Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sunny bed 1

As per our agreement, Karen left me the long sunny beds on the SE property line to weed. The bed nearest the front of the property (in the foreground) has an eclectic mix of plants from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. I call it, for ease of discussion, "Sunny Bed 1."There is a significant proportion of Florida scrub natives, maybe 30%. The second bed, is a little less confused, containing mostly Florida scrub natives, three plants from South Africa, and a couple from Mexico.

Sunny Bed 1 was constructed a year ago, in August 2007. The initial planting included the Pinus palustris, the 'Knockout' roses, the transplanted Podocarpus, the Aloe saponaria (flowering in front), and the variegated Agave in the middle. The Aloe is one that I transplanted from an existing colony on the other side of the property; I split the group up and sited the transplants so that they would provide some visual continuity/rhythm through repetition. I think that's working, but what I know is working is the fact that these flowers are hummingbird magnets. The end of this bed is the Meyer lemon that appears to be just beyond and left of the variegated agave.

I added some interesting plants to the front of this bed in April of this year. Two Puyas, exotic Chilean xeric bromeliads that will eventually bear, one blue and the other purple flowers. One Puya is visible to the left and behind the Aloe, the other is hidden to the right of the limestone boulder. Strange strange plants. From Yucca Do Nursery, I planted Agave stricta, which you can see to the left of the Puya. They are small now but they have only been in the ground 4 months and they survived 7 weeks with total rainfall of .54". Farther back and out of view is another wonderful Agave, Agave tenuifolia, ex Brad Evans. Both of these produce fine-leafed rosettes that will provide wonderful texture and punctuation in the planting. Still farther back is Aloe polyphylla, the Spiral aloe from Plant Delights Nursery. I grew this plant for two years in a pot in Adelphi and it never "spiralled" but it is beginning to now. My theory is that leaf positioning depends on either the movement of the sun (likely), or an electromagnetic awareness of position (not so likely). Either way, moving the pot changes the relation of the plant to either determiner and so disrupts that special spiral arrangement.....? I do have some odd theories though.

Wilcox Nursery

Wilcox Nursery is the first place I bought Florida native plants, and after visiting a handful of other Florida natives nurseries, though they are all good and some very good, I seem to have developed an attachment to Wilcox's. Maybe its the staff; much knowledge, especially Bruce Turley, who unfortunately, I missed today. I took this picture today on a small detour from the airport to Wildwood. This is the sort of old-fashioned nursery I love....And they have a tremendous selection of natives that they stock in quantities sufficient to do large plantings!

Not exclusively native, they had beautiful 3 gallon Monstera deliciosa, (or whatever) and one will grow at the base of a Live Oak and hopefully appress its large dissected leaves to the trunk. Did acquire 4 native taxa: Chrysopsis floridiana, Palafoxia integrifolia, Liatris gracilis, and Piloblephis rigida. I don't even know one of these plants, the Palafoxia. I know from the label that its an annual with pink flowers that is an important nectar and food plant for certain butterflies. On-line research tells me farther that Its a composite whose range is limited to Florida and Georgia, it prefers sandy soils, and requires little water. It is an interesting experience to discover, in a retail nursery, a plant whose genus I have never encountered. And exciting! Time to go home and see the neglected garden!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Countdown to Florida Garden

There will be no picture today; it's all happening in my imagination. Tomorrow is the day that I go back to the Florida garden for the first time since early April. I have been getting hints, tidbits of information from Karen, who drove down a week ago Thursday. I know the Bismarckia is alive though it has retreated from 5 leaves to one larger one, but Karen assures me that two more are close to opening. The Butterfly Ginger, Hedychium coronarium, is flowering; this is a problematic plant in that it would, in a perfect world, prefer a much moister environment than it has now. Like the rest of us, it has apparently adapted.

Karen tells me that the Aloes (mostly Aloe saponaria) are flowering and they are hummingbird magnets. Every winter, the Smithsonian produces a series of programs for continuing education in Horticulture. This past winter one of the programs featured Bill Hilton Jr. presenting "Operation Ruby Throat". This is, very briefly, a research program under which hummingbirds are banded at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in South Carolina during the months when they are there. In the winter (January and February) when they have migrated, Bill (Hilton) takes groups of volunteers to Costa Rica and bands there. Apparently before this project started, there was little awareness of where hummingbirds went in the winter and no hard data. That's changing now. Bill and his volunteers have actually recaptured birds in Costa Rica that had been banded in South Carolina. When they finally located the wintering grounds they discoved that the hummingbirds were frequenting fields of Aloes. Aloe is at the top of the list of tropical plants that hummingbirds prefer. But that reminds me of the Hamelia patens, Firebush, not a pornographic reference, but a plant native to the coastal plain, including Florida, and also favored by hummers. It is supposed to be only root hardy in 9A, but I wonder.....Well, I'll find out tomorrow and let you know.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Franklinia alatamaha at the National Arboretum, we keep two specimens of an endanged species alive....

