A matter of scale

Did you ever notice that in plant catalogs, all the photos are about the same size? If you’re a careful reader of descriptions, you’ll note that some tulips are three feet in height and others are three inches, and you’ll probably figure out that the flowers on the first plants are going to be bigger than those on the latter. But I hadn’t figured that out when I first ordered Tulipa clusiana bulbs. I wanted them because they were heirlooms, dating back in European gardens to the 1500s. I like plants that people have been growing and enjoying for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

I should know better. I should realize that one of the main goals of hybridizing has been to make flowers of all sorts bigger and more showy (because bigger is always better, right? This is America!). Still, I was surprised–astonished!–when the blossoms on my ‘Lady Jane’ clusiana tulips were only as big as my thumbs.

True, the plants are perfectly proportioned. The leaves are more narrow than those of more modern hybrid tulips; the stems are narrow and graceful, about 12 inches in height. And one major advantage of daintier tulips in my front garden, which edges right up against the sidewalk, is that kids passing by on their way to school seem to notice them less, and thus are less likely to snap the flowers off. I’m fond of my clusianas, and unlike bigger, bolder tulips, they do come back year after year. But I’m still always taken aback that the flowers are so small.

Photo by Scott Zona licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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A winning combination

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I’m crazy about tulips, but in my garden at least, they’re pretty much one-and-done; they don’t come back year after year like daffodils, so they’re a much more costly investment. In the past, in an attempt to get as much bang as possible for my buck, I’ve stuck with a yellow and red tulip palette, buying red tulips, yellow tulips, and various yell0w-and-red variegated varieties, like my longtime fave, Gudoshnik. I’ve been pretty happy with my tulips. But they never really blew me away.

Last fall, I ordered a pink tulip from John S. Scheepers, ‘Renown.’ There’s no good reason why I ordered it; it’s just another pretty, deep-pink late-blooming tulip. Along with it, I ordered one called ‘Dordogne.” In the photo in the catalog, it looked like a yellow and deep pink combination, with some orange tones. I planted the two varieties together, and now they’ve come up and are blooming at the same time, and they make me SO DARN HAPPY every time I see them! The colors play off each other so beautifully. The heights are exactly the same, as are the smooth oval shapes of the flowers. And because it hasn’t been as hot as it was earlier this month, the blooms are lasting and lasting. I love looking at them!

And you know what? It’s just one more reason for me to be braver about stepping outside my comfort zone. Yellow and red’s very pretty. But it never made me stop and say “Ooooh!” when I walked out the back door, the way ‘Dordogne’ and ‘Renown’ do.

Of course, my inclination is to order a lot more of the two of them come autumn. But I’ll try to be brave and do some more experimenting as well!

Photo by me! I can’t download them from my phone yet myself, but I figured it was time to get serious about this. Stuff is starting to bloom! My son helped me with this one.

Feral daffodils

Daffodils are native to Europe and Asia; there aren’t any types that grow wild naturally in the United States. And yet you can always see little patches of daffodils in the strangest places in springtime: as you drive by a woods, or high up on a hillside, or close by the road in a thicket of weeds. I remember reading someplace once that daffodils are often the sole remnants of old gardens that have been forgotten and grown over. I think of this now whenever I glimpse a patch. Someone had to have planted those bulbs there on that hillside, or close by the road; they didn’t just walk there themselves. Someone once had a house there, and if not a garden, then at least a clump of daffodils to mark the coming of spring.

Deer don’t eat daffodils. Apparently, nothing does. So they survive almost anywhere, coming up season after season, heralding the world’s rebirth after the women who planted them and even the homes those women lived in are long since gone. There’s something wonderful about their tenacity, and also something sad and poignant. When I see feral daffodils, I’m struck by how we always like to think our marks on the world are going to be permanent–this house I build, this church I establish, this garden I plant. But it all comes and goes, and the daffodils that crop up in such odd places every spring are reminders, even in their proud resurrection, of just how fleeting all our human endeavor will prove to be.

Photo by John from Tulsa USA T licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Trout season

This post is sure to attract some wandering souls who are into my husband’s favorite pastime, fly-fishing, but since the seasons intersect, it seems apt. One of my favorite flowers from our trip to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve was the shy, demure trout lily, Erythronium americanum. Like most wildflowers, this is not gonna blow you out of the water with its showiness. One of the cool things about the preserve is that, unlike in, say, a botanical garden, you have to hunt for your prey. You may find a stand of these tucked up against a tree trunk, or hiding in the shade of a rock. I like that, though; it’s more of a surprise to stumble on one of these little beauties than to come across a fifty-foot swath of yellow tulips at Longwood Gardens. Besides the familiar yellow, there are white and pale pinky-purple versions, too, as well as hybrids bred for more impact and size.

