probably lots of others which I have not yet grown.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wine, friends and roses

Long piece...

Yesterday I attended an informal gathering of shakers and movers of the local gardening scene. The event was occasioned by the visit of Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery in Portland, Oregon. A copious meal served in three removes kept the group circulating, meeting and greeting. Our hosts, Jim and Dan, are probably still in bed this morning: what a spread - and all of it home made! Maybe I should have volunteered to come back today and help with the clean up.

The weather was perfect, the garden was full of hellebores, and the many conversations were intense and entertaining. I ran into two fellow bloggers, Connie of Hartwood Roses

and Chris U of 1003 Gardens:

Chris is interested in everything; Connie and I share an enthusiasm for certain roses. I could have talked to each of them all day without getting bored.

Now to the roses.

A bit of history helps here. What follows was taken from Graham Stuart Thomas's Climbing Roses Old and New of 1965 and Helen Van Pelt Wilson's Climbing Roses of 1955. I acquired and devoured Thomas's rose trilogy near the times they were originally published. These provided the structure on which my subsequent understanding of garden roses was based. Callow youth that I was, I had a low regard for two important home-grown products: Helen Van Pelt Wilson's Climbing Roses mentioned above and Richard Thomson's Old Roses for Modern Gardens of 1959. My appreciation for these works came only after I realized that Mother Nature has a thing or two to say about which roses we can grow.

Late in the nineteenth century the Belgian botanist François Crépin described two new Asian roses using the names Rosa wichuraiana and Rosa luciae. Some modern botanists treat these as conspecific. For over a century the names were spelled as I have given them. Recently there has been a move to change the spelling of each name: wichuraiana becomes wichurana and luciae becomes lucieae in the new spellings. Or at least I think that's what is happening. And there are other spellings. Max Wichura would no doubt be surprised at the trouble his name has given gardeners.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the American nurseryman William Manda began to use the one he knew as Rosa wichuraiana for hybridizing. The results were amazing: he produced several roses of unique character, roses unlike any which had been raised before. These roses produced prodigiously long limp canes ideal for training on walls, pergolas and fences. One of Manda's roses, 'Gardenia' of 1899, is still grown and loved by many gardeners. Before I leave Manda, I should mention that I grow an ivy Hedera helix 'Manda's Crested' which might have originated in his nursery (I have not been able to confirm that yet).

Manda's success was quickly imitated by others, most notably by Dr. Van Fleet in the United States and by the firm of Messieurs Barbier et Cie in Orléans, France. Dr. Van Fleet's hybrids became well known here in the US - and deservedly so. It's time for a revival of interest in the Van Fleet hybrids. Other than the excellent and still widely sold 'New Dawn', a bud sport of 'Dr. Van Fleet', few are now widely grown.

The Barbier firm used what they knew as Rosa luciae to produce a line of these hybrids over a period of two decades, although the best known ones were produced early in the century. The Barbier hybrids have medium-sized flowers which are produced prodigiously. Some rebloom in some climates. The ones I know do not rebloom for me.

Here's what intrigues me: for all their good qualities, these Barbier roses do not seem to have caught on in America. I checked McFarland's Modern Roses (1930), and many of them are there: someone must have been growing and offering them. Mrs. Wilson mentions only 'Aviateur Blériot', a rose Thomas does not mention. I can find no reference in Wilson's book to 'Albéric Barbier', 'Albertine', 'Alexandre Girault', 'Auguste Gervais', 'François Juranville', 'Léontine Gervais' or'Paul Transon' - to cite just some of the once better known members of this group.

Could it have been a language thing? Maybe Americans didn't like being told they were misspelling names when they wrote e instead of é (or printers despaired because their fonts did not include é or ç. McFarland got the é right, but the ç seems to have eluded him). Or could it be a case of the public confusing these excellent roses with rambler roses? I suspect the latter. The early rambler roses were largely derived from Rosa multiflora. As a group, they were and are very mildew prone: some of the older varieties are full of mildew by the time they come into bloom. The first generation hybrids of Wichura's rose are free of mildew and generally black spot also. Someone was not getting the word out.

