Sunday, June 30, 2013

Spigelia marilandica

If my introduction to this plant had been based on an image of the whole plant, I might not have taken a keen interest in it. But that introduction came from a familiarity with the image in Audubon's Birds of America. And that image gave me a very peculiar impression of this plant.  Audubon used this image twice: first in plate 89  of the Henslow's Sparrow and then later in plate 246 of the Savannah Sparrow. The Savannah sparrow image is a close copy of the Henslow's Sparrow image, probably copied by Audubon's assistant Joseph Mason.

Years passed before I saw the real thing, and I'm happy to say that it's been in my garden now for decades.

There is a Central American member of the genus, Spigelia splendens, for which a Google search turns up no modern photographs. The paintings shown make the hand holding my hybridist's brush itchy.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lilium longiflorum

This is the lily most people in this country know as the Easter lily. That name came about as a result of the sale of blooming plants at Easter time. The timing of Easter varies from year to year, and the ease with which the flowering of this plant in greenhouses can be controlled to allow the production of blooming plants in time for that variable celebration has allowed for a successful industry built around this plant. In fact, in the past there have been small market booms around this plant somewhat like the tulip mania in the past.

The lily books tell us that this lily is native to low elevations in  the Riukiu Islands (Ryukyu) and Taiwan. Long cultivated in Japan and China, it was introduced to England from China in the early nineteenth century. Early British growers treated it as a tender plant, and at one time a thriving industry existed based on the sale of bulbs of this species grown in, of all places, Bermuda. Suspicions about its long range hardiness as a garden plant here in the eastern states persist, but as long ago as the early part of the twentieth century Griffiths was convinced of its utility as a garden plant in this region.

The plants seen in gardens probably all derive from discarded Easter lilies, and are of relatively dwarf clones grown for forcing out of season. But if you take the trouble to cross pollinate plants of different clones, you will probably get plants more variable in height. Years ago a lily friend told me about the five and six foot tall plants he had grown from seed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

An early summer trio

Several major players are now at their peak in the garden, including lilies, early daylilies and Japanese irises. So there is no shortage of cut material for the house. But the bouquet shown here is drawn from the ranks of the minor players. Two of the plants used here, Lythrum 'Morden Pink' and Lysimachia clethroides, are familiar garden plants. But how many of you recognize the third plant here?

Did someone guess foxtail lily, Eremurus? No, that's not what it is. It's Aesculus parvifolia, the bottle brush buckeye, a dwarf horse chestnut. The flowers have a sweet fragrance which reminds me of honeysuckle. This small tree/thicket forming shrub is not found in gardens nearly as much as its merits might suggest. It forms a hemispherical mound two or three yards high, and when in bloom looks like nothing else in our gardens. This is another one of those excellent, unusual plants, native plants, which has largely been ignored by the nursery trade.

There used to be many of these planted on the western edge of the Walter Reed property along 16th Street NW in Washington, D.C. Are they still there? The wikipedia article on this species and the USDA Plants Profile give very different accounts of the natural distribution of this plant. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Smilax laurifolia

Of the several plants of Smilax laurifolia growing here, one has outpaced the others in size. This plant has been blooming for several years, and this year for the first time it's likely that the seed will mature successfully. These seeds are from flowers produced last year: the seed takes about a year to ripen. The related Smilax smallii sets seed here occasionally, but so far the developing seed has always perished during the winter.  The same has been true of Smilax pumila in the open.

It's been over twenty years since these plants of Smilax laurifolia were raised from wild collected seed. This is obviously not a get-rich-quick plant for the nursery trade, and in fact commercial sources are hard to find. And if you find one, you will probably be buying a collected plant.

This year the most vigorous plant put up three new sprouts, the biggest thicker than fat grocery-store asparagus. The longest of these new sprouts is now about ten feet long, and that will fall far short of its eventual length.

I have no idea how to explain it, but these plants give me a sense of satisfaction which is almost unique in my gardening experience. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Crocosmia great expectations


The crocosmias are beginning to bloom, and from what I see so far it will be a great year for them. Some of them are already over four feet high and very heavily budded. The only one in bloom when I looked the other day was 'Lucifer': you will have to explain to me why this plant is not in every sunny garden - in abundance. Its hardiness to cold is well established, so you can forget any bad experiences you might have had along those lines with the old hybrid montbretias.

