Friday, May 19, 2017

Plant Assignments

I don't suffer assignments gladly. Being told that I need to do something or decide on something instantly can irk me – like a non-listed plant, "is it for sale and how much?" Or, so and so needs a photo of this $50 tree to make sure it meets his client's expectations. Damn, it's winter and raining and the plant in question is jammed into a row with others – if we can find it at all – and a photo won't do you any good anyway. I grumble but then usually oblige.

Acer shirasawanum 'Mikado'

Likewise, writing plant descriptions for labels, or to fill out our website descriptions can be a tedious task. I must give a brief synopsis that highlights the basics like winter hardiness, whether to plant in sun or shade, what is the autumn leaf color etc. The problem is that I don't always know. Maybe I've only had the plant for a couple of years, so I don't really know how large it will get. I especially cringe when I pronounce the winter hardiness, and I wonder if a new maple like Acer shirasawanum 'Mikado' can actually survive at -20 degrees F, USDA Zone 5 as I say. Furthermore I admit to cheating when I say that it will grow to "10' tall by 5' wide in 10 years," because my tree is already 12' tall in 8 years. I deliberately tone down the size because most gardeners in the various regions of the United States are not as privileged as we are in western Oregon with our delicious soil and plentiful water and our benign climate, and their specimen will never grow as fast as it does in my garden.

Allium beesianum

Anyway, in spite of my aversion to writing plant descriptions, I spent Sunday catching up on new acquisitions, even though many of them might never make it to a sales list. One such would be Allium beesianum. My description gives the common name as "Beesianum Chinese Onion." In clipped label-friendly sentences I write, "A Chinese perennial native to slopes and meadows at altitudes of 9000-13,000'. Green grassy leaves form mounds and are topped with small blue flowers in summer. Prefers sun/partial shade in well-drained soil. 8" tall by 10" wide in 10 years. Hardy to -20 degrees F, USDA Zone 5."

Arthur Bulley

Due to space limitations I cannot elaborate to mention that A. beesianum, from Yunnan and Sichuan – an area where I have generally been – is one of the few true blue-flowered Allium species, that there is only 17 species out of 850 Allium species with the blue coloration. Also, it blooms in late August to September when little else is in flower. The plant was first classified in 1914 by Scottish botanist Sit William Wright Smith (1875-1956)  and was named for the Bees Seed company founded by Arthur Bulley (1861-1942), a rich cotton merchant from Cheshire. Bulley* used his wealth to good purpose, employing the likes of George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward to collect plants from South America, China and Africa for his garden – The Ness Botanic Garden – which still exists upon a conditioned trust to the University of Liverpool. In my library is A Pioneering Plantsman: A.K. Bulley and the Great Plant Hunters by Brenda Mclean, so you can see that when my pretty onion blooms I am reminded of the golden years of plant exploration. I take no plant in my garden for granted; every one of them has a story, and it adds immensely to the pleasure of a plant when you know something of it's history.

*The Bulley family motto was Tenax propositi, or “tenacious of purpose.” Bulley once said, “He who hath two loaves, sell one and buy anemones, for flowers are the food of the soul.”

And by the way, I don't truly know if the A. beesianum is hardy to USDA Zone 5, as I have read, because I also see from another source that it is only hardy to USDA Zone 7, and that difference would spell survival or death of the onion for most of the American gardening public.

Dryopteris wallichiana

Nathaniel Wallich

Another description that I cranked out was for Dryopteris wallichiana, or "Wallich's Alpine Wood Fern." I explain that it's "a semi-evergreen fern native to the Himalaya, Hawaii and Mexico. Light green fronds contrast with dark brown ribs. Prefers sun/partial shade in well-drained soil. 3' tall by 3' wide in 10 years. Hardy to -20 degrees, USDA Zone 5." As you can see, my description is in the same format as that for Allium beesianum, and I can almost write these in my sleep. How accurate they are is another matter, but certainly they are quite forgettable. I planted the Wallich's fern in the fall years ago but it perished when we experienced an arctic blast of 0 degrees F and 30 mph winds the following winter. After 20 years I have replanted another and at least it survived last winter. As an after thought, after my label description was completed, I pulled Richie Steffen and Sue Olsen's The Plant lover's Guide to Ferns from the shelf – which I should have done originally – and find that they list hardiness to zones 6-8. They're the experts, so go with zones 6-8! But the best part of their fern book is the poetry, at least for me. For Distinctive Features I read, "Warm, butter yellow, arching foliar pinnate – pinnatifid plumes erupt in mid to late spring from an erect rhizome." Wow, warm erupting plumes! Who then, wouldn't want to grow Dryopteris wallichiana?

