April 30, 2006

The Busy weekend and To Do Lists.

If I was to make a to-do list, for any weekend in May, it would most likely be ten feet long. There just isnt enough time, and I fianlly just decided to relaz a little and simply get done what ever I can get done, and not worry too much about what didn't.
The weather this weekend was about as spectacular as it can get in the North East U.S. Seventy deegrees, deep blue sky, light wind, and cold nights. Since it is Sunday, I now look at what I did actually get done.

A priority for me, was to transplant newly germinated Androsace Seedlings. The above photo of Androsace vandelii shows how nice these alpine plants can be in the srping, with thier tiny, hard mounds, covered with littly primula-like flowers. These Primula relatives (In the Family Primulaceae) are notoriously challenging to grow, let alone to germinate, so I feel rather fortunate to actually have some seedlings to work woith this year. I have about ten species growing from seed at this time. Seed must be harvested fresh, and sown imediately. The seed that I recieved seed was aquired from the UK, Abdrosace Group Seed Exchange, last December, when upon arrival, I sowed it in a gritty alpine mix, and then the flat was placed outside into the snow to stratify in the harsh New England winter, I suppose, the closest conditions that I could mimic to thier native alpine screes of Mount Everst and the surrounding Himalaya. Now, in Apri, they are sprouting. Anrosace form dense hard buns, at high alpine levels throughout Asia, the Himalaya and Europe. The seedligns must be carefully pricked out at this vulnerable cotyledon stage, before they form true leaves, and thier hair-like roots start to run down to reach glacial run off deep in the screes. In an effort not to nip the root tips,
I transpalnt mine with a magnifying glass into a free draining rocky soil. The plants are barely rice-sized. The same will be done with the seedling Gentians next weekend.
2. The other thing I did this weekend was to plant English Seet peas for cutflowers. I love sweetpeas, and every year import award wining Spencer varieties from England, jsut so I can have the long-stemmed, echibition quality sweet peas that one sees in the U.K. It does take some effort. Once the seed arives, around February, I soak them in tiny dishes, and sow them in individual pots in the cold greenhouse. Around mid April I start to prepare the beds with manure and rototill deeply. Sweet peas that can also be simply sown around St. Patricks day right into the cold soil of the garden, brush, twigs or chicken wire can be placed, for them to climb on and one is done until time to pick the blossoms. But I prefer to take the extra steps to see if I can get exhibition quality stems. The process required planting seedlings early in pots, then carefully setting them into the ground and pinching back the stem to the first pair of leaves. English growers have perfected growing sewwt peas over the years, and I encourage anyone interested to join the National Sweet Pea Society (U.K.), membership benefits will include four color guides, and a annual. In the U.K., there are shows and exhibitions just for sweeetpeas. They way I see it, why bother growing something average, if for a little extra effot, you can grow something of the highest quality.

Exhibition sweetpeas must be grown on cordons, these bamboo canes specially ordered to reach 7 feet tall, one each for each sweet peas seedling. The seedling, after being planted, pinched back to branch with stronger branches, is then inspected for new growth. I will choose the most vigerous new stem shoot and remove the others, leaving the plant to one single stem. Weekly labor will include keeping all side shoots off, all tendrils removed, tieing of each stem to the cane at intervals, fertilization and then harvest, near the Fourth of July.

April 25, 2006


After one of the dryest springs ever, we finally recieved two inches of cold rain this week. It allowed to me replant some of the smaller troughs, for a photoshoot for a friends trough company, as well as an opportunity to move outside of the greenhouse, some plants which could use the micronutrients of the nitrogen-rich rain. Noticel the early Alpine garden Auricula blooming in the larger trough? This form appears to have a nice deep, almost black-purple blossom, but next to it is a favortite Narcissus species of mine, the tiny, tiny Narcissus rupicola.It's hard to see it in the above picture, but look carefully, there is a daffodil there left of the primrose, but I warn you, it is teensy. And it is a must-have, since everyone who sees this wants it.