Another possibility comes to mind: then as now, people want roses which bloom continually. Even now, a century later, we have very few contenders for that distinction. And for the most part, fragrance has been a casualty in this pursuit. In June I wouldn't look twice at a Knock Out rose; but in early December, when it's likely to be the only type of rose blooming freely, I see it in a new light. Now if most of them only had fragrance...
And there is this possibility for explaining the seeming scarcity of Barbier roses in gardens back then: why grow foreign roses when excellent and somewhat similar roses were being produced in the US by Van Fleet? Most of us have outgrown that sort of chauvinism by now, but it was common back in those days. Here's a photo of Dr. Van Fleet from McFarland's Modern Roses:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New and from seed

I was checking the seedling frames the other day and a spot of blue caught my eye. It was a flower, a first flower, from some Hepatica nobilis grown from seed received in May, 2005. The blue flowered hepaticas are my favorites, and this one was well worth the wait.

Winter jasmine

This is Jasminum nudiflorum, the winter jasmine. It’s one of those plants which is likely to appear on lists of “100 plants every garden should have” – and I’m inclined to agree with that point of view. Beginning gardeners confuse it with the much more widely grown forsythias. That’s not surprising: they both bloom early in the growing season, they are both yellow flowered shrubs and, something which most gardeners are probably not aware of, they are related. Both are members of the Oleaceae, the olive family.

The display here has been good this year. In most recent years the sparrows have treated the winter jasmine as their winter salad bar: as soon as the blooms begin to swell, the sparrows strip the branches. Usually only those buds closest to the ground mature successfully.

This plant can be allowed to sprawl, allowed to hang over a wall, allowed to mound itself up into a little bush, or be trained against walls or pillars. It's beautiful or at least interesting at all seasons: the small, three parted leaves are handsome throughout the summer, and the green branches are decorative throughout the winter. It has no significant pests or diseases of which I'm aware. Plants against a wall are apt to be in bloom on and off throughout the winter.

Although it is a true jasmine, it has no scent. Most of us think it’s already doing enough to earn its keep.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

And here's a lovely green flower which so far has never missed the celebration in this garden: Helleborus foetidus.  It's also my favorite hellebore. This is not the only green hellebore blooming in the garden today: I noticed that Helleborus multifidus is also in bloom. And three flowers of Iris tuberosa are open today. Only three: if you're in the mood for the wearin' of the green, I'd better not catch you wearing any of these today!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tommies doing their magic trick

In the images above you can see a selection of forms of lawn tommies, Crocus tommasinianus, performing their little magic trick. In cold, dull weather the flowers are bolt upright and tightly closed. All the viewer sees is the silvery exterior of the slim buds. But once it begins to warm up a bit, the flowers start to open. This is when the magic takes place: the silvery exterior hides an intense amethyst interior. The sliver spears slowly change into cups of amethyst.

Even the commonest plants sometimes provide the most engaging enchantment.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The most beautiful red witch hazel...

...except that it isn't a witch hazel. From a few yards away you might confuse these with one of the red witch hazels. But that’s not what they are: these are blooming branches of the native Acer rubrum, the red maple. This is a common wild tree locally, and for years I have enjoyed the red haze made by this very early blooming species.

In fact, for years I’ve been asking myself why more people don’t grow these maples for their flowers. One reason is that they are big trees, and the flowers are usually high up in the canopy and not easily viewed. The ones in the image above were on branches which came down in the recent heavy snows. They had been heaped along the road side to be hauled away. Here was an opportunity I had been waiting for: I took my pruning shears down and cut out a nice bouquet.

