Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Monarch Madness

Liatris ligulistylis is a plant that no sunny garden should be without. Not only are the long purple wands of flowers attractive, but they are irresistable to monarch butterflies. Supposedly there is some kind of pheromone that this species makes that makes the monarchs so eager to visit. They linger, fly away, then quickly return, and seem to have great difficulty making a final departure. I like the fact that my school garden offers food to these hardy migrants, not only from the liatris flowers, but also from milkweed foliage for their caterpillars (I do check to make sure the various Asclepias species are not overwhelmed, and thus far there has not been a problem--the hideous bright orange milkweed aphids are more of an issue at times). Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii cvs) also are favored by the monarchs and many other butterflies in the school garden.

Arctotis venusta

Near the rudbeckia mentioned in the previous post, a few plants of Arctotis venusta did very well, despite a hot and dry summer. This annual species is native to dry areas of South Africa and Namibia, and its range includes mostly summer rainfall areas. I started the seeds indoors and set the plants in the garden in early summer, and they really took off in August and September. Unlike many Asteraceae, it appears that this species is self fertile, though not all seeds produced are fertile--fertile seeds are distinctly larger than the smaller infertile ones, when one drops them onto a hard surface their is a slightly different sound than with infertile seeds, which are all seed coat with nothing inside. The rather large flowers are moderately frost resistant, and of a peculiar light mauve/bluish sort of color, with a distinctive darker blue eye. The attractive grey green foliage is also quite unusual. Like most South African annuals, this species likes maximum sun and good drainage, and it is not fussy about soil. I don't know if it would resow, in any case I collected most of the seeds produced so I can enjoy more of it next year.

A Really Nice Rudbeckia

I got this floriferous perennial from a friend I know from my days at NYBG. She had it growing in her City Island (Bronx) garden for years, and allowed me to take a few clumps, which I planted in the school garden. She said it came via NYBG, probably from the native garden when we all worked there. I have not been able to figure out exactly which species it is, and have not seen it elsewhere yet, not even at NYBG. I presume it must be a southern species, possibly a rarish one. It is the best of the rudbeckias (and I have never met one that I didn't like) that I have grown in terms of neatness, good foliage, and floriferousness. The smooth dark green foliage is more attractive than the otherwise excellent, if overused, garden workhorse R. fulgida "Goldsturm", and the flowers appear later in the summer. It also does not get mildew, as R. triloba is sometimes prone to. The flowers are smaller than Goldsturm, and last a really long time, in fact there were still some flowers when frost finally arrived in November. This species seeds around a bit, but young plants are easily moved or removed as needed. It makes a bold statement in the garden and looks great when the students return for school in September.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Cool New Gladiolus!

Playing bumblebee is one of a this gardeners' favorite pastimes, since by crossing different forms of a plant, interesting new hybrids can be created. Among a few genera that I like to play bumblebee with, the genus Gladiolus offers much potential for creating quite different kinds of plants than the typical hybrids usually seen in flower arrangements, and seemingly less often, in gardens. I crossed several typical hybrid glads with a form of G. dalenii (itself a very variable species) that I acquired years ago from South Africa (by now I have a handful of different dalenii forms), and also included in my mix of crosses the yellow flowered dalenii hybrid "Boone", and the rather graceful and prettily picoteed cultivar "Atom". I haven't kept track of what the parents of the hybrids I have grown out are, but the plant shown was especially nice. It was quite tall, rising above the flower heads of some nearby Ornithogalum saundersiae, and even sporting a additional shorter infloresence off the main one as well. Quite vigorous indeed for a first flowering! I love the orange-red color and yellow markings on the lower petals. It shows its dalenii heritage in the hooded top petal, which is characteristic of dalenii. I crossed another form of dalenii, one found commonly in the southern states of the USA (has brighter orange and yellow flowers than my South African form) onto it, along with some of its siblings (which tended to be more pink in color and not quite as tall), and, no doubt, it may have selfed as well. Copious amounts of seed were produced, and I can't wait to plant them and see what will result in two or three year's time. Meanwhile I will have to dig out the corm, if it is like its parents, it should have plenty of small cormlets alongside the main corm, a feature which should allow rapid increase in numbers of this lovely hybrid. It is possible that it is winter hardy, but I will not test that until I have enough progeny to spare for such a test.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Melianthus Moment

