Saturday, December 31, 2011

Billbergia nutans

Here's an old friend helping us to celebrate the end of the year: this is Billbergia nutans, a long cultivated bromeliad often called queen's tears. It has been grown as a house plant since at least  before the Second World War. It thrives under typical house plant conditions and treatment and can be potted in soil. Our plant spends the frost-free season outside in full sun. It is brought inside when night frosts are likely. This year it waited until the end of December to produce any sign of bloom. About two weeks ago I left it outside overnight during a period of rain, and within a week the inflorescences began to appear.

The plant in the image above is not yet actually in bloom: none of the flowers is actually open yet. I'll add an image of the blooms later.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day in the garden

It's been a full month since the last post: what have I been up to? I've been up to planting; the community garden plots are now stuffed with roses, tree peonies, lilies, other bulbs both ornamental (tulips, bulbous irises, alliums, musk hyacinths et al.) and comestible (garlic, shallots, multiplier onions and others). Thirty-nine roses (wichurana hybrids, large-flowered climbers, polyanthas, some early hybrid teas and old shrub types among othres)  were planted last week (or was it the week before?). Most of the planting is now done, and I'm beginning to relax a bit and look forward to next year's garden. We've had two months of perfect planting weather, and the opportunities presented by the weather have kept me energized and sometimes even exhilarated: I can hardly believe what I've accomplished in the last two months.

Week after week of relatively mild weather has had an effect on the home garden and other local gardens, too. This year may well have been the best year ever for fall blooming camellias, and some precocious Camellia japonica sorts are also reported as blooming now. Those who keep lists of plants blooming on Christmas Day or New Year's Day will probably have long and varied lists this year.

My Christmas Day list from the home garden is short but sweet this year: snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii sorts), winter sweet, winter jasmine, winter honeysuckle, Camellia sasanqua and Elaeagnus pungens. Iris unguicularis was in bloom late last week, but the one flower had started to shrivel by today. Dandelions are blooming here and there. Helleborus foetidus (here) and H. niger (elsewhere) are blooming. Some garden hellebores are in advanced bud. I could not find any witch hazel flowers. In one of the cold frames Narcissus tazetta is blooming. Knock Out roses are still to be seen blooming here and there.

This morning I saw (and heard - what a pleasure to hear bird song on this date!)   a flock of birds (goldfinches?) working over the buds of the red maples.

In terms of what I've accomplished in the garden, I'm better prepared for the arrival of real winter this year than in any recent previous year; but emotionally I'm not prepared at all, and it's going to sting when it happens.

That's winter sweet, Chimonanthus praecox 'Luteus' in the image above.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How little some things have changed...


The top image above is the cover page of the magazine Home & Garden from April of 1914. That's two years and several months short of a century ago. Was the original for that photograph an autochrome? And look at the width and thickness of the lumber used for the framing of the cold frame:  I've never seen anything that big for sale. The hat and the pipe are very much of the time, and at first glance I thought "What is Sherlock looking for  down there in the dirt?" I took an immediate liking to this cover, and over the decades I've owned it have taken it out now and them to keep up my hopes that one day I might have something like it.

Now fast forward nearly a century. The lower image shows one of my cold frames at my community garden plots. It's planted with lettuces, sage cuttings, rosemary cuttings, lamb's lettuce, flat leaf parsley, chervil and some odds and ends. No Sherlock because he was the one taking the picture.  I expect the plants in the cold frame to be fine until about the turn of the year; after that, we'll see.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Carrot 'Parisian'

No, those are not orange radishes. The little orange globes you see above are the old carrot variety 'Parisian', sometimes called 'Parisian Market'. In addition to offering an unusual shape for carrots, they have the advantage, because of their round shape, of growing well in rough, stony soil (e.g. the soil in my new community garden plots). To attain their sleek, long form, typical carrots require deeply prepared soil free of obstructions such as stones. To harvest 'Parisian' no digging is necessary: the carrots form at the surface or just under it and pull easily from the ground.

Above you see them as freshly dug and then after a stop with the fluffers for their blog debut.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Remembering Frank Kameny

I first became aware of Frank Kameny in the late 1950s when his arrest on sodomy charges made the news. I was about 14 at that time, and although I was mortified by the sodomy charges aspect of the events, I nevertheless knew very well who I was and that it was my team which was taking a very public bashing.  It was not long before I heard about the  Mattachine Society, although I had no idea how to become a member. 

Now fast forward about twenty years. In the mid 1970s I joined the DC Gay Activists Alliance and finally met this man who had been on the margins of my consciousness for so long. That first meeting was not entirely propitious: had I been looking for a hero, I probably would have kept looking. Frank was hardly the prepossessing sort; in fact, my initial cursory impression was that he was a Marabou stork of a man. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: there were actually serious discussions at the GAA meetings to arrange some sort of funding to pay for Frank to have dental work. ”The movement” back then was preoccupied with public images, and while no one seriously doubted his ability to speak eloquently and effectively on behalf of our cause, there were frequent backstage murmurs about the appearance of the messenger.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my ornithology was all wrong: the man was not a stork, he was an eagle. Those monthly GAA meetings could be tedious and boring, yet on nights when Frank was in good form, they provided some lively theatrics. No sooner had some injudicious newbie had the temerity to voice some poorly thought-out or logically flawed proposal than Frank would launch a keenly articulated rebuttal.   If the idea being offered was one he found to be repugnant, then the rhetorical fireworks really went off in an almost ferocious explosion. But the wonder of these exchanges was that as I knew him, he never lowered himself to ad hominem attacks: he stayed focused on the issues, not the person. And when it became apparent to him that his adversary was acting out of truculence, he would abruptly end the discussion and announce – and I can still hear him saying this - “In that case, then we agree to disagree.” It wasn’t unusual to hear him later chatting convivially with the erstwhile target of his lashings. 

