Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Confessions of a Gesneri-nerd

Above is Hemiboea subcapitata, among the hardiest of gesneriads for me so far, having overwintered successfully even in large containers. Its one aesthetic drawback is that the bracts which subtend the tubular blooms invariably turn brown just as the flowers begin to open. Below, Kohleria 'Longwood', tender, but happily bedded out for the summer.A person whom I used to consider one of my best friends has been riding me unmercifully about having attended the annual convention of the National Gesneriad Association in Silver Spring, Maryland last month. Try as I might, I’ve been unable to disabuse him of the notion that this constituted either (a) a coven of old ladies sporting red hats and purple dresses swooning over African Violets (not that there's anything wrong with that) or (b) a gathering of nerds in skin-tight spandex huddled in groups discussing favorite episodes in which various Gesneriads attacked the Starship Enterprise (that either...I guess). In truth, it was sort of both, featuring a spectacular array of plants for sale and on display, lots of nice, knowledgeable people, and what I’m sure were very informative lectures which I would love to have heard, had time and circumstances permitted.

So when our friend arrived the other night, I was prepared: I had many new plants to show him that I considered indicative of what was available at the sale, but nowhere else; several examples of blooming gesneriads in the landscape which are totally hardy here; and, best of all, a brand new, very flamboyant (they had a more tasteful version, but I figured I’d let my gesneriad freak flag fly all the way) new t-shirt. It’s emblazoned with a colorful botanical illustration of Episcia reptans, about a thousand times normal size, and a banner headline that reads “The Gesneriad Society.” Sadly, my friend (as well as my long-suffering partner) remained unimpressed. Pressing on, I regaled them with the virtues of gesneriads as hardy landscape plants here, mentioning that I've been trialing some plants for hardiness which had heretofore been considered only suitable for greenhouse cultivation. I showed him one of my tiniest Sinningias (‘Rio das Pedras’), full grown and comfortable in a pot the size of a thimble; his comment was “I bet people walk all over those in South America all the time and never notice.” Finally, just to humor me (he does this, which is one reason I like him so much), he did ask an extremely intelligent question: “So just what makes a plant a Gesneriad?”.

If he had asked the same question about a Begonia, I’d have been ready. Ditto for lots of other botanical families. However, the only response I could make to this question was to stammer and stare; I was totally stumped. It’s just an incredibly diverse tribe, and there are genera (Rehmannia, for example) about which even botanists can’t seem to agree in terms of whether they’re Gesneriads or members of the Scrophulariaceae. On top of this, the scientific names change back and forth on what seems like a weekly basis. Since I was finally speechless on the subject, I poured him another vodka-watermelon smoothie and let my friend take over the conversation, which is usually the best plan when he’s around, anyway. He’s darned entertaining, even if he does do a pretty good impression of a botanical cretin.

After researching his question, I feel somewhat vindicated. Every definition of the family Gesneriaceae that I can find is riddled with inconsistencies – the words “most” and “many” are commonly used. There seem to be very few uniquely defining factors, as in this Wikipedia article:

"Most species are perennial herbs or subshrubs but a few are woody shrubs or small trees. The phyllotaxy is usually opposite and decussate, but leaves have a spiral or alternate arrangement in some groups. As with other members of the Lamiales the flowers have a (usually) zygomorphic corolla whose petals are fused into a tube and there is no one character that separates a gesneriad from any other member of Lamiales. Gesneriads differ from related families of the Lamiales in having an unusual inflorescence structure, the "pair-flowered cyme", but some gesneriads lack this characteristic, and some other Lamiales (Calceolariaceae and some Scrophulariaceae) share it. The ovary can be superior, half-inferior or fully inferior, and the fruit a dry or fleshy capsule or a berry. The seeds are always small and numerous. Gesneriaceae have traditionally been separated from Scrophulariaceae by having a unilocular rather than bilocular ovary, with parietal rather than axile placentation."

While this question may continue to be perplexing, at this time of year I’m very appreciative of the contribution that the members of this very diverse family make to the garden. Many species and hybrids are proving to overwinter as perennials here in Southeastern VA, zone 7b, and numerous others are perfectly adapted to dry storage as rhizomes and tubers, making them perfect for summer container culture.