I brought a small plant of Melianthus a few years ago from Annie's Annuals when my wife and I were visiting California. I lost the tag, though I think it is Melianthus villosus. It has survived two winters against the wall in the school garden, both times dying to the ground and resprouting from the base. This year it rocketed upwards and flowered for the first time in June. The flowers are peculiar, kind of greenish dark violet, and if one handles them, a dark sticky liquid will stain your hands and clothes. In their native South Africa, honeybirds would pollinate them. Later, large three winged seed pods develop along the spike. I have not seen any seed pods thus far on my Melianthus, maybe it needs another clone to set seed. By now the plant is even larger than in the pic (taken in June), and I think I see another flower spike developing. It has grown robustly during this hot summer, relishing the heat, unlike its neighbor Fuschia magellenica (a clump of Gladiolus "Atom" can be seen on the other side of the melianthus), which is only now starting to recover from the hot weather by growing new leaves and flowers (it dropped some foliage during July/August and looked stressed).
I've tried a couple of small plants of Melianthus major, with striking blue green foliage, nearby, but thus far they have not made it through winter. To be fair, neither plant was as well developed as the Melianthus villosus, which I overwintered indoors the first winter to make sure it would get a decent chance to get well established before it faced its first winter.
I may try to root some cuttings of the melianthus before winter closes in, if they do take I would like to see if it can survive in a less protected slope garden location. While not a colorful plant, the foliage is attractive and the flowers certainly are interesting in a plant geek kind of way.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Golden Stars, Crocosmia aurea

I really love this plant, its easy to grow, and my stock originates from seeds straight from South Africa, which I received many years ago from Martin Kunhardt, of the farm Wahroonga near Merrivale in Natal. For some years I grew them in pots, and although I was successful in growing them outdoors at the New York Botanical Garden when I worked there, I didn't start planting lots of them out until I grew many more from seeds off the original plants. Now I have thriving populations of them at home, and in one corner of the wall garden at school, and now a few on the open slope area as well. They form strings of corms, some of which can remain dormant for a year or so, though cutting them apart seems to encourage them to grow. Since it spreads by stolons, colonies can form over time. Crocosmia aurea is a forest plant in South Africa, but takes sun or part shade in New York, and is not as tall as the better known commercially available hardy hybrids like "Lucifer". The nodding flowers are also larger, and a most unusual vibrant orange yellow color, sometimes with faint markings on the lower side of the flower. Even the seed pods are colorful, they turn orangish when ripe, then split to reveal shiny black seeds with a bright orange covering.

Naked Ladies in New York!