Native to Spain and Portugal, N. rupicola is has a blossom no larger than a dime, and next to this uncommon form of the GRape Hyacynth, Muscari talifolia, it does indeed seem somewhat out of place, but it's fragrance is so powerful for such a tiny bloom, and sturdy in the hard, cold rain. Unfortunatly, if you want to find N. rupicola, it is a species is absolutely difficult to find here in the U.S.. Occaisonally, a specialty grower will have a few, but at auctions, the price quicly goes over $25.00. Some species and other forms are available from the specialty growers in Europe and England, such as Broadleigh Bulbs and Pottertons Bulbs. Also, N. rupicola can show up at your local plant exchanges and auctions where collectors share plants, try your local Rock Garden Society, that is where I tend to find mine. The typical yellow Jonquils that are in bloom everywhere right now, have nothing on this tiny treasure.

Speaking about tiny treasures... in the Rock Wall, a unusual yellow form of another miniature species, Iris pumila, is blooming. This unnamed cultivar is collected from a garden in Russia, where there seem to be more yellow I. pumilla than the typical violet forms. This plant is only two years old, and has already spread to a 1 foot wide clump, which is no taller than 4 inches in bloom. The bright yellow Iris falls and standards really stand out against the still-grey garden, but this is one plant that will surely become a mess in the rains.

April 23, 2006

Gentian-izing and Bitterroots

Last June, while botanizing in the Italian Alps, the mountain range known as the Dolomites in Northern Italy, within the Italian Alps, I became enamored again by the king of all blue flowers, the Gentian. (Here, the high alpine species of G. verna), common throughout the high alpine meadows in the Alps. When ever I speak on rare plants to Garden Clubs and Plant Societies, it is these blue flowers that illicit the most ooh's and ah's. Blue, does that sort of thing to humans since according to color theorists,( and my day job as a designer and Trend Hunter) the human brain it just "wired" to be attracted to anything shimmery or Blue, since primatively we associate this most magical of colors, the most reflective color, with life sustaining water. So diamonds,morning-glories, glitter, Mother-of pearl, butterflywings, even slices of Danish ham with rainbows are just plain captivating, in a very personal and primative way.

Last year, I decided to start annual botanizing trips to interesting places, starting with the classics hikes of old-time alpinists, of course, this brings one to the Alps. These pictures from June of 2005 are along the trail known as the Bindleweg, a trail hiked in 1909 by the father of rock gardening, Reginald Farrer which today is in Italy, but was located in Austria until the borders changed during WW1.

My experience with Gentians began early in life, when my father, a wildflower enthusiast and artist, would allow me to skip elementary school, so that we could go botanizing in the woods near our home (where I live now) in central Massachusetts. In September, our native Bottle Gentians would produce not blue, but deep violet closed blossoms along streams and in wet areas. As I grew older, I tended to keep an eye open for anything blue in fields or woods, since I associated finding Gentians as a sort of gift, a treasure to experience, I guess becuae finding them is a rare experience and years would pass between any sightings.

The name comes from Gentius, king of ancient Illyria (180-187 B.C.), who was the first to discover its theraputic values. Modern herbalists still use tinctures today, and in some countries, like Germany, it is frequently used as a stomach illness medicine. In America, you may be familar with the bitter flavor, since Gentian root extract provides the bitter taste in many soft drink formulas from the late 1800's, the soft drink brand known as Moxie is primarily Gentian root extract, but it is also used in the flavoring Worcestershire sauce, as well as one of the 'secret' ingredients in Coca Cola.

Although the plant is commonly called Bitterroot by some modern herbalists it is not where the Montana and Idaho mountain range known as the Bitterroots recieved their name. This came from the explorers Louis and Clark who named the mountains after another 'Bitterroot", the alpine plant Lousia redvida, a genus names after Meriweather Louis himself, and a species whose long bitter-tasting root was used by Native Americans also for medicinal uses. Gentiana acaulis is limited to growing wild in the Alps, Cevennes and the Pyrenees only above 1000 m. It is often known as the stemless gentian, since the flower balances on a very short peduncle. Other species or Gentian have 1 m. tall stems, but most alpine species are short. Even though is grows at high elevation, it is growable in USDA Zones 4-7, the plant shown far below in a trough was in bloom under the snow in January, here in Massachusetts.

I now grow, this giant flowered Gentian G. acaulis, which I saw all over high alpine meadows in the Italian Alps. In thier native habitat they grow in thick grass, which holds their wide trumbet flowers up, I grow mine in hypertufa troughs with gravel, as many alpine growers do. The large single blossoms of G. acaulis, albeit out of scale, can be appreciated up close or when the tiny troughs are moved up on a stone wall. There were so many Gentian species blooming in the Alps last summer, that I have been motivated to grow many from seed this year, for planting in troughs, completely dedicated to the species. I am not sure how much luck I will have, given our hot and humd summer climate, but these sort of things rarely stop plant geeks from trying.

