Sunday, December 22, 2013

Iris unguicularis the winter iris (and a late June look-alike)

I'll bet that most gardeners, if they have any concept of winter-blooming garden irises at all, would think of the late winter blooming reticulate irises. Those who have checked out the genus iris a bit more thoroughly might be aware of some of the winter blooming scorpiris (Juno) species such as Iris rosenbachiana. But by and large these are specialists' plants which require careful management if they are to persist from year to year.

But as more and more of us in the greater Washington, D.C. area are discovering, there is another winter-blooming iris which, if carefully sited, deserves consideration as a reliable garden plant. That iris is Iris unguicularis in its several forms.

Looking back over the last ten or twenty years in this garden, I think one of the greatest sources of pleasure has been the discovery that yes, we can grow and flower Iris unguicularis in our climate. Forty or so years ago when I first attempted this plant the results were not good: although the plant itself survived from year to year, it never produced flowers. It did produce buds, but they always froze before opening.

I don't think there is another species of iris which has a longer period of bloom: the plants here bloom from early November into early April. The flowers generally come one or two at a time, although when conditions are just right the clumps might be ringed with bloom. And the individual blooms are substantial: they remind me a lot of the blooms of the late June blooming Iris brevicaulis (foliosa). I've included an image of Iris brevicaulis for comparison.

Three forms of this winter iris are grown here. Two are typical large forms, one is the small form often listed as Iris cretensis. The two large ones came without labels  from the local gardens of friends. In a sense, there is also a fourth form here, the plant known as Iris lazica. This one typically begins to bloom later than the others.

In the images above, you see first the two large forms, then the small, narrow leaved Iris cretensis, and then for comparison Iris lazica and Iris brevicaulis. Iris unguicularis, I. cretica and I. lazica are native to various sites in the Mediterranean region from northwestern Africa to the Black Sea. Some of the Greek forms show intense color combined with vivid patterning.  Iris brevicaulis is presumably not at all closely related to these as irises go: it's native to the south central United States.

The images of Iris unguicularis and I. cretica were taken today; the images of I. lazica and I. brevicaulis are from previous years.

I've seen these winter-blooming irises growing well and blooming freely in several local, northern Virginia gardens. Here in my garden the Iris cretensis and one of the Iris unguicularis are in cold frames; one of the Iris unguicularis grows in the open right against a sunny wall. And they all get covered in bitter weather. That's a small price to pay to have such big, colorful flowers in the garden during the winter.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Crocus biflorus melantherus

Forms of Crocus biflorus have been in cultivation for over four hundred years, although I don't think it has ever become a common crocus in American gardens.  Almost all of these bloom in late winter with the other "spring" crocuses. The one shown above is an exception: it blooms in November. The black anthers and the season of bloom make it hard to confuse with any other crocus likely to be seen in local gardens.
I acquired this in 2005, and for several years it bloomed faithfully on schedule. Then it disappeared. A season or two later, it reappeared about a yard from the place where it was planted. Then a year passed with no bloom, and I thought it was gone for good. But this year one flower appeared mixed with some other crocuses which once grew near the original site for Crocus biflorus melantherus. I photographed that flower yesterday, but when I examined the image, I realized that one of the tepals was torn. So I've substituted an image from 2006. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Tidewater delivers happy endings!

Back in February I got an irresistible offer from Tidewater Workshop, the manufacturer of Atlantic white cedar garden furniture: their basic four foot bench was being offered for a price that was hard to resist. The ad mentioned that there might be a delay in delivery. I placed an order for two benches, and a few days later the charge appeared on my credit card bill.

This has been such an eventful year in our household that I hardly noticed as the weeks passed. Soon, it had become a matter of months passing. Concerned, I tried to contact the company. Many repeated phone calls brought only a recorded message. Messages left went unanswered. An attempt at email resulted in a bounced message. At this point I began to be concerned, concerned not just for my money but also for the health of this company which produces a unique product. The economic downturn has hurt so many small companies which deal in horticultural and garden related products; many nurseries and mail order companies have either shut down for good or have reorganized, sometimes beyond recognition. Was Tidewater about to be swallowed up in the decline?

