April 21, 2014


Known as Trailing Arbutus to Yankee New Englanders, or as Mayflower, Epigaea repens is a lovely native American wildflower that signals the end of winter, as it is the first woodland wildflower to bloom, often in late March. The pink form is more unusual, as most wild colonies are white blooming.

My family has a long history with the plant known as the Mayflower, Epigaea repens,  not that my ancestors came over on the Mayflower, or anything close to that although, we are not that far from Plymouth Rock - so, allow me to I rephrase that claim: for the past century, the blooming of the Mayflower has been part of my families life, annual trips to see the first wild plants in bloom for me began as a child in the 1960's when on cold, yet sunny March day's when the snow began to melt my dad would allow me to play 'hookie' (hey, it was the 60's!) and we would go looking for Mayflowers.

We'd pack a lunch (nothing fancy - just salami sandwiches on raisin bread - I know, Dad wasnt a foodie although, today, this might count) and we would trudge through the Southern New England woodlands looking for this fragrant, early flowering native plants. Dad would explain how folks used to pick these early flowers through the Victorian era in the late 1800's and and sell them at the Boston Flower Markets - tied into little bunches for fancy, Victorian ladies. Today, they are protected and this was all part of a movement that began in Massachusetts long ago as folks became more conscious about our native plants and their fragile environment.

Did I mention that this was the late 1960's? Today, there may still be some illegal picking but thankfully, we live in a different world where awareness about not only our native plants but of our fragile ecosystems is becoming even more scrutinized.

I know that for my dad, these hikes were also nostalgic, as brothers used to pick the flowers in the 1910's nad 1920's - just to bring home. They even had a few colonies growing on the big granite outcroppings behind our chicken coops that have been there since the late 1800's so maybe they felt that this was OK (it really wasn't, of course) but I imagine that in the 1920's - few non-horticulturally minded people worried about such things.

This sweet, fragrant low-growing denizen of the highly acidic, pine and oak woodland found here in eastern Massachusetts was a favorite of the early colonists from England, as they quickly learned that once the Mayflower bloomed, the harsh winter was nearly over. One can understand why colonists in early America wanted to bring wild plants indoors during the winter months. Today, there is no need for this as housplants are common, and there are many reasons why any native or wild plant must never be disturbed. That said, it's completely safe to kneel down and smell some fragrant Mayflowers if you find some - that's free and safe!

We ant blame the Victorian nature enthiusiasts, for they realyl didnt know better - it was culturally accepted then, even those who collected wild songbird eggs and who pressed flowers also cherished the rare bouquet in early spring. Imagine what it was like to notice a glimpse of pink or white in the late winter amongst all of the never-ending grey and brown, drab woodland? If the Mayflower waited to share its blossoms only a few weeks later, few would even notice them at all against the visual noise presented by the showier wildflowers like wood anemones, trillium and bloodroot, but like much of nature - they were specially designed to take advantage of what they can offer - rich, sweet fragrance at a time when virtually nothing else is in bloom. It's really all about survival in a very special, unique and elegant way.

The tradition of picking small bouquets of Mayflowers ended in the early part of the 20th Century, after movements from plant societies and garden clubs began to spread the word, and not a moment too soon, as apparently the plant nearly became extinct due to over-picking by collectors. It was during this time that my father, who was then employed as a nature column illustrator in the 1930's, often featured Mayflowers in his many illustrations.

I could make the argument that today, few know of this plant, yet many people are familiar with its name, thanks to the sailing ship and the Pilgrims.  This is  a plant which can hide well, camouflaged and hidden below last autumns oak leaves and pine needles, many hikers just step right over it never appreciating its blossoms. Only the bravest who dare squat with nose to ground, challenge the bumblebees who desperately visit each flower this time of year.

With evergreen leaves as rough as sandpaper, Epigaea repens remains an iconic woodland ground creeper in acidic woodland forests in southern New England, found often where White Pine and Red Oak grow.

Five years ago, I was presented a flat of pink epigaea seedlings from a collection seeded in Quebec. We hosted a few speakers at the house on a NARGS tour and as a gift, they left a flat of a particularly pink selection.Maybe she could tell that we would be good Mayflower parents, or maybe she could just tell that our soil was perfect after walking to our door across a natural outcroping of granite and wild blueberry. Regardless, we ended up with one flat of not the white form, but the rarer, and quite select deep pink flowered form of Epigaea repens. I, of course, was delighted, as this was one plant which I had only heard rumors of, but have never seen. They have not only thrived here under some old white pines, but - dare I say - they now allow me to actually pick a precious stem or two if I wanted- but I wouldnt dare.

One of my fathers newspaper illustrations from the 1930's showing Mayflowers. You can see more here.