Below are the windowboxes from my last post, shown again here to illustrate some of the ways gerneriads can contribute to the summer garden. The scandent Begonia is B. boliviensis, but the darker, more upright foliage belongs to Kohleria 'Dark Velvet'. Kohlerias are rhizomatus gesneriads, but their dormancy is unpredictable, so they don't lend themselves to prolonged winter storage as do Achimenes, Sinningias, and Eucodonias, for instance. They're also extremely tender, browning off at temps in the 40's. Luckily this variety is easy to root from cuttings and grows like a weed all summer, adding its tall, felted, chocolatey foliage to containers in shade to part sun.
Here's a detail of the tubular, speckled blooms of K. 'Dark Velvet'.
Another view of the windowboxes and surrounding bed, showing more gesneriads on the lower level - Achimenes 'Purple King' and Gloxinia nematanthodes 'Evita'. These two are now ubiquitous in the garden, apparently hardy even in pots and containers left outside over the winter. Can't help but notice the "color echo" among the Begonias, the Gloxinia, and and the Arisaema seedpod in the forground.
Titanotrichum oldhamii was the first of the hardy gesneriads I planted outside, and it's been fairly dependable, especially given some supplemental summer irrigation. It's like a tall, shade loving foxglove that puts up spikes of yellow bells every fall - it's a good illustration of the close connection between the gesneriads and the scrophulacea. Interestingly, instead of flowers, less mature plants produce terminal wands of beady propagules, which can be "sown" just like seeds to produce hundreds of new plants.
Tremacron aurantiacum, another Chinese gesneriad, and the only rosette-forming representative of the family with which I've had much success in the outdoor garden. Ramondas have been a dismal failure, melting away during the hottest part of the summer; I do have two Haberleas growing fairly well in raised beds, but they haven't bloomed so far. Tremacron is an extremely obscure genus, and there's almost no literature available on it; the closest affiliated genus I've been able to discover is Briggsia, and barely more has been written about it. Trial and error is the only way to go in a case like this. For this week, at least, the two plants below are included in the genus Seemannia; they were Gloxinias before, which is not the same as the genus including the familiar florist's Gloxinias, which are actually Sinningias. Clear as mud? The first illustration in Seemannia sylvatica, which produces lush growth all summer long, but waits until November to bloom, being sensitive to day length. It does behave as a herbaceous perennial here, but there's not much point in growing it outside, since our first frosts prevent its flowering. I do think it would have great potential as a holiday house plant; it's certainly much easier to rebloom than a poinsettia or a Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus.
Seemannia nematanthodes 'Evita' is perfectly hardy here, where it, along with Achimenes 'Purple King', has insinuated itself into beds and containers all over the yard, mostly due to my recycling potting soil in which are hidden the chubby white rhizomes which serve to carry the plant through the cold months if kept barely moist. It has even wintered over successfully in pots and containers left standing outside without protection.
As mentioned before, the florist Gloxinias are simply a group of Sinningias hybridized from a peloric (which means that the individual blooms exhibit a radial symmetry atypical to those of the normal species- I think) form of S. speciosa, pictured below. Grown from seeds several years ago, these seem to manage fine planted all year in the dry shade beneath an overgrown Magnolia grandiflora (everybody has at least one of those in these parts.) Sinningia guttata, also hardy in a raised bed, and another parent of the florist's Gloxinia. I should mention that I have wintered over tubers of those hybrids outdoors as well. If anyone knows of a reputable source for "Emperor Frederick", a once-common old cultivar that's a sentimental favorite (my grandmother gave me one for my birthday once), I'd love to grow that again.
Sinningia tubiflora is bone hardy all over the garden and in containers, and is a dead ringer for Nicotiana alata when it blooms in June in the dry partial shade under the skirts of a Magnolia grandiflora which needs to be removed on day. It's as easy to grow as potatoes, and can be stored in a similar manner through the winter if hardiness is an issue. Here's another visit with the companion planting of Eucomis 'Sparkling Burgundy' with Sinningia selloviae, another dependably hardy gesneriad that's a real workhorse in my summer garden. I've tried unsuccessfully to grow Phygelius for years, but I've found that this plant and its hybrids give a similar effect (vertical spires of tubular flowers in reds, oranges, and creamy yellows) but are much easier to grow here. Some of the tubers (grown from seed) are the size of baseballs now. I have a couple of plants of S. selloviae 'Purple Rain', but that selection seems to be a much weaker grower for me thus far.
The white form of Sinningia cardinalis ('Innocence'), leaning out from under a containerized Hellebore. It would probably like more sun, as most of the Sinningias seem happiest in strong light. Haven't tried this yet for hardiness, but I have enough to do so this year, and have high hopes.
I think this is Sinningia lineata; it's pretty tough, and quite possibly hardy here, as well. It's one of the determinate growers, unlike selloviae, tubiflora, and their hybrids (Sinningias can be determinate or indeterminate bloomers and growers, just like tomatoes). This, in my opinion, limits its potential as a garden plant - it doesn't mean I won't grow and enjoy it, but the finite bloom period makes its impact more fleeting in the landscape. The miniatures and semi-miniatures fall into this category as well, and have demonstrated pretty good winter hardiness, provided the tubers are kept dry. Their main drawback is their size - one fallen leaf can obscure an entire plant for long enough that I completely forget it's there until it's too late. For now, they live in the garage under banks of fluorescent lights (which thankfully are back in operation after having had to be dismantled for a construction project.)
Sinningia conspicua is hardy here, and enjoys as much sun as possible. I first saw this species growing in the high desert garden at the NC State Arboretum, which was an "aha" moment for me regarding the cultivation of this genus in general.
Sinningia 'Butter and Cream', another of the selloviae-tubiflora complex of hybrids which propagates easily by tip cuttings and returns annually. This one is a nice substitute for Phygelius 'Moonraker', with which I've struggled ever since seeing great swaths of it in St. James Park in 1996. This ain't London... in lots of ways!
A newer acquisition, Primulina tabacum, a rosette-forming gesneriad which seems to do well in the shady plunge bed. It hasn't spent a winter outside yet, so the jury's still out. It may be more interesting than beautiful, but so are a lot of the things I grow (and many are only interesting to me...I live in fear of the crew from "Curb Appeal" on HGTV showing up at our house!)
Below are several more pics of Seemannia nematanthodes 'Evita', which is just coming into full bloom right now all over the garden. It's great for filling in late summer gaps everywhere, and blends well with many other things, including tomatoes!
This clump should look great when it blooms in a week or two, especially if the Rudbeckias hold out long enough to offer some contrast in shape and color.

