Sunday, July 13, 2014

Odd Milkweeds for the Odd Gardener

Asclepias viridis

Asclepias sullivantii

Asclepias syriaca colony
Never one to follow others when it comes to gardening, I just grow whatever I like.  While I do have a soft spot for a number of "common" garden flowers like poppies and daylilies, my real passion is growing things that are never seen in my area.  That means, in many cases, growing it from seed as often plants are not available in the trade of lesser know species.  Asclepias is a wonderful genus full of really cool plants, I even have the aggressive Asclepias syriaca on my property, it was already here when we brought the place. Fortunately it is confined on three sides by short walls and the other side opens into the neighbors property to the north and there is a mess of Hibiscus syriacus and assorted saplings/weeds to restrain it from going that way.  I will selectively remove some of that mess, even if it has to be by stealth, as I don't want bittersweet and maple saplings there because they can become bigger problems in the future.  I don't think the neighbors will care much either, they have children who play in the yard a lot so letting the border area get too unkempt could provide a habitat for deer ticks which of course carry Lyme and other horrible pathogens.  In fact I am not sure if they even know where the boundry is between our properties.  But I do love even the common milkweed, it smells wonderfully fragrant in bloom and before it emerges there is a colony of lily of the valley which also emits a wonderful fragrance earlier in the year.  It also provides a potential food source for monarch butterflies, of which I have sadly seen only one in the last year and a half.  I saw none last year and one in a nursery one town down from here a few weeks ago.  I hope more appear and some avail themselves of the common milkweed, for there is enough to share.  I do strip the pods off though, as I don't want endless progeny to waft their way into my other gardens. 
As for more uncommon milkweeds, Asclepias viridis is probably the largest flowered milkweed in the US.  It has a south/central distribution but is perfectly hardy here.  It tends to recline as it grows and right now the magnificent flowers are at their best.  A bit earlier is prime time for Asclepias sullivantii, the prairie milkweed.  It can spread underground so it has to be watched, but the leaves have a colorful midrib and the flowers are a bit darker and prettier than the common milkweed.  The plant also tends to be shorter, maybe three feet at most.  Neither species is native to NY to my knowledge but they seem happy here, and they sailed right through our hard winter.  I amended the heavy soil here with road sand so it drains better which probably suits them fine.  I did have an Asclepias purpurea, a lovely species in one of my gardens without amended soil and it perished, so I will have to try it again in a better position. 
Most asclepias are hard to find as plants because they often don't look their best in containers.  Its the knowledgeable gardener that will know their potential beauty, and either buy plants if found or raise them from seed.   Seeds are easy to grow, the most difficult thing is finding the odd species and also remembering that most do prefer a period of cold stratification before they germinate.  Once they are growing get them in the ground as soon as practical for they flourish better in the ground than in pots. 

Drimia spaerocephala, One For the Plant Geeks

This bulb finally bloomed from seed for the first time this summer, and its an odd one.  It comes from wet areas and ranges to very high altitudes in Kwa Zulu/Natal into the Free State, so it probably is hardy here.  I set some unflowered plants out in the garden a week ago to test this, meanwhile I'll keep the pot with the flowering plant as a backup just in case.  The peculiar flowers have elongated thin petals that project outwards, the umbel is vaguely reminiscent of some kind of weird tulbaghia.   This is another plant that is probably not being grown by anyone in my area but diversity makes for an interesting garden and plant collection in my view.  I don't think we will ever see this plant in the big box stores but it might make an interesting addition to the garden if it proves winter hardy.  The fact that it comes from marshy areas would indicate a high tolerance for wet ground, which is a good indicator that it would survive our winters since it can take both cold and wet in its native haunts. 