Amaryllis belladonna is one of two species of bulbous plants (the other being the hardier Lycoris squamigera,which has thinner petals and has spring growing foliage) that are known as "naked ladies" due to the fact they flower without the leaves present. The flower stalks of both rise out of the bare ground with suprising speed in August. Amaryllis belladonna is a common sight in California, to the point of occasionally naturalizing, as when I saw some in bloom on a cliff above a beach not far from the San Francisco area a few years ago. It is native to the Cape of South Africa, where it produces leaves in winter, which die off in spring and then the flowers emerge in late summer. It does the same in California, but in the eastern US its habit of putting out winter foliage which may be damaged by severe cold tends to weaken the bulbs over time, and deeply penetrating severe cold may kill the bulbs outright. I think I have found a sweet spot for them, along the wall of my school garden where a couple of bulbs have survived three winters thus far. The foliage does burn from the winter cold, but it continues to grow in spring and dies off in June, apparently long enough to allow the bulb to store enough food for flowers. This past winter was particularly cold early on, but not so cold later on, which may have delayed the leaf growth a bit, so damage was minimized--worse conditions would be warm early winter weather that draws out the foliage followed by severe cold later on to maximize damage. Unlike last summer, this one has been hot and rather dry, which gives the bulbs the kind of preconditioning they like in order to flower, so finally one is in bloom now. Planting them right up against the wall means that the soil probably does not freeze deeply, protecting the bulb, and the foliage can benefit from extra warmth during early spring. Overhanging eves also keep this area drier than the rest of the garden, though I do water it, as can be seen by the Euryops tysonii, Pelargonium luridum, and Dierama surrouding the amaryllis. A nearby group of diascia which made it through the winter (labelled as D. anistrepa ? from Silverhill) and bloomed profusely in spring died during the dry heat of summer in the same area (though it made a precious few seeds from which I can regenerate plants later on).
From what I know, its considered pretty remarkable to get Amaryllis belladonna to bloom in the eastern US, let alone persist more than a year. So I have excitedly (foolishly?) ordered a fairly large batch of mixed colors forms/hybrids (reds, pinks, whites) which will arrive in the next couple of weeks. I will plant them rather thickly close to the wall (I may have to move a few other plants to accomodate them) in the hopes of getting a more substantial display in future years, Mulching will probably be a good idea once the cold weather really sets in, and in any case even under good conditions Amaryllis belladonna bulbs take a year or two to settle down after being moved.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The best baptisia of all--B. arachnifera

I know I already posted about this plant sometime ago, but it's such a photogenic species I can't resist uploading some recent pics of this specimen in the gardens at Plant Delights. It is very rare, limited to a couple of counties in Georgia, though it apparently benefits from disturbance (ie burning or tree cutting) of its sandy habitats and can become locally common, according to some sources. If you want one, however, you have to find a nursery propagated one (don't even THINK about bothering it in its native habitat), and that will entail a drive to the nursery since they cannot ship it across state lines if it is a federally endangered species. I was lucky to be able to purchase a second small plant on my most recent trip south to provide some company for a plant of it that has been in my garden for a couple of years. Its not a fast growing species, my garden plant is still a small thing with two branches, and no flowers yet. It is hardy here in NY (Zone 7, maybe mild Zone 6) and should love the record breaking hot summer weather of late. The silvery foliage practically shines in the bright summer sunshine, and the yellow flowers add yet more beauty to an exceptionally good looking plant.

More baptisias--B. simplicifolia

Another striking baptisia species, B. simplicifolia, struts its stuff among the agaves and dasylirions in Tony Avent's gardens at Plant Delights. B. simplicifolia is a rare species which is endemic to a handful of counties in northern Florida, where it grows in sandhill habitats. It's glossy bright green leaves immediately distinguish it from other Baptisias, and the yellow flowers, while not spectacular, are not without merit. PD reports that it is hardy in Zone 5, so I will have to add this one to my want list for the future. Like B. perfoliata and B. arachnifera, it seems to do best in sunny, well drained spots.

In search of Baptisia perfoliata

The first two pics show Baptisia perfoliata in its native habitat, in this case the sandhills of South Carolina, where it resembles a somewhat stressed out sparse blue eucalyptus bush. Where I found it a week ago it grew among cacti and white flowered Polygonella americana, the latter being an attractive plant which is very common to the point of weedy in sandy areas down South. I managed to get a decent amount of seed from the wild Baptisia plants I found, once I figured out where the brown inflated seedpods were (see photo). The pods are hard to break into, and many are infested with a small species of weevil, which reduces the usual 6 or 7 or so seeds per pod down to 1 or 2 or even none. I will try and start some before summer's end so I can get some plants going for the new sandy area I am creating in my school garden extension.
The last two pics show the garden potential of this species, both were taken at Plant Delights in Raleigh, NC during my last visit earlier this month. Here, under better conditions than it gets in the wild, plants grow larger and more lush, and show no signs of drought stress. Like its gorgeous and rare cousin B. arachnifera, B. perfoliata creates a unique focal point in a garden, with its large size and unusual stem and leaf color and architecture.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Berkheya cirsiifolia

