Le Muguet

 

Lucas Albert Durer (1828-1919) ~ Lily of the Valley (Image Credit: windypoplarsroom); Durer successfully evokes the lily of the valley's cultivation conditions - partially shaded woodland conditions that ferns prefer as well.

Lucas Albert Durer (1828-1919) ~ Lily of the Valley (Image Credit: windypoplarsroom); Durer successfully evokes the lily of the valley’s cultivation conditions – partially shaded woodland conditions that ferns prefer as well.

Last year, I presented my mother with a bouquet of lily of the valley for Mother’s Day. Her delight repaid the time and effort to pick and transport the flowers carefully, leading me to wonder how cultures perceived and interpreted them. The lily of the valley’s cultural ascendency reveals that our fixation with colorful and large flowers does not always hold sway. From being the floral emblem of Ostara, the Norse goddess of the Dawn and Light to its bejeweled representation in the famed jeweler Karl Faberge’s imperial Easter eggs, the lily of the valley has symbolized different European and religious imagery. Its elegance especially captured the fancy of the French.

Robert Doisneau's "Le Muguet du Métro" (Marc and Christiane Chevalier in the Paris Metro) - The woman averts her gaze away from the expectant man on the muguet, which appear remarkably fragile in the hard carapace of the Paris Metro. With his hands clasped and eyes downcast, the man seemingly awaits the woman's reaction as if apologetic for an unspoken wrongdoing.

Robert Doisneau’s “Le Muguet du Métro” (Marc and Christiane Chevalier in the Paris Metro) – The woman averts her gaze away from the expectant man on the muguet, which appear remarkably fragile in the hard carapace of the Paris Metro. With his hands clasped and eyes downcast, the man seemingly awaits the woman’s reaction as if apologetic for an unspoken wrongdoing.

The French celebrate La Fête du Muguet, a tradition that began when the King Charles of France – only ten at the time- was given a bouquet of lily of the valley on May 1st of 1851 and inspired by the floral gesture of luck and prosperity, started to present the ladies of his court with small bunches on the same day. Today small bunches of lily of the valley still are sold each year on May Day. The flower’s hypnotic scent has inspired perfumers, especially French ones, to distill it in hopes of prolonging what seems an unmercifully brief seasonal pleasure.

Diorissimo, René Gruau for Christian Dior, courtesy of agentofstyle.com

Diorissimo, René Gruau for Christian Dior, courtesy of agentofstyle.com

Diorissimo, the fragrance that Edmond Roudnitska created for Christian Dior in 1955, is perhaps the most famous distillation of the lily of the valley. Dior himself was enamored with this flower,  it as the sign of his couture business and even sewed flowering sprigs in the dresses’ hems (the scent would trail the models’ sashaying down the catwalk). He transposed the lily of the valley as a floral motif in his dresses as well.

The Muguet dress by Christian Dior (Photo Credit: Dior);  Dior has beautifully captured the dainty bells of the lily of the valley  in the tiered layers of the dress.

The Muguet dress by Christian Dior (Photo Credit: Dior); Dior has beautifully captured the dainty bells of the lily of the valley in the tiered layers of the dress.

Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain was another French couturier taken with the lily of the valley, creating a fragrance in 1840, and the house of Guerlain continues to produce it in limited quantities since 2005. Sadly, like some desirable scented flowers, the lily-of-the-valley has resisted the efforts of the perfumery science to capture its essence and what passes as the lily-of-the-valley in cosmetics is a synthetic product.

Lalique Clairefontaine by Rene Lalique in 1931 (Image Credit: Crystal Classics)

Lalique Clairefontaine by Rene Lalique in 1931 (Image Credit: Crystal Classics)

The lily of the valley’s simple beauty and the arching lines beloved by artisans and craftsmen working in the style of Art Nouveau, saw it cast in glass, jewels and metals. In one of Faberge’s imperial East eggs, the lily of the valley drape the pedestal, snaking upwards around the surface. On a crystal bottle, Rene Lalique reworked the flowers as spraying forth from the neck as if their scent was being dispensed. Inspired by the lily of the valley’s serpentine lines, the German ceramic firm Villeroy & Boch moulded the flowers fanning out from the center of a glazed earthenware plate.

