Rhod(odendren) blocks

In searching for photos of red azaleas yesterday, I came across the photo above of banks of rhododendrons growing in Washington State, and was abruptly overtaken by a memory. Twenty years ago, just before I got pregnant with our first kid, my husband and I took a trip to the United Kingdom. We landed in England, visited a friend in London, rented bikes, took them to Scotland, and proceeded to bicycle across Scotland. Granted, it was the most narrow part of Scotland, but still, we did bike all the way across. Up in the Highlands, I noticed banks of thick foliage on either side of the road that went on for miles and miles. Our visit was in April, so not every bush was blooming, but gradually it dawned on me that these miles and miles of bushes were rhododendrons. They were growing wild, mostly in shades of white and light pink, and really, they were breathtaking. Not until years later did I learn that the U.K. has a serious problem with rhododendron infestation. Apparently the plants, believed to have been imported from Spain and Portugal during the 18th century, when estate gardening was so widespread, just love the British climate and have no natural enemies. They grew and spread and overtook vast expanses of land, choking out native plants, destroying the habitats of native critters, and disturbing the equilibrium of waterways.

Years later, we took the kids to vacation for a number of years in the wilds of West Virginia, and on our hikes and forays found the same vast spreads of rhododendrons growing wild there. It was so strange to find a plant I’d always considered difficult and finicky–the one that grew beside the front door at my parents’ home, where I grew up, hardly ever bloomed, and certainly never needed pruning—thriving and becoming invasive. I’m sorry for the destruction they cause. But there is something breathtaking about being surrounded by rhododendrons for as far as you can see.

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


Growth spurts

I spent this afternoon going through all the old photographs in the house, looking for suitable pics for my son’s high-school yearbook ad–something cute, not too embarrassing, evocative of good times. We used to take A LOT of photos of the kids, and I’ve never been the photo-organizing type (though I do admire those who neatly label and file their photos, whether in albums or boxes). I just have piles and piles of yellow Kodak photo envelopes stacked up in a cabinet. My daughter helped me look, for a while, until she got bored. 🙂 She never gets tired looking at old photos of herself; just those of her brother.

It’s funny to see how everything in the photos changes and grows–the kids, the dog, the garden. I came upon some photos of Homer when he was just eight weeks old, before he turned into a 120-pound monster mutt. He was adorable–for about three weeks after we got him. Then he became dignified. The kids’ growth runs in spurts; they’ll look pretty much the same for about a year, then change radically. I found myself oohing and aahing over cute outfits and haircuts I remembered, and laughing at the poses they’d strike. Sometimes they look invincible in those old photos; other times, they look so painfully adolescent and lost and confused. Then there are the surly years–from about 12 to 14–when you can’t pay them to smile.

As for the garden, the growth is more subtle, since I’m always pruning back the roses and shrubs, and we don’t have any trees. I did find some glorious shots of the front bed, the one where I had my husband yank out the giant rogue cedar tree that had shot up there, so hopefully with the new bulbs I planted and that cedar gone, this spring it will look just as glorious. And you can see change in the roses, though it’s less obvious. When I first put them in, the branches grew straight and supple. Now, after so many years of pruning, the lower extremities are gnarled and twisted and thick and misshapen—sort of like me! And the azalea, which was venerable when we moved in, is downright ancient. It doesn’t bloom as much as it used to, but it still manages to put on a show every spring. Nothing fancy–it’s that good old-fashioned azalea rosy-pink color, which I happen to like more than the newer, paler shades. In China, the azalea is the “thinking of home bush,” so maybe that’s why I was thinking of it while looking at old photos over the holiday.

I’ve grown, too–around the waistline, but also in other ways. When I look at all those years of gardening trial and error, it makes me think that raising kids is pretty much just as hit-or-miss. You know what the books and the experts say, but you never can be sure what’s going to happen once you plant them. Maybe you could if you raised them in a greenhouse, but then they’d never be able to survive in the outside world. All you can do is care for them as best you can, then wait and see what happens. It was wonderful having both kids home for Thanksgiving. Here’s hoping we’ll all be together again next year.

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

Punkin’ weather

Okay, happy Thanksgiving and all. Now we’ve got that over with, what’s the common thread here?

