December 30, 2012

Snow Day Antics


After eleven inches of new snow last night, and after some back breaking shoveling, we let the pups out for their first romp in the snow.  Lydia, their mom ran around the race track that we cleared, but the pups soon were shivering and although not eager to return to the house, we brought them back into the warmth.


One in the house, they promptly pooped and peed ( sigh - training puppies in winter can be so difficult!), and then went to sleep. Fergus, our male Irish Terrier refuses to have anything to do with the pups, but once they are older, he should feel more like playing with them.

I was surprised to see a Carolina wren snacking on one of our suet feeders this afternoon. 

Today, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon working on my tally sheet for Project FeederWatch. I decided to participate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2012-2012 Project which helps scientists learn about winter bird populations. The main goal of Project FeederWatch is to combine the interests of backyard birders with the needs of ornithologists who study bird populations. By making simple standardized counts of the birds in ones back yards and reporting them to the FeederWatch database,FeederWatchers are contributing directly to the scientific understanding of bird populations. All once needs to do is to register with the Cornell Lab, and then dedicate two consecutive days in any given period to watch ones bird feeders and tally up the species and then report them online. Today, I noted 16 species on our feeders and one American Kestrel who was watching birds dine from a nearby Hemlock tree.



In the greenhouse, I patched up some glass which had slid, since tonight temperatures are expected to drop to 11º F. Of course, we almost ran out of gas today. I checked the tank this morning, and the meter  indicated that only 5% was left. After calling our gas company, they wanted to wait until tomorrow, as it was Sunday, and they felt that I might be able to make it through the night. I know from experience that I usually need 7 gallons of gas on a cold, January night, so I hitched up the electric heaters and turned the thermostat down to 38º just in case we ran out.

Thankfully, the gas delivery man on duty today was someone who understands our unique situation, so when we returned from the market at 5:00 PM, we caught him scaling our 8 foot fence with the gas hose. He deserves a few Duncan Donut gift cards this New Years Day! In anticipation of the possibility of running out of gas, I brought in a few treasures from the greenhouse - plants that I felt that I could not possibly live with losing. It's an interesting study, deciding what plants to possibly save from death, and which ones to leave. I decided on only a few new Vireyas. a couple of Rhododendron maddenii  species and two dwarf clivia's from China. Now that the gas is full, I will need to return them in the morning.


I found a surprise in the rear of the greenhouse, a wild species of Gladiolus , G. priorii ( syn Homoglossum priorii) which I forgot arrived in a batch of seed from wild collected specimens in South Africa. I only have one growing in a pot of G. alatus. This fall blooming species is always the first of the Gladiolus species to bloom for me, but I find it interesting how irregular many plants are each year. For example, this G. priorii sometimes blooms in October, in other years, in November or even in January. Other plants in the greenhouse are also off. Most of my Australian dendrobiums are in bloom now, or in spike. Dendrobium speciosum typically blooms for me in March but spikes have already emerged. So some things are late while other species are early, all in the same year.

Without Bubblewrap inside the glass of the greenhouse, I will be losing more heat but the light quality will be better. These next few weeks will be the coldest, but by the last week of January it begins to feel like spring, at least under glass as the days become longer, and the sun becomes stronger. The plants will all respond. By February 15 the sun will be so hot that I sometimes have to open the vents for the entire day.

Camellias are starting to bloom earlier this year too.  The anemone form variety is called 'Lipstick'. It's one of the more unusual camellias. I like its compact habit, which makes it a terrific pot plant.




December 27, 2012

December Greenhouse Tour

A December bouquet completely from the greenhouse. 
As it snows outside today here in New England, I thought that I might share some images I took yesterday in my greenhouse - it will help me in justifying the heating costs, as seeing images in iPhoto just satisfies me as it makes everything look nicer than it really is. Don't get me wrong, I love my greenhouse, but sometimes, late at night while I am laying in bed, I stare awake looking at the cieling thinking ' I'm bored with all of the same plants, so why do I keep paying the heating bill every week? It's a reality many home greenhouse owners experience at one time or another I think. It's not that I have any regrets, but after 12 years of the same camellias, the same lemons, the same velthiemia, it all starts to feel more like part of the garden which I am not only heating, but watering and maintaining.

Velthiemia bracteata varieties are budding early this year. Looking like the perennial Red Hot Pokers, these South African bulbs make easy winter blooming house plants.

