Friday, November 30, 2007

Oh, Piffle!!

Every flower gardener has issues and questions about things in their garden, that they go around and around about... for better or worse, a lot of mine are documented in some detail in this blog. Take the issue of identifying my fall-blooming snowdrop; it's a minor problem (how could it be otherwise with a plant all of four inches tall), but a vexing one. This single snowdrop reared its raggedy little flower out of the ground for the first time one November day two years ago, in a patch of Galanthus elwesii (an early spring flowering snowdrop). That first flower frankly looked like something the cat drug in, and the leaves weren't much better, so I figured it was fatally confused and not long for my garden. However, last fall it was back, blooming in November as if nothing was wrong, and it looked to be in a little better health. At first I thought it must be a single bulb of one of the fall-blooming species of snowdrops, but after some research found out that there is a naturally-occuring strain of Galanthus elwesii that blooms in the fall, and decided that was a likelier answer, especially as the true fall-blooming species of snowdrops are said to be a tender lot, which one could expect. The little snowdrop didn't show up in early November this year, so I thought it was a goner, but a week or so ago I happened along and there it was, in full bloom and looking almost robust. I did a little blog piece about my fall-blooming elwesii. Well, today I was out in the garden doing some last minute clean-up before we get buried tomorrow by an ice storm, and noticed the snowdrop, so I got my nose down and looked at it closely and suddenly realized its spots aren't right... Galanthus elwesii should have two little green spots on each inner petal; this little flower only has one.
Now, there are a lot of variations in the green markings of snowdrop petals that have been selected out by gardeners, so there are Galanthus elwesii cultivars with one spot to the petal, and there is one of these (Galanthus elwesii 'Barnes') that even blooms in the fall. However, I also today noticed that my plant blooms before the leaves are up, which is characteristic of Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. reginae-olgae; a true fall-blooming species of snowdrop from southeast Europe (Italy to Greece to southwest Turkey). Also, though it is not apparent from the picture above, my little flower has kind of long, narrow outer petals which open rather widely (it appears a little more like an open umbrella than a hanging bell), and this matches the pictures I see of reginae-olgae. In doing some further research online, I find that this species is not quite as tender as most think it is, reportedly growing reliably in sheltered spots in zone 6a (we're 5a).
There are a couple of good things from all of this, and a couple of negatives. On the plus side, I now have a new species of galanthus in my garden (six total), and note that for a few pennies that I spent on what was supposed to be Galanthus elwesii, I have a bulb that is very pricey in the catalogues, and it is a bulb which will always bloom in late November when flowers aren't exactly fighting with each other to open first. On the downside, while reginae-olgae is marginally hardy, we are not, I repeat NOT zone 6a, and one of those monumentally brutal winters that we occasionally still get might be a real eye-opener for this little Mediterranean native. The other thing that occurs to me is that the elwesii bulbs (that I purchased from a well-known Dutch bulb company), were probably stripped from the wild; the native range of elwesii and reginae-olgae overlap slightly in Turkey (elwesii favoring more northward, colder regions). How else would this rare fall-blooming species get mixed in with the commercially common elwesii? Pretty sad, since elwesii is quite easy to grow in the garden, so only pure greed would cause anybody to still be taking these bulbs from nature.
At least Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. reginae-olgae is thriving so far here in the gentle hills of eastern Iowa; if it misses its native rocky hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, it's not letting on. The final thing that occurs to me is that I have been proudly taking credit for having the first snowdrop blooming each year for the last few years; instead I have the last. Oh, piffle!!
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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Garden Writers And Where They Went To...

Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening (herself one of the better writers in garden blogdom), has a piece on Eleanor Perenyi's classic garden book, Green Thoughts. Kathy points out that it is disappointing that Perenyi never wrote another garden book. I read Green Thoughts some twenty years ago, and also waited for a follow-up, to no avail. Admittedly, Perenyi was 63 when she wrote her garden book, and did have a few other things on her plate (earning a living, writing books on other subjects, perhaps trying to reclaim her husband's former castle in Hungary, which was seized by the communist government).
I would suggest, though, another possibility explaining the lack of a second gardening book: perhaps Perenyi had written about everything in her flower beds the first time around. If you look at the photo of her sitting in her garden on the book's dust jacket, it is easy to imagine that there is a full chapter in her book on nearly every plant in her garden (I may be imagining this, but I'm fairly sure I once saw a picture of her yard taken from the tower of the church seen in the background of the dust jacket photo, and her flower garden was pretty compact; she did also have a vegetable garden). I have a garden that meanders up and down hill, and around the corner, yet there are days when I think this blog could stand one more picture of our cats doing something cute.
I will say, though Eleanor Perenyi's book is certainly one of the classics of American garden writing, she does at times slip into the "cranky gardener" mode of writing, which I'm not fond of... this is a style of garden writing that is pervasive and not easy to avoid in your own writing (God knows, I am the poster boy for this: I start out telling about a lovely little primula blooming by the pond, and end up whining about the weather or something). Still, if you have some time for reading when the snow starts blowing this winter, Eleanor Perneyi's book is a good place to start.
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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Even Steven Foliage