'Lucifer' is not the only tall one. Last year I planted several sorts reputed to go up into the four and even five foot range: 'Skylights', 'Vera Cruz' and 'Van Noort Giants'. They didn't do much last year, but this year they have really surged - and raised those great expectations.

In the images above you can see 'Lucifer' at the beginning of its display, then two images of other sorts still in bud. Don't you just love those tightly packed ranks of buds?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lilium 'Elodie'

I can remember years ago when the first double-flowered lilies began to appear at the shows. Those of us trained long before as judges would feign surprise and confusion: "How in the world are we to judge such a deformed, monstrous thing? " we would deadpan to one another.

The one shown above is 'Elodie', an Asiatic hybrid. It does look a bit as if it's about to grab, bite or clamp on to something - maybe the unsuspecting nose of someone dipping in to check for fragrance.

If you examine this flower carefully, what you notice is that the filaments of the anthers have become somewhat like petals, narrow petals but with the petal color and even some of the spots. Normal lilies have six anthers, but here there are more than six of these partially converted petals.

And in spite of the somewhat snarky remarks at the beginning of this post, I think I like it. If I think passionflower rather than lily, it's a lot more acceptable.


Three small-flowered clematis

The image above shows three small-flowered clematis: left to right Clematis texensis, the hybrid 'Betty Corning' and then Clematis glaucophylla. These small-flowered sorts are in contrast to their large-flowered, voluptuous, and much better  known relatives. What they lack in overweening splendor they more than make up with grace and charm.

At first glance the flowers of Clematis texensis and C. glaucophylla suggest small strawberries on a vine. Garden visitors unfamiliar with these plants and trying to figure out what they are will get no help from the foliage: there is something vaguely pea-like about it.

I've included 'Betty Corning' here because, according to tradition, it is a hybrid of Clematis crispa, another member of the Viorna group of clematises which includes C. texensis and C. glaucophylla. I just read the Missouri Botanical Garden account of this cultivar and it includes this information: " ‘Betty Corning’ (C. crispa x C. viticella) is a late, small-flowered, semi-woody, climbing vine that was first discovered growing in Albany, New York in 1932. " Although that account does not say so in so many words, that suggests to me that the parentage is a guess. It does look a bit like Clematis crispa, and the flower size is a good match for the other purported parent, Clematis viticella.  In spite of the reported parentage I've often wondered if it might be a hybrid of Clematis integrifolia.

Although I have not done this yet myself, I'll bet that if Clematis texensis and 'Betty Corning' were planted together on the same support the result would be very nice. 


Friday, June 21, 2013

Iris ensata 'Flashing Koi'

It's Japanese iris season already! They began to bloom several day ago, and I have to continually remind myself to get out and see them: they'll be gone before I know it.

Why is it that for every Japanese iris in a local garden there are probably thousands of tall bearded irises? Although the two sorts respond best to somewhat different conditions, they are equally easy to grow. The color range among the Japanese sorts is very limited, but that range is limited to colors which most of us can't get enough of: blue, purple, violet and related colors.

The one shown above is 'Flashing Koi'. I bought it (and about a dozen others) from a local iris society at Green Spring about a decade ago. The only care I gave them was to plant them in the bog trays at the edge of the garden pond: they got better yearly until the site began to be shaded.  Now I can see a big difference in vigor between those which get lots of sun and those which don't.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

three blues


A century ago, when the European and American gardening scenes were all abuzz with the newly discovered excitement of color themed hardy perennial borders  (in contrast to the carpet bedding tradition which dominated the nineteenth century) , Americans visiting the great gardens of England came home with carefully notated lists of the plants seen there. It quickly became evident that many of those plants can't be grown here. That was the easy part. More difficult to cope with was the fact that among those plants which do grow well here, their performance under American conditions was often very different. In particular, their period of bloom was relatively fleeting. So for those planning perennial borders, even if the plants could be acquired and grown well, the desired effect was here today, gone tomorrow.

