Saturday, January 17, 2009

The darkest/coldest hour is just before the dawn: literally and metaphorically: It will be much warmer for the Inauguration

As a GPA, 4.0 is great, but as a temperature (F) it's pretty much not so good. I hate to sound like a whiner when so many others are dealing with so much colder temperatures, but this is Washington DC and we're not used to this! Yesterday when it was 12F overnight, meteorologists told us that we hadn't experienced such weather for 5 years. I'm thinking we've got to go back a lot farther to match 4F. The good news is that this morning the wind is supposed to shift to the SW then the S and bring warmer temperatures for the remainder of the Inaugural. On a personal note, I am happy that sub-freezing temperatures did not reach the Florida garden and house with the unprotected plumbing!

I just took this picture of Stenorrynchus speciosus, an orchid that I bought as the NCOS show/sale at the Arboretum this past October. Sitting in the window, lit warmly by the morning sun, it stands in optimistic contrast to the grey bleak garden behind it. I am not familiar with the plant at all. Research tells me it is South American, goes dormant after flowering, blooms around the winter solstice, and is purportedly easily grown in the house. I have been misled before by this last assertion but so far so good. I can see it has abundant thick roots and it has been flowering since Thanksgiving. That's good. And it doesn't take up a lot of space. Again good.

We actually do a good job of reflowering orchids. There are 6 others blooming now that have lived here a year or more. There are about 20 total; another 5 are in spike and 4 have just finished flowering. I am trying to shift the collection towards smaller plants so this will be a great addition if it works. No more mini-cymbidiums. I have planted some of them in Florida where they cheerfully fight their way through the drought. The only question about them is whether they get enough cooling to set flower buds. They aren't that great foliage plants!

Friday, January 16, 2009

NACPEC Fraxinus seed: we cleaned it, planted it, and moved it into warm stratification in pleasant surroundings

Four of us cleaned seed today. More accurately we cleaned Fraxinus seed from the 2008 NACPEC trip. NACPEC, North Americn Chinese Plant Exploration Consortium, is a collaborative group of institutions that pool their resources to sponsor plant collection in China. Cleaning was a tedious process but....not a bad alternative to working outside on a windy 14F day! Anyway, when the seed was finally cleaned, I planted it and moved it into our warm Polyhouse for 3 months of warmth before it goes into the cooler. The warm Polyhouse was a pleasant place on a bitter blustery day.

Apparently Lawrence Lee, the Asian Plants curator that I worked for in the early 90s, went on what is considered the first NACPEC collecting trip. This past year Chris Carley from the USNA was our representative and much of the seed they collected was Fraxinus. They collected a good quantity of seed from a handful of species. Chris mentioned to me that Fraxinus mandshurica was particularly interesting because the Emerald Ash Borer seems less interested in that species than others so that it may be a useful plant for hybridization. Certainly anything that can provide a ray of hope in that area is a good thing!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's going to get cold tonight but it's still a good time to look at fruit capsules

Trochodendron aralioides, The Wheel Tree, is a cool Asian evergreen shrub/small tree. It is curious botanically because, unlike virtually all the rest of the angiosperms, it lacks vascular elements in its wood. Instead of moving water and minerals through vessels made up of these elements, it uses tracheids (another specialized type of xylem cell).

I like it because it's a wonderfully textural evergreen and it has these odd seed capsules. The flowers aren't especially exciting but these follicles. Goodness! The same plant I photographed this week was, in 1990, the first Trochodendron I ever saw. It's still under 15 feet tall a handsome shrub, the mass of it has a nice balanced feel. Not sculptural, but a nice element in the tapestry of winter green in the Japanese Woodland.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Margaret are you grieving?....Musings on leaf management

I worked on leaves today because with temperatures so far below freezing, branches become a bit brittle. I enjoy doing leaves. There isn't a lot of conscious thought involved so you can think about other things. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lately I have been composing my talk for Joan's (Fern Valley) Lahr Symposium. I am going to talk about gently inserting (I hope to come up with a less frightening phrase) native plants into existing gardens. It's curious to spend the day doing leaves in China Valley and considering native plants. Maybe a healthy balance!

Leaf management in the mixed garden is a subject that every gardener, and curator, approaches differently. It would be ideal, in a perfect world, to let the leaves drift down, array themselves as god intended, and only remove those on pathways or whose presence would be harmful to plants (evergreen groundcovers don't like to sit under thick soggy leaves all winter). This precision removal is best done with leaf rakes and is seriously labor intensive. At the other end of the spectrum is the pull-behind tractor blower. Fast and efficient this technique can make quite a mess where the final windrows accumulate. Especially if they end up piled in a brushy woods edge.

