Friday, November 30, 2012

Euonymus fortunei

What looks like bittersweet in these photos is actually Euonymus fortunei, once one of the most highly valued plants in our gardens. It and the common Eurasian ivy Hedera helix are the only evergreen vines of merit which dependably  survive winters in the Northeast US. As a result of decades-long, successful ecesis. both have now been banished to the ranks of potentially invasive plants. Nevertheless, both are cherished in this garden for their winter effect: to my eyes an old oak festooned with ivy or the euonymus is one of the most cheerful effects our winter gardens offer.

This euonymus is a bit of a shape-shifter: the plants I bought and planted decades ago were of one of the small-leafed, restrained creeping forms, probably the one sold as 'Kewensis'.  After a while, the purchased plant of 'Kewensis' reverted to the typical wild form with three to four inch leaves and high-climbing stems. This large-leafed piece then began to climb the oak under which it had been planted. Now, decades later, it's probably fifty or so feet up into the oak. The upper two-thirds are made up of thin, sparse growth; the lowest third is broad and massive, and during the winter is one of the most conspicuous features of the garden. These events duplicate those reported for this species in the eighth edition of Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. 

In the upper picture you see some branches picked about a week ago; the leaves were removed to show off the fruit. The container is a (for me, expensive) piece of decorative glass I purchased with just this combination in mind (or rather, with bittersweet in mind - but the euonymus and bittersweet are close relatives).

While preparing the branches, the book seen in the lower picture was on the same table. I noticed how well the colors of the book cover harmonized with the green of the euonymus leaves, the orange of the glass and fruit and the polished wood of the table top: the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. So the vase, the book and its companion vegetation have been together all week. For me, it's a great example of the whole being so much greater than the sum of its parts. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Erythronium 'Pagoda' bulbs

Decades ago, when Erythronium 'Pagoda' first began to appear on the commercial bulb lists at reasonable prices, I tried a few now and then. They never amounted to anything. The bulbs were probably near death if not actually dead when purchased - expensive mummies in fact. I never gave up on this one, and years later I obtained fifty bulbs in excellent condition from a reliable mail -order supplier.  These were planted in a newly prepared bed full of Compro (composted sewage sludge). The following spring every bulb bloomed, and I thought I had arrived. I crossed this one off of my "difficult" list and assumed that this new feather in my cap was here to stay. In fact, the following year I waited in vain for them to reappear. I never saw even one of those fifty plants again: they were gone without a trace. Of the two usual culprits, rodents and "summer rot", there was insufficient evidence to pin the blame with certainty. 'Pagoda' went back onto my "difficult" list, and  for years I avoided it.

In the meantime, my experience and insight into growing bulbs native to the West Coast of North America ('Pagoda' is a hybrid of two western species) began to progress. As is the case with most bulbs native to the West Coast of North America, they are unlikely to ever be reliable garden plants here on the East Coast for the sort of gardeners who plant them and walk away. But that does not mean that they cannot be grown here. What it does mean is that the gardener must step in and make sure certain things do not happen. The most important of these is to be sure the bulbs are never both wet and hot. Wet is fine during the winter, and hot (but dry) is fine during the summer. But never allow them to be both wet and hot. It's simply stated, but much harder to put into effect in the garden. That's why I don't think they will ever be successful garden plants  for most of us.

The plants die down for the year in May here, and they should be dying down into drying soil. Check out the rain averages for May in this area and then consider the chances of dry soil in a typical year. It's not going to happen.

One solution is to dig the bulbs for the summer. Here's where a little bit of knowledge is not your friend. For those of us who garden on the East Coast, where we have native Erythronium in the woods (they are almost never seen in gardens), we know these plants as woodland plants, plants which grow in moist soil, soil high in organic matter. The same is true of the Eurasian Erythronium dens-canis: it's a woodland plant. Unless carefully handled, commercial stocks of Erythronium dens-canis are apt to be desiccated beyond help. Bulbs of these plants should not be dried out the way one would dry a tulip bulb for the summer. I've heard of at least one site where Erythronium dens-canis has naturalized here in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

But 'Pagoda' and many species and cultivars originating from West Coast species need dry summer conditions when grown on the East Coast. Here's what works for me: when the foliage dies down, I wait a week or two and then gently dig out the bulbs. By then the roots should be dead or dying. I pack the bulbs in improvised newspaper pouches and then store the pouches in a shady place outside for a few weeks. The idea is to avoid drying them out too quickly. Once the bulbs have dried  they are moved to a  place inside the house. The bulbs remain in the paper pouches until sometime in September, when the paper pouches are moistened, slipped into a zip lock plastic bag and then put into the refrigerator (not the freezer!). Within about two weeks the bases of the bulbs will show signs of swelling, and soon after that the roots will start to appear. Get them back into the soil at this point, and don't let them dry out once the roots start to appear.