1. My in-laws took us out to breakfast today and there were azalea flowers on a bush in the parking lot.

2. I have a rose blooming in my side yard.

3. There was frost on the grass in the backyard this morning.

4. The wind blew over all the chairs on the patio this afternoon.

5. It was sunny and hot just before the sun went down.

6. It’s colder than Kansas right now and I just asked my husband to bring the big hibiscus plant in. That’s right; tonight I’m throwing in the towel at last.

Gardening is going to get more and more challenging if this overall weather weirdness continues. Oh, and speaking of weirdness: Last night I was casting about desperately for something on TV to hold the attention of my in-laws, me, my husband, and the two kids. The only thing we could all agree on (well, except for daughter Marcy, but even she found it entertaining) was something called Punkin Chunkin’ on the Science Channel, about weirdos who build giant catapults and trebuchets with which to hurl small pumpkins for distance in competitions in front of huge drunken crowds dressed in autumn-themed apparel. Best line: A dad, when asked about his grown-ass son’s hobby of making gigantic pumpkin-chunkin’ contraptions, said, “The boy’s an idiot.” It brought down the house. Highly recommended!

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There’s no such thing as plain vanilla

All the Thanksgiving baking I’m doing—especially since I somehow became responsible for making treats for the referees at my son’s football games (remember the volunteer’s credo: Never do once something you’re not willing to go on doing indefinitely)—plus writing about orchids yesterday reminded me that I ought to celebrate my fave flav, good old vanilla. Some women love chocolate. I love vanilla. Always have, always will. It’s just icing on the cake that vanilla comes from an orchid, in particular the one pictured above, Vanilla planifolia. In honor of vanilla, here are some vanilla facts:

Like chocolate, vanilla is a New World product, introduced to Spain by Cortes in the early 1500s. But the plants proved impossible to propagate in Europe, because they were only pollinated by a particular type of New World bee—giving Mexico a 300-year monopoly. Not until 1837 did a European botanist figure out how to artificially propagate the vines. His method wasn’t commercially viable, but four years later, a 12-year-old slave on the Ile Bourbon found a method of hand-pollinating the plant.

Vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice, after saffron.

Vanilla seeds won’t germinate without the presence of a particular fungus, so commercial growers propagate by cuttings.

Vanilla flowers only stay open one day, so hand-pollinators have to constantly patrol fields.

The commercial value of vanilla beans is based on the length of the pods; the longer, the higher the price they’ll bring.

Vanilla was once considered an aphrodisiac (but then again, what wasn’t? :-).

Vanilla is widely used in the perfume industry.

And, finally: the name “vanilla” comes from the Latin “vagina,” meaning “sheath.” Hah! And they say women love chocolate.




Life’s too short for orchids

This is my new mantra. It’s all part and parcel of leaving my two datura plants out in the backyard to freeze instead of bringing them in, and my vow to throw out something in this house that I no longer need or use, each and every day. I was down in the basement this morning looking at all the piles of crud we no longer need or maybe never did, like the very expensive beer-making apparatus I bought Doug for his birthday all the way back when we lived in Philly, almost two decades ago, and the big pile of leftover/broken pieces of lumber he has accumulated down there, and all the crapola from when I used to be a Girl Scout leader, and the blocks and games and toys that the kids haven’t played with in 10 years but that I’m holding onto, I guess for the grandkids if I ever have any, and I started thinking I had better get that crap out of there or my kids were going to have to haul it out after I die, and they would hate me if that happened, because there really is a lot of stuff down there. And I was thinking about orchids, because I saw some very pretty ones for sale right in our supermarket the other day, and they called to me with that orchid siren call. I resisted, which is a good thing. I actually owned an orchid once. Doug bought it for me for my birthday. It bloomed for a month or so–as I recall, it was a phalaenopsis like the one pictured above, which is what all the (lying) orchid books say to start with, because they’re easy. Well, it’s easy for anyone to keep an orchid blooming for a month, or two months, or three months, because that’s how long orchids bloom. What’s hard is to get orchids to REBLOOM, and even though I’ve written articles about how orchids are much easier to grow than you think they are, even for beginners, they’re not, they’re fussy about light and temperature and not really suited to living in a regular old living room as opposed to a greenhouse, and they’re also ugly when they’re not blooming—exceptionally ugly, really, with their bulbous roots and sparse foliage. So you get an orchid, and it’s pretty for a while, and then, if you’re like me, you keep it around for the next 20 years, hoping against hope that it will bloom again, but it doesn’t.

