May 30, 2006

Iris gracilipes var. alba

The Iris is an important flower in Japan. As with many seasonal plants and flowers, the period when the Iris species native to Japan bloom (in May and June) involve many cultural events and celebrations. On my last visit to Japan, I missed the Iris celebration but I have been fortunate to have friend like Masahai Yamguchi who so generously shared a few other plant events with me including Hydrangea in June, Plum Blossom in February and the Snow Peony in the winter. In the future, I hope top see some of the other evernts, but on this nice spring day in ouor home garden we can enjoy the tiny yet precious Japanese native dwarf iris, Iris gracilipes in it's rare but beautiful white form, "alba'.

This tiny native Japanese Iris is charming in the rrock garden, where even when it isn't in bloom, itt's foliage is attractive. No taller than 10 inches tall, the plant always recieves comments from visitors. In Japan, enthusuast grow many iris species in flat pans, where they are coddled and fussed over with as many as 20 ryzomes planted to a pan. Then they are forced and displayed in either competitions or in the home in a special place. Ther everence and respect of the Shinto religion is reflected in the patience and appreciation in the presentation when the pan is displayed in a Tokonama, a quiet japanese alcove consisting of a painted scroll, a tatami mat and grass cloth screens.

May 22, 2006

Asleep for the summer

Nerine sariniensis entering summer dormancy

This last weekend in May, which is a three-day holiday in America – Memorial Day- marks the start of summer for many. At the very least, it is the weekend old-timer traditionally plant out tomatoes and cucumbers, red geraniums and cemetery plots. For plant geeks and enthusiasts who are obsessed with growing highly unusual plants, this time of this year means that a good half of our collections are starting to enter a dormancy, triggered by the lengthening days, hot temperatures and dry conditions.

Many plants and bulbs that grow in climates like South Africa and Patagonia are designed by nature to go dormant when it becomes hot and dry. Any plant that has a specialized water storage capability can survive through a hot arid summer, these plants are collectively and botanically known as geophytes, and many geophytes from arid areas have adapted their growing and blooming season around the climate, hence, they grow and bloom during the African rainy season, and slip into the safety of semi or complete dormancy during the hot sunny dry season

Nerine sarniensis in bloom in November
This Memorial Day weekend starts the dry season in my greenhouse, most of the bulbs that have been growing blooming all winter, are either finishing up blooming, or have set seed and are already dormant. This weekend involves the final collecting of seed, the cleaning of pots, and the restaging of plants. Collections of potted bulbous Oxalis, Marine species, Tecophilaea, Narcissus romieuxii et al, Lachenalia, Romeulea, Velthiemia, Fritillaries and Cyclamen species all are relocated to dry areas of the greenhouse. Each of these species requires slightly different attention throughout the summer, but on the whole, they remain mostly dry and some even bake in the sun bone dry.

There are other bulbs that go dormant for the summer, and many of these come from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, and South America. Think about it. Even in the garden, many of your spring blooming bulbs like crocus, Narcissus and the like, have bloomed, grown foliage and have disappeared underground until next spring, by the time early July comes around. Indeed, most bulbs like this cycle, and prefer to be dry and dormant during the summer.

The rare blue Chilean Tecophilaea cyanocrocus
Tecophilaea cyanocrocus, the rare Blue bulb from South America once extinct in its habitat, but recent reports state otherwise, these Tecophilaea also need dry summer treatment, and their pots are allowed to dry out as they plant begins to yellow. They remain dormant until September.

Tecophilaea are slow to divide; yet they do divide for some growers. Growing them from seed makes the most sense for those who are more capable, and since bulbs, when one can find them, sell for $15. 00 to $25.00 and up, and a decent potful may require a second mortgage. Don't let that put you off; clearly a single bulb is just as exciting, and a fine way to start off a collection.

A pot of Narcissus romieuxii in November
Speaking of seed, the very best way to get the winter blooming dwarf narcissus known as the Bulbocodium type (N. romieuxii, N. albidus and the like) to fill a pot, is to grow them from seed. The plants that have bloomed all winter are now looking pretty ratty, as they yellow and die, but the many seedpods are all saved, and sown immediately, deep in pots, but not watered until we start the fall watering again in Sept. The theory is that once sown deeply, the little moisture in the soil protects the bulb seed from desiccating too much, perhaps mimicking what actually happened high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco where they grow. Deep in their seed pot, the bulb seed rests all summer cool and deep in thier pot and the hot dry sun pounds on the surface. When the fall rains come, in September, and the cooler temperatures, they can start growing, triggered by nature.

