Friday, April 18, 2008

A Thousand Words

Since my time for actual gardening is itself at a premium right now, I'm having a hard time justifying extensive blog writing. So I thought I'd just post some pics of what's happening in the garden this week, without a lot of explanation. This is a Paeonia suffruticosa hybrid, "Shima nishiki". Viburnum opulus 'sterile', the ubiquitous hand-me-down "Snowball" bush. It's beautiful even before the flowers turn white.
Amsonia tabernaemontana - one of my favorite plants. These are clumps I grew from seed several years ago. Some have been taken over by violets and need rescuing, but they're a little touchy re. root disturbance, so I'm not sure how to proceed with that (which makes a good excuse for ignoring this particular chore - just call me "Hamlet")Iris japonica, a great little evergreen groundcover growing in deep, dark shade, yet producing lots of blooms this year. I need to pull out lots of it, since it's taking over the path, but I can't bring myself to do so, at least until it stops blooming.Arisaema serratum var. Mayebarae Paeonia cambessedesii - a fifth-year seedling which has yet to bloom, but has great foliage with purple on the reverse.Trillium grandiflorum, Trillium flexipes, and Trillium cuneatum with Tiarella wherryi. Though not often grown in our area, trilliums have been very successful for me, and I have dozens coming along from seed. These are very slow - from seed to bloom can take from five to seven years, but it's fun to watch their development from year to year, and they don't take up much space. Most of them are planted around the tree peonies, since both prefer to be kept on the dry side during the summer.Rosa laevigata ("Cherokee Rose")- this will probably be removed after this spring. I love the blooms and the winter foliage (glossy with bright red thorns), but it's a rampant grower (about 30' across at this point) which is infested with Japanese honeysuckle; pruning it requires full body armor! Purple tree peonies, Azaleas canescens and austrinum Narcissus "Katie Heath" Winter window boxes which need to be changed out soon, but have been very attractive all season: Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. I stuck in some red Nandina berries for the holidays and let them spill over the sides. Neither of these plants wants to be kept in such tight quarters for long, but they're both easy to propagate, so I'll probably plant these out and repeat this combo next year. The Euphorbia has essentially the same colors as Helleborus foetidus "Wester Flisk", but transplants much more easily for this application.A couple of thugs, Rosa banksiae lutea and a double Wisteria blooming in combination. I threaten to remove both of these (they're all but destroying what's left of the back fence, and the Wisteria is strangling a sweetgum) for most of the year, but always relent when they bloom. Arisaema trifoliata, the native Jack-in-the-Pulpit. I've grown dozens of these from seed, and they're all over the place now. Can't beat 'em. I haven't devoted a lot of space to doing the "dogwood/azalea" thing in this garden, since so many others take care of that and I can drive around and see as many as I want, but these gigantic indicas ("George Lindley Tabor", in this case) are worth the space. Okay - that's it. Gotta go pull weeds, repot plants, cut grass, mend fences, and - oh,

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Playing "Chicken" with Bletillas

It's that time of year again when I spend lots of time that I don't have covering and uncovering plants to protect them due to our unpredictable weather. Ironically, the most demanding in this regard are usually the Bletillas, a genus of hardy orchids from Asia which survive bone-chilling cold all winter, but whose foliage and flowers can be irreparably damaged by freezes in April. Last spring was a disaster in that regard, given our infamous Easter snowstorm.

Still, these are among my most treasured plants, especially some of the hybrids I was lucky enough to collect a few years ago, when ordering plants from the UK was less problematic. Some are more successful than others, and I always keep a plant or two of the rarer varieties in the cool greenhouse over the winter for insurance purposes. I have been growing Bletillas from seed over the past couple of years (see pics in the previous post on raising plants from seed), having discovered that the dust-like seed will germinate if mixed with fine sand and sprinkled over the surface of milled sphagnum in a clear plastic container; most other orchids require flasking under sterile conditions for seed propagation. I'm excited about the possibilities this opens up for hybridizing. Now all I need is more room in which to grow the young plants to maturity...

Other than a few articles online (notably one written several years ago by Clark T. Riley on, and a chapter in the excellent book, Growing Hardy Perennial Orchids by William Mathis, there isn't much information available on growing this genus, so I've learned a lot by trial and error. One revelation came two years ago when I visited a nursery in Richmond and saw B. striata being sold as a marginal aquatic plant, seeming perfectly happy to sit with roots immersed in a deep pan of water; it appears that while they're in full growth during warm weather, overwatering isn't really an issue. Conversely, although the rhizomes can't take too much moisture when dormant, I did discover that storing the bulbs totally dry, as per pleiones, some zephyranthes, etc., is definitely not successful, either. At least partial sun (in combination with adequate moisture) seems to produce better growth and flowering than the usually recommended shade.

