Monday, March 31, 2008

Shocking; Just Shocking!

Most of the very early spring flowers are harmonious little critters, modestly and quietly pushing their tiny, pale yellow or soft violet flowers up through last year's dull brown oak leaves... and then there is this bright fuchsia hepatica nobilis var japonica, which just opened. I knew something was up when a honeybee buzzed past me wearing sunglasses.
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Raggedy Robin Spreads Its Wings

Bulbocodium vernum wastes no time in opening its fragile little blooms; with the first kiss of pale, watery sunlight it throws its flowers open. This is a monotypic plant; the only species in its genus. Bulbocodium was comfortably sitting in the genus colchicum, until somebody noticed that its petals are completely separate; they aren't fused at the base into a tube like all the rest of the colchicums... well that was enough for the taxonomists, who banished it all by itself to another genus. You would think that looking like a colchicum, and even being loaded with exactly the same unique toxin as all the rest of the colchicums (colchicine, which is still used to treat gout) would be enough qualifications to stay in the colchicum club, but I guess not.Taxonomists are such exclusionary people; I think too many of them were the last people chosen for dodgerball.
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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Snowdrop Magician

Snowdrop 'Trotter's Merlin' is thought to be a hybrid of Galanthus elwesii x plicatus. It is noteworthy for having the inner petals completely covered with green, except for a dainty white edging at the bottom. I assume the Trotter in this case is Dick Trotter, a well known gardener who has one of the most beautiful, deep colored colchicums named after him, and also a strain of hellebores. Now the next question is, why did he name this snowdrop cultivar Merlin? Was it because it was so magical that a snowdrop would pop up in his garden with all-green inner petals? I've alternatively tried to talk myself into thinking that the shape of the green spot resemble a magician with his arms extended, casting a spell. Maybe Dick's dog was named Merlin.
One thing I do know for sure, is that Trotter's Merlin is quite lovely on a bright spring day; now if I could just wave my magic wand and make my tiny clump of these bulbs turn into a thousand!
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Friday, March 28, 2008

Raggedy Robin Sees The Sun?

I love every small flower bulb; I love them even more when they are just sticking their little noses out of the ground... testing the waters, so to speak. I love Bulbocodium vernum when it's just peeking up, more than I can communicate. It sits there for a day or so, then at the first sign of warm sun, no matter how fleeting, it just throws caution to the winds and billows its fragile little flower into full sail, hoping a honeybee comes along before the next freezing rain. Its pale lilac flower, which I must show if the sun ever reappears, is called 'Raggedy Robin'.
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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Asarum Minor Is Major Cool

Asarum minor (which should actually now be called Hexastylis minor) is a small, wild ginger native to the mid-Atlantic states, west into Kentucky and Tennessee. It is evergreen in nature (which is why it is now in the genus Hexastylis, where all the evergreen gingers were placed). Surprisingly, it is also evergreen in our much more northerly and more inclement climate here on the western edge of the long grass prairie country. I am quite amazed that these thick, shiny leaves came through our vicious winter unscathed (perhaps I am hasty even at this late date in pronouncing our winter done, as light snow is predicted for today; this has become "the winter that would not die").
The plant pictured is a special cultivar of Asarum minor found in North Carolina, and distributed by Plant Delights Nursery; they have named it 'Dixie Darling'. It was selected for its very prominent silver veining on the leaves, which appears in summer. I actually prefer the plant in the cold weather of late fall and early spring, when the leaves take on dark maroon highlights with a faint silver wash. The flowers are quite striking too, being reddish maroon with white spots. I don't seem to have a picture of the flowers, probably because when the plant blooms, its flowers are pretty well hidden by the leaves.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Galanthus woronowii; The Green Snowdrop

