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.