Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bulb season

The great cycle for summer dormant bulbs begins this time of year. Not only are there new catalogs to be studied and new purchases to be made, but it's also time to clean and replant those bulbs dug for summer storage. In the images above you see bulbs of Fritillaria uva-vulpis and Tulipa "Red Emperor". Notice the double quotes on the name of the latter: it's formal name is 'Mme. Lefeber', but it's been known as "Red Emperor" since its discovery.

Exciting as it is to receive new bulbs in the mail, the pleasure which comes from handling home grown bulbs is far deeper and more satisfying. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Asarum canadense DuPage County, Illinois

Over the years my friend Bobbie L-D has generously distributed this form of the wild ginger at the plant exchanges of our local rock garden group. The most obvious difference between this plant and the local wild form is the size of the leaves. And as you can see in the image, it eventually forms a handsome clump.

Bobbie collected this plant in DuPage County, Illinois.

At the last meeting of our rock garden group Bobbie was awarded a much-deserved service award. The question was asked "how many of you have plants from Bobbie's garden in your own garden?" and plenty of hands went up - some of us held up both hands! It was that happy event which prompted me to make this blog entry on one of her plants.

×Amarcrinum 2012

The ×Amarcrinum is blooming now and really making a good impression. This is one stunning plant. Unlike Lycoris squamigera, whose garden effect is at best fleeting, the ×Amarcrinum goes on and on for weeks. This plant has what it takes to make the gardener happy! 

Cyclamen persicum seedlings

Late last year and early in this year I bought three flowering plants of Cyclamen persicum. These were small plants selected for their fragrance. The winter turned out to be so mild that I was able to leave these plants outside almost throughout the winter. And they just got better and better as time went on. They were still blooming in early summer, and by that time an abundance of swelling seed pods was evident. During the summer I ignored them and they died back. I was going to collect the seed and send it off to one of the exchanges, but life intervened and the plants ended up dropping most of their seed right around the pots.

Now the seed that the ants and other animals did not get is germinating around the pots - and some in the pots with the old plants. I might experiment with some of these seedlings to see if they do well in the cold frames.

If you like fragrant plants and only know the big versions of Cyclamen persicum (these big ones are malodorous to my senses), be sure to sniff around among these small ones when you see them in the shops. Some of them are potently and very agreeably fragrant. If you keep them cool, they have the potential to bloom heavily for four or five months. 

Aster tataricus

This is a favorite here, although sensible people probably wonder what such a tall plant is doing in such a small garden. I knew about this plant from books long before I saw a living example. It is often described as November blooming, and I'm not one to resist a tall, late-blooming, blue aster.

One of my neighborhood friends started to keep bees this year. Her hives are at most two long blocks away, yet I almost never see bees in my garden. Earlier this year when Passiflora incarnata was blooming freely, the flowers were visited by lots of bumble bees. But I never saw a honey bee. Today, hardy ageratum, Aster oblongifolius (aka Symphiotrichum oblongifolium)  and Aster tataricus are in bloom - and there is not a bee in sight. When the clover bloomed during the summer, there were no bees - but the rabbits sure noticed.

Years ago I saw a huge mass of Aster tataricus in a country garden. It was somewhere out in the Virginia countryside, far south of Washington. The plants filled an area maybe twenty feet or more in diameter, and they were in full bloom when I saw them. That's one reason I keep a plant or two in my garden now:  to remind me of that day and that stunning planting of asters. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Epiphyllum oxypetalum Oops! I missed it...

For decades I've had one of the plants known as night blooming cereus. Long ago it was a sort of vegetable octopus, with stems leaning out in all directions to occupy about a cubic yard of space. Hauling that mass in and out as the seasons changed got to be too much. The day finally came when it was pruned back, a lot, and then the day came when a cutting was made and the rest of the giant was discarded. For years the plant grown from the cutting has survived rooted in about two cups of dirt. It's one tough plant!