Faberge's Lilies of the Valley Egg (Image Credit:  http://expertdiamant.wordpress.com/)

Faberge’s Lilies of the Valley Egg (Image Credit: http://expertdiamant.wordpress.com/)

 

Villeroy & Boch earthenware plate with a spiral of lily of valley  (Photo Credit: Victoria &  Albert Museum)

Villeroy & Boch earthenware plate with a spiral of lily of valley (Photo Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)

Modern fashion designers have not overlooked the lure of the lily of the valley. Taking their cue from Dior, the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana designed a lily of the valley dress for the Spring 2013 collection. Taking liberties with botanical accuracy, the designers depict the flowers open-faced and multi-clustered like those of Myosotis (forget-me-not) or Ixia and leaves broad dabs of green, all made striking transposed against the black satiny fabric. Several female celebrities were clearly beckoned to don the dress in all its iterations.

The Lily of the Valley Dress from the Spring 2013 Dolce & Gabbana Collection (Photo Credit:  Dolce & Gabbana via Lyst)

The Lily of the Valley Dress from the Spring 2013 Dolce & Gabbana Collection (Photo Credit: Dolce & Gabbana via Lyst)

Audrey Hepburn had the clear sense to let the genuine article speak for themselves, gracing her gamine, but beautiful features with a lavish lily of the valley bouquet. Dressed simply in a bridal gown, she saw little need for adornment except for simple pearl earrings. Hepburn understood the qualities that made lily of the valley Dior’s favorite flower, and the pleasure the bouquet it likely gave her was the same that made my mother smile on Mother’s Day.

~Eric

Audrey Hepburn with a bouquet of lily of the valley - two icons of elegance, one gamine actress and a dainty woodland flower

Audrey Hepburn with a bouquet of lily of the valley – two icons of elegance, one gamine actress and a dainty woodland flower

 

Winter Flower Arrangement

Cut stems of rosemary have been carefully aligned and glued to the vase, concealing the maze of stems inside.

Cut stems of rosemary have been carefully aligned and glued to the vase, concealing the maze of stems inside.

This winter floral arrangement is essentially a natural potpourri of scented flowers that are wonderful together, as well as falling within similar colors (white, green, and pink). It incorporates the following plants:

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s walking stick, contorted hazelnut)

Daphne odora (daphne)

Eucalyptus (eucalyptus)

Hedera rhombea ‘Creme de Menthe’ (variegated Japanese ivy)

Helleborus x hybridus (hellebore)

Jasminum polyanthum (pink jasmine)

Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary)

Viburnum tinus (laurestine)

Note: The hellebore flowers will not last more than a day and will need to be replaced – if a substitute is desired, ranunculus will work well.

The rosemary stems are first affixed to the sides of the vase before the main arrangement. Inside the vase, Hedera rhombea ‘Creme de Menthe’ and eucalyptus form a foliar scaffolding through which Viburnum tinus and Helleborus x hybridus are woven. Lastly, the jasmine and contorted filbert are gingerly tucked in, spilling out of the vase.

~Eric

Close-up detail: The twisted branches of Corylus avellana 'Contorta' mirror the twining flowers of Jasminum polyanthum, adding movement to the arrangement.

Close-up detail: The twisted branches of Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ mirror the twining flowers of Jasminum polyanthum, adding movement to the arrangement.

The unopened buds of Jasminum polyanthum are a rich red violet, the same hue as Helleborus x hybridus, fading to pale pink, picked up by Daphne odora and Viburnum tinus. The variegated leaves of Hedera rhombea 'Creme de Menthe' breaks up the solid greens of the arrangement - 'the cream' that floats to the surface.

The unopened buds of Jasminum polyanthum are a rich red violet, the same hue as Helleborus x hybridus, fading to pale pink, picked up by Daphne odora and Viburnum tinus. The variegated leaves of Hedera rhombea ‘Creme de Menthe’ breaks up the solid greens of the arrangement – ‘the cream’ that floats to the surface.

Allowing the jasmine and contorted filbert to spill out from the confines of the arrangement prevents the look from being too stiff.

Allowing the jasmine and contorted filbert to spill out from the confines of the arrangement prevents the look from being too stiff.

Placed in the airy bathroom, the floral arrangement is a potpourii of winter fragrances.

Placed in the airy bathroom, the floral arrangement is a potpourii of winter fragrances.