A Very Special South African Dianthus

Finally I have a nice flowering plant grown from seed I collected many years ago in South Africa of this unusual yellow flowered dianthus.  I collected seed of it when I was traveling with Ernst Van Jaarsveld of Kirstenbosch fame in the Klein Karoo area of the south Cape.  We were in an area with a fair number of succulents and bulbs, and while photographing the bulb I realized one flower looked like it had five petals.  A closer look revealed it was a dianthus that was evidently mimicking the pale yellow flowered bulb that was also in bloom in the same area.   Ernst told me at the time it might possibly be a new species, but I have not heard anything new since.  I've grown it during my time at NYBG but I think they have since lost it as with much if not most of the material I brought them, and I decided to start some stored seeds again last year.  It comes from an area with primarily winter rainfall but can get some summer rain too.  It grew well under lights with some sun in my cool garage and set buds, which took forever to open.  They began to open in numbers when the plant was outside for some time and are still opening.  Hopefully the plant will set another crop of seed, I have not observed any daytime pollinators so far so I may have to do some hand pollination. 
South Africa actually has a decent number of dianthus species which are largely unknown outside of the country.  Most are winter growers, some are summer growers and D. basuticus is definitely winter hardy as well.  Many of the Cape species come from semiarid areas, so they would likely do well in other Mediterranean climate areas.  This species tends to have long trailing branches, a feature it shares with several other Cape species.  It could make a nice windowbox or basket plant in areas with the right climate.
One day I shall have to write Ernst to see if he remembers this plant.  For now though I am content to enjoy its pale yellow flowers in my personal plant zoo.   

Costus spectabilis, a Spectacular Plant Indeed

Me with the costus rhizome as a fashion statement

When it comes to buying plants I admit it, I am usually quite thrifty (or cheap).  I grow a lot from seeds, and I'd rather buy a small inexpensive plant than buy a big expensive plant in most cases.  I take pride and joy in growing seeds or small propagations into nice specimen plants.   But there was this one plant I absolutely had to have that was on ebay, and I spent a whopping 70 dollars (about) to get it.  I can be seen wearing my trophy right out of the box in the first photo, it looked like a large brown circular tapeworm.  In this case it was money well spent (unlike the real money I have spent on orchids during the NY orchid shows, most of which was not a good investment).  This fabulous plant is a native of tropical Africa, from Zimbabwe on up and west.  It forms flattened rosettes on the ground from which rise huge exquisitely beautiful yellow flowers.  Individual flowers don't last long but new ones keep coming for some time.  In nature the rhizome branches and a whole colony of plants can form which look sort of like waterlilies on the ground.  Check out this link to see what I mean:,%20Costsus%20spectabilis,%20N%20Zambia.jpg

This has proven very easy to grow, I am surprised it is not more common in cultivation, at the time I got it I could find no other sources for it other than the expert plant grower I got it from in California.  It goes dormant in fall and I store the pots dry and relatively warm in the house, I havent yet stuck them in the garage where it is about 50 F during the winter.  They arent much warmer, maybe 60s in the room I keep them in.  Each piece of rhizome that breaks off will generate a new plant, and the questing rhizomes often come out of unexpected places like drainage holes in pots.  They also circle around the pot edge trying to escape.  So this is a plant to grow in as large a pot as you can, and even then it should be divided up periodically so you dont get too many rosettes crowding each other in the pot.  It goes outside in semishade for the summer, it does get some hours of sun but too much may scald the leaves in very hot weather.  Too much shade would likely cut down on flower production, but I have found it easy to please. It growth cycle coincides well with our eastern US climate, and it is no bother to keep during its dormant period.  It wont come up too early, rather it waits until conditions are warm enough before it really starts to grow.  I doubt it has much in the way of frost hardiness, if it has some it would be a great plant to grow outside in parts of Florida perhaps.  By now I have about 4 pots of it growing and gave away a small prop to a friend recently.  They will need dividing again next year after they complete another growth cycle, 3 of the pots are blooming now and I expect the fourth to most likely flower later on.  So far I have been unable to set seed on it but I will have to try again. ginger flowers have columns like orchids do so their pollination is slightly more complicated than with some other flowers.