One of the things I sometimes wondered about when I first began to attend GAA meetings was how this man, who alone for about two decades had been the most conspicuous face in the gay rights movement, would work with the younger upstarts who now surrounded him. There was a pervasive respect for Frank back then, an always present awareness of his unique status in our community, yet those attitudes did not necessarily translate into tranquil exchanges in a changing world where the young Turks were sometimes pulling for new ideas and different directions. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that he had another good quality: for all of his seeming apartness, he was a skillful team player.
Many times during a lively debate one could look over and see Frank sitting there, taking it all in. There were times when the look on his face suggested bemusement; I like to think that that look was at least partly motivated by a sort of avuncular pride: after all, he more than anyone had made it happen.

Years after I left GAA I read the diaries of Virginia Woolf; there is a passage there in which Woolf describes the fascination she experienced as she watched Jewesses (her word) listening to Classical music.  No sooner had I read those words than I remembered the fascination I felt in watching Frank as he, with almost palpable intensity of concentration, followed the development of a proposal being broached by another GAA member.

The leadership of GAA in those days kept to a surprisingly high-minded standard of deportment during meetings. Those attempting a sally into the trivial or frivolous risked a public rebuke. Smarts and accomplishment won you respect. It took me a while to win Frank’s respect, but when the time came I relished it. As the one man communications committee person I had written a letter on behalf of GAA to the Washington Post in which I pointed out some shortcomings in an article which the Post had published. We desperately wanted recognition back in those days, and no one expected the Post to deign to reply. But reply they did, and surprising as that was, there was something else  which pushed it over the top: the Post’s response was signed by none other than Ben Bradlee himself. Frank gave me a look that day I’ll never forget.

Years after I left GAA I ran into him around town a few times. I remember one meeting where, after a bit of prompting, he seemed to remember me. I vaguely remember another meeting much later when even generous prompting didn’t seem to elicit a response. But both times he was delighted to be recognized and responded with a profuse display of the old fashioned, almost courtly politesse with which he always addressed me (and I suppose everyone else he did not know well).

I’ve never met anyone else with such an utterly imperturbable sense of integrity; he could be persuaded by a well-articulated argument, but his core beliefs seemed to be adamantine and immutable. Once fixed on a goal, he was relentless. These qualities sometimes impelled him on to conclusions which baffled or even offended his supporters, conclusions which were definitely not ready for prime time. Yet this candor rarely left any doubt about his position on the issues.
Frank may have forgotten me, but I doubt that I will ever forget Frank. And I am glad to have this opportunity to publicly express my gratitude for all he has done for us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A view of the back garden

Here’s a view of what’s happening in the back garden right now. The image is out of focus ( I tried several times but could not get the Hamamelis flowers in sharp focus), but in a sense that improves the overall effect. The red foliage on the left is that of Hamamelis ‘Feuerzauber’, the yellow flowers in the center those of the plant onto which ‘Feuerzauber’ is grafted, the red foliage on the right is that of Franklinia alatamaha.

Rosa 'The Fairy'

This little charmer is a 1930s anticipation of the modern ‘Knock Out’ roses. And like that more modern group it has almost all of the qualities of the best roses. It shares the same failing: lack of fragrance. But  it finally dawned on me that it was time to get off my high horse when it comes to fragrance in roses. Yes, I definitely prefer my roses to be fragrant. But does it make sense to ignore a rose which scores in the highest ways in other qualities simply because it lacks fragrance? It does not to me, and so I’ve made my peace with the Knock Outs and am ready to really appreciate Bentall’s little 1932 beauty.

Do you have doubts? If so, I suggest you seek out established plantings of these roses in November. I wish I had the room for an allée of autumn camellias and Knock Out roses in harmonious colors; maybe some of the Encore azaleas would work in this grouping, too. The whole planting would be fronted by ‘The Fairy’. These are plants which have the ability to bring a spring-like freshness to the garden at a time when it is otherwise winding down for the year.

‘The Fairy’ is conventionally placed among the so-called Polyantha roses; but unlike most Polyantha roses ‘The Fairy’ has Rosa wichurana (formerly R. wichuraiana) in its background. It makes just as much sense to think of it as a dwarf shrub rose.

I have not grown this rose yet myself, so the image you see above is an exception to my usual rule to include only plants grown in my own garden. Wayne and I visited our Northern Neck friends Charles and Hilda last weekend, and as we were about to leave Hilda took me over to “The Fairy’ and cut a nice bouquet. The cool weather was especially kind to the color of the flowers, and the foliage of the plant was immaculate. It was hard to believe that this rose had gone through the summer: everything about it was so fresh, clean and brimming with vigor. And the color warmed up beautifully under incandescent light.

Tilling season

Yikes! I have not made a blog posting in almost a month.What's going on?

The answer is that my other garden, my community garden plot, is absorbing every bit of time I give it.- and then begging for more.

I binged on bulbs recently, and as soon as I finish the tilling at the plot, I'll be planting bulbs - probably right up to the time the ground freezes.

