Taking stock


I’ll take stock, a.k.a. Matthiola incana, anytime at all. These are one of my favorite flowers. Once in a while, I’ll splurge on a bouquet of them for myself. The colors are lovely, soft pastels: tangerine, white, buff yellow, pink, lavender, and some bicolors, like this one in the photo. They grow along stalks, like snapdragons, and get about 14 to 16 inches tall. But what makes stocks so exquisite is their fragrance, a light, sweet scent that’s reminiscent of cloves. It’s sultry and seductive and haunting, not whup-you-upside-the-head like the scent of, say, Oriental lilies, which always reminds me of dead bodies. (I don’t mind lilies outdoors in the garden, but I think they’re just too much indoors.)

Stocks won’t knock you dead with their looks. They aren’t flashy or bright. But if you can find them a spot in your plot, you won’t be sorry. Plant some this spring, and meantime, stick your nose in them if you should see them on offer at the florist or grocery store!

Photo by Leukoje licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Tiny purple berries


I went to visit my Best Gardening Friend Ruth today, to take her her share of the spring-flowering bulbs we ordered together. She’s much, much more sensible about what she orders than I am. We had a nice lunch together, and then she jumped up from the table and ran into her kitchen and came back with a tiny little pitcher that had a few sprigs of leaves in it. “I was driving along Keim Street and I saw this bush that was covered with these tiny purple berries,” she said, showing me the berries amongst the leaves. Sure enough, they were tiny, iridescent purple, as pretty as could be. “Do you know what they are?” she asked. I told her I’d find out. So I came home and Googled “tiny purple berries,” and got a lot of hits for acai berries, but nothing that looked like her mystery berries. Then I added “iridescent” to my search, and whaddya know, right away a photo of what I was searching for came up! Turns out this is Callicarpa dichotoma, known much more practically as beautybush, and it gets these tiny berries late in the fall. Here are the flowers:


Pretty, eh? The scoop on these babies is that they are very tough plants and are actually recommended for breaking up hard clay soil. So even though Callie looks delicate and fragile, don’t be fooled.

There are two things I love about this story. First, I love that Google exists, and that I can sit at my computer and type in “tiny purple berries” and get a bunch of hits, and then add “iridescent” and find photographs of exactly what I’m looking for. And I love even more that Ruth will stop her car, stride into somebody else’s garden, and snap off a few sprigs of a plant she admires and doesn’t recognize. I would never be brave enough to do that!

Photo of berries by Sftrajan, via Flickr. Photo of blossoms by Kenpei, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Cup size


I’m still trying to get all those spring bulbs planted, but the rain today made me reluctant to clomp around in the mud. Among the bulbs I haven’t yet made places for are 10 Pheasant’s Eye narcissus, also known as Narcissus poeticus, pictured above. (You have to love a poetic flower!) One of the ways in which narcissus, or daffodils, are categorized botanically is by the length of their cup, the ring of petals at the center of the flower. Some daffodils, like ‘Thalia’ and “Jack Snipe,’ have elongated cups in proportion to the outer petals, which are also known as the “perianth.” Others have split cups, which open up the face of the bloom so it resembles an orchid; these are also called Butterfly narcissus. But my favorite daffodils have small cups in proportion to the perianth, and of these, my absolute pet may be Narcissus poeticus. For one thing, it’s the ultimate heirloom flower, dating at least back to ancient Greece. For another, it’s cultivated commercially for its essential oil, which is said to smell like a combination of hyacinth and jasmine and is used in about a tenth of all perfumes made. (It’s also supposed to be strong enough to cause headaches and vomiting in concentrate.) And legend has it the bulbs were brought to Europe by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land; they’re now naturalized throughout Europe and the United States. (Generally, I find all narcissus to be very tough cookies, and unappetizing to deer.)

But mostly, I just love the flirty sight of the short cup against the paler perianth. It’s like a hot chick with long legs in a miniskirt!

Photo by Jean-Jacques Milan licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.



I can take or leave cosmos, for the most part. I get tired of daisy-shaped flowers. I like something with a little more oomph to it, something out of the ordinary. Which is why I was so excited a few years back to happen upon ‘Seashell’ cosmos, the variety pictured above. It comes in all the standard cosmos colors of pink, white and purple, and the shape is basically the same, only the petals are rolled up, or quilled, or curled, or whatever you want to call it, so that they form little tubes.

I’m enthralled by this intricacy, and by the work that growers did to get a separate strain of cosmos in which all (or at least the vast majority) of flowers would do this. And the weird thing is, from what I understand, they still do this the old-fashioned way. Someone, somewhere, finds a plant whose petals spontaneously have mutated to be quilled, and that someone calls this to a seed company’s attention. The seed company promulgates the rogue plant, collecting its seed and self-pollinating it to come up with a reliable strain. In effect, they’re forcing evolution to happen at an advanced pace. And the process isn’t really a bit different from the way Gregor Mendel (who was an Augustinian priest, by the way) conducted genetic experiments on sweet pea flowers in his garden in the 1800s.