Of the color themed hardy perennial borders, the most difficult of attainment was the blue border. More than one observant wit has asked why anyone in their right mind would even want a blue border: blue is cold, for some even depressing - and isn't it ironic that the blue border is most likely to be successful in cold, northern climates. In our climate, a touch of blue is just what we want for July and August. But forget the blue themed hardy perennial border. Instead, turn to those blue flowered annuals (or, as many of them are, tender perennials) which thrive in our climate. The reliable ones which I know are all relatively small, and three favorites are shown above: ageratum, lobelia and torenia.
The torenia and the ageratum are right at home in our summer climate. The lobelia is iffy: the one shown is from the Proven Winners series and is called Laguna Sky Blue. It's on trial here: if it continues to bloom all summer, then it will be a big improvement over most of the other lobelias I've tried.
The ageratums grown here are almost always the taller sorts. Torenia is to my tastes the best of the blue annuals. Above see the three of them staged, still in the pots in which they were purchased, and tempting me to plan a small color themed blue border of tender annuals.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Begonia sutherlandii

When local gardeners speak of a hardy begonia, they almost always mean Begonia grandis (the plant long known as B. evansiana). Claims of hardiness are sometimes made for other species, but to my knowledge none of these has proved to be enduringly hardy in our climate.

The one shown above, Begonia sutherlandii, is sometimes cited as a hardy species. In fact, my start with this species came from plants brought to our local rock garden group's plant exchange years ago. The donor claimed that they had grown in his garden for years with no special protection. I tried it here in the open garden and never saw it after the first year. It will survive in the rain shadow of the eves right against the house wall, and although I have not tried it there, I'm sure it would do well in a cold frame.

At the end of the growing season, before the plants die down for the year,  numerous little vegetative propagules appear in the axils of the leaves. It's a simple matter to collect these and store them dry in a zip lock bag in the refrigerator (cold is probably not necessary) for the next year. The main plant will survive from year to year from a compact, tuberous, underground, perennial stem; if the plant is growing in a pot, simply store the pot somewhere dry and above freezing.

The little flowers look like those of a bedding begonia of the semperflorens sort, and the orange color is unusual among commonly cultivated begonias. This is a small (rarely as much as a foot tall in my experience) and rather dainty plant, so keep an eye on it.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lilium 'Netty's Pride'

'Netty's Pride' is one of the so-called Asiatic Hybrid lilies. The name of this category preserves a bit of lily history in the sense that when the group was first named it included many hybrids raised directly (i.e. as primary hybrids) from lily species such as Lilium davidii, Lilium dauricum, Lilium amabile which are native to central and eastern Asia.  These and a few other species were thought of as a group because experience had shown that they were somewhat interfertile: thus, hybrids were possible.  However,  not all lilies which are hybrids of lilies native to central and eastern Asia belong in this category; there is another group of lilies native to that region which,  under normal circumstances, are not fertile when crossed with the so-called Asiatic lilies and their hybrids. Another name was needed for these, and these became known as the Oriental Hybrids. These are derived primarily from Lilium auratum, L. speciosum and a few other species.

A variety of modern hybridization techniques have broken down the old barriers, and there are now hybrids available in all sorts of combinations of ancestry.

'Netty's Pride' is an Asiatic Hybrid in the old sense, although it sports a color combination which not long ago would have been considered fantastic. The ones in the image above are providing a nice bit of color in the garden, but that density of color comes at the expense of a defect in the plant: in a lily show this stem would not stand a chance because the stem has produced an umbel of congested flowers. I like it, and maybe you do, too, but the judges at the show would not think much of this particular stem.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lilium tsingtauense

This handsome Korean lily was grown from seed obtained through the North American Lily Society seed exchange. For several reasons it’s one of my favorites. It emerges early, and the developing foliage has the sort of watered silk pattern seen in some trilliums. The tepals of the flower have a lacquered quality. The color of the flowers is almost an exact match of the color of tawny daylily (and the two bloom together), yet the shiny surface of the lily flowers makes them seem brighter.