I also built and installed two simple cold frames at the plot. New wood chip mulch was recently delivered to the plot site, and I've been busy moving it to my plot where I till it into the ground. 

Newly purchased nursery stock has been lined out at the plot where it will remain until I'm ready for it back here at the home garden. There are some new hedges in the home garden's future (at least if my back holds out).

There are days when I come home from the garden plot on the verge of exhaustion; but it makes for wonderful dreams!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Variegated Fritillary Euptoieta claudia Silver and gold

While working in the garden the other day I spotted this little gem. It brought to mind some metal smith working in molten silver and gold: as he worked, drops of silver and gold dropped from his workbench and clumped on the floor.

In fact it's the elegant wrapping around a gem of a different sort: there is a pupa of a fritillary inside that chrysalis. It's the Variegated Fritillary   Euptoieta claudia, a species whose host plants include passion flower. The chrysalis was found not far from a rampageous tangle of Passiflora incarnata in the garden. To see Passiflora incarnata, look here:

Canna × ‘Ehemannii’


Although I’ve known about this plant – or thought I knew about this plant – for a long time, it’s blooming in my garden this year for the first time. And this is the first time I’ve actually seen it. It’s over a century old: it appeared in the late nineteenth century. It looks a lot like Canna iridiflora, and from the beginning there seems to have been uncertainty about whether ‘Ehemannii’ is a form of that species or a hybrid.

It’s unique among the garden cannas I know. The drooping flowers (some accounts say the entire inflorescence droops) give the plant a very graceful quality, and graceful is rarely the first thing which comes to mind when discussing cannas. It’s a puzzle to me why more hybrid cannas have not been produced with this style of inflorescence. In fact, it’s a big puzzle because Canna iridiflora itself appears in the stated genealogy of many hybrid canna strains.  

This plant can be tall, and drooping flowers on a tall plant are an advantage in that the viewer looks up into the flower instead of looking up and seeing the underside of the bloom.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scilla lingulata ssp. ciliolata

Gardeners have long cherished bulbs which bloom in the fall, and when those bulbs are of sorts which typically bloom in late winter or spring, there is the added pleasure of having the illusion of getting a jump on the seasons.

The little plant shown above, Scilla lingulata ssp ciliolata, is not the only late-summer or fall blooming squill, but it’s certainly a distinctive one. It has the sorts of poise and charm which make for a great pot plant on the show bench. The words used to make the name of this species, lingulata and ciliolata, refer to the tongue-shaped leaves which have tiny hairs along their margins. If the light is just right one can easily see this.  
I have not tried this plant in the open garden: it’s lived in a cold frame since it arrived in 2007.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tricyrtis macrantha

This is the plant widely distributed under the name Tricyrtis macrantha ssp. macranthopsis. It's been in this big pot for two years now, and it seems to be thriving, doesn't it? One advantage of the pot is that it keeps the plant well up off the ground where rabbits and slugs might easily find it. I'm getting such good growth and generous increase from this plant that I'm beginning to feel unambitious for not having used it more effectively in the garden.

Is the commercial stock of this plant clonal in nature? I wonder because my plants (two accessions from different sources)  do not set seed even when hand pollinated.

Kalimeris pinnatifida

The plant shown above is currently making the rounds under the name Kalimeris pinnatifida, although when it was introduced it was better known as Asteromoea mongolica.  I’ve known about it for years, but until I saw it in a garden context I had no idea what a great plant it is. Some neighbors whom I don’t know have a clump in their front garden which I’ve been watching for years. The clump gets better each year. I’ve never seen anyone working in the garden, so I’m assuming that this is an easy care plant.
This plant appeals to me because it seems to be healthy and pest free; it seems to grow freely without becoming weedy or aggressive; it occupies about the same mass each year – that’s important to me when giving consideration to how a plant should be placed. Once it starts to bloom it blooms and blooms for weeks. And it reminds me of Gypsophila paniculata.
It’s a keeper as far as I’m concerned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Gardener

While walking Biscuit the other night one of my neighbors called me over and handed me a book which she said she thought I would enjoy. She had bought the book for her six year old daughter. One look at the title explained why she thought I might enjoy it: it was Sarah Stewart’s The Gardener, and that’s one of David Small’s illustrations from the book shown above.
The eponymous gardener is little Lydia Grace Finch who is growing up in the Great Depression. In a time of family crisis her family sends her off to live for a while with her Uncle Jim who runs a bakery a train ride away. Lydia Grace’s grandmother sends her off with packets of flower seeds: cosmos, zinnia and marigold.
Now that I’ve read the book I realize why my neighbor knew I would enjoy it. I’ve often told her how this Uncle Jim spent hours long decades ago with his niece sharing the joys of gardens, plants, insects and the outdoor life – and how those joyous days were never forgotten by her and are now being shared with her son. Not only can this Uncle Jim take some credit for his niece’s love of gardening, but he’s a baker, too.  
What my neighbor did not know is that my mom is a child of the depression, and she experienced something very like what Lydia Grace experienced: she was farmed out to care for her arthritic grandmother when she was about ten years old.
So for me the book was a sweetly nostalgic trip.
I returned the book tonight, but not before going up to my community garden plot and picking a little bouquet of cosmos, zinnias and marigolds for the little girl whose book I had borrowed.
By the way, and this is for those of you who know the book, this Uncle Jim smiles.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart,  illustrated delightfully by David Small,  published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

× Amarcrinum

The name × Amarcrinum is used for hybrids between Amaryllis belladonna and various Crinum. What looks like a little x before the name is actually a multiplication sign, and it indicates that the entity named is a nothogenus (from the Greek nothos meaning spurious, false, phony), a genus which does not exist in nature.  The symbol × is sometimes read as “times” as in Amaryllis belladonna × Crinum read as " Amaryllis belladonna times Crinum". This is an old cross, one originally made nearly a century ago in the early twentieth century; the original cross was Amaryllis belladonna × Crinum moorei

Crinums of various sorts are easily grown here, but they have several characteristics which make them a dubious choice for the small garden. For one thing, most of them are big, with 4’ sprawling leaves. Nor do they bloom freely: many I have grown bloom once a year, if that. And then there is this: the individual flowers of crinums are often literally ephemeral.