And, hey, seed company, guess what? My wildly mutating chrysanthemums have produced a yellow with quilled petals! Apparently this is not all that rare; there’s an entire class of ornamental mums called “spoons.” Still, I am very happy to have a mutant in my garden. I may even have to bring some inside. Quilling makes anything, even a chrysanthemum, interesting.

Photo by Dwight Sigler licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

A fall tapestry


We had occasion to drive the PA turnpike over the weekend to visit our eldest in college. Normally I’m not a big fan of long drives, and yesterday was gray and rainy to boot. But the drive home today was gorgeous. The maple trees seem to have hit the peak of their color, and the wooded hills we passed were like rich tapestries of color, a section of gold running into a section of crimson and then into brown. Some of the fields we passed–perhaps soybeans?–had turned such a beautiful rich mid-brown shade, like cinnamon or nutmeg. The sky was bright blue, a few clouds straggled by, and hawks were wheeling about high overhead.

Marcy goes to school in Adams County, which is the apple capital of Pennsylvania. I first fell in love with it when we were visiting schools out there and drove along Route 30 (I think) through rows and rows and rows of apple trees in autumn, their branches weighted down with ripe fruit. Last year, Doug and I went to the Pennsylvania Apple Festival in Biglersville. The air in those hills actually smelled of apples as we drove through. We stopped at a roadside stand and filled a big bag of “mix-and-match” apples from bins of different varieties. There must have been two dozen or more. All the old-fashioned apples that I love much more than bland Delicious were there: Winesap, McIntosh, Jonathan, Empire, Cortland, Northern Spy. It was a great way to try and compare. We also added some Japanese pear/apples to our bag, and they were a revelation. They taste icyy-cold and impossibly crisp when you bite in.

I don’t even mind that I’ve got another long drive tomorrow, up to New York State, and home again on Tuesday—so long as the weather holds, and there are produce stands with apples to look forward to!

USDA photo by Scott Bauer.

Oh. Poo.


I spent the afternoon outside in a light rain, digging holes for bulbs and putting them in. I must really be a creature of habit; every time I find what I think is the perfect spot for a half-dozen tulips, I dig down and find a half-dozen tulips I put in there last year, or the year before. It’s really getting difficult to find places to put all the bulbs I bought, since I’m loath to pull up anything that’s still blooming (or, really, even still alive). That leaves wide swathes of otherwise deserving dirt that I won’t plant in. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I guess, I do have the 36 or so square feet that was Homer’s dedicated spot beneath the forsythia bush, the space I ceded to him when it became clear he was going to acquisition it anyway. I gradually stopped trying to plant anything in that corner of the yard, since it was only going to get stomped on, tail-whipped to death, or dug up with paws.

So now I’ve planted the Homer Slick Memorial Garden, with a dozen or so Asiatic lilies in assorted colors, a dozen ‘Yellow Parrot’ tulips, a dozen ‘Palestrina’ tulips (pink with green feathering–the sort of flower one either loves, or doesn’t), a dozen ‘Renown’ (carmine red) and a dozen ‘Dordogne’ (sort of stripey orange and yellow and red). It should make quite a show. It certainly made a terrific mess, since I went the extra mile and hauled compost out of the composter and dug it in all the holes. (So easy to put stuff into the composter. So much harder to actually TAKE THE COMPOST OUT AND USE IT.)

Then I went around to the front of the house and put in a dozen ‘Sweetheart’ tulips, a dozen ‘Angelique’ (I know; they’re common.But they’re so damned pretty), and a few dozen of the small bulbs I love so much–snow crocuses, species tulips, and the tiny little Reticulata iris, in this case ‘Gordon.’ These look just like grown-up irises but are only about four inches tall. It seems the smaller the bulb, the earlier it blooms; these will all come up right in the front of the garden in late February or early March, just when the heart really needs a lift.

Then I knelt in a pile of dog poo some thoughtful owner had left behind on my lawn. And I thought I was through with that.

Iris reticulata ‘Gordon’ photo courtesy of JohnScheepers.com.

One mean bean


All hail the hyacinth bean, a.k.a. Dolichos lablab, a.k.a. Lablab purpureus, one of the funkiest looking foodstuffs you’ll ever see. These are mostly grown as ornamentals in the U.S., but in Africa, India and China, they’re an important food source, and in Indonesia are used to make a condiment like soy sauce. The beans are 25 percent protein, and the flowers are edible as well. (You can’t eat the beans dried, though, without boiling them for a long time; drying concentrates poisonous compounds.) They’re relatively easy to grow, and the vines are so strong that they need sturdy support, like a trellis. The beans really are that electric-purply-pink color, and absolute traffic-stoppers when they form in September/October. The beans supposedly have aphrodisiacal qualities.(hmmm) and reportedly deer love ’em, so be careful if you have Bambi troubles.

