December 26, 2008

Unusual Greenhouse Christmas Bulbs

It was a rather mild Christmas day, and finally, the sun came out, enough to raise the temperatures in the greenhouse to near 70 degrees F, opening the vents. This is not unusual for New England, and looking back at other late December photos, I can see my honey bees taking advantage of a warm-ish 40 degree heat wave. This short jaunts are fine for them, as long as they can return back to the hive in time, before the automatic greenhouse vents close.
Every Christmas day, I like to take note of what is in bloom in the greenhouse. It's interesting to see what plants bloom exactly on schedule, and which ones take a year off. Certainly there are many reasons, daylength is critical, but then, so is temperature. How many cloudy days, vs. how many sunny days also factors in. With the greenhouse, one thing is for certain, WInter never feels dead to me, in fact, it is quite alive and vibrant under the glass.

The newest addition to the greenhouse bulb collection this year, is the Calochortus species I purchased. I've avoided collecting these bulbs for no reason, other than to save something which I could collect when I am older! Sad, but true. Alas, I could not wait, and although I certainly am 'older'. ( turning 50 in 2 weeks), I am still learning when it comes to plants. Calochortus is a genus native to North America and the new world, with near 70 species. I saw my first Calochortus, not in the wilds of Colorado or northern California, but in the alpine house at Kew, in England, growing in pots. That one June visit, convinced me that I must grow this amazing genus, but the rare bulb nurseries carried so many species, and they were a little pricy, that I would end up making wish lists in the fall, but then never getting around to ordering them, becuase I could not make up my mind once I realized the cost involved. Not that they are expensive, but when added to my Oxalis, and other South African bulbs on my wish lists ( which you can imagine are quite wishy), I simply had to edit, and the Calochortus were the first to go.

Calochortus uniflora

This year I finally started with 5 species, and the first bloomed on Christmas day. I know that I made one mistake already, I potted my bulbs in small pots ( 6-8 inch clay pots in sandy, fast draining soil). I read later that they prefer larger pots, but since they are plunged in a sand bed, maybe they will be alright. The first species is this lovely lavender species Calochortus uniflora. The stamens are vivid powder blue, which is so different. I think I will order some seed of other species and try growing some from seed, since I am told that that is not that difficult.

Some Velthiemia are in bloom also. I received this plant as a gift from a friend who told me that it was the one species of Velthimia which I did not have Velthiemia capensis, but I believe that it appears that the plant is simply the still beautiful, V. bracteata, which is more common, but still nice, although I have ten of them. Still, it bloomed early, at Christmas, so I brought it into the plant window for a little South African cheer.

Velthiemia bracteata

Narcissus romiuxii are still blooming, with many more on the way.

Clivia caulescens

Also in bloom, Camellia, Cymbidium orchids, Clivia species, Oxalis species, Vireya Rhododendron, Haworthia, and in bud are many more plants, like the tree aloe that froze last year, a massive green flowered Cymbidum orchid that I recieved as a gift from a supermarket ( Whole Foods) last year, and this year it has 11 spikes! We are all convincing ourselves that winter is almost over, and imagining that the days are already getting longer.

December 24, 2008

Rediscovering the Craft of Berry Bowls

A Vintage advertisement for 'Berry Bowls' from a HORTICULTURE Magazine, circa 1957

Born and raised in New England, I had grown accustomed to the Berry Bowl, a traditional craft which was simple, inexpensive and beautiful. It's been difficult to research the history of the Berry Bowl, but what little I could find, explained that colonial women would gather woodland plants in late autumn and early winter, and arrange or plant them in moss, also from the woods in a glass vessel, which would undoubtedly be something they had arround the house, such as a fancy glass, or a canning jar. Essentially, this was a terrarium, which would last for the entire winter indoors, in a cold house, reminding them of the summer woodland. The plants in Berry Bowls are strictly limited to a few species, all grow in New England, and near my home in Massachusetts, and they include the Checker Berry ( which tastes like wintergreen), rattlesnake plantaoin, ( Goodyera pubescens), with it's white and green netted foliage, a native wild orchid and Partridge Berry ( MItchella repens) a vine which creeps along the forest floor and whose vivid bright red berries are most decorative once the leaves fall off of the trees, between October and Christmas.

The Berry Bowl Reinvented with cultivated plants.