The other parent, Amaryllis belladonna, is also a problem child here. It’s a winter grower, yet its foliage generally does not survive exposure to a typical local winter. Even if the foliage is protected, it’s a very reluctant bloomer. A plant here has been growing in my most protected cold frame since 2005 – and it has yet to bloom. Each year it produces plenty of robust foliage, and the original bulb is now part of a clump. But so far it has not bloomed.

The  plant shown above was planted in 2007 and is blooming here for the first time. Ten more were added in 2008, so I expect the display to get better yearly now.

The flowers are fragrant: I think I detect more influence from the Crinum parent in that regard.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

'Heavenly Blue' Morning Glory

According to the old books, blue flowered Ipomoea tricolor were in cultivation over a century ago,  but those plants were very late blooming. This was sometimes the case with plants little improved over their wild forms. The Cosmos bipinnatus grown in the late nineteenth century were huge, coarse plants, tall and very late blooming. It was not until well into the twentieth century that dwarf, early-blooming forms were developed.

‘Heavenly Blue’ came into commerce as  “Clark’s Early Heavenly Blue Morning Glory”. Anne Roe Robbins, in her 1949  HOW TO GROW ANNUALS points out that it was introduced before there were All American Selections awards – the point being that one would expect the best blue flowered plant we can grow easily in our gardens to have an AAS award.  Her book has been reprinted by Dover; be sure to at least see the original because the Dover reprint contains revised cultivar lists.

On the street where I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland in the 1950s we had a neighbor whose garage in many years had a glorious swag of this morning glory over the doors of the garage.  I’ll bet garages all over America have been festooned similarly, even to this day. Garages, out buildings, fences, the otherwise bare, sunny façade of a building – all are ideal places for this plant. It pays to give it plenty of room: a sunny surface of several square yards is about right. When you come out in the morning and see a mass the size of a bed sheet of the intensely  blue flowers you won’t regret being generous with space.   

Friday, September 23, 2011

Parisian surprise

La décoratrice

Someone left a box of Pierre Hermé macarons at my door today - someone who knows someone who just flew in from Paris. I’ve been given strict instructions to consume them promptly, while they are still fresh. They came with a sheet identifying the various flavor combinations, but I’m not to peek at that until the tasting is done.  I’m to take notes so we can discuss these later. This will be a very serious discussion: we’ll put the wine tasters to shame with our witty inventiveness in identifying the flavors!

And to think that, if asked, I would have settled for the remains of a baguette of Poilâine bread!

More homage to Gertrude Jekyll

Here and there around the area in local wood verges the white woods aster is blooming freely. Generations of gardeners have known and grown this plant as Aster divaricatus. Recently the old name Eurybia divaricata has been revived. The name Eurybia dates from the early nineteenth century, so it is nothing new.

In her 1909 work COLOUR IN THE FLOWER GARDEN Gertrude Jekyll calls this plant the small wire-stemmed aster and gives two photographs of it. I take that as a measure of her esteem; back in those days, photographs in a book were an expense and a bother. In the garden, Jekyll combined these asters  with the plant she knew as Megasea, the big, cabbage-leaf saxifrage we now call Bergenia. The plants form a great contrast:  the broad, glossy, corrugated leaves of the Bergenia are an intriguing foil for the shiny, black, wiry stems and white stars of the aster .

Jekyll’s account of this plant raises a question for me. Here is her text: “There is a small growing perennial Aster – I will not venture on its specific name, but have seen it figured in an American book of wild flowers as divaricata, and provisionally know it by that name.” The genus name Aster is masculine in gender; the genus name Eurybia is feminine. Did the American wild flower book Jekyll mentions call the plant Eurybia divaricata?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Welwitschia mirabilis

Now fifteen years old, my Welwitschia has not changed much in the last few years. It might come as a surprise for most of you to learn that the care of this plant is little different than that given to most pot plants. Frequent soakings don’t seem to bother it a bit. I’ve made no attempt to duplicate the conditions in its Namibian homeland.

Look carefully at the foliage: the transverse striations about two inches from the center of the plant on each leaf mark more or less the extent of this year’s growth.

