April 30, 2006

The Busy weekend and To Do Lists.

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

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

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

April 25, 2006


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

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

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

April 23, 2006

Gentian-izing and Bitterroots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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