Monday, April 30, 2007

American Cousin

This is our native diphylleia, found in the S.E. part of the U.S., in damp and cool spots in the hills and mountains; called umbrella-leaf or Diphylleia cymosa. It will get quite large, and form impressive clumps if given enough water. The flowers are small for the plant; just a small cluster of white flowers on top of each leaf, but it then forms interesting blue berries on red stems.
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Saturday, April 28, 2007

I Don't Know Why...

I don't know why some plants aren't more popular... take the diphylleias. This is Diphylleia sinensis, just starting to slowly unfurl its leaves, looking like Batman opening his dark cloak. It can grow three feet tall, with leaves two feet across; closely related to, and appearing similar to, a mayapple but much larger and with fuzzy leaves. Sinensis is a Chinese version of our North American native, D. cymosa (umbrella-leaf), found in the Appalachians.
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Friday, April 27, 2007

Primula Algida... A Guest In Our Garden

So-called "birds-eye" primroses, tend to not be overly fond of our hot, muggy summers (a kind way of saying they melt). Sometimes, however, members of difficult plant groups that are endemic to the Caucusus, as opposed to a glacier-cooled moraine in the high Alps, do survive here... they are used to hot summers and cold winters. I therefore have some hope for Primula algida, which grows in alpine meadows in that rugged area. However, I've not made a permanent label for it just yet... it's still on guest visa.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

If You Like Purple... Epimedium Purple Prince

If you are partial to rich purple flowers, Epimedium Purple Prince would be to your liking; the center of the flower is almost blackish purple; like crushed blackberries. The new foliage is also nice, with pinkish overtones. I have this flowering right in back of a clump of white flowered erythroniums (dog tooth violets), and the effect is smashing.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rhododendron Mary Fleming

Amongst the bright pinks and mauves of the early lepidote rhododendrons, Mary Fleming is easy on the eyes: Rarefind Nursery describes it as bisque yellow and pink, which certainly sounds yummy. It grows about four feet high and wide, with very small leaves, and is covered with flowers in the spring.
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Monday, April 23, 2007

Don't Try This At Home

It's not often (well, maybe ever) that I would otherwise show a neat little plant that I would then tell you not to grow; the lesser celandine is the one exception. At the top is a new variety just planted last year, Ranunculus ficaria Cupreus, with shiny gold flowers that are even deeper gold in the center. The foliage is light green, mottled with silver. Just to show what a more mature plant of Ranunculus ficaria will look like, at bottom is the variety Brazen Hussy, with lemon yellow flowers and foliage that looks like it was dipped in black ink. Ranunculus ficaria (commonly called lesser celadine) has become an invasive species in the woodlands of the cooler, northern parts of this country; even as close to us as Wisconsin. I cannot therefore recommend this plant, but I think it is just too hot and dry here in Iowa in the summer for the lesser celadine to get frisky and venture out of the garden; it would rather lie about the pool drinking a lemonade.
There are scads of named varieties available in Great Britain (ficaria is native to Europe and western Asia). I've slowly accumulated about a dozen different plants, and I make a big fuss over each one every spring; they are just cute as the dickens when they start putting out their crisp little leaves when there is still snow on the ground, and the shiny little flowers are a complete delight. But kids... don't try this at home!
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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Berry, Berry Nice!

Epimedium Cherry Tart might just be the single loveliest epimedium when in flower; soft red petals with a light gold heart, and crushed rasberry foliage... I haven't made up my mind whether I think it should be called Rasberry Tart or whether Cherry Tart is more apt. Either way, it's truely lovely.
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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blood In The Forest