When the plant was younger I was very careful not to damage the dead parts of the leaves in any way – I wanted them to get as long as possible. But the dead part of the leaf falls off if it remains wet for long, and last year most of the dead part which had accumulated in all the years I’ve had the plant came off.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Colchicum agrippinum "old Portland garden form"

The name Colchicum agrippinum poses a bit of a name problem.There is no evidence that a sexually reproducing population corresponding to this plant exists any where in the world; in other words, it is not a species in the modern sense. On the other hand, more than one such plant seems to exist; and that suggests that the plants given this name do not form a clone. The plant shown above is blooming in the garden now; it came from Jane McGary in 2006. She found it in a Portland, Oregon garden where it had eviently been growing for a long time. It differs from the usual commercial Colchicum agrippinum, at least as I know them, in having much more distinctly checkered flowers and richer color. In fact, it's a fair rival for one of its assumed parents, Colchicum variegatum. Take a look at Colchicum variegatum here:

These colchciums with checkered patterns are to my tastes the choicest of the bulbs of the sesaon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sedum and a visitor

Two handsome sedums can be seen in the upper image above: the upright Sedum spectabile (or maybe it is one of its hybrids) and the flat-growing Sedum sieboldii. They make a nice contrast, don’t they? I think I like sedums in pots better than sedums in the ground. In old books I’ve seen photographs of big ornamental pots at the edges of borders planted with sedums – and very attractive they are, too.
In the lower image you can see a visitor: the red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta. On paper the color combination seen here might seem odd, but in life it’s gorgeous. There is something comical about this butterfly: after landing on the flowers, it slowly rotated counterclockwise when moving to a new blossom rather than moving in a line across the inflorescence.
Sedums are a must-have for butterfly gardens. And when the broccoli-like inflorescence starts to color up, it makes a nice nearly flat platform against which visiting butterflies can be photographed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A daylily tale

I’m not a daylily person. I don’t travel in daylily circles, don’t attend daylily shows and don’t know by name any of the modern cultivars. And I can easily explain my indifference to the general run of daylilies: most of them have a squat habit of growth with scapes which lean. For the most part, the daylilies I do like have rigidly upright scapes, although I’ve long made an exception for Hemerocallis minor.

Yet there are typical daylilies with qualities I like, and there have always been daylilies in this garden. And one of these days I hope to have them in numbers.
Decades ago I acquired a copy of Arlow Stout's 1934 book Daylilies. It was there that I first learned of the extremely tall daylily he eventually (in the year I was born, 1943) named Hemerocallis altissima. For years I searched unsuccessfully for a source for this plant. Several imposters came and went, and I eventually began to wonder if the true plant still survived in cultivation. I grew two hybrids of this plant: the cultivars ‘Autumn Minaret’ and ‘Autumn Prince’. Of the two, I like ‘Autumn Prince’ better because to my eyes it has the economy of build which so often characterizes wild plants. ‘Autumn Minaret’ is taller and ganglier with flowers which have a twist or flare which to me says “poorly selected hybrid”.

Two weeks ago I acquired another plant under the name Hemerocallis altissima. And in the meantime I acquired a new perspective of these plants: Hemerocallis altissima is currently considered to be a synonym of H. citrina. These nomenclatural shifts are a reminder to those of us who tend to collect names that we should really be focused more on the plants. Whatever this new plant turns out to be, I expect to have what I’ve wanted all along: a very tall, yellow-flowered, night-blooming daylily.

Friday, September 9, 2011

baby rat snake season

The little one shown above is an example of the young phase of our largest local snake, the black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta (Pantherophis obsoletus), Adults are, at first glance, pure black; but if examined closely traces of the pattern seen in young examples can generally be seen. This species climbs well, and that, as much as anything, probably accounts for its persistence and abundance in suburban areas.
The catbirds found the snake before I did: they were busily squawking in the nearby shrubbery. The heavy rain we have had for the last week probably brought the snake out into the open.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rosa 'The Garland'

This rose dates to the first half of the nineteenth century; it has had a small but loyal following ever since. But those flowers: at first glance they look like a slightly doubled Rosa multiflora. If your rose sensibilities are shaped by exposure only to modern roses, you might wonder why someone would grow such a rose. One has to catch it at just the right moment to understand why it has been cherished for so long. That moment comes when the flowers, flowers in their thousands, just begin to open. For a few hours those flowers seem to glow: the otherwise cold white is suffused with the faintest flush of warm color. Is that color pink or chamois or something else? I don't know; it is fleeting, but as long as it is there these flowers have a warm, soft, lambent quality which is distinctly and very agreeably feminine. And as the color casts its spell one is enveloped in the sweet musky fragrance.

Ordinarily I try to keep the postings to this blog timely; this one is nearly three months late. But when I saw the picture earlier today while reviewing old files, I was so strongly reminded of the day I stood before this plant and surrendered myself to its charms that I wanted to share that moment.

Corydalus cornutus

As a youngster I read extensively in natural history, and as a result I know about many life forms I've never actually seen. Three months ago this one stumbled into my life. This is a female Corydalus cornutus, the Dobson fly. The lights in the dining room had drawn it in on a mild May evening when the doors were kept open. This one became trapped inside the glass shade of a lamp - I was lucky to see it before it got fried.. This female was impressive enough; the males have long pincers which make them look fearsome (they are harmless, although the females can give a good pinch).

After catching it, I put it into the refrigerator; the next day, as I released it outside, it was briefly numb enough for me to get a few pictures before it flew away.

Only today I was talking to my neighbor Bill who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I had mentioned hellbenders; that led to water dogs eventually, but in the meantime we passed hellgrammites. He remembers hellgrammites (the larvae of the dobson fly)  from his boyhood fishing days.

Gardeners take note: don't confuse Corydalus with Corydalis.

Hesperaloë parviflora

This is Hesperaloë parviflora, the so-called red yucca. It's blooming here this year for the first time. It began to bloom back in June, and it's still producing flowers. The individual flowers are about the size and color of those of Fritillaria recurva, but otherwise it looks like nothing else in the garden. The flowers look as if they had been carved from coral itself or some coral colored mineral of the cryptocrystalline quartz group. And the inflorescence is tall: it got to be over six feet high.


