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July 8, 2018

Botanizing Yunnan: Western China and the Tibetan Plateau




I've been home a day and a half now from nearly a month in China. Clearly I am recovering from jet lag after more than 20 hours on flights over three days (I wrote this post twice and then somehow forgot to save it! SO I lost it.) Third time is a charm, right?

Over the next few posts I will attempt to summarize some of the highlights of this trip to what Frank Kingdon Ward called 'The land of the Blue Poppies' (yes, we saw a few those amazing Meconopsis species), but all of. the floristic wonders in this remote part of China are immense, and covering all of what we saw will be impossible - as I have a few thousand photos -probably enough content for many posts. I will just share the highlights, probably saving the juicy details for the talks that I will be giving about this incredible trip.

Contradictions exist everywhere in rural China. Our luggage arrived at our inn in Lijiang old town this way.


So, some of you were wondering "Why Yunnan and western China?". The answer is simple. This part of the Himalaya and the high Tibetan plateau is floristically one of the most diverse and species-rich places on earth. Why wouldnt any plant person want to come here? I will admit that it was ajourney and an adventure, and while nothing as adventurous as the orriginal 19th and early 20th century explorers encountered, the ten of us still found parts of the trip challenging,beit high elevation and altitude sickness, or something as mundane as a lack of ice and only warm beer.



An open air restaurant in old town Lijiang at least kept us dry in the early monsoons which were plaguing much of south west Asia a month early this year.

Our inn was old, and romantic with the sound of pouring rain running off the roof, and these open hallways with langerns. It was as if I stepped back a hundred years - both in the good and bad way!



A peak into a home in Lijiang.

For the first few days the monsoons drenched everything and everyone. Sometimes even too much for umbrellas. but not for the live fish in these plastic bags outisde ofa local market.

This alley leads to Joseph Rock's house, just on the left. A fascinating bit of history that still wasnt too commerical to experience.



Joseph Rock's residence featured an outside alley and door through a gate which lead to a courtyard. This is the view from the inside.

From the outside,Joseph Rock'sresidence looked like this. Almost as if he was still here with Donkey's drinking water from a well, the scent of incense and even live pigs.


Inside Jospeh Rock's home were photos and paraphenalia that the locals still use as a bit of a museum to help raise money for this tiny village.

We sae 'low' elevation plants (well if 10,000' can be considered low!) like this Thermopsis barbata on the Zhongdian plateau -it had nearly black flowers...

...and high elvation plants like these Sausaurea species at nearly 16,000'.


We were able to fields of primula, like these P. sikkimensis both at high and lower elevations. In fact, we saw primula almost everywhere in every color.



These Tibetan borderlands are home to so many favorite genus like Primula, Rhododendrons and alpine plants, Well collected over a hundred years ago by the names we all know like Wilson, Ward, Forrest, Farrer (even Dan Hinkley and Darrell Probst for that matter), we were not really looking for new species as we were looking to see something very special instead - something few modern plant collectors ever see - a chance to see these areas in full bloom rather than in the autumn, when most seed collecting happens. So how could I turn a trip like this down?



The great bend of the Yangtze River.


Incense at a monastary scents the air.

Our trip leader was Panayoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Garden and NARGS.



This trip is the third under the umbrella of the NARGStours (North American Rock Garden Society Tours a group which I have been president of for the past 5 years, but now retired from). All participants are NARGS members however and each cames with a special expertise about a specific genus ranging from Corydalis to willows or Primula to woody plants. Panayoti Kelaidis (of the Denver Botanic Garden and currently VP of NARGS) acted as our tour leader which made for even a more extraordinary experience. 


I rest briefly (to catch my breath?) at 14,500' on Shikashan, Snow Mountain in NW Yunnan.


In Shangri-La (once known as Zhongdian) Tibetan monestary's and prayer flags add to the motif's everwhere you look.



Prayer wheels at monastary's and even at sacred mountains became a daily exercise routine - must spin ever one.



