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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 asiastics that bloom in high summer. The most choice of all primula, are these, the Primula auricula, or, more commonly refered 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 srping bloom on London streets, these men became known as florists.
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 recieve 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 begining, 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.
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's are a little tough to grow, but they are magnificane when grown right, and this species is one of the easiest, since it can tolerate a little more moisture than other species of Juno Iris. They all require a strictly dry summer rest, after the foliage dies back in late June or early July, which is the trick. So they need to be planted where they can be covered for most of the summer, to keep the rains off of them. Then uncovered in Autumn, to allow the rain to hydrate them in preparation for the winter.
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.
All one really needs to know is that this is a very sweet bulb, which is sometimes collected by succulent enthusiasts since it too like a fast draining soil mix, and it produces incredibly bizarre spiraled leaves. I show the full plant shot of mine, since the leaves are not spiraled, so I do question the identification of this particular species. But since I received these bulbs "in-the-green" this past autumn, the foliage just may have not developed properly. The vanilla-like scent is surprisingly nice and powerfully,which leads me to ID it as A. spiralis at this time.
The plant grows in the typical pattern of many South African bulbs, dormant half the year when it want to be dry, and moist, but well drained, the other half, generally winter in the Northern Hemisphere. It 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 on-line cactus and succulent shops, as well as some specialty catalogs. I will be posting a list soon.
The story of Corydalis, is similar to that of Galanthus (Snowdrops). Everyone wants them and choice forms and species are both costly, and sell out quickly. Just about any species of Corydalis is collectable, with only a few being weedy. The most collectable at the moment are the species that are tuberous, C. solida and others. If you are not familiar with them, find them, try them, grow them.
Corydalis wilsonii kick starts our Corydalis season, it starts blooming in January in the cold greenhouse. It is a tender species, and cannot freeze. Corydalis come in many forms, some are perennial, biennial, bulbous (or more properly, tuberous),as well as being either alpine, woodland, emphermal and even invasive spreaders. This yellow species, C. wilsonii, discovered in 1903 by Chinese Wilson himself, is a cliff dweller, and I believe that the trick is cold, circulating air, since many have told me that they have the plant for only a short time, and then it rots. I believe that it is biennial anyway (like the Corydalis's closest cousin in the subfamily Fumariaceae, the Bleeding Heart) and, ultimately, at the end of the day, they are all among the greater family of Papaveraceae, the poppies.
C. winsonii is easy when grown from seed (this plant is from NARGS seed 2004), in nature it grows among dry rocks at 3050 m in Hubei province, in China. It cannot be grown outside well, it is a true alpine house plant, and is best kept year round under glass to protect it from excessive moisture and freezing temperatures. The good news is that seed is purportedly formed in profusion, and it will self seed around the greenhouse (Liden,Zetterlund;2007), but I can't confirm that yet, since I only pollenated today.
All Corydalis became collectable in the 1990's with a re-awakening of the latent corydalis gene by some trigger, (probably some blue Hinkleyesque perennial species) and the craze started. Do a little research before you buy a species though, since perennial forms are hardy USDA zone 6 and lower. The more informed horticulturist will go straight to their specialty bulb catalogs and purchase any of the tuberous (bulbous) species, which are amazingly beautiful in the early spring garden. Look for names forms of C. solida which are available only in the fall from the better bulb catalogs or if you are serious, get Janis Ruksans catalog from Lativa, he breeds and sells the most impressive collection in the world, but order the catalog now, since you will need to order in July while they are dormant. You are not going to find these are a nursery.
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.
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.
I often am asked how to to propagate Lachenalia, especially since many species are difficult to find, or because one wants to grow thier collection. Propagating your own plants is very rewarding,and with Lachenalia, quite easy. Since we are enjoying a very unseasonable late snowstorm today, it's a good afternoon to spend an hour in the glasshouse, listening to the spring Robins, and the sand trucks on the road. I know a promised no Galanthus, purely since I feel that they are all certainly covered well enough on many other garden blogs, along with Hellebores (always in an effort to keep this site more interesting and curious, why show those plants that we all have and grow, when you can learn about others). But I couldn't resist.