Collecting seeds from N. romieuxii
Narcissus romieuxii seed is small, and yet sturdy. Plant the seed now at the time of harvesting, but keep the pots dry until autumn, then begin watering. These tender Narcissus can only be grown in frost free areas, or ideally in a col greenhouse or Alpine house throughout the winter. Nerine sarniensis too are put away dry, in their pots, for a vacation. Although the Nerine enjoy an occasional splash or have water as most plants in the Amaryllis family do while dormant. The last thing they want to do is shrivel, and their roots really never go dormant. Just knock a Nerine out of its pot in August, and you will see how fresh their fleshy roots look. The few people who grow these in North America have all connected on-line, and many of us believe that a little water may help during their summer rest.

A pot of seed pods split and ready
With these seed maturing daily, I must carefully check each morning to collect the seed as the pods split. The seeds are saved in little cups and then I pot them in a fast draining soil, relatively quickly, planting them deep, nearly 3/4's of the way down in a small pot,sowing them rather thickly. It is important not to water them at all however, until September 1st or so, when watering starts for thier parents and all of the summer dormant bulbs. This best mimics tha autumn rains along with the cooler night temperatures and shorter days, all of which stimulate the bulbs that have been dormant all summer to start growing in the greenhouse, where they can bloom in the winter months. I ahev found that the seeds of many bulbous plants respond best this way, a fien and handy tip taught to me by Ian Young, President of the Scottish Rock Garden Society who grows a large collection of Narcissus of this type.

Cyclamen species are similar, also requiring a summer rest that is dryer, but they are just starting to go dormant, so more on those later!

May 21, 2006

A Plethora of Auricula

Primula auricula are spring blooming primroses that are hardly ever seen at garden centers or in mail order catalogs. Over the years, I have been able to assemble a collection of various vintage forms of both types of P. auricula, tha types known as Show auricula, with thier paste-ringed eyes, so cherished by the Brit's in eitheenth century England, and the type more easily grown in well-drained locations, the Garden Auricula, with a darker palette and no white farina on the blossom.

Just for fun, and in case I write a book on this sort of hobby of collecting rare plants that are out of fashion, I assembled this grid of blossoms to demonstrate the diversity in this one species. Shot on a vintage piece of paper that lined a book from the 1800's.

May 17, 2006

Rediscovering Scented Violets

I tend to become obsessive about plants that are either new to me or new to culture,often spending hours researching on-line or in books, lost a complex but delightful moment of discovery and learning. But sometimes plants are not new, but have merely fallen out of fashion for one reason or another, a fact which may make them more fascinating since they now have a story. Which brings me to a current obsession, the Parma violet. Although I have experimented with growing a few scented violets in the cold greenhouse, I can't say that I have ever been accused of becoming obsessed about them, until now.

All of this was triggered by an article in the latest issue of the fine journal, HORTUS which inspired to examine growing these once popular plant again, before others discover them, or help re establish a popularity, or feed the phenomenon. Humans must be ready to rediscover these rare and precious plants again, since it has been nearly a hundred years since they we're found in a florist shop or garden center, and surprisingly, the common sweet violet,Viola odorata and the Parma Violet, we're both flowers that once we're the third most popular cut flower in the world, surpassed only by the rose and the carnation.

Parma and other scented Violets are not the wild violets that one find in their yards. They may look similar, but these are tender, and not only can they not freeze, they do not set seed, and therefore never become a pest. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Violets were such a popular cut flower, both in America and in Europe, that Napoleon and Josephine declared them their most favorite, aiding in their popularity. Trains from Toulouse France would deliver over 13,000 bunches a year just to Paris and Russia. In America, there we're over 300 violet nurseries in the Hudson River valley alone in 1880, and every major city had bunches of the fragrant purple flowers ready for a gentlemens lapel, or for topping off a box of chocolates, or for a nose gay to take to the opera. The violet scent, so distinctive, yet so fleeting, since the flowers scent will numb the nose, since a chemical in the violet fragrance temporarily knock out ones sense of smell, not a bad thing in those times of open sewage and few baths.

