Monday, April 9, 2007

spring flowers and spring surprises

Seems like the current cold spell provides a good time to reflect on some of the earlier spring flowers which have shown up in my garden and elsewhere. Speaking of cold spells, it seems that gardens here in the New York City area are faring better than ones further south and inland right now. In those locations, warmer temperatures got things up and growing (and therefore more susceptible) before the cold hit, and the night temps are often lower than here (we are moderated by both nearby water and the city itself). Still, after a couple of freezing nights I did bring in a pot each of germinating Paeonia lactiflora and Corydalis ornata, even though I suspect they might be able to handle the cold.
One of the earliest flowers to emerge in the garden are the winter aconites. These little buttercups backed with a green "frill" could hardly wait to come up as the snow was melting, indeed the first ones didn't even wait for the ground to thaw. They are easy to grow, once you get them going (and that's the hard part, as the dried tubers that are sold in fall are often too dried out to grow), and they do self sow with abandon. Just be sure not to till the soil where the seed has fallen once they germinate the following spring after they are shed. Snowdrops are also early on the scene, and also spread by seed as well as by division of the bulbs. We must live in a climate they like, since they are naturalizing by the jillions along a local stretch of the Bronx River!
Iris reticulata, which comes in various forms and hybrid versions, is a wonderful flower, if not the most permanent, for the early spring garden. The rather large flowers sit right on the ground, and come in a vivid purple in the most common variety. Later on spiky foliage grows out, and while this might persist for years, it does tend to be shy to flower after its first year. Maybe it needs more sun or better soil than I provide it.
Crocuses are always welcome during this difficult time for the impatient gardener. I much prefer the "species' crocus to the larger hybrids. They flower earlier and possess a more graceful appearance in my opinion.
The earliest daffodils have also started, and they are unfazed by the recent frosty nights. Other, larger varieties will be blooming soon in my small garden, but in some favored locations around the neighborhood they are already in full blossom.
Now for the cool, wierd stuff--I am always curious as to what plants can actually survive our winters (zone 7/6 borderline), and I am a collector of unusual plants. For the second year, a young plant of Leucosidea sericea, a tree native to the mountains of South Africa, has survived outside, with a bit of leaf mulch as its only defense. The foliage remained green through most of the winter, and now the old leaves are drying off while new ones are sprouting. Kniphofia northiae has survived for a few years, but the leaves were bit back hard by our several weeks of freezing weather in late JanuaryFeb/March after a very mild early winter. One plant of the three is recovering nicely, the other two will survive but may take a longer while to grow back. Most astonishing is the survival of two plants of Vestia foetida, a Chilean shrub in the tomato family. They are planted along a western wall of the house, and both died back nearly to the ground despite some protection with evergreen boughs. Yet both are showing multiple sprouts from the base, so they will recover. I grew this plant several years ago in a greenhouse where I worked at the time, and it made lovely yellow tubular flowers in spring. Don't know if it will flower on the new growth it will make after dying back, it may require cold (but not freezing to death) to set flower buds on current growth. Guess we'll find out.
Inside the seed pots keep growing (in all senses of the word). All kinds of rarities and some more common stuff, compete for limited space under one of my three light setups. My patient wife puts up with trays of plants and seedlings slated for repotting on the floor, and the "seed cart" (seeds that need to be either planted or cleaned and packed up for storage in the refrigerator) that occupies a corner of the living room. Among the various treasures coming along nicely are some cool pelargonium species like hystrix and the larger flowered form of grossularoides. The latter is grown by herb gardeners for its sweet smelling (like wintergreen) foliage but it has tiny magenta flowers in the common form. I collected seed myself of a much better form in South Africa, and apparently so did the late Micheal Vassar, an extremely knowlegable plantsman, on an earlier trip to SA. This form has larger, lighter colored flowers that actually look decent, and is as easy to grow as the much less attractive common form. I've got some oddball plants from a Czech seed collecter, including some aster and allium species collected in Tibet or in one of the Tibetan areas annexed by China to neighboring provinces. Hope they survive our summer heat. A lonicera (honeysuckle) species I grew from seed I got from him last year (its supposed to have edible berries!) that was collected in Mongolia survived in a tiny pot on the terrace all winter, and are now leafing out after being transplanted into the garden when the soil first thawed. Other seeds retrieved from the fridge (storing seed in the refigerator greatly extends life, and is the only way to to with rare seeds one might not be easily acquired again) from collections (or their descendents) I made in Africa or elsewhere are growing too. The big problem will be finding the space to plant them in later on!
Can't wait till winter's last gasp passes, so spring can really begin in the garden.


susannah said...

Hi Ernie,
The following seeds are being offered to us. In your opinion, are any worth growing?
White Boar
The Boar


geranios said...

Hi Susannah,
Of the pelies you list, I'd mention the following:
splendide, actually X splendide, a cross of ovale and tricolor. Seed from the hybrid yields a variety of interesting plants with pretty flowers but the vast majority of seeds produced will not be fertile. Quinquelobatum is in one of my more recent posts, not a beauty but really oool indescribable grey/blue/greenish colored flowers. Easy to grow. True denticulatum has very lacy attractive foliage, it is a scented pelargonium as is papilonaceum, which has better flowers. Australe is very variable, forms from Tasmania are nicest and compact, others can be a bit weedy. Scabrum and mollicomum aren't lovely plants, but are easy to grow. The former is quite variable. The "boars" are old simple species hybrids, I think, much like regular single flowered pelies in cultivation. Tabulare is weedy in my opinion as is capitatum, which is abundant near the seacoasts of the Cape in SA. Hope you get something good for WH.