Bloodroot, Sanguinarea canadensis, is one of our loveliest woods wildflowers, with its startlingly white flowers, and poppy-like leaves (sanguinarea resides in the poppy family). Our freakish late freeze in mid-April, seems to have grievously injured these little plants. We had several large patches of bloodroots in our garden, slowly built up from one original plant... and they're all gone; apparently frozen in the ground, so they never emerged.
As mentioned before, I've been volunteer managing a forty acre woodland preserve near here, and last spring there were bloodroots by the thousands; this year 95% of them are gone. Will they return next year... I don't know; I've never seen this happen before. Anyone who doesn't find our recent wild gyrations of weather alarming, is daft.
Bloodroots are fascinating plants... they are monotypic; that is, there is only one species in the genus sanguinarea. The seeds are distributed by ants (which is called myrmecochery); there is a fleshy organ called the eliasome attached to the bloodroot's seeds. The ants are attracted by this attachment, which is richly nutritious, and they carry the whole apparatus off to their underground nest, where the eliasome is consumed by the ant larvae; the inedible seeds are then disposed of in underground waste rooms, where they can germinate and grow new plants. Trilliums and Dutchman's breeches use this same method of seed dispersal.
The sap of bloodroots is bright orange-red and stains the fingertips; I can well remember as a boy, breaking the stems to see it... it is a wonder we weren't burned by the orange fluid, as it contains a toxin (sanguinarine), that is quite damaging to skin. Bloodroot paste is actually available commercially to remove warts and other skin growths... the advertisement is full of customer's accounts of applying the paste to all sorts of "cancers" and dark moles, with wonderous success. Let us just say it's not recommended. As recently as 2005, there was a case in Georgia where nine women were treated by a "healer" for breast cancer, by applying bloodroot paste... severe tissue destruction resulted.
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Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Fritillary By Any Other Name...

Of the small fritillaries that are growable here, Fritillaria nigra, native from southern Europe to the Caucasus is one of the nicest, with elegantly airy, greyish-green foliage and patterned flowers of deep plum, with golden interiors. However, it is one of those plants where you could probably triple the number of species of fritillaries that you claim to grow by just making up three different labels for the same bulb, as some feel Fritillaria nigra=pyrenaica=montana.
It is equally beautiful under all three species names. Nigra of course refers to the dark, somber outer color of the flowers, montana to it growing in the mountains, and pyrenaica to being found in the Pyrenees mountains, which run north to south, dividing southern france from northern Spain.
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Trillium Underwoodii

If you told me I could have only one trillium (which would be almost as big a blow to me as if you told me they'd stopped making Cheetos), I'd choose T. underwoodii. It is native to the far S.E.; in the deciduous forests of Alabama Georgia, and Florida, yet is perfectly hardy here, in spite of the fact it's the first trillium out of the ground, usually when there is still a little snow under the trees. It is a small plant, and cute as the dickens, with heavily mottled leaves and a silverish streak down the middle of each leaf. The flower, when it blooms, is usually deep maroon and when it first opens, has a slightly fetid odor. This is one of the sessile trilliums; that is, its leaves are stemless.
There are 39 species of Trilliums, all native to this country (we have four endemic to Iowa, with Trillium recurvatum being very common in our woods). The only part of the country having no native trilliums is the desert Southwest. I grow perhaps half of the available species here in our garden.
There is a nursery in Great Britain called 39 Steps Nursery, which offers trilliums, and I thought the name must very cleverly refer to the number of species of this plant, but the nursery's big specialty really is hellebores, and I decided the name probably more likely is a reference to Hitchcock's famous movie... or maybe the nursery is just on a steep hill.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Three Odd Gingers

Wild gingers are interesting little plants, but one wouldn't make a bouquet of their flowers... they are just a little odd. Here are three of the odder ones: first, Asarum heterotropoides var. mandshuricum, with attractive, large heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are small, and burgundy speckled. this ginger is sometimes called the Manchurian ginger, and is widely used in Chinese herbal medicine. The second flower shown is that of Asarum minamitanianum, a rare ginger from Kyushu. It has shiny, patterned leaves and a flower that looks like it's from outer space. The ginger shown below is Asarum caulescens, a well-known ginger from the mountain forests of Japan; it is the symbol of the famous shrine of Kamu Jinja, and the leaves of this plant are the most important food source for the national butterfly of Japan, Luehdorfia japonica. It is a very small, creeping ginger with cute little thimble shaped flowers and neat little heart-shaped leaves with prominent leaf veins. It's deciduous, which makes it more reliably hardy here.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Anemone Stammerberg

Anemone nemerosa, the European wood anemone, comes in a dizzying variety of different flower forms and colors; apparently the species is quite adept at genetic variation. In northern Europe, collecting these different varieties is quite popular, but unfortunately only a small number are available commercially in this country. Americans mainly like their flowers big and splashy, and these subtle little (4 inch tall) plants easily get lost. I planned to do a pictorial feature on the varieties we grow in our garden, but the severe freeze we just went through, damaged them. The above picture is of Anemone nemerosa Stammerberg; it also shows a little freeze damage, but I still thought I'd show it, as it is so... well, odd. It was discovered by Matthias Thomsen, of Germany, while out plant exploring in the woods; it is a double flower, but he describes it as a bracteoid double. That is, it doesn't have a doubling of true petals, but rather the petals have converted into multiple bractlike structures, so the flower is off white, with infusions of pink and green; it looks like it is made of feathers.
Seen from a distance, it just looks odd, but when you look at it up close, it is quite lovely. It really brings home that flowers are modified leaves; in this case the flower seems to be just forming...Venus coming out of the ocean. Matthias Thomsen posts and shows a lot of plants from what must be a wonderful garden, on the Garden Buddies message board.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Fritillaria Raddeana