For a number of reasons, violets quite suddenly fell out of favor in the early twentieth century. After 1910, most violet nurseries we're gone, and with them, the classic old varieties, most are now lost. Which just adds to their appeal for me. Bunches of violets were no longer a fixture on the streets of New York and London. Many of the named French varieties we're either lost through neglect or through the wars. After WWI, most violet production in Europe came to a halt, and WW2 finished off the rest of the growers in France. In America, the violet fell out of fashion, as imported African Violets (saintpaulia, and not related, came into the scene.).For nearly ninety years, fragrant Parma violets, once the choice for the finest weddings, special events and as a fragrance for candies, perfume and gum, we're virtually extinct. The classic gift at Christmas and for Saint Valentines Day,the bunch of twenty five large scented violet blossoms, with a White Camellia, gone. Replaced now by the newly introduced poinsettia or other cut flowers.

Recently, in the past few years, a few of the classic named varieties are reappearing, some have been found growing behind fallen down greenhouses in Europe or in back yard gardens. And in Toulouse France, the Violet is once again celebrated, even if they are mostly grown for the perfume industry.

Now, my goal is to acquire as many of the vintage varieties again, and grow them, photographing them for my book, and learning the classic cultural techniques for cultivation. I've been lucky enough to find two classic vintage books from the early 1900's on growing scented Parma violets commercially in England, and a book from America, as well as finding a source for some plants. Since they have to be ordered in May, this was perfect timing.

Even though I have a few Parma violets growing now in the greenhouse, I will be adding five other named French varieties, and hopefully propagating them for some cut flowers this winter. I find that the idea of recreating a lost cultural tradition such as the presentation of a nosegay of cut parma violets, fascinatingly charming, and exactly the direction that modern gardening should turn to. If one wishes to discover something new and meaningful about plants that others forgot about. Living antiques. Let's see this autumn, when they start blooming, if I can recreate the success that the French have had, and regardless, I am planning a trip to the Violet festival in Toulouse next October.

May 14, 2006

Acquiring a Primrose Collection

Our Friends garden before we started digging primula

The Car Full of Primroses
We spent the weekend helping a friend, well, actually, it was her most generous gift,to let us take a collection of Primrose hybrids, crosses and species, representing nearly forty years of breeding and growing, and relocate it from her rural upstate New York paradise in the woods, to our garden in Massachusetts, a nearly six hour drive away. She and her husband are moving to a new house on top of a mountain, from a deep woodland location, where they have lived for nearly thirty years. Sharing collection of plants is something that gardeners just do, and banking a collection with a capable gardening friend lucky enough to accommodate the collection, will allow one to perhaps double their chances of not losing a favorite cross.

Regardless, we we're all thrilled with this scenario, since She knows that the plants will have a great home, one with far fewer rocks in the soil, and once her move to a beautiful new house is completed, she can re-establish a collection again, and we have then all shared. We have been so fortunate to have now added many of Judy's award-winning crosses and species in including P. eliator, P. acaulis, P. juliae, P. veris, P.x polyanthus, Cowichan, P. japonica, P. auricula and many more including strains from Barnhaven and vintage strains from seed. This sort of instant-collection happens rarely, and I have been fortunate to have been gifted some important collections like this in the past, with winter-blooming Narcissus bulbocodiums, and a species collections of Cyclamen. This important primula collection will now get our breeding efforts kick-started, and we are thrilled and eager to get started. With a few hundred of seedlings of our own to plant out this fall, we are underway. Garden primula are something that few people grow, limiting their primrose consuming to the one dollar acaulis types forced by florists in the supermarket in the winter, and then disposing of the killed plant a week or two later. I urge you to try garden primula, and see what you and the Home depot's of the world are missing out on - a long lived, over-blooming tastefull spring-blooming plant that in precious and unusual enough to cause one to gasp and say, wow, those are really different.

Our friend Judy's garden is located in south central New York state, and even though we left Massachusetts in a driving heavy rain, with floods threatening and a National Disaster about to be declared, a few hours later, after descending from the Berkshire mountains in western Massachusetts. We entered sun and the spring once again enveloped us.