Yesterday my sister came over to give me some time to get out and get some fresh air. Before leaving the house, we sat around and talked for a while, mostly of the ebb and flow of family matters. At a lull in the conversation, I mentioned the bench saga; the most recent episode of that story being the results of a Google search on the company’s name.  It quickly became apparent that I was not the only one waiting for benches. It sure seemed that Tidewater had tanked, and that I would never see my benches or my money.

What happened next would have been considered an improbable deus ex machina maneuver in a play or novel, but this time it was real life. I got my things together to leave the house, got into the car, slowly began to back out, and noticed a small, nondescript pickup truck approaching. I pulled back into the driveway to allow it to pass; as it got closer, I got a look at what was in the bed of the truck.  It was the color of the wood which caught my eye first: the truck was hauling something made of recently  cut conifer wood. As the truck slowly pulled by me, I could see that the somethings were benches. I didn’t recognize the driver or the truck, but it sure looked as if one of the neighbors had been out shopping for garden benches. And then the truck slowed down, turned around and parked next door. By this time I had already started to pull out of the driveway, but my mind was racing and something deep in my consciousness kept saying, unlikely as it seemed,  “don’t go, don’t go, those might be your benches”.

I got out of the car and walked over to the truck. I didn’t see anything on the truck to suggest that it was from Tidewater, but as the driver got out I called out in a questioning tone “Tidewater?”  The driver, Peter, gave me a big smile and began unloading benches.  There was an older man with him: Peter introduced him as his dad. Why, I wanted to know, wasn’t dad at home sitting in the shade instead of unloading benches from a truck?

I couldn’t believe it: only twenty minutes before I had been telling my sister the sad tale of the benches. Now, totally unexpected, here they were. I was happy, I was a little confused: this sort of surprise was so much more exciting than the anonymous drop off from one of the major delivery companies.  And Peter turned out to be so affable and  upbeat. I told him about my problems contacting the company, about my concerns that it might not still be a going concern; he gave me a quick rundown of the reorganization efforts his company is making as they respond to new markets and new ways of doing business in the age of the internet. They are a thriving company and have plenty of orders to keep them busy. All the while we were moving the benches to our lawn, Peter was giving some bench care instructions: he cautioned me that my intended use, to use the benches indoors by the fireplace in the basement, might result in the wood drying too quickly and eventually developing small splits. He suggested taking some sandpaper to the rough edges, and painting or coating the benches. He kept referring to the wood as cypress, Maine cypress I thought I heard him say, and just as I began to wonder if he knew his woods, he mentioned “but it’s all Chamaecyparis thyoides”. Bull’s-eye: for those of you not into dendrology, that’s Atlantic white cedar.

By now my sister had joined us, and Peter gave us a good laugh when he said he didn’t have any trouble deciding  which house should get the delivery : it's always the one overflowing with plants, obviously.   

The change I like best is their delivery system: it was great to be able to meet Peter and share his enthusiasm for his company and what they are doing. 

Now I’m off to make some biscuits to put into the little tray provided, gratis, with the benches.   

I like happy endings!

You can see Tidewater’s current offerings here:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cobaea scandens

If you don't know what this is, and you see it in someone's garden, I'll bet you won't believe that it is an annual vine, an easily grown annual vine. It has the substantial look of a perennial, and that in fact is what it is in its native Mexico. But it's hard to believe that you will get so much effect from something you planted out  in May. It does well under local conditions and thrives in the heat and humidity of our summers. It has no special needs in the way of soil or fertilization. It gets off to a slow start, but once it is established it grows as freely as a morning glory. So far I have not noticed any pest problems.

And the flowers are magnificent. They are about the size of a hen's egg, a large one at that. Whenever I see the flowers the first thing which comes to mind is the florists' gloxinia: the shape and size are about the same. But the two plants are not related. What Cobaea is related to will come as a surprise to most people: it's a member of the phlox family, Polemoniaceae.

For earliest bloom, I start the seeds indoors in April. The large, brown, flat, papery seeds sprout slowly, and the resulting seedlings seem to sit for a while before taking off. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Colchicum 'Nancy Lindsay'

This has turned out to be a good doer here, and over the years it has increased slowly but steadily. Here you see it in the late afternoon sun, its color much enhanced by that circumstance. All of the pink flowered colchicums look best at this time of day. In the full sun of mid-day their colors can seem washy.

