April 6, 2009

Nanohana -Appreciating Mustard Flower Season in Japan

With Foil wrapped Easter Lilies appearing at my supermarket, all short and green after being drenched with Miracle Grow and dwarfed with growth retardant hormones so that they barely resemble the four foot tall Lilium longiflorum of days gone by, these fragrant but virtually sterile lilies with their stamens removed, emasculated into meaningless brands of a holiday that now celebrates with red #2 Peeps, and not the more more natural yellow ones.... might as well be plastic. And I used to LOVE Easter Lilies.

So I am thinking of other signs of spring, that are culturally important and authentic. I am reminded of Japan, and mustard.
At the entrances of train stations in March, the nanohaha make an appearance, brilliant yellow and 'saying that spring is near'.

Mount Fujji bloom in an advertisement, above a field of Nanohana, Japans love affair with seasonal plants, includes some lesser appreciated species, like the lowly mustard, which is elevated as a celebratory blossom in one of Japans earliest flower festivals. It's all about appreciation for the simple phenomenon of nature. Spring. We have the crocus and the robin, Japan has the mustard flowers.

I've been thinking about my last trip to Japan. In February, I was killing some time, before flying home from Tokyo, and actually got lost, which isn't that hard to do in Tokyo sometimes, at least for an American like me. I found myself in a park, and although it was a cold day in February, there in the distance, I saw some bright yellow flowers planted in a bed in the park. In neat, tidy rows, upon closer inspection, I saw that yes, these we're in fact Mustard plants.

In Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, Mustard fields are planted and sculpted into mazes, not unlike corn fields in North America during Halloween.

Here in America, we should be familiar with Nanohana, since this mustard is something most of us use everyday. Not as yellow mustard on our hotdogs, but as Canola oil. This is the same mustard, or Rapeseed that Canada makes Can-ola oil ( A made up name mashed up from CAN from Canada, and OLA, from Oleum,,,Mmmmm all part of a 1980's marketing strategy promoted that no one would buy even the healthiest oil if it was called Rapeseed oil). Of course, Rapeseed, is also the young plant called Rapini by the Italians, again proving that it is completely edible and healthy. So forget the urban ledgends about using rapeseed and Canola oil as motor oil ( of course, you can), but one is not the same as the other. But conspiracy theorists still feed this 'poison' on the internet.

Nanohana, in Japanese literally translates into 'Vegetable Flower' but it also can be read to mean wild flower, or flower of the field. the plant is completely edible.

The Sakura festival gets all of the publicity and Japans biggest flower festival.....but what about Nanohana.... yellow Mustard? Which blooms just before the cherry?

In my garden, these rather pretty but simple flowers are the same cole crop flowers in Cruciferae that one sees on a cabbage, radish, turnip, Bok Choi or more likely, some Brocolli that one forgets to harvest, and then it goes to seed. But in the heart of a buzzing, busy and grey city, this bed of brilliant saffron blossoms, seemed sublime.

A graphic interpretation of Nanohana, Japanese Mustard Flowers
The bed was carefully tended, surely. With a simple bamboo fence constructed around it, and over it like a cage, presumably to keep the ravens off of it ( they we're angry, high in the Camellia trees above me). But I so wanted to recreate this sort of planting in my New England garden. So I bought some mustard seed at Sakata Nursery, and brought it home. I would think that it needed cold temperatures most certainly, and I feel that I may wait until September to plant, since a spring planting in our climate would surely grow too quickly with it's temperature range which can scale upwards from 25 deg. F to 8- deg F in a week. But, in the perfect spring, and an early March sowing, I would imagine that I could recreate the Japan effect of planting mustard for the joy of it's spring blossom, which, like many Japanese plants, is important culturally to the Japanese.

Nanohana Candles for gift giving. Nothing say's spring like Rapeseed oil candles in a pretty box!

Known in Japan as Nanohana, March, is the Nanohana season for most of Japan. In small window sill plantings, to decks and terraces with pots of yellow nanohana, to parks and public places, one can see the celebration of the Mustard blossom, with it's graphically simple four petals ( like a cross- hence, Crucifer, or hinting of it's plant family, Cruciferae). All crucifers have four petals, be they high alpine relatives, or tropical giants. An easy giveaway for botanists.