Wild populations usually have a few pink tinted forms, usually a white selection which turns pale pink with age, but this form is pink from the get go, and a bright, cheerful pink on a robust plant. Luckily, our colony has thrived, and has spread, growing along my entrance walk, where it enjoys deep pine needles mulch from a giant White Pine, a luxury as finding the perfect site for this plant can be challenging in most gardens.

On Easter Sunday, I was able to take my father, whose eyesight is practically gone now, at 100 years old out to the back walk and show him a rather spectacular event - an entire colony of Mayflowers blooming in full force - so fragrant that even he could smell them. With his advancing dementia, I really didn't know how he might react, but I think he was emotionally moved. I could see it in his eyes - you know, one's sense of smell is often the most remembered of senses.

Later that night I heard him telling my brother who came to visit that he went for a hike to see the 'trailing arbutis'. My brother didnt seem to believe him of course, thinking that this was just another old memory, but quietly knew that this was a very special gift - any why bother the moment trying to complicate the story with my brother who really doesn't know plants. Mission accomplished, and that was that.

I had picked one stem that had a load of blossoms on it for him the next day, and as he showed his nurse - he grasping the tiny, rough- leaved fragrant branch in his gnarled, hands, he somehow knew instantly.
"'Mayflowers" he yelled. Waving them in the air, the best he could given that he is moving towards the big old 101.

And then, surprising us all, as he can barely see anything,  he lifted the 'bouquet' and sniffed them. And even though I know his sense of smell has long left him, somehow he could imagine their scent, maybe, even smell them, or so we would like to think. It all reminded us why it was priceless to keep a parent living at home (in the same home where he was born, in fact) for so long. Sure there are days when one struggles, even regrets such a sacrifice but then there are days like this one. I am convinced that these are the days that will remain in our memory banks.

Look - sometimes rules should be broken ,and even though some environmentalists may freak at the idea that I picked a branch from my own garden-seed-raised mayflowers, I felt that in this one case - that it was OK. Thoughts?  Sure - if it means that a few Bumble bees will have to suffer. Yet, I may want to offer a clause - if one  raises their own nativeplants from seed , and if one was born before the Titanic disaster, then one may pick a single stem of Mayflowers (trainling arbutis or Epigea repens) if not wild. The Trailing Arbutus Clause. Here here.

April 20, 2014


Few words can describe the yummy colors found in the blossoms of this particular Cape Hyacinth - perhaps the rarest of them all - Lachenalia aloides var. vanzyliae with pale true blue, teal and olive green. 

Around here, common Easter Lilies are just not going to pull it off - nor will foil-wrapped plastic pots of sky blue hydrangeas,  florist azaleas or even those bright plastic Easter eggs. There are so many gifts which come with the ownership of a greenhouse collection and a suburban garden, but perhaps one of the finest is that of rarity - a brief glimpse of nature at her finest. Around Easter, the last of the South African Lachenalia aloides bloom, particularly the most precious of all the L. aloides clan, the variety known as L. aloides var. vanzyliae - a mouthful, but delightful because few gardeners have ever seen in other then in photos.

Unconventional color palettes can delight. This dark, brown pansy was extracted from a flat of gold 'tigers eye' pansies -
I could not resist - I mean, how many brown flowers are there in the spring?

As a visual designer, I know that I appreciate color a bit more than a sane, 'normal' person - in fact, today, when my brother visited for Easter, I had to listen to him groan about how "Oh yeah, you grow flowers more than vegetables" (sometimes, I just think that he doesn't know what I grow - maybe it's better that way - but I dutifully fulfilled my little brother role, and filled the trunk of his car with pepper seedlings and a few precious pots of Oca - which took a little convincing, on my part (along with a Google search to show him what they were all about). I should have sneaked in a few 'flowers', but I let it slide.

All Euphorbia have fascinatingly complex floral forms, once you zoom in close. In the greenhouse, this pot of Euphobia characias shows off its chocolate brown eyes, and multi-toned greens. For us, best grown as a potted winter blooming greenhouse plant, but if you live in USDA Zone 7 or higher - go for it outside.

Spring in New England also means unpredictable weather, which can drive those with a greenhouse crazy. Few sympathize with us, as we rush to crank open the vents on a sunny day when the temperatures can rise to over 100º F within an hour, or when we rush home from work at lunch, to shut the vents because outside temperatures suddenly drop to below freezing, with a bitter, harsh wind and snow squalls. This week, we satisfied all of these tasks, plus one night where the thermometer dipped down to near 20º F., when we awoke to a dusting of fresh snow. Not unusual, but it does make me wonder about all of those tomato plants that I saw people hoarding at our local Home Depot. New or impatient gardeners will learn, and perhaps, this is the best lesson. Patience rewards those of us with a late sowing of tomatoes. Until late May? Most of my warm veggies stay snug underglass.