Preparing a space for replanting primula

Upon arriving home at one AM, we entered rain again. It is amazing that the day in the next state over was sunny and warm, and back home, the nearly seven of inches of badly needed rain fell. Sunday was spent in rain gear and mud, fighting off hypothermia and digging in gorgeous primula in the muck. We carefully unloaded the truck and separated primula by species, type and by the conditions that they needed. Here, the moisture lovers are getting planted in a damp area near the Petasites (Japanese Butterbur). See how big they are getting now?

Planting Primula japonica in heavy rain

May 12, 2006

Anemones and Anemonella's: More Spring Ephemerals

Anemonella thalictroides 'Oscar Schoaf'
The wild Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, which grows in large colonies in the wood behind our our house (and which still does), were one of the first wild flowers which I learned the name of (the trillium was the first). As I have grown as a gardener, I have learned to appreciate the entire family of the woodland Ranunculids, including the still hard-to-find, Anemone nemerosa and it's close relative, the striking Anemonella thalictroides, above.

These small, bulbous or rhyzome forming Anemones which carpet woodlands in Western Europe and Asia are slowing becoming more popular with informed gardeners as long as one can provide the edaphic woodland conditions which they thrive in, ( wet springs and dry summers) exactly what most spring ephemerals want. Ephemerals that bloom in April and May, take advantage of the fact that the woodland trees have not come into full leaf, and by the time that they do, they not only shade the harsh sun, the canopy forces the trees to drink more water, and the soil in the woodland becomes dry, just as most ephemerals are going dormant, in early July. Now THAT is intellegent design!

Selected named forms of Anemone nemorosa and Anemonellas of the woodland pursuasion are available at the better plant nurseries, found usually in the woodland section where wild flowers are sold, aYou will only find them in the spring, since they die back and are gone by July. They are available from a few specialized nurseries or bulb catalogs in the autumn. Look for them, since they are well worth the effort to find, and once planted, will slowly spread and colonize neatly, never becoming a pest, and providing tasteful displays that come at a time when the garden could be full of garish Tulips and Hyacynths.

A double form of Anemone nemorosa

I am able to grow some named forms of Anemone nemorosa and Anemone thalictoides, as well as some double formed names. Whenever I find a pot at a nursery or at a rare plant auction I buy them. Every fall, I try to order a few from the catalogs, since they jsut don;t spread fast enough. A sinlge plant of a named form like 'Lismore Blue'will divide slowly to about 8 plants in ten years. With careful division annually, one can speed the rate at which they spread, but there us usually too many other tasks at hand at this season, and by the time I rememeber, they are gone.

Anemone nemorosa "Bowles Variety"
The white double forms and more simple single forms of A. nemorosa spread more quickly than the named forms, but the named forms are much larger. While at a visit to Kew Gardens in England a couple of years ago, I saw thousands of Anemone appenina, a a species very similar and perhaps superior to A. nemorosa, reinforcing the fact that one should plant as many as one can afford. Unfortunately, this species is not hardy in my central Massachusetts garden, and I must settle for A. nemorosa, which is still a fine garden plant indeed. Most of these small bulbous Anemones and Anemonella are hardy to USDA Zone 5, and some to zone 4-10.

May 10, 2006

Bladder pods to Wasabi: Brassicas in Bloom

Wasabia japonica

Anyone who has had the good fortune to eat at a high-end Japanese restaurant, such as Nobu, knows what a treat fresh ground Wasabi is. The spincy, pungent shaved 'horseradish' so important in Japanese cuisine, is not a horsradish at all, but a member of the cabbage family, Brassicaceae, a family that also includes Brocolli, Rape Seed (from which Canolla oil is made, and Mustard. The Wasabi one gets in ninety five percent of Japanese restaurants in America, as well as in Japan, however, is sadly synthetic, a pale green powder from a small tin, which one mixes with water to create a paste. Fresh Wasabi is difficult to grow and is very expensive. The demand is so high that only a few specaily growers can supply the fine restaurants. SO I opt to grow it myself, finding the plants from a few growers. Try Freshwater Wasabi.

