Friday, March 30, 2007


The hellebores are blooming up and down the trails that meander through our wooded garden; here are pictures of some of the blooms. Many of them are un-named "grab bag" plants that I bought through the mail, and a few are even my own seedlings all grown up, so not all are really beautiful, but all are really interesting.
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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Juliana Primroses

The juliana primroses are all starting to open now; small to tiny plants with an amazing spectrum of flower colors (go to my post of 5/6/06 to learn what a juliana primrose is, then report back). I freely confess I am gaga over these cool little plants; most of them are wonderfully (and surprisingly) hardy here... I'll show more varieties as they bloom.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Livers Never Shiver

The weather today turned cold and misty, so many of the small early bloomers called it a day and folded up their flowers, but the hepaticas (liverworts) were quite nonchalant about the chilliness. This sunny little flower belongs to Hepatica nobilis, the common hepatica of Europe. The taxonomists have been having a field day changing the classifications of the members of this genus... I good naturedly went along with the last shakeup, but now they've gone too far. We used to have a nice group of species: H. acutiloba, the sharp-lobed hepatica, and H. americana, the round-lobed hepatica, both native to this country. Then Europe had H. nobilis, and Asia had H. asiatica var. japonica; a fine system, understandable to all. Well, then japonica was moved into nobilis as Hepatica nobilis var. japonica... suspect to my mind, but being a good sport, I went along with it. Now I find they are also shoving acutiloba and americana into nobilis, as var. acuta and obtusa, respectively. These taxonomists must think plant labels grow on trees.
The people who work in this field are a different breed... very focused. Tom is a botany major at the U. of Iowa here in Iowa City; I met him because he compiled the plant community manual for the woodland nature preserve that I've been volunteer-managing. He loves mosses, and took me off down a trail in the woods to show me a rare club moss. Now, he's been accepted in the graduate botany dept. at Berkeley. I lived in Berkeley in the early 70's when I was doing my internal medicine residency; I lived two blocks off of Telegraph Avenue, and had hair down over my shoulders and an attitude. Internal medicine may have been my specialty, but partying and having fun were at least my sub-specialties. When I heard that Tom was moving to Berkeley, I excitedly started telling him I'd fill him in on all my old haunts and all the great places to hear music and dance and party. This offer didn't seem to cause even a stir of excitement in him... then I realized; this is a fellow who is planning a lifetime career around the taxonomy of mosses... sigh... my old apartment with the black walls covered with rock record album covers probably isn't there anymore to rent, anyway.
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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Primula Vulgaris ssp. Sibthorpii

Iowa is not primrose country... very cold, windy winters (but often with poor snow cover); achingly, bakingly hot summers... not any primrose's idea of heaven. That being said, there are about a half dozen types that I can grow pretty well in our garden. I have no doubt which is THE best overall; it is Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii. Primula vulgaris is the common primrose of Great Britain and continental Europe; primarily pale yellow, with occasional white or palest pink variations. Sibthorpii is a sub-population native basically to the Balkans; its color spectrum is on the pink to blue end, and the plants better tolerate temperature extremes, especially hot summers. They might be a little more tolerant of dry conditions, also. Sibthorpii has been extensively hybridized with the English primrose, contributing its deeper colors to the common garden primroses that we grow (often still labeled as Primula vulgaris, but more properly Primula X vulgaris).
I grow many of these hybrids, but best like the original sibthorpii subspecies; it is the first primrose to bloom in the spring, and never fails to be covered with pale pink flowers with a yellow center. While many hybrid primroses are lovely, too often they just don't look natural in our garden; even though they may have been growing outside for years, they can't escape that look of just having been popped out of a greenhouse pot and stuck in the ground. Sibthorpii, with its crisp, light green small leaves, and its much more modest and complementary flowers, escapes that hothouse look. It is the best.
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Monday, March 26, 2007

Raggedy Robin

Bulbocodium vernum is sometimes called "Raggedy Robin"; a name both endearing and apt; the flowers, even when freshly open, always look a little bit like somebody who just got out of bed, wearing the same rumpled clothes they had on last night. It is closely related to colchicums; some have even lumped it into that genus (it contains the same toxin as colchicums: namely colchicine, which is used medically to treat gout). It certainly looks like a miniature colchicum, with the same bright, lilac-pink color. For now, taxonomists have placed it in its own genus, so it is monotypic. Bulbocodium seems to be kind of a sometime bulb... it doesn't seem to stick around in most gardens. I do have a little patch that has persisted for about ten years; sunny, well-drained, and neglected. This little bulb is native to the Pyrenees; a mountain range of high waterfalls and higher mountain passes, that divides France and Spain. In our garden it blooms right after the snowdrops, blooming with the early spring crocuses. I've always wanted to plant blue Siberian squills around Bulbocodium, but I 'm not sure Raggedy Robin appreciates competition, though I've heard of planting it under a patch of thyme.
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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Galanthus Woronowii