The vines are hardy in Southern climes but here in Zone 7 you’ll have to start them anew every year, though they will self-seed. They’re late starters, preferring warm soil, so be patient. What do they taste like? I dunno. I’m nervous about foodstuffs that can also be poisonous. But they’re worth growing just for the out-of-this-world pods and the pretty, pretty flowers:


Bean photo by Paul Henjum. Flowers photo by Dalgial; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

My flaming parrot


I was poking around out back today and noticed that a couple of sweet pea vines that didn’t do much of anything all summer are looking all hale and hearty, as if they just might pop out a few sweet pea flowers before they fall to the frost. This would make me dance happily around the yard, for there’s no scent in the world I love more than that of sweet pea flowers. Unless it’s lilacs. Or lily-of-the-valley. I’ll tell you, given the choice between a plain-looking flower that smells and a gorgeous flower that doesn’t, I’ll take the odiferous one every time.

(I just had the weirdest experience. The spellcheck came up on “odiferous,” so I looked it up in my dictionary. It wasn’t in there. I felt positively lightheaded. How could a word I’ve used in the past not be in the dictionary? Was I spelling it wrong? So I googled “odiferous” and got 64,000 hits. Lousy dictionary. Thought I was losing my mind for a moment there.)

Anyhow, speaking of odiferous, all 3,000 or so of that $135 in spring bulbs I ordered a few weeks back arrived this afternoon. I knew I was in trouble when I could barely lift the box. So much work to do! I had better get digging. The drudgery will all prove worthwhile next spring when all those tulips bloom … if the mice and voles don’t get to them first! I’m especially excited about my ‘Flaming Parrot’ tulips. So boisterous and flamboyant–sort of the gay uncles of the tulip world. These are the flowers that set off the famed “tulipomania” speculation in tulip bulbs: read all about it here:


I love it that the Dutch were this crazy over tulips. And I love it that hidden inside the “plain brown wrappers” of my bulbs is this kind of beauty. Nature’s tricky that way.

A Parrot Tulip, Auriculas, and Red Currants, with a Magpie Moth, its Caterpillar and Pupa watercolor by Maria Sibylla Meriam (1647-1717). Catchy title, huh?

False advertising


About five years ago, my Best Gardening Friend Ruth and I were filling out our shared seed order from Burpee when she announced she was buying something called Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina.’ She liked the photo in the catalog, which showed a hollyhock-looking striped purple flower surrounded by hollyhock-looking leaves. Now, I love a good hollyhock as much as the next person–more, probably–and when I found out that Malva sylvestris is also called “French hollyhock,” that got me all excited, because French to me means cool and chic and stylish and special.

So she got the seed and gave me some, and I threw it out back, and ever since, I have rued the day. There’s nothing chic or stylish or French about Zebrina. And it’s not much like a hollyhock, either. What it is is a tough, taprooted, self-seeding pain in the arse. The flower-to-foliage ratio is crappy, and even if it weren’t, the flowers are small and unspectacular. It’s another case where PHOTOS LIE!!! Just look at the picture above. Doesn’t that plant look chic and lovely? It’s not. It’s a foreign invader that will take over your garden, come up through your grass, and spread havoc to your neighbors’ yards, earning you all manner of ill will.

Really, there must be advertising schools where they teach Burpee’s copy-writers code words. You’d think that in gardening, “vigorous” would be a good thing. It’s not. “Vigorous” means “You will have this plant coming up in your garden in places where you do not want it until the end of time.” Similarly, “Can be tricky until established” means “Hah! Sucker! This plant is never, ever going to produce for you!”

Frankly, I think Ruth should have to come over and pull out my Zebrina all year. But she’s still mad at me about the nigella I gave her that have spread all over her yard.

A fine vine


Meet Thunbergia alata ‘Lemon Peel’ (there’s an ‘Orange Peel’ as well), a representative member of a small genus of pretty little flowering vines. They have bright flowers and dark brown eyes, which is why I’m so fond of them, I think. My husband and son both have very dark brown eyes, just like thunbergia. When we got married, Doug told me his family was Dutch. Since then, his mom has done some geneological research that indicates they’re actually from Serbia, which makes sense, since “his people” are very into holding grudges. 🙂

I’ve grown a thunbergia called ‘Susie’ from seed, and while it’s not going to overwhelm anybody—the blossoms are only about an inch wide—the colors are charming and the foliage is an unusual dark green, which really makes them pop (an expression I hate). They only grow about five feet tall, so they’re best suited to pots on patios or porches, or, as one of my neighbors uses them, trailing up a mailbox in the front yard. Thunbergia is never overly vigorous or invasive, unlike a lot of vines; it’s very Episcopalian and restrained. And my neighbor’s looks terrific now, half into October. I haven’t grown these in a while; I think I may have to try them again!

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®, http://www.provenwinners.com.

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