Not hardy (as far as I know - trying it this year), but cool, is what used to be called Koellikeria erinoides; I think it's actually a Gloxinia these days. I have lots of them, due to its propensity for reseeding itself and ability to be propagated by dividing the long, scaly rhizomes, which are easy to store dry in pots over the winter. Here it's a great foil to the dwarf Eucomis vandermerwei; the whole pot goes into my parents' shed in October, and I don't see it again until April, when I bring it out, water it, and begin the cycle again. I may have mentioned this before, but the rhizomatous gesneriads and South African bulbs seem to have very similar cultural needs, and make great companion plants, also being complimentary in foliage and bloom. It's a hard plant to photograph well outside, and there are much better pics of it on the Gesneriad society site. One of my secret (not anymore...), guilty, Martha Stewart-esque "good things" is to use Ron's collection of McCoy Rustic pottery as caches for pots of these when they come into bloom - the creams, greens, and browns of the pottery and the plant are perfectly in sync.
This container is treated in the same way as the previous one. It combines Kaempferia roscoeana, one of the monsoonal, shade-loving gingers, with Eucodonia andrewsii, another of the smaller rhizomatous gesneriads which has spread itself throughout our planting beds. The flowers, when they begin, are small, slipper-shaped, and an exact color match with the flowers of the Kaempferia.
Another E. andrewsii produced from the same pinch of seed -
the foliage of this species seems to come in two color phases. It tends to begin blooming in late August- early September, along with its relatives, the Achimenes. A Chirita ('Chastity'?) which was a gift from some great gardening friends, tucked in among the roots of the Magnolia. It wintered over last year, but I keep another in the greenhouse for insurance. I have a couple of other hybrids that I plan to try outside eventually as well. These don't really have well-developed underground storage structures or rhizomes, so I suspect their hardiness may be less dependable by far than those gesneriads that do.
The Achimenes are just beginning to bloom now, and they're becoming some of my favorite plants. The small, purplish rhizomes are ridiculously easy to store over the winter in small bags of vermiculite, and some, which are inevitably left behind in the ground or in containers over the winter, return every summer throughout the garden. About the only drawback to growing them is the fact that they respond to drought by going dormant, so consistent moisture (without overwatering, the eternal paradox of gardening) is necessary. Below is 'Harry Williams'.
This is A. 'Yellow Queen'.
And A. 'Purple King', which is becoming a great "passalong plant" throughout the south, and with good reason - I grow it everywhere. It's the earliest blooming variety, produces a myriad of rhizomes which can be stored or left in the ground over winter (and even in pots, apparently.) Here it's spilling over the top of one of our rain barrels, weaving in among the Trachelospermum which constantly threatens to engulf the house.
There are so many other gesneriads waiting in the wings (and the greenhouse...and the light garden in the garage...) for garden space, that I suppose I do have good reason to be embarrassed about it. We all have our little (?) manifestations of sublimation and denial in life, and the insatiable acquisition and propagation of plants appears to be one of mine. At the aforementioned convention, I found lots of new plants to try in the garden, and a few that will never go outside - why I need to grow Episicias or Gesneria cuneifolia, which basically require life-support, is another question, but they are here, too, along with Niphaeas, Diastemas, Lysionotus, Vanhoutteas, and many others too numerous to mention. One day, when they're finally rid of me and all of my craziness, I hope my partner and friends will invite some real plant nuts over to clean the place out!