When I was young, I was quite active with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a very active and prosperous Horticultural Society ( now transformed into Boston's premier Horticultural center, the Tower Hill Botanic Garden). In the 1960's and 1970's, I was very active in competitive classes in the Society's annual exhibitions, and the Holiday exhibition was most competitive, with classes to enter in such things as Della Robia swags and wreaths' ( think- old Della Robia paintings, or better yet, Xmas decorations at Colonial Williamsburg with lemons, oranges, other citrus, pineapples and greens), and classes like Pomanderballs ( clove studded citrus), and most competitive, the Christmas Tree decorating section, I don't know what I was thinking competing against garden clubs and private estates, but even though I was out of my league, and 30 years younger than everyone else ( I think most joined these old societies for the cocktail party opening events,- I mean, founded in 1856, china in the old kitchens with the seal of the society on them, cocktail trays,...) but since I could not drink yet, it was the Berry Bowl class which I would enter, which at least would get me out into the woods for a week searching for the perfect Goodyeara or even a Pipsissewa ( Chimaphila maculata) if I was lucky to tear out of the ground. Not unlike truffle hunting, each competitor had their own secret source for such rarities. I still can;t look at Richard Jordan, another local boy who, in a year with no sign of a Rattlesnake Plantain in a 20 mile radius, would show up with a massive glass brandy snifter with three stunning specimens, claiming the cash prize of $6.00 and the treasured State Rosette.

My New Berry Bowl Experiment.

Today, things are different. I can't imagine collecting wild orchids and 'secret sources' for Partridge Berries' from the 'wild', although not all on the endangered species list, most of these plants are, or should be protected. So in my search for a replacement, I am trying some experiments. All the same, I have some rules, such as, keeping the same aesthetic and a similar species list, with substitutions. Here is my first attempt which I tried yesterday. Moss from the woods, and instead of Partridge Berry, I used some cuttings that I took of the Japanese evergreen Ardisia, which I grow in the greenhouse, and combined this with a relative of the Goodyera orchid, another 'Jewel Orchid', (Sarcoglottis septrodes), which I selected for it white veined foliage.
I used a glass vessel that one would place a pillar candle in, a sort-of hurricane glass, in which I placed a layer of pebbles, a tuft of Sphagnum moss, since the Sarcoglottis will need moss and not soil, and then I used the root ball of the Ardisia which is composed of mainly Pro Mix, a commercial soiless mix intact, but placed deep into the moss. The entire surface was then covered in a tuft of moss, and in that, I planted a cutting from a Rabbit's foot fern ( in place of the Rock Polypody, which would have been easy for me to 'collect' from the granite boulders in the woodland behind my house, but irresponsible, to do so, none the less. I feel pretty great with the results.

Everyone loves a soil test kit for Christmas. Double click the image to see the caption, ahhh.....the 50's.

December 23, 2008

Snow White

This morning, we awoke to a Disney wonderland. These scenes remind me of the images one used to see in the vintage Viewmaster's, technocolor snowscenes of National Parks and the like. OK...it was 6 below zero, and the ducks needed boiling water brought out to their hutch, and the squirrels were starving....but one cannot deny the beauty of a new, deep cover of fluffy snow. Natures mulch of deep snow is exactly what the garden needed, and although it arrived late, it arrived with perhaps enough time to curve the risk for deep frost which can permeate the soil when it is not covered. I was hoping for a deep snow like we had last year, which never melted until March -the perfect plant winter. Since many of us more intense gardeners like to experiment with plants from more tender zones, these deep snows raise the staked that we might be able to have zone 7 or zone 8 plants growing in a zone 5 or 6 garden. Often, the risk is not cold temperatures for many plants, it's the thawing and freezing cycles, or moisture. Either way, my celebration on successfully overwintering Agapanthus and Kniphophia last year. Hopefully, the snow will last all winter, exactly what happens in the high alps and rockies. And exactly what the alpines need. Without snow, the troughs of alpine plants that spend the winter exposed to the elements can suffer, not from cold, but from ice, rain and the thawing and freezing cycles which never happens in their natural environment.

Japanese Ardisia as a Holiday decoration.

One of the many plants which the Japanese are obsessive about is the genus, Ardisia. Difficult to find, one can find two species at Logee's greenhouses in Connecticut, and at Barry Yinger's fabulous collector site, Asiatica. At Asiatica Nursery, one can usually find more rare cultivar's, but the genus is large, with nearly 300 species world wide, some invasive, some recently found to have interest as phytopharmaceuticals like ardisin, reportedly a powerful antioxydent ( since I HAD to Google this!) and bergenin, apparently sold on every boby building site as a drug that "stimulates thermogenisis" rrrrright. Anyway, don't eat the berries because I said to, beside, we have Ephedra in the rock garden which will do just fine.

Ardisia are sub-hardy to zone 8, and we keep ours in stoneware pots outdoors until after Thanksgiving, in mid November since even temperatures around 25 degrees F. does not hurt them. Although costly, the plants are sturdy and spend the summer in decorative pots on the terrace, where their berries, which they hold most of the year are often on display along with the tiny white flowers they produce in July. This is a 24/7 plant, they look good year round, and some species spread enough to fill a pot, whilst others, like remain shrub-like such as Ardisia crenata.

A Holiday arrangement made not from traditional materials, but from tender plants from the greenhouse. What looks like variegated holly, is actually Osmanthus, and the red berries are Ardisia. WHich gives me an idea. I've been throwing around an idea for a modern berrybowl.........