One of the most beautiful species in the Dolomites was G. verna. So far, seed that I obtained from the North American Rock Garden Society seed exchange is sprouting, after spending the cold winter outdoors after sowing in gravel covered pots, to stratify the seed (providing a frozen period, stimulating chemicals neccessary for many alpines to germinate). Later this summer, we shall see if I have had any luck. Until then, I am in the process of deciding where to travel this year for botanizing.....South Africa? Japan? or maybe even Patagonia.....or most likely locally in New Hampshire...It surely will be a last minute decision based on time and money.

April 21, 2006

Pleaching Hornbeams

This week I pruned the pleached Hornbeam hedge along the stone walk that leads out to the woods behind the house. I also decided to plant a new Pleached hedge of Hornbeams (Carpinus) along a new herb garden that I am planting on a very messy side of the house, since a huge 200 foot long Hemlock Hedge (Tsuga canadensis) that has been providing privacy in our yard since my grandfather planted it nearly a hundred years ago, is weakening and soon will be gone, due to an infestation of the Woolly Adelgid.

Pleaching is a ancient method of weaving branches to produce a hedge, often with the trunks showing. This French method is time and labor intensive, something that should make me reconsider the project, but on the other hand, it makes it seem even more attractive. Pleaching comes from the work Plechier, to weave, and one must use a tree species with flexible branches. Hornbeams are traditionally used, but one may also use Beeches.

The new planting will take at least five years before it starts to look good, but the bamboo structure helps to make the area seem less ugly.

April 19, 2006

Troughs and trays

Last year, I hiked the alpine trails in the Italian Dolomites, there, the alpine meadows we're spotted with a number of species of Blue Gentians, including this species, G. acaulis. This plant, growing in a tiny trough, has been in bloom since January, even under two feet of snow.

Not all South African bulbs are winter bloomers. In the foreground of this photo taken infront of the greenhouse walk, is the tiny Rhodohypoxis baurii, growing in a bonsai pot. Rhodohypoxis are easy enough for children to grow. The tiny corms are planted in the early spring, and they bloom quickly, making a fast colorful addition for about four or five weeks to a deck or terrace. They grow throught the summer, and will produce sporadic flowers, but the main bloom comes in the begining of the season. I grow a number of named varieties of Rhodohypoxis baurii, as well as a few species. The clump up quickly, a fe bulbs will fill a shallow pan in a year or two, and then I just divide them in mid summer, and fertilize them weekly with a good tomato fertilizer.

The grassy foliage starts to yellow near the end of the summer, and the pots go dry, stored up high on a shelf in the greenhouse until I start to water them in March or so. AS long as they don;t freeze solid, and you provide a fast draining soil, they grow like crazy. Even though they require fast draining soil, much like the bulbous South African Oxalis, lately I've been experimenting with pumice and promix for soil, but I let them sit in water, in a pan. Others may not have luck with this, but In the wild, Rhodohypoxis grow in seeps, so I let them sit in a pan of water until water is gone, then fill it again, a half inch or so up the pot. This is the same treatment that my Oxalis, Lachenalia and Nerine sarniensis get, and I haven't lost one to rot yet. Still, I am careful to watch for any sign of it. I would be curious to hear from others who have experimented with this method.

High Alpine Primula marginata

Primula marginata are primroses that you will not find at a garden center. They must by ordered from an alpine plant catalog, or grown from seed, but that is even more difficult. Actually, the plants themselves are just plain difficult to grow,at least for me, but are a nice challenge for someone who can give them the right conditions in which to grow them.

In my New England garden, I am trying some outside now, in the new crevice garden, where I can plant them between the tight rocks and give them a little overhead protection from the rain, but ideally, they need to be grown under glass, in a cold alpine house. Primula marginata have interesting dentate leave edges, with a distinctive white 'farina' covering the surface of the entire plant, even the blossoms have some. This protective coating is natures way of keeping moisture in, during high elevation squalls and winds, as well as protecting the plant from the radiation of the sun, the surface does give it a nice silvery appearance, but can be damages with careless watering or even rain. In the alps, they grow in the highest of elevations, over 10,000 feet where cloud mists and snowmelt seeps give them the fresh moisture which they need, and as well as cold fresh air, and no rain at all on the foliage. Just dry snow. These high alpine primula are precious and still rewarding to grow, even if you kill the plant, as I do, every other summer or so!