One more Chirita for the road...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Name that Orchid!

Any ideas regarding the identity of this hardy orchid which I found blooming in a great swath at the base of a driveway in the Blackridge subdivision in Pittsburgh last week? I've noticed the plants in this yard every summer while visiting our family, but prior visits have never coincided with the bloom period. I even went so far as to ring the doorbell (a great step for a shy person), since the garden in general was really interesting and well-kept, but there was no answer.
My best guess, based on research, is Epipactis palustris, a European species. I've grown E. gigantea, but it has fewer, larger flowers spaced farther apart on the stem, and is also more of a reddish-brown tone. I'm assuming it isn't a species native to the area, since I didn't see it growing anywhere else except in this yard.
Anyone want to weigh in with an identification?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"High Summer Holds the Earth"

Above, the hardy little Begonia sinensis (considered a subspecies of B. grandis, but differing greatly in stature and bloom season), flowering against the foliage of B. masonorum, potted and sunk into the bed under a giant Magnolia grandiflora for the summer. A similar circumstance produced a hybrid grex (B. masonorum x grandis) a few years back, of which I still have two plants in the greenhouse. It's totally worthless - not as attractive as the tropical parent, nor as hardy as the temperate one. Still, I can't seem to purge it from the collection. Below is Hymenocallis 'Tropical Giant' - gotta have it in the summer garden.

The last of the azaleas to bloom, prunifolium waits until mid-July to put in an appearance. Next year I want to save some pollen from R. austrinum and canescens in order to do some hybridizing for later blooming deciduous plants - this whole side of the family is beautiful and underused in modern landscaping.
Above- Begonia sutherlandii, a beautiful little species from South Africa (lots of great orange flowers from that part of the world - wonder what S.A. pollinators are attracted specifically to that color?) which is hardy and spreads via bulbils that form in the leaf axils, just as do B. grandis and sinensis in all of their color forms. As this overexposed, unfocused photo illustrates, July is a time of complete and utter excess in our garden, and, for the most part, I really enjoy it. It's also the time of year when I'm able to spend the most time outside, so I suppose there's been a bit of unconscious planning over the years so the garden peaks in summer. Because I'm out of town, visiting family, and thus not plagued by guilt for not actually being out IN my garden (it's raining here, or most likely I'd be out in theirs right now...), I thought I'd throw together this scattered post to show a smattering of views around the landscape - and that term applies about as much to my garden as does the label "opera" to the performance we're going to see tonight at the Pittsburgh Civic Light (as air, apparently) Opera, Barry Manilow's seminal work "Copacabana." However, as my pastor and friend is wont to say, "Walk that bad sermon proudly, just as you would an ugly dog!" Above is Galtonia candicans, one of many South African bulbs blooming around the place. Many of these, this one included, are growing in black nursery pots which are submerged in a bed of rampant groundcovers during their summer growth period, then stored dry in my parents' storage shed for the winter, enabling me to move containerized hellebores into those positions for the winter.