Yeah - that's it. The risk is if one doesn't edit a collection in a greenhouse, the experience can easily move quickly from 'experience and discovery' to maintenance.  I keep many plants just because I  feel obligated to keep them. The giant 48 inch tub with a giant gardenia that was given to me by a friend who kept it at an estate for 40 years - who would want to throw that out, yet for 12 years, I've hauled it into the greenhouse in the fall, and then back out again in the summer. The two giant standard bay laurels are nice, but they now fell merely decorative - architectural elements in the summer garden which would be missed if I left them outdoors, but somehow I only feel nostalgic about them, and the few leaves that they supply for the kitchen may help me keep them, but again, it becomes maintenance more than enjoyment.

Jasmine vines and other vines bud and bloom as the snow blows outside. Ahhhhh.

Each year I try to edit the greenhouse collection, but somehow old plants end up back in, sometimes just out of plain guilt. An old olive tree, which I have had for 15 years just ended up back in the greenhouse yesterday, as I felt bad about seeing it covered in snow, and yet still alive. Beside, my friend Abbie Zabar in New York City would never let me forget it, if I let my olives freeze. ( Abbie - I do have some nicer varieties trained to you precise topiary standards in the greenhouse - this was an old one, but I suppose, still worth saving).

Alpine Vireya Rhododendron plants - a new addition to my collection, which was a Christmas gift to myself, may make things more interesting this winter. These are all from a collection of forms found at high elevation in Borneo, and are crosses made with what I believe is the finest Vireya - Rhododendron macregoriae

This year I added some new plants. A few new Jasmine vines which I planted in the ground to crawl and creep up the posts. A few other vines which will be in bloom soon. Vines are tricky if not risky things to plant in a greenhouse, as they always become too aggressive, but I kind of like that look. If I don't like them after a few years, I can always cut them out. Since my greenhouse is 16 feet tall, vines and tall trees do very well, and all of that extra space above my head, is essentially wasted - and hey - that's where all of the heat is anyway!

Seeds from expeditions and seed collections from plant societies often need to experience cold temperatures for one or two winters before they germinate. These seeds have been in pots for two years from a Burma collection, and now that they have frozen for a second winter, are being brought into the greenhouse to grow,

Seeds are always helpful in making things more interesting.  I try to always plant some seeds in individual containers each autumn of unusual South African bulbs, Primroses from expeditions which cannot be purchased anywhere else, and seeds from seed collectors ( it helps that we know many individual collectors who often stay with us when in the US for speaker tours at botanic gardens and plant societies, so we sometimes get special seed gifts in the mail - nothing says Merry Christmas better than a wax envelope of rare Tibetan poppy seeds!).

Hard to find South African bulbs such as rare species forms of gladiolus such as these, must be sown from seed collected in the wild as they are impossible to find in the trade. This is one of the gifts that a home greenhouse offers.

I also try to amp things up by sowing some of my own seeds of rare plants. This may simply mean saving seeds from the many species of Cyclamen I keep in the sand beds, or sowing seeds from my own crosses made with South African bulbs which generally grow during the winter months.  Sometimes, more often than not, seeds self sow into other pots, which can be both a curse and a gift. Self sown seeds often planted by ants, or by messy greenhouse care, always seem to do better than seeds which I sow myself. Go figure.

Cyclamen seeds mature in May, and seeds must be sown fresh, before or just as the seed pods open. These C. hederifolium seedlings are from a white blooming form. The pot in the foreground is this years seed, the pot in the rear, is a year old. Dry seed will rarely germinate, but if sown fresh, and if the pots are kept dry until September, nearly 100% of the seeds will germinate. They need a summer of comfortable sleep in the soil before the cool weather of autumn tells them to grow.

My friend Jess will complain about this post saying that I am being too geeky again, but I think many of you, even if you are not a serious plant collector, might find some of these images interesting. Look, it's the only way you will learn, and believe me - there are plenty of blog posts out there telling you how to force paperwhites and amaryllis right now. It's time to grow a pair and raise the bar bit.

If one wants a collection of Cyclamen like this, sowing ones own seed will allow you to edit and select the forms with the most interesting foliage.
 Winter bulbs are the standbys of the winter greenhouse. Cyclamen species, some of which might grow in cold outdoor gardens, do look best when kept in a winter glasshouse. When grown at waist height, one can appreciate the fancy foliage patterns, for Cyclamen species have amazing patterns. I don't grow any of the hybrids one sees at florists and garden centers, but even they ( which are all developed from C. persicum - a tender species from Turkey) can make interesting displays in a cool sunroom or windowsill when not in bloom. If I were to buy florist cyclamen, and I am often tempted to, I admit to searching carefully for the ones with the most interesting foliage more than the flower color.