The orientalis type of hellebores certainly give a lot to the garden, filling it in March with bushels of large flowers in a multitude of bright, clear pastels and deep, moody blues and purples. However the foliage certainly qualifies for the Even Steven lineup. Like it or not, our early winter garden is rapidly turning into something akin to an empty parking lot; just a few weeks ago it was crowded with late fall bloomers... now the chill wind swirls dried leaves through the bare flower beds and across the open pond, with the chickadees twittering sadly in the somber evergreens. Yet, the hellebores are still in full, green foliage; it is only with January's brutal onslaught that the leaves will begin to turn brown and sere. With good snow cover, the plants may remain fairly green until spring. I might seem ungrateful finding a fault with this mainstay of our shady garden, but here it is: the foliage is ungainly; this becomes apparent only when everything dies down around it in the late fall. It is then the Ichabod Crane of the garden; top-heavy and unkempt-looking, with long, naked shanks. I (or at least my climate) probably contribute to this appearance, for apparently hellebores aren't really as fond of shade as they are made out to be, so my plants (which are grown in fairly heavy shade because of the brutality of our summers) get a little floppy by the end of the year. Still, the hellebores need not get too caught up with themselves with their beauty in spring, for they are downright homely in the fall.
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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

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Even Steven In The Garden

The principle of Even Steven, where everything balances out in the end, rules in the garden perhaps more universally than anywhere else. Having a plant still showing green foliage in early winter in Iowa is a tremendous plus, especially if it is attractively variegated foliage, but there is usually a downside; consider Ranunculus repens Buttered Popcorn. Let me preface this by saying, don't buy this plant... don't accept it as a gift... if you live in a mild climate I'm not even sure you should read this. This little creeping buttercup is sold as a "perfect groundcover". Well, in warmer winter climates I would suspect that means that the entire ground will be covered by this plant, with everything else smothered out. In our garden this creeper just starts taking over, then a nasty winter almost kills it all off, but then it pops up somewhere else and starts growing again. In the spring its foliage is yellow and green with yellow flowers if it is grown in sun... in our garden it lurks in shady spots where it seldom flowers and its foliage is more cream and green. It just kind of creeps about unobtrusively, occasionally trying to mug this or that other plant, but in a half-hearted way, then suffers winter kill every few years and starts all over. However, how can one not appreciate a plant that looks like this on the verge of winter in Iowa? It's Even Steven in our garden.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Mature Garden... And Gardener

People ask how long I've been gardening here; that's kind of a difficult question to answer because there was so much to do here when we first moved in, that the garden began rather tentatively and slowly. However, this maple was a little seedling that I stuck in the ground in the early garden.
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Sunday, November 25, 2007


Our little valley is home to quite a number of barred owls; this one was sitting in a pin oak just outside our kitchen window this evening. As the nights become colder and longer, with the Pleiades wheeling overhead in a sky filled with shimmering stars, the owls begin hooting back and forth; whether they are staking out territory, or just lonely in the dark of a misty winter night, I do not know.
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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Two Season Rhododendron

Lepidote rhododendrons are certainly stars of our early spring garden; Rhododendron Pink Diamond is pretty spectacular in the late fall, too. Most lepidotes (small-leaved rhododendrons) are essentially evergreen, but Pink Diamond is pretty much deciduous, and as this picture from last week shows, it develops very nice color, equal to many better-known fall foliage shrubs. In the spring it is covered by large frilly pink flowers.
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Found Treasure

This morning I found a nice big seedhead lying on the ground; it is from Arisaema ringens, a cobra lily or jack in the pulpit from eastern Asia. This is a very vigorous, easily grown arisaema... perhaps the easiest of all Asian species. The floral structures are short and blunt, as is the seedhead. The seeds are now tucked into the dark, wet soil, so I hopefully will have lots of baby cobras next spring.
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Thursday, November 22, 2007


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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Snowdrop

For the last several years, this little snowdrop has bloomed in November; it is in a patch of Galanthus elwesii bulbs, but at first I thought it must be one of the fall-blooming species of galanthus that somehow got mixed in with elwesii (which blooms January-February, depending on the winter). After some research, I found that it was a naturally occurring late-fall blooming variety of elwesii. The first time it bloomed, it looked very fragile and kind of sick. Last year it looked a little better, but it hadn't reappeared this year, so I assumed it was either a goner, or it had made up its mind to bloom in early spring like all of the other snowdrops. Today, as I was taking a quick look around the garden before it gets buried in our first snow, there it was, blooming as if nothing was unusual. I marvel at its jaunty demeanor in the face of on-coming winter, but it also makes me cringe a little.
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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

