Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Waiting for my snake plant to bloom!

Snake plant flowers, you ask, what's so special about that? Well, there are some Sansevieria species which have really spectacular flowers, and this baby is one of the best. I got this plant from a good friend and knowledgable plant grower, but am not sure of its name. It is a very large grower, every bit as big as S. 'Masons Congo', but with different leaves. It flowered last year, producing a huge ball of white flowers, highly fragrant at night in the manner of other sansevierias. I brought it to my classroom last fall, but it was too big to easily bring home for the summer, so when I went in recently to check on it, I was treated to the suprise you see--a huge bud, a promise of even better to come.

Garden Art at Plant Delights

Normally I am not a fan of garden art, but this masterpiece at Plant Delights definitely caught my attention! Personally, I would have had it poking out of a bush, but quite cute, nonetheless.

Two more plants I didn't buy! (yet)

My gardens are rather small, but if I had more room I'd surely add these two stunners to my garden. The second pic depicts a red leaved banana (Musa) at PD which was quite attractive in a tropical sort of way. The first pic shows Arundo donax "Peppermint Stick" growing in one of their extensive gardens. Most ornamental grasses do not "wow" me, but this one is different. Its size and clear white variegation created a strong, bright visual element in the garden.

Agaves in North Carolina!

Normally one expects to see large agaves in places like Arizona and California, but yes indeed folks, they can grow out East too. These superb specimens were growing in the gardens around the home of the owners of Plant Delights, right next to the nursery. I'm not sure of the id of the silver leaf one, but the one blooming appears to be A. americana or maybe a hybrid of it.
One thing that never ceased to amaze me is how deadly boring most landscaping in North Carolina is, there seem to be fewer flowers, and interesting foliage plants, at least in summer, than even here in NY. All the more puzzling, since obviously the climate down yonder allows one to grow many "exotic" things outside such as these large agaves, and other things, like sinningias, begonias, brugmansias, and crinums, which would be toast in our winters. I can only assume it must be the hot humid summers which make summer gardening less pleasant than further north, and the clay soil which requires more work to amend than our generally better (but often rocky) northeastern soils. Of course, a problem anywhere in the USA is that most people use a very limited palette of plant materials for their gardens, usually what Home Depot and their ilk supply. There are so many much more interesting plants out there, as my visit to Plant Delights amply showed.

Hardy Gladioli

Gladiolus is a large genus, with scores of species and many more hybrids. Most of the commonly grown hybrids need to be dug up and stored dry for the winter, but some of them are cold hardy. The best way to find such hardy glads is to observe gardens in places where winters are harsh, since many gardeners plant gladioli and then don't dig them up. The survivors will multiply and thrive in these gardens.
This glad is one I found in a garden in Bluefield, West Virginia, right across the street from my uncle and aunt's house. I could tell by the presence of many young plants, in overcrowded clumps, that they had been left outside for several winters. The owner confirmed this, and kindly allowed me to take a small clump of plants. Bluefield, also known as "nature's air conditioned city" is a small city at a high elevation in extreme southern WV, right off I-77, (there is also a smaller town by the same name right next to it in Va) with a relatively cool, pleasant summer climate and pretty rough winters for a southerly location. While warm spells are more frequent in winter than here in southern NY, cold spells are a lot more severe than here in coastal NY, with lows below zero F not uncommon. I have observed some plants in Bluefield that are also considered marginal here, but survive, such as Magnolia grandiflora and Crepe Myrtle. This year the Crepe Myrtle plant in my relative's yard was killed back to the ground by the cold this last winter, whereas those in my town in NY did not suffer such damage.
I have no idea which gladiolus cultivar this plant is, but hopefully it will like its new home in NY.

Baptisia arachnifera, an endangered beauty

This endangered species is native to a small area in Georgia. These pics are from my recent trip to Plant Delights, and they show what a stunning plant this is. It is utterly unlike any other member of its genus, save perhaps B. perfoliata (which has somewhat similar foliage, but minus the striking silver color). In fact, I can't think of any plant normally grown in gardens, except for a bushy eucalyptus (which wouldn't survive in NY anyway) which gives quite the same effect.
To get this plant, or any other endangered species grown by any nursery, you most often have to go and pick it up yourself, since they apparently can't be shipped across state lines. Another example of a stupid federal rule, as the nurseries like PD and Woodlanders that propagate such species are doing us a major favor by helping to raise awareness about these species as well as to ensure their continued survival via propagation and growing in gardens. Note that this is not a substitute for conservation of the species in its native habitat, but it is extra insurance against extinction should such efforts fail, as well as the best way of making the preservation of endangered species a more tangible issue to people that can thus see and grow such plants.
I brought a plant of the Baptisia last year, and kept it in a pot for too long, then put it in the garden during the fall. It survived the harsh winter and came up, but then mysteriously died back. I dug up the root, and noted that the crown had some sort of a rot, but most of the thick roots looked okay. So I soaked it in a systemic fungicide for a couple of days, and cut off the roots to make cuttings of them. I planted them up in a pot and hope they will form buds. Several references indicate that Baptisia will grow from root cuttings, but I doubt many people have a lot of experience with this species. Meanwhile my second plant, purchased this year, is already in the garden.