Foliage is even more prominent in summer than flowers, and certainly less fleeting. This is a fortuitous combination of Tetrapanax, Miscanthus, and the ruby foliage of Canna "Australia"; better contrast in texture and color would be hard to plan purposely.

Below is another South African bulb, Eucomis Pole-Evansiae, its bloom scapes not having opened or achieved their ultimate height.

More interplay of color, light, and texture, with the sculptural leaves of Tetrapanax (admittedly a thug, but spectacular) along with rugosa foliage, among other things.

This is a common aroid -either Dracunculus vulgaris or Sauromatum venustum; either way, the leaves are cool.

One of the many Hostas in bloom and leaf - "Lewis and Clark." I'm moving all of my hostas into very large containers; those in the ground seem to decline steadily over the years as root competition and shade increases. Potting them allows them to follow the light as necessary (with a little help, as long as my back holds out), as well as to have access to a steadier supply of moisture.

More concealed containers in the modular bog garden; these are just a couple of the several dozen Sarracenia species and hybrids that provide interest over at least three seasons of the year.

Another view of the front bed, dominated by the first Trachycarpus I ever planted (T. fortuneii). I have about a dozen species in various locations around the tiny property, and so far there's been no winter damage at all. This one is blooming for the first time this year, a mere 15 years after being planted. Cyclamen purpurascens seedlings are blooming for the second year, having been sown four years back. You have to hunt for the blooms at this time of year, but it's always a neat surprise.

Below, more foliar combinations - Coleus "Inky Fingers", Amorphophallus konjac, and one of several pots of Caladiums I've stored dry in the attic for at least ten years. Can't imagine buying new ones every year.

If I had to choose a favorite among the Hydrangeas, it would probably be the above, H. mariesii 'variegata'. I finally gave it a decent prune last year (having been shamed into it by a visiting friend,) and it's looking much better this year.

Below is a windowbox combo that I love - Begonia boliviensis, Kohleria 'Dark Velvet', and Achimenes 'Purple King'. Beneath the windowbox I placed some used dresser drawers, rescued from the curb one day ahead of the trash truck; I have no pride. I've found that these make great little raised bed planters, and in this one I've got some bamboo ferns that I raised from spores, more achimenes, Gloxinia nematanthodes, and Lysionotus sangzhiensis. More and more gesneriads are finding their way into the summer landscape here; I hope to expound on that at a later date; maybe during my next vacation...

My grandmother's "Touch-Me-Nots", Impatiens balsamina, seed themselves through the back island bed with abandon. They make a great "good weed", filling up blank spaces, allowing for easy removal where they're not wanted, and bringing back happy childhood memories by providing fat, expoding pods to pick as I pass by with the pruners or watering can. Eupatorium coelestinum is another "escapee" which I edit out of the beds as need be.

I feel obligated to grow a few pots of this old variety of Caladium, "Postman Joyner", although, to my knowledge, no family member has ever worked as a mail carrier. I did have a great aunt who served as postmistress in her small Virginia town, but she was on my mother's side. A new Eucomis I picked up at a Whole Foods in North Carolina, of all places - it's a hybrid called "Twinkle Stars", and it looks great with a new Sinningia hybrid called "Bananas Foster". They're potted together, and should store through the winter in a cool, dry state just fine. Okay, it's not technically "growing" in the landscape, but then, a lot of my plants aren't; this is Phragmipedium "Sargeant Eric", cohabiting with Hedychium coronarium foliage for the summer. As much as I love the "hardy" Cypripediums, I have to admit that they really do require more "life support" in our temperate climate than do their subtropical cousins.
More eucomis, in this case a couple of dozen "Sparkling Burgundy" plants interplanted with Sinningia selloviae; if the gesneriad bloomed a couple of weeks later, the display would be spectacular. It's one of the indeterminate species, so if I can remember to cut back the bloom stems, maybe we'll get another flush of blooms before the Eucomis inflorescenses fade completely. The Eucomis were all grown from leaf cuttings, and the Sinningias sprang from one pinch of dust-like seed received from a society seed exchange.