Lachenalia are starting to bloom in the greenhouse. The first species to bloom is always L. bulbifera, a red and purple flowered species from this easy-to-grow relative of the common hyacinth.

This year I added many new Lachenalia bulbs to the collection, and thanks to my friend Nicco (Nick de Rothschild who keeps an important collection in the UK), I now have many new species and varieties, and many L. aloides forms ( or new species?) that will be blooming soon. I think I added about ten new selections this year, so that will be something to look forward to.

South African bulbs such as Lachenalia species and Oxalis species dominate the winter greenhouse floral display.

 South African bulbs form a good part of my winter blooming bulb collection. Even on an overcast day, they look interesting. Once the sun comes out, the buds will open. Others, like many Lachenalia have curious foliage with speckles, pustules or colors that look great even when not in bloom.

The unusual blue-flower coleus, Coleus thyrsoideus looks like a weed, that is, until it bloom in a month or two. It's cobalt true-blue flowers were once common in Victorian glasshouses, but it is a plant rarely seen today. In the pot on the right, Shirley poppies that were self sown, grow, and may bloom under glass if I am lucky.

Other plants may seem like odd things to keep in pots, but once they are in bloom, it is clear why one keeps them. Often, seeds of summer annual and perennials self sow into pots which are kept outdoors for the summer, as I often place large pots and tubs of tender shrubs in the perennial border. During the winter months, it's not uncommon to find self sown hellebores, camellia and even poppies coming up in pots of acacia and other sub tropical plants that spend the summer outdoors, and the winter under glass.

A rare Brunsvigia bosmaniae bulb in a large tub has yet to bloom, even though the bulb is massive. My size 14 boot shows how thick the leaves are now, and even though I thought this pot was too large, now that it has filled it with roots, I now think I need to find even a larger pot.  You know what they say about big boots. Big bulbs.

Other plants I keep simply because they have yet to bloom, as many rare South African bulb plants can take 10 or 20 years to bloom, or, there are shrubs such as citrus that provide some produce for the kitchen, for cocktails or simply just for aroma therapy during the shortest days of the year. I mean, who really needs five plants of various citron, yet I can't seem to live without them, as they make me smile with their large, goofy fruit and their fragrant flowers in late winter.

This giant Citron is an unusual selection of Citrus medica, not commonly seen in many collections. A selection known as 'Turunji' it is surprisingly sweet and can be eaten like an apple ( I've never tried it, but this is what the Internet says!). 

The small Australian finger lime, will drop most of its fruit during the winter when kept in the greenhouse, but they will still ripen, even when found on the ground. Great in cocktails or deserts where the segments pop like pop rocks, its texture if often compared with caviar, but I think they taste like red ants. You know, they way red ants smell, not taste.

December 26, 2012

Heaths and Heather - The Uncommon Evergreens

Many varieties of Erica and Calluna ( Heather) bloom during  the winter,  but here in New England, it's the color and tints of the winter foliage that makes these acid loving shrubs so valuable in the landscape.

One of the greatest visual weaknesses in American gardens is winter color and texture schemes in the home landscape. We can only blame ourselves, for it is too easy to succumb to the beauty of early spring shrubs when we see them in April or May at the garden center. Just as they advise never to go shopping for groceries while hungry, we visit our local garden centers just as the snow melts - when we are at our most vulnerable, and spring shrubs are like chocolate.  Plus, with our yet-to-be-filthy minds all horned up over the forced shrubs and trees that we saw just a few weeks earlier at the local spring flower show,  even  dogwoods begin to look voluptuous.  Still, who could ever  resist a gorgeous early flowering Rhododendron mucronulatum in March, or a Daphne...any Daphne.

The winter garden belongs to the the Heath ( Erica species) and the Heather ( Calluna species). These low growing, acid loving everygreens may seem tempermental and fussy, but when planted in the proper  location ( full sun, high acid) they basically take care of them selves. In what was once my parents fine, front lawn which needed to be cut, fertilized and thatched each spring and summer, I removed the sod in an 1/8 acre and planted acid-loving shrubs, a blue stone walk and a faux, river bed complete with 3 loads of river rock and a mass planting of grasses, native shrubs and a drift of heath and heather. This is what one sees when one drive down our road, in a normal residential neighborhood where one typically sees lawns, inflatable snow men and white, vinyl fences.

