Saturday, May 31, 2008

Odd Can Be Beautiful

Paris is a genus of unusual woodland plants, cousins to trilliums. The genus name doesn't refer to the city, but rather comes from the root word
pars , referring to the symmetry of the leaves. The plant pictured, I obtained under the name Paris lancifolia; at first I was dubious about the correctness of this name (and I'm still not certain), for the few pictures I could find showed much thinner (more lanceolate) leaves. However, I have the impression now that plants from the southern reaches of its range in Taiwan have much thinner leaves than those from further north in Sichuan, China, where I assume my plant came from. At any rate, it's a lovely thing, if a bit odd. It stays in "bloom" for a long time, and it's one of those plants that nine out of ten garden visitors will walk right by, but when you point it out, they'll really like it.
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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Slipper Days

These golden, crystal clear days in May are lady's slipper days in our garden. In a shady back ravine, Cypripedium Gisela is blooming, with its burgundy sepals and blushed pouch. This is a hybrid between our native parviflorum and the Asiatic macranthos. It is one of the easiest and most vigorous hybrid slippers for the garden; my original tiny baby plant is starting to grow into a nice clump.
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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Yellow Lady's Slipper

If there is a signature plant for our garden, it is the large yellow lady's slipper orchid, Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. Over the years, and through a couple of gardens, it has been steadily multiplying, so that we now have about 35 stalks. Planted shallowly in loose, duffy soil, it has been carefree and beautiful.
About forty years ago I was in medical school here in Iowa City, and used to wander the beautiful woods and fields looking at birds and flowers. Once, and once only, when I was walking down a cool, damp ravine I came across a yellow lady's slipper in full bloom. After graduating from medical school, heading first to San Francisco, then back to Iowa to a city eighty miles north of here, I now find myself retired back where it all started, in Iowa City. From time to time I think about that yellow lady's slipper I saw many years ago, but I've never been able to find the spot again. I know there was what seemed to be a small radio station at the edge of the woods, but I've described this to many old-timers and never gotten an answer. Likely the woods is gone and it's now a housing addition, but I like to think that yellow lady's slipper is still blooming there, hidden in a damp ravine, like a small unicorn; I can see it still in my mind's eye, and when I wander our garden's pathways, and marvel at the healthy clumps of cypripediums now blooming, I wish the yellow lady's slipper in the woods well.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Yummy Plant

I guess it all started with Heuchera 'Amber Waves'; a yellow and tan heuchera that winter killed in gardens all over the country. However, since that dud, Terra Nova Nurseries has been on a roll with their heuchera introductions. I'm especially taken with the similarly coloured series of heuchera hybrids that seem to all be named by a chowhound, as they are all named after food or drink. This is Heuchera 'Peach Flambe' which is just yummy all the way around; nice name and nice plant (I have it planted next to Heuchera 'Creme Brulee').... I think I'm hungry.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

An Epimedium Beauty

Epimediums are one of the specialties of our garden, with many different cultivars, but this one really stands out; it's labeled Epimedium wushanense hybrid, though it seems to be very close to the original species. Now the species wushanense is endemic to the Wushan Mountains in Sichuan, near the Three Gorges Dam; an area of the world unfortunately much in the news lately. I have another apparent wushanense hybrid called Caramel which has such tiny little, spidery flowers that I haven't been able to get a focused picture of it... I must drag the camera back out to the garden today before it rains and take another crack at it.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Mouse Plant (Or, Who Ate The Cheese?)

Arisarum is a small, obscure genus of aroids, containing only three species. One of these species, Arisarum proscideum, is the mouse plant, native to Italy and Spain. It is a little creeper, with thick clumps of shiny, arrowhead-shaped leaves and wee jack in the pulpit-like floral structures that hide under the leaves, with the long "tails" of the spathes, poking up through the foliage. When you part the leaves, you see these little jacks with maroon tops and white bottoms; the effect is like a covey of little mice burrowing down into the plants, with their tails waving in the air. This small plant, while not really invasive, does fairly readily form a thick, expanding clump, so I have the plant surrounded by a black plastic barrier, which you can see in the middle of the top picture. When I think about it, this might be the cutest plant in the whole garden.
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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Come For A Walk...