April 13, 2006

Of Peeps and Peepers....

The connection between Easter and the spring equinox is similar to the relationship between Christmas and the winter solstice - early Christians combined the pagan festivals which coincided with the shortest and the longest days of the year with Christian holy days. The word Easter itself even evolved from the word, East, extolling the significance of the sun rising and the lengthening day. Even the icons of eggs and bunnies of today's commercial Easter experience, are not that far off from what the pagans used since eggs, chicks and rabbits are all symbols for fertility. Perhaps the Peep isn't as commercial as we think it is.

Regardless of ones beliefs, nature knows that it is certainly spring, the spring peepers have begun mating since I can hear them through my car windows, when I route my drive home along the back roads of southern Massachusetts.Near my home they are all gone due McMansions and new homes. Which reminds me, spending daylight hours in an office does make one feel disconnected from the natural cycles, I do dream, perhaps unrealistically, that someday that I would take a cabin in the woods for just a year, similar to what sociobiologist and Univeristy of Vermont proffessor and author Bernd Heinrich did in his book A Year in the Maine Woods,and live more connected to nature. I can only imaging the daily experience of waking with the spring chorus of songbirds, and falling asleep to the sound of the spring peepers, the tiny tree frogs that fill the evening air with their mating call as they travel from vernal pool to vernal pool seeking a mate. A life without electricity, email (well, maybe email), or a clock may horrify some, but I like to think that it would reset my mind to a new centered place which one may only dream about.

Precious and Few: Auricula

The above gold centered form of a seedling which I started is not acceptable since it doesn't meet show standards for exhibition, since it is considered a "pin" and not a "thrum" referring to the stigma which sticks out far ( I know, those fussy Brit's again!), but of note, Primula auricula are already blooming in the rock garden, much earlier than last year, which is not surprising given the mild winter that we have had here in New England. As I said in an earlier posting, of all of the Primroses available, the Auricula type are the most choice and rare. Just try to find one. All Primula auricula prefer a mild to cool climate, and unfluctuating temperatures similar to what one gets in the British Isles. They can also be grown where they would get a solid deep freeze with out thawing, so surprisingly the plants can be grown very nicely in Alaska but are more difficult in my Massachusetts garden where they are exposed in January thaws, followed by sudden deep freezes as well as hot and humid summer temperatures. If you live in North America, the best success is achieved in the Pacific northwest where the winters are mild and the summers are cool.

Auricula primroses are worth the extra effort though, since they are indeed the race horses of cultured plants, and they are undoubtedly one of the most iconic reproduced flowers, reproduced by designers looking for that classic English look. One frequently sees them on needlepoint pillows and fine porcelain plates, but they are also something that one rarely ever sees live, in person. A first encounter is always a visual gift, since only a handful of people in the United States grows them, and even in England, they are left to the specialists.

Understanding their cultural requirements is essential though, in order to have any luck growing them. There is no faking through the process. Briefly, do homework on the basics.

1. Once you find a source, order them in September.
2, Pot them in a fast draining mix, there are many recipes online. Heavy on the Perlite if in doubt.
3. Plunge the pots in sand in a bright, but not sunny place, in a cold frame, alpine house or under a glass pane to keep the rain off of the leaves and flowers.
4. Let them freeze all winter, pull off any yellowing leaves, don't let them dry out nor get too mucky.
5. In Spring, new growth will start. Check for wilting leaves, a sign of root aphids (white, Mealy bug-like insects on the roots) Toss the plants out if infected, or use an insecticide carefully following manufacturers directions)
6. If buds form, enjoy the flowers, water daily being careful not to get water on the leaves or flowers, this can cause rot and wash the white distinctive 'farina' off of them.
7. Fertilize in spring and early summer with a high nitrogen or 10 10 10.
8. In hot summers, keep out of sun, and don't let them dry out. They plants will sulk in heat, but will recover with the onset of cool weather in Sept.
9. In Sept. repot in new soil (and check for insects again), new growth becomes strong in fall, and sometimes a few flowers bloom.
10. Divide when reporting, removing all suckers to pot up for more plants, and cut the carrot-like main stem shorter, to repot deeper to keep in scale with the pot.

