Friday, May 16, 2008

Bloom Day (a dollar short) May 16

No time for a dissertation today - just a few pics of what's happening in the garden right now. This is the first plant I'd rescue in the event of a catastrophe - Cypripedium kentuckiense, grown from a seedling I deflasked myself over 10 years ago. It's by far the most successful of the Cyps in this climate.

Clematis 'Ramona' (I think), climbing on Camellia japonica 'Jordan's Pride'.

Sarracenia x"Fledgeling", about to be engulfed by a stand of Saururus cernuus, Iris pseudacorus, and Lilium lancifolium.

This is the view across one of several small ponds (actually more like mudholes), with Sabal palmettos, various Miscanthus, Peonies, Roses, and not a few weeds adding to the mix. One serious mistake that needs to be rectified was the planting of Tetrapanax papyrifera at the edge of this pond. Barely visible in this picture from last week, its umbrella-like leaves are twice this size now, and threaten to entirely shade out the water lilies which already struggle to bloom in the shade of the grasses and Michelia branches. I can't grow Gunnera here, and this seems a likely substitute, but this is not the place...
An experiment I'm trying this year - combining grape tomatoes and some of the smaller Clematis in very large pots. This is C. 'Roguchi' blooming in tandem with "Sungold". My theory is that since this Clematis is completely herbaceous, it can be cut down when the tomato is pulled out in the fall. We'll see how it works out...

This is another of the lady's slippers, a hybrid called 'Gisela'; it's tiny in comparison to kentuckiense and reginae, but when one of your parents is named "parviflora" (the other is macranthos), you can't expect to compete with the big boys.
Calopogon tuberosus grows alongside the pitcher plants, enjoying the same wet soil conditions.

Lots of friends have been asking for more wide-angle shots of the garden, so here are a couple. The main reason I don't include more is that, while I have a pretty interesting plant collection, my garden, for the most part, is an overgrown, weedy, disorganized mess. I have to "choose my battles", since I work two fairly demanding jobs. Some scenes manage to be attractive for a week or two, anyway, like this arch covered with Rosa "Buff Beauty" and Trachelospermum jasminoides, faced down with a Weigela and balanced by palms (several species of Trachycarpus and Chaemerops, in this instance). Italian cypress trees form a wall along the left boundary of the garden, and are themselves becoming infested with Asian jasmine.

This is Trillium grandiflorum 'Plenum', blooming for the first time this year. This has been a relatively cool May, and that, coupled with the sterility of the double flowers, has made these flowers last a very long time. Well worth the wait - I bought a cheaper, smaller plant several years ago, since they're expensive to buy at this size.

Below is a Louisiana iris which I grew from seed a few years ago. The parent plant (one of them, anyway) is a deep salmon; this one's much paler (but more pink than the photo indicates). It's fun to see what happens when you plant a few seeds.

These roses, all hybrid musks, look great when they bloom together at this time of year. In the foreground is "Sally Holmes", backed up by a climbing hybrid (it's actually in my neighbor's yard, and was bred by a friend of hers) called "Mountain Mist". To the left is "Ballerina", which is a parent of each of the others.

Hippaestrum xJohnsonii, the "hardy" amaryllis (all of the common hybrids are pretty much hardy here anyway). These need to be divided, and they'd like more sun during the growing season than I can give them.

Bletia floridanum is not hardy, but it waits until May to begin blooming, so I consider it, along with B. purpurea and B. patula, a garden orchid. These are totally deciduous in the summer, so require almost no watering when the weather gets hot and dry. They make their foliar growth in the greenhouse during the fall and winter.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lady Slippers and Turkey Toes

I am blessed to have grown up in a loving, supportive, and somewhat eccentric (mostly in lovable ways) family, and my two grandmothers were among the greatest influences on my life. Though very different, each loved gardening, and they, along with my father and grandfather, passed this hobby (mania?) on to me. It's interesting to walk around our garden today and see the botanical inheritance they passed down to me over the years.

My paternal grandmother was quiet, hard-working, and loving; as children, we were not aware of just how difficult her life must have been. She had raised three sons as a single parent, all of whom achieved high levels of education and professional success, but she existed just above the poverty level for most of her life, laboring in a peanut packing plant until retirement. One of the things I remember the most about her extensive garden is the deep mulch of peanut shells in the flower beds. She loved being outdoors, raising most of her own food and actually plowing her garden with a mule which she housed in the woods out back, along with chickens and the occasional hog. Something was always blooming in her yard, which was packed with wisteria, crape myrtles, azaleas, plums, and a gigantic scuppernong arbor, under which we would stand in September, picking the big brown grapes, spitting out the seeds and skins, and avoiding the yellow jackets that frequented the area.