Fritillaries are a favorite around here; like most gardeners, Fritillaria imperialis (the crown imperial) was the first one I grew. A relative newcomer to our garden is a close relative of crown imperials; it's Fritillaria raddeana. Both of these fritillaries are from central Asia, both being about two foot tall, and very early out of the ground, blooming in early April. Raddeana has wonderful greenish yellow flowers, with a touch of burgundy, and it has the same nectar droplets in its flowers as the crown imperial (if you look closely you can see one in the closest flower). This fritillary also has the same skunkish odor to its foliage, but it's much less prominent than in imperialis.
I'm surprised that Fritillaria raddeana isn't at least slightly popular in gardening circles, as it is a lovely thing, and very vigorous. Greenish flowers in general usually don't seem to catch on, and perhaps that is part of it. In earliest spring, it just seems to explode out of the ground, and so far it is one of the bulbs that I really look for each year. It likes sun and good drainage, if you are intrigued. I have it planted on a slope, with some hellebores, and with various small early bulbs planted about its base, and with some nearby hostas to take over the bare spot that raddeana will leave when it goes dormant.
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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Brown Creeper

Brown creepers are one of the most delightful little birds to be seen in our woods in early spring. They nest in the north woods, mainly in conifer forests, so we are host to them mostly during spring and fall migration. They are wren-sized, with a down-curved, needle-like beak, used to pry insects out of crevices in tree trunks. They have a white breast, but the back is streaked and spotted, to blend in with the tree bark; if threatened they may even spread their wings, and flatten against the trunk to further conceal themselves, where they remain still until the threat has passed.
They are otherwise in constant motion, scooting up trees in a spiral fashion, then flying to the base of the next tree, and climbing it, looking for insects (if you look closely, the brown creeper in the picture has just found a small bug). A year or so ago I was musing that these precious little birds seem to be getting scarcer (which in most places, they are), since I remember them as being fairly common when I was a boy. Then I decided that part of the problem may lie in the observer (me). With age, comes some fading of visual acuity and perhaps more important than this fading of sight, a diminishment in seeing; that is, as you get older you become less observant and curious. I would hate to think there might ever be a time when a spring came when I couldn't smile at the antics of this little acrobat.... I must look closer.
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Saturday, April 14, 2007


Ah, nothing like new, green grass and a spot of afternoon sun to make a body feel good. Let's count the deer: one... two... three... umm...hmm!
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Friday, April 13, 2007

A Better View

How about a different view of Jeffersonia dubia, to show why I give the edge to it over J. diphylla?
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The Night The Tornadoes Came

A year ago tonight, the tornadoes came. That afternoon saw strong winds blowing up from the southwest, which became stronger as the day progressed, and more oppressive. The sky took on a grey, ground glass appearance, and soon low scud clouds streamed across the horizon, while the winds swirled around the corner of our house, jangling the wind chimes in warning. The weather radar showed a line of storms far to our northwest that were racing towards us, exploding in size into large red blobs, lining up like rumbling freight cars to plunge into Johnson county in the darkness. The tornado sirens went off all around us, and would wail for most of that evening. The first storm crashed into us, with large hailstones beating on the roof and deck. As this storm abated, just to our south in Iowa City, numerous emergency vehicle sirens could be heard, adding their din to the moaning of the tornado sirens.
Ominously, rather than cooling off as it usually does after a hailstorm, it became warmer and more humid; then the second storm hit, with even larger hail, and even stronger winds that bent 75 foot tall trees back and forth like saplings, backlit by constant lightning, and with thunder that felt as if it was making the whole house shake. After this storm, more sirens joined in the frightening chorus of alarm towards our south. At least seven, and perhaps as many as twelve tornadoes hit Johnson county that night, with the worst tearing diagonally across the heart of Iowa City with 150 mile an hour winds. Quite miraculously, nobody was killed, in this university town filled with curious and risk-taking young people. The Dairy Queen down by the river was totally demolished, with its walls and roof blown into the river, and its iconic neon ice cream cone sign never found, but the customers and staff inside all walked out without a scratch; the Dairy Queen had been there over fifty years, and had a basement where back then they used to store the milk to keep it cool. There is a lot of luck involved in these things... how many Dairy Queens have a basement?
Iowa City is still rebuilding; oddly enough it was refused federal disaster aid, because the city and its citizens were responsible and had insured themselves. So, it has been a slow process of recovery; trees have been planted, houses repaired, lives put back in order. However, for many years April 13th will still be the night the tornadoes came.
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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Garden With A Mind Of Its Own

