December 18, 2012

...and there shall be peace

As our neighbors in Connecticut begin to recover after last Friday's utterly reprehensible attack, it's been numbing - even for those of us who do not have children. Like many of you, I've tried a news fast, I've tried to move forward but it is impossible to escape the updates, and perhaps it is just human nature to feel the need to try and make sense out of something which seems undefinable from any perspective.

Aside from the tragedy in Newtown, CT, I've had my own drama here at the house. My cold/flu which kept me out of work last week for 7 days spread to my 98 ( nearly 99) year old dad, who fell Saturday and cracked his head open as he came down with pneumonia. He returned home from the hospital tonight. Joe was admitted to the hospital yesterday for a few days, as he too acquired pneumonia as well as flu tough enough to require hospital care. I, still recovering, now live in a world of bed pans, tea, diapers, walkers, visiting nursesmaids ( yeah - "nursemaids" makes me feel Downton Abbyish).

Still, with Dad turning 99 on February 6th, I can't help but think of those tiny lives lost so near to us. There's no sense in trying to justify or make sense out of fate, but sometimes, one can't help feel the imbalance, Mother Nature is never very good in dishing out 'fairness' or justice. As we learn  these lessons of unfairness which life demonstrates so often, sometimes moving even day to day can be painfully raw.

We awoke here in central Massachusetts yesterday to an ice storm. With temperatures hovering near the freezing point, rain turns instantly to ice, as it hits the frozen surface. These two Downy Woodpeckers enjoy some suet and sunflower seeds in their crystal palace, which was melted by nightfall. Birds are most dependent during snowstorms and ice storms, when their natural food sources become covered or when food becomes scarce.

A Golfinch snacks on Nyger seed amidst a diamond-studded Japanese maple tree during yesterdays ice storm which coated much of New England in a thick, coating of ice.

As Christmas looms ahead, my many plans for making wreaths, baking, decorating have all gone on hold, so this blog has suffered a bit lately. Hopefully, next week I can catch up with my plans to reinvent, to add vigor and sparkle to this site, and to finalize the redesign on these 18 days of vacation which seem to be slipping away faster than those icicles on the greenhouse.

The sun came out ( finally!) this afternoon, and I was treated to a rare glimpse of summer in the greenhouse. I could almost imagine that it was mid July and not mid December as two Tropaeolum species bloomed in the warm sunshine. Tropaeolum, or Nasturtium are common summer annuals in many of our gardens, but these same bright annuals provided cheery color in cold greenhouses throughout the 18th and 19th century. It was not uncommon to train long, trailing vines of nasturtiums in conservatories, where they would hand in long trusses, providing bloom throughout late winter.

 A rare treat bloomed for a second time, after a seedling emerged in a pot of Bouganvillia. I was hoping that it was a seedling of the rare Tropaeolum moritzianum, which I had obtained as a gift from a friend, but which never seemed to germinate this past summer. But now that it has bloomed, I can see that it is an equally rare and unusual speicies, but one which I had grown before, so this clearly is a self-sown stow away from last season. Now identified as T. smithii, another fringed, annual Tropaeolum, I will work hard to try and save some seed of this gem which typically blooms for me in late summer, not in December.

Tropaeolum smithii, trailing up a trellis in the greenhouse. This rare, annual vine self-seeding into a pot of bouganvillia.
Fernery in December. It' s not hard to see why ferns were once popular in cold Victorian homes and 19th C. mansions. They often look best, just in a beginning of winter, when rooms are cold, and the air is still damp. In the cold greenhouse, many thrive on the shady side of the potting bench.

December 11, 2012

Chinese Collections Bloom under Glass

Camellia 'Kitty', one of the earliest of the winter camellias to bloom in my greenhouse. On a cold, rainy day, it brightens up a shady bench.
 I finally could not escape the nasty chest cold virus that has been going around, so obviously, I have not been blogging nor taking photos since last weekend. Today, I was able to sneak out a bit in the afternoon to fill the bird feeders and to water the greenhouse a bit, and to grab a lemon or two for my tea ( oh God, I'm starting to sound old!), and I was surprised that on these - the shortest days of the year, there is much in bloom under glass.

A majority of the blooming shrubs and plants right now are Chinese, where the South African spring blooming ( fall blooming here) plants have begun to wind down, there is a break when most of what is in bloom is Asian. Camellia, Asian primula, citrus seed to dominate.  I am always struck at how many plants I now associate with specific seasons, in much the same way that one associates Lilacs with April or Trillium with May, I associate Chinese Primroses with December and January, or Camellias with January and February. These repeat visitors are like old friends, like any other garden plant, but only with us for a brief week or two on the gardening calendar.

Primula forbessii is one of two known annual species of Primrose native to Yunnan and northern Burma. Monocarpic yet sometimes self-seeding in the same pot, the species is closely related to P. malacoides, the once popular Fairy Primrose which was so common in cool greenhouses at the turn of the last century.

