Friday, November 8, 2013

Carolina Still in My Mind

Biltmore Estate

Day two of our Maple Society adventure in North Carolina was a tour of the Biltmore Estate. The, mansion is called an "American Masterpiece," although George Washington Vanderbilt modeled it after several Loire Valley French chateaus. One must stand back on the lawn at least a hundred yards to fit the behemoth into your camera field. Naturally Vanderbilt made extensive buying trips overseas to fill his digs with carpets, tapestries, furniture, prints and oil paintings. The estate also has its own village, named Biltmore Village, and includes its own All Souls Episcopal Church, and of course a charming Parish House. Vanderbilt coyly referred to his estate as his "little mountain escape," but his intent was clearly to show off.

Guarding the Biltmore Estate

Biltmore Estate from the garden
A million people visit each year, and the multitudes are led along roped walkways, and entry into individual rooms is not allowed. The place was dimly lit, considered the authentic "lighting of the period," and no photography was allowed. It was dismal, and no wonder nobody lives there anymore. Across one room I recognized Renoir's Algerian Girl painting, but it was small, and in the dark room it was basically wasted. I grew increasingly claustrophobic as the walkways were jammed with heavy-set tourists, and when I glimpsed an exit I quickly bolted for the outside air. Ok, I thought to myself, I'll never have to tour Biltmore again in my life.

Biltmore Estate from the garden

Biltmore's landscape

Since V. wanted the best, he employed the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, but overall I found the design and the contents therein to be unremarkable. There were a lot of nice old trees to be sure, But I've seen dozens of landscapes in America and Europe that are far more inspiring than at Biltmore. Furthermore the labeling was lacking, but maybe that is understandable with a million people tromping through, but I came to see and learn, and I feel that I'm not working hard enough if I can't positively identify the trees.

Acer palmatum

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Parrotia persica

A large Acer palmatum was growing just below the mansion, and it could possibly be a hundred years old. So was a huge Cercidiphyllum, japonicum I assumed, and a gnarly Parrotia persica had the most massive trunk of any I have ever seen.

Chrysanthemum garden

Popular with the public I suppose are the formal gardens, and the "Mums" were at their peak. Generally I'm not a fan of Chrysanthemums, but I know that the plant is ubiquitous in England this time of year, and all Grandmas there seem to love them. The Japanese love mums as well, and so did the Chinese before them, with a history that dates back to the 15th century BC. In Japan there is even a "Festival of Happiness" to celebrate the flower each year, and a single petal placed at the bottom of a wine glass will hopefully result in a long and healthy life. Kiku to the Japanese, they are the symbol of autumn, and on the 9th day of the 9th month of the year the people would use cloths to wipe Chrysanthemum dew on their skin in hopes to maintain their youth. To this day the Chrysanthemum Throne is the name used for the seat of the Japanese Emperor (no, not in his bathroom). To the Japanese people a white mum symbolizes grief and should never be used as a gift to the ill, or to be given as a gift at all, for they are used in funerals. Red mums, on the other hand, symbolize feelings of love and affection for your special one. Botanically, Chrysanthemums originated in China, and later were named from Greek chry for "golden" and anthemion for "flower."

Dahlia 'Isadora'

Biltmore's formal gardens also include Dahlias, and even a few were labeled. I used to consider them to be a plant for wimps, for unsophisticated gardeners who are after a cheap thrill. But I'm more broad-minded these days and tolerate diversity more now than in the past, and I have to admit that the firework-like genus does provide a lot of pop in the garden. 'Isadora' wears a little too much makeup, and perhaps thrusts her orbs too suggestively into your face, but it is nice to be aroused with her gaudy enthusiasm from time to time.

Dahlia is a genus of tuberous herbaceous perennial plants native to Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Like Chrysanthemum, both are in the Asteraceae family. Dahlias do not attract insects via scent, which explains why they can be so wildly colored. The genus was named for Anders Dahl, a student of Linnaeus, and is the national flower of Mexico. Dahl is a homophone (a word that sounds the same as another, but means something else) of the Swedish word dal or "valley," and it is sometimes referred to as the "valley flower."

Musa basjoo

Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'

Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'

Hardy bananas, Musa basjoo, were growing in the garden, and they were seen frequently throughout the trip. Personally, I can't imagine placing one in my garden, and I'll continue to be satisfied seeing it in other landscapes. They are frequently used at the fast-food-joints' McDonalds, along with "windmill palms," Trachycarpus fortunei and Phormium species. Nothing wrong with the tropical theme, but I can't see them with my maples and conifers. I will admit to owning two Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii', the non-hardy "Red Abyssinian Banana" from Ethiopia. I hope I won't be doomed to hell for buying them at the local Home Depot, the evil empire of plant mongers. They were extremely large and were advertised as "WOW! 17.00 each" They came from the bankrupt Hines Nursery of California, who sold them for what – eight dollars apiece? It was very un-Buchholz-like of me, but everyone who sees them is impressed. Back to Musa basjoo, it is known as the "Japanese Banana," native to the Ryuku Islands. It is a member of the Musaceae family, and features a showy yellow flower. The genus name honors Antonia Musa, a Roman physician from the first century BC.