There are numerous varieties of B. striata, apparently the sturdiest of the tribe: this image shows both the straight species and the variant with a white stripe along the leaf edge.
To the right is the pure white cultivar (not a particularly good image); some forms have a bit of a purple flush on the tip of the column. There's also a pure white clone with variegated leaves, but the stripes are not very visible in this photograph:To the left is a variety called "Kuchibeni", also marketed as "First Kiss". It's as close as Bletilla striata comes to what is known in Cattleya breeding as a "semi-alba", white with a colored lip.

"Lips", the variety of B. striata pictured below, is unique in that its flowers are peloric, a word which describes their tendency to approach radial, as opposed to the usual bilateral, symmetry. It's this mutation which gave rise to "splash petal" cattleya breeding, and which brought about the varieties of Sinningia speciosa which are now known as florist's gloxinias. It's a strong grower, but has been shy about blooming. Most disappointing, however, is that the column is consistently malformed, producing neither viable pollen nor a functioning pistil, so the hybridization I envisioned appears unlikely.
I also grow a newer variety of striata called 'Murasaki Shikibu', the flowers of which are lavender with a much bluer cast than the other varieties. I made several crosses last summer using this cultivar, and the seeds have germinated, so I hope to eventually expand the color range. (Note: the image below is not my own, but I can't locate the original source.) It pains me to post the next two pictures, since the subjects have gone to "plant heaven", but B. formosana is an important species in terms of hybridizing, so shown here for visual comparison are both its alba and lavender forms:

Although B. formosana has not prospered under my care, its hybrid with striata, 'Yokohama', does very well. It shows sturdy, prolific growth which is intermediate between
its parent species and produces abundant pale purple blooms. I have numerous two year old F2 seedlings from this cross, originally obtained from Dr. Don Jacobs of Eco Gardens in Georgia; my hope is that some of them will exhibit the formosana phenotype while inheriting the hybrid vigor of 'Yokohama'.

The third species which is generally available is Bletilla ochracea (left), which is available in various shades of yellow and cream. It's not as strong a grower as striata, but holds its own, coming into growth and blooming later.
B. ochracea, in my view, is more important for its potential as a parent; 'Coritani' (left, B. ochracea x formosana) is a stronger grower than either parent, and often produces a second crop of flowers later in the season. 'Penway Sunset' (right, B. ochracea x szetchuanica - a species I've never even managed to flower), is a sturdy hybrid which produces more blooms per stem than any other in my collection.

'Penway Rainbow' (left), a complex hybrid (B. 'Yokohama', which is striata x formosana, crossed with B. ochracea), is, in my opinion, the best of the yellows so far, with strong coloring and a hardy, vigorous constitution. It should be noted that many of the grex names include the word "Penway" and were registered by the holder of the British National Collection, R. Evenden (This is as much of the name as I've located in my research so far).

Another very successful hybrid with ochracea is "Brigantes", the cross made using striata. I have three clones; one is nearly indistinguishable from striata, and another is a beautiful lavender with very rich lip coloration. The third called 'Moonlight', has striata 'alba' as a parent, and has been a much weaker grower than the others. I'm hoping to remake it (or something similar) this year using some of the stronger yellow hybrids listed above.

Two other species have been involved in hybridization, one of which, szetchuanica, I have attempted to grow. It apparently experiences a long period of dormancy, which shows up in its hybrids as a useful trait. This tendency also seems to make the species difficult to carry over the winter, due to its need for some moisture, but not too much. My experiences with B. szetchuanica have been similar to those I've had with Pleiones, in that there is grave danger of rot due to imperfect watering at the inception of growth in spring, and second chances are not given. It has produced some gardenworthy hybrids however, all of which show greater than average bud count per stem, with the flowers arrayed alternately, each facing more or less away from its predecessor.
Bletilla 'Penway Paris' (left) is striata x szetchuanica; 'Penway Dragon' (below) is formosana x szetchuanica; and 'Penway Starshine' (below, right), is 'Yokohama' x szetchuanica.

Rounding out the list of registered primary hybrids are those created using the elusive B. yunnanensis, which I've never seen offered for sale. I do have a plant purchased several years ago from a source in California which lists it as an unnamed species, "perhaps yunnanensis", but it's such a weak grower that it has yet to produce an inflorescence. Three of its hybrids, however, are growable, hardy plants, and one of these, 'Penway Rose' (left), is very distinctive in form and color, being a hybrid of B. ochracea with this species. 'Penway Princess' is yunnanensis by formosana, and 'Penway Imperial', a particularly strong grower which I have somehow neglected to photograph, is yunnanensis by striata.

