Monday, March 28, 2011

Plant crush on Fritillaria raddeana...(blush)

Every so often something comes into your life that captivates you: for the late lamented Elizabeth Taylor it was husbands. I have a few friends that fall in love every few days with someone new (a charming, if somewhat problematical trait). For us plant geeks, our infatuations are somewhat less perilous to our well being. I fall in love with plants at the fall of a leaf. Right now I'm enchanted with Fritillaria raddeana. Frits are an acquired taste. Most are brownish or purplish (not the most thrilling of hues). Many are checkered and spotted and otherwise mottled. They are the plant equivalent of baroque music: intricate variations on a theme, leaving many people non-plussed. Poor them (the people, not the frits!) I, for one, dote on Vivaldi and Handel (and let's not even TALK about Boccherini, Albinoni, Scarlatti and the rest of those paragons whose names so sensibly end in "i"!) carry the tenuous metaphor one stage further, this Frit is a veritable Bachian cantata! The Crown Imperial has been a garden classic in the West since the Elizabethan era at least, and the flamboyant scarlet, orange or yellow trumpets merit all their renaissance clamour. This relatively unfamiliar fritillaria is obviously allied to them with the same ruff of foliage on top of the stem, but it is altogether smaller, more graceful and a good month earlier to bloom in the garden. And it seems even more accommodating to the gardener as well. And suddenly it's widely available in the mail order bulb trade. For a price of course. I couldn't resist finally shelling out the ten or fifteen bucks for a bulb. Alas, this year I will have to shell out more since who can have just one? Chartreuse is not usually my favorite color, but among the acid yellow drabas blooming nearby and the hot pinks of Tulipa humilis and the brash blue of reticulate iris and muscari, this cool as a cucumber green delights. According to literature sources, it ranges in the wild from Turkmenistan (in the former Soviet Union) through to Iran and Kashmir--a rather extensive (and scenic) range in nature. It is also purportedly grown in China for medicinal purposes. Considering this came into bloom in mid March, it obviously has toughness in its consitution (which it may need as temperatures plummet into the lower twenties this coming week). In addition to my single plant, this has been planted in very different sites in Plantasia and also in Marcia Tatroe's garden in Centennial: each place it seems to grow with vigor and ease.

Tell me you aren't a tad beguiled yourself? I knew I was smitten when I went out five or six times last weekend into my garden, and made a beeline for this earliest and most amazing of Frits right past all the "minor" bulbs.... it's a major crush indeed!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring is a coumin' in....

Thirty one years ago I visited Ernie Lythgoe's incredible garden in Victoria that had a long border full of hundreds--nay thousands--of hot magenta flowered Cyclamen coum. A few years later I visited Lawrence Crocker (co-founder of Siskiyou rare plant nursery) who was busily weeding Cyclamen coum (and a good many other bulbous treasures) out of his lawn. I can still visualize the sizeable mound of cormous, bulbous booty he had accrued (no doubt to be composted or thrown away)...why didn't I ask to put it in a bag for me to take back home? I naively thought, I believe, that you couldn't transplant bulbs "in the green", that they had to be dormant. And yet again a few years later I saw the round leaves of Cyclamen coum scattered abundantly in the late Nina Lambert's lawn. All of these great gardeners have passed on (they don't get greater than these three), but I suspect the cyclamen are persisting in their gardens...
Nina gave me a handful of corms a long time ago that went into my first home's garden, and settled down cheerfully. It was a dark corner of my rock garden, and the soil was none too rich, and mulched with gravel, they nevertheless did quite well. Since then I tried them here and there: no great shakes. Then somehow a few corms found their way to a shady spot north of a large douglas fir in a wide border of my new home and garden. Each year these have produced more and more flowers, and the first seedlings are showing me that THIS is the spot they want to grow. Over the years I've put them here and there, and they have persisted and blossomed a bit: nothing to write home about. But in this spot they are luxuriating, don't you agree? They've been blooming for nearly two months and aren't over yet. Plants no less than people have opinions, and Cyclamen coum hath spoken with its blooms. Now that I know the spot, I must get a flat to add to the mix so that I too may one day have masses of coum to dazzle some young visitor before my time is up! May the circle be unbroken...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's in a name?

The late Jim Archibald told me several times of his fondness for the Hodgkins, great rock gardeners and close friends of his from the south of England who have left a peculiar monument or two. Of course, this iris--strange, diaphanous and ruggedly tough, now growing in countless gardens across the globe is monument enough: 'Katharine Hodgkin'* (Eliot grew all manner of rock garden plants: campanulas were a special interest of his, as were saxifrages: I am quite sure he would be surprised to know that a lifetime's gardening has been condensed down to a single cultivar name with variable spellings.)

