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 90ยบ 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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bad news in the lily department

On one of the on-line lily discussion forums reports are beginning to appear describing the beginning of the active period of the lily beetle, Lilioceris lilii. As far as I know, this very serious pest of lilies and fritillaries has not yet reached Maryland.

Yesterday evening I was touring the garden and noticed that a nice big clump of martagon hybrid lilies had damaged foliage. Neat little circular or semicircular patches were cut out of the leaf edges. I've read about this in British books; curious, I turned up a few leaves and suddenly something compact and black dropped to the ground and disappeared. All of that fits the modus operandi of another serious pest. I think the plants are being attacked by black vine weevils, Otiorhynchus sulcatus, a pest I had never before noticed in this garden.

Later today I'll post images of the damaged leaves and, if I can catch one in the act, of the culprit itself.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


These otherwise cheery plants, whose botanical name, Sempervivum, is generally translated as "live forever", do not in fact always live up to that seemingly care free term. Lack of sun will do them in, and during the summer a lack of moisture evidently will, too. Their general ease of culture gives them the reputation as the sort of plants to give to children. Many serious gardeners turn their noses up at them. The somewhat similar plants of the genus Sedum often get the same treatment. Yet both have valuable contributions to make to our gardens.

Here you see a mix of un-named sorts happily grouped in a low terra cotta pot saucer. Working out satisfying color combinations with these plants is tricky because their colors change continually. Some have bright red tints earlier in the growing season, others have contrasting colors on each leaf. Yet when you see the same plants months later, it's hard to believe that you are looking at the same one. At first, I thought I would be very systematic and photograph all of my plants. They produce runners with little plants at the tips, and it's not unusual to find satellite plants detached from the main clump. That means that there are always plants in need of identification. A nice series of photos would solve that problem, wouldn't it? Well, as it turns out, to be useful  the photos would have to be made monthly.

Some new sempervivums arrived in the mail several weeks ago. The labels of four of them were loose in the box. I went to the grower's web site to try to identify the plants which lacked labels. The four plants without labels matched nothing on the web site - at least for now.

The musk rose

To those for whom appearance is everything, the rose you see in the image above is as homely and unremarkable as any. Yet to those who know the history of the roses it is one of the most important roses ever grown. This is the storied musk rose, Rosa moschata. In the early nineteenth century it revolutionized garden roses as one of the parents of the Noisettes and Tea-Noisettes. It caries one of the archetypal rose scents, said to be musk-like (and let’s be honest: how many of us really know the scent of genuine musk?). Whatever that scent is, it is remarkably strong and free on the air.

Another interesting characteristic of this rose is that it comes into bloom much later than most garden roses. My plants began to bloom this week, well after the season of the once-blooming garden roses.

Learn to close your eyes and give that other more primitive sense a chance to work its wonders.

Danish Flag poppy

Of the many cultivated varieties of the bread-seed poppy (that is its polite name; in fact, they are cultivars of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy) Danish Flag is a favorite. I first grew this decades ago, and when I saved the seed and planted it the next year I got some double-flowered forms in the same color pattern. The single flowered form shown above appears in an approximately three hundred and seventy year old painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem which hangs in the National Gallery of Art. When the poppies are not blooming in the garden (and they make but a fleeting appearance), there is always de Heem's handsome Vase of Flowers to enjoy.

You can see the de Heem here:

Container plants

Years ago one of the local big box stores had some very handsome, tall, terra cotta planters on sale. I bought three; a few years later, one was knocked over and broke. The two remaining are used for summer flowering container plants. They are moved around from year to year, but typically they are used as end points for long borders.

This year one is right at the front door. The house is brick, and the color of brick is notorious for the successful warfare it wages against reds with even a hint of blue in them. So the suite of plants chosen for this group includes only reds which lean ever so slightly to the orange side of the traditional color wheel. The plants used are Salvia splendens 'Early Bonfire', Solenostemon (coleus) 'Henna', Cuphea 'David Verity', Cuphea 'Fireworks', Begonia boliviensis 'Bonfire', Crocosmia 'Emily McKenzie' and Ageratum 'Blue Horizon'  and Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie' for a bit of contrasting color. There is also a plant of lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla, to provide scent.

As you see it here, the plants have been in place for maybe a generous two weeks. I'll try to remember to post another image later in the season when things have put on some size.

Lilium canadense

Here is another plant which fits into that theme of the native plants which gardeners neglect. Generations of lily growers have held the opinion that this is just about the most graceful of lilies, yet it is virtually unknown as a garden plant throughout most of its former natural range.  Here you see it in one of its red-flowered forms.

The cultural requirements of these lilies are not at all like those of most garden lilies. If you plant them in the local soil, it's only a matter of time before they depart. Site them where they will get sun for only part of the day. Use a very open medium made porous with bark chips and something to keep it open such as crushed granite. Feed them gently. Plenty of moisture while the plants are in active growth is good. Although these plants will survive in woodlands, they are better in clearings or places where they will get several hours of sun each day.

