Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cypripediums... Clever Or Cruel?

Cypripedium kentuckiense, with its large, white bowl and maroon petals and sepal, is the last native ladyslipper orchid to bloom in our garden. Its lovely flower is not just there for our enjoyment, though; it is instead a cleverly constructed bee trap... maybe a little too clever. Insects are attracted to land on the lip of the bowl, where they are enticed by a nectar aroma to crawl down into the opening; once there it is very difficult for them to get back out due to the outpouched bowl shape, and the lip extending around its edge. Instead, they must climb back up into the back of the flower, where there are little ridges like steps leading up to a small escape opening on each side of the flower. However, as they struggle out through this small opening they must squeeze past the sticky stigma and the anthers, where pollen they may have collected from a previous flower is removed, and a dusting of new pollen is applied to them.
Clever yes, but probably unpleasant for the insect; instead of just slurping up a bucket of nectar while being pleasantly dusted by aromatic pollen as in most flowers, the ladyslipper traps the little bee, forces it to crawl up through a narrow escape route to squeeze out to safety, while being gooed up... for all of this, apparently the orchid doesn't even give the bee a meal. Perhaps this is part of the reason ladyslipper orchids are so rare in nature; bees aren't the brightest little creatures in the world, but they don't like being tricked.
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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Aroids, Part VII

Arisaema costatum grows naturally at higher elevations in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet and Nepal. It's a large, tropical-looking Jack in the pulpit, growing up to three feet tall, with a wide three part leaf that can be two to three feet across. The flower is strikingly striped in burgundy and white, and deeply cowled. The biggest attraction is that the spadix ends in a long, thread-like tail that hangs all the way to the ground. Certain plants in the garden are "event plants" that you eagerly anticipate every year; this is one of them.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Good Bulb

This long holiday weekend was a marathon of garden touring; both seeing and showing. A bulb that reliably blooms in our garden this time of year, and always draws comments from visitors and questions as to its identity, is Ornithogalum magnum. It always surprises me that it apparently is not well known and widely grown, for it has many excellent attributes: when it blooms it is rather as if a second spring has occured, for it appears rather magically in mid-May, after all the usual spring flowering bulbs have gone by; it is two to three foot tall, ramrod-straight, and blooms for up to three weeks. The flowers are white with faint green stripes on the back.
Ornithogalum (meaning bird's milk) is in the hyacinth family, and has over 150 species, most of which are tender bulbs from north and south Africa, but a few hail from areas near the Mediterranean that allow them to be semi-hardy to hardy. I suspect the neglect of O. magnum may be due partly to the reputation of the only plant in this genus well-known in hardy climates: O. umbellatum, the star of Bethlehem. It spreads wildly, and has become a naturalized invasive in the entire U.S. outside of the mountain west. O. magnum is a gentler soul, reseeding very modestly in our garden. It is a bonnie companion to hostas, providing vertical accents in our beds.
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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Aroids, Part VI

The garden is always greener on the other side of the street... I've been having a little online discussion with a gardener from the U.K., who happens to be rather nutty about Jack in the pulpits. He rather proudly has shown pictures of a couple of Arisaema triphyllum (our American native) Jacks that he's obtained from this country. Heck, these plants pop up as volunteers in our flower beds; growing, if you let them, into big three foot tall clumps, which shade out my phlox. The Brit is awe-struck by this fact... I on the other hand am blown away by the fact that in Great Britain you can walk out in the woods and see wild primroses and wood anemones...I guess we always want what we can't have.
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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Aroids Part V

Arisaema consanguineum is a large jack in the pulpit from China. In moister, more clement gardens than mine, it is said to reach six feet tall; here three feet is about it, but it's still spectacular. It comes in both a green form, and as above, with black and white striped spathes. It always makes me think it's decked out in formal wear. Consanguineum is one of the easier Asian jacks, but likes to be planted deeply in well-drained, but rich and moist soil (what plant doesn't). It does slowly divide into good-sized clumps, but it is frost-sensitive, and does come out of the ground fairly early, so my plants got a little frizzed this year.
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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Aroids Part IV

The genus pinellia is a small genus of up to only ten species of plants, all of which are just a little odd; Pinellia peltata is one of the oddest. Peltate refers to leaves which are often shield-like, and attached by the petiole (leaf stem) away from the edge of the leaf (that is, more towards the center) so they are held up like... well, like shields. The inflorescence of this little aroid is an incongruous bright greenish yellow, with a long spadix (tongue).
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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Aroids Part III... And Now For Something Completely Different

This is Pinellia tripartita Golden Dragon, a yellow-foliaged version... it is daintier, doesn't tolerate direct sun, and seems slower to multiply; the ordinary green tripartita is borderline invasive, atropurpurea (shown yesterday) is a more moderate multiplier, and Golden Dragon is almost frail... nice, though.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Aroids Part II

