To hellebore and back again

This is the time of year, when snow is on the ground and the catalogs have started to arrive, that I begin to wonder about hellebore. What is this wondrous plant that blooms–supposedly–in the dead of winter? The photos always look so charming, with the pale flowers in shades of cream and green and crimson set against a backdrop of snow. But … you know? Hellebore is one of those plants you read about but never actually see anywhere. Maybe, granted, that’s because I don’t go visiting a lot of gardens in February or March. But really, wouldn’t you think that sometime, somewhere, someone who likes flowers as much as I do would have noticed hellebore?

So what’s the dealio with them, anyway? Is it that the flowers are really tiny and you can’t actually see them even if you’re standing right over them? That’s what I always suspect, and why I wish catalogs would run a picture of a ruler next to every photo of a flower. Oh, look, that’s a ruler up in the photo above! Oh, look, it’s in millimeters! Screwed again!

Burpee has a hellebore, also known (highly romantically, I think) as Lenten Rose, on offer this spring that’s called ‘Kingston Cardinal,’ and it is a looker. In pictures, hellebore petals always look so thick and waxen, like lily flowers. I can buy a ‘Kingston Cardinal’ for myself if I’m willing to shell out $16.25, but before I do, I’d kind of like to know if these flowers actually exist anywhere beside in catalog photos. Anybody ever seen one in the wild? What was it like?

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


Burpee’s here!

The Burpee Seed Co. wins this year’s seed-catalog race to the mailbox, and just in the nick of time, as it’s been so snowy and dull hereabouts that I’m almost bored enough to take down the Christmas tree. (But not quite bored enough.) I admire Burpee for a number of reasons, tomatoes among them, and that’s what’s on my catalog’s cover–a new ‘Kings of Color’ collection (above) with four varieties of big hybrid beauties, one pink, one red, one orange and one yellow. They’re available either as seeds or plants, as a number of Burpee offerings are. And even though the plants are pricey and I haven’t ordered any of them in years, I appreciate that they’re there if I need them. I mean, it at least proves the seeds will germinate and grow.

I also like the “Seed Shop” section of the catalog, a simple listing in the middle of “flower bargains” where I often find stuff I was going to order anyway at a discount, like basic nasturtiums, poppies and snapdragons. Burpee manages to walk a fine line between old and dowdy and too cutting-edge. You won’t find gimmicky “bat-wing plants” or “ten-foot-tall lettuce trees” in this catalog, but there are always some nice new introductions. And the lack of out-there stuff, like the available plants, inspires confidence. This year I particularly like the ‘Raspberry Leomonade Mix” zinnias, with small, sprightly flowers in pale moonbeam yellow, bright raspberry, and a striking with raspberry stripes. I’m also excited about a ‘Sunset Hybrid Mix” wallflower. My very first year gardening here in this house, I planted a seed mix that included the most glorious wallflower. I’ve never managed to repeat that success, but maybe I’ll be lucky with this … and it’s also available as plants!

And this year, Burpee is letting me (and you!) mix-and-match single plants to make up the three-pack combinations it sells of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and herbs, which is extra good news, since I don’t want to be planting more than one of any variety of tomato in the limited space I have. So–good on you, Burpee! I intend to spend the next few weeks dreaming my garden into being, with your help.

Photo courtesy of Burpee®.

Going south

My daughter’s on her way to Mexico. She’s halfway there, actually. I left her at the Philly airport at 10 a.m. this morning, waiting for her plane, which was due to leave at 1:45. I had a whole speech rehearsed that I was going to give her, about how yesterday’s snowstorm was an act of God, it was nobody’s fault, she had to just go with the flow and roll with the punches on this journey, but as it turned out the parking lots at the airport weren’t plowed and I ended up dropping her on the sidewalk outside her terminal and waving goodbye. No speech.

She texted me a few times in the ensuing hours, while she waited for her plane to Mexico, magical land of summer in winter, home to tropical breezes and fruits and her boyfriend Israel, and it seemed as though the speech wasn’t needed, because she was pretty chill, even when her flight got pushed back to 3 o’clock, then 4 o’clock, then five. She finally texted me at 5:30 that she was on the plane, and that everyone at US Airways had PROMISED the flight would go straight on to Mexico after it landed in Charlotte, and she wouldn’t even have to change planes.

Well, I just heard from her again, and maybe that speech was needed. She was crying, and she was in the airport in Charlotte, and she was stuck there overnight because the connecting flight had gone through on time (of course it had; why would they hold that up?) and now her plane is leaving at 9 a.m. She couldn’t talk because she didn’t want to run down her battery because she still had to call Israel to tell him she wasn’t getting in tonight, because he’d been waiting in the Mexico City airport since, like, noon.