When these trees are in bloom, the ground beneath them is littered with the flowers. I had long suspected that squirrels were causing this. When I got my bundle home, I had proof of it. I placed the cut stems in a bucket of water on a table out on the deck and then went inside to get my camera. By the time I got back, two squirrels had found the cut stems and were already helping themselves to the flowers. I wonder what it is that they are eating. They seem to drop the flowers after biting them: are they after nectar?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Daphne odora

Yesterday Wayne and I visited our friend Hilda to participate in a celebration of her 80th birthday. There are several reminders of her generosity in my garden, and the one I'm enjoying the most right now is shown above: Daphne odora. She gave this to me as a potted,  rooted cutting - a budded rooted cutting - in 2008. When I got home with it, I put it in one of the protected cold frames; that's where it's been since then, and it's still in the same pot in which it was brought home. It bloomed in the winter of 2009 from the buds on the rooted cutting. This year it's in bloom again, this time with more flowers.

Daphne odora is known to survive local winters occasionally, but there seems to be a grudging consensus that it is not really a plant adapted to our conditions. Still, many gardeners plant it and enjoy it as long as it lasts. This uncertainty about its long-term adaptability to our conditions has prompted me to keep my plant in one of the protected cold frames. It's a real pleasure to open the frames when this plant is in bloom: the fragrance is wonderful. And it's a nice way to be reminded of a dear friend.

Iris lazica

This iris was obtained in 2007, but it has taken its own time to settle down and flower. It's blooming here now for the first time. Said to be hardier than Iris unguicularis, it's another of those winter-growing irises which have the potential to bloom over an extended time. I've seen it growing unprotected in local gardens, but here - for now, at least - it grows in one of the protected cold frames.

Out in the garden reticulate irises are starting to bloom. The flowers of Iris lazica are much larger than those of the reticulate irises but not as large as those of the form of Iris unguicularis growing here. I've checked the flowers of Iris lazica several times for fragrance but so far have detected none.

Friday, March 12, 2010

More snow damage

The heavy snowfall really took a big bite out of my garden.

It ripped big chunks out of three Magnolia stellata. You can see one of them in the image above.

On the north side of the garden is a decades-old row of upright junipers. The snow brought two of them down. That ruins the effect of the row; but I already had made other plans for them, and I'll tell you about them later.

Now to get out the chain saw...


There are probably more crocus varieties available in the trade now than ever before. Specialists offer a bewildering array of species. A good assortment of garden crocuses is readily available. I've never seen a crocus I didn't like, and I grow a lot of them, from the familiar Dutch crocuses to rarely grown wild crocuses.

Yet I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels a special affection for tommies. Tommies are the forms of and near hybrids of Crocus tommasinianus. They are early, free of growth, make themselves at home and eventually form seeding populations which vary and provide keen interest to those with sharp eyes.

Tommies can be divided into three groups: the wild forms, the garden forms (these probably of hybrid origin), and the ones which arise in the garden wherever an assortment of tommies grow. I call this last group the "lawn tommies" because they make themselves at home in lawns, eventually seeding into broad masses. One sometimes sees them in old neighborhoods producing a fleeting haze of amethyst over the lawn.

In the image above, you see a richly colored garden form. This garden form lacks the silver exterior of the lawn tommies, and is a less attractive flower because of that. When the sun comes out again, I'll post some fresh images of lawn tommies.

You can't buy lawn tommies; you have to acquire them from someone who already has them. A few corms or a pinch of seed will get you started.

Several years ago a member of our local lily society appeared at one of our bulb exchanges with a handful of crocus corms to exchange. He didn't know what they were except to say that they were the little purple ones which grow in lawns. I brought some of these home with me, and each year they have bloomed and provided a reminder of that friend who has since died.

For the observant, tommies provide one of the neatest little flower spectacles in the garden. Once they begin to seed around, they revert to what is evidinetly the wild form, a slender crocus silvery on the outside and brilliant amethyst on the inside. On cloudy or rainy days, the thin buds stand upright, barely visible little pewter exclamation points scattered over the lawn. But when the sun comes out, there is a little miracle: the silver outer tepals open to reveal the rich amethyst of the inner tepals. You want to catch this as it happens in order to be able to enjoy the contrast between the silver and the amethyst.

