Friday, April 30, 2010

Paeonia 'Dawn Glow'

This intriguing peony was raised by Sylvia Saunders, daughter of Arthur Percy Saunders. This cultivar has Paeonia macrophylla in its background. The coloration is very subtle and what you see depends a lot on the quality of the light. If you look into the heart of the flower, you will notice slightly darker flares of color.

The flowers are not the only unusual feature of this cultivar. The foliage is said (I have not yet noticed this myself) to have sometimes a scent of cloves. It was this quality more than the qualities of the flower which caused me to acquire this one. Years ago I grew a peony received under the name Paeonia wittmanniana macrophylla which produced foliage with a distinct aroma of boxwood. I would like to acquire that one again, but for now ‘Dawn Glow’ is a nice substitute.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beautiful bracts

Heavy winds during the last few days have left the ground littered with the bracts of the dove tree, Davidia involucrata. Among gardeners of my generation, a freely flowering dove tree is a bit of a trophy plant. I planted my first one when I was a teenager; it survived only a few years. Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t make it – I had planted it in the middle of the front lawn, the last place I need another tree.

Years later I tried again, this time successfully. I didn’t do any better in choosing a site this time. If you are thinking about planting a dove tree, plant it where it can be viewed with the sun in back of you. The only easy way to see the big flowering tree in the garden now is to look up into the sun – not a nice experience.

This is a tree which requires patience from the gardener. Our tree started as a three footer. The first blooms came seventeen long years later. The tree developed with two trunks; for years only one of those trunks bloomed. This year the second trunk finally started to bloom. In fact, this has been the best year yet for bloom from this tree. On rare occasions it sets seed, but this is not a regular occurrence.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Iris ‘Albicans’

This is the so-called Muslim cemetery iris. It’s been known for centuries in western gardens. It was originally named Iris albicans, as if it were a species. But as it turns out, it’s an old hybrid. As a result, one modern way to format the name is Iris ‘Albicans’.

The modern tall bearded iris is just that, modern. Nineteenth century hybridists began to expand the variety in bearded irises, but the forms raised then hardly qualify for consideration as tall bearded iris. During the first decades of the twentieth century, developments in tall bearded irises really began to take off.

Old Iris ‘Albicans’ remains a worthwhile garden plant. It blooms with the earliest peonies and columbines, well before the tall bearded sorts.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Polygala paucifolia

Many birders keep a life list, generally a list of every species they have seen. Some vary the game by keeping a list of birds they have heard in song, If I’m not mistaken, a lot of the birds John James Audubon painted were later invited to join him at the table: did he keep a list of the birds of America he had eaten?

The idea of a life list for plants intrigues me, but I don’t keep one. Yet I am aware of certain plants I would very much like to see, and it becomes a sort of celebration when I do. I had such an experience the other day, and it was occasioned by the little charmer you see in the image above. That’s Polygala paucifolia, a plant native to widely scattered acidic woodlands here in eastern North America.

I would like to say I had grown it myself; but as you can see, it's in a pot. I purchased it last weekend at a native plant sale.

I’ve probably known about this plant since I was a teenager, and photographs of the plant never failed to pique my interest. It’s such a beautiful little plant that one would expect it to be widely grown, and yet…there are problems. It’s native to acidic woodlands, and like so much of the native acidic woodland flora, it does not last long under typical garden settings. One possible culprit: I’ve heard that the local tap water is treated to have a pH of about 7. Water plants which need acidic conditions with that, and it’s only a matter of time before they depart. I’ve got my fingers crossed, and there is plenty of vinegar on hand to treat the tap water. But I might be publishing an obituary in a few months.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gerbera “Madame 5 by 5”

I picked this up at one of the local grocery stores the other day. The flower is huge (a bit over five inches in diameter) and the stem is not much taller. Had the plant been treated with some sort of growth retardant to keep the height down? And will it eventually produce taller stems?

And why in the world am I buying gerberas? They are not dependably hardy here, so that rules out their use as garden plants. I suspect that they will not bloom once the night temperatures go up.

But this plant combines a spectacular flower with an improbable plant size so well that it’s irresistible. Do you know who Madame 5 by 5 was? That was one name used for the early twentieth century opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini. As a singer she was spectacular, and the recordings exist to prove this. As her celebrity grew so did her girth. Short to begin with, at the height of her fame she was very well rounded indeed! Her name survives, outside the rather esoteric world of those of us who still listen to recordings made a century ago,  as a name for certain pasta preparations for which, as you might suspect, a proper serving is, shall we say, copious.  

So in this garden, Madame 5 by 5 it is. Now I’ll go listen to Tetrazzini’s wonderful recording of Tosti’s song “Aprile”.