Rhododendron wardii, a rare yellow rhododendron only found in this area around Shikashan Snow Mountain in Yunnan. We were fortunate to be there during peak bloom and even sunshine - this part of the country has the cleanest air in China.



The upper meadows of Shika Shan in bloom with many small rhododendrons. It was hard to manage our time hiking down the 14,500 foot mountain to get to the bottom before dark, but treasures were everywhere.





At lower elevations many plants proved to be common in our gardens at home, from rodgersia to polygonatum to lilacs. Scotty Smith from Denver examines a lilac species looked over by Panayoty and Jeff Wagner (Colorado)- our 'woody' guys.


While I spent time in Beijing up front and then a few days in Kunming, much of our focus ranged from the lower right of this map of NW Yunnan to the upper left ending up in Dequin.



A random photo of lunch? We were well prepared for changes in diet and food, and knowledgable about avoiding fresh veggies and driking water that wasnt bottled. Still, as a foodie, I ventured out trying to experience everything.



Mangosteen at a local market. Sweet and delicious, we limited out fresh fruit consumption to that which could be peeled rather than relying on washing.



Mop handles were just as attractive as some of the plants.

Hygene varied of course, in one village all dishes from restaurants were washed this way.



June 6, 2018

Emotional Support Gardens are Really all about the Plants

Because this garden we live in is 3 generations old, almost every plant has a story associated with it. Gardens are really living time capsules of memories, emotions and full of personal bits of nostalgia and sentiment.


I promise that I won't get too sentimental. Really. But today was one of those days that you dare think about. While rushing around to buy leech-proof gators for Yunnan at REI (they didn't have any nor have heard of them) and while packing up baby pheasants for folks who bought them from us on Craig's List, I got a phone call from my brother that my sister had died.

Cindy was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer last Thursday after ruling out a host of other cancers we needn't think about, so she was suddenly getting iller and this wasn't a complete surprise. Cindy and I were close so I was the first to know when my brother called me. Closer to me in age than any other sibling we always had a special relationship. We shared many traits - the same comfort foods, a love for old 1930's and 40's movies (screwball comedies), cooking, gardening (not exactly at my level though!), and lots of childhood secrets, inside jokes and hopes. Of course, I will miss her dearly. We are all planning a private service for her in the autumn when my other brother can get here from the west coast, perhaps near her birthday in October.


I adore the scent of geraniums (pelargonium sp). Not everyone's thing, I know, but every few years I like to build a collection that will bloom through the summer in the greenhouse.

I leave for China this weekend, which will now more than anything help keep my mind off of all of this. Cindy was anxious to hear about my trip when we spoke on Sunday, so I felt that it should still go on.

Memories of rhubarb stems dipped into a bowl of sugar should bring back memories for anyone raised on a farm or with a large garden.

For those of us close to a garden, or for those of us who were raised in a garden with siblings, or parents and grandparents- we often associate memories with certain plants. I think we often underestimate the nostalgia aspect that plants offer us. Sure old trees and scented shrubs can live forever, not unlike an old piece of treasured furniture, but even the scent or appearance of a flowering plant in the garden can be like living history.

I often imagine that an old rose or flowering plant like a scented violet mimics exactly the precisely same scent that perhaps Lincoln or Josephine experienced. Plants offer us each season with a fresh re-fresh. I am certain that while in China visiting the home of Joseph Rock or following in the footsteps of Frank Kingdon Ward that I will see many of the plants that these and other well-known plant explorers found which now grace our own gardens.

A Davidia involucrata bloomed this year in our garden (it's third blooming in 30 years), and I imagine that I will see it too in bloom in China. Not often seen in most gardens as it is one of those trees more likely found at a specialist nursery and not at a big box store, the Davidia, or Fabled Dove Tree had large, white bracts or leaf-like structures surrounding their blossoms which hang down not unlike handkerchiefs (or, to be more relevant- not unlike dryer sheets. but 'The Fabled Dryer Sheet Tree' just doesn't have the same 'ring'.