This year I gave it a bit more attention and eventually it was moved into a comparatively big pot of good soil.  About a month ago I noticed something unexpected: a flower bud seemed to have appeared. The flower buds of this plant are a big deal. For a plant whose flowers are open only for one night, they seem such a waste of material - until you consider the size of the fruit which will result if the flower is successfully pollinated.

I've been watching the bud intently for the last week: it got bigger daily, and the big day was obviously near. Last night when I got home I forgot to check it out. When I got up this morning, I realized that I had missed the show: the huge flower was there but in a state of partial collapse.

Better luck next year...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rosa ‘Jaune Desprez’

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that American horticultural literature began in New England and then gradually radiated south and west. So it's no surprise that the older literature treats the teas and tea-noisettes as tender roses. By the time strong horticultural traditions had become established south of New England, the vogue for teas and tea-noisettes was passing, yet the notion that they were not hardy was still embedded in the old literature.

As a youngster I occasionally heard the term tea rose; but it was always used improperly to refer to hybrid tea roses. I doubt if any one in my gardening circles had any experience of true tea roses, and it's just as unlikely that any of them had even heard of tea-noisettes.

What are the tea-Noisette roses? The term Noisette rose refers to a fleeting moment in the history of rose hybridization: no sooner did they appear and their potential become recognized than they disappeared, their progeny hybridized beyond recognition. The original Noisettes were derived from a hybrid known as 'Champneys Pink Cluster' rose, itself not a Noisette unless you insist on the curious filius ante patrem mentality of some modern rose clasifications. Champneys is assumed to be a hybrid of the musk rose and something else. That sounds indefinite, but there is no certainty about either parent; and given the ambiguity about just what "musk rose" means, it's beyond indefinite. Whatever the parents were,  they imparted to the Noisettes the vigor of climbing roses and a sublime scent. The other parent might have been 'Old Blush'.

The Noisettes appeared on the scene during the most important phases in the development of modern roses: European rose growers were enthusiastically exploring the potential of the newly introduced china roses and tea roses. The Noisettes were quickly pressed into service in these hybridizing efforts, and the results of the tea-Noisette crosses are by some rosarians regarded as a peak never surpassed.

Among the highly regarded tea-Noisette roses is this one, Desprez’s Yellow or as the name is more usually given ‘Jaune Desprez’ or ‘Desprez à fleur Jaune’. In looking at the pictures, the first thought which is apt to arise is probably “But it isn’t yellow!” But in its day it was about as yellow as a hybrid garden rose got. Truly yellow hybrid garden roses were soon to follow,  but 'Jaune Desprez' has more than color going for it, and it's been a cherished rose since its introduction. 

It's also hardier than many of its tea-noisette relatives. There are old records of its successful cultivation at Philadelphia, and a half century ago Richard Thomson was still growing it successfully at Philadelphia. Mrs. Keays found it in a garden of her Lusby, Maryland neighborhood. More recently Henry Mitchell grew it in Washington, D.C. Careful siting helps, but it does not need coddling. 

Everyone who loves this rose seems to agree that its fragrance is one of the great rose fragrances. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A eureka moment

I had an intriguing experience last week. I was on the telephone setting up a meeting for the following day. When I asked to whom I was speaking,  I thought I heard  "Eureka"; in fact, she did say "Eureka, like the place in California."

At the meeting the next day I noticed that this young woman had a name tag: it gave her name as Ulrica. When I asked about that, she told me "the l is silent".

After the meeting, I pulled her aside and asked her if she knew anything about how she got that name. She mentioned that it was her mother's middle name, but other than that she did not know anything about it. I asked her if she had an interst in black history. I meant the question rhetorically, and didn't really wait for an answer. I asked her if she knew about Marian Anderson and her historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial. And then I went on to tell about Anderson being the first black person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera - and that the name of the character she portrayed in that barrier-breaking performance was Ulrica.