Mama Joyner, as we called her, loved flowers, too, and she had a big side garden devoted to annuals such as big, pink poppies, iris, and this beautiful single hollyhock, Althea zebrina, which seeds itself around my garden even now.

Among my prize possessions are several clumps of Crinum which we salvaged from the side foundation planting of Mama Joyner's home before it was sold after her death in 1993. I think they're what's now being sold as "Carolina Beauty", an old hybrid of C. americanum and C. bulbispermum; at any rate, they're rock hardy, multiplying into enormous clumps and producing spikes of anise-scented blooms whenever the weather is sufficiently warm and wet.

I wish I'd spent more time with all of my grandparents, but especially with Mama Joyner. Quiet people aren't always appreciated in the moment, and as I've grown older I've come to realize just how much she must have known about gardening, survival, and life.

My grandmother Birdie, whom we called "Ma-Ma", is shown here with my Grandfather on one of their famous road trips. These always commenced with a big country ham, a pot of butterbeans, and a shovel in the "boot" of the car. The ham and butterbeans were for sustenance - heaven forbid we should be forced to eat in a restaurant, or pay restaurant prices! The shovel was for impromptu "botanizing" along the roadside. Much of her landscaping had come from highway medians, the edges of woods, and even, on occasion, the outskirts of an acquaintance's property. My grandfather, a great vegetable gardener in his own right, was used to being asked to pull over at the drop of a hat to investigate and dig up "souvenirs" along the way. Ma-Ma was great fun on these trips, and it's because of these experiences that I'm now able to identify most native flora and fauna while barreling down the highway at incredible rates of speed. On Sunday afternoons in the fall, winter, and early spring (never summer, for there were snakes abroad when the weather was warm!), she would lead us on long walks through the neighboring woods, cow pastures, and "hog wallers" to explore for "treasures" growing, crawling, and flying throughout the area. I never knew until years later how much my brother and cousins hated this - I was in heaven the whole time! At least they enjoyed it when, more than once, our fearless leader landed squarely in a cow pattie after scaling the neighbors' fence.

My favorite story about Ma-Ma is one that still irks my Aunt, after nearly fifty years. She awakened my grandparents late one night to announce her engagement and display her new ring, but her mother was less than enthusiastic (about the ring, not my uncle - she adored him, at least by the time I knew anything about it). Without a word, she hauled herself out of bed and trundled out to the back porch, coming back carrying a white kitten, part of a recently born litter. Her only comment was that the kitten in her hand was much prettier than the ring on my aunt's, and was a lot less expensive. I have to agree with her, there - I'll take watching more than a dozen cedar waxwings devouring ripe mahonia berries (last week as we were fixing dinner - spectacular!) over a new piece of jewelry anytime, which offers a possible explanation as to why loved ones find buying gifts for me so exasperating.

On the weekend of my birthday every year we would drive a couple of miles to the banks of the Blackwater River where it's crossed by Joyner's Bridge (all of the land in the vicinity was once owned by my family, having been sold off piecemeal over the intervening century and a half) where we would look for patches of "Turkey Toes", the native perennial lupine. Every year we tried to dig one up for transplanting, and every year it perished within a week, no doubt due to the loss of its tap root. The sandy, acid riparian soil perfectly supports their growth, even now, but this plant remains a failure for me whether grown from seed or plants purchased at our local native plant sale. Instead I grow Baptisia australis in my garden, and occasionally make a pilgrimage to Southampton County in late April to see the lupines.

On Mother's Day, we would drive a mile or two in another direction to see great swaths of pink Lady's Slipper orchids, Cypripedium acaule, blooming at the edge of the woods. I still feel pangs of guilt when I remember digging one and using it in a native plant terrarium which I had been assigned to create for a seventh grade science project, but it's some consolation that I got an "A" on the project and was later named outstanding science student of the year (it didn't take much in those days - I sealed the award by announcing one day that "Pelargonium" was the scientific name for the geranium in the classroom window.) What I now realize is that C. acaule requires very specific soil conditions in which to thrive - again with that sandy, acid soil. I do keep one (nursery propagated) plant now for sentimental reasons - it's shown here growing in a container of acidified, sandy soil, along with last year's ill fated Lupine perennis - but other species are much more successful, and this plant is not blooming now, so its decline is probably imminent.

When Ma-Ma and Grandaddy came to our house for my birthday in 1996, they arrived with a big galvanized bucket full of "Turkey Toes" and yellow Lady Banks' roses, perfectly complementary in color and more precious than anything else they could have brought. Ma-ma passed away that fall, but she's with me every time I walk out into the garden. In the winter as her favorite Camellia, (probably "Debutante"), blooms on the side of the house, I can hear her telling anyone who would listen that her gigantic shrub had frozen "to the ground" three times in the last 50 years, then snapping off branches to root in her rusty sand bucket out back. Her big, double white Peonies (probably Festiva Maxima) are blooming out back right now, as are the antique bourbon roses we rooted from the plant in the ancient family cemetary (pictured above). A descendant of her favorite coleus plant goes to school with me every fall, where its progeny line the windows of numerous classrooms as children watch roots form inside clear plastic soda bottles.