Another exquisite delight from the Drakensberg, Berkheya cirsiifolia bloomed in its second year from seed in my school garden. There were others last year in another part of the garden that were mistaken for weeds and pulled up by well intentioned, but not very plant saavy, landscapers the school contracts out work to. Now they know not to touch anything in my garden, I do a better job of weeding anyway. I hope the berkheya is not self sterile, as are so many Asteraceae, but in case it is, I will be starting others from seed later on which hopefully will flower next year. It has very attractive spiny foliage and nice white daisies, which tend to open flat in the sunshine but partially close when shaded. I have seed pots of other Berkheya species coming up, and soon two plants of B. radula will flower in the slope garden. The latter was overwintered indoors, unlike B, cirsiifolia, which appears to be totally hardy, and grew rapidly once I put them outdoors. They should have yellow daisies on a much less well armored plants.

Among the Roses

A few weeks ago, the roses at the New York Botanical Garden were at peak, and I went to see them with my wife Grace, Jonathan (former student, now University of Vermont graduate and fellow plant/animal geek) and Donna. We could have hardly picked a better day, though the afternoon sun was hot and accounts for my squinting in one of the photos. It was a perfect spring for the roses, not too stormy once they began growing, rather dry, and on the warm side with cool nights. I'm no expert on roses, and I didn't take notes, so I can only identify a few of the ones pictured. The single flowered pink rose with a large cluster of blooms is "Complicata", which makes a nice looking bush when in full bloom. The other single with a white center is "Cherry Pie" which has good foliage to offset the bright blooms. The weird blue purple one is "Veilchenblau", and climber with very unique colored flowers, nothing else I've seen resembles it. The last one that I can identify is "Fourth of July" which has striped red and white flowers which really stand out. There were endless numbers of other lovely roses there, with climbers, old roses, English roses, and species on the periphery and mostly tea and floribunda types in the central area. Many are fragrant, but we were a bit late to get the best of that, since rose fragrance is strongest in the morning. It was an especially good year for the old roses, since they suffer the worst in bad weather, the flowers frequently "balling" and getting destroyed by molds in really rainy weather. The English or Austin roses are a great improvment, in that they have the old rose flower form but tend to be more vigorous, everblooming (rather than one massive spring display as with many old roses), and more weather resistant.
It was a lovely day, but I should bring a notebook in the future so I can better remember what I photographed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beautiful Thugs

There are some plants that are just too beautiful to not grow, but they need to be watched, for they would conquer the world, if allowed. Stylophorum diphyllum is a native plant which seeds around freely, very freely indeed. The sumptious yellow poppy like flowers are gorgeous, though, and the attractively cut leaves are not without merit either. It is either too happy or not happy at all, mine seems to have found a position to its liking, in rich soil in a shaded position between a yew and the neighbor's wall. It was not so happy in drier soil with lots of competition where I originally planted it.
Corydalis ochroleuca is another prolific self seeder, favoring partially shaded areas, with a particular ability to grow in crevices such as cracks in stone walls. Like the stylophorum, seeds are ejected so they travel for a distance from the parent plant. They germinate en masse the following spring, and quickly grow to flowering size. This plant flowers constantly, from early spring till early winter, with peaks during cool weather. Like stylophorum, exess seedlings are easy to remove but somewhat touchy about being transplanted.
Lamium galeobdolon is a wonderful groundcover for difficult dry shady places with tree root issues. It has beautifully patterned foliage which persists in winter, and for a short time in midspring, lovely masses of soft yellow flowers complete a beautiful picture. So what's not to like--well, it does send out rapidly growing runners that root at each leaf node, and are not particularly easy to pull up once they have a good foothold. Note that the supposed cultiver "Herman's Pride" is a totally different plant, a clumping perennial rather than a running groundcover, and is well behaved--I can't believe it is the same species (and don't, actually).
Of similar disposition to the normal form of L. galeobdolon is Ranunculus repens "flore pleno", the double creeping buttercup. I got my start decades ago from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden when I worked there one summer as an urban gardening intern, and its been with me ever since. I have a particular fondness for double buttercups, and grow a few other kinds, but this one is the only one that could be called rambunctious, for it is an aggressive spreader, much in the same manner as strawberry plants are. It blooms once in mid to late spring over a few weeks, then promptly sends out stolons in all directions. Periodically I go on a rampage to get rid of most of it, but the few plants left behind always repopulate their allocated area quickly, and I am thankful when the perfectly formed double flowers appear each spring. I recently set some loose in the slope garden at school, where they formed a nice mass of bloom as seen in the pic. No doubt I will be snipping off stolons all summer long.
All of these make fine garden plants, but with the caveat that they must be actively managed, or they will run over lesser neighbors. On the other hand, they tend to be great plants for tough sites where little else will grow, except, perhaps, for the stylophorum, which does like good "forest floor" type soil and decent moisture.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Elizabeth Town Hellebores