Given all of their attributes as garden plants, it surprises me that Bletillas have not gained more popularity with gardeners in the temperate zone. Perhaps it has to do with the size of their blooms, or their limited blooming period, but their contribution to the garden continues through the fall with their pleated, arching sheaves of foliage, which is variegated in several varieties. My goal in seed propagation is not only to broaden the color spectrum of the available hybrids, but to produce F2 generations from the primary hybrids which combine the appearance of the more difficult and/or unavailable species with the sturdier constitution of Bletilla striata. I'm also attempting hybridization with Calopogon species, if for no other reason than the fact that I like the name given to this type of cross by the AOS - "Calopotilla".

In the time it's taken me to assemble this post, our usual frost-free date has passed (but only just), and I've uncovered the Bletillas, which are a little etiolated (they look like expensive white asparagus this morning), but appear none the worse for wear. I'm keeping my fingers crossed; in my book, emerging Bletilla pseudobulbs are right up there with Magnolia x soulangeana blooms as sure-fire harbingers of an April freeze!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Pocket of Joy

Life is a series of challenges interspersed with pockets of joy, one of which I was blessed to experience on a recent March weekend. Thanks to the intervention of our mutual friends Barbara and Les Seigman, very accomplished gardeners in their own right, Ron and I, along with our neighbor and friend, Jane, found ourselves invited to spend the day with them and Pamela Harper. Mrs. Harper has been a major force in garden writing for many years, and is the designer, creator, and curator of one of the finest gardens it’s ever been my pleasure to visit. I have always loved Mrs. Harper’s writing, and our time together in her garden (and mine) that day convinced me more than ever that great garden writing requires a rare combination of intelligence, good humor, and, most of all, the knowledge and skill acquired only through many years of hands-on, trial-and-error, take-no-prisoners gardening. This is a woman who writes about gardening from first hand experience rather than relying solely on research (although I’m sure she’s done a prodigious amount of that as well); this is nowhere more evident than in the impeccably maintained and organized garden which has shaped her life and work for nearly 40 years. Mrs. Harper’s most recent book, Time Tested Plants: Thirty Years in a Four Season Garden, verbally and visually (she’s also an accomplished photographer) chronicles her efforts to transform two sandy acres in Seaford into what is surely one of the finest gardens in southeastern Virginia.

Thankfully, this progressive garden tour began in our own crowded, overgrown mess of a garden, woefully neglected for several years now due to the demands of work and family obligations. Our guests, being kind, polite people, struggled valiantly to find nice things to say, and no injuries were sustained as we picked our way cautiously along the uneven pathways which snake among the jumble of pots, hoses, and makeshift structures which litter our property. I should not have invited them to the house at all, except that I felt it was the polite thing to do; if I were not interested in having these people as friends deserving of full disclosure, we’d have met at a restaurant for lunch and had done with it. At any rate, they’ve seen “the jungle”, warts and all. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I do know all the rules of garden design, grooming, and maintenance, but knowing and doing are two different things. Good design, timely pruning, and weed-free borders will just have to wait until family situations change, or until I can retire.

After lunch (which I, since I like these folks, did not prepare), we drove to Seaford and began touring the amazing Harper garden. Seeing the garden itself would have been magical enough, but having a personal tour, complete with anecdotes and observations gleaned over years of loving labor, made this easily my favorite two hours of the year so far. I took my camera, but gave up trying to capture the effect of this paradise photographically. The sight of an ocean of Ipheon spreading under Magnolia stellata (which is pictured in Harper's book much better than I could ever photograph it), of Cyclamen hederifolium better than a foot in diameter each (issuing from corms which must easily be the size of dinner plates), and of the spectacular yellow Magnolia ‘Butterflies’, backlit and glowing in the diffuse light of a drizzly afternoon, are memories to carry somewhere other than on a computer hard drive. As we explored each of dozens of intricately designed and maintained island beds, Pam (as she’s known to her friends) kept up a running commentary and helped us to envision how the plantings would develop over the coming months.

It’s rare to meet someone so gifted in the use of plants and words; I realized later, on re-reading her last book, that many of the opinions and observations I’ve been making to anyone who’ll listen were Pam’s rather than mine. When I admitted this, by way of a clumsy compliment, her gracious response was that even Helen Keller had been accused of plagiarism for restating ideas internalized from the writings of others; I can’t, however, claim Miss Keller’s excuse for this behavior – only forgetfulness and a measure of attention deficit deficiency.
My reactions to the great gift of this tour have been mixed. Some hopelessness, I have to admit, that I will ever manage to get my garden under control enough to even deserve the name after seeing Pam’s; encouragement that I was able to keep up to some degree with her vast knowledge of horticulture and to identify a large percentage of the botanical treasures on display; the delight of receiving some choice plants I’ll treasure for many years to come; and, mostly, gratitude to these wonderful people for taking the time to spend the day with us and share the joy of their experiences as friends and gardeners. I was reminded of one of the great joys of my childhood and adolescence – long Sunday afternoons spent rambling through the woods of Southampton County with my grandmother as she identified and taught me to appreciate the indigenous flora and fauna. I can’t imagine a better way to spend one’s time.