I call this barrel the old goose bucket, for when I was a kid we had a goose that would swim in tiny circles in it, clearly forbidden from the chicken yard. Today, Joe has planted a lotus in it. It should be beautiful come August.


Lilacs, bleeding hearts, tiny white bunches of Indian Pipes in the woods, peonies which she would make bath oil from, and so many herbs. I am realizing that so many plants like rhubarb remind me of her that it will be difficult to forget the association, but that's OK of course. Memories are good things.

I leave for China on Saturday, to the exact areas in Yunnan were the Davidia or Fabled Dove Tree was first discovered. Ours bloomed this year as it never has bloomed- full and covered with white bracts.
Alpine Glow, a tiny red tropical rhododendron, or Vireya. It has to live in the greenhouse here but often surprises us with its tiny flowers in June. Ironically a red cardinal has made a nest inside of the greenhouse, flying in and out of the vent every day to feed its young.



Yellow rhododenrons bloom near the greenhouse. This R. 'Narcissiflorum' has a double'hose-in-hose' type flower and is deciduous.

Plantsman Dan Hinkley often wrote about the many benefits of the genus Cardamine, which inspired me to start collecting many of the species nearly 15 years ago. I believe that this is Cardamine macrophylla, from a Crug Farm collection (number BSWJ2165a) from Singalila Ridge in the northern Indian HImalaya, but it appears lighter in color from other clones available. It's a tall and later flowering Cardamine, at 3 feet, but still very impressive for a plant from the cabbage family.

Ou homing pigeons are nearly ready to be released, as it has been a year since we obtained them and their many youngsters are now assimilated and will recognize this coop as home.

The Ring-Necked Pheasants have been productive as well laying dozens of eggs most of which have hatched into some of the quickest chicks imaginable. Faster than terriers and foxes combined.

As if I have nothing better to do, we have undertaken the construction of a gourd tunnel (inspired by our visit to Amy Goldman's famous and lovely gourd tunnel in upstate New York on her farm). Our's will be quite different, and like many projects I get involved with, has become larger. It will be an 'X' shaped trellis or arbor, really. Extending in four directions around our old koi pond that has been there since 1920. At one time there was a grape arbor next to this, so I imagine that this too will house grapes once our fascination with Asian gourds passes. Give us a year.

I almost want to paint this  'gourd tunnel - meets - grape arbor' with a coral or cinnabar colored paint to but its form will be more Arts & Crafts than anything generically 'Asian', and certainly it's not Japanese or Javanese.  White will probably be the color once the gourds attack it (they are already started in the greenhouse), so it will be a fall painting project.



The stone alpine troughs are in peak bloom this week. Check out this very tall Saxifraga longifolia which, as a monocarp bloomed last year, but its suckers all extended the bloom this year as it sometimes does, in a very-Wisley-like display.


Well, folks, this will probably be my last post until I reach China. A few days in Beijing next week, and then off to Yunnan. Hopefully my VPN will work and I will be able to post live from there, if not, then I will recap once I return. 

May 21, 2018

May Fever, and some interesting plans in progress


This past weekend we hosted our annual party for the New England Primrose Society. The National Show was held in Alaska this year, so attendance was down a bit, but we still had just over 20 plant geeks walking through the garden and enjoying home-cooked food and wine. This event always seems to kick off our gardening season.

So here's the thing about not working in an air-conditioned office with beige carpets and cubicles - on days like this - mid-May, bright cobalt blue skies, 75 degrees, chartreuse new leaves on the trees, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore Orioles singing and making new nests, well... you get it. But here's the other thing about not working a 9-5 job - you never have an off button. At least I don't.  So blogging has seemed to slipped by me since in April I wrote: "hey - I'm back". No worries, (not that you are - I read somewhere this week that so many bloggers spend time apologizing for not posting for a few months when really their readers don't care or even notice.). Let's just say that it's spring, and I do have some exciting announcements.