Have I got the name right? With colchicums that often seems a fair question. But this cultivar has a distinguishing mark: the flush of color on the “stem” of the flower. “Stem” is in quotes because this flower does not have a stem: everything above ground is part of the flower itself, not a stem.

This colchicum is one of two plants I grow with connections to Nancy Lindsay. The other is the found rose now called ‘Rose de Rescht’ which Lindsay is said to have found in the Iranian Caspian Sea coastal town of Rascht (the name has come into the Roman alphabet in several forms). See here for an interesting history of this rose:

And see here for a brief sketch of Nancy Lindsay’s life:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lycoris aurea mercatorum

This is the plant, or one of the plants, which is offered as Lycoris aurea in the mass distribution catalogs. It's one of the less cold hardy species of the genus Lycoris: the foliage will be destroyed or badly damaged in a bad winter. In those cases, the bulbs survive in a weakened condition, and after several iterations of  the winter killing of the foliage the plants disappear. At least that has been my experience with them. Those of you who know this plant only from the experience of recent years might be unpleasantly surprised to see what happens when we once again have a real winter.

It grows well in a cold frame, and now that I've seen it in bloom I'll be a little more accepting of the mound of leaves it produces. It's less than two feet high, so this is not one of the taller species. The foliage of this plant is wider than that of the other commonly grown lycorises. I've grown two forms here: one with bright green leaves (the one seen in the image above) and another with darker, bluish-green leaves.

The name I've used here for it, Lycoris aurea mercatorum, is not one you're likely to find in any reference book.  "Mercatorum" means "of the merchants", and is a designation which was used by authors in times past to indicate that the plant in question does not appear to be the rightful claimant to the name.

Is this Lycoris traubii? I don't know. I welcome suggestions. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Caladium 'Frieda Hempel'

Caladiums take very well to our summer weather, and if you decide to try them, don't be afraid to put them out in the full sun. I've found them tricky to winter successfully, perhaps because I expect them to go from full, lush growth to dry dormancy in a matter of a week or two.

The one shown above is named for the German soprano Frieda Hempel, one of the great singers from the early part of the twentieth century. Most of Hempel's recordings are acoustical recordings  made a century ago, and some of the reissues of them seem to have speed or pitch problems, so it's sometimes hard to form an accurate impression of her voice. She seems to have had an unusually beautiful timbre for a so-called coloratura soprano, and her range and flexibility seem to have been awesome. She was on the roster at the Metropolitan Opera  for a while, but as is so often the case with such prodigiously gifted singers, she found concertizing a better investment of her time.

Many of her recordings have been uploaded on YouTube, although my favorite was not there the last time I checked. That is the recording she made sometime between 1907 and 1910 with the Latvian tenor Hermann Jadlowker of the big duet from act two of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.  Here the beauty of her voice and its astonishing flexibility come through well, and the ending is thrilling. If you don't know Jadlowker's recordings, try to find some. He had a voice which in recordings comes across as loud and a bit raucous, a sound which you might think would not work with a delicate voice such as Hempel's.  They make a great pair in the Meyerbeer duet. In his other recordings you can hear that great rarity, a tenor with a good trill.

Update, July 25, 2015: the duet is now on YouTube here:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

And even more shot from the Canon

Wayne made these comments: "The battery came with the camera, but the memory card was extra. I bought my camera on sale for less than $300, but the memory card, extra battery, and carrying bag brought it back above $300, but I don't remember how much above.

I think I used the flash on the bullfrog.

The moon photo was emailed on 6/20. I used a tripod for that one.

The damselfly was sent of 5/27, if you want that one."

More shot from the Canon

All of these were taken with the camera as it came from the box (after the battery was inserted): no special lenses, no tripod, no flash. From little bugs to the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol dome (and at night, too), just make a few adjustments and then point and shoot. The camera also records short videos with sound. I'd say that's $330 well spent. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Birds, bugs and flowers shot from the Canon: Wayne's new PowerShot SX280 HS

Wayne's new Canon PowerShot SX280 HS camera makes me feel as if my Digital Rebel is an old Kodak Brownie. There is no way that I could get pictures like these with my camera, and these pictures were taken with a point and shoot camera.  It's time for an upgrade!