Yet another new rose

Another of the new roses from Vintage Roses has started to bloom, this time the oddly-named ‘JACtan’ which you see in the image above. When I selected this one, I broke one of my most basic rose-buying rules, the rule that dictates that I buy only roses noted for great fragrance. ‘JACtan’ has fragrance, but evidently it is not notable for that. I have not tested the bloom shown above in warmth: it’s been rainy and cool during the period in which the blossom opened. So far, I detect a slight tea fragrance (this is not a tea rose but rather a modern, large flowered climber).

‘JACtan’ is such an ugly name that I’m determined not to use it in this garden. For now, I’ll think of it as the “melon rose” since the color approximates that of the flesh of some ripe melons. I’ve read that the rose was originally named ‘Butterscotch’, and what in most respects a great choice that was. Unfortunately it failed in one key respect: the name ‘Butterscotch’ had already been used for another rose. 'JACtan' was originally introduced by the Jackson & Perkins Company not quite twenty-five years ago. Apparently it was never given an agreeable name, and it has been making the rounds all these years under the repellent moniker given above. This is, I suppose, an abbreviation of the company name squashed together with the color (which is, in some lights, tan).

I think I’m going to like this one!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Another new rose

Here’s another newly received rose from Vintage Roses. This one, being a “found” rose, has so-far not been identified but goes under the working name “Pleasant Hill Cemetery”. It’s thought to be a tea noisette rose – the tea noisettes are just about my favorite roses. The opening flower you see in the image above was on the plant when I unpacked it. The instructions that came with the plants said to pinch off all buds – fat chance that will happen!

This is another rose about which I knew nothing until I visited the Vintage Roses website. They praised it highly for fragrance and that’s enough to get a rose into my garden. Now that it’s blooming, what’s the verdict? Oh my gosh, this is another one with a fragrance which is amazing. The fragrance is nothing like the fragrance of ‘Dreaming Spires’; I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s light, intense, very sweet, rose but not Damask rose - maybe a bit of sweet pea? Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Here again, there is no scent in the cool of the morning, but as the temperature rises, the scent eventually pours out.

Wow! Does this ever make me happy!

Friday, April 16, 2010

First bloom on a newly received rose

The rose in the image above is the cultivar ‘Dreaming Spires’, a rose introduced almost forty years ago. It’s one of the so-called large flowered climbing roses. Until I visited the Vintage Roses website for the first time about a month ago, I had never heard of it. They had some nice things to say about it, and so I decided to give it a try. The rose arrived with several buds, and the first of them is now opening.

This is definitely my kind of rose. The scent is wonderful. Early in the morning while it’s still cool there is no scent to speak of. But as things warm up, the scent slowly develops into something amazing. To my nose it’s a combination of Damask rose, canned peaches and musk, the sort of scent which, strong as it is, I still can’t get enough of.

Good choice, Jim! And thanks to the folks at Vintage Roses for sending such a nice plant. You can check out their web site at:

Friday, April 9, 2010

Paeonia mascula

Peony season 2010 opened on Tuesday of this week with, as usual, Paeonia mascula. Some recent accounts make this P. caucasica, but I've known it as P. mascula most of my gardening life;  and I'm rapidly approaching the age where I can claim to be an old dog who won't learn new tricks.

The flowers of these wild peonies are a fleeting presence in our gardens. Temperatures earlier this week were hovering around 90º F (~32 º C) for several days in a row. Under those conditions, the flowers can be literally ephemeral, although so far they have lasted for several days. Late yesterday afternoon, as I was cleaning up in preparation for the incipient rain storms after a long and very productive day in the garden, it occurred to me to photograph the peonies now in the event that they fell apart during the rain storms. The light was not good, so the image above in not the best. There will be another chance soon: the flowers survived the storm - and so I might replace the image above soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lilium tsingtauense

If I told you that this is the foliage of a lily, would your next question be “Is it diseased?” If so, you would probably have lots of company. On the lily discussion forum this week someone asked just that question about his seedlings of this species.

This is Lilium tsingtauense, one of the eastern Asian martagons. It does not look like a martagon, but it breeds with the martagons. In bloom, the flowers are the exact color of the tawny daylily, Hemerocallis fulva. But there is this difference: the flowers of the lily are shiny, as if lacquered.

This species is noted for the handsome (NOT diseased) mottled pattern seen in the newly developed foliage. Later in the season the pattern disappears.

I’ve never seen a plant of this species higher than about two feet at the most. But it is said to reach four feet under good conditions. It is well adapted to our local conditions but rarely seen in local gardens.

Narcissus 'Maximus'

The pert looking daffodil shown above is Narcissus ‘Maximus’, and it is said to have been blooming in English gardens over 400 years ago. Initially my attention was drawn to this daffodil due to a misprint in Bowles' Handbook of Narcissus: it is described there as being 30 inches high when in bloom. That would make it a real giraffe among daffodils. But the 30 inches is evidently a misprint for 30 cm; among the daffodils of the Elizabethan garden, even that made it a tall one.