The Nanohana March, a spring walk event in Japan. The Ibusuki Marathon is based around the theme of Nanohana, and this Nanohana March, is another Sunday walk event in Yokohama and other parts of Japan.

Nanohana in Japan are also celebrated in the art and culture of Japan. In clothing patterns, toys, gift arrangements, even at one train station, I saw Nanohana bakery products, cookies, sandwiches, t-shirts, totes, souvenir books, robots, a car color for Nissan, a magazine cover, a train brochure, and stuck in seasonal advertisements.

These Nanohana sweets are traditional azuki bean sweets available in the early spring at many Japanese markets.

Mmmm...Nanohana PastryNot as omnipresent as other flower festivals like the cherry blossoms of spring ( Sakura) or primula ( sakuraso), or as shown in some of my past postings like the Plum Flowers ( Ume) in February, or the Morning Glories of July ( Asagao), this little, simple flower is still powerful in a certain week, in a certain month. If only the rest of the world could celebrate such a simple event, like the blossoming of the lowly mustard...cultural relevance can elevate the more mundane of events. Here in Boston, we are celebrating that the Red Sox are starting their season today, with news reports of how many hotdogs (Fenway Franks) are sold in one day ( 22,000). But what, I say.....about the mustard? The Japanese may still love their Baseball more than Nanohana, but this event does date back to the 1400's Edo period whereas Baseball only goes back 30 years or so in Japan.

A Woodblock Print of Mustard Blossoms from 1600
For me, Nanohana is a home run.

April 5, 2009

To mulch, or not to mulch, that is the question when it comes to naturalizing.

Even in a field, Narcissus look best when planted naturally. No bark mulch here in this field, but rather, thick, deep grass. This meadow near us at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden is a fine example of a more natural planting, sometimes referred to and naturalizing, but these rarely self seed in the dense grass, although they may divide a bit to form clumps, to achieve real naturalization, narcissus seed needs to be collected and sown in pots. Although, in my rock garden, some varieties and species are seeding, which is nice to see. If you mulch with wood bark, forget about seedlings from anything, but if you use gravel, many bulbs will self seed easily, as long as you look carefully - since many of the small one or two year old plants look like grass for the first few years. So if you are looking for tidyness, forget about naturalized drifts.

Narcissus rupicula, perhaps my tiniest daffodil, is barely the size of a dime. Look at it compared to the Muscari nexst to it. Doll house sized daffodils like this are always hard to come by, this one came after some heavy bidding at an auction a few years ago. I just love it, too bad it spreads so slowly. In the rock garden, it too gets just an annual mulch with native gravel, which is basically what it is growing in, too. More like an alpine scree, rather than soil.

The miniature naricissus, 'Snipe' blooming in the rock garden, where a gravel mulch adds to the high alpine aesthetic one wants to achieve in high elevation themed gardens. This is a garden one would never use wood bark mulch on.

Like so many things in our modern lives today, convenience has become the driving force in much of what we consumer. Maybe because my 96 year old father lives with me, which means that since I just turned from 49 to 50 years old, I am a little unique in my generation, being raised by depression era parents. This has given me a different perspective on the use of everyday luxuries such as paper towels, disposable diapers, bottled water, the use of leaf-blowers and packaged dinners, since I was brought up in a world of home made (or bakery) bread, canning ones own vegetables en-mass (freezing ones own, was still considered rather modern, even in the 70’s), and in a home where glass and cast iron was preferred over plastic. None of these decisions we’re made because of the environment or in an effort to be green, it was just an everyday norm, to bring scraps out to the massive compost pile (even Newspapers and egg shells from our chickens were recycled), it was more about a mindset of not wasting, rather than one of convenience. Which brings us to mulch.