Take a look here:

Once you've seen this, you will understand why tommies have such a loyal following.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I'm not with the fashionable crowd when it comes to snowdrops. The cultivars I grow are all old ones, most dating to the first half of the last century. But I think I chose wisely when I imported these decades ago: there are early ones, late ones, tall ones, short ones, singles, doubles, narrow leafed, wide leafed - really much which the genus Galanthus has to offer.

The ones shown here are, bottom to top: 'Sam Arnott' (the eponymous Mr. Arnott lived to be 100 years old!); 'Lady Beatrix Stanley' (Lady Beatrix was a contemporary of E.A. Bowles); 'Augustus' which explains the A in E. A. Bowles;  'James Backhouse', one of two cultivars distributed as 'Atkinsii'; a small, narrow form of Galanthus nivalis.

Snow damage: this time a real heartbreaker

Here's a real heartbreaker: that break you see in the image above brought down the crown of our formerly magnificent Franklinia alamataha. The tree was so big that even people who knew Franklinia would stand under it in wonder and finally ask "is it some kind of magnolia?"
Now I face a dilemma: the crown is still attached, and if I leave it alone will probably grow. And if it does, it will form a dense canopy over everything under it. I'm leaning towards cutting it out. But then again, it might be interesting to see what happens if I don't.

Hamamelis 'Jelena'

Of the several witch hazels in the garden, this remains my favorite. If it has a fault, it is that it could have a better fragrance. There are two of these in the garden, and neither is big enough to allow me to cut big bunches of blooming branches - yet.

Iris 'Natascha'

This is 'Natascha', one of the modern hybrid reticulate irises. In my experience, this one has been rather frail and uncertain, but it has persisted for several years. However, it seems to be getting smaller year by year. It reminds me of Iris vartanii 'Alba', a plant I grew forty years ago; and I have often wondered if Iris vartanii was used to make this garden hybrid.

Crocus laevigatus

The little crocus in the image above is Crocus laevigatus. This is the form widely distributed under the name fontenayi, a name no longer recognized by botanists. Sometimes this is a fall blooming crocus, but this stock  almost always waits until well into winter to bloom. This year, it was blooming before the heavy snowfalls. When the snow finally melted, the flowers were still there. It took a day or two for them to iron out the creases, but soon they were blooming as if there had been no snow. This one has grown here for years without any apparent problems.

Winter aconites

These little charmers have had a loyal following among gardeners for centuries. There is something very appealing about their bright greenish-yellow color, a color which seems to harmonize especially well with the warm browns of the leaf litter.
I don't understand why, but the winter aconites here are always late. There is another garden within walking distance of the house where they grow in profusion - and those plants always beat mine into bloom.
Winter aconites seem to have no serious pests or diseases. Rodents don't bother them, and once established they get better every year.
The best way to get started with them is to look for a source of fresh seed. The seed ripens here in late April, either the third or fourth week of the month. Be ready: it's gone in a flash.


Yesterday evening I drove by the local peeper pond: peepers, chorus frogs and wood frogs were going in full chorus. This for me marks the real beginning of spring. The house is about a quarter of a mile from the ponds. The ponds are cradled by two raised earth masses, one natural and one man made; this in effect places them in a sort of amphitheater aimed at our house. I can go out onto the deck in back of the house and hear the choruses.
The peepers are the sopranino recorders in this trio; if you listen carefully through the din of the peepers, you can make out the viols of this trio in the barking/quacking grunts of the wood frogs.

Green flowers

A friend once took me to task for my taste in plants: ‘Jim,” he said, “you only like the dingy brownish-green ones which are open for a half-hour in the middle of the night.”

That’s not quite true, but I do recognize a bit of myself in that appraisal. Big, colorful, flashy – those are not the qualities which get a plant into my garden. On the other hand, fragrance does, even if it’s coming from some inconspicuous little dowd. And subtle, unusual color combinations often catch my eye.

Here are two plants which appeal to me greatly. Iris tuberosa (also known as Hermodactylus tuberosus) is both unusual and beautiful, isn’t it? The flowers and the leaves suggest a reticulate iris, but it grows from a tuberous corm rather than from a true bulb. I had no success with this one until I turned it loose in one of the cold frames. Now it’s going to town.