Most of us come down somewhere in the middle. Despite its loud noise and terrible smell my tool of choice is the backpack blower. Blowers are seductive instruments; they make it possible to remove essentially every single leaf from a given area. Combining this ability with the natural human tendency towards obsession results in a good deal of compulsive behavior. Twenty-five years ago when our only tools were rakes very few people were tempted to do complete removal. I consciously resist the urge today, restricting this approach to evergreen groundcovers. paths, and turf. I try to redistribute leaves within the garden if it can be done without creating areas where the leaves are exceptionally deep. As far as plant health is concerned, I think you can double the normal leafcover without doing any harm and go a bit deeper for one year. Beware though; too many leaves in one place for more than a year or two can have a harmful effect.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Berberis thibetica: adventures in pruning!

This plant is Berberis thibetica and this is the most colorful natural sawdust I have ever seen! Barberries, mahonias, nandinas (all members of the Berberidaceae) are yellow when you prune them but wow! The intensity of this plant is remarkable. I don't know whether it is a result of genetics or situation but against the brown and gray of a dreary winter day this is some color. It results from the presence of the complex organic ammonium salt, berberine. The native perennial Goldenseal, or Hydrastis, though not in the Berberidaceae is in the related Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae, contains the same chemical, and exhibits the same yellow coloring.

Berberine has been researched for use as an anticancer drug. Results are not final but the compound is used in a variety of treatments. Traditionally it has been used (and still is to a limited extent) as a fabric dye. Hey, it's just one of those remarkable chemical products of plant metabolism. I wish I had brought a piece of wood home because the literature tells me that it fluoresces strongly. I will cut a piece tomorrow and see for myself! What a curious and wonderful world we live in.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Chimonanthus praecox backlit by late afternoon winter sun

Many of the most fragrant shrubs in the garden flower between fall and early spring. Chimonanthus praecox, Wintersweet, is only one of a handful of olfactory delights of the season. Still to come: Prunus mume, Lonicera fragrantissima, Daphne odora, and a number of Viburnums starting with x 'Dawn'. Already past are Osmanthus heterophyllus, O. x fortunei, Eleagnus spp. cvs., and Hamamelis virginiana.

I first met Chimonanthus in the winter planting at Brookside Gardens sometime in the 1970s. It has taken a long time to get a small foothold in the garden center trade. Partly because it flowers here in the Washington area from sometime in late December through late winter when there are few customers in nurseries. Although the flowers in the picture are pleasantly attractive, they are small and the plant itself is large, gawky, and not especially appealing. That doesn't mean that we can't grow it; it just means that we need to think about where we put it. It has to go where we can smell it but where we don't have to look at it! It can be around a corner, in a hedgerow, below a porch or deck...there are a variety of good places. I often (in designs) make it the first shrub around the corner of the house on the least utilized side (beside the garage?). Anyway, put it somewhere because once you smell this plant you will have to have it! The good news is that it is tough and once established, not susceptible to pests, diseases, or drought. While not a native, it rarely seeds and has no invasive tendencies.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Apres MANTS Dinner: Jim Dronenberg explains future construction plans for his and Dan's unbelievable garden at the conclusion of the Garden Tour

Jim Dronenberg and Dan Weil have hosted a yearly Apres MANTS dinner for, I don't know how long but a good many years. This past Saturday, as always is the case, there was food, wondrous in quality and quantity; guests (upwards of 50?) with a formidable aggregate knowledge of plants, horticulture, and gardening; and of course there was the incredible garden. Intermittent rain, sleet, and a generally dismal day weatherwise didn't deter any of us from taking the tour. Even in the middle of January on a hillside in Knoxville Maryland (must be Zone 6 though Jim grows 8 and 9 plants in an sheltered microclimate) there were things happening. One of the less common Sarcococca species, ruscifolia, was in full bloom. They have hundreds and hundreds of Hellebores and we spotted here and there the odd premature flower.

As it has for the past several years, the tour concluded at Jim's limestone amphitheater/bowl. Since the last time I took the tour, he has replaced one of two brick ramps with flagstone-brick steps. It would be interesting to know the weight of the stone, soil, and bricks that he has moved in the construction of this remarkable feature. Anyway, it nears conclusion, at least it's more than half done! Jim has done some planting including a beautiful Lacebark Pine and a short-needled Black Pine cultivar. We all look forward to seeing the next stage!