I was raised in a world where wood mulch was not only seen as the lazy mans way to avoid weeds, but that any garden that did result to using mulch simply was seen as unsightly, for mulch was never used by ‘real serious gardeners’, (except for using hay in the vegetable garden, which was OK). This fact was reinforced when I got my first job as a gardener at an private estate, where certainly, any mulch would have been seen as unacceptable, although rock gravel was used in certain beds beyond the rock garden for design purposes ( a Fletcher Steele thing), and fresh manure was used a more purposeful mulch, but only on the borders of Grus en Achen roses, which was another directive by the landscape architect himself.

Today, in our modern, fast, lives, few of us have the time to weed and hoe every bed and border to achieve that perfectly manicured edge and weedless soil, which was the goal of every gardener (and estate owner). I still associate wood and bark mulch as unsightly, opting for freshly cultivated weedless soil rather than the red or brown mulch, but only recently, I have had a change of heart (or knees), and find myself ordering ten or so yards, every year, if only to keep the weeds down.

There are many pros and cons in using any mulch, but with wood bark mulch, the controversy continues. But much of what you may read is not true, for urban legends continue about insects, disease and plagues of one sort or another, few, if any of these problems are true. Fundamentally, most wood mulches are good for plants (as are any mulches). They keep the soil cool, help retain moisture, and decompose like a compost pile does, thus improving one soil composition.

These two year old seedlings of the wild primrose, Primula acaulis from western Europe, blooms very early here in New England. I hated to mulch it with this Hemlock mulch, for surely I am suffocating numerous Corydalis seedlings, but by June, I might be happy once the Impatiens seedlings become suffocated too.

Here is the same planting of Primula acaulis from last year. Notice how nicer the bed looks with a natural mulch of native leaves rather than the bark mulch. Now I wish I never mulched this garden. But I never set aside leaves last year, or shredded any to mulch with this year. Shredded leaves partially composted would be best.

Some people feel that mulches look good. I like the smell of many of the wood mulches available in the North Eastern part of North America, where I live, mostly Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and White Pine (Pinus strobes), but I still find sadness in the fact that many people associate a nicely mulched bed as the epitome of a perfectly groomed garden. Make no mistake about it – the perfectly green and trimmed lawn and red dyed wood mulched beds and tree trunks are far from ‘perfect’. All this says about your garden is that not only are you lazy, you are an irresponsible and uninformed steward of the land. Which I am, sometimes, for I have finally started using wood mulch for some of our beds, and I am not proud of it.
Now, I feel like one of those executives who golf’s on Saturday mornings rather than a plantsman who gets his knees dirty carefully weeding and cultivating his garden. I do cultivate parts, but I use the excuses of money and time as the primary reasons why I need to result to mulch on other parts of the garden. Remember… Martha doesn’t use mulch in her garden beds at Bedford or Bar Harbor, nor does one see wood mulch at Kew, proper English gardens, and certainly, no real English border would ever use wood mulch. Gardeners do a much better job weeding and cultivating the soil (we couldn’t even leave a foot print or a hand print), but these ‘gardeners are rare are expensive today. I mean, only the very rich can afford a gardener, and only the wealthiest can afford one who is a real plantsman.

So we resort to Mulches. Sadly, we must either spread it our selves, or hire “landscapers’ to spread it (often poorly, and ineffectively, mounding it around tree trunks – don’t get me started about ‘landscapers, please. They are nothing more than ‘guys who cut the lawn. (and don’t get me started about the purpose of lawns!

Some Pulsatilla from seed, growing in the alpine garden. This is a white form, of this vernal high alpine seen in the alps and in the mountains of the west. Poorly sited, ( this is growing now under a dwarf mugo pine, and in a few years, I will lose it), I should try to move some of these plants, but I fear that their root systems have become too deep.
These are same folks who fertilize their lawns each spring, and wear golf shoes on Saturday, and who are obsessed in controlling nature to such a point where they treat their yards more like living rooms rather than as natural, gardens. A modern backlash is occurring in gardening products, which may seem like a trend, but believe me, if you think that the use of systemic insecticides is bad (perhaps the reason for the decline in the honey bee populations world wide) and the recent horrors expressed about the use of any salt based or water soluble fertilizers (such as Miracle Gro), which are being boycotted by many, the fact is gardening has a terrible history of environmental abuse, (just look at any vintage garden magazine, and you will see ads for Blue Whale Fertilizer and DDT), wood mulches too, are being seen as dangerous for the environment by some.