Double hellebores, and nicer hellebores in general, can be expensive propositions when one wants to add them to the garden. I'm not willing to shell out 20 dollars plus for a plant that "probably" will be a double one, so I decided to grow some from seed. Elizabeth Town Hellebores in Tasmania (Australia) is one of the better known breeders, and they send out seed each winter, so I took a chance and ordered some a few years ago. I like that they precondition the seed beforehand to go through a moist warm period, thus by the time it arrives in the northern hemisphere its ready to go into the fridge, where it will germinate in a couple of months time. This allows me to pot up the seedlings right around the time frosts are ending outside but the temps are still cool enough to allow the seedlings to establish and grow. The plants do most of their growing when its cool, and by the third year I had flowers on a couple, and they all flowered this year--over a dozen lovely plants. I was very pleased, even with the singles, which often had attractive spotting or in the case of the white one pictured, had larger than normal flowers. Now the only thing I lack are some good yellows.
Hellebores are easy to grow plants, but success from seeds requires some knowledge about how to handle them. Fresh seed is a must, dried seed more than a couple of months old germinates poorly if at all in my experience. The seeds need a warm moist period of a couple of months to prime them for germination, then a cool period (freezing not required, and not beneficial though they naturally resow with abandon around the parent plants) which I supply by putting them in small ziplocks on moistened paper toweling in the fridge. When roots appear, I take them out and pot them up under lights (usually around March), then move them outdoors as soon as frost danger is past.
The flowers do hang downwards, so one has to "prop" them to get good views/pics, but in early spring when not much else is blooming, they certainly do present a cheery sight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring Begins!

I took the pics above just before the last nor'easter in my school garden. This part of the garden is protected by a south facing wall, and things get moving there earlier than elsewhere in the garden. The daffodil is one of the early blooming varieties, probably Rijnveld's Early Sensation, though since I didn't label it I am not absolutely certain of the variety. One of the Iris reticulata cultivars or hybrids popped up with large richly colored purple flowers, right after the first of the snow crocuses, Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, appeared. However, the earliest of all spring flowers is usually the winter aconite, Eranthus hyemalis. It's only serious competition for earliest spring bulb appearance is the snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. This cheery buttercup like flower emerges as soon as the snow melts, or even under the snow if it lies around long enough. It grows from a blackened tuber that looks more like a rock than a living organism. The tubers are often soaked before planting in the fall, though I don't think it makes much difference. Purchased tubers may not always give one hundred percent success, since they may dry out too much if not planted as soon as possible after they are recieved. Nonetheless, once they get established, winter aconites seed abundantly so that within a few years drifts of them begin to develop in gardens where are happy. In my home garden this is happening, and its a real delight to see many dozens of them appearing in random spots throughout the garden.
Right now we are entering into a five day period of exceptionally nice sunny weather, with highs in the 60's F predicted. This will bring out even more spring bulbs, and perhaps other early flowers like Viola odorata. Already I see a few hellebores in flower at home, and see buds developing on nearly all of the hellebores I grew from seed I got from Elizabeth Town in Tasmania, Australia a few years ago. They are special plants indeed, a couple of precocious white doubles bloomed last year and I see darker buds among several of them this year. There should be a mix of anemone flowered, double, and really nice singles among them, so I am quite excited at what I will find.