Trout lilies are really in the lily family and are mostly native to North America. They’re also known as fawn lilies, dog-tooth violets and adder’s tongue, but I like “trout lilies,” and I can see where they got the name. The leaves are mottled in the same sorts of patterns as a trout. You can actually cook and eat the leaves (in a pinch), and the roots can be ground into flour, if you’re that sort of whole-earth gardener. I’m not. And I don’t think trout lilies would do well at my house; the soil is too dry, and there’s not enough shade. But it surely was delightful to walk through the woods at Bowman’s Hill and let out little cries of delight when we happened upon these. Good things really do come in unassuming packages!

Photo by Kaldari.

Am I blue? You bet!

The Virginia bluebells were just barely beginning to bloom when we visited Bowman’s Tower Wildflower Preserve two weekends ao, and now they’re just starting to open at our local park along the river. Bluebells, a.k.a. Mertensia virginica, have to be one of my all-time favorite flowers. They’re the floral equivalent of bluebirds; they just make you draw in your breath and go “Oooooh!” The color is almost unmatched in the flower world; the only other plant I know that blooms in this glorious shade of sky blue is the forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). Bluebells are sneaky; they tuck into corners and niches at the feet of trees, and the buds are an unprepossessing shade of reddish purple, so you really don’t have a hint of what’s to come until suddenly those buds open and … Woo-hoo! What a beautiful blue! I’ve never grown them in my garden, but they grow all over the place in the park at the river. I’m especially fond of them because they make lousy cut flowers; the moment you pick them, they wilt. So the thoughtless, heedless souls who pick public flowers get a lesson taught them by Mertensia, one I hope they take with them out into the world: There’s no sense picking flowers; they just die anyway. It’s a good thing wildflowers are so wonderfully ephemeral, or there wouldn’t BE any wildflowers. I wonder if perhaps they’ve actually evolved to be delicate and brittle? That would be a really neat trick.

Incidentally, if you live in the area, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve has a wildflower plant sale over Mother’s Day weekend. I’ve had good luck with plants I’ve bought there in the past, even when I was growing them in the hard, hard soil of Center City Philadelphia. There’s information on the website linked above.

Photo by Hoodedwarbler12 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

You bet your breeches

Another of the wildflowers we saw last weekend at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve was Dutchman’s breeches, a.k.a. Dicentra cucullaria. This is one of those plants that just make you giggle when you hear their names. Don’t those flowers look exactly like tiny little union suits? And as you can see, the foliage is pretty, too, sort of ferny-looking. Shy, retiring Dutchman likes moist shade and is related to the plant known as bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis. Both are perennials that give a good show in spring and then just sort of fade away into nothingness until next year. Bleeding heart always reminds me of grandmothers’ gardens; there’s something so old-fashioned about the plant and the name. Nowadays, who among us would put up with a plant that only made a show for about a week—and not much of a show at that? Modern breeders work hard to extend blooming seasons. But so much of the charm of a garden is the continual turnover, from spring bulbs to early summer perennials to midsummer’s bright annuals. I had a friend once who got married in her parents’ garden. They’d carefully planned the plantings for maximal effect on that one day in June. And sure enough, they had a spectacular showing. But her mom later confided that it was the least satisfying season of gardening she’d ever put in, because once that June day had blown its wad, there wasn’t anything to look forward to for the rest of that year.

Not that there aren’t a whole lot of plants that I wish bloomed longer. Still, turnover is a good thing—in gardening and in politicians.

Photo by Catie Drew.

Creek Drive and Swamp Road

That’s the intersection closest to the house where I grew up, so no wonder we had water in the basement. We also had a creek in the backyard, which meant we got to have weeping willows, which are probably my favorite trees in the world, and skunk cabbage, which, while never my favorite plant, is nonetheless pretty cool, as I was reminded this past weekend on my visit to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. The preserve is pretty boggy, with a stream and a pond (where we saw lovely turtles sunning themselves), so the skunk cabbage crop was bountiful. The leaves are such a gorgeous clear chartreuse in spring, and the flowers (that’s one above) are of the weird-but-kind-of-cool sort, like jack-in-the-pulpits and calla lilies. I like them. Skunk cabbage doesn’t smell unless you cut or bruise the leaves, so if you have a boggy yard, there’s no reason not to grow it. And you know what I found out? You can actually EAT skunk cabbage (though the prospect makes me a little bit ill). You can’t eat it raw; the roots are poisonous, and the leaves will burn your mouth and tongue. But you can dry the leaves and add them to soups and stuff like that. If you’re brave you can, that is.