Hemerocallis citrina

The plant shown above was purchased as Hemerocallis citrina, and it might very well be that species. Yet in some respects it differs from plants grown under that name in the past. This most recent acquisition has a very short flower life: the flowers open at dusk and are already closing at the first hint of light in the morning. It's pleasantly fragrant.

I've seen this one referred to as as "commuter's daylily" because it opens at about the time many people get home from work. If you arrive home a bit late, you'll have to get a flashlight to see the blooms.

baby ring neck snake season again

Wayne called me the week before last to tell me that he was finding baby ring neck snakes in his ground level condo again; this time the count (over several days)  got up to six. Was it the same snake coming back in each time it was put out into the garden? Or were the snakes hatching somewhere in his unit?  
I searched the basement here at home but so far have not found any baby snakes.

See this older entry:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sinningia tubiflora

This is Sinningia tubiflora, a plant long known and grown as Achimenes tubiflora . I learned its name as Achimines tubiflora, and since I don't travel in gesneriad circles I was not aware of the name change until very recently. But I never forgot the plant because the descriptions I read contained the magic word "fragrance".

Fragrance is not the only temptation it offers; it's apparently almost hardy. I wintered the plant above in a cold frame, and that's where it will spend the upcoming winter.

Small crop seedlings for fall and winter harvest

This image shows short rows of crops and flowers planted for fall/winter harvest. Most were sown in late July and are very slowly putting on size. Forty different items were planted in this bed: bok choi in several varieties, mizuna, mustard greens, kohl rabi, chives, white multiplier onions, beets, Swiss chard, parsley, coriander, dill, chervil, fennel, carrots, corn salad, zinnias, cosmos, mignonette, sunflowers, marigolds and other odds and ends - there are also bought plants of cabbage, Brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli, and a plot neighbor gave me some seedling celery.

The short rows make sense because we only need a few of each item. As the plants are thinned I can improvise various mesclun mixes (that's right up there with shrimp scampi as a tautology, isn't it?).

I have not let my hopes run away with me: the site is crawling with fecund hungry bugs.

The view from the vine house

This is the view from the vine house. It's especially beautiful in the morning and evening. There is not a house in view. It won't be long now before I take a meal up to be consumed in the vine house on a cool evening. It should be especially nice once the moon flowers start to bloom.

The vine house

This is my vine house, the centerpiece of one of my veggie plots. Even now in late August it's still a bit ragged looking because I was late in putting up the wire supports for the vines. Most of what you see here is the growth of morning glories and moon flowers. On the back side of the vine house are pole beans. On one side there was a lush growth of the so-called Armenian cucumber: most of those suddenly wilted earlier this week. Next year I'll probably plant only morning glories and moon flowers - nothing seems to bother them.

The plastic "roof" has since been removed.

The morning glories have flower buds and should be blooming soon. There is no sign yet of buds on the moon flowers. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lycoris longituba

The other day a friend emailed me to ask about a white-flowered Lycoris × squamigera. I wrote back to tell him I had never heard of such a thing and offered this plant as a likely source of the rumor. It's a handsome plant with a light pleasing fragrance. It's also a good garden plant here and seems to be reliable about blooming (it's been here only four years). These plants are so conspicuous when in bloom that it's tempting to fill the garden with them; but remember, their floral presence, however arresting,  is fleeting.  

Lilium formosanum

Modern hybrid garden lilies can be spectacular, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Wild lilies on the other hand are more apt to appeal for their grace and elegance. The plant shown above is Lilium formosanum, a native of Taiwan (or as it was often called in the past, Formosa). This lily has naturalized in southern Africa and in Australia, and self-sown seedlings sometimes appear in our gardens, too. It will bloom within a year from seed, and varies in height from 18 inches or so up to over six feet.

In contrast to garden lilies, wild lilies are often characterized by an extreme economy of substance: the leaves and stems are, as it were, no bigger or thicker than they absolutely have to be.  Lilium formosanum is a good example of this: compare its slender, lithe growth  to the comparatively stout form of the cultivated forms of the similar Lilium longiflorum.

Farmer Jim

If you've been wondering where in the world has Jim been for the last two months, the picture above gives the answer -  at least if you realize what you are looking at.

Back in May I got wind of something exciting: the local parks department had established community gardens nearby as part of the Montgomery County Parks Community Gardens program. You can learn more about this here:

 The home garden has been full for years; and the home lot has never really been good for a proper vegetable garden. So I jumped at the opportunity to have a site out in a sunny field. It gets better: the overall site is surrounded by a deer fence, there is water at the site and there are periodic deliveries of wood chip mulch.They've done a good job with this. Here's the cistern:

For the last two months my mind has been spinning over the possibilities presented by my new community garden plots (yes, plots). Plot acquisition took place back in May, but the May-June period was extremely busy for me, and it took me a while to get started with the vegetable garden. The first things to go in were tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplants. Here's an early harvest:

I think we have eaten more bacon, tomato and lettuce sandwiches during the last two weeks than we have eaten in the last two years. I've  refused to buy those $3 per pound grocery store tomatoes for years.

Back in mid-July I began to plant seeds for fall and winter harvests: these are coming along nicely and should provide lots of herbs, root crops and greens during September and October. There is also late-planted corn, the variety Mirai. This is a 75 day corn, and it should be ready in late September. But I've since learned that insect pests are a huge problem with late planted corn. And this year, in addition to the usual corn pests, we have a new one: the garden site is swarming with brown marmorated stink bugs. They seem to be sampling everything.