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The Butterflies Of November

Years like this where an early fall cold snap is followed by an interlude of unseasonably warm weather, however fleeting, unfortunately always lures some butterflies out their cocoons... they emerge into a somewhat apocryphal wasteland, devoid of flowers and fated to soon be blown into the abyss of winter by the cruel winds that roar down from Alberta like a freight train in the night. The temperature currently is slated to drop from 64 degrees to 17 degrees with snow by the time Tom Turkey appears at the door.
Pictured is a Questionmark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), so named because there is a small white questionmark shaped marking on the underside of its rear wing... it appeared in the early morning sheltering against a dead magnolia leaf, hoping to gather warmth from the sun before clouds moved in, bringing a cold rain that will turn to snow by evening, with the winds whipping dead leaves, dessicated flowers... and a few shattered butterflies, into untidy piles and drifts in the low spots in the garden. It is the beginning of winter in Iowa.

Monday, November 19, 2007

All About Me... In Two Parts

Well, it's back; Shady Gardener, seemingly about as sweet a young thing as ever came down the pike, has reached out from her blog
and has nailed the meme to me, where you are supposed to publish eight things about yourself on your own blog. Well, guys like me as a rule would rather stick their hand in a bucket full of Red Back spiders than write about their inner feelings and aspirations... to all you female bloggers, I'll just say it's a man thing, something to do with certain hormones or lack of same.
Also, I guess in internet terms I've become a piece of semi-ancient gardening blogdom, as buried in my archives there is already a go-around with this a couple of years ago when Nickie at tried to get me into a meme, with mixed results at best.
Actually, maybe I'm into this meme thing after all, since that's already two things about me, and now I'll just paste my last meme, and I'm out the door on a pleasant day to work in the woods... this sharing, networking stuff isn't so bad after all.

MeMe In The Morning

I've been tagged by this blogger "MeMe" thing; it's not, as I first feared, that avian virus everyone is worried about, but rather a set of topics that you're supposed to post about, telling a little more about yourself... sort of a cross between slumber party chatter and that time you were stuck in a motel bar in the middle of Wyoming during a blizzard, had way too much to drink, and ended up telling your life story to an equally drunk truckdriver, who you thought was very interested in it all, until you realized he was just passed out with his eyes open. Anyway, I was never good at following directions (which explains a lot that has happened in my life), so I'm just going to post what I feel like, rather than follow the right format.
Two interesting things that happened to me that skirted a fatal outcome:
I lived in California at one time, and one of my favorite camping spots in the early spring, was Death Valley, specifically Painted Butte Canyon. I had a Toyota LandCruiser, one of the early jeep-like vehicles available to the public; it was built like a tank, rather like a Hummer, but had a gas tank holding about 10 gallons, and was always running out of gas (including in the middle of the Oakland Bay Bridge). Anyway, you kind of need an SUV to get to Striped Butte; you take a winding dirt road, going by, interestingly, the borax mine of Twenty Mule Team fame, then into this canyon, which back then at least, was totally deserted, and you can camp right by a spring, visited during the day by numerous hummingbirds, and at night by herds of noisy wild donkeys. I just slept under the stars by myself, and spent the day exploring and climbing the adjacent ridge of low mountains that border Death Valley on the west, the Panamints. I saw nobody up close the whole time I was there, but several times saw a pickup come around the south end of the ridgeline and drive around about 3 miles down the valley, doing something or other.One day when I was climbing the ridge, I saw a ranch in the next valley, called the Panamint Valley, but thought nothing of it, until years later, I was reading "Helter-Skelter", the book about Charles Manson, and realized that the ranch I'd seen was the Spahn ranch, and at the time I was camping there (I think it was about 1969), Charlie, Squeaky, and the gang were all there. Apparently several people from around there disappeared at that time, thought to have been killed by them, and buried in the desert... I've wondered if Charley drove a pickup?
My second episode also happened in California. My brother and I drove down to the Ventanas, just east of Big Sur, to backpack. One afternoon, we stopped for lunch by a creek (as I recall, it may have been called Oak Creek). The creek drops right off a sheer cliff of perhaps forty feet, and we were sitting right on the edge of the dropoff, with our backs to it, looking upstream, eating our snacks, when a group of Boy Scouts, and their leaders, came running up the nearby trail... they were all kind of hooting and hollering, and running around, and one of the leaders, a fellow of perhaps twenty, started to run across the rock ledge right behind us, at the edge of the cliff. This ledge actually slanted down and he didn't apparently notice it was wet and mossy. His feet went right out from under him, and he rapidly started sliding off the ledge, and would have fallen to his death. It just happened, though, that he fell right behind me, and I instinctively turned, and just was able to grab him by his arm. I can still remember feeling his pulse pounding in his arm, as I gripped it tightly, and I looked him right in his eyes, and saw the fear. My brother ran over, and we were able to pull him up. He thanked us and sheepishly walked slowly up the ridge to where the other scouts, who were oblivious to what had hapened, were still running around. I heard this fellow telling one of the other leaders, that we had just saved his life, but the leader told him to quit kidding around.
Two foods I could totally live on; well but maybe not long: pepperoni pizza and sausage pizza.
The best pop song of all time that I know the words to (three way tie): Margaritaville, Unchained Melody, and Red, Red Wine.
Where was I when Kennedy was killed: in chemistry class. I was once sitting with my (then) 8 year old nephew, watching t.v., and some commentator was talking about how everyone knew where they were when President Kennedy was killed. My nephew looked at me sideways for a few seconds, then asked me if I was alive when the assasination took place. I told him yes, and that I was in chemistry class (I wasn't going to tell him it was my college chemistry class)! Then I said, that in fact I remembered the Korean Armistice, which quite amazed him, and that while I didn't remember it, I was born while the Second World War was still going on. At this, his eyes got wide, and he said "No Way!" Sigh... kids know how to really make you feel old.
Something I regret having considered, but never did: buying Microsoft stock at $4 a share.
What I'm looking forward to now: The first snowdrop of spring.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