In the greenhouse, hybrid Dutch Ranunculus bloom in the back raised bed, but their visit with us will be short, as once daytime temperatures reach 85º F under glass, their show will be over. These are cool-loving winter-bloomers, and poor candidate for most New England gardens ( yet they are unrealistically tempting when sold at garden centers).

Who needs Easter Lilies ( Lilium longiflorum) when one can have pots of Tulbaghia fragrans around. A relative of the far too common lavender Society Garlic ( Tulbaghia violaceae), this rarely seen cousin seems like a mis-named plant, that is until night falls when one simple stalk will fill an entire greenhouse with a fragrance so intense, that one can smell it's warm, jasmine -like scent from outside the glass.

We all know the common Kalanchoe but this hangin form is a treasure. Kalanchoe uniflora makes a magnificent 3 foot wide hanging basket when grown well ( um...mine is not 'grown well' this year, a victim of my December greenhouse furnace 'event', when most of the plant was blasted with dry heat). Still, it's coral and pretty, and coral. 

I am sharing one more image of a pot of Cape Hyacinths today, for this pot of Lachenalia aloides var aloides is begging for a photo. I never tire of Lachenalia, but the season is nearly over, as most are going dormant for the summer.

Lacinata or Tuscan Kale seedlings, which were set out into the raised beds a few weeks ago, held up well through this weeks snow storm. Natures Manure my father always called it, I was fortunate to have kept most of my plants under glass this year, but I may have lost a flat of seedlings of Cuphea viscosissima ( argh! figures.). This is a Kale variety which does better as a fall crop here, but I am taking a chance - maybe we will be blessed with a cold spring and summer?

Seedlings are everywhere right now. Under lights in the spare bedrooms, where we keep eggplants, tomatoes and peppers, and out in the greenhouse where some red celery, chicory and lettuce have been upgraded to cell packs.

It's a South Africa flush in this sand bed, with Gasteria showing off their gastric-inspired blossoms. Yeah, that's how the earned their botanical name. The stomach shape of their blossoms.

....oh, and 'bro' I think this are not flowers, but mesclun growing in the greenhouse, so there! I may even plant some out into the garden as early lettuce 'cheats', as the extra seedlings work out well when planted in this way.

April 12, 2014


A  colony of Primula denticulata, (the Himalayan or Drumstick Primrose), which I raised from seed last year, are all emerging with nice, tight cobs. Maybe they will bloom in time for the Primrose show in three weeks, when we host the New England Primula Society garden party and then attend their show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden ( May 3-4).

Put aside your frets about that dreaded Pollen Vortex, because there are greater things to celebrate - it's here - the perfect spring ( at lease in New England).  As our second weekend passes, delighting us with warm, breezy days above 60º F. and with only the slight threat on one freezing night predicted for next thursday, I am confident that this spring will remain gloriously…..slow. And that's a good thing, for us gardeners.

I am reminded of how rare such springtime weather is here in New England. Sure, many grumble about the lack of 70º days, but in many ways, this is the perfect spring - the sort of spring weather one would experience where many of our cherished plants come from, the high Himalaya, the Alps, Western China, the mountainous islands of Northern Japan, or the mountains of southern Chile. What I mean is, this is a rare gift - a gift of a winter of deep snow, and then a single thaw, when the snow melts gradually, and the soil thaws gradually, never to refreeze again ( for it is this refreeze which spells certain death for many plants, even if they survived a frigid winter. This year, everything thawed over the past two weeks, nice and slow, with no refreeze, at least at root level - surely we will still continue to have frosts, but this is setting up the garden for what I predict will be the ideal spring.

Check out what's coming up after the break.

April 6, 2014


The back bench in the greenhouse full of early spring color, with Lachenalia, euphorbia and primula brightening up the a late afternoon in April after a rain shower.

Finally, it's beginning to feel a bit like spring around here, as most of the snow has finally melted, and daytime temperatures reached 60º F for the first time on Sunday, which gave us our first day out in the garden. There is still snow in the shade, and along the north side of the house, but most of the garden has drained enough so that it officially is no longer mud season, allowing us to rake, dig in the raised beds and to basically clean up what we never were able to get to last fall due to painting our other house. To be honest, the garden is a complete mess, but even with one days work, the good part of the garden ( the part near the greenhouse) is at least raked, the old tomato plants collected and composted, and dog poop, dog toys and a random selection of missing footwear, canned goods and potato chip bags, along with more pens, cigarette lighters and gum packages that the corner store could ever own, have been recollected, thanks to four terriers and a doggie door.