So. Life’s too short for orchids. On the plus side, one of my Christmas cactuses is blooming. It’s a pale, pale ice pink, very pretty, but probably also not worth having the ugly Christmas cactus plant around the rest of the year. Hmph. Well, I’ll start with orchids and work up to the Christmas cactuses. I actually have two. One of them NEVER blooms. I’ve had it for 25 years.

I’m an idiot.

Photo by Wolfgang Apel licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Larkspur redux (plus rat)

I had a feeling that if this warm weather kept up, some of my self-seeding annuals would lap themselves. Sure enough, they had. Today I found the most gorgeous little larkspur blooming amidst the frozen wreckage in the garden out back. It’s my favorite shade, that deep purple-blue that’s almost like cobalt. It’s only about four inches high, and okay, it only has four blossoms on it. BUT! It’s almost Thanksgiving, people. Unbelievable. I still haven’t brought my hibiscus in, either. I really am living dangerously.

Speaking of living dangerously, a few months ago I wrote about my neighbor Julio decimating my side garden while trying to run down a rat with his weedwhacker. I regret to report that my husband Doug spotted said rat the other morning, He said it was sitting under a chair right on our patio, and that when he came out with the recycling, the rat didn’t even move or blink an eye.

I would like to believe we do NOT have a rat in the neighborhood, much less one that’s comfy enough with people to just hang out on our patio. So I asked Doug if it was possible that what he saw wasn’t a rat at all, but a possum. Julio might well mistake a possum for a rat, I thought, since he’s from El Salvador and I don’t think they have possums there. (But what do I know?) Doug thought about this for a long moment, then allowed as how maybe it could have been a possum; he wasn’t sure. He’s not used to seeing possums in daylight, he said.

So! It’s either a rat, or a rabid possum (since it’s hanging around in the daytime). Which would YOU rather have in your backyard? 🙂

Photo by Walter Siegmund licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License.

Drear here

Of COURSE it’s raining! My son has a football game tomorrow! So far, 75 percent of his games have been played in drizzle, downpour, or something in between. It’s sort of uncanny. I will say, only one of the games has been at all chilly. So if you don’t mind sitting in a wet, clammy blanket for a couple of hours while your glasses steam up, it’s been a great season. Oh, and did I mention that the team is 1 and 8? 🙂

There is something incredibly dreary about this afternoon. It got dark so quickly, and the rain came on so suddenly, that it makes me want to dress all in black and play mournful emo music on the radio. The only thing I know of that can cheer up a day this drear is … Gerbera daisies! So here are some to enjoy. I love these South African natives. Just looking at them never fails to make me smile. Now if only they lasted longer in a vase before collapsing. And if I only had any success at all in growing them in the garden. Oh, well, can’t have everything! Now and then, I buy myself some as cut flowers, just because.

Here is an out-of-this-world collection of magnified images of Gerbera daisie—the above is a sample—that will take your breath away. (Yes, the URL is long. No, it’s not a mistake.) The photos are by Brian Johnson: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artmar07/bj-gerbera.html

There’s enough sunshine in these photos to brighten even a day like today!

Photo by Bruce Johnson.

Indian summer

I had lunch with a friend today, and when I showed up in shorts, she asked, “What in the world are you wearing?” I told her I intend to hang onto summer for as long as I can. Granted, it hasn’t been all that sunny in Philadelphia, but it has been unseasonably warm. I’ve been going for walks for no reason whatsoever, just to enjoy the Indian summer.

Speaking of which, I always assumed the term “Indian summer” came, politically incorrectly, from the sorts of autumnal hues that reminded us white folk of Native Americans. Turns out the derivation is even more politically incorrect than that. Most etymologists agree that the Indian in “Indian summer” has the same meaning as the Indian in “Indian giver”—meaning false giver, bogus giver, someone who gives and then takes away. (Which is historically ironic if you think about it, since WE were the ones giving and then taking away from the Native Americans.) And the warm, cuddly feelings “Indian summer” evokes in me are quite different from the feelings the term evoked for early Colonists. It seems those stalwart settlers could only drop their guard against Redskin attacks once the cold weather set in and the Indians stopped their roaming ways. When late autumn or early winter were warm, the Natives didn’t settle down, and our ancestors had to keep on keeping an eye out for rampaging attacks. So they dreaded “Indian summers,” wherea today, we celebrate them. At least, I do.