The most growable are Border Auricula, which can be grown outside in a rock garden with alpine soil (fast draining), but the most beautiful are certainly those known as Show Auricula.
These must be grown under glass to protect the ring of white farina paste that makes the show Auricula so unique (see the red flower in the previous post).

Other Auricula types are Show Fancy Edged, often with green or grey edges and white farina, and some with grey or black rings, and Show Striped, with colored dark stripes, farina and edges that are green or grey. Double Auricula are becoming popular again, since the colors are so unlike anything else. I avoided doubles until I saw a display at the Chelsea Flower Show in England. Personally, I am attracted to the puce, muddy and brownish grey colors that many Auricula offer (although there are more common purple and bright colors) I just feel that the more unusual shades are what make the Auricula so interesting.

Only a few nurseries carry show Auricula in the U.S. (well, more like three, although Heronswood Nursery does carry a few garden Auricula on their web catalog), the two sources are Mt. Tahoma in Washington and Alpines Mont Echo in Quebec. Both have catalogs that you can order online, but don't have didactic web sites so you would have to print out an order form. Still, both are excellent nurseries offering supreme cutivars of this hard-to-grow plant.

With a little effort you can order them from England, like I do, or better yet if you are adventurous, you can grow them from seed, since excellent seed is offered through the annual seed exchanges that the American Primrose Society offers free to members.

If you just want to see these in person, then consider attending the National Primrose Society National Show held this year, on the east coast, in Boylston, Massachusetts just an hour west of Boston and the impressive and newly built Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Friday May 5th until May 7th. There you can not only see and photograph many plants in the primrose family, you can join the APS and tour the Botanic Garden and even buy some Primula from growers and members who will be there.

April 12, 2006

Primula auricula season

Red Self  Primula auricula

Primroses come in many shapes and forms, with hundreds of species with alpine primula that generally bloom at the first hint of snow-melt to the Asiatics that bloom in high summer. The most choice of all primula, are these, the Primula auricula, or, more commonly referred to as Auriculas.

In the United Kingdom, these are all the rage, but, of course, thier growing environment provides ideal conditions. Cool damp summers and mild winters. Auricula are one of the oldest potted plant grown my man. More accurately, outside of China, they ARE the oldest potted plant. The word FLORIST comes from the florists of the fifteenth century who collected these plants in the high alps, and potted them up to force for spring bloom on London streets, these men became known as florists.

Primula auricula
Primula auricula in the potting shed

Today, Primula auricula are separated into groups. There are garden or Alpine auricula, the easiest auriculas to grow for Americans, which can be planted in the alpine garden where they can receive good drainage, yet moisture...always a tough combo; and there are Show auricula,like the beautiful 'Red Ensign' above. Show auricula are by far the most collected, and in England, there are two societies just dedicated to these plants. Historically, especially in the eighteenth century, Show auricula we're grown by the wealthy and displayed in special theatres,where they could be displayed against a painted backdrop and protected from rain.

If you wish to grow these fascinating plants, keep checking in. The season is just beginning, and since the American Primrose Society's national show is in my home town
this year, I just started repotting some auricula to see if I can get some to bloom on time. In future posts, I will cover details and share more photos of many imported vintage Primula auricula, including historical details, where to buy them and how to grow them.

April 11, 2006

Forcing Iris bucharica

Iris bucharica in a pot
Iris bucharica

Still in the greenhouse, the last of the potted Juno iris to bloom this year is this native Iris from Afganistan, Iris bucharica.Another pot that I 'saved' from certain death from my new sand bed built the foundation of the greenhouse this past winter. Once I replace the sand with a faster draining type, like washed river sand, I will re plant it outside after our frost free date, which will be near the end of this April.

Not your average Iris, Juno iris are challenging for the novice grower, requiring a strictly dry summer rest after the foliage dies back in late June or early July. This dry period is the key to success. If you wish to try these gems outside, plant the root stock where you can provide cover (a plexi roof) for most of the summer, providing a bone dry summer similar to what the experience in the native habitat. Uncovered in Autumn, to allow the rain to hydrate them in preparation for the winter.