Roscoea cautleyoides 'Jeffrey Thomas'

If I acquire a new plant from a company such as Far Reaches Nursery in Washington state, often I can plagiarize from their label, and if I just change a few words I can make it seem like my original. They describe Roscoea cautleyoides 'Jeffrey Thomas' as "A selected form from England notable for pale cream flowers which are lighter than typical for the species. We're just over the moon about Roscoeas and this uncommon selection is certainly in the top tier. All the allure of a hardy orchid without the expense. Trouble free pretty much." I don't go "over the moon" like they do, but I did copy their size and hardiness, seeing as how they have grown it longer than I have. We both grow ours in partial shade, so I'm guessing that is what's best for everybody.  That Roscoea is in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family I already knew, but I thought it worth repeating in my description.

Campanula latiloba 'Alba'

Another fun plant from Far Reaches is Campanula latiloba 'Alba', a rambunctious bell-flower that I describe as a "A slow spreading perennial with green foliage. In late spring 2'stems of outward-facing pure white flowers rise above the foliage. Prefers sun/partial shade in well-drained soil. Hardy to 0 degrees F, USDA Zone 7." I copy Far Reaches and imply that it is "slow spreading," or as they put it "controllably spreading." We are growing it in our relatively small basketball court, and I can see that every year we should reduce its perimeter by about one third. These "controllably spreading clumps" could easily be potted up for sale, but I'm afraid that I'm unknown for Campanula, and no matter how choice it is, I'm not certain that I would find customers. But if you would like a start for free let me know... or better yet: spend the money and buy one from Far Reaches.

Tricyrtis macrantha ssp. macranthopsis

The botanic name of Tricyrtis macrantha ssp. macranthopsis is a cumbersome epithet, so lets just call it the "Japanese Toad Lily." The photo above doesn't show it but the insides of the funnel-shaped flowers are adorned with brownish-purple dots. The dark green leaves are narrowly lanceolate so they don't get in the way of the blossoms; the tidy fountain blooms in summer, and just so you know the flowers are bisexual. Supposedly it is the mottled coloration of the flowers that gave rise to the common name of "Toad Lily," or maybe since the plant thrives in moist shade, toads were possibly found beneath the leaves. This common name of "lily" is not far-fetched since the genus is indeed a member of the Liliaceae family.

Epimedium grandiflorum var. higoense 'Bandit'

Epimedium grandiflorum var. higoense 'Bandit'

We have long had Epimediums in the garden, but I've always resisted the urge to propagate and sell them. Good thing because now there is a gardening craze and new cultivars are popping up all the time. Since we are relatively late to the Epimedium party, we'll let others peddle them and we're content to just grow a few in the gardens. We got to the start of 'Bandit' a few years ago and I describe it as a "Deciduous Asian species forming a clump with small green leaves edged in purple. Small creamy-white "bishop's hat" flowers rise above the foliage in May. Very cute, from Japan..." I should be precise and list the full botanic name – Epimedium grandiflorum var. higoense 'Bandit' – and the var. higoense in Japanese refers to Higo* ikariso – the plant name from a location in southern Kyushu, Japan. Grandiflorum is an epithet for "large showy flowers," even though the dwarf 'Bandit's' flowers are too petite for that. Epimedium's name is a mystery, as the genus in the Berberidaceae family is derived from Greek epimedion, from epi + medion, a species of Campanula. Epi is from Greek for "on, at or besides,"  and, as in epicenter it can mean "outer." Does the word Epimedium refer to the fact that the flowers are "outside" and hover above the foliage?

*An ancient denizen of Higo – now known as Kumamoto Prefecture – was known as a stubborn, eccentric person who could never be convinced to change his mind. Fortunately today it means someone with a generous heart that you can take at his word.

Gladiolus dalenii 'Bolivian Peach'

Oxalis bowiei

Gladiolus dalenii is – according to me – "An upright perennial with long blades of gray-green foliage. Orange and yellow flowers appear in late summer/early fall. Prefers full sun in a well-drained soil. 3' tall by 1' wide in 10 years. Hardy to 0 degrees F, USDA Zone 7." Both of my grandmothers had glads in their garden, so why am I now – 50 years later – bragging about them in my collection? I first acquired G. dalenii from my Grandfather who gave me an extra pot, but even he couldn't remember where his came from. It turned out to be a two-for-one, where Oxalis bowiei was implanted in the same pot. So now one blooms after the other, and both are choice wonderful plants, but I keep my pot inside as neither are reliably hardy in Oregon. G. dalenii ranges from South Africa throughout tropical Africa into western Arabia, and it is a prominent species used in large-flowering hybrids. It is commonly known as Dalen's Gladiolus after Dalen van Geel, or Isidwi Esibomvn in Africa. Gladiolus is named after the Latin word gladius meaning "sword" due to the long and pointed leaves. It is not surprising, then, that gladiator shares the same origin, and furthermore it is said that gladiators wore Gladiolus corms around their necks during battles for protection. No wonder that the Gladiolus flower symbolizes strength and integrity, and also not surprising that the genus is a member of the Iris family. And, for you softies out there, the Gladiolus is the August birth flower, and also the 40th anniversary flower because it symbolizes infatuation and remembrance.