Had shorts on today. Had the windows open. I’ll take Indian summer straight through to March, thank you very much.

Benjamin West’s The Treaty of Penn With the Indians, 1771-’72.

Stalking the wild petunia

Every summer that I can remember since we moved into this house, 17 years ago, somewhere in my garden—sometimes the front yard, sometimes the side, sometimes the back—a charming, delicate little petunia appeared. The flowers were bright magenta with a dark blue throat, and the plants were kind of gangly. There weren’t a million flowers; this plant was rather shy. But it came up on its own, reliably, starting to bloom about midsummer. Because it was so unassuming, some years I wouldn’t notice it at all until it flowered. The blossoms had a tantalizing sweet scent, too. Modern petunia hybrids don’t have any smell at all that I can tell. But fragrances can be deceiving. Take freesia. I’ve heard they smell wonderful. In a restaurant’s bar once, a kindly bartender moved a vase of freesia blossoms right under my nose. “So that you can enjoy the way they smell,” he told me. Alas, his chivalrous gesture was wasted on me. I can’t smell the fragrance of freesia at all.

But I can smell my wild petunias. Or I could, anyway, until this year. I kept looking for the plants to pop up somewhere. I’ve always had at least one or two. Not this year, alas.

So I went looking for seed online, and I found something called ‘Kentucky Wild Petunia” that looks just like my missing petunia. The seeds aren’t expensive–only $3.50 for a packet. I’m tempted to send for them. Then again, except for the scent–and you really had to get right up in their faces to smell them—my missing petunias weren’t as glamorous or showy as modern petunia hybrids (nor as reliable, either). What made them special was the surprise of seeing them each year, just when I’d almost forgotten them. Planting wild petunia seed would, I’m afraid, deprive them of that serendipitous magic. So I’ll just wait patiently again next summer, and see if they reappear.

Photo by Yves6 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0


First Florist, part two


Okay, I admit it–I’ve been a little obsessed ever since I found out that America has a First Florist. Or maybe “consumed with jealousy” would be a more apt description. How cool would it be to have your job be dreaming up fabulous flower arrangements, with price basically being no object? Very cool indeed.

I did a little poking around on the topic of First Florists and discovered a neat Wall Street Journal article that was published back when Nancy Clarke, predecessor to the new First Florist, Laura Dowling, retired earlier this year. Included were such tasty historical tidbits as:

• 7th U.S. prez Andrew Jackson adored fresh flowers, but because they were widely believed to suck up oxygen and make people sick, he used the then-fashionable artificial wax ones in the White House instead. (There’s nothing hotter than a man who loves flowers!)

• Harriet Lane, niece and White House hostess for bachelor 15th prez James Buchanan, brought the English style of flower arranging to the White House after a trip to England. Stylish Harriet was the Jackie Kennedy of the 19th century.

• Speaking of Jackie, she officially established the position of FF and was mighty particular about her flower arrangements. She preferred fragrant flowers because they helped mask the scent of tobacco smoke, since everybody still smoked at dinners back then.

• Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t pay much attention to the White House arrangements–but then again, it was wartime.

• Lady Bird Johnson liked baskets of wildflowers.

• Nancy Reagan demanded pale cream-colored peonies, even when they weren’t in season.

• All three Clintons—Bill, Hillary and Chelsea—were allergic to the White House’s ubiquitious Christmas wreaths.

• George W. Bush liked a bowl of peach-colored roses in the Oval Office.

The floral world is in a tizzy, worrying that Michelle Obama’s forward-looking taste in flowers will result in arrangements that clash with the White House’s formal decor. Robert Isabell, a New York City florist who worked on Caroline Kennedy’s wedding and Jackie Kennedy’s funeral, is quoted by the WSJ as saying, “I don’t know if a clear vase or something you’d see in hotels is appropriate for the State Room.” Oh, lighten up, you old stick. Michelle has more style in her little finger than you’ve got in your entire workroom, I’d bet. Judging by the squat, stodgy arrangements in this photo of Clarke, Dowling should prove a breath of (extremely healthy) fresh air.

Photo by Susana Raab, from the Wall Street Journal.

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