The fourth species of Galanthus we grow in our garden is woronowii, the Caucasian snowdrop, from the Transcaucasus down into Turkey. It is distinct in its bright green foliage, and tolerates drier conditions than nivalis, the common snowdrop. It also spreads rapidly; from a few bulbs two years ago I now have quite a good sized patch... it is said that it needs to be divided every three years to maximize flowering, as it rapidly becomes congested. I will not consider this to be an undue burden. The only negative is that it does have a propensity to have its open foliage damaged by severe cold snaps. In our garden it therefore does better placed in a spot that doesn't warm up too early.
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The Third Snowdrop

The third species of snowdrop that we grow in our garden is Galanthus plicatus; to plicate is to fold, referring to the leaves of this species,that are rolled or folded inwards... especially noticeable when the leaves first emerge. This is a large snowdrop, reaching up to a foot tall, and there are two recognized subspecies: ssp. byzantinus from Turkey, has two green markings on the inner petals, and the second subspecies is Galanthus plicatus ssp. plicatus, which has one green mark and is endemic to northern Turkey and the Crimea (our plant is the latter).
We started with a single bulb, and already have a small patch of this vigorous snowdrop, so it will be a keeper.
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Saturday, March 24, 2007

From A Far Island... Hepatica Insularis

Spring has finally found Iowa... or vice versa. This morning the clouds are almost scraping the far ridge, there is thunder rumbling intermittently to the west, and much to the deer herd's relief the grass is greening up; they've already been up the hill twice today to see if it's growing yet. The cardinals are having a running courtship dance back and forth through the trees and brush; it's really more a free-for-all than a dance. A few days ago I could count on my fingers how many different flowers were blooming in the garden; this morning there are probably a hundred varieties, and in a week there will be double that.
I was supposed to drive out east to a woodland nature preserve to help clear brush, but the weather radar shows a blobby all-morning rain moving right down the interstate towards us, so instead I took the camera out to the garden to see what I could find before the rain settles in; the crocuses, in a full palette of sunny colors, tempted me, but instead I poked around the rhododendrons, and found this little treasure. This is Hepatica insularis, a rarely seen relative of our native woodland hepaticas. It is endemic to the southern tip of South Korea, and to Cheju Island, which is Korea's largest island, lying rather like the period at the bottom of a question mark. Cheju is an old volcanic island, a spot where temperate and sub-tropical plants come together. One of the treasures of Cheju Island is this little hepatica, which is unique in that it is deciduous in cold climates like ours... our native hepaticas (americana and acutiloba) are essentially evergreen. The flowers of H. insularis are tiny, and white to pale pink. It is the earliest hepatica to bloom, its flowers rising shyly above the dead leaf litter of our Iowa woods. The leaves will come later, and they also are strking, being silver mottled. I'm not sure why hepaticas aren't grown more in our gardens; they are far more popular in Europe and Asia (especially Japan)... they are too subtle, perhaps. There are few plants as care-free and reliable, and even fewer that bring flowers of such jewel-like loveliness to our March garden.
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Friday, March 23, 2007

Perhaps I Was Too Harsh

I recently disparaged Helleborus niger a bit by saying that its foliage takes a beating in some of our winters (this spring, with the heavy snow cover, it looked like a large dog had sat on it); the foliage makes a rather poor background for the flowers, but to my mind, the flowers look odd if you cut all the foliage off. I will say, if you give the plant and its flowers a few days in the sun, everything looks better, with the initially white flowers on this plant turning sugar pink (it's one of the Sunset strains of niger)... I may have been too hasty in judgement. However, the Helleborus orientalis types are already starting to open up (two are shown below), in a multitude of colors and patterns, and overall they are better plants here; with the orientalis hellebores, you can cut off all the old foliage, as the new foliage comes out with the flowers.
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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Galanthus Nivalis

The second species of galanthus that we grow is Galanthus nivalis... often called the lesser snowdrop (as opposed to elwesii being the greater, or giant snowdrop); it is perhaps half as large as elwesii. It is also sometimes called the European snowdrop, from its natural range. Nivalis usually has a single heart-shaped green blotch on each of its three inner petals, as opposed to two blotches on elwesii, and it blooms later. Another distinction is that the leaves of nivalis are narrower, and they are applanate (opposing, like praying hands) whereas elwesii has much wider, grey-green leaves which are convolute (one wraps around the other). Galanthus nivalis also appreciates more moisture and shade than elwesii, and I think it is more appreciative of a cooler climate, so while British gardening books always talk about nivalis being a much more rapid spreader, in our continental climate the opposite is true; nivalis is harder to establish, and spreads more slowly. Spread it does, though, and it is a more refined, darling little snowdrop.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Four Amigos... Snowdrops

