Saturday, March 15, 2008

They're Not Ephemeral - They Just Walk Funny

Things seem to move very rapidly these days, both in life and in the garden. I think that’s a function of getting older. My favorite music professor used to say that getting older was like heading for a stop sign without slowing down; the sensation is one of moving faster and faster as the sign approaches. Some plants are designed to function this way, as well. They pack all of their growth, flowering, and seed production into the short season between the time of year when the days begin to warm and lengthen and the days in which available light and water begin to be absorbed by the demands of deciduous trees returning to active growth. These are collectively known as spring ephemerals, and they include some of my favorite plants.

Bulbs, of course, are the best examples of plants exhibiting this kind of growth cycle. Known more properly as geophytes, each of these plants has developed some technique for storing moisture and energy underground against the time when these commodities will be scarce. Great examples are Galanthus, the snowdrops, which are just finishing their bloom period here, and the spring flowering crocus, always a nice surprise when they show up around the yard. During the last very busy week I’ve run past hundreds of stunning daffodils as I’ve left for work and arrived home; they are some of the most amazing plants to grow, and the variety is staggering. I plant another couple of dozen every fall, even though it doesn’t seem that there’s one more inch of ground to be colonized. They interplant beautifully with later perennials (daylilies being their classic accomplice), which help to hide the foliage which many seem to find so objectionable (I’ve never understood this – why can’t we learn to enjoy and appreciate all stages of plant growth, including senescence? People need to realize that the "unsightly" foliage is the very source of next year's bloom, but they just don't seem to get it.) We have Narcissus in bloom for at least two months due to overlapping bloom periods. More notorious spring foliage is produced by Lycoris, daffodil (and, therefore, amaryllis) relatives which die down in the heat of summer, then produce their blooms between August and October, hence the nickname “Surprise Lilies” (aka “Naked Ladies” – more sensational, to be sure). I could go on and on about this family alone, and maybe sometime I will. There’s hardly a day during any season when one of the Amaryllids is not in bloom in this garden, and they are completely resistant to damage by rodents (and, I understand, deer).

Other ephemerals include Hepaticas, tiny, jewel-like ranunculids which poke their noses out and bloom off and on beginning in January, Sanguinaria, known as bloodroot, and another favorite genus, Trillium. These are really more appropriately grown in colder regions, but I’ve had good success with several species, especially when growing them in large containers along with other plants which don’t want any additional watering during the summer months. Trilliums make great companion plants for tree peonies, sharing the same basic growth period and enjoying a summer rest when the peonies are moved outside the range of the sprinkler to protect them from overwatering. Some of my favorites are T. underwoodii, in bud right now, its beautifully mottled leaves having been in evidence for more than a month, T. erectum album, producing gorgeous creamy flowers on sturdy stems, and happy enough to have produced a swarm of seedlings around its base, and a particularly good form of T. cuneatum (I think – this complex is so confusing that it’s hard to know exactly what species it might be). T. simile, T. grandiflora, and several others provide nice little surprises when they make their annual spring appearance. I love the book by Fred and Roberta Case, a labor of love by folks who live in a place where Trilliums are actually intended to grow. It’s an amazing work, and an endless source of information.

There are a couple of things I’ve learned about growing anything that experiences a dormant period, whatever the time of year. Labels are important. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve planted something right on top of a dormant bulb or rhizome; there’s nothing more sickening than the sound of a shovel slicing through a daffodil, especially if it’s one for which I paid more than $5 each (there are a few of these, I admit). Poking around in the soil with fingers before plants break ground in spring can also lead to big trouble (and lots of expletives). I have to tell myself that if a plant is dead, it’s already dead, and no amount of tactile reassurance will change this; if it’s going to grow, it’ll do so when it’s ready, and not before. Sometimes this works, sometimes not – I managed to pull one growth completely off of a dormant lady slipper last spring as I “investigated”. If it wasn’t deceased when I started prying, it was by the time I finished. Most importantly, when geophytes are dormant, they want to stay dormant – too much water during this time can be fatal, although some types (many daffodils and leucojum, for instance) can handle being interplanted with things that do receive summer watering.

In very broad terms, lots of things are ephemeral, and that’s one of the things I enjoy most about gardening. This quality is what provides seasonality and rhythm in the year for me. Hydrangeas and Gardenias always lift my spirits because they start to bloom as the school year begins to wind down. Conversely, from a veteran teacher’s perspective, at least, Sedum "Autumn Joy" has got to be saddled with the most oxymoronic cultivar name of all time. The spring ephemerals, though, are the most welcome, because they’re all about rebirth, anticipation, and hope. This is the point of any religious activity, which, in my book, definitely includes gardening.

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