All over the country, scenarios like this were playing out, connections not being made, young girls crying, men waiting fruitlessly in waiting rooms. I hope when Marcy finally arrives the breeze is balmy, and the flowers are all blooming, like these plumeria, and Israel is waiting, and from then on, at least, everything goes as planned.

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

100 Heirloom Tomatoes

A friend at work gifted me with a book–a gardening book. I’m not a huge fan of gardening books in general; I’d rather garden than read about somebody else gardening. And this is a pretty niche gardening book at that. It’s called 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden, and it’s written by Carolyn J. Male and published by Smith & Hawken. The text is well-written and fairly interesting, with information on the history of the tomato (did you know the originals were yellow, not red?), the various ways in which it’s decided whether a tomato is “heirloom” or not, how to start tomato seeds, hand-pollinating, and the truly esoteric art of fermenting tomato seeds, for those who are into seed-trading and -saving. But really, I just buy my tomatoes as plants, at Home Depot, and I’m not likely ever to encounter the truly obscure varieties this book celebrates, like Omar’s Lebanese, Tiffen Mennonite, Kellogg’s Breakfast and Livingston’s Gold Ball. (Though I wish I would!)

That said, I can’t put this book down, all on account of Frank Iannotti’s extraordinary photos of each heirloom variety—incredibly detailed, composed full-page shots so full of, well, tomato that you can taste them on the page. These aren’t perfect fruits; Male made certain each shot contained a picture of at least one fruit showing the stem end, where the tomatoes are frequently deformed by green shoulders, concentric cracking, or the adorably named “catfacing,” which she explains is what you call the all-too-common condition in which a tomato develops with deep clefts and bumps in it. (It’s caused, she also tells the reader, by cool-weather pollination. Also! Blossom end rot, which my tomatoes frequently have, isn’t contagious from plant to plant, hooray!)

In other words, this beautiful book is crack for tomato lovers. If there’s one on your Christmas list, run don’t walk to buy a copy today.

Plant snobbery

I stopped in a local Aldi store today because I needed some lemons to make springerle, those German cookies that you roll out with a special embossed rolling pin that makes little design squares on your dough. The dough, made with eggs, flour, sugar and a bit of leavening, are flavored with lemon zest and anise. Nobody really seems to like springerle, but they’re festive and relatively low-fat for a cookie, since the only fat comes from the egg yolks. Anyway, they take up space in the cookie tin, so I keep making them.

I don’t usually stop at Aldi because it’s been my experience you can’t really count on finding a staple like lemons there. It’s sort of hit-or-miss. Today, though, they were on my way, and they had lemons, but you had to buy a bag of six for $2.99. I only needed two lemons, so now I need to find something to do with the other four. But I digress, as I so often do. For sale at Aldi were THE most beautiful poinsettia plants I’ve ever seen. They were huge, at least three feet around, healthy-looking and super-bushy and only $8.99 apiece, in gallon containers.

I stood there and looked at them for the longest time. I wanted to buy one for my mother-in-law; we’re going out to see them on Saturday, and I’d intended to buy her a cyclamen, but this poinsettia (a.k.a. Euphorbia pulcherrima) really had a lot of pop to it. I actually had my hands on one and was pulling it off the shelf when I stopped. “Who buys plants at Aldi?” I said to myself, and walked away.

That’s right–I’m a plant snob. I don’t know why I am, but I am. I’ll buy plants at Home Depot or at Walmart, but at least those places have regular nursery sections. I prefer buying plants at actual nurseries, even though they inevitably cost more. And I’ve learned not to bother buying those little boxes of spring bulbs that are for sale everywhere in the fall. The things don’t come up, half the time. (Well, except for those gorgeous acidanthera I got at Home Depot last spring.)

So I didn’t buy that poinsettia, and now I’m regretting it, because it means tomorrow I’ll probably drive to Aldi and they’ll all be gone. That’s what I get for being such a darned plant snob.

Photo by André Karwath, a.k.a. Aka, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

And the heathens who admire it

I wrote the other day about cannibalizing the Thanksgiving bouquet my in-laws gave me by taking out all the flowers that still looked decent. I left the remainder—a sort of big mess of dead and dying chrysanthemums stuck in a florist’s cube and sitting in a low pressed-paper vase—atop a counter in the kitchen. Actually, I left it on our Hoosier cabinet, which is pretty much like the one pictured above. It belonged to my husband’s grandmother, none of which has anything to do with anything. But I love our Hoosier cabinet, and it has always seemed remarkable to me that no matter what house we move to, there is always, magically, a spot in which to put the Hoosier cabinet that’s just perfect for it.