An old name for this species is meadow lily, so it's no surprise that the big old populations quickly fell to our uses-of-choice for meadows: farming and housing development. It's now an uncommon plant. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Brodiaea californica

The various Brodiaea are not common in our gardens, although one cultivar, 'Queen Fabiola', is widely marketed and very inexpensive (and very attractive!). When I first started to grow the members of this genus long ago, I had doubts about their hardiness. And after a year or two the plants did disappear in the garden. But cold hardiness pure and simple is probably not the main problem; wet summers are a big problem. I now grow many of the bulbs native to the west coast of North America under summer cover – the cold frame lights are placed over the beds from late May until sometime in September. This keeps the soil relatively dry; under these conditions many bulbs difficult in the open garden will thrive. In the image above, what looks like a reflection is a reflection: the lights are already in place.

If you have already grown some of the other species of Brodiaea, be sure to give this one a try. It’s taller and has much larger flowers than most species (in fact, I don’t know of one larger).

The genus Brodiaea has been placed in the Liliaceae, the Amaryllidaceae, the Alliaceae, the Themidaceae and, according to the PBS wiki, the Asparagaceae at various times.

Arisaema candidissimum

The arisaemas on the monsoon schedule are beginning to grow and bloom now. I’ve found some of these to be very difficult to keep, but others are relatively easy, including the one shown above, Arisaema candidissimum.

I’m trying this one again after tossing the ones I had decades ago. That earlier acquisition was planted in a shady part of the garden and, although the plants bloomed each year, the stem of the inflorescence elongated and flopped into the mud after a day or two. After years of this I simply lost interest and tossed them. When I mentioned this on an on-line discussion forum, I was advised to plant them where they get more sun. By then those original plants were compost, but I vowed to try again – this time in a sunnier spot.

The fire pink

This is Silene virginica, the fire pink. It’s another example of an undeniably worthwhile native plant which is largely neglected by gardeners. It’s a hummingbird magnet, and it makes a good rock garden plant. It’s easy from seed. It’s also somewhat shade tolerant. Why is it so uncommon in gardens?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bletilla ochracea 'Chinese Butterfly'

This is Bletilla ochracea 'Chinese Butterfly'. I have this thanks to the kindness of a friend. At one of the big local plant sales earlier this year I ran into him at one of the booths. I was curious to see what he had picked out, and he began to show some of his choices to me. He also explained that they had been pre-ordered. At first I missed that part because I heard him mention Bletilla ochracea, a plant high on my want list. I had grown this yellow-flowered species years ago, and was keen to acquire it again.

So as it turned out, there were no plants of Bletilla ochracea for sale at the booth. I must have gone into a visible tail-spin, because he offered to let me buy the plant for myself. I jumped at the chance. And when I had the plant in my hands, I noticed an until-then unnoticed bonus: the plant had an inflorescence.

After paying for the plant and again thanking my friend for his generosity, I noticed the stick tag in the pot. I expected it to say Bletilla ochracea, but instead it said Bletilla ochracea 'Chinese Butterfly', a name I knew nothing about. And the color picture on the tag was disturbing: it showed a white-flowered plant. When I got home, I did some Googling: I didn't like what I saw.

Last week the picture changed entirely. The flower buds had developed to the point that I could see color, and it was not white. It was a definite soft yellow. I was happy again. Last night the first flower had opened enough for me to see that I indeed had a yellow-flowered Bletilla again.

It's a beauty, isn't it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Japanese iris

These amazing flowers really have to be seen to be believed. Although their color range is very limited, the individual flowers are sumptuous. Yet these huge flowers last only about two days. My plants came from a sale sponsored by one of the local iris groups over a decade ago. They came with names, but the labels were buried under the plants, and I’ve not been able to locate them since. I have a list of the names, but they don’t seem to match similarly named images on the web. In a sense, this only adds to the mystery surrounding these plants.

These grow in the bog trays at the edge of the pool. They have been carefree since the day they were planted, and over the years they have spread into clumps, some thick, some far ranging. In bloom the plants are between three and four feet high.

In old books these irises are called Iris kaempferi, newer books call them I. ensata. They do not require to be grown in water throughout the year. If they are not grown beside a pool or other wet place, it is traditional to flood the growing site as the budded scapes appear.

They are particularly beautiful at the waterside, especially if the water is alive with bright orange goldfish: the contrast between the bright, contrasting color and active movement of the fish on the one hand and the somber hues and staid poise of the irises on the other is enchanting.

If you want to enjoy them, drop what you are doing and get out to the garden: they will be gone for aonther year before you know it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brachystelma cathcartense

Imagine, if you can, a Stapelia trying to be a Fritillaria, and you’ll have a rough idea of what this plant suggests. It’s a South African asclepiad and evidently will eventually form a substantial caudex. It’s not a garden plant here, or at least I don’t expect it to be. When dormant it will probably endure sub-freezing conditions as long as it’s dry. I’ll keep it in the protected cold frame during the winter. Or maybe I’ll relent and keep it inside as a house plant.

The many uncertainties expressed in the preceding paragraph are the result of my almost complete lack of real knowledge about this plant. It came from Seneca Hill Perennials a few months ago; I took it out of the box, watered it, and a few weeks later took the picture above.