The other image shows a real oddity. This is Ruscus hypoglossum. Some of you might know Ruscus aculeatus. In fact, millions of people have seen the foliage of R. aculeatus because it is dried, spray painted and sold as Christmas decoration. Alive, the plant is hard and repellent; dried it is dangerously spiny. Ruscus hypoglossum on the other hand superficially suggests what you might get if you crossed Ruscus aculeatus with the related Danaë racemosa. It’s a softer plant with broader “leaves”. “Leaves” in quotes because what look like leaves in these plants are actually green, flattened branches called cladodes or cladophylls.

In the garden these plants suggest little woody shrubs. In fact, they are monocots, close relatives of asparagus and thus part of the lily family in its broad, older sense.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Snowdrops at last

In a mild winter, there is the possibility of having snowdrops of one sort or another off and on throughout the winter. That's been true this year, too, although for much of the last month and a half the snowdrops have been buried in the snow. The snow is gone now in the sunnier parts of the garden, and as soon as it melted the snowdrops you see above opened as soon as the temperature rose. When I last saw them before the snow, they were not so well developed: evidently, they continue to develop under the snow cover.
Thanks to that snow cover, the season for snowdrops this year will probably be much condensed. The snowdrops which typically bloom in mid winter are blooming now with the ones which typically bloom in late winter. If there are any insects about, this might make for some interesting hybrids.
There are at least five named snowdrop cultivars in the image above. They have been there for years, and it's about time they were divided. I keep postponing the division because snowdrops in dense clumps are very attractive to me.

Winter sun

People often get the wrong impression of me, and it’s often in ways which I find amusing. In one respect it’s a compliment: people tend to project themselves into other people. They are simply assuming that I am like them, and that’s a compliment. For instance, because of my interests in food and cooking, people often assume that I’m a wine drinker. I’m not; and it’s not because I have not tried to be. Whenever I’m with friends or family and wine is served, I keep an eye on the way the drinkers react to the wine. If there seems to be unanimous agreement that the wine is especially good, I’ll ask for a bit. But other than sparkling wines, every wine I’ve ever tasted has a distinct aftertaste of rotten vegetation. I have no idea where I acquired this expertise in the taste of rotten vegetation, but I detect something in wine which fits my idea of what rotten vegetation might taste like. It’s especially noticeable in red wines. And it’s definitely an appetite killer for me. In the rare wines in which I do not detect the compost pit, there is the other thing about wines which I can’t get used to: the burn of the alcohol.

When it comes to other gardeners, they often express surprise when I tell them that I have no interest in having a greenhouse. Many seem to assume that I have cold frames because I can’t afford a greenhouse. It’s true that I can’t afford a greenhouse, but I wouldn’t want one for plants if I could. Many gardeners seem to think that a greenhouse is the next natural step for someone with a cold frame. But no, cold frames are another matter, and I’m beginning to think that I will never have enough cold frame space.

The tropics interest the biologist in me, but they have no interest for the gardener in me. To me there is something worrisomely impractical about tropical foliage plants; I can’t look at them without thinking about the heat bills. And it’s been said before: if a contest were held to design the most heat inefficient structure possible, the result would probably be a greenhouse.

On the other hand, if I were to acquire a property which came with a pre-existing greenhouse, would I raze it? Not at all: I would use it not for plants, or at least not primarily for plants, but rather use it as a sitting place for sunny winter days. With porous tile or gravel flooring and a handsome set of wooden garden benches and tables – and maybe a carefully selected suite of plants with winter green foliage- it would be the ideal place to spend sunny winter days. The sun would quickly heat the interior, and there would be no wind. It would be quiet in there, too. A good book, a congenial companion who does not talk too much, a dog, music, a comfortable chair, a simple afternoon meal: I would be very happy.

The porous floor would be important: I would want to be able to smell the soil during the winter. Every year one of the really moving experiences for me is to smell, after the long deprivation of frozen winter, the fragrance of the soil during the early thaws.

Yes, I try to stay in the slow lane.