Albuca spiralis

As if the foliage isn't attractive enough, the blossoms on Albuca species are just as interesting,

The tender bulbs that produce this plant are all easy to grow and highly collectible. They can be grown on either a sunny winter windowsill, or in a cool greenhouse. Albuca come from South Africa and are another bulb plant that is currently being reclassified by many taxonomists, once placed in Hycinthaceae, it is now agreed generally to be closer to Ornithogallum. Not that we all really care, as long as everyone agrees.

Albuca bulb in bloom

The plant grows in the typical pattern of many South African bulbs, dormant half the year when it demands dry conditions, and damp, if not wet conditions for the other half of the year. To add complexity for those wishing to master this treasure, the soil mix must be well drained. This is a bulb which cannot freeze, so one must grow it either as a house plant in a cool sunny window, or in a greenhouse. Look for Albuca on Internet cactus and succulent shops, even eBay will do. A few specialty catalog sites will also carry mature bulbs, as well as some rare seed sources specializing in succulent and cactus seed, or South African bulb seed. 

April 8, 2006

Corydalis wilsonii

Corydalis wilsonii
Corydalis wilsonii, makes a fine cultivated potted plant for the cold alpine house, or mild garden.
The story of Corydalis, is similar to that of Galanthus (Snowdrops) - it can be highly collectable, yet the everyday garden can easily become confused with the genus. Left to the collections of the hyper- experienced gardener, who lusts after the finer species, I still believe that many of you can try some easier species - but OK, not this one!

There are many choice species available, ranging from bulbous gems like Corydalis solida, now available in a wide range of named and un-named selections, and many perennial species. Generally speaking, the names cultivars and selections of C. solida and related bulbous species are both costly, and sell out quickly at the few European mail order sources who carry them ( most cultivate their own varieties from seed). Even though many Corydalis are collectible,  a few species can be weedy or even thugs. Related to our common garden perennial Dicentra, or the Bleeding Heart, a few Corydalis are quite rare and collectible, which as you know, I find very appealing.

Alpine house Corydalis wilsonii from seed
A more unusual Corydalis for the collector, C. wilsonii looks great in a pot for most of the year.

 This yellow flowered species looks just as stunning when not in bloom, as the foliage is blue and almost succulent-like, not unlike a fern.  First discovered in 1903 by Chinese Wilson himself, C. wilsonii bears his name, and as a cliff dweller,  the species demands excellent air circulation. Clearly this is not a plant for everyone, but if you are up for a challenge ( which, naturally, I always am), it can be very rewarding. I like to fuss, and this is a plant that rewards the consciencous grower by blooming and impressing other plant enthusiasts. It is a bragging-rights plants - what can I say.

 If you have a greenhouse, and wish to try it, seeds can sometimes be found with a Google search from European sources, or seed can be found in the seed exchange lists from the North American Rock Garden Society, or the Alpine Garden Society. My best advice to those of you who might want to try cultivating a specimen, would be to provide a cold environment, one with excellent air circulation. I keep an inexpensive fan on the bench, which dries of the foliage each morning, and I grow my plants in crushed Tufa rock, or porous limestone rock, with a bit of garden soil added in for nutrients.

Many collectors have shared with me their success stories as well as their disasters with this species. Most admit that the first find success, but shortly after lose their plants to botrytis - this is a plant which easily rots if exposed to warm and humid temperatures.  New England is not the ideal climate, obviously. I believe that it this plant is more of a biennial anyway.

C. winsonii is relatively easy when young, and grown from seed (my plant was raised from NARGS seed sown in 2004). In its natural environment,  it grows relatively dry, on rocky limestone cliffs. It has been collected at 3050m in Hubei province, China, which provides a hint to the sort of conditions required for any success. A true alpine house plant, growers in the UK may have the best chance of success, especially if plants are kept under glass. The good news is that C. wilsonii is not shy to set seed my plants form in profusion, and I've read that it will self seed around the greenhouse, (Liden,Zetterlund; 2007), but I seem to miss when the seed capsules are ripe. Still, I get seedings in the pot.