I've got plenty of squash coming along, and these guys are certainly appreciating my efforts:

The photos above show the eggs and nymphs of the squash bug.

Here's something which has so far escaped the bugs: this is the so-called Armenian cucumber. It's actually a melon, not a cucumber. But it's not sweet, and it does look like a cucumber.

We've been eating a lot of vegetables lately - and so have the bugs!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rosa 'Safrano'


This is the famous old tea rose ‘Safrano’ – it dates from 1839, very early in the  hybridization of modern garden roses. I grew up being told that tea roses were not hardy in our climate. And indeed that seems to be the prevailing belief even now. But I was intrigued to read Mrs. Keays’ comments from about seventy-five years ago concerning this rose: she said it was “found…in almost every garden in our neighborhood” (her home was near Lusby, Calvert County, Maryland).

Note that it is a tea rose, not a hybrid tea rose. What’s the difference? That question is a lot harder to answer than it might at first seem, because the difference is one of degree and not a difference of kind. One way to put it into perspective is to realize that the original tea roses (there were two) were almost certainly already  hybrids and not, as was originally thought, new species. As a result, seedlings from these plants were much more variable than would have been the case had they been stable, relatively uniform species.  

Furthermore, the first European rosarians to acquire them immediately began to raise seedlings and, later in the nineteenth century, make deliberate crosses. For the rose growers of the early nineteenth century they must have seemed unbelievably sweet eye candy. They differed from the older European garden roses in prevailing flower color, habit of growth, foliage, poise of bloom and season of bloom. That so many of the old European garden roses survive is no doubt due to the one fault these new tea roses had: they lacked cold hardiness and thus they were not good garden plants in extremely cold climates. They were eventually crossed with just about every other compatible rose available, although they were hardly universally compatible for breeding purposes with other garden roses.  As a result, a new and very variable swarm of hybrid  garden roses arose. Throughout the nineteenth century these roses became bigger and more variable with respect to growth habit and hardiness.

By the second half of the nineteenth century it was becoming obvious that the tea group had become a bit unwieldy; the solution was to establish a new class of roses, the now familiar hybrid tea roses. The point of division between the old tea roses and the newly named hybrid tea roses is completely artificial and arbitrary. Basically, roses which produced larger, fuller, upright flowers with stouter canes and coarser foliage  became the hybrid teas. Several roses have been given the distinction of being the “first” hybrid tea; such decisions are a matter of opinion, not of fact. The fact is that all of these earliest hybrid teas were introduced as tea roses.  These early hybrid teas were to be subjected to a profound change at the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of the genes for strong yellow color. Any rose with the Pernetiana roses in its background is at least as distinct from the other hybrid teas as those earliest hybrid teas were from their tea rose contemporaries. But so thoroughly reticulated has the hybridization of modern hybrid teas been that the only obvious legacies of the Pernetiana group are the bright yellow colors and blends made possible by them and the susceptibility to black spot disease.  

The tea rose shown above is Safrano, a rose which arose so early in the hybridization of modern garden roses that its identity as a tea rose has never been questioned. That’s not the case with the tea roses which were raised in the earliest twentieth century. Later in the year I hope to be able to show you a blossom of the rose ‘William R. Smith’, nominally a tea rose. The stud book, at least what we know of it, says that this is a tea rose. But the flowers, very big for a tea rose and borne on a thick-caned big and relatively hardy plant, say hybrid tea rose, and so it has been called by some observers.

My interest in this distinction between tea roses and hybrid tea roses on the one hand, and the distinction between hybrid tea roses and hybrid perpetual roses on the other hand, goes back to the earliest days of my learning about roses. The books I had were not in agreement about the placement of one rose in particular, the once very famous ‘Frau Karl Druschki’. To look at her, the Frau was a hybrid tea, and was so-considered by many rosarians. Many thought of it as the best white-flowered hybrid tea.  But there were those who waved the stud book, and the book recorded the embarrassing fact that the Frau had one parent which was a hybrid perpetual; in the beliefs of that school of thought this disqualified the Frau for consideration as a “true, pure” hybrid tea.

This sort of thing was important on the show bench, and doubtless reflected a less noble concern with miscegenation in the human population. What always puzzled me is why the Frau was considered to be a Hybrid Perpetual: if one parent was a Hybrid Perpetual and the other parent was a Hybrid Tea, it seems to me that the Frau was neither. But the rules were the rules, and it seems that they were the same for ostensibly white people who just happened to have a drop or two of black blood in the family history: they weren’t “true, pure” white. In retrospect these little social comedies seem to be just that, comedies. But there was a time when people took them seriously, both on the show bench and off.

But back to ‘Safrano’: if this rose settles down in this garden and grows as well as I expect it to, it will be well worth having. A lot has changed in the rose world in the nearly two hundred years since it was raised, and yet this rose has many of the qualities we look for in a good garden rose. It’s a keeper! And as a tea rose it’s also a souvenir of one of the most appreciated and important early phases of the development of our modern garden roses.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rosa hemisphaerica

I’ve been waiting to make this entry for years, and now that the time has come, I’ll have to temper my enthusiasm with a bit of disappointment. The rose shown in the images above is Rosa hemisphaerica. The very few of you who have grown this rose probably can guess the source of that disappointment: the garden performance of this rose has not changed much in the four hundred years since it was introduced to European gardens.