A Trip to Plant Delights Nursery

I've seen quite a few nurseries in my time, but I'd have to say that Plant Delights, in the southern outskirts of Raleigh, NC, is in a class by itself. This is the second time I have visited on one of their open house days, I went last year during July as well. Being a hard core plant geek, I timed our summer vacation trip down South (my wife and I visit family living in Charlotte NC and Bluefield WV) to coincide with PD's open house days. Not only were there lots of cool plants to buy, but they also have an extensively planted area around their house which contains all manner of wierd and unusual plants. I will post more pics in later posts, but here you can see one of the plants I should have gotten, Colacasia gigantea, growing in one of their gardens. Makes typical elephants ears look puny! In the second pic my wagon is full of goodies includes a lovely green flowered Kniphofia, K. pumila (which may or may not be the true thing from what I see in references, but is quite amazing anyway), a colorful canna (C. "Orange Punch"), some salvia greggii cvs, and others about which I will post later.
Plant Delights publishes an interesting illustrated catalog with commentary that most find witty, and a few find offensive. Their website includes customer reactions, including the negative and spacy ones, which I find very funny indeed. Their plants tend to be priced high, but in most cases you get a well grown larger plant ready to burst from its pot, not to mention an incomparable selection of rare items. I recommend transplanting their plants into larger pots or the garden asap, as the media they use seems to dry fast, is kind of "flaky" and in my experience at least, the plants are better off when not kept in their medium too long. Evidently it works very well for them under their conditions, but it is not ideal under mine.
If you ever get a chance, do visit PD, they are a horticultural thrill!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hylomecon japonica

Hylomecon japonica is a small perennial woodland poppy relative from, naturally, Japan. It is not often found in gardens (at least that I have seen), and its bloom season is brief, but it is lovely. It doesn't take up much room and the foliage disappears sometime during the summer, so it is not any real trouble to have around, and is well worth the small space it takes up. It sets rather few seeds, maybe more than one clone would increase seed set? Or maybe it is a function of the weather during its bloom period in a particular year. It grows well with other woodland ephemerals such as the Trillium grandiflorum (visible in the lower right corner of one of the photos) and hepaticas. I got my plant some years ago from Oliver's nursery in CT, and it is available from a few mailorder nurseries, especially those that cater to rock gardens.

Saruma henryi

Another cool plant in this pic from earlier this spring in my garden, Saruma henryi is a wild ginger relative from China. It is easy to grow in a shaded situation, and tolerates tree root competition. Unlike our native Asarums, the flower is conspicuous and the plant flowers for months, although the later flowers are not as showy as when they first appear, because the plant grows quite a bit larger. It will self seed, though not abundantly in my experience. Doesn't seem to be troubled by pests either. I haven't seen Saruma at local nursery outlets yet, but it is available from some of the better mailorder nurseries.

Gladiolus stellatus

Gladiolus stellatus is a delicate species native the the Cape in South Africa. I collected seeds in the early 90's without knowing what species it was (many bulbous species had mature seed in October when I was there, but the flowers were mostly gone). I grew some out, and one turned out to be this delightful species. It manages to grow under lights for the winter, and sends up flower spikes which I have to bend to keep them from running into the light tubes. Later it goes outside, to flower, set seed, and ripen the small corms. It is odd for a gladiolus in that the flowers are almost radial rather than bilateral in symmetry. It is extremely fragrant during part of the day, more than one would think for such a wispy looking flower. Like most of its Cape relatives, it needs bone dry conditions during its summer dormancy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"Geraniums" your grandmother did not grow!

Pelargonium is an amazing genus, and too poorly known by serious plantspeople. Most of the few hundred species are quite different than the familiar red "geranium" so commonly grown in containers and gardens. Perhaps the largest "section" of the genus is section Hoarea, which consists of generally small rosette forming plants with tuberous roots and a winter growing cycle. Flower colors can range from white to pinks, purples, maroons, lavendars, and even yellow in several species. They come from the old Cape Province of South Africa, with some outliers in Namibia. They are collector's plants for sure, and hard to come by. They are not all that hard to grow if you understand their natural requirements: water during their growing period from fall to spring, a dry spot to store the pot during the summer dormancy, and bright enough light for good growth. Fungicide is good to have on hand for emergencies should root rot or botrytis fungus show up. Most will grow under flourescent plant lights, indeed that is how I grew this one until it got warm enough to place it on a terrace outdoors where it gets a few hours of sun. If you are lucky enough to have a cool greenhouse, they will grow even better, as they might also do under cover (in case of excessive rain) in California. Careful hand pollination of the flowers results in seed, although I got much more seed set when I grew then in greenhouses in the past at the NYBG or at Cornell. Many species in this section will flower their first year from seed, if started in early winter or late fall. Most flower when the leaves begin to die back, though some, like P. incrassatum, flower with the foliage present. The species shown came to me without a name many years ago, from a collector in South Africa. Many species still remain to be formally described and named, and variation within a species is quite pronounced in many pelargonium species that I have grown in the past.
One source which carries quite a few of these species, and pretty much the only one I know of in this country that has more than one or two species, is Arid Lands greenhouses. They send the plants bareroot but they recover quickly and plants I have gotten from them do very well. They are also very reasonably priced for such rarities. For those wanting to try seed, aside from specialist societies (such as the Geraniaceae Group, which I must get around to rejoining, its a great little society of knowledgable individuals), Silverhill Seeds in South Africa has a good list of pelargonium seeds, including a few Hoarea types.