April 6, 2006

Sax in the city- The Alpine House in Bloom

Silver saxifrage growing in tufa rock, an alpine jewel from the highest peaks.
In the tiny, greenhouse which I call the Alpine house the Saxifrages, often refered to as 'Sax's' by rock gradeners, are blooming. The plants that have been plunged in the raised alluminum sand beds, and virtually frozen solid from late Novemeber until February, are starting to bloom. I keep a mixture of alpines, but as I have said before what really seems to respond well are all silver Saxifraga and some Androsace (a Primula relative which grows in a dense bun shape, challenging to gorw, but one can have some success with them in America, not like thier other similar and more fussy relative, Dyonisia). ALl of these Alpines can be orderd only during two times during the year,, many o fmine come in an autumn shipment, when I pot them up in a gravely, fast draining soil, top dress with granite chips, and plunge into the sandbed. You can also order them in the early spring. I will talk more about alpine this weekend, but if you want something different for your deck, why not plant a trough, or a strawberry pot or even a window pot of alpines. Check back and find out more.

Alpine house plants
My alpine house plunge bed in full glory.
Silly, I know, but yes, I do mix up what grows in the Alpine house with more unconventional alpine house plants. I like to move blooming specimens from the larger glass greenhouse to this more open-air, hence - cooler - house, when they re in bloom in the spring, since the glass house can become hot, near 90 deg. F in the spring sun, even with the vents open. Managing a collection in such a way does have its benefits. One can have Rhodohypoxis baurii (The Hot pink flowers on the left), a tiny clustering bulb (corm) plant that is as easy as pie, when grown in shallow pans, in bloom at the same time as plants native to the high Iitalian alps.

April 5, 2006

Propagating Lachenalia

Lachenalia culture
Pollinate Lachenalia with a soft paint brush, just a gentle swipe with mimic a sun bird or a honey bee.

Many gardeners who keep a cool greenhouse are familiar with Lachenalia or Cape Hyacinths. Strangely enough, even though you may have never heard of this plant, some of my gardening books from the early 19th Century list dozens of species which were imported for cold greenhouse culture. Ridiculously easy, perhaps even for the cool windowsill or unheated room, the genus remains difficult to find for most gardeners. few nurseries sell bulbs, which leaves seed as the primary source for home collectors.

When bulbs are available, these are easy plants to propagate as Lachenalia can be propagated in a number of ways. First, you can pollinate your own plants ( the seed is easy to grow - relax, I know this all sounds so impossible!), but even better, if you can obtain a few bulbs for your winter garden ( yes, these are winter growers under glass), Lachenalia can be propagated by a strange, forgotten method which you may have not seen before - leaf cuttings. Leaf segments will produce bulblets in just a couple of months. Pretty cool, right?

Simple crosses can be made between species as well as within cultivars, but I prefer to keep my species pure, which is easier in the winter ( unless the greenhouse vents open and bees enter the greenhouse, but to be honest, I am not certain that lachenalia are insect pollinated, as most of these smaller South African bulbs are bird or even desert rat pollinated. Use a small camel hair watercolor brush, and you know the method - think back to your high school biology class. Simply sweep the brush across the stamens, being sure to get pollen onto the stigma. Some species produce a tiny cloud of pollen, which can drop out of the blossom when touched with the brush. Use this as a test, as the time of day is important - the winter  mornings can be damp and cold in the greenhouse.  Be sure to wait for a sunny day, so that all the sexy bits are dry enough.  Naturally, a clean brush is essential.

Raising lachenalia from seed
Lachenalia seed pods when ripe. The seed is large and easy to remove.

Seeds will form by June, and shortly after the pods will split. Different species produce different capsules. When you must collect seed at this point, check the capsule daily to watch for splitting, being careful to get them before they drop (if they do, just don't repot for a season. I have some pots full of seedlings, even though I thought I had collected all of the seed. Since Lachenalia are summer dormant in the Northern Hemisphere, (but our Australian friends are probably just getting their season under way) they must be kept dry all summer after the plant goes dormant, and watering started again in September. The same holds for seeds. I just store them in an envelope or sow them in dry medium, and start watering them in September. I plant the seed very deep in the pot, perhaps 2 or 3 inches down, which I started after seeing that the young seedlings eventually pull themselves down to the bottom of the pots, via contractile roots, and the bulbs lengthen to adjust. By planting deeply, I can save a year or two presumable saving some energy that the little geophytes were wasting in their attempt to relocate to a more favorable latitude, and thus, I now get flowers after three years instead of five. But wait...there is an even faster way to get bulbs...Leaf cuttings.