Our next aroid is Pinellia tripartita 'atropurpurea'... the waxy green leaf, no surprise, has three leaflets, and the inside of the spathe is maroon instead of the usual green. Pinellias are enormously interesting little jack in the pulpit wannabees. Some of them are vigorous seeders to the point of being nuisances, but atropurpurea is relatively well-behaved, though will form a nice colony. It reblooms for a very long time in the early summer, and is just a terrific little plant.
I have this planted on the side of a shaded ravine where you climb some stairs, so that it is more at eye level, so easier to appreciate... though a modest little plant, I will make a special trip across the bridge and up the stairs just to see it blooming.
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Monday, May 21, 2007

Ardent For Aroids

I've been thinking lately about aroids (it's a nice break from thinking about ice cream). Aroids are plants in the family Araceae (a-RAY-see-ay)... a great word for Scrabble when you have a lot of vowels, and a fascinating group of plants. The defining feature of aroids is that their sexual organs are on a structure called a spadix, which usually is covered or enclosed by a modified leaf called the spathe (the "Jack" and the "pulpit").
The 107 genera of this family are mostly tropical and sub-tropical (think anthuriums), so here's the surprising part: we grow seven different genera here in our garden as hardy perennials in zone 5a. We grow roughly (I'm too lazy to go count them... what do you expect in a free blog), thirty species altogether. Here are the genera we grow: arisaema, arum, pinellia, arisarum, dracunculus, and sauromatum (typhonium).
The plants themselves are very cool, and the "flowers" are even cooler... many of them look like snakes rising out of the ground when they first come up, and some have fabulously spotted stems, with very tropical apearing leaves. No group of plants in our garden, save perhaps the hardy orchids, gives me more pleasure, wandering about the pathways examining each plant in its various stages of growth. The aroids certainly give me the most prolonged pleasure, as the arums stay in leaf all winter, so some member of this family will be in leaf or bloom twelve months of the year... as close to all season gardening as we'll ever come in the upper midwest.
Above is Arisaema ringens, from Korea and Japan; the spathe is deeply hooded, and the leaves of this plant are large and healthy appearing... this might be the single most vigorous and easy of the Asian jacks for most gardeners; it grows into large clumps very quickly, with no finicky coddling needed.
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Friday, May 18, 2007

High Canopy... High Maintainance

The defining feature of a successful woodland garden is a high canopy... stately old trees, their lower limbs pruned by the gardener or by competition from other nearby trees leaving a fairly continuous parasol of high foliage... unfortunately, we don't all have a lovely grouping of fine oaks in our garden. Here in Iowa where we garden, we do have some oaks, but the primary tall trees (now that all of our huge elm trees have succumbed to Dutch elm) are black cherries (Prunus serotina). They can have a lot of character, with their shaggy bark and their aromatic clusters of white flowers in the spring, and they are beloved by a wide variety of vireos and warblers that sing from their high branches. However, they must be the single most prolific producer of tree seedlings; thousands (tens of thousands) of them pop up in our flower beds each year. I confess to occasionally musing how much my life would be simplified by a few hours with the chain saw. I could learn to enjoy growing red geraniums in tubs in my sunny back yard... I could.
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A Modest Goal...

My goal for our woodland garden has been to have it chock full of plants that are interesting all through the growing season... with engaging foliage and lovely flowers; with plants that come from intriguing places, or if they are hybrids, that have a good story behind their breeding. This would seem a modest goal... an acre of thousands of wonderful plants from all over the world, living in harmony, and providing interest everywhere you look. Reality is a tougher nut than daydreaming, but as our garden matures, there are glimmers of hope, with plants like Tricyrtis Lemon Twist. It is a hybrid of two species, ohsumiensis and flava; it has fabulous, spotted green leaves that are very thick and waxy, and then spotted yellow flowers... now, just 2,346 more plants to go to meet my goal.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Subtle Garden

Just as the gardener shapes his garden, the garden shapes the gardener; I've found that over the years, specializing in growing smaller, more subtle woodland plants has gradually enhanced my appreciation for the quiet beauty, for example, of what are called woodland lilies... uvularias, polygonatums, maianthemums, and on down the list; including disporums, the fairy bells. This is Disporum sessile from east Asia, about a foot tall, clump-forming as well as seeding... it has aspirations to take over a rhododendron bed... its subtlety does not seem to extend to its reproductive capabilities.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Orchis Spectabilis... Feel Good Garden Story

Orchis (now Galearis) spectabilis, the showy orchis, is one of the most beautiful of our little native terrestrial orchids. With its waxy green leaves, delicate pink and white flowers, and sweet scent, it is always a thrill to see growing in the moist and shady ravines it calls home. However, a combination of garlic mustard invasion, and heavy deer browsing had almost completely wiped it out of our woods. In order to garden, an acre of our land has been fenced in, and tens of thousands of garlic mustard plants removed... now the little showy orchis is everywhere, even popping up in our flower beds, nonchalantly growing next to hostas and azaleas as if it was planted there. Not a bad weed...
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Monday, May 14, 2007