Still, the cons, I believe are less bothersome. The greatest may be the cost; I have to dish out about $500 a year for mulch, at $42 a yard, plus delivery charges. Then, of course, there is the labor, which I don’t pay for except in water soluble Epsom salts (is that bad for the environment, too?). The best reason I could find for not using mulch, is that an unmulched garden allows many plants and bulbs to reseed, which one rarely sees today in American gardens. If you are a serious gardener, consider not mulching parts of your garden to observe the benefits of allowing your plants to seed.

The very tiny Narcissus, 'Midget', only 4 inches tall, but a clear miniature of it's giant brethren, bloom in the raised rock wall where it too is allowed to seed naturally in the gravel mulch. The blue Chinodoxa has spread everywhere in drifts, where it's seed has dropped.

My ephemeral bed, which is a bed which is mostly planted with Hellebores and native woodland wildflowers like Bloodroot ( Sanguinaria), Primula species (like Primula veris, P. denticulata, P. aucaulis) small spring blooming bulbs, like Corydalis solida, Erythronium ( dogs tooth violets), and a bunch of wildflowers like Virginia Blue Bells, White Trillium (Trillium grandifloru, and T. erectum) and Phlox divaricata. This bed was not mulched for the past three years, and now, seedling are emerging that I have never seen happen before, when I was mulching. Next to my Hellebores, young seedlings are emerging, many of these requiring one or two years of stratification, but most exciting, is the number or Corydalis solida seedlings emerging, something which most gardeners rarely see if they mulch or weed too much.

Eranthis seedlings sprouting after a year or two of outdoor, natural undisturbed stratification. SInce a gravel mulch was used, the seedlings are able to emerge naturally.

In the rock garden, I use granite gravel as mulch, and many small bulbs are reseeding in amazing quantities. Along the greenhouse, in the raised rock wall, the small blue flowering bulbs of Chinondoxa are self seeding in drifts, in the undisturbed gravel, along with various tulip species and narcissis seedlings. The trick is to not resurface with new mulch each year, which is the reason why the woodland or ephemeral garden reseeds so nicely. In spring, the leaves are not removed from the maples and birches over head, which drop a natural mulch each autumn ( think – what happens in the woodland), this is natures natural mulch which breaks down naturally during the winter here, and by spring, is decomposed enough for spring bulbs and woodland plants to poke right through it.
The natural microrhyza can grow, allowing for a perfect balance necessary for many seedlings to sprout and grow.

So the best mulch? Perhaps it is leaves. The most informed and successful gardeners know the tricks, save ones leaves in the fall, shred or chop them in a shredder and either resurface each bed in the fall, or save them in a compost pile and use the compost as a mulch in the spring. OF course, it all makes perfect sense, for it is the most natural. Leaves fall in the autumn, in the woods, and decompose all winter, and by spring natures natural garden emerges without the need for shredded bark mulch. So take a hint from Mom Nature, and save your leaves next autumn, and look for those tiny seedlings of Eranthis and Crocus next spring.

A Mariposa Lily blooms in New England.
In the greenhouse, the western USA native bulb of the Mariposa Lily, Calochortus lutea, is blooming in a few pots of fast draining soil, in the cold greehouse bulb plunge bed. It opens when the sun hits it in the late morning, and by evening, it has closed.

Lastly, one of my favorite asian Primroses, especially for wet areas, Primula denticulata. Here, a blue variety begins to bloom. THis early emerging Primula will be twice as large next week. It is often referred to as the drumstick Primrose. This is the first blooming after starting from seed last year, and planted out in the summer. These plants are growing in the rich loam in front of the greenhouse, but I should have tried some in the vernal pools in the woodland garden, since the moisture in the spring, would make these plants gigantic compared to these. Still, they are quite nice, and at least we can enjoy them on the stone path that leads to the greenhouse.