The Biltmore Conservatory

Heliconia psittacorum

Zingiber zerumbet

Near to all of this colorful activity was the conservatory, a building I found most tasteful and inviting. Again, most plants were not identified, but some were. Heliconia psittacorum, the "Lobster Claw" or "False Bird of Paradise," used to be included in the Musaceae family, but was later placed in the Zingiberales order. Heliconias are native to the tropical Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands, west of Indonesia. Their flowers are produced on long panicles, and the brightly-colored waxy bracts contain the hidden flowers. Zingiber zerumbet (locally known as Awapuhi) is a vigorous plant, known as the "Shampoo Ginger," and is mostly known to supply a conditioner for the hair. The flowers are cone-like protuberances similar to the conifers. Of most of the above: I admit that I copy from the internet, and have little or no knowledge of these plants myself; but it is rewarding to encounter floral gems, and then to research their stories.

Unidentified plants in the Biltmore Conservatory

I don't understand why the labeling had to be so sparse. Do the caretakers even know what they are growing? Or do they all know everything themselves, and assume that the public would never care? I took a few photos anyway, so if a reader is certain about the identity, I would like to know.

Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez'

Unknown Lagerstroemia species

Unknown Lagerstroemia species

Back outside, not all "Crepe Myrtles" were labeled in the Biltmore landscape, but some were, as in the hybrid 'Natchez', a cross of indica and fauriei, a US National Arboretum introduction. Seed of fauriei was collected from Yakushima in 1956. The eventual seedlings proved resistant to powdery mildew infestation. When it was hybridized with indica 'Pink Lace' in 1964, half the seedlings showed no susceptibility to mildew, and from that group 'Natchez' was selected and named (for a nation of Native Americans from Mississippi) and released. It features white flowers and a beautiful reddish cinnamon-colored trunk. I find Lagerstroemia flowers to be fake-like, and I would prefer if they didn't flower at all, but I'm in the minority certainly. But give me a Stewartia over a Crepe Myrtle any day. The Lagerstroemia genus was named for the Swede Magnus von Lagerström, a merchant who supplied Carolus Linnaeus with plants. The debate over whether the common name should be Crape Myrtle or Crepe Myrtle is not interesting to me, so that's that.

Bass Pond

Tsuga caroliniana

Taxodium distichum

The paths covered some distances and the woody areas were nice, with Tsuga carolinianas hovering over the canopy. Funky bridges were cute, and Bass pond was tranquil. A large Taxodium distichum was showing off its "knees," its root projections called pneumatophores. Some scientists think they provide oxygen to the roots, or help to stabilize the trees in soft muddy soil. Taxodium ascendens produces knees as well (at my nursery) and also Glyptostrobus and Metasequoia. For the most part autumn color had not yet arrived in Asheville, and its delay was explained as due to the unusual wet summer.

Unknown mushroom species

Maybe I'm not being fair to Biltmore's garden with my lack of enthusiasm. And maybe that was due to our mid-day visit to the Biltmore winery, and an overstay in the tasting room, where I exited half-sauced, and continued on to purchase a bottle of their excellent pinot noir...which is what I am drinking this evening while writing this. I will possibly be accused of arrogance by concluding that I could have done better in both home and landscape, if I had Vanderbilt's bank account.

The Critikos Estate

Dr. Critikos (left) with 'Miss Grace'
Alexander and Gerri Critikos

The next morning we were bused to the Critikos garden, home of Dr. John and Gerri Critikos. After a short ride to Flat Rock on very serene country roads, a beautiful brick house appeared with a garden on the slope below. I had met the good Dr. C. the previous day and found both him and his wife most likable. What good people!...but poor Dr. John was afflicted with a serious case of "Maple and Conifer Fever," what one son described as his "positive stress ball." I was pleased to be photographed with the doctor next to my introduction of Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Miss Grace' and found his plant enthusiasm to be energizing. At 9:30 in the morning we were fueled by Mimosas and Bloody Marys after exiting their house, and I couldn't help but to reflect that this was my ideal Carolinian home, much more so than the...stretched opulence of the Biltmore Estate.

The Critikos landscape

Many of the plants in the Critikos garden, including the 'Miss Grace' "Dawn Redwood," were purchased cheaply at the local Ace Hardware. They were dumped on the market by Iseli Nursery of Oregon, who had previously bought and bought and bought (including from me) even when they knew previously they would eventually declare bankruptcy. They are also dumping at Home Depot on the east coast, which infuriates legitimate independent garden centers who have to pay full price. And it certainly doesn't help my company at all. Anyway, that's why I fear I may go to hell for buying two bananas at the Box. In no way, of course, do I blame Dr. C. for buying low.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Little Champion'
Thuja occidentalis cultivar

Cercis canadensis 'The Rising Sun'

The Critikos Collection is still in its infancy, and now looks a lot like mine when I started. Eventually crowding occurs and the chainsaw comes into play. Besides, with his Fever, he has just started and will want to add many new plants. At some point the entire lawn might go.


Acer palmatum

In awe of the great maple

Hopewood's giant maple

The giant Buchholz oak

We were promised something "awesome" at Hopewood, Dr. C.'s neighbor. Word leaked out that a huge maple was the anchor of their garden, and sure enough a fantastic specimen of Acer palmatum was larger than any other I can remember seeing, including in Japan. The tree was healthy and I imagined a few hundred people could easily stand beneath its canopy. I supposed the owner is like me with my huge oak, Quercus garryana, that after every nightly windstorm, in the morning we peek out the window to make sure it is still standing. Don't succumb on my watch!

In my mind I'm going to Carolina. Can't you see the sunshine, can't you just feel the moonshine?...And it seems like it goes on like this forever, you must forgive me if I'm up and gone to Carolina in my mind.

-James Taylor.

1 comment:

  1. being a resident of NC, I have never even been to Biltmore, always seemed kind of tacky to me.........
    enjoyed the reading though :)