Galanthus woronowii (wor-uh-nov-ee-eye) is a species that is sometimes called the 'green snowdrop', because of its very distinctive leaves, which are broad and deep, waxy green. It is native from Turkey up through the Caucasus to southern Russia and it is particularly common on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Because its native haunts are rather dry, it tolerates dryness in the garden, and a fair amount of sun. The flowers are rather small in proportion to the lush foliage, and ghostly pale. The green marking on the inner petals is also distinctive, looking somewhat blocky, like a molar tooth rather than the more common upside down heart seen for example on Galanthus elwesii. Also noteworthy is the prominent notch on each inner petal at the base of each green spot. This is a rapidly multiplying snowdrop for me, and has quickly formed a dense clump that needs dividing this year, so in only three years my original six bulbs have become thirty. I am almost at that point where I can drop a little comment now and then about how most of the obscure snowdrop species don't seem to do well for other people here in the midwest, but this one is becoming quite a pest for me.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Galanthus 'Bitton' (And English As A Foreign Language)

Galanthus 'Bitton' is a very small snowdrop; a nivalis clone (nivalis being the small 'English' or 'European' snowdrop species). Bitton is known for being a husky version of nivalis and for having a thick, straight flower stem (a rather relative thing, since nivalis is such a tiny, frail-looking little thing... we're talking about a sturdy version of a four inch tall flower). I assume this clone is named after either the Parish of Bitton, or Bitton Village which lies in that parish; they are in the county of Gloucester, in S.W. Great Britain; a lovely spot indeed, which many years ago I traversed traveling to Bath, on my way to Cornwall to go hiking. I eventually found that Gloucester is pronounced gloss-ter, much to the amusement in the meantime of the locals (though they had no ready answer when I asked why they kept wasting time and ink putting syllables in their words if they weren't going to ever pronounce them). I only later thought I should also have asked if Gloucester is Glosster and Worcester is Wooster why isn't Winchester pronounced Winster? They probably wouldn't have had an answer to that either.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Day Before Spring Flower

Yesterday was improbably cold and bitter, with a thin blanket of new snow in the morning, stinging sleet driven by swirling winds in the afternoon, and a high temperature barely above freezing... not the most propitious day to take the camera out to the garden to find what's in bloom. However, this little flower, Shibateranthis pinnatifida, has been out for a week, shyly and bravely just poking through the brown leaf litter. In its native land of Japan its common name is Setsubun-so, meaning literally day before spring-flower ; an apt name if ever there was one. On the ancient Japanese lunar calendar (in use until 1873, when Japan adopted our modern, solar-based Julian calendar), Setsubun was the third day of the second lunar month, and was recognized as the end of winter; the holiday was kept when the Julian calendar came in, but Setsubun was re-set as the day before solar spring and "so" means flower or plant; hence Setsubun-so became the day before spring-flower .
The delicate appearance of this little Japanese alpine is deceiving, because in fact it blooms in nature (and in our garden) just at the edge of the receding snow. The leaves that ring the base of the flower seem almost an afterthought, looking far too small and frail to sustain the plant, being just a finely cut little collarette of bronze-green which wilts and disappears at the first puff of early summer's hot winds. The basilar leaves are almost more lovely and frail than the flowers, and soon also disappear in summer's heat.
The genus shibateranthis was split off from eranthis, with the seven Asian species being placed in the new genus (Shibateranthis pinnatifida, stellata, siberica, keiskei, uncinata, albiflora and longistipitata), leaving the two European species in the original eranthis genus (hyemalis and cilicica... the winter aconites). In our garden we do grow S. stellata, which is just starting to bloom, and we grow both of the winter aconites, which I need to start looking for amongst the dead leaves.
Seen closely, the tiny flowers of pinnatifida are quite fascinating; the white "petals" are actually sepals, while the little yellow protuberances are in fact structurally petals. The anthers are bright metallic blue and break open to release sticky white pollen granules, as you can see on the left side of the flower above. The stigmas in the center are light grape in color.
These miniature flowers will never be used in a spring bouquet; they are not going to be a cover subject for any gardening magazine; you'll not see them featured in garden catalogs... but they do wonders for the spirit on a gray and wintry day in Iowa.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Different Shade Of Green

I've always loved these stanzas of Tolkien's poem:

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen;
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.
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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Garden On Fire