A really pretty red flower

Pavonia missonianum is a hibiscus relative from Argentina and perhaps elsewhere in South America. It is not something the local nursery is likely to have, which is a pity, since it is easy to grow and very pretty. The flowers are not huge, maybe a couple of inches across on a good day, and rather fleeting, but they are produced steadily once the plant begins to flower. The color is what is amazing, the photographs cannot really capture the warm red color which is enhanced by the yellow star in the middle of the flower.
The seeds are encased in a hard coat as are most members of its family, so they can germinate quickly or very erratically over a period of time. The plant I have gets partial sun during the day and that seems to suit it fine, though I imagine it might like full sun even better. The first bloom was produced on a plant a few inches high under lights, and it did form a seed pod, but later flowers produced outside have been larger.

The Blue Impatiens of Tibet and a hope for its homeland

The fabled blue impatiens, Impatiens namchabarwensis is a special plant from a remote gorge in Tibet. It is the bluest of all impatiens species thus far known, although truth be told sometimes it seems more of a violet blue. It is a good grower and bloomer, although the flowers tend to be rather borne among the leaves rather than above them. Little information seems to be available on how it grows, but I now have enough experience with this plant to make some observations that I hope will be of use to others. My orginal seeds came from Secret Seeds in England, and they sprouted quickly in normal seed compost under lights indoors.
First, in contrast to some descriptions I have seen, this plant is not a perennial in cold winter zones. It is quite frost sensitive, and that includes the roots. The roots give no hint of preparing to survive a winter--no tuberous structures, buds, or other features typically found in temperate perennials. It can be propagated easily by cuttings, and in that sense it can be maintained as a perennial under suitable climate conditions. I kept some rooted cuttings as insurance indoors in my classroom under lights during the winter.
Seedlings flower quickly, within a couple of months, and will bloom all summer and fall until frost excepting periods of very hot weather, above 90 F on a regular basis will cause it to stop flowering. It is, like most impatiens, susceptable to spider mites. Seed is set in abundance, and the plant will self sow easily. A few seeds seem to come up quickly in nearby pots, but more seem to wait until several months elapse--I had several come up in late winter and early spring in pots of other plants that were outside next to the impatiens the previous summer, but were then moved indoors for the winter. Even more seeds come up outside after winter, many have come up in one of my gardens as well as in pots that were outside all winter. Thus this species is able to persist though cold winters as seed.
I predict it will one day naturalize here, as have some other impatiens species from the Himalayas. Considering the report I read a few weeks ago on phayul.com about a plan China has to build a huge dam which would flood the gorge which is this rare plant's only home, this might be a good thing. In some ways the analogy between this plant's future and that of the culture of its occupied homeland, Tibet, seems almost too obvious. It is said that the following prediction, made in the eight century by the revered Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, portended the calamity of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent spread of the Buddhist ideals of Tibetan culture to the West (USA and maybe Europe) when they would be under seige in their own homeland. "When the iron bird flies in the sky and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered across the earth, and the Buddha dharma will spread to the land of the red-faced man." So too might this beautiful plant also one day need refuge in the West should its own home in Tibet be under the waters of yet another colossal project built by China to extract resources from Tibet. The reader can readily see where my opinion on this political issue lies, but I do feel compelled to say something about what I regard as a flagrant, violent, and brutal imperialist action by a strong nation against a much weaker one. It is an ongoing tragedy, and one that seems to escape the notice of short sighted governments and corporations all too eager to make money, rather than to uphold common ideals of human decency. How many readers know that a few months ago Chinese border police shot a 17 year old Tibetan girl dead in the snow as she tried to flee Tibet with a larger group of unarmed refugees? Those of us who do know about this only know because a Romanian mountaineer nearby happened to catch the act on film. How many times does it happen when no witnesses are around? Sometimes it seems so hopeless, but then I remember how utterly unlikely it seemed twenty years ago that that the tiny, heavily colonized Baltic states would ever regain their lost freedom. But change happpens, and it can happen quite suddenly, so there is reason to be optimistic that justice will one day prevail in Tibet.
One odd thing I found is that when I sowed dried seed I saved a few months earlier on wet paper towels in a plastic container, most of the seeds molded and none sprouted. I wonder if the seed needs to be refrigerated or stored in some kind of medium, or whether it might have done better simply planted in soil. I will test this out at some point later on, but I have so many self sown plants this year in addition to what I overwintered indoors that I haven't got around to it yet. It shouldn't be long before this exquisite impatiens becomes much more readily available in horticulture.