The garden out by the greenhouse still needs to be planted with tender plants and annuals but as you can see - a giant Echium that spent the winter in the greenhouse in a pot is towering over 12 feet tall delighting the hummingbirds!

First, I am working with Darrell Probst on his breeding program (part-time). If you don't know Darrell - read any description about Epimedium in the Plant Delight's catalog. Although, Darrell has moved on-to coreopsis big-time, and another new genus' that I can't discuss, what I can say is that a few days a week I am helping him sow seeds, take cuttings, do some marketing and other tasks as really - it's all product design and in my wheel-house in many ways.

Some of Darrell Probst's past introductions include this wonderful Epimedium 'Pink Champagne' You can find it here.

Darrell and I have known each other for about 30 years believe it or not, from my early involvement exhibiting with the horticultural society (Worcester County Horticultural Society), his past wife and still friend Karen Perkins who now runs the epimedium nursery he started (it was featured in last months issue of Better Homes & Gardens, if you saw it). So, it's a small world. Partnering with Darrell is both fascinating and educational for me as well. I am learning so much about cleaning seed, propagation and the entire business of patented plant production. Touring fields with buyers, propagators, plug-growers and marketers from big retailers, as well as the Dutch growers is interesting, and I can see so many parallels to any product development that I had my hand in, in the past (the toy industry). Look for me at Cultivate 2018 this year, new ads and promotions for Darrell's plants and in other surprising placed. I can't wait.


The tree peonies survived our harse winter surprisingly well which has surprised me as I usually protect them from the cold with burlap and styrofoam rose pots. This year not a bit of winter-kill and 14 flowers on this one.


Speaking of Better Homes & Garden's - you can look for me in the next issue as Tovah Martin wrote a great feature on my sweet peas last summer and I just saw the photos from the shoot and the layout - it really looks beautiful. Even Daphne (Doodles our Irish Terrier) got in a shot. It appears in the July 2018 issue which, believe it or not, will be out in a few weeks in early June - you know how magazines go!


In the greenhouse, the tender rhododendrons such as this vireya 'Alpine Glow' are blooming. 


Now - speaking of June. I am heading out on a major trip this June - the day after Joe and I attend the New York Botanical Garden's Conservatory Ball as guests of our friend Amy Goldman (I can't wait - even though I am not a tuxedo-type of guy (OK, I am). I am full-on aware that these social events in NYC are really all about the dress. I mean - REALLY about the dress. So we dudes got out of it with little stress.

English Spencer Sweet Peas ready to plant out for a consulting job I am doing in Vermont.

This June I am off botanizing in Yunnan and Tibet! A trip of a lifetime for me. 


The day after this event I leave for Yunnan, China for a month. I decided to tag along with some fellow plant people (about 10 of us including Panayoti Kelaidis) to botanize for three and a half weeks in western China, Yunnan province and in parts of Tibet. I hope to be able to access through a VPN the Internet so that I can post, but if not (and, probably not given out local, elevation and remoteness not to mention China's limited access to Western Internet), I will surely fill you all in later. I'm spending a few days in Beijing on the way out, as well as Lijiang and other cities on my way to Shangrila, where our base will be.  I've got my shots, visa and camera equipment all squared away. This trip is one offered through the North American Rock Garden Society Tours which I helped start a few years ago and which has become a reality through the efforts of many now on the NARGS Tours team at NARGS. Worth joining if you love plants.



For this project I grew more than 300 plants all as individual deep-pots with a single sweet peas in each pot, but then I potted a few up at com-pots or 6 inch pots with 4 plants in each to see if the might grow just as nice.



My parsley plants may look small, but this is the perfect size for planting outdoors. The big problem with parsley is a rather new one (which you will read about in my book). 