Another fascinating skunk cabbage fact: The flowers, which bloom before the leaves come out (most times), actually create heat, which melts the snow and frozen ground that can surround them in early spring. This process is called thermogenesis, and it’s very unusual in the plant world. Botanists think the heat helps spread the plant’s fetid smell, which attracts its pollinators, which tend to be the kinds of bugs that like dead, stinky things, and also encourages said bugs to come inside the flower, because the air there is nice and warm. Snug as a bug, one might say!

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

The vampire plant

Edward and Bella and Jacob, look out! One of the big bloomers we saw this past weekend at the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve was the truly exquisite bloodroot. If that doesn’t sound fit for a Twilight vampire’s enjoyment, I don’t know what does. Also known as Sanguinaria canadensis, this shy, retiring perennial is one of the princesses of any wildflower garden (but don’t you be digging them up in the wild, yo–that is SO uncool! You can order them from various responsible wildflower nurseries that raise them and don’t collect plants from the wild.) Named for a red juice that can be extracted from the, um, roots (what else?), bloodroot produces a poison that’s related to morphine, known as sanguinarine. Apparently it’s scary stuff; it can destroy the skin cells if applied topically. Hoo! It was used by Native Americans as a source of dye and also medicinally, although the FDA really, really tries to discourage that now, though some people continue to use it to destroy skin cancers. In 2005, a “healer” in Georgia was arrested for giving bloodroot paste to a number of women with ailments including breast cancer; the paste consumed skin and tissue, permanently disfigured the patients, and was ineffective in treating cancer.

What a load of baggage for such a pretty, unassuming little plant to bear! If you see it in the wild, be kind and gentle to the bloodroot! No sucking!

Photo by UpstateNYer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The thrill of the trillium

On Saturday, my sister and I paid a visit to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. We weren’t sure what to expect. I’d been there once, years ago, but only for a native plant sale; I hadn’t toured the preserve. But it was a beautiful, sunny, warm day, and even though we were afraid there might not be too much in bloom yet, we decided to take a chance. Before we paid, we asked the nice lady at the front desk in the visitor’s center: “So … is anything out there blooming?” “Oh, yes,” she assured us, and handed us a sheet of paper listing plants that were blooming this week. She also gave us a map of the various trails. I’m pretty map-challenged, and this one was intimidating, showing, as it did, dozens of trails curling around and leading in and out of one another. To our delight, my sister and I discovered that the scale of the map was about one inch equals one yard. All the trails were short and close by (it really was very hot!), and there was so much to see! It had been since my Girl Scout leader days, I think, that I’d paid much attention to wildflowers. I thought I’d spend the next few posts concentrating on my favorites–and in that context, I must write about the trillium. This is one of the shyest, hardest to find wildflowers. It comes in several versions, but the only one that we found in flower was the purple trillium. No other plants look like this puppy. The leaves are big and heart-shaped, three of them connecting sort of like a clover (but it doesn’t actually look anything like a clover; thank God for photos). The first few plants we saw weren’t blooming, and I wasn’t sure WHAT they were and kept consulting the list, scanning the names there. Finally I made the connection between the three leaves and “trillium” (duh, “tri”) and figured it out, and then got SO EXCITED when we found one in bloom and got to see the elusive plant live and in person. Well, in plantdom. You know what I mean. SO pretty, and we weren’t the only ones in search of it; we were able to point a couple who were hunting trillium down in the direction of the one we’d seen blooming. Our good deed for the day!

Photo by Patrice78500.

Real live Easter bunnies

I was out doing yard work today when I happened to glance over the fence into the alley that runs behind our house, and what should I see? Two HUGE cottontail rabbits frolicking. I mean. They were probably getting it on, because they were being extremely frisky. I watched one of them jump about five feet into the air. Did I mention how big they were? They were the size of big cats. They looked to weigh about 20 pounds each. And they were in alley, then in the yard behind ours, then back in the alley, then back in the yard, just jumping and dancing and having a jolly good time. I watched in awe. Never before have I seen rabbits that size in the wild. Well, okay, our back alley isn’t exactly “the wild,” but still. I yelled for my son to stop sitting in front of the computer like a mind-dead zombie and come and watch. He did, reluctantly, but it took so long for him to appear that the rabbits were gone. Except–no they weren’t! Here they came round again for another go of it! Lovely, lovely rabbits. They were fierce! I wish I had them instead of possums living in my garage.

Photo by Hardyplants.

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