The image above shows bulbs of 'Pagoda' which were stored dry for the summer in the way described above: as you can see, they are rooting vigorously and are ready to be replanted. Note that even the tiny little bulb is rooting well. Don't be afraid to keep these dry during the summer.

Adiantum × mairisii and Adiantum venustum

Throughout most of North America the name maidenhair fern refers to Adiantum pedatum. I'm sure I'm not the only gardener who, back in the days when I was first learning my ferns, looked longingly at pictures of the southern maidenhair, Adiantum capillus-veneris, and wished that it grew in our woods.   This southern species provides a look which is very distinct from that of the northern maidenhair. I eventually saw this species in the wild: it was during my Army days when I was stationed in central Texas. It grew at the top edge of a huge sink hole: from the floor of the sink hole I looked up and saw a fringe of green. A quick close-up look proved it to be the southern maidenhair.

Years later, some relatives of a friend bought an old house out in the country which had a collapsed greenhouse on the property. I was surprised to find a thriving colony of one of the subtropical Adiantum ferns huddled in a corner.  This was really exciting for me because at the time I did not know that there were truly hardy members of this genus other than the familiar A. pedatum. Stories of bats in the attic of the old house distracted me from the ferns, and I never remembered to collect a piece.

It would be years before two other reliably hardy Adiantum ferns came into my life. One was Adiantum venustum. This grows well here in the greater Washington D.C. area and will form broad low clumps of delicate, small,  parsley-like foliage in the open garden. That's it in the lower image above.

The other one is Adiantum × mairisii, shown in the upper image above.  Don't confuse that with Adiantum mariesii.  As I put together my thoughts for this post, I decided to do a Google search to see if I might learn more about it. I noticed that Tony Avent had something to say about it on his Plant Delights site, and so I took a look. At that point I had one of those humorous small-world experiences: Tony's account was almost sentence for sentence what I had intended to write for this post. And this was true down to one uncannily arcane detail: Tony mentions that he first learned about this fern from Nancy Swell. Too funny: so did I! Nancy and her husband used to appear at the big Green Spring sales once or twice a year back in the old days. Once I discovered her, I made a bee line to her table every year as soon as I arrived at the sale. She specialized in ferns and often had then rare Asarum, RuscusDanaĆ«, Trillium and other wildflowers and botanical curiosities which piqued my interest. And it was she who introduced me to a quotation from Shakespeare: "We have the recipe of fern-seed, we walk invisible."

So far, the garden worthiness of any form of Adiantum capillus-veneris in our climate is open to question. I have three sorts on trial; they have yet to be tested by a bad winter. But the hardiness of the two shown above in not in question, and as far as I know these are our best bets for a reliable fern with the look of the southern maidenhair.

Cyclamen hederifolium seedlings

Gardening has its pleasures of the instant gratification sort (credit cards are generally involved here), and at the other end of that spectrum it has those delights which become apparent only over a period of years. In the latter category come the always surprising events taking place in the seedling frames. Some seeds take their time about germination, and it can be a real thrill when a plant which one supposed would never grow here germinates and gets off to a good start. Then there are those plants which are not difficult to grow from seed (I didn't say fast!) but take their time about revealing their best qualities. Peonies, for instance, are easy from seed, but one waits five or six years to see the first good flower. It can be really exciting to visit the frames for the first time after months of neglect - and find some long desired seedling up and growing. That's one of those times when I feel like a "real" gardener.

Cyclamen occupy a middle ground in this spectrum. Fresh seed germinates easily at the appropriate time of year, and even old seed will eventually germinate. Under home garden conditions, the first flowers come in the second or third year. In the meantime, there is something else to occupy the imagination of the grower: even the first leaves give a hint of the mature foliage, and there are many strains of cyclamen, both hardy and tender,  worth growing for their leaves alone: I'm sure there would be gardeners who would grow them even if they never bloomed.