Every March, when the snow is not even completely gone from the ground, cyclamen coum, seen in the top picture, raises its tiny blooms up from the damp, dark leaf litter. The shockingly bright flowers always look to me like so many little fiery sparks floating over the cold earth. Cyclamen coum's early spring display is only the first installment of the cyclamen year. Cyclamen purpurascens, seen blooming in July in the middle picture, although a softer pink, has flowers that are still quite striking but because of much more floral competition in mid-summer, it is much less memorable; however its long bloom cycle is still welcome, and it is the most evergreen of the wild cyclamens for us. Cyclamen hederifolium shown blooming in October in the bottom picture helps close out the gardening year.
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Friday, March 21, 2008

Old Fashioned Roses... A Lost Dream

The weather outside may be cold and misty, but I'm touring warm, sunny gardens overflowing with bright flowers... though they are paper gardens; it's garden catalog season. I must admit, I'm being tempted again by roses. When I first began my garden here, one of the first things I planted were rows of old fashioned roses, which grew to huge sizes, tumbling over with lush flowers every June. Unfortunately, the garden has since then gradually grown more shady as a host of other shrubs and also trees, planted faithfully every spring by the wheelbarrow-full, have steadily grown so that the roses, as they became progressively more shaded, began to get blackspot and then to die back altogether.
Alas, I know it's a foolish notion to consider planting more roses; I've cast my lot with rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and Magnolias, underplanted by hosts of small, shade-tolerant perennials and bulbs... not boon companions for roses in this climate. Therefore, one after another the rose catalogs have gone into the recycling bin, their sun-filled pages glowing with roses are just a fool's dream for me. Now where is that RareFind Nursery catalog of rhododendrons?

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Don't Worry, Bee Happy...

We have been given a brief reprieve from this morass of cold and cloudiness that we've found ourselves stuck in this spring... brief because we are to have only two days of sun, then snow and cold are to return. Gardeners being by nature a hardy and wildly optimistic bunch, we will take the few crumbs of sunlight that have fallen from spring's bountiful table, and be grateful for it. The honeybees certainly have no complaints today, their pollen sacs already heavy with bright yellow and orange granules from the early crocuses and snowdrops. A faint hum fills the garden, as they buzz from flower to flower, and the sweet honey smell of snowdrops blooming in the warm sunshine is like whipped cream on my cocoa... I am a happy gardener today.
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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Which Way To Aberdeen?

This has been the anti-spring; day after day, week after week of cold, damp, misty weather... it is as if we are trapped in the far north of Scotland, in some icy, wind-swept moor. Normally this might not be such a bad thing for a gardener; there would be something to be said for going out to view the crocuses blooming on the Fourth of July, but I do like to grow the occasional daylily, and we do have to get on with it, as we have a little something called winter coming in seven months.
Now I know why the Scots are so glum...
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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Saving Miss Lawrence's Garden

Elizabeth Lawrence was to my mind our pre-eminent American garden writer; my copies of her books are well-worn old friends. After her death in 1985, her famous garden in Charlotte (by then woefully overgrown and neglected due to her absence due to ill health) was fortunately purchased by a wonderful lady named Lindie Wilson, who in 1986 bought the property to live in and began removing the overgrowth from the garden, revealing many of Lawrence's original plants that were hidden but still surviving, especially many of the flowering bulbs for which she was so well known. The Garden Conservancy and the Wing Haven Foundation have now been involved for some time in planning and fund raising to permanently preserve the house and garden; Wing Haven has already raised the money to purchase the property from Lindie Wilson and is now working towards raising another $50,000 as a stewardship fund. I have mentally toured this garden so many cold winter evenings with Miss Lawrence as my guide, that I know it as well as I know my own garden. It was therefore with pleasure that I just sent off a check to help, in a small way, to keep this garden blooming for many generations to come. The picture above of Miss Lawrence's garden was copied from the Wing Haven Foundation web page, and I hope they do not mind; the web site, if you are interested is:
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Monday, March 17, 2008