Back in the late 1970s I imported two grafted plants of this rose from Hilliers in England. Although those plants survived long enough to bloom, it was apparent from the beginning that it would be an uphill effort to keep them going. They made only halting, skimpy growth and they lost most of their foliage to black spot during the summer. One survived and built itself up enough to eventually bloom, but I eventually lost both plants. I still have good Kodachrome transparencies of the flowers produced by that plant.

If there had been an easy way to do so, I would have replaced those plants. But I could not find a domestic source, and I was not up to the hassles of importing again.

Now fast forward about thirty years. While idly doing internet searches one day in 2002, I hit on a domestic source for Rosa hemisphaerica: Greenmantle Nursery in Garberville, California.  But there was a catch: I would have to make a down payment and then wait for the rose to be propagated. I jumped at the chance, in particular because this would be a plant on its own roots. Marissa Fishman at Greenmantle must have the magic touch: plants in commerce in the past were invariably grafted as far as I know. I assumed I would get my rose in a year or two.

At this point add another eight years to the quest: it was not until April of 2010  that my rose arrived in the mail. Nor was it a particularly prepossessing example: it was healthy but there was not much to it. I planted it in a large ornamental tub rather than in the ground. It did not bloom that first year (I didn’t expect it to), but it did grow well- in that first season here that little plant put on more growth than those plants I had decades ago did the entire time they survived here. 

This week, it’s finally blooming, and most people on looking at the images above will probably be wondering why in the world I ever bothered to acquire this rose. The plant produced over a dozen flower buds this year; every one has been so densely packed with petals that the flower has split and the resulting blossom is more or less malformed. This rose has an old reputation for producing problem flowers: more often than not, the flowers ball (fail to expand normally) rather than open properly. So that is the source of my disappointment. But when it performs well and produces good flowers, you'll be very glad indeed that you have it.  I don’t have a perfect bloom to show you this year, but if it continues to thrive here there might be one in the future.  

How old is this rose? No one knows; Europeans became aware of  double, yellow-flowered roses growing in the gardens of the Middle East in the late sixteenth century. Those roses were  almost certainly this rose, although the similar rose which became known as ‘Persian Yellow’ when it was introduced in the early nineteenth century also might have existed that long ago and been seen by those early European observers. The rose under discussion here, Rosa hemisphaerica, seems to have been introduced to eastern European gardens in the very early seventeenth century. It was known to Clusius at the very beginning of the century (1601): although there is no indication that he saw a living plant, he related  a description by a Viennese noble woman of a display of paper cutouts of flowers which included double yellow roses (…inter eas erant et flavae rosae plenae…)

Here is the account from the Historia of Clusius; click on the image to enlarge it: 

Parkinson,  in his Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris  (1629), and the Johnson edition of Gerard (1633) both discuss it. In their time it was a very rare plant, a sort of trophy plant likely to be seen only in the gardens of the few.

Here is Parkinson's text; click on the image to enlarge it. Anyone who has grown this rose will find Parkinson's comments familiar.

This is the double flowered yellow rose seen in the still life paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It can be seen, for instance, in this piece dated c. 1720 by van Huysum from the collection of the National Gallery:

This rose played no part in the development of modern yellow-flowered garden roses. In fact, until the end of the nineteenth century there were no hybrid roses of garden origin with strong yellow flowers. Throughout the nineteenth century there were yellow-flowered tea roses, but those roses had a pale yellow color which generally quickly faded in bright light. I’ll save the story of the development of the modern hybrid yellow-flowered roses for another post.

Later this week I’ll post an image of an early nineteenth century tea rose with some yellow in its coloration to give you an idea of the yellow seen in tea roses.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Paeonia officinalis 'Rubra Plena'

The image above shows the usual garden form of Paeonia officinalis known as 'Rubra Plena'. I purchased the pot-grown plant about two weeks ago; the flower is a bit smaller and less full than those seen on well grown large plants.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, this was the common garden peony in European and American gardens. The introduction of Paeonia lactiflora to Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, and the rapid development of seed grown cultivars of that species, soon displaced Paeonia officinalis, and today Paeonia officinalis is no longer the common garden peony.

American books sometimes call it the Memorial Day peony, but here in zone 7 Maryland it blooms long before that. In most areas it is said to bloom about two weeks before the start of the Paeonia lactiflora season. The scent of peonies of the lactiflora group varies, but many have very agreeable scents, some of them distinctly rose-like. The scent of Paeonia officinalis on the other hand is usually described disparagingly as soap-like.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Notholirion thomsonianum

With very few exceptions, the images on this blog have all come from my garden. I'm going to make an exception today.

The plant shown above is Notholirion thomsonianum. My friends Bob and Audrey grew it in that copiously planted and amazingly diversified garden they care for in Simpson Park, Alexandria, Virginia.

Although I grow this plant in my garden, my plant has never bloomed. In fact,until I saw the plant shown above I had never seen a Notholirion in bloom. Seeing it yesterday evening was like adding a new bird to one's life list. It also left me momentarily confused: I had expected this species to have white flowers with a narrower bell shape. When I got home I checked out the images for this species on Google: there is a bit of variation in flower shape and color. The form shown above is more decorative than those I've seen in some pictures.

When I asked them where they got their plant, their answer, "Jane McGary, 2006" had me laughing. That's where and when I got my plant! In the future, I'll set a better table for my plant.