Ypsilandra thibetica

Regular Flora Wonder Blog readers know that I often sing the praises of the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Federal Way, Washington. My visits are a total day's event where nearly eight hours is spent driving the round trip for every two hours in the garden. But there hasn't been a visit yet where I didn't stumble into something new – and it's not always Rhododendrons. A couple of years ago I discovered the ghostly flowers of Ypsilandra thibetica in early spring, and apparently the propagator had great success with them because they were also reasonably priced on the tables in the sales area. I planted mine in the shade of the basketball court and the frothy white flowers rose about 10" above the evergreen perennial, and did so in mid March when little else was in flower. What is surprising is that Ypsilandra is considered a "new" plant for discerning gardeners, yet it was described by the botanist Adrien Rene Franchet in 1888. Franchet was in the right place at the right time in his position as botanist at the Paris Museum National d' Histoire Naturelle, and he described the flora of Japan and China from collections made by French missionaries Armand David, Pierre Delavay, Paul Farges, Jean-Andre Soulie and others.

Rhododendron 'Ever Red'

Rhododendron 'Ever Red'

I first saw the intriguing Rhododendron 'Ever Red' at the Rhododendron Species Garden, and it too was offered on the sale's tables. It appears to be dwarf, slow-growing and somewhat leggy when young, but it's leaves – especially on the new growth – are a rich purple-red. Mine bloomed this spring and I enjoyed the deep red flowers. It originated as a hybrid at the famous Glendoick Nursery in eastern Scotland, owned by plantsmen Peter and Ken Cox. It is probably hardy to 10 degrees F, USDA Zone 8, and I find that it performs best with PM shade.

Rhododendron 'Wine & Roses'

Another new Rhododendron that I acquired from the Species Garden is 'Wine and Roses', apparently patented in Europe but free to propagate here. It has a compact form, growing to about 3-4' in ten years. It flowers freely with trusses above the foliage, and the blossoms are bright pink before fading to pale pink. The most spectacular feature, though, is the "wine" color apparent on the leaf undersides, especially when the wind blows. 'Wine and Roses' is also a Glendoick hybrid.

Rhododendron nuttallii

Rhododendron nuttallii

I've collected a couple of other Rhododendron species that I encountered in the conservatory at the Species Garden, R. nuttallii and R. boothii. Neither species is hardy so they are housed in my GH20 hot house where I spend lot of money every winter keeping non-profitable plants happy. I love the purple-red new growth on R. nuttallii, and if you're in the conservatory at the right time you will see its large white flowers with yellow throats that are highly fragrant. The best feature for me – since I am a trunk man – is the cinnamon-brown exfoliating bark, the equal in ornamental value to the "Paperbark maple," Acer griseum.

Rhododendron boothii

Thomas Nuttall
For the non-hardy R. boothii my description reads, "An upright evergreen shrub with an open form. Fantastic copper-red new growth on big hairy leaves. Small yellow flowers in spring. From the temperate rainforests of the eastern Himalaya. Prefers partial shade in a well-drained soil. 4' tall by 2.5' wide in 10 years. Hardy to 10 degrees F. USDA Zone 8." My one plant from the Species Garden is still in a one-gallon pot, yet it produced an enormous flower bud that teased me for a month. Finally it opened, and as I described before, the flowers were small, disappointingly so. Still, the luscious reddish-brown leaves make it a species worth growing. Steve Hootman, Director of the Species Garden, calls R. boothii "virtually unknown." He continues that it is slow-growing and requires excellent drainage, and that he has only seen it in the wild growing on the sides of maple trees, rooted into the bark. R. boothii was first described by botanist Thomas Nuttall (of R. nuttallii fame) in 1853. We remembered Nuttall as the English botanist who worked in America from 1808 to 1841. Not only was the Pacific coast dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) named for him, but so was Picoides nuttallii, a woodpecker, and Pica nuttallii, a yellow-billed magpie.

Maybe my problem with writing abbreviated label descriptions is that I am naturally long-winded, especially when it comes to plants. Also, I would rather write about plants when I feel like it, not when someone is waiting for a description. Some customers assume that I know everything, and since I sell plants I also owe them a photo or a description. Ultimately the problem is that I sell plants and that compromises all aspects of growing and understanding them, of totally enjoying them.

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