There must be some sound in the garden (perhaps Galomph !), that occurs when everything blooms at once. Every spring here in our Iowa garden is different; this year we had a mild January, so all the early snowdrops started blooming, only to be buried under a foot of snow and assailed by a record-breaking cold February. Now in March, the snow finally melted, and almost all of the snowdrops are in bloom at once... earlies, lates, doubles... they're all blooming. In addition to some named varieties, we've got four different species of galanthus, which I'll show, beginning with Galanthus elwesii. This is the giant or early snowdrop, native to the Balkans and western Turkey. It is indeed early; we had one blooming at Thanksgiving, and most of the rest started blooming in early January, only to be buried under the snow. The giant part takes a while, but after a few years, some of them are eight inches tall. In large clumps, when the warm sun strikes them on a cool morning, they give off an intoxicating, sweet perfume... almost lily-like, which wafts down the honeybee burrows, and wakes them from their winter sleep. The broad-leaved foliage of elwesii (el-wez-ee-eye), is a very distinctive grey-green, and the large flowers typically have two green spots on each inner petal, the lower one shaped like an upside-down heart. This is the best snowdrop for most gardeners; it's very early blooming, it's got a nice perfume, it's indestructible and multiplies fairly well, and it takes more sun and dryness than, say G. nivalis, the other commonly available snowdrop. Because of all these qualities, but especially its earliness of bloom (it's always the first thing to bloom here), it is the single most indispensible flower in our garden; it is not just a neat little is the beginning of the gardening year.
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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cyclamen Coum

Although I've been gardening longer than most of the readers of this page have been breathing, every spring I am surprised when Cyclamen coum starts blooming. The small flower buds just seem to sneak up through the leaf litter, and one day you suddenly notice what looks like numerous bright little sparks of fire floating above the brown leaves. These sparks unfurl their petals, and the flowers gaily dance in the breeze, in shades of color ranging from deep magenta to pink to white. Perhaps part of the surprise is that this plant, native to areas around the Black Sea, survives here, and in fact thrives here. In spite of growing Cyclamen coum for many years, I've somehow never been completely at ease with it; I keep expecting it to disappear. You'd think the little seedlings which appear here and there would be reassuring... I guess I've never entirely been able to separate in my mind, the small, hardy garden cyclamens from the large, overblown hothouse variety. We have, I think, about five different species of cyclamens in the garden now, and I mean to try perhaps two or three others. On a sunny, crisp March day, there are few things finer than getting down on the garden path and looking closely at the perfect little flowers of Cyclamen coum.
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Monday, March 19, 2007

Eranthis Pinnatifida

A few days ago I showed Eranthis stellata, and opined that I couldn't imagine a more delicate little flower blooming in the open in our garden... that was before it's cousin from the mountains of Japan, Eranthis pinnatifida, opened its wee blooms. I especially like the metallic-lavender centers of these small, white flowers. The little collarette of greyish green leaves will expand slightly with time, but still, the whole effect is liliputian. It's easy for a diminutive plant like this to get 'lost" in a garden setting; I really need to find a nice, grey rock to place behind it to set it off. The temperatures at night have been down to twenty degrees with heavy frost, so Eranthis pinnatifida is tougher than it looks.
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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hello Sunshine... Adonis Amurensis

Perhaps the most striking flower in our very early spring garden is that of Adonis amurensis; a small member of the buttercup family, native to Manchuria and Japan. It blooms in late February to early March here, often blooming when there is still snow on the ground. It is a popular potted plant in Japan, blooming at the Japanese New Year, and numerous named cultivars are available there, including some with reddish-orange petals that look quite startling. Only a handful of varieties seem to be commercially available in this country, with Asiatica offering three types, including one of the reddish varieties (listed at a price as startling as the flower: $90). Adonis amurensis kind of has two looks to it: I like it best when the flowers first peek up through the brown leaf litter, before the plant's foliage opens, as shown above. The flowers are almost green-gold when they first open, and very bright. I walked across the garden to see just from how far away I could still see the glowing little flowers... let's just say it was a lot further than I can throw a rock. The second phase for this plant is when its attractive, ferny foliage opens up, further showing off its yellow flowers. When hot weather hits, adonis quickly goes dormant until next spring.
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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Galanthus Flore Pleno

Speaking of plants that I have a mixed opinion about, include this little bulb; Galanthus flore pleno, the common double snowdrop. It doesn't have the grace of the single form of Galanthus nivalis, and when seen from above, especially when the flower is partly closed by the cold, it looks somehow like a little lobster claw. But it has a certain jaunty air about it, and if you plant it on a slope so you can see it from below without sprawling in the mud, it is quite endearing. You would think I'd have made up my mind about this plant by now, as I've been growing it for some thirty years; the original little handful of bulbs were planted at my parents' house that long ago, in the lawn right by the driveway. The house is long gone now, but the little snowdrops still come up in the same spot every year, like little white lanterns in the scrub grass by the abandoned driveway. The double snowdrops that are blooming now in my garden this spring are offsets from that original patch...I guess I'll keep them.
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