Franklinia alatamaha is one of those enigmas that you do encounter from time to time. It is a plant with a story; discovered on the banks of the Alatamaha River in Georgia in 1765 by John and William Bartram (colonial botanists, father and son). Every plant in existence today is descended from seeds collected by William on a later trip; it was never seen in the wild after 1803. This is not a plant of average or nondescript appearance. It is beautiful with glossy leaves and these spectacular white flowers with orange stamens.

It's not an easy plant to grow and so is rarely encountered as a specimen of any size or quality. A number of theories have been proposed to explain this,but my conclusion after having spent almost 40 years unsuccessfully trying to grow it!, is that is is just a weak plant. The weakness seems to be in its vascular system; it grows nicely to about 6-7 feet and then things begin to go bad. There are theories that connect it's intransigence with a fungus that exists in areas where cotton was once grown, but I don't know...A friend of mine grows great 3 gallon pots (Cam Too Nursery) but keeping them going is another story!

We have two plants, one >15', one ~9', that we received from our Germplasm Unit as ~54" tree-spaded plants. We got them last spring and babied them through one of the worst droughts in Washington DC history. They're both alive now and both have set flower buds. The flower in the picture is on a plant just below the new section of the Flowering Tree Walk, south of the Capitol Columns. The other plant is in the corner of Hickey Run and ValleyRoad.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Stapelia gigantea.....The sentimental and the disgusting

Stapelia gigantea, is, sensibly enough, a species of Stapeliad, a tribe (group of related genera) in the Dogbane Family, Apocynaceae. They are succulent plants, primarily but not exclusively, native to Africa. It is a curious alliance; the plants are oddly constructed and bear symmetrical flowers in a variety of forms that are unconventionally beautiful. This is the commonest one and I had the species from my Grandmother. That would be sentimental except that I somehow lost it...I don't remember how. Either I gave it away or froze it. I can't imagine another way to kill it!.......But wait we resentimentalize; About 15 years ago I was talking to the late Hildreth Morton, for 40 years the proprietress of Bittersweet Hills (herb) Nursery, a woman not afraid to speak her mind. We were looking at a weedy scraggly specimen of hers. She always had wonderful, unusual, interesting plants, plants you wouldn't see in other nurseries, but they frequently needed work after you got them home! I got to reminiscing about my Grandmother's plants and Hildreth, in a most un-Hildrethlike way, got all soft and broke off a big piece of this and gave it to me. She was a wonderful woman and I would have loved her anyway. I am careful not to leave it out too late in the fall.

That's the sentimental part; the disgusting part is that this species, like many other Stapeliads, and a good percentage of desert plants, emits a floral odor of dead meat in order to attract the blowflies that then pollinate it. If you look closely at the center of this plant you can see the strategy is working effectively.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Downy or Ashy Sunflower....Helianthus mollis

If you drive by the Fern Valley Prairie this week, or next, you will mostly see one plant, this one, Helianthus mollis. It is fairly rowdy, that may be an understatement; it has spread by seed and pretty much taken over the entire area. The construction doesn't faze it one bit. Maybe not a plant that you would want in your suburban garden except for the fact that it can hold, by my actual count, 7 goldfinches and the flower stem didn't even bend. That's pretty good. Wish I had gotten a picture. I do have pictures, not good ones, with 5 goldfinches on Verbena bonariensis, but the 2' stem is bent double and almost touches the ground!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Catbird in front of Sky Pencil Holly in Adelphi

Mockingbirds are good company, they sing beautifully in the middle of the night, camped on a utility wire or a chimney or just the peak of the roof. I like wrens for their cheerful unceasing song, but unceasing to me can be incessant to others...they do drive some people crazy. Bluejays are beautiful but obnoxious, goldfinches are magical, but they come and go, cardinals are both pleasant in demeanor and appearance, but I like catbirds because they like me. You have to love a bird that will follow you around the garden just to be with you! And they do have an intriguing range of vocalizations; a meowing catlike sound, and a curious high-pitched song. But its their willingness to spend time with people that I like. As bird pictures go, this isn't great, but I had to take it. He challenged me by staying in the open almost withing arms reach for half an hour.

There are other birds that spend time around people. Towhees behave much like catbirds in this respect; when I am in Fern Valley, as long as I am in their territory, they maintain a proximity. They are less likely to be encountered in a suburban garden though and they spend most of their time rooting through the duff layer looking for insects. If you pay attention in the woods you can actually locate them by the sound they make scratching around in the underbrush. They are more difficult to see down there on the beneath the shrubs, but occasionally they will hop up into one and look at you. They are handsome birds both the male and female. They don't seem to range about so much as catbirds either, I know where I'll find them; there is one that forages around the entrance to Fern Valley, usually on the right as you come in from the road.