This lily does well in this area, yet it has never been common in our gardens and remains a specialist’s plant. It’s easy from seed, but keep in mind that when it comes to raising lilies from seed, easy does not always mean fast. Several years will probably elapse before it blooms from seed.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Paeonia 'Yellow Crown'

Like a pile of blood stained plumage of some gorgeously arrayed tropical bird brought down and gutted by a hawk, this disheveled heap of petals gives little indication of its former glory. Two weeks ago this was a full blown blossom of the peony ‘Yellow Crown’.  I picked it back then and put it into the refrigerator with the idea that I would remove it later for a photography session. And then things got busy. Yesterday it was still intact, but as I moved some things in the refrigerator, I touched it and it fell apart. So this is all I have to show this year for this, which might just be my favorite peony.  
This plant has an interesting and confused history. It and several other similar hybrids were raised in the late 1940s by one Toichi Itoh in Japan. It is said that Itoh did not live long enough to see any of the several hybrids he raised bloom. His wife sold them to an American businessman after the war. In the early 1970s the Louis Smirnow firm offered some for the - back then - princely sum of $25.00 each. That catalog might still be somewhere around the house, but the last time I looked I could not find it. I was so tempted to buy one, but I was put off by the remark that even the roots were yellowish. There is an old tradition among tree peony growers of soaking the roots in dye to produce unusual flower colors.
So I hesitated, and missed that chance. Forty years later I decided to give it another go. The name 'Yellow Crown' was appearing in catalogs now and then, yet the price was very off-putting. And then there were the rumors circulating which claimed that the names of the several plants Smirnow bought had over the years been jumbled. For that matter, I don't know if the name 'Yellow Crown' was Itoh's name or one made up for the English speaking market by the Smirnow firm.   
Peony enthusiasts eventually added more confusion to the story by deciding to call all Interdivisional hybrid peonies Itoh peonies. But Itoh himself raised only those few original cultivars. Other hybridizers soon were able to duplicate Itoh's work, and now the term Itoh peony generally refers to one of these hybrids and not to one of Itoh's original plants.
And then there is this confusion: Itoh's plants resulted from the hybridization of a herbaceous peony with pollen of a yellow-flowered tree peony hybrid. From the beginning the hybrids were described as herbaceous peonies. But they are not: my 'Yellow Crown' produces short (6"), perennial woody stems.
The comparatively huge, sweetly scented, globular flowers of 'Yellow Crown' hang down from their own weight, so much so that they are often hidden by the foliage of the plant. Some peony enthusiasts fault it for this. I'm not one of them: 'Yellow Crown' reminds me of a gracefully nodding tea rose.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Warfare in the garden

It's surprising to me how often it is a plant which keeps some memory alive for me. Shasta daisies take me back to the 1950s when my playmates and I turned a garden visit into a preparation for warfare with other neighborhood gangs. We called them "gangs" back then, but they were nothing like what are called gangs today. All the boys had vague senses of where "their" territory ended, and trespassers were apt to be dealt with. Rock fights were not unknown. Actual physical contact was all but unknown, but we had sure aim with those rocks. None of this had anything to do with drugs or associated illicit activity. It was more of a group/neighborhood identity thing.

If my gang had a name, I was never aware of it. My gang was in fact not so much a gang as it was a group which stayed together for mutual protection from the other gangs. In our travels through the local woods we were continually aware of our vulnerability.

That sense of vulnerability kept us on the lookout for ways to protect ourselves. Real weapons were out of the question: our parents would have confiscated them immediately. So we improvised with what was around us. I still remember the summer day that a garden provided me with plenty of inspiration. We were in a neighbor's garden (I'm not sure why because that neighbor had older children who because of the age difference were not our playmates). A big patch of Shasta daisies was in bloom. But that was not what caught my eye. There were also big patches of perennial pea (the plant which is idiotically called perennial sweet pea by so many), and those were full of ripening seed pods. And there were daylilies which had bloomed long before and were now sporting dry scapes.

Those daylily scapes were about a yard long and hollow. The seeds of the perennial pea were about the size of bb's (bb and pellet guns were definitely off limits to us, but every once and a while someone from outside our group would turn up with one). It didn't take long to collect a handful of pea seed ammo, and armed with the dry daylily stalks I soon had a very effective pea shooter.   We had a great time shooting each other until a horrified (as in "you might put your eye out") parent appeared and sent us all home.