Come for a little garden walk with me...
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Friday, May 23, 2008

Primrose Hunk

Flower catalogs tend to be, shall we say, generous in describing the size of flowers and the vigor and other attributes of the plants themselves... rather like some proud parents touting their seemingly fairly average offspring. However, when Ellen of Seneca Hills Perennials describes Primula sieboldii 'Seneca Star' as having large flowers (with white stars) and vigorous foliage, she's almost understating. This is either a primrose on steroids or a tetraploid. It's just big; the petal substance is very thick, and the foliage is very large and much darker green and heavy compared to my other sieboldii cultivars. I will say the foliage of this plant might even be a bit coarse, but that's a quibble. I suspect this plant is going to form a large clump very rapidly (it's already giving a nudge to the cute little Japanese maple its growing under). It should be fairly spectacular.
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The K Mart Fine Nursery

Most of our tree peonies in the garden have no name tags, for they were purchased at the end of the gardening season closeout sale at K Mart, each overgrown, straggly plant struggling to still stay upright in its cheap cardboard box, simply labeled "Tree Peony", and bearing the handsome price of $4.00 (this was a few years ago). I suppose I could put some fanciful name on them, like "Waves Breaking Over Red Heron", but heck, I just call them all "K Mart Special"
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Iffy Ipheions?

If you read the mainstream garden catalogs, ipheions (starflowers) are hardy to zone 4 or 5... to this, I say HA! The truth about ipheion's hardiness is somewhat different, as you'd expect from a bulb that is native to the highlands of the southern part of South America. Like many other gardeners, on the recommendation of the catalogs I've planted a few bulbs of the lovely blue Ipheion 'Rolf Fiedler', which disappeared from the garden faster than you can say "tender bulb". A more authoritative source pegs the actual hardiness of plain Ipheion uniflorum at zone 7 and the alluring blue 'Rolf Fiedler' at zone 8.
Yet, I'm showing you a picture of an ipheion blooming in our zone 5a garden this spring. This is Ipheion 'Alberto Castillo'. Jose Alberto Castillo is from Buenos Aires, and apparently rather well known in the flower bulb circles. He found this ipheion locally, and introduced it to commerce. It is distinctive for its large flowers and heavy-substanced, gray-green foliage; some think it may be a new species. I had thought it was going to have violet colored flowers, but instead it is supposed to smell like violets... oh. Actually it doesn't even smell like violets to me... maybe more like a peony? Still, the blooms are quite lovely; large, with faint green mid-ribs on the petals, and it blooms for quite a while. The original blooms have been open two weeks, and it is bringing on new sets of flowers. I can't think of another early spring bulb we can grow that has successive blooming like this. It's only gone through one winter here (though it was a particularly foul one), so you might check back next spring and see if I have another picture of it... or of a little empty space in the garden.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't Wake This Robin!

Trillium foetidissimum is native to a small region of the deep south; rich, old forests on either side of the lower Mississippi River in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. It is called the Mississipppi River trillium or stinking wake robin. It's a beautiful thing, with deeply silvered, mottled leaves and a dark maroon flower.
In spite of its ominous name, I'd never smelled a thing, so the other day I stuck my nose right down in the flower... WOOF! Imagine a dead mouse wearing unwashed gym socks.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Well, They Were Almost Free

Considering my recently chronicled difficulties in growing columbines in this garden, I'd not want to waste money buying any more. However, I was just given a twenty dollar gift certificate to a local nursery. I picked out two large heucheras at $10.99 each. On my way back to the checkout counter, these two columbines: Winkie Double 'Red And White' and Winkie Double 'Dark Blue And White' caught my eye, and I just had to take them along (no mean feat since I now had to carry four plants in my arms). I figured I could use my gift certificate to pay for the columbines, and I'd pay for the heucheras out of my pocket; thus the columbines were essentially free. Besides... I think they winked at me.
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Big Red Bamboo Maple

Acer palmatum 'Beni Otake' is akso known as the 'Big Red Bamboo' maple. It is a lovely thing, being a deep, glowing garnet red in spring, greenish red in summer, and fire engine red in fall. It is an upright, billowing tree which here will probably reach ten feet or so tall. I mention it because of its apparent vigor and hardiness. In general the 'Beni' Japanese maples seem to have a reputation for not being particularly hardy, but I have two Beni Otakes, and neither has lost so much as a twig in winter, and after a year to get their roots down, they grow a foot a year.
This is the single best Japanese maple in our garden in terms of hardiness, rapid growth, and attractiveness. The picture above was taken in deep dusk with a flash.
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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hardy Cypripediums In The Garden