Winter... What's That?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Primula Cortusoides

The Sayan Mountains in Siberia extend for eight hundred miles between the Atay Mountains and Lake Baykal; they are largely roadless and uninhabited... a vast (175,000 sq. miles) area of wild mountains and deep, swift rivers. They are home to Primula cortusoides; a small primrose with lilac flowers. It stays in bloom longer than any other primrose we can grow; the whole month of May here in Iowa, and longer in cooler, wetter climates than ours. It's very hardy (zone 2-3 winter hardy), but doesn't tolerate dryness, and will be blasted by hot sunlight, so I have had to extend a little thought in siting it in our garden. It rewards the effort by forming patches, and seeding.
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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Seeing Spots...

Spots can be bad on clothes, or on your face, but in the garden there is always something cool about spotted leaves... the more spots the better. The Himalayan May apples (Podophyllum hexandrum) for example, are spottylicious right now.
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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Snakes Of Spring

One of the highlights of every spring is when the arisaemas raise their heads like so many exotic snakes in the garden; especially Arisaema serrata v. mayebarie, which grows ramrod straight three feet in the air, with a coal black flower, and blackish leaves. It stays in bloom for weeks, and probably more than any other plant we grow, stops garden tourers dead in their tracks.
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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ah, May...

May is the sweetest month... Baltimore Orioles hanging from the branches of the tallest trees, serenading us with a song so liquid and pure that it makes you want to close your eyes, to hear it better... but then you'd miss the rhododendrons and azaleas in full bloom.
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Monday, May 07, 2007

If The Slipper Fits...

We have quite a variety of ladyslipper orchids growing in our garden, and they are all beautiful and healthy, but one of them has really made itself at home; the native, large-flowered yellow ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum v. pubescens).
I haven't counted them lately, but would estimate we have about fifty plants now; every couple of years I have to divide up a colony, to give them room to grow. They seem to be a good fit in our garden; the bottom picture shows a plant with two flowers on its stalk.
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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cypripedium X andrewsii

Cypripedium X andrewsii (Andrew's cypripedium), is a widely occuring natural hybrid between Cypripedium parviflorum v. parviflora (the small-flowered yellow ladyslipper) and Cypripedium candidum (the white ladyslipper), so it has precious little flowers, with a brown-striped white pouch, and brown sepals and petals... just delightful. I have this planted in a small, protected ravine, with wood anemones surrounding it.
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Friday, May 04, 2007

Flowers Are A Bonus...

You know that well-used line in flower catalogues, "The flowers on this plant are a bonus"? I will attest that with Tricyrtis macropoda Tricolor, that's true... the leaves alone are worth the price of admission: pink and white striped, and spotted. The typical toad lily flowers are a bonus.
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Thursday, May 03, 2007

I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do...

There are certain plants I'm just crazy about, but I can't quite explain why. Our native wildflower blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is one of them; it is subtle to the point of being invisible in the deep woods where it likes to grow... it is uncommon, but not yet threatened, yet I doubt one person in a hundred can say they've seen it. It almost always grows on cool, north-facing wooded slopes, and its foliage is as cool as its surroundings; lovely blue-green, heavy and waxy foliage in layered mounds. The flowers as seen above are inconspicuous, but they are replaced by blue berries. I've thought about picking one or two berries and planting them in the garden, but this is one of those plants that just belongs in the shady, quiet forest.

Unfortunately, the colony of blue cohosh pictured above is in danger; a large patch of garlic mustard has surrounded it... I spent several hours pulling all the hundreds of second year mustard plants getting ready to seed, then will be going back next week with my propane torch to start scouring tens of thousands of first year garlic mustard seedlings; it will be a five year project... and people wonder why our garden has weeds.

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Now For Something Less Subtle...

It seems I'm always making a big fuss about some tiny plant that a sparrow might step on, but our garden is not really all subtlety and sophistication; we do have the occasional floozy or stoplight plant. Take Hosta Fire Island, bursting out of the ground in all its chartreuse-chrome yellow glory (I swear I've not in any way altered the above picture... this isn't a flower catalogue). What do you think... maybe some pink geraniums around it?
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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Little Darlings

Two of the cutest little primroses that we grow are Primula yuparensis (top) and Primula rosea (bottom). The former is native to the mountains of Japan, the latter to the Himalayas, so needless to say they like cool, moist, but well drained spots... a short commodity in the broiling, often drought-parched summers of Iowa. I don't do much watering in the garden, relying on good soil, lots of mulch, shade from the trees, and the strong desire of plants to somehow survive. These two little gems are an exception; if ever they dry out, they are G-O-N-E. Fortunately each of the plants is small enough to fit under a teacup... and a teacup is just how much water they need.
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