Snowdrop Double Doubles

Here are two double snowdrops blooming today: double doubles, I guess you'd say. For reasons that I can understand, double snowdrops get mixed reviews by fanatical snowdrop lovers (galanthophiles). The main knock on the doubles is that they are not graceful, like the single snowdrops. However, to me it depends on how you look at them; looking from above, or maybe even from the side, flore pleno does look a little... boxy. Actually from above they sort of look like little lobster claws to me; indeed not exactly graceful. Now when you get down and look at them from below (no easy task with a plant all of four inches tall) they give quite a different impression, and are very pretty; kind of like wee hoop skirts with petticoats with upside down heart markings along the hemline... quite sweet. I've taken to planting them on little hillocks in the garden to facilitate being able to see under them better, but even so when I'm seen walking around with muddy knees in early spring it's a pretty good bet I've been out looking at the snowies. I saw a picture of a Brit galanthophile out in his garden who walks about with a mirror which he sets down below each snowdrop so he can see it better... guess he doesn't like getting his pants muddy. The other snow drop fanciers who read his post about the mirror, oohed over how clever he was. Being or being described as "clever" seems to be a uniquely British trait, as in "He's such a clever boy!" Here in the States, I know I've never heard anybody call me clever... even though I feel like over the years I've given them plenty of opportunities to do so. Now maybe they were thinking it, but just didn't want to seem overly flattering. That could be.
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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Squirrel Math

I've always thought early, small crocuses are best when they are scattered here and there as if they popped up randomly on their own. Well, I (or I should say WE) have achieved that effect in the garden... the other half of this equation being the squirrels, who dig up the crocuses, and re-bury some of them in the oddest spots. It is always a delight to see various little bulbs popping up all over the garden, and guessing what they might be.
The only problem with this human-large rodent partnership is squirrel math: an even split is eat six, plant one!
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Saturday, March 15, 2008

P.J. The Cat Goes Down To Defeat

We all fill in our garden blogs during cold weather months the best that we can.

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Bluebells: All Is Forgiven...

I recently complained about native bluebells (Mertensia virginica) spreading willy-nilly through my woodland garden and trying to take over some of the flower beds; I will say, however, that in late April when the hostas are just unfurling their leaves, you can get some smashing combinations with the bluebells. Just when I think about ripping all the bluebells out, they do something cute! Sigh... well, vigorous garden management was never my strong suit.
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Friday, March 14, 2008

Snowdrops Bring Spring (Or Vice Versa)

With much creaking and groaning, the seasonal page is turning here in Iowa to spring. Even though a thick blanket of snow still covers most of our garden, the snowdrops, just can't contain themselves any longer, and are blooming anyplace the sun has released them from this icy grip. They've been out of the snowbank and into the light for such a short period of time that their foliage is still yellowish. Galanthus elwesii, the greater or Levantine snowdrop from the western mountains of Turkey always blooms first here, as it should, but the double snowdrop Galanthus nivalis flore pleno, blooms hard on its heels, which doesn't seem right, since the regular single form of Galanthus nivalis blooms almost a month later. I have flore pleno planted in several locations, so I know it's not just some fluke due to a favorable spot. I guess I'm puzzled, but not complaining.
Galanthus elwesii is shown open and closed, with flore pleno shown at bottom.
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Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's About Time!

I've had a good quality digital camera for some time, but with a rather cheap lens (I know this is backwards from the way you're supposed to do things in photography). This lens has some strange Cyrillic writing on it that I suspect indicates it was manufactured in Kazakhstan. Well, today the Fed Ex man delivered my fancy new macro close-up lens. Of course he had to arrive with the package requiring a signature just as I was high up on the roof shoveling snow and ice off. Here's my first picture with the new lens, which happens to show my $5.47 Walmart watch. This watch is so clunky that I found out it sets off the airport metal detectors so I have to send it through in my carry-on, and the date function seems to wander somewhat mysteriously, perhaps following some alien calendar... though it says on the watch face that the movement is Japanese, I suspect the rest of the watch may also be from Kazakhstan; the workmanship is strikingly similar to my old camera lens. It also says on the watch face that it is water resistant to 100 feet; not water proof, mind you... just resistant; so I suppose it's like "No, no no water in here... oh what the heck!)
Anyway, now that I have my new lens, I just need the snow to melt so I'll have some flowers to take pictures of... oh, and maybe I need an upgrade to a ten dollar watch.
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