I little note here about parsley, which I was reminded of while visiting some nurseries this weekend. If your parsley is blooming earlier in July recently, this is what is happening:

I raise my parsley from seed not becasue it is hard to find as plants, but because most nurseries now sell parsley too early - along with pansies, thus exposing it to cold temperatures which changes the physiology of the plant. They believe that they survived a mini-winter, and they then bolt - or go to seed by July. I start my parsley in the greenhouse and keep them there until late May when the weather has fully warmed up.

The genus Apiaceae is packed with biennials who behave this way. If you see celery, fennel or parsley- even cilantro at garden centers and  they are not in the warm greenhouse, I would skip buying them. CIlantro, of course, while not a warm weather plant as most dont know, is a fast crop and should be direct sown anyway as  the life cycle of the plant is about a month and a half. But seeds, and sow bi weekly rather than buying a pot that will die in a few weeks.


These are the types of facts you'll find in my veg gardening book. In my next post I will share more of these.  I may call it the 7 deadly garden center sins will surely tick some people off, and while I don't want to do that to the hard-working folks at garden centers, some of this information should be shared. And of course, there are plenty of garden centers who do know what they are doing. Part of the blame needs to fall on us - the consumer as well, but sadly, new gardeners don't know any better. They are easily discouraged when their pot of basil with 20 seedlings in it fails, or when their stunted and over-stressed brussel's sprout plant stops growing. Even we have alot to learn - take brassica's for example. How many of us still think of cauliflower and broccoli as a cold-weather crop that we must sow in early spring? I can't even get my brother to listen to me!

For now -look for tiny parsley plants at mom and pop nurseries, or plan on starting some next year indoors (not to mention that the varieties available from seed catalogs are superior to those found at retail which will have a label that simply says 'curly parsley' or 'Italian Flat'.
Really? There are some very choice named cultivars out there (I am trialing some this year!). I am a parsley nerd, but also want to grow my own because it is one of the high-chemical plants if you dont buy organic (think: pollinizer. No one wants a caterpillar on their store-bought parsley, carrots or fennel - so the chemicals used on them is the same neonic used in tic and flea control for dogs  (imidacloprid).  


Don't want to be eating that! Hey, I use this same chem on some trees or in the greenhouse on ornamentals, so I am not against using some chemicals wisely as horticulture often needs a bit of help when it comes to hard to kill insects, but certainly not on food or pollinator plants. When I found out that imidacloprid is also recommended for some food crops yet is banned from garden sprays (in most states except lawn products), I became concerned. Why can farmers use it on fennel, carrots and parlsey but home growers cannot? It's because supermarkets will do anything to avoid freaking out a customer who finds a black swallowtail butterfly larvae on their parsley or fennel. Grow what you can grow healthy at home, is my motto.





Does this bring back childhood memories?

It's high rhubarb season here - so just a reminder to go buy you rhubarb plants for next year now at garden centers. You wont regret it! I keep a row out back just for rhubarb crisp and rhubarb water. It does nees high fertility though - some old books call for yards of rotted manure to be dug into the ground 6 feet deep. Dan Hinkley once wrote that he never beleived this until he examined the soil where they grow in Yunnan and admitted that it was some of the richest fine loam he had ever seen. Plants though, can last a lifetime once established. It isnt difficult to grow at all, but now that we manure ours, our stalks are as thick as a mans wrist.



Some raritities to share...A few treasures are blooming in the greenhouse like this Tropaeolum leptophyllum from South America.



Random, I know, but more pics. This Rhodohypoxis always signifies spring around here - at least in the greenhouse. A tiny, yet clumping South African geophyte it survives well under glass. I lost most of mine a few years ago to mice, but I am beginning to assemble a collection again. Having to buy them from a west coast nursery who acquired a few of mine from a few friends in the plant world (everyone knows each other) who shared them was a good lesson in sharing - I thought I had lost them all and didn't want to ask collectors in the UK to try sharing again. I'm usually too shy to do so. The few of us who learned and tried about the 30+ selections first introduced by either Dan Hinkley or Crug Farm back in the 90's now have seen them move around. It's one of the good things about sharing plants - there is always a chance that ones original collection could become lost - there are always those out there who will gladly re-share back after distribution so that one could possibly re-build. Not unlike a seed bank.