The orchid grower in spite of himself

I’ve mentioned in this blog before that I’m not really an orchid person. But they are tempting, aren’t they? The one above came from the discount bin at a local grocery store in 2008. Most of the flowers had faded, so it was put out for $2 or so. I bought it to see if I could bring it back into bloom. And now, not quite two years later, that’s what has happened.

The plant shown above is known as Colmanara (a nothogenus) 'Kilauea Pacific Flare'.

Assaying the Chilean Tropaeolum

The little specks of yellow in the image above represent – unlikely as it seems – a sort of gardening triumph for me. Those flowers are the flowers of Tropaeolum brachyceras, a plant which grows wild in Chile. The familiar garden nasturtium is a Tropaeolum, a much more showy and easily grown one. But for the grower in our climate looking for a challenge, these Chilean species provide a stiff one.

The garden nasturtiums are grown in our climate as annuals, although by nature they are perennials. These Chilean Tropaeolum are also perennials, perennials which grow from a tuberous corm (or if you prefer, just plain tuber). In September 2008 I received one of Tropaeolum brachyceras. It was about the size of a fat grape (sorry to be so technical), and was planted in the soil of the most protected cold frame right away.. It did not begin to sprout until almost a year later; that’s typical for these plants – they sometimes take a year off.

Last fall I noticed the hair-thin sprouts of the plant emerging. They reminded me of the fronds of some Adiantum ferns – they were that thin and delicate and black, too. The plant continued to grow throughout the fall and winter. At one point, the outside temperature dropped to 3 degrees above zero F. Yet things inside the cold frame must have remained snug, because the tender new growth never showed any damage.

Several weeks ago flower buds began to appear. I let out a cautious, preliminary YIPPEE. On April 4 the first flowers opened. I had done it, I had flowered one of the Chilean Tropaeolum. I suspect that I now belong to a rather exclusive club.

It has not gone entirely to my head: I admit it, those little yellow flowers look suspiciously like those of the little weedy oxalis which infests the lawn.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Gardeners need patience

When I was a kid in my very early teens I mail-ordered a European fire-bellied toad from a small company in Vermont. Kids, of course, have very short attention spans; the toad did not appear in the mail any time soon, and so I more or less forgot about it. The tumultuous life of a teenager provided plenty of distractions. Then a year later, without any warning, a tiny match-box sized container appeared in the mail. I was skeptical: could the toad possibly be in that little box? It was. We develop patience, whether we want to or not it seems.

A bit over twenty years ago I imported a rose of some historic importance from the famous English firm, Hillier Nursery. It grew slowly and eventually after several years became strong enough to bloom. For two or three years it bloomed, and then it suddenly died. At the time I was not about to go through the hassle of importing a rose again (permits, methyl bromide, quarantine), and the years passed. Then I began to miss it, and wanted a replacement.

In November 2003 I put down a deposit to be put on a list for this rose. Then the wait began. I went into this thinking I would get my rose by 2005 at the latest. But things happen - or, in this case, don't happen. I wrote the occasional plaintive letter; the responses were always cordial and encouraging. That I knew the difficulty of propagating the rose in question helped - I felt things were going in the right direction. I know about patience.

The other day I realized that since it was already mid March, and the rose shipping season was underway, maybe it was time to nudge the grower again. I made a mental note to myself to do just that.

The very next day the postman dropped off an unexpected box. I've ordered a lot of stuff lately, and I had no idea what was in the box. When I saw the return address my heart leaped: could it be, finally, after all these years? Yes, it was: after six and a half years I finally got my rose.

There is a lot more to this story, and I'll tell it later.

Note: this posting was originally posted last week; I had to change a comment, and the only way I know to do that is to delete the original posting and re-post it without the comment.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Boy plants

The ancient botanists sometimes distinguished between male types of plant and female types of plant. For instance, there were male ferns and female ferns, and the names were picked up and carried over into modern plant nomenclature as filix-femina and filix-mas. The distinction had to do with how finely the fronds were cut.

I think of some plants or flowers as feminine and masculine. Sweet peas are definitely feminine to me, feminine in a girly way. Some hybrid tea roses are feminine, but often in an aggressive, threatening sort of way.

And then there are the boy plants. These are not simply masculine in the way of, for instance, oaks. They are plants in which boys, even boys who ordinarily don’t have an interest in plants, will take an interest. The best examples are those priapic aroids which are the subject of the Chautauqua show given by Tony Avent: when he’s in town, be sure to get into the tent and catch the performance.

There are other categories of boy plants: the ones which stink (lots of aroids again) or the ones which are simply a gross-out in appearance. The asarums provide some good examples of gross-out plants. When Asarum noibilissimum blooms, you want to try to say something nice about the flower (“It’s sure big!”) but “prepossessing” won’t be the word you are looking for. It’s not just the look, it’s the texture and the colors. To me it looks like a big fat scab, or suppurating flesh or, and this really isn’t nice so close your eyes for the next few lines if you are sensitive, “where the sun don’t shine”. OK, I warned you. We have to be objective (or is it obnoxious?). But that’s why it’s a boy plant.