Cardamine macrophylla

Cardamine are attractive garden perennials that are somewhat ephemeral in nature, but are a relatively under utilized species of which I am becoming more fond of. Cardamine are a little difficult to find, and impossible at garden centers. They are growable from fresh seed, but rarely produce it. Once established they are long lived. A few species are invasive, but it seems that the good ones never are as is the case with this C. macrophyla above, which is stop-dead gorgeous in the garden, with it's one inch wide blossoms. My three plants have yet to spread into a clump, but I keep trying. Dan Hinkley advises that the best time to propagate is by severing the rhyzomes in early spring before growth. Something to try next year. The rhyzomes have thick, fleshy leaf-like scales, and each scale has at it's base a dormant bud if you sever the rhyzome and replant it. If you never do this, the plant just seems to produce one stem per plant. And Cardamine is a species that looks best with lots of company. Kew plant sections with up to 20 plants at a time. AThey bloom once in early spring, then are gone by July.

Lesquerella kingii

Native to America's west, Lesquerella kingii is an endangers brassica from the northern California hills. The Bladder Pod produced large inflated 'bladder-like'seed pods in late summer, but alpine gardeners fidn the yellow flowers attractive in the alpine garden. This plant, growing in the raised stone wall, is blooming in early May, in our Massachusetts garden. Stay tuned for the bladders! Some bladderpods have agricultural merit, for an oil pressed from thier seed.

May 7, 2006

American Primrose Society National Show

Show Auricula's at the National Primrose Show

A fancy striped show auricula, with outstanding coloration

There have been no postings for the past four days, since I was busy with the National Primrose Show, which was hosted, once again, by our New England Chapter, and held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, in Boylston Massachusetts. What I like about primula, is that it is a genus that is more challenging, and one that few people see reresented well since few see beyond the silly little acaulis primroses that one finds in supermarkets for 99 cents in January.

Show primula are some of the most beautiful flowers favored by botanical artists
After hosting a party at the house on Thursday evening, we tours local gardens on Friday, and the exhibition and events, such as speakers and the banquet which occured over the weekend. Now, late on Sunday night, exhaustion has fianlly caught up with us, and it is time to rest, and think about next years Nationals, which be held in Juneau, Alaska.

Another National winner grown by Susan Schnare
Before I go to bed, here are a few shots of some winning show auricula, these are the winners and could be considered the best primroses in America, grown by Susan Schnare of New Hampshire, who also won best in show.

May 2, 2006

May Day Alpine Wall

This May is the anniversary of the raised stone alpine wall along the west foundation of the greenhouse. Alpine walls are basically, rock retaining walls, filled with a special fast-draining soil mix and rocks, with added drainage pipes, used to grow fussier alpine plants which require such conditions. As this bed reaches three years old, the plantings are finally maturing, and it is fu to see seedling appear, even of tulip species, since bulbs love the fast drainage and more protected environment.

A raised alpine garden with planted rock wall

This wall is planted with alpine plants and bulbs, that are found throughout the world. Some rock gardeners focus on specific areas, like Turkey, or the alps. but I prefer to mix it all up, based on the sunny aspect of the location. Alpine gardens generally peak in bloom around May and June, which happens to be the peak alpine bloom period in the wild, so plants can grow quicly and reproduce int he short alpine summer, enjoying the spring run-off.

Tulipa whittalii

Native to Turkey, Tulipa whittallii is an easy species. If you haven't tried species tulip, you will find them more prolific than regular tulips, more like daffofils. Species tulips are by far the most effective tulips to grow. I suppose there is a place for hybrid tulips, but as everyone knows, they don't last long. Species forms of tulips should be planted en masse, with a hundred or so in an area. They can also be had at most garden centers and home stores, as well as most good catalogs. They never seem like anything interesting, but they always get comments once in the garden. And they come up every year.

Viola pedata - Alpine Birds Foot Violet
Last year I planted many pots of viola species seed, including this jewel, Viola pedata, the birds foot violet. Theya re very easy from seed, requiring a brief chilling to stratefy in the spring, and then the flats are kept out doors until fall, when they can be planted in the garden. These violets are also hard to find at garden centers, and can only really be found at alpine nurseries via mail and online. When I bring these plants to a plant sale, they always get left behind, unless I show one in bloom, and then they are gone in a snap. It's the violet thing. It scares people. But this genus, Viola, is broad, and many are not invansive at all. Remember, Pansy's are Viola's too. These alpine and woodland gems are extremely floriferous and have a hue that is unmatched in the spring garden. I am currently looking for Viola pedata biflora, which has a bi colored flower.