That was over a half-century ago, yet every time I see Shasta daisies I remember that day. The Shastas in that garden long ago were the tall, single sorts. The one above is the cultivar 'Esther Reed', now in its second year at my little garden up on the hill.

There are already daylilies in that garden - maybe I should add a perennial pea.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Oxalis triangularis

This is the oxalis which is commonly sold around St. Patrick's Day as shamrocks. It's not native to Ireland but rather to Brazil. Big pots thickly filled with foliage of these easily grown plants are very ornamental. I'm apt to regard the flowers as a distraction and  pull them off.

There are several Central American species of Oxalis which are readily and inexpensively available and also make very decorative pots. Look for Oxalis lasiandra and the forms of O. deppei.

All of these can be stored as dry bulbs/rhizomes during the winter if there is no room to grow them as house plants.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Clematis glaucophylla

The clematis of the viorna group have long been favorites here. The one shown above is Clematis glaucophylla, this one from a Kentucky population and distributed by Ellen Horning. I was well on as a gardener before I actually saw a member of this group as a living plant. I knew about them from books - not that there was much to be found about them in most books. I think it was an encounter with Clematis addisonii at the Morris Arboretum back in the 1960s which showed me what I was missing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

kniphofias and larkspurs

I can't take any credit for any good qualities of composition seen in the image above. That it happened is pure serendipity. That larkspur, over four feet tall, well branched and full of bloom, is a volunteer, self-sown from plants growing nearby last year. I did plant the Kniphofia, but as it turned out it is not the variety it was supposed to be. In the image the color is a bit off: in life it's more of a rosy coral, a hard color to describe. It's such an attractive form that I'm willing to overlook the slip-up on the part of the supplier - although it's a lot harder to get over not having a good name for it.

If you have been disappointed by the performance of annual larkspurs in your garden, make a note to sow the seed in late summer or early fall. That way you are almost sure to get stunning four and five foot tall plants the following spring (and note that spring still has a week and a half to go). Self-sown plants are typically bigger and lustier than those carefully cossetted.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mammillaria plumosa

Cactuses intrigued me when I was a child. They posed an interesting dilemma; they would not die, but I could never nudge them into doing anything except producing elongated, etiolated growth. Eventually I found out that to bloom many require a cold dormant period. This led to an occasional foray into the realm of hardy cactuses. Our climate is hardly cactus friendly, but there are plenty of hardy species which will survive and bloom in our gardens. If you decide to give them a try, don't even think of asking me to help weed them.

The plant shown above is Mammillaria plumosa, long a favorite among cactus collectors. It grows wild in northeast Mexico, and has no trouble surviving the winter here in a cold frame. The plant shown in the image had a recent drenching, and so the plumose quality of its spines is somewhat lessened. The big surprise for me, of course, are the flowers. I had other plants of this species in the past, but they were grown as house plants and never bloomed. Yet the young plant shown above is blooming freely: evidently life in the cold frame is good for it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Rheum × hybridum ‘Crimson Red’

Last year I bought two rhubarb plants for my little garden up on the hill (my community garden plots). I didn’t plant them in time and they rotted in their bags. By the time I thought about replacing them this year, it was already well into May. In a moment of weakness I ordered a replacement plant offered in an end-of-season clearance sale. Why did I do that? The plant was sent promptly, but it was nothing like what I expected. It was a brick-sized block of crown: the sides were flat as a sheet of paper and the corner angles were right angles.  Other than the fact that one end of the brick had scattered bumps which, with some imagination, might be construed as dormant buds for vegetative growth, it looked like a block of dressed wood.

I had no idea what to do with this thing. There was not a root in sight. I decided to soak it overnight. The next morning the seemingly dormant buds had indeed started to swell. That's what you see in the upper image.  So the brick was alive after all.  It was planted into the ground later that day, and I’ve got to say I was mightily surprised when within a week I noticed that the brick has put up small leaves. That’s one tough plant!