Propagating Lachenalia
Lachenalia leaf cuttings roots in a mixture of sand and Perlite. Leaf cuttings will produce small bulblets in a few weeks.

Raising Lachenalia from leaf cuttings

The leaf cutting method is by far, the easiest way to propagate many Lachenalia species, particularly the larger and showier Lachenalia aloides selections. Lachenalia generally produce only a pair leaves, so the only downside is that one leaf per plant can be harvested. Cut one leaf with a sterile razor blade or knife and cut it into three pieces, marking the bottom end with a marker, as this is the only end that will root and produce bulblets. Dip the bottom end into rooting gel, and place it in to a flat of fast draining yet moist, perlite and sharp sand.

Place the pan into a bottom heated propagating case, and within a couple of months, a few bulbils will grow from the bottom of each cutting . The disticial leave closest to the center of the plant produces the most bulbs, confirmed by research in Holland, so I only cut into three pieces now instead of five or six, as I once used to. Leaves rooted in January, will produce a dozen or more small bulbs by the end of that first growing season. These bulbs reach blooming size much faster, I have had L. aloides ssp. quadricolor bloom in the second year, so this seems to be the far faster way, and seeds are the best way if you want many bulbs, and one can't really have too many Lachenalia, can they!

Unusual Velthiemia bracteata

Yellow Velthiemia in bloom
Velthiemia bracteata, in a yellow form

Since it is snowing today, at least 6 inches, it's back to the greenhouse for some late South African winter blooming bulbs. Velthiemia bracteata, a large, easy to grow, even in a home, produces a large rosette of shiny wavy-edged leaves very much almost hosta-like, all winter long. In late winter and early spring, a flowerbud emerges from the center, and a stalk similar to a Kniphophia, or Red Hot Poker, rises topped off with a panicle of flowers. Commonly found in a pink form, there are a few named varieties available but they are very hard to find.

Velthiemia bracteata 'rose alba' in bloom
Velthiemia bracteata 'Rose-Alba'

An all yellow form, Velthiemia bracteata "Yellow Flame' has been available since the early twentieth century, but I have only seen it available once. Not truly yellow, at least in the weak winter sun that we get in the north easter U.S., it is lovely, and my favorite.

The plant, like other South Africans, likes to spend the summer dormant, and dry, and beins growth in Septemeber, when the temperatures begin to become cooler, and you start watering again.

Velthiemia bracteata rose alba
Some varieties of Velthiemia are very collectable, such as this pale form sold as Velthiemia 'Rose-Alba'

A more unusual form of V. bracteata, is V. bracteata 'Rose-Alba', shown here with yellowish cream blossoms that fade to a pink near the base.

April 3, 2006

Petasites, Giant Japanese Butterbur

Petasites flower in garden
Petasites blossom

Behold, the Giant Japanese Butterbur. Well, OK...it's not too 'gian't yet...but just wait. This garden thug is one you may want. It is by far the earliest perennial to bloom here in central Massachusetts. Petasites japonicus 'Giganteus', is indeed the largest of the Japanese Butterbur's. Most petasites are lush and tropical when viewed in mid-summer gardens, but in late winter, it's the blossoms which provide some well needed garden interest.  In our Massachusetts garden, when we have no snowcover, the petasites emerge in February, surprising us with garden flowers when least expected, and  open for business for the bravest of honey bees.

Flowers on petasites
Petasites flowers emerging in our woodland garden.

April 2, 2006

Snakes Head Iris

The Snakes Head Iris, or Widow's Iris (Hermodactylus tuberosus), is an easy, but less familiar bulb plant native to the former Yugoslavia and Greece. It's not rare at all, people just don't ever grow it. It is commonly found for sale in the autumn in garden centers and catalogs, but gardeners either tend to avoid the bulb for the Dutch classics ( tulip, Hyacunths, etc.) or it may just seem to be difficult to grow.

I can't really speak to its garden performance, since I grow these by bouncing them back and forth from the bulb bed, back to the greenhouse.I do question how showy it would be in the garden, since it's natural blooming time would be in late May outside, and it's green and brown flowers could easily be lost in the mess of the competition, but forced in the greenhouse, it is a pleasant show on a cold April evening.

As you can see from the photo, the blossom is unusually colored, and is difficult to describe. But the rich velvety chocolate falls complement the green shades in a very stylish way.