Each summer vacation at the Cape, I purchase a few dozen Calluna vulgaris cultivars to add to my front heather garden.  On the left, Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman' glows  against a silver variety. Each is planted in a grouping where I combine at least 15 plants, which may seem excessive, but this is the secret in getting the best effect in the garden.

All of these early spring purchases leave us with rather dull suburbia. It doesn't help that landscapers are often not as thoughtful about the plant material they choose, or the home owner doesn't value something unusual.  At risk of sounding negative, the truth is most front yard and foundation plantings consist of common shrubs, most of which look their best only in the month of May, aside from the occaisional Nikko blue hydrangea. We are left with the harsh yellow of Forsythia and the magenta of early Rhododendron species.

Yet look at the winter color one can have. Many shrubs which hold on to their needles and foliage through the winter, transform as soon as the weather becomes cold, and the display can be spectacular. Some of the finest winter colors come from the plants commonly known as Heaths and Heathers. These plants, which technically are small shrubs, have needled or evergreen foliage which remains texturally interesting both during all four seasons. I never really think of these shrubs as flowering shrubs, yet many people imagine theme only in bloom. To be honest, I never notice the floral display here in New England as the foliage is so superb, but if you look at these photos closely, you can see that many of these are in bud.

In the end, it's all about the foliage and texture, and with color like this, which may last all winter long, it can be fun to select varieties that have contrasting colors in the winter. It's not easy to always tell from a summer purchase what color your heather will change once it gets cold, but with a little research, one can get much information on-line.Go on line now.... Make a list, and check it twice ( sorry!), and then plan on what plants to get next spring or autumn. Most of the finest winter color will come from evergreens, and selecting the best ones will require a little homework, which is exactly what the doctor has ordered during these short days of winter.

L - The fuzzy silver foliage of Verbascum olypicum, the burgundy foliage of a Euphorbia 'Nothowlee' , a zone 7 plant that somehow survives in the front garden, and the winter gold of a Chamycyparis pisifera.

When combines with other plant which develop strong colors in the winter, the effect can be as powerful as a flower garden. Using my camera today, I am trying an experiment - editing what varieties and plants go well together by using Photoshop. These colors are not enhanced, but by combining some plants together on-screen, I get a different perspective. Of course, these plants look different once in the garden, with light, soil, mulch and other plants, as cropping photos can be misleading, yet if a cropped image works on screen, one has a better chance in achieving the desired effect if one plants en masse, for any plant when combined in volume, will form a pool of color in the garden - it's a simple scale thing. If you want a pool of gold and grey, side by side, you will have to plant more than one gold shrub. Seven, fifteen or thirty shrubs together will form a large pool of gold, and then fifteen or thirty burgundy foliage plants next to the gold ones, will make the effect work in the ourdoor scale where trees are seventy feet tall, and walks and other structures often extend for dozens of feet.

Calluna vulgaris 'Winter Chocolate', C. vulgaris 'Firefly'  and C. vulgaris 'Wickwar Flame'

Today I walked around the garden, taking some photos of various shrubs and trees which, for some reason, always seem much more colorful in December than they do in September. I suppose the competition is weak now, but also, I feel that the low angle of the sun enhances the winter color many evergreen shrubs develop as the temperatures drop below freezing.

I have no real plan other than a clipping from an old gardening magazine which I have kept on my office wall for a few years of a British garden with drifts of Erica and Calluna planted on raised beds. As you can see, heather and Erica's do provide some of the brightest color in the garden right now. I order plants from a few west coast nurseries each year, as they are not inexpensive, and I have a few rules. The most essential rule? Order as many of one variety as you can, for Calluna and Erica must be planted in large masses to look good.

I am fortunate to have a highly acidic soil here in central Massachusetts, so heath, heather and Erica all thrives with little help from me. I do get some winter kill, and I don't always follow my rule of buying plants in volume since often I can only afford 3 of each variety, especially when presented with a nursery which happens to have dozens of choice varieties making selecting only a few types, as challenging as a five year old trying to choose his three favorite jelly bean flavors. Each autumn, I also try to order a box full from the west coast - my favorite source? Digging Dog Nursery. But aside from my annual trip to the Cape, I sometimes like to get plants at local Botanical garden plant sales, where often, a Heath or Heather plant society has a table where members are selling their home-grown plants. This would be the best way to get plants, for you are certain to get the proper varieties hardy for your area.