Back to Pollenation. Simple crosses can be made between species as well as cultivars, they are easy enough for anyone, even children. A small camel hair water color brush, and that's about it. Simply sweep the brush across the stamens, being sure to get pollen onto the stigma. a tiny cloud of pollen drops out when touched, so you know that it is dry enough, and since I pollenate in the morning, and in the greenhouse, all is kept pure. A clean brush is essential. This year, I am experimenting with more creative crossbreeding between all of the many L. aloides varieties that are currently in bloom. Although, with the more rare forms, I also kept a population selfed with each other.
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 carefull 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 probobly just getting thier 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 jsut 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, perhap 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 contactile 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 thier 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.
Lachenalia (or is is La-shen-ale-ia? perhaps the later, since the plant was named after Werner de LaChenal). Anyway, LAachenalia only produce two leaves. I always harvest one leaf, which I cut into three pieces , dip the bottom end into rooting gel, and place it in to a flat of fast draining yet moist, perlite and sharp sand. Into a bottom heated propagating case, and bulbils grow at the bottom on each cutting . The disticial leave closest to the center of the plant produces the most bulbs, confirmed by reasearch in Holland, so I only cut into three pieces now instead of five or six, as I once used to. Leaves rooted in January, wil 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 quadricolor bloom in the second year, so this seems to be the far faster way, and seeds are the best way if you eant many bulbs, and one can't really have too many Lachenalia, can they!
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.
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.
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.
Behold, the Giant Japanese Butterbur.Well, it's not too giant yet...but just wait. It is by far the earliest perennial to bloom here in central Massachusetts. Meet Petasites japonicus 'Giganteus', indeed the Giantest of the Japanese Butterbur's, which has the curious capacity to present itself as two different looking plants, at different times of the year. Although this first impression may not appeal to most, the second burst of folial growth is all about "the wow factor". First,the blooms emerge in February, with bulbous buds and these rosettes of tiny flowers which throughout March are open for business to the bravest of honey bees.
These four inch tall flower panicles are edible too, highly prized in Japan for eating, often boiled down in Soy Sauce, or eaten while still green and fresh with miso. ( we will cook some this Saturday). The entire plant is edible in fact, at all the different stages of growth, either pickled for winter soups, or stir fried while green and fresh.
The ornamental value of this Petasites is what makes the impact,and this comes during the impressive second phase of growth, so prepare yourself, because in late May, magnificent giant 40 inch-wide leaves unfold from thick celery-like stalks that reach five feet into the air. Clearly, one must have room as well as moist soil to grow this, and the plant must be sited well, since it 'runs' a bit, although it is easy to maintain by a simple yank on the stem. An area of the garden really needs to be dedicated to this plant, but the rewards will look like a small meadow of giant lotus leaves, that are chin high (and I am 6 feet tall). We've used them as placemats and tablecloths at summer garden parties, and Japanese school children play with them as umbrellas, although we have tried this, and the rain just funnels down to the stem, and runs down your arm. Still, it does the trick if caught in the back of the garden in a sudden downpour.
Be careful buying Petasites, there are a number of other sub-species and named forms of P. japonicus available (when one can find a source), try Heronswood Nursery when they carry it, for the true species type of 'Giganteus" is often miss-labeled, and the more common P. japonicus which the trade tends to carry is an inferior form, with leaves only a foot or so wide. I would try to avoid the other forms, no matter how tempting, either variegated or the red leaved forms both are messy, and run a bit more, but mostly they provide hardly the impact that this species does. Check back in June for foliage shots.
For such a grand show, if you have the space, it all disappears at the first frost, and nothing is left, until these tiny blossoms appear in late winter again. I find it curious that the flowers look as if they come from another plant altogether.
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.