The hardy cypripediums (lady's slippers) are opening their delightful flowers. The lady's slipper species have always been a rarity in gardens; most often struggling then failing to persist. However over the last fifteen years, first a handful, then an avalanche of hybrids of the species cypripediums have appeared. At first the prices were astronomical, but they are now approaching affordability for most gardeners; certainly the prices are no more than many daylilies and hostas. There are two big advantages to growing these hybrids over species; first, the hybrids often are less finicky in their growing requirements, and second and even more importantly, you can be sure that the plant has not been dug up from nature (the theft of lady's slippers from our forests is a rampant and ongoing crime).
This is Cypripedium Michael, a hybrid of two Chinese species (henryi x macranthos). Henryi is a small, yellowish lady's slipper, and macranthos is very showy, with large purple flowers. From the former parent, Michael gets two traits: it is a small plant (ten inches), with multiple blooms on each stem. From macranthos, Michael gets larger, purplish flowers. Thus this hybrid gets the best traits of both parents: a short plant with multiple, beautiful large flowers which are nicely colored (and it is easy to grow). It likes loose, well-draining, alkaline soil and light shade.
If you want to try one of these hybrid cypripediums, I offer five pieces of advice: first, and perhaps most important is to plant shallowly. I suspect the most common source of failure comes from planting too deeply; the roots should be spread out just under the surface. This brings me to my second and third pieces of advice; the soil must be loose and "duffy" so the shallow roots can grow out easily (I mix good soil, compost, and sand, and I mulch)... this necessity for shallow planting also leads me to suggest you buy your cyp bare root in the fall. If you buy it growing in a pot in the spring, the roots likely are bending down into the lower levels of the pot, so it might continue this pattern of root growth when you plant it, which will cause it to go into decline as the plant tries to grow larger. Next, look carefully at the moisture and Ph requirements of your cypripedium... if you are going to spend this much money, you want everything just right. Finally, make a special spot just for your cypripedium. Its roots may spead out a foot in all directions with time; it is NOT a mixed border plant, it will NOT tolerate being cooked in the afternoon sun, and it must have good drainage.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ah, May!

There's something about May; the air is light and fragrant, the trees ring with birdsong, and the sky somehow seems higher. It is a fulsome month, heady with possibilities and beginnings. It is the best of times for this intrepid Iowa gardener; and it is with a sweet sense of regret that I tear myself away from the garden in the deepening dusk each evening, always wondering if there was something else I missed seeing that day. I can only fault May with one thing: it is far too short a month.
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Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Really Different Primrose

I'm not sure it's exactly beautiful, but the Gold Lace strain of polyanthus is certainly striking. This type of primrose dates back over 350 years, and continued breeding produced a wide variety of clones that became all the rage in Victorian England. They fell out of popularity, but are now being sold frequently as potted plants to grow and throw. Apparently hardiness is suspect in many of the plants, but mine seems as hardy as any polyanthus (polyanthus refers to multiple flowers on each stem, a legacy of two of the common wild primroses of the British countryside; Primula elatior (the oxlip) and Primula veris (the cowslip).

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Well, Who Wouldn't Buy It?

Liz has me pretty well convinced I don't need any more statues of angels, gargoyles, or wood nymphs in the garden... fortunately she never said anything about raccoons.
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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Primula Kingston Twilight

Primula Kingston Twilight is said to be derived from the Cowichan strain of primroses, which are known for their deep, pure colors and small yellow eyes. I've had the impression the Cowichans aren't too keen on hot summers like ours (this strain of primrose originated on Vancouver Island), but Kingston Twilight (which, with its large foliage I suspect has a lot of Primula vulgaris in it), seems easy here, rapidly growing into a lusty plant which I will divide next spring. The flowers are deep blue and purple, making me think of a fine velvet evening gown. I never pass this plant in flower without stopping to admire it.
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Monday, May 12, 2008

If You Like Spotted Flowers...

The foliage of some of the evergreen gingers can get a little ratty looking with our winters here in Iowa, especially if there is poor snow cover. However Asarum minor (a native of the SE United States) snaps its fingers at winter, and always looks great. It looks even better when its large, spotted flowers appear in spring. With many of the gingers you about have to dig around at the base of the plant to find the flowers. Asarum minor is kind of unique in that you can actually see the flowers when you're just walking by on the path. If I were to have only one ginger, this would be it. I should mention that its growth rate is also just about perfect: some gingers like the deciduous ones are quite rampant, and very difficult to weed out; some of the Asian evergreen gingers just sit there and never seem to grow. Asarum minor's growth is like the third bear... just right.
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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Can You Spell Maianthemum?

I finally learned how to pronounce smilacina right, and now it's gone; the whole genus has been been moved lock, stock, and barrel, to the genus maianthemum. This is Maianthemum japonicum; it is the Asian version of our own native false Solomon seal. A terminal clump of creamy little star flowers leads to red berries in the fall. At least I already know how to pronounce May-an-the-mum .
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