Sometimes I lose the labels in my garden.  I would love to find out what this variety is, when I bought it, it was the only one at the nursery, but it had incredible foliage.
Every July, when I go to Cape Cod for our family vacation, I try to stop as local Cape Caod nurseries, as they always carry erica which makes a fine ocean side plant, and the fact that Cape Cod is in USDA zone 7 doesn't hurt either. Sometimes, my local nurseries carry plants, but I can tell that they are trucked in from the south, and not locally grown. I also resist buying the massive forced heathers one sees in full bloom during the spring at places like Home Depot and Lowes.  Buyers know that color sells, and in March and again in the autumn. one will see heather plants in full bloom at big box stores, but resist the temptation, unless you are planting these monsters as temporary plants.  If you are unsure about the hardiness of a plant you are purchasing ( and this applies to most any marginal shrub or plant) be sure to ask your nursery person where their plants came from, or better yet, if they propagate the plants themselves. With marginally hardy shrubs such as heaths and heather, this is essential knowledge, for the plants, if grown properly, will have filled their nursery container with fiberous roots which have already been wintered over ( if in a local hoop house or cold frame - that's OK), but best if planted in the autumn in the north, since spring planting may result in root balls drying out before being able to extend roots into you local soil.

Atlantic Cedar, the curved needles of 'Silberfir' and the wonderful greyish needles of Calluna vulgaris 'Silver Knight'

Other evergreens suddenly become the stars of the winter garden. Silver, blueish, grey, every tint becomes unique in the winter landscape. Dwarf evergreens often provide the best show, but it generally comes at a cost. A great cost, for the finest evergreens are either slow growing dwarfs, or propagated from brooms ( those creepy, clustery mutated plants that sometimes form on the tips of mature evergreens in the wild). My rule? You get what you pay for when it comes to evergreens, and although some prices may shock you, I can say that I have never been disappointed when investing in a $300 evergreen which may only be in a one gallon container. Each year, the visual impact adds another $100 to the display.

Shrubs and trees in the winter garden can appear in most every color in the rainbow.

A glimpse of our Holiday table with Weck canning jar terrariums, moss and birch bark. Don't forget birch trees for winter color - it's a natural display that only gets better with age.

Other plants to consider are dwarf Japanese bamboos such as this Sasa vietchii, which is green all summer, but each winter, a band of dry, papery whiteness forms on the edge of each leaf blade. It spreads, but slowly, and I can't live without it. Even my brother asked me about it as he left our house Christmas eve. We decorated only with spotlights, and he was shocked at how impressive the Sasa vietchii was when illuminated at night.

December 23, 2012

Christmas Arrangements on a Budget

White Nandina domestica berries along with fresh greens from the cold greenhouse including white Camellia buds, variegated Osmanthus and magnolia combine with garden picked greens and one $6 bunch of red carnations to make most of my Holiday arrangements this year.
 It's all started to look as if this Holiday season would be nearly perfect, but  as things would have it, it's been anything but easy. With three weeks off from work, it seems like I've spent most of my time visiting hospitals, with both my dad and Joe in separate hospitals with Pneumonia, and I myself with bronchitis. It just isn't going away, but today, one day before the holiday and our family traditional Lithuanian dinner on Christmas Eve that we host, we decided that no matter what, we must haul ourselves out of bed and try to at least decorate the house with what we could find in the garden. This whole venture reminds me of how we used to decorate the house years ago, when dad would take out out into the woods with burlap rag bags to pick Prince's Pine and Gaultheria to make garlands with.

This year, my decor will be based around greenhouse greens, semi tropical and Asian greens such as Camellia, osmanthus and Nandina, as well as choice evergreens in the garden such as Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and other nice cedars. We have many varieties of holly, with yellow and red berries as well as olive, magnolia, pines and broadleaf evergreens. Together, and when combined with nice branches with buds like Stewartia with its cinnamon colored bark, and the graceful branching of Fothergilla, we have many arrangements and material for garlands. And best of all, everything was free, and natural. The only hint of red comes from some red carnations - one bunch from the market will spread across many arrangements for the house.