Iris 'Katharine Hodgkin' is a hybrid between two rarely encountered species. Iris histrioides was once fairly common in the Dutch bulb trade, but has more or less disappeared in recent decades. It is the largest of reticulate irises: we still have a clump or two of var. 'Major' persisting at Denver Botanic Gardens from the 1980's! The other parent, the fabulously rare and challenging Iris winogradowii is endemic to a tiny area in the Caucasus. It thrives in cooler parts of Britain and Europe where I believe far more exist than in its native range (a damn good argument for cultivating rare plants)...

I notice that the Worldwide web is chockablock full of rhapsodies about this strange bulb and its color. A blend of chartreuse and icy blue that almost achieves gray (a rare and dubious color in flowers): it is luminous in the landscape and I am sure I am not the only one who wonders why we like it so much. Of course, we love it because of its constitution: this is one reticulate iris that thrives on clay, in sand, in shade, in sun. Just about anywhere. It clumps up in just a few years, and is easily divided as soon as the flowers fade.

I recall when it first came on the market many years ago: bulbs sold for what was then fabulous sums for me: double digits for a bulb struck me as ludicrous. When my friend and mentor Paul Maslin shelled out and bought one, I was impressed. I recall admiring it year after year as it waxed and grew, and wondering if I too should plump for a bulb, or buy dozens of cheaper (and still desirable) bulbs for the same price: ever the bargain hunter I went for quantity. Time has rewarded my patience.

Nowadays every self respecting garden center has sheaves of plastic sleeves of 'Katharine Hodgkin' in the autumn selling for a fraction of the original price. Like computers, bulbs get cheaper and cheaper with time.

But as much as I love her (and I do: Katharine is blooming all over my rock garden right now, and thick clumps are undoubtedly blooming everywhere at my old house I sold four years ago)--it is the weave of relationship that fascinates me early this morning as I type in this blog: just as Jim treasured his relationship with Eliot and Katharine, I treasure the times I spent with Jim and with Paul Maslin, the first undoubtedly to grow the Hodgkin namesake in Colorado. Then one day I as I was reading Bruce Chatwin's essays, I stumbled on the name again: Bruce rhapsodizes over the Hodgkin's son Howard's miniature paintings . (To extend the web of coincidence, there was also another Eliot Hodgkin, yet another great painter and writer to boot!) He too has passed away, like everyone else mentioned here. Even Hodgkin's lymphoma is named for a family member--quite the family: artists, medical researchers, gardeners! All of whom have left a legacy: what's in a name?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, perhaps, but words preserve entire lives.

I imagine Eliot calling Katharine out into his garden one early spring day in Dorset: "Come quickly, dear: that iris we hybridized all those years ago has just opened its first flower: isn't it amazing!"

*"Katharine" outpaces "Katherine" on Google search when it comes to this little iris: but where is the truth? This name seems to retain the Elizabethan creativity when it comes to spelling...I have no doubt that Mrs. Hodgkin had strong opinions as to how her name should be spelled: can any one out there provide a definitive answer?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It's a mystery...Draba that is.

There is a very small, very select group of congnoscenti who like drabas, and an even smaller coterie who seek out white drabas. I confess I belong to both idiosects. Drabas come in yellow, egg-yolk yellow, daffodil yellow, plain old yellow and white. Each day this time of year yet another species of draba pokes open a blossom, like prying open a sleepy eye, to see if perhaps there are any pollinators foolish enough to be out there already.

I obtained the draba above as Draba dedeana, which I am quite sure it is not. I have grown D. dedeana several times as a matter of fact--a lovely thing--and it is much coarser in foliage. This thing makes an incredibly dense cushion almost as diminutive in rosette as D. bryoides. I have seen white Draba oreibata on Mt. Borah, and Mike Kintgen collected seed of D. oreadum on the Atlas Mountains of Morocco: lovely indeed, but not my wooly cushion. I grew a wonderful white dwarf from Wyoming whose name I have forgotten, and the tiny, white-flowered D. handelii, And there is the universal native white D. fladnizensis: all are little treasures, to be sure. But this monster is extraordinary. It blooms from March to May and sets lots of decorative seedpods that seem to have viable seed (although it has not self sown). It is certainly one of the best of hundreds, nay thousands of kinds of plants in my alpine garden. And do I know what it is?

Perhaps you do: if so please let me know. I hesitate to give away cuttings without having a clue what to call it.

One of the occupational hazards of being a rock gardener is getting misnamed or simply novel plants that no one has ever heard of. It's a tough hobby, and I'm glad I can live with mysteries! I would welcome more on this order of cuteness!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Scroffy? Yes! Scruffy? No!