I've been primula species - deficient this past year, just out of lazyness, and not from a lack of seed, for as any visitor knows, our cheese drawer in the fridge is jam packed with primula seed! I did sow a few trays of pots this autumn, which I will bring back into the greenhouse around Christmas to germinate, and I am ordering some newly collected species to sow from Jelitto ( since they are pre-chilled) and some from the finest source of hybrid primula - Barnahaven Primroses in France, but I fear that the only primrose that I will have in bloom this winter is this P. forbessii ( and maybe a few P. obconica that I was able to carry through the summer heat).
In a few weeks, this pot of Primula forbessii will be in full bloom. First flowered in England in 1891 in the alpine house at Kew, today it can only be found in the greenhouses and collections of plant collectors, as it requires annual seeding and demands a cool, moist environment. I was lucky that my plant self seeded last spring.

My Meyer Lemon crop was small this year ( I really think that I need to get a few more trees in the greenhouse). With only about 25 lemons, I still should have enough to last for tea through most of the winter, but not enough for Lemon curd or Lemon Merengue Pie this year.

The tiniest citrus in the greenhouse is this pea sized kumquat, Fortunella hindsii. Virtually doll-house sized oranges.
This Kumquat, or Fortunella  species is rarely seen today, but it is a common plant in Hong Kong ( it's the one you see outside the windows when taking the train to the top of Victoria Mountain and often called the "Hong Kong Kumquat.) In China it has been pickled ( but then, what hasn't), and preserved, but with pea-sized fruit, it's more of an ornamental - a thorny one - than anything else. Each fruit holds a single or pair of large seeds.

December 5, 2012

The New Christmas Cactus

Schlumbergera 'Thor Carmen' has purple bud which open brilliant carmine red, a new variety, it is beginning to show up for sale at some online retailers, and on Ebay.
 Behold the modern Christmas cactus. These are not your mothers' Christmas cactus nor your Grandmothers. New varieties and strains are being introduced every year, and even though these new varieties may take decades to reach us through traditional commercial growers, they are available from collectors and small, specialist growers. If you are seeking new yellow flowered forms, or fringed white types that look like snowflakes, or mutated green and magenta flowered ones with flowers that are deformed so much that they look like grasshoppers, then these new Christmas Cactus are for you.

My collection grows each year, as we introduce four or five new varieties each winter. I am partial to the yellow, brownish bronze and peach varieties, as well as pure white, but I am becoming more interested in bicolored forms, those which white petals, but edged in pink or purple.

Yellow Christmas Cactus are always a favorite, they balance out a windowsill collection, and today, there are many improved yellow forms.

Schlumbergera x 'Aspen', a new fringed white-flowered Christmas cactus that has petals which look like shredded snowflakes. It's hot, hot, hot right now, with cuttings selling for $25 on Ebay.Difficult to find as it sells out quickly, it is currently available via mailorder from Logee's.

Many of these Christmas cactus are difficult to find, as mass market growers are still growing older forms, but you can find them available from specialist nurseries online, and from collectors on Ebay. Like any newer introduction, it often takes time for many to catch on. If a new plant can be micro-propagated, as in a test tube, then new varieties can come to market quickly, but most of these newer varieties are still rather uncommon, and thus, their prices remain high. The variety 'Aspen' was selling for nearly $100 five years ago, and although last year it was available from a couple of growers, it quickly sold out. I purchased my plant for $25 dollars last spring, and Logee's Greenhouses in CT. is currently selling it for $19. They also have a newer red-form of this popular fringed variety, also on my wish list.

Christmas cactus can form long-lived specimen plants, often becoming family heirlooms, being passed down from generation to generation ( I still have some plants that were my mothers from the 1940's). They root easily from cuttings, and are true gift and share plants. You may think that they are too old-fashioned, but that's the appeal - they are timeless, and special in the same way that an old Christmas ornament can be timeless. Their flowers visit us, nostalgically each year.

I am trying to collect as many cultivars as possible, so if any of you have a favorite, please let me know. I am aware of curious mutant forms, old species, bronze and brownish flowered forms and the new fringed types. Any suggestions are welcome. Most of these newer varieties are some you will never find at a supermarket or greenhouse, which makes them even more interesting, not unlike African Violets, where the finest varieties are available only from collectors and small, specialist nurseries and not from commercial growers. This is true with many plants, daylilies to orchids. Take note.

'Christmas Flame', a newer yellow form of Schlumbergera will achieve maximum yellowyness if not exposed to cold temperatures. If I kept this in the cold greenhouse, or too close to the window, it would have more magenta on the edge of each petal. If kept warm while in bud, the blossoms remain yellow-peach.
 One of the most common questions I get is "How can I get my Christmas cactus to bloom for Christmas?" The answer is simple, but not always easy to achieve. Christmas cactus respond to daylength, and they will set bud in October if kept dry and on a natural day-length schedule. This means that even if you keep your plants on a windowsill in a room which you do not use, you must be certain that a streetlight is not near by. My plants sit in the greenhouse, and they get natural daylight without any artificial light, and the plant set bud exactly at the same time with no effort.

While actively growing in the late spring and early summer, Schumbergera are active feeders, responding to water soluable fertilizer well, which keeps the plants a rich, bright green. The plants summer outdoors under a tree, where they do not get any direct sun, but in the winter, they live on a high bench in the greenhouse where they get full sun.

Schumbergera 'Christmas Fantasy', another new variety with those amazing yellow tints.