Various garden greens combine to make tasteful and authentic Holiday arrangements. Greens include Magnolia, Rhododendron, Camellia from the greenhouse. Cedar, Holly, Pinus Osmanthusm Boxwood, Fothergilla branches and Chamaecyparis.

Together, they make simple, 1940'a style arrangements that bring a very 'Irving Berlin'feel to the house.

It looks like holly, but Osmanthus which we grow in a tub in the cold greenhouse, takes trimming well ( we wait until Christmas to trim ours so that we can use the clippings in wreathes and arrangements).

Early sassanqua camellias continue to bloom in the cold greenhouse. This one is named 'Yuletide', and it's not hard to see why.

Magnolia leaves with cinnamon colored fuzzy backs, make a great addition to our table centerpiece which I will be working on tonight. I'm thinking of using a Della Robia style, with pineapple, fresh fruit like oranges, apples, pears, lemons and limes to see if that will work. My back up table theme is composed of tiny terrariums in Weck jars with boss, and tiny bottle brush trees, candles and mercury glass. I still have not decided. I have so little energy with his cold, that I may just forget about both! With 18 people coming to dinner tomorrow, I have plenty of other things to worry about! But experience is everything. I only wish I didn't have to throw it all together at the very last minute. 

Look around your yard, even out back, to see what you can find to pick. Birch bark, bamboo, a graceful pine branch - most anything can seem very festive once brought indoors.

Happy Christmas to all! An thanks for stopping by this past year!

December 20, 2012

The Forgotten Christmas Flower - Lily of the Valley

Two florists in a London Flower market admire forced pots of Lily of the Valley, a lost winter traditional pot plant which is due for a comeback. But why wait? I say it's time to force your own. Downton Abby style.

One Hundred years ago, flowers were a luxury item. Aside from a black laurel wreath for a funeral, or simple bouquets for a wedding, flowers rarely entered the home of the working class. What we know of today from gardening books and documentation, comes from a different lifestyle, that of the privileged - for unless was a gardener or a caretaker, a love of flowers, appreciating their beauty as well as that of nature was a practice of the single lady - the wealthy - the upper class. Everyone else shovelled coal, carried lunch pails or cleaned houses.

Today we are fortunate to live in a different world ( I think!). A world where orchids can be found at every hardware store next to inflatable snowmen and reindeer outlined in trailing disco running lights. Ahem. At risk of sounding curmudgeonly and old fashioned - what the hell happened to the poinsettia? The last time I looked, they were spray painted with glitter and as short as a silk point. They might as well be fake. I think it's time to take Christmas plants into my own hands. Time to zoom back in time to a quieter and more realistic era, that of 1805 to 1900.

Boxes of florist Lily of the Valley in a 1902 image 

I am forcing my own Lily of the Valley's this Christmas.

Why? Well first of all, just try and find some Lily of the Valley pips ( perhaps While Flower Farm?). They are impossible to find, yet I have a yard full of them. Second, you know I am a huge fan of forgotten flowers - those lost gems of Victoriana, the 18th and 19th Century when greenhouses and glasshouses first came into fashion, and thirdly - I am cheap. Yeah, finally I can admit it. I just can't bring myself to pay $75 dollars for 2 dozen pips to plant in a pot or two. My dad said that he and my mom always used to force their own at the Holidays ( often starting at Thanksgiving, even before that, potting up pips in mid-October, but as we are having a mild winter, enough so that I can still dig in the soil, and because in the past, my mail order sources delivered pips around Christmas, I figured, why not try my own.

We've lost so many horticultural traditions that surround Christmas. There was a time when white and red anemones, large white Christmas roses ( Hellebores), ruscus, Holly, Cyclamen, chrysanthemums, violets and Lily of the valley meant Christmas flowers. Even as recent as one hundred years ago, Christmas flowers were quite different. In some family photo albums from 1912, many of the flowers which we associate with the Holidays season were still unheard of yet images of camellia corsages from local florists appeared on everyone.

Like Petticoats and waistcoats, fashions change with time, and in the world of flowers, change happens just as quickly, but throughout the 18th and 19th Century, most Holiday plants and flowers remained the same. Before poinsettia and silk flowers, there were only those plants found in ones own garden, or if you lived near a large city where florists could be found, those plants and flowers which could be forced into bloom during the shortest days of the year.