Cyclamen graecum and C. cyprium are well established here as cold frame plants, but I frankly doubt their utility in the open garden. Cyclamen persicum persists from year to year so long as it is not exposed to hard freezes: it's not really suited for use as a house plant here (our homes are generally too warm), and it will not survive our typical winters outside. Here I move them in and out during the winter, and this suits them well indeed: last year's plants bloomed for five or six months without a break. Some will eventually go into the cold frames.

Under ideal conditions, both Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum can be used as garden plants here. But those "ideal conditions" include summers drier than the local climate provides. Sharp drainage will sometimes compensate for what our climate does not naturally produce, but more than once I've seen an old, seemingly well established plant rot during a particularly wet summer. The little ones I'm raising from seed will eventually go into a cold frame at the shady back of the garden. I have a hunch that with a glass over them during the summer, all should be well.

The leaves in the image above are of seedling plants raised from seed provided by Ellen Horning of Seneca Hill Perennials fame. She described the seed as "Cyclamen hederifolium, well marked", and as you can see in the images above they are indeed well marked.  These will eventually, I hope,  form the basis of my "hardy cyclamen grown for their foliage" collection.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ceratostigma griffithii

Ceratostigma griffithii put on a growth spurt this year which surprised me. In the past it formed a sprawling subshrub with branches up to about two feet long. This year, although it's still  sprawling, it grew up behind the glass door used to cover the cold frame in which it grows. This year the longest branches are probably about five feet long. So far, the only flowers to appear have been at the tips of the branches. If you squint, you can make out the very spotty effect this produces in the image of the whole plant. Since we're already past the middle of November, it's hard to see what value this plant would have in the open garden; in fact, it's hard to see what value it has grown in the cold frame. On the other hand, the foliage does color up nicely - as can be seen in both images.

When really cold weather arrives I'll take the Ceratostigma down and tuck it in among the other plants in the cold frame. If it continues to bloom throughout the fall and into winter I might keep it. Otherwise, I'm not so sure. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Woodland with beech trees in autumn color

The local woods are primarily a mixture of oak, sycamore, tulip poplar and beech trees; less common here are hickories, maples, persimmon, birch and sour gum. There are other hardwoods, and here and there relic pine groves. The composition of the local woodlands is easiest to estimate in the autumn as each group colors up.

Right now, the woods glow with the amber tints of ripening beech leaves. For me, this is the most moving and deeply satisfying of the autumnal leaf spectacles.  To walk through the woods now is like being in a huge, translucent, yellow-brown bottle.

Yesterday Wayne caught the woods at their best. He took these photos (using a ten year old point and shoot Kodak digital camera) late in the afternoon when the low sun warmed up the leaf color most agreeably. He was riding his bicycle home at the time, and the path you see in these images is the bicycle path which parallels Beach (not Beech!) Drive in back of my home. As I viewed these images I felt as if I were being drawn into each scene - and then it dawned on me: the path in these images  has a beckoning quality. Great work, Wayne!


Two weeks ago Wayne tried to get me to accompany him on a local hike; I only had two hours free, so I declined. Here's what I missed. He took these photos along the C&O Canal in the area locally called Widewater. Widewater is just upstream of Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River.  The scenery here is so unlike that of most of Montgomery County, and at this time of year it can be exhilarating. It makes me think alpine lake country.  Wayne caught it on a great day for leaf color, don't you think? And I like his sense of composition.

These images, and some to follow in another post, were done with a ten year old Kodak point and shoot digital camera. I really like the color quality of the images produced by this camera - they make the ones I get from my Digital Rebel seem dry and a bit faded. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Galanthus 'Thanksgiving'

This is the snowdrop described in earlier posts as my Thanksgiving snowdrop. It's early this year, but no less welcome. Snowdrops in the autumn are not nearly as appealing to me as snowdrops in the late winter: once I got  over the surprise of seeing a snowdrop in the autumn, I realized that their chilly color was too soon a reminder of what was ahead weather-wise. In late winter, on the other hand, anything showing signs of growth and bloom has a lasting appeal for me.

'Thanksgiving' is slowly forming offsets, but it has a way to go to be considered a clump. It is probably a form of the one-spot populations of Galanthus elwesii called monostictus.

The other early winter blooming snowdrop here is the one I call 'Christmas'. This is a two-spot Galanthus elwesii.  I was looking at it today and it is already in full leaf and has formed a nice clump. But it shows no sign of bloom yet.