New Baby

Acer palmatum Mikawa Yatsubusa is a Japanese maple new to our garden this year, with very tightly layered five pointed leaves, eventually hopefully forming a dense mound six feet tall and wide. It's coloration in fall is quite something... I think I'm going to like this one!
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Friday, November 16, 2007

A Little Sunshine

We have lots of different ornamental shrubs worked into our woodland garden, and its rather like they each take a turn on the stage each year, then fade back into the woods. The last, but certainly not least to grab the spotlight are the fothergilias. When they begin to glow each November, it's as if they grab the sun out of the sky. The garden feels warmer just having them there.
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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Never Too Many Birches...

There's an old saying that you can never have too many birches in your garden (well, I guess it's not really an old saying, since I just made it up). Nevertheless it's true, especially in the late fall, when the low-angled sun lights them up against the background of dead leaves and somber evergreens. I have a shadowy, deep ravine that cries out for a large clump of snow white birches, but that's another project that's never quite gotten off the ground. Oh well, if wishes were fishes we'd all have plenty to eat... now THAT'S an old saying!
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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Little Heartleaf

The wild gingers are pretty inconspicuous in our garden until late fall, when Winter has begun some serious winnowing... then one day you suddenly realize that these are pretty cool little plants. This is Asarum minor Dixie Darling, from Plant Delights Nursery. I actually should change its label to the now recognized genus hexastylis, where the evergreen gingers have all been placed, but on my list of things to do it's so far down that I'll still be talking about it when Halley's Comet makes its next appearance. Under whatever name, it is indeed a lovely little woodlander for dry shade. Its new leaves in spring are green with silver webbing; in late fall it starts getting hints of pink, deepening to burgundy, then to maroon during the winter. Its flowers in spring are reddish purple with white spots. Asarum (Hexastylis) minor is native to the mid-Atlantic states, west into Tennessee and Kentucky, where it is sometimes called 'Little Heartleaf'.
I look forward to having large patches of evergreen gingers, but in this climate they are quite slow-growing, and the comet might be here before that occurs, too.
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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ah, Life...

On this unseasonably warm November evening, I wandered the garden paths in the deepening dusk; as I then sat on one of the benches on a hill overlooking the pond, the sky slowly turned first to fiery orange, then to soft pink and deep cobalt blue with a sliver moon. On the west ridge, the resident barred owl awoke and hooted down the valley, just for the joy of it. I am truly besotted with life and the beauty of this small, quiet wooded valley in eastern Iowa.
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Monday, November 12, 2007

The Beginning Of A New Gardening Season...

Well, work with me on this... what you're looking at is the beginning of the new gardening season; Galanthus elwesii, the early snowdrop, rising out of the ground by the hundreds, its white-tipped leaves furled tightly. Admittedly there is this modest interlude called winter that is pushing its way down from Alberta, but these small bulbs could be considered the first stirring of spring... more a promise than a reality now, but Iowans live on optimism (that and Bud Light).
These intrepid little garden pioneers will get frozen, snowed on, and blasted by gales blowing unimpeded across the short grass prairies, but they will persist... and one day they will bloom on a day when the pale, watery sun finally warms the dark earth. November is here... can spring be far behind?
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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hardy Cyclamens

I must admit, I am quite enamored with hardy cyclamens; no two have leaves alike; it's like snowflakes.
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