When you first start planting an informal woodland garden, it's very slow going: you mark out the meandering pathways, and in little niches here and there, you pop in your first, tiny little plants, which seem to immediately get swallowed up by all the competing trees and brush; it's rather like throwing bread crumbs in the ocean. At this point you don't so much have a garden; you just have a nice woods with a few plants in it. Gradually, you reach the point where you can walk around the paths and feel like you are walking around a more or less cohesive garden, as in most spots there is something to see, even if you have to poke under the brush to find it. Then one year, the garden seems to take off, and you realize you may not really be completely in charge anymore; it all starts to become one big, delightful jumble (or should I say jungle).
I wanted this effect, for I cannot begin to express the delight I get from wandering about, looking at plants as they are just coming up in the spring, and trying to figure out what they may be, with new little clumps of even rather unusual little treasures popping up here and there. I am to the point where things like fritillaries, primroses, and wild orchids are coming up as volunteers, looking ever so proud of themselves. I will not be so smug as to complain that the showy orchis is edging out my rugosa rose bush... but it's close.
The picture above shows volunteer Dutchman's breeches, blue and striped squills, and Trillium recurvatum (picture taken 4/4/07).
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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Shaft Of Sunlight On A Snowy Day

As the wet snow streaks down through the dark, bare branches of the trees, our American goldfinch (sometimes called wild canary), looks like a bright shaft of sunlight flitting through the woods.
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Jeffersonia Diphylla

While the delicate lilac flowers of Jeffersonia dubia are enthralling, our native twinleaf, J. diphylla is no slouch (though it is blooming now, the snow is piling up in the flowerbeds as I type this, so these pictures are from last spring). It is endemic from the Atlantic seaboard to Minnesota and Iowa. Here in Iowa it is, as they say "widely distributed, but scarce in all locales". It is in fact on the endangered list here. It's flowers are pristine white, rather reminiscent of bloodroots though not as blindingly white as that wildflower. Unfortunately twinleaf's flowers last but a little longer than sanguinarea, so the whole show is over in a week or so, depending on the weather. However, the seedpods, as shown in the second picture, are also neat as the dickens, looking like flattened little green acorns on straight stems. This plant seeds all about, but the seedlings take five or more years to flower, so it's not a plant for the red geranium and yellow marigold crowd.
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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jeffersonia Dubia

Jeffersonia dubia is native to Manchuria and Korea; the Asian counterpart to our lovely native twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla. Unlike twinleaf, the leaf of J. dubia is only divided at the top, and has striking reddish edging. The flowers are white on twinleaf, and an ethereal lilac color on dubia. It is invariably stated in garden books that dubia is altogether a superior plant to our native diphylla... and it is. In addition to the nicer leaves, the flowers of dubia last up to two weeks, while those of diphylla last at best a week, and the foliage of dubia is much more persistent. I will say, that for me twinleaf does spread by seeding much more easily; if planted on a slope, new little plants pop up all over below it... hardly a problem.
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Monday, April 09, 2007

Elegy For A Garden

The two most damaging spring freezes in my (extensive) lifetime here in the midwest have occurred in the last three years... this was the worst. After a warm March we suffered through a week of brutal cold, with nightime temperatures in the 'teens, and high winds. The garden looks as though a giant rolled over on it; only a handful of things are likely totally lost, but I would anticipate that flowers for the whole season will be cut in half. Most of the lilies will not bloom this year, and probably not next; the early (and most of the late) magnolias will be a bust; the early daffodils are gone... the toll goes on and on. But our garden is a trifle... a pleasant hobby; I reserve my sorrow for those who try to make their living by growing; especially the orchardists and produce growers.
So I will speak no more about garden death and destruction; there will be flowers that will still bloom, and there will be warm and temperate springs to come... I just need to see if I have enough cute pictures of our cats to fill up this blog until next year.
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