May 1, 2006

Africa's Rarest Pelargoniums

Pelargonium incrassatum

The genus Pelargonium is largely South African, with more that 80 percent of the 270 species found on the continent. Without going into the details of the differences between the name Geranium and Pelargonium, for those newer to plants and taxonomy, a gentle reminder that Pelargonium, what I am writing about here,is the genus encompasing the red 'geranium' of Memorials and windowboxes,'and must not be confused with the Genus Geranium, the familiar and trendy Cranesbills, the hardy garden perennial. The species you will see here are about as far away one can get from the red geranium from the cemetary and still considered a Pelargonium

Pelargonium auritum

Of the 270 species of Pelargonium, many are diverse whihc we are already familiar with, such as the scented geraniums, but by far the most unknown and the most interesting are these, the geophytic and tuberous forms, collectively known as the Section Hoarea Pelargoniums.

P. crithmifolium

These curious Pelargoniums look nothing like thier over hybridized cousins, yet they still have some characteristics familiar to the eyes of the more keen gardener. I remember my mother telling me that in the 1940's they could pull up thier Red Geraniums, and hang them bare-root in the root cellar, where thier fleshy thick stems would hold water and in spring, replant them. This water-storring capability is a trait which many African plants exhibit, many Section Hoarea Pelargoniums have potato-like organs, or woody carrot-like stems, and some even have thick fleshy leaves. These are indeed some of South Africa's rarest plants, and recently becoming highly collectable amongst those who not only collect Caudex plants, but with those who like strange and unusual specimens. Generally, these are not considered pretty plants by todays garden center-supertunia-standards.

P. echinatum

A more geophytic pelargonium, which may be more "growable' for the beginner is this gem, P. echinatum. Its greyish foliage and showing blossom are practically ornamental, well, as ornamental as these species can get. It is safe to state that if you are not a coinnoisseur of plants, you may find these species a bit unattractive, "pretty' is rarely attached to any of these pelargoniums. They are the less-attractive cousins to the Geranium. My brother laughs when I show him my Section Horeas Pelargonium in the winter, with thier twisted bare thorny stems and three leaves, as I exciteldy point to a skinny thin single stem with five barelt noticable buds on it. One wonders why we are attracted to the unusual, when others clearly don't see the magic.

Pelargonium crithmifolium is another species with less noticable flowers (as if the others are showy!) but the foliage is beautifully detailed with thick bulbous stems. This is a species which can be easily grown on a sunny windowsill in the winter.

Pelargonium auritum is a true Section Hoarea species, with the classic habit of going dormant half the year, and then sending out foliage in the fall, and flowers in the spring before entering dormancy again. Teh almost black flowers and tiny, and the plant itself is no taller than six inches, as many of these Hoarea are.

If you are interested in attempting or collecting any of these noteworthy plants, a handsome collection can be started, since they are highly collectable and choice. As it is with many of these types of plants, they are very difficult to find. The rarer forms can easily be grown from seed however, and there are two very good sources for seed (and occaisionally plants), yet newer restrictions are making importing seed more difficult, I did order some this past fall, all have germinated in two weeks. Seed can be ordered from Penrock Seed, in South Africa, and , B&T World Seeds in France. Both are reliable and provide excellent fresh seed and collect responsibly.

P. echinatum spending some time in the direct spring sun. This is perhaps the closest in appearance to the more common Pelargoniums which you may know.

I encourage anyone looking for something different to try these more interesting Pelargoniums, they are completely growable indoors, yet I grow ours in a greenhouse, I had kept many species indoors in sunny windows. Other geophytic species can be found at Logee's Greenhouses in Connecticut (but call them, since they do not list these on-line or in thier catalog. They carry P. echinatum and P. crithmifolim, as well as a couple other species).

P. appendiculatum is a very unusual tiny plant in the Section Horea, with denst furry leaves growing from a woody caudex stem which looks like a carrot.