I agree it doesn't exactly knock your socks off...I doubt you know this plant: Scrophularia chrysantha from Western Asia. but their are plants whose quiet charm creeps them into your affections. The genus Scrophularia contains more strange, negligible plants than almost any other I know of in its namesake family (which botanists are busy busting up and parcelling elsewhere: Penstemon, for God's sake, is NOW classed as a Plantaginaceae: a friggin' plantain!) If there's one genus homelier than Scrophularia, it's Plantago. I cannot tell you how many homely brown-black-gray flowered Scrophularia I have seen across Eurasia and America for that matter. Some are so ugly that they are actually interesting. Scrophularia macrantha has achieved an apotheosis--I shall deal with her anon. Plantago is the epitome of dowdy by and large (plaintain flowers are usually GREEN, not even brown or black). Both genera have their winners...and believe it or not, this is one. What makes this rather modest little thing a star? The foliage for one thing: those wonderfully flannelly, rugose, hairy leaves form a rosette that lasts pretty much all winter. And they are starting right now in Colorado's frigid March to unfurl. I recommend the winsome combo with hyacinths highly: it's a show in one woodsy corner of my yard for much of March and April. At first the yellow nosegay is huddled near the ground, but they expand and stretch and by May they are dangling a foot or more in the air.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am an endless font of stories. My history with this plant has a story to tell as well. I obtained it decades ago from some European Botanic Garden (don't make me look up which one!) possibly twenty years ago. I planted it in an out of the way corner of the Rock Alpine Garden where it did pretty well for a few years. Saved a bit of seed, and tried it in another scree-like spot--same story. In the interim I obtained seed of a form of this from Central Asia collected by Josef Halda which made quite a dense cushion with more creamy flowers: I grew that as well, and it too went away. And has yet to return. Life went on several years quite cheerfully...when you grow thousands of species of plants you hardly notice when a rather modest little thing like this disappears. I didn't even realize I missed it. I was visiting Bob Nold (redoubtable author of Penstemon and Aquilegia tomes, not to mention High and Dry--which you ought to get): he had a thriving stand of these in his garden: his plants might even have traced their ancestry to mine. It just happened Bob had some in pots! That was many years ago: I happened to plant these in a woodsier soil and an exposure that suited them so that now they have settled down to a long life, produce enormous quantities of seed and look as though they're here to stay. It took twenty years or more for me to find out how to grow this plant. This sort of saga could be repeated for almost any plant in my garden--or in your garden for that matter. The romance of seeking plants, learning to grow them, creating interesting combinations with them and finally succeeding beyond your expectations--this is what makes gardening so intriguing and satisfying a pursuit. Maybe it is a tad scruffy, but I love it all the same!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Crocus dawn

"With this the son of Saturn caught his wife in his embrace; whereon the earth sprouted them a cushion of young grass, with dew bespangled lotus, crocus, and hyacinth, so soft and thick that it raised them well above the ground. Here they laid themselves down and overhead they were covered by a fair cloud of gold, from which there fell glittering dew drops."

The Iliad by Homer, XIV 346 translated by Samuel Butler

Just as crocus makes an appearance at the very beginning of Western literature (in a most sexy manner, need I point out?) so do these impossibly bright bulbs signal the very start of the gardening year. Above is a picture of the common Dutch form of Crocus flavus, very possibly the same bulbs Homer might have conjured, since they grow in the Ionian environs where the poet lived.
A vast literature has accrued around these tiny bulbs, and they have cropped up just as liberally in world literature since Homer. Much of the writing is dedicated to saffron, which has such hoary culinary associations (and blooms in late autumn to boot, so we will gloss over it...)

You could do nothing better than visit John Grimshaw's wonderful blog posting where he reviews the latest monograph and reviews the scientific literature...

Best of all, go out and worship your crocuses, which must be showing up now too!

One of my favorite more recent Crocus references in literature is from a Greek folk song that was very popular when I was a teenager when I spent several summers in Crete. A poem by Kostas Varnalis, a great Modern Greek poet was set to brooding music: Brace yourself, this is "rebetiko", Greek blues...and it's well worth hearing it sung well!

In the basement tavern
In the smoke and cusswords
Above, a street organ whining
All of us buddies drinking together last night!
Last night, like every night!
Drowning the poisons down with liquor!....
Squeezing tightly one against the other
Someone spitting on the ground
"Oh what a grief it is to live!
However hard you struggle to imagine
You can't summon a single bright day!"
Oh Sun, and azure sea
And oh, the depth of the skies,
Oh, dawn's crocus-colored gauze
And carnations of the twilight
You shine and dim so far from us
And never enter our hearts!

(Them dad-burned little crocuses pop up everywhere!)

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