Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pelargoniums in California

During my trip to Cali, I had the privilege of visiting the greenhouse Robin Parer grows her pelargoniums in. The production greenhouse is located in an even more dicey neighborhood than Annie's Annuals, but not far from it. Robin is the proprieter of Geraniaceae, a nursery that specializes in Geranium, Pelargonium, and Erodiums. She does not sell the P. x hortorum hybrids, rather her focus is on the angel pelargoniums, scented leaf sorts, and true species. She also has a number of very unique species hybrids, including some that I created during my Ph.D. research at Cornell (Soweto Sunrise, Karoo Pride, etc) and others that originated in England (including the fascinating hybrid between tomentosum and 'Splendide'), and a series of very interesting hybrids, new to me, by J. Kapac, a hybridizer in southern California whom I do not personally know. The first pic (going clockwise) shows one of the Kapac hybrids. It shows influence from a section Pelargonium species and maybe P. trifidum. Next is the species P. acetosum, and a very fine clone thereof, with large flowers of a good color. This is a summer growing species in habitat, and it remains green throughout the year. The large white flower emerging from the soil belongs to P. carneum, a rather large flowered member of the tuberous rooted Hoarea section of Pelargonium. Section Hoarea species are great collector plants, being small and very diverse in foliage and flower. They are all winter growing, needing a dry dormancy during the summer. A cool greenhouse is best, but with good culture many can be grown indoors under lights (as I do) or perhaps in a cool and sunny house location. Finally there is the fascinating hybrid called P x caffrum, which involves the tuberous rooted section Polyactium species P. caffrum and presumably one of the scented leaf section Pelargonium hybrids, or perhaps a P. domesticum hybrid. This cross, I believe, was made in England. It gets its fimbriated petals and divided leaves from P. caffrum, and the flower color from the section Pelargonium parent.
There remains incredible potential to create many new classes of pelargonium hybrids as some of these illustrate. It seems that the larger commercial concerns are only interested in recreating the same old stuff they already sell, eg "new" zonal and ivy pelargoniums that look just like what they were selling before. One needs to look to interested individuals and smaller specialist nurseries like Geraniaceae in order to find these unusual varieties and to see really creative directions in hybridizing within the huge and diverse Pelargonium genus.
Years ago I used to visit Carol Roller when she lived in Vista, CA, where she had an amazing collection of pelargonium species and hybrids. I still remember an ivy pelargonium which crawled several meters up onto a loquat tree she had, cascading back down with loads of lavendar flowers. In that gentle climate, species like P. gibbosum grew into thick mounds of stems, foliage, and fragrant weird yellowish flowers several feet across, rather than the "chicken bone" appearance it has when confined to a small pot. Plants frequently seeded, and Carol had some nice hybrids emerge from such seeds, one I remember in particular was called Roller's Sigma, which had a lovely pink flower and attractive foliage. I also had the pleasure of visiting Michael Vassar when he lived in Van Nuys, he probably did more than anyone to introduce and distribute interesting species pelargoniums in the USA. He also had a wonderful collection of South African oxalis species. Unfortunately Michael has since passed on, way too early for such a kind, generous, and knowledgable individual. Many of his species and hybrids are being propagated by Geraniaceae, and one hopes that they thus will continue to be available to pelargonium collectors for many more years to come.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Annie's Annuals

On the first day of our California trip, my wife and I went to Annie's Annuals, in Richmond. Richmond is one of the few places left in the East Bay area that has land cheap enough for production nurseries to survive near San Francisco, probably because it has some parts that are rather rough neighborhoods. Once inside the fence surrounding Annie's, which blocks off views of the surrounding 'hood, you see a spaceous nursery full of interesting plants in 4 inch containers and wonderful container plantings featuring much of what they carry. There is also a small garden in one corner of the nursery, and other planted areas near the fence.

One of the many lovely planted containers is shown above, with production benches behind. A large clump of Agrostemma githago is the most prominant feature. The next pic shows Xeranthemum texanum, which was splendid with its brillant yellow flowers which seemed to glow in the California sunshine. I did not see plants of it for sale, but it would likely be easy to grow from seed.

Some of the plants at Annie's are in fact better grown from seed for most serious gardeners, among them would be California poppies, various other poppies, the Agrostemma, etc. These plants resent moving (although to be fair I am sure that four inch pots of them carefully planted would be okay) and are quick to flower and die (except california poppies which may persist), so better to grow from seed.

Most of the other plants were quite choice, I especially liked the following: a wide selection of native Californian plants, several new impatiens species unavailable elsewhere to my knowledge, a good and apparently growing selection of South African natives, including herbaceous, shrub, succulent, and bulbous species, and some pretty salvia species. I brought quite a few plants, and even more on my return visit during the last day of my vacation. Among the many treasures I got were Brugmansia sanguinea (both red and yellow forms), four impatiens species that I did not have, a double flowered nasturtium, Saliva corrugata (brilliant blue flower), Balbisia (a rare yellow flowered bushy plant from Chile), Melianthus villosus and M.comosus, Moraea huttonii (they do need to give it more water in summer, I suspect they think it is winter growing--it is not, and it grows in wet areas in nature), a couple of delosperma species, etc.

To prepare all of my finds for transport back home on the airplane, they were all barerooted with a hose, roots put in baggies and sealed with rubber bands. No doubt they don't like such rough treatment, but now all are replanted, with a fungicide treatment for traumatized roots, and I suspect most will survive. For any that might stuggle, propagation via cuttings may be another option to prevent loss.

One thing I have mixed feelings about is that Annie's is very expensive to order from via mailorder, at least from the East. Packing and shipping are extraordinarily high, but I could deal with this if the plants were priced the same way they are for locals--but that is not the case. With very few exceptions, all plants at the nursery are $3.25, 4.25, or 5.25. A quick check of their website will reveal much higher costs for the plants. So in essence they are double dipping with regard to mailorder customers.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy my visits, and would highly recommend that you go to Annie's if you are in the area. If you can get there in person, the plant selection and prices are both excellent, and the plantings are very colorful, interesting, and inspiring.