Gotta love tropical looking wild plants from Aisa. Some red-leaved Rodgeria (left), podophyllum and giant-leaved  Astilboides along the long-walk. These have seemed to triple in size now that a Japanese maple that fell down during a storm this winter has brought them more light. I am loving the look.


Speaking of camera equipment. My other little venture is that I have decided to try video. And I mean video in a big way. I know, I know, I hate my voice and seeing myself on screen but apparently, most everyone does. I decided to invest in good cameras, lenses and all the accessories so that I can, or might, start a Youtube channel or begin to move towards video as I think that is the future. I mean - we all are getting 4K video screens and with smart TV's we all are seeing Youtube apps on the big screen. Bear with me as this may take some time - there is a huge learning curve with editing, software, and skill, but I will admit that my first 'experiment' turned out rather nice - even though I was talking gibberish, just walking around the garden!

Individual sweet peas grown in deep-root cells show how the long roots like to grow downwards. Some are so strong that it's hard to pull them out of the pots. I cant imagine growing Spencer sweet peas in 3-inch pots of a normal depth. I've tried it and the suffer.

The garden is coming along after our very delayed spring weather which I assume many of you have experienced. What am I growing? Well, since I never announced my special projects, I am trying a load of new tomatoes from Amy Goldman's book The Heirloom Tomato where I bought from Seed Savers Exchange and other sources all of the tomato varieties that she rated highest. I am growing some sweet peas, but only a row for myself. I did plant a few hundred at a home in Vermont as I have been hired by them to help add some horticultural value to their properties as well as consulting on starting a flower farm business.

Another reason I grew sweet peas in these larger pots (these are 4.5 inch pots that are 6 inches deep) is that I wanted to experiment or trial selling some via mail order next year as so many of you find English Spencer sweet peas from imported seed overseas challenging to plan and grow. What do you think?
Our Davidia involucrata or Fabled Dove Tree is blooming again. I know I will see these in Yunnan but there is something special about this rare tree when it does bloom. The white bracts are difficult to see in the full sun but on overcast days they do look like white pieces of cloth (hence - the other common name "handkerchief tree" which is surely out of fashion now. I may suggest "Dryer Sheet Tree" for those wishing to propagate and market it - a more relevant name for today.


The greenhouse and garden has survived the harsh winter here better than expected. I don't know about you but while I did lose some plants, others seemed to do better (it hit 12 below zero here which broke a record, and there was little snow cover at the time). Things shouldn't have survived that, but our Davidia tree is in full bloom for the third time in 30 years. Something happened with that 'Snow Bomb' or whatever they called it back in January.



My book which has been my total focus for nearly a year now is almost done. Already on Amazon though for pre-order! Not sure why Amazon is cross-promoting 'Amazing Kittens" along with it, but whatever.


Lastly, my book. Well, as books go it is a time-suck. I just proofed the final copy and had to suggest photos again for each chapter. I have to admit that after reading it again after proofing and editing I sound smart (I know, right?). But really. This book reads like I wanted it to. I felt that a book on vegetable gardening needed to be useful and informative. I don't want to criticize other books out there as many are good, but I felt that if I wrote one the bar had to be raised, and it seems, to me, at least, that this one exceeded that. I'll wait for you folks to decide naturally, but it is already on Amazon for pre-order even though it isn't published and released until December. For now? I have a few hundred captions to write!


In the greenhouse, primrose seedlings are taking off. These are an easy-to-grow species Primula elatior.
Primula elatior will look like this which is blooming now. These are not as common as they once were earlier in the 20th century in gardens but are worth seeking out. Few garden centers offer them (may I will?) as they must be started from seed and few consumers would ever buy them out of bloom making them difficult to sell at retail.