We carry those we love with us in our hearts, but it's also nice to keep them with us in the garden. It's one of the things that keeps me grounded as I deal with the day-to-day difficulties of life, and much cheaper than therapy - or a diamond ring.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Not Just a Curiosity

I grow lots of Sarracenias, also known as American Pitcher Plants. I know this raises my "garden geek" factor even higher through the roof than before - carnivorous plant afficionados seem to be the horticultural equivalent of "Trekkies" - but I firmly believe that there are other reasons for collecting and cultivating the plants of this genus besides the "ick" factor. That having been said, I do ferry plants back and forth to school a lot at this time of year for use as a "hook" to lure fourth and fifth grade boys into participation in my music/horticulture integration lesson; nothing beats dissecting a pitcher from the last growing season in order to let kids get up close and personal with the remains of a pile of insects as an incentive to sing and play selections from "Little Shop of Horrors"! To the left is the bouquet I took to Thanksgiving dinner last fall - Sarracenia pitchers, especially those of S. leucophylla, are used extensively in the cut flower trade, often to the detriment of wild populations. I don't cut many, but that late in the season, when they were about to be burned back by frost, I figured their work was done for the year.

In order to keep the plants portable, I grow most of mine in plastic, saucer-shaped containers with holes drilled about 2/3 up the sides in order to drain some, but not all of the water, away from their crowns. These are nestled together in a fake bog, and I fill in among them with a mixture of grit and compost, into which is planted sedums and other creeping plants to help camouflage the exposed pot rims. At this time of year, having been exposed to several weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, the pitchers themselves are not much to look at, and I trim off as much of the dead material as possible to allow room for the new growth to fill in. The big show right now is the floral display.
You never read about the growing of Sarracenias for flower production, and while they don't have much potential as cutting material, a mature plant with a dozen or more flowers can be stunning. These are blooming concurrently with Zephyranthes atamasco, a great native companion plant for artificial bogs. The scent of the Sarracenia blooms is not much to write home about, since they're fishing for flies as pollinators, not bees or lepidopterans, but I'd put their nodding grace and form up against Cypripediums or Hellebores (two of my other favorites) any day of the week. Intricate in design, the flowers don't trap insects, per se, but they do require that the pollinator actually crawl under the broad "umbrella" (I suppose it's actually a modified pistil) covering the stamens in order to obtain whatever nectar is available, thus ensuring that a good amount of pollen will be transported to subsequent blooms. The pendant petals are temporary, hanging downward from the calyx for about a week; after these fall away, the sepals and central disk remain on the plant for the rest of the summer, adding to the visual interest and producing copious seeds.

Above is the blossom of S. oreophila, the endangered mountain pitcher plant. Illegal to purchase for shipment across state lines, I received it as a bonus from a grower in Oregon. Its only peculiarity is its tendency to go dormant in midsummer; its pitchers brown off as it produces phyllodia (flat, photosynthetic leaves which persist all winter); no amount of water seems to prevent this, but the plant always returns in force for the next growing season.

Even the buds are interesting; these belong to S. catesbaei, a naturally occuring hybrid between S. flava and S. purpurea.
Sarracenia rubra, below, exists in numerous forms, varieties, and subspecies, but all share these spectacular red flowers, hence the specific name. Sarracenia flava, named for its yellow (really chartreuse) blooms, is the earliest to flower and produce pitchers, and shows considerable variation as well. Interestingly, the typical variety (below, left, with either Zephyranthes or Cooperia drummondii, depending on what you read and when, blooming in the background) has downward facing blooms like most of the genus, but my plant of the "Copper Top" variety has blooms that face outward (below, right). This brings to mind the trend in Hellebore breeding to produce upright, rather than nodding, flowers. I'd love to experiment with this; however, the seedling growth of Sarracenias has proven too slow even for me. Plants I started growing from seed seven years ago are about the diameter of a quarter now - maybe there's some secret method for accelerating their growth which I haven't yet discovered. These are S. rubra var. Jonesii seedlings, so small that moss often threatens to crowd them out and has to be extracted strand by strand. As the weather warms, most of the plants (those with S. leucophylla in their parentage will tend to produce more pitchers in the fall than in spring) are beginning to produce pitchers, which is the usual reason for growing them. I would argue that the floral show alone makes Sarracenias worth growing, especially given their ease of culture (with the possible exception of S. purpurea - maybe it's not cold enough here?) in zone 7.