Back to the front bed for a closer look at Agapanthus "Ellamae", supposedly one of the best varieties for our area, and bearing that out after three years in this location. It descends from the species A. inapertus, which means that something about it doesn't open completely. I assume that refers to the individual blooms, which hang like blue bells from the head, but it could also refer to the rubbery, green bract that subtends the buds - I finally had to assist the buds of every umbel in escaping from its grasp.

My neighbor is building this arbor beyond the fence that separates our properties, and it really improves our yard, too. Borrowed views are great, when they happen like that. These are but a few of the beautiful clumps whose names are lost in the recesses of my memory, but which we enjoy anyway. Wish there was room for many more; some are still in pots, which is not something they enjoy for extended periods of time.

Keringeshoma coreana, a very cool perennial related to the Hydrangeas which I'm growing for the first time this year. K. palmata is similar, but the blooms don't open as widely (inapertus?) Another view of the variegated lacecap Hydrangea that I love... And a dark blue lacecap, originally a gift florist plant. It seems too dark to be "Blue Wave" - any ideas?
It's just a Monarda (probably 'Adam'), but it looks like fireworks during July, and I like it.

These cobalt berries form on the bloom scape of Dianella tasmanica, an Australian native that spends the winter in the unheated greenhouse. I may divide it next year and try part of it in the ground, if I can find a sunny, well-drained spot (always at a premium).

The tropical Nymphaea "Panama Pacific" - it winters in the garage in an old aquarium and produces new plants in the leaf axils late in the season. These go in the inside aquaria, but not in the one housing the Herichthys severum, which find them delectable morsels for snacking.

Another Hemerocallis (possibly "Femme de Joi"- every time Ron picks one out, it looks like this, so we have lots of short, apricot tetraploids) blooming with Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue', another gorgeous plant which is incredibly invasive if left to its own devices.

Another great foliage combo - Arundo donax, the varigated form of the giant reed; Colocasia antiquorum 'illustris', with its toes in a temporary pond; and Arisaema consanguineum, my favorite species in terms of foliar impact.

More Sarracenias, this time S. leucantha, filtering the sunlight through the white fenestrations that decorate each tube and exist to confuse insects which are unliucky enough to find themselves marooned on the inside.

Back to the rear island bed, with foliage colors and textures repeating and contrasing in beautiful patterns. Wish I could say that I planned all of this.

Finally, a little (very little) garden "art" - a fake boat headed into one of the ponds with a cargo of Lysimachia, surrounded by more Tetrapanax, Cannas, Hydrangea "Endless Summer", and Colocasias. In the foreground is Crinum eboracea, a hybrid of C. bulbispermum and C. asiaticum. I know this "tropicalismo" style of garden is a big, fat, fake, but I have to admit that I really enjoy the look of the garden at this time of year. It would probably be more politically correct to have given over all of this space to vegetables this year, and we do have our big pots of grape tomatoes, basil, etc., just as always. I have to admit to being somewhat amused by all of the professional garden writers who are just now learning to grow food, since I grew up in the vegetable garden with my parents and grandparents, and have always just assumed that everyone genetically knew how. However, until I'm unable to afford my visits to the local farmers' market, our quarter acre of land in its midsummer glory is too precious to be turned into a truck farm.
One question unrelated to gardening: can anyone offer advice concerning placing and moving pictures within these posts? One reason I don't post more often is that this is such an unwieldy process. For instance, the first two pictures in this post were afterthoughts, but are stuck on at the beginning because I was unable to move them to other locations. Also, every time I add a picture, spaces appear throughout the post, each of which has to be manually eliminated before the post can be published. There must be a trick here that I don't know about, and I'd be grateful for any assistance! Happy summer, everyone!