But I digress! So I left the dregs of the Thanksgiving bouquet–from which, remember, I had pulled any flora worth salvaging–on the Hoosier because I knew it would be a pain and messy to pull all that stuff out of the florist’s cube and then have to take it out to the recycling bin, because it’s, like, minus-5 degrees outside. And while I did find it aethestically offensive to have it sitting there, it was better that than go out into the frigid air.
So I come in from working upstairs in my office and find my husband has moved the dead bouquet from the Hoosier back into the center of the kitchen table. Uh, thanks, hon. Did you … notice anything about that bouquet?

Men. They never notice ANYTHING.

The cannibalized bouquet

Back at Thanksgiving, my in-laws brought us a really nice table arrangement of mums (yes, mums), sea holly, carnations and Peruvian lilies. It’s lasted a terrifically long time, with some faithful watering, but I noticed yesterday that the lilies had more or less given up the ghost, and some of the mums looked glum. On the other hand, a lot of what was there, especially the sea holly and some bright yellow, daisy-like mums, were fresh as, well, daisies. So I decided to cannibalize the bouquet. I pulled all the sea holly (a.k.a. Eryngium) and made a tiny, prickly bouquet of them to put atop a cabinet. Then I pulled out the best of the mums and carnations and made a pretty little arrangement of them. The carnations are the exact same burgundy shade as some dried hydrangeas I have on an antique desk, so I put the two bouquets next to one another. Voilà! Two new arrangements to enjoy, plus I can put the rest of the original arrangement in the composter, where it will feed next summer’s flowers!

Disturbing ivory sculpture by Leonhard Kern, 1650, photographed by Andreas Praefcke.

OMG, the rain!

I know I should be glad it’s not snow, but lordy lord, will it ever stop raining? I’m trying to decide what kind of flower will be most inspirational under the dreary circumstances. Something yellow, I think. Okay, how’s this? It’s a reminder that somewhere out there, beneath the sodden turf, all those spring bulbs that I planted are sitting, nice and cool, just resting, not in any big rush, maybe just chatting amongst themselves (I always plant my bulbs in groups so they can socialize over the winter), enjoying a nice cup of compost tea, and dreaming themselves about how the show they put on come April is going to be the best one ever, for sure!

Photo by FlickrLickr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Cloves and oranges

It’s going to be a frugal Christmas this year in our household, so I’m casting about for a craft that won’t break my bank and will produce non-annoying gifts for family members. By “non-annoying” I mean, of course, gifts that are of minimal monetary value, that don’t take up a lot of room, and that are negligible enough that the recipients can feel free to throw them away if they don’t like them. For some reason, the notion of clove oranges popped into my head. I remember making them when I was in Girl Scouts a billion years ago. I did a little Googling and found some photos of very pretty versions, with not a ton of cloves (which aren’t cheap) and some pretty ribbons (which usually are). So: gift dilemma solved! And I think sticking cloves in oranges is something I can actually do while watching football on TV.

Speaking of cloves not being cheap, I’ve also learned these fascinating facts: Cloves are the dried flower buds (see the photo above) of a shrub (Syzygium aromaticum) that’s in the myrtle family, which is one big-arse family. All these years I’ve been cooking with cloves, and I never once realized they came from flowers! Cloves once grew only on a few islands in the Maluku Islands, known in long-ago days as the Spice Islands, and they’re what all those explorers were looking for on their wanderings around the globe, because cloves once were almost as costly as gold. While we mainly use the spice in baking, in India and Asia it’s used for sweet/savory dishes; it’s an ingredient in garam masala spice mix and is used in many biryanis. Clove cigarettes, or kretek, are now illegal in the U.S. but are smoked in Indonesia and Europe. Clove oil cures toothaches, and cloves are used in Chinese, Tibetan and West African medicine. And, this season, in my  house at Christmas!

Photo by Tinofrey

White hydrangeas

I had an opportunity the other day to have a long talk with Drew Becher, the new president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society–and only the third person to hold that position in the last 60 years, as he was preceded by, of course, the legendary Jane Pepper and the equally legendary Ernesta Ballard before that. Drew is as nice as can be and full of grand plans for the Flower Show and the public landscapes of Philadelphia in general, and I can’t wait to see his ideas brought to fruition starting this summer. He promises big, bountiful public plantings (“The biggest problem with public plantings is they’re underscaled,” he told me. “I prefer overscaled to underscaled”), a higher profile for the Flower Show, more creative thinking about vacant lots and pocket parks, and much more. I asked him what sorts of houseplants he himself grows, and he said they were just the standard ones. But I knew I was in the presence of a serious gardener when he added, “White orchids are a standard in our house.” (!)

He’s very fond of white flowers, and when I asked him if he had a favorite, he allowed as how he’s especially fond of white hydrangeas. To which I say–who isn’t? Here’s a white hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lamb,’ from Proven Winners) to brighten up your wintry day.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,

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