My guess is that she had a grandparent who probably knew from first hand experience of Marian Anderson's career and commemorated that in a daughter's name. I hope that's the case, and that the granddaughter can now say she  knows a lot more of the story than she ever did.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bay, Laurus nobilis

I’ve long envied those whose climate allows them to grow bay in the garden. The mild winters of recent years have allowed the occasional bay here and there in the greater Washington, D.C. area to survive long enough to put on some size – but until recently not in my garden.  Years ago an Eastern Shore  nursery advertised a form of bay which was said to be suitable for garden use in this area. I scribbled down the name of the nursery and then lost the information. When a famous local herb nursery moved from its Arlington location, I learned something else: a big bay had grown there outside for a long time. When I inquired about this at the new location of the nursery, I was disappointed to hear that rooted cuttings of that plant were not available. In fact, in asking around, I discovered that bay is not easy to propagate from cuttings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen domestically grown seed offered.

Several years ago my friend Alice showed up at an autumn meeting of our local rock garden group with an armful of trimmings from her bay. Her plant was about five or six feet high and grew out in the open near a porch in her Arlington garden. I took several of these trimmings and cut them into maybe ten six inch pieces for use as cuttings. I did not use rooting hormones, but the cuttings were inserted in a cold frame right away. It was a huge disappointment to watch these cuttings die off one by one during the winter. But one did not die; I have no idea why, because all of the cuttings got exactly the same treatment, but that one cutting not only survived the winter but rooted successfully and went on to grow well. This year it doubled its size and it is now about two feet high.

Of course I’m glad that it is growing so well, so well that I have not hesitated to harvest leaves for culinary use. But that growth poses a problem: the plant is still in the cold frame, and there is no way I’ll be able to bend it down to allow the cold frame to be closed. It will have to be dug out and replanted elsewhere. I have no idea where that elsewhere will be.

Elizabeth David mentions a bay leaf which got passed around family to family during the darkest days of the Second World War.

I’m very fond of frozen custard made with a base of bay-infused half-and-half, and infusing bay into the milk to be used for a white sauce is now standard practice in our kitchen.  

Harvest basket

A harvest basket, in this case one full of shallots, multiplier onions and garlics.

Most of these will be kept for re-planting, although it's hard resisting the temptation to snitch some of the French gray shallots for the kitchen.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

African blue basil tugs the heart strings

At the rehab center where mom is recuperating from hip surgery I’ve made friends with several of the staff. One of the women and I were having a conversation with another visitor a few weeks ago; the staff member mentioned that she was from Kenya. I asked “Luo?” and she gave me an astonished look as she replied “No, Kikuyu”. The Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups are two of the largest in Kenya. Her astonishment stemmed from my knowing about that, and she was very impatient to learn how I came to know about that. Things suddenly got busy, and that explanation had to wait. But when the time came, things quickly got even more intense. As I was explaining that I knew about that from watching The Flame Trees of Thika decades ago, the look on her face became even more agitated. As I babbled on, she finally regained her composure enough to blurt out “I was born in Thika”. The seeds of friendship germinate in the most unexpected places, don’t they? By the way, she pronounces the name Thika TE-ka, not THEE-ka.   

The other day I cut a bouquet of things from my community garden plots to take up to mom: the bouquet was made up mostly of dahlias, but there was a generous stuffing of African blue basil for the color of the flowers and leaves and of course for the great scent. Mom and I enjoyed these on the dinner table one night, and then I put them out on the main desk at the nurses’ station. The night before last my Kenyan friend was at the nurses’ station, and she noticed me checking out the two little bouquets of flowers there. She noticed me sniffing a scentless rose, and mentioned that she thought that something there had a fragrance. At that point I asked her to touch the leaves of the African blue basil. As she was doing this, I began to ramble on about the origin of this plant, how it was a hybrid of Ocimum kilimandscharicum and an….at this point, I noticed that her face suddenly seemed swollen, and she seemed to be holding back tears and trying not to choke. Was she having an allergic reaction? Finally she looked up at me and said “It smells just like home back in Kenya”.

Fragrances can do that, can’t they?