1910 Lily of the Valley plants from a florist show some variation. Not all garden-dug pips will produce flowers, but most will. The larger the pip, the taller the floral stem.

Forcing such plants required skill and the proper materials. Not unlike many of the forced vegetables in the 1800's. Lily of the Valley were forced In hot beds, deep with manure and steam pipes, kept under cold glass with hot steam pipes running beneath the plunge. Pots could be forced into fragrant bloom from late December until April no matter how deep the snow was.

In 1900 most American and European home gardens had many greens and plants which could be dug for the Holidays. Of course there were fresh picked Holly greens, pines, spruce cones for craft and other evergreens as well as tiny woodland plants, especially those with red berries. In Europe, where Convallaria is native, the flower was often a traditional New Years flower, often strung on threads like pearls and used as a fashionable element for proper ladies. But from the florists, there could be found many choices which had been so traditional for generations whether one had their own hot houses for force in, or money to purchase such luxuries from the local greenhouse. Christmas at the turn- of-the- last century meant tables with Hellebores, white Anemones,  white chrysanthemums, and yes - white lily of the valley.

My own lily of the Valley pips show how many roots they can have. My hands were frozen, but I was able to carefully dig a few clumps out that look liked they have strong buds or pips. 

In 1910, all well appointed plant supply catalogs offered cleaned Lily of the Valley pips for home growers to force on windowsills and in their home greenhouses, in fact, until WWII, Lily of the Valley pips were as common as Paperwhite Narcissus are today. Old time gardeners used to trim roots back by half,  from their own rooted stocks, but I have found that a little rinse under the green house hose is enough. I fit as many as I can squeeze into a clay pot, add fresh soil and a gravel mulch, and then bring them into the house to force at warmer temperatures. Easy peasy. 

Some older books suggest that bottom heat is better than a hot room, some even suggesting that one keep pipes of hot water underneath pots bringing the temperature of the pots up to 85ºF while the room remains near 50º, ( i.e radiators or a nearby fire which is allowed to go out at night for that all important temperature shift) but I have found that by placing pots of freshly planted pips under lights which are on a 16 hour cycle an easy solution. Pots also work well on a cool windowsill, but pots which I keep in my cool 40º greenhouse slow down, often taking 5 weeks or more to bloom.

In Germany the Poinsettia was not a common Holiday plant. Here, where Christmas trees and Chrismas greens come from, the Lily of the Valley reigned as the choice, proper Holiday flower. What happened? I think the Lily of the Valley needs a new marketer, for somehow, we have forgotten all about it.

I spend so much time studying these lost trends in old books, but the idea that one can force ones own Lily of the Valley always captivated me. Victorian Christmas cards often showed clusters of Lily of the Valley, often alongside early camellias, Hellebores and even illustrated along with berries and holly. How in just one hundred years could such trends become lost? Such memories become forgotten?  I suppose the twentieth Century killed many traditions, and yet I doubt that today's Christmas icons of silk poinsettias or Rudolf will ever go away one hundred years from now, but I can't help but feel some sadness that all silk or plastic poinsettia found at local craft stores are modeled not after authentic tall poinsettias but instead, are modelled ironically on those which have been drenched with growth hormones to be less than 14 inches tall, a more manageable size for shelving units in shipping trucks and for peoples home. So sad that we are now reproducing genetically altered  plants and oddly iconizing them. Future generations may never know what  proper Point looks like.

In an effort to celebrate the gardening method of a century ago, I am going to force some of my own Lily of the Valley this year. Here in New England, we have been experiencing a mild December which has allowed me to dig a large clump (mat) of Convallaria ( Lily of the Valley) up from the front garden. If you have Lily of the Valley out doors int he garden, you must try and force some this year. If the soil is still soft, see if you can dig a few clumps up - they will force easity on a cool windowsill.

Once dug, I cut the mat of roots into pot-sized clumps, rinsing them off in water so that I could carefully see the pips or spike which will form the single leaf and flower stem. Those spikes with points tips will produce leaves, and those with a blunt end will produce a flower stem. Forcing Convallaria in December is a tradition which goes back at least 200 years, a popular home garden craft in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, where many New Years cards in the Victoria era showed Lily of the Valley flowers. In 1880, the most popular winter cut flower were scented violets, forced lilacs and Lily of the Valley, and even at the launch of the Titianic, guests were treated with garlands of strung Lily of the Valley blossoms and strings of Lilac flowers.