Winter Flowers: Daphne

Daphne odora f. alba

Daphne odora f. alba

As the Chinese New Year (Year of the Horse) approaches at the end of January, my thoughts turn to the traditional container plants, like Prunus mume and citrus, which herald this auspicious holiday. Where winters are mild, daphnes coincide with Chinese New Year when they perfume the garden courtyards. They are usually Daphne odora, a species with a long history of cultivation.

Dahlia odora 'Maejima'

Dahlia odora ‘Maejima’

The Chinese once valued Daphne odora as a pot plant for its fragrance as well as planting it in their gardens. In Garden Plants of China (1999), Peter Valder cites a story of a sleeping monk who dreamed of a memorable fragrance and upon waking, sought and found the source of the scent, a plant he named Shuixiang (Sleeping Scent). Like other garden plants, Daphne odora was probably introduced to Japan from China. Several variegated varieties, such as Daphne odora ‘Maejima’, are valued by the Japanese. Taking their cue from east Asia and certainly seduced by the daphne’s scent, the Victorians grew this species in the conservatories and hothouses in the 19th century.

The gawky habit of Daphne odora resists pruning since lateral growths are rarely produced unless drastically cut closer and on mature wood. Complicating matters is the production of flowers in terminal inflorescences. My inclination is to let the plant mature more and then re-evaluate pruning, and in the meantime, one has to overlook the sparse branching. Viruses do plague Daphne odora  – yellowing or dying foliage and stunted growth are telltale symptoms. Tissue culture has done much to reduce the incidence of viruses as older stock propagated by cuttings became contaminated over time.

The starry flowers are set in clusters like brooches against the wavy dark green foliage.

The starry flowers are set in clusters like brooches against the wavy dark green foliage.

Daphne bholua is a familiar, welcome sight in Europe and Australia during winter when its starry flowers purple in bud and pink-blushed fully open wafted its intoxicating fragrance. Pronounced ‘bo-lua’, bholua takes its origin from the Nepalese name bhulu-swa. It is found in forests between 7,000 and 11,000 ft (2000 to 3350 m) in mountainous regions of Nepal and Bhutan. Plants at lower elevations tend to be more evergreen than those higher above that are semi-evergreen to deciduous, and selections from the latter will be clearly harder. Sadly for those in colder climates, Daphne bholua is more tender than Daphne odora, requiring frost protection as young plants and preferring sheltered sites for success. Seed-grown plants are slow to flower, but grafted or tissue-cultured plants will flower young. The habit of D. bholua is taller and fuller than that of D. odora, therefore formative pruning is less of an issue. 

Both daphnes make excellent cut flowers that emanate their fragrance in a warm room. Inside their fragrance may be too overpowering for some noses, but they chase away the winter blues, reminding us that the cold months are not without its floral interests.

Daphne bholua

Daphne bholua

Winter Flowers: Mahonias

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December can be a bleak month for flowers unless you count the odd, brave snowdrop  or a precocious witch hazel. The last of autumn leaves have fallen, and the late-flowering asters have gone to seed. While it is true that the bright red hollies can wake up our gray senses, they lack the sensual power of flowers, a strong reason for the magic of gardening. Only do the days become perceptibly longer in late January can we anticipate winter flowers even if they lack the spring pyrotechnics. Often the wait is rewarding for winter flowers can be intensely scented.
Why do these plants expend energy flowering when odds are stacked against them? Winter flowers do not have to vie for pollinators as they would have if spring and summer were their seasons. They’re savvy to recognize that those warm winter spells will revive any hibernating insects needing sustenance for the next cold spell. I am always taken surprise at seeing bees and various members of Hymenoptera (bees) and Diptera (flies) at what seem paltry options in winter. Somehow the plants do succeed when mature, ripe fruit take the flowers’ place later.
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Before Christmas, I can always count mahonias to commence the winter flowering season. Their sprays of yellow flowers glow bright and incandescent in the weak winter light, luring us as much as those hapless pollinators. Sweet and heavy like honey, the mahonia’s perfume can cut through the chill like a scythe in a wheat field. It is faintly suggestive of lily of the valley, but more potent in its intensity. The best mahonia for fragrance remains Mahonia japonica, a species curiously not found in the wild.
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Lax and wide spreading in habit (6 ft tall by 5-7 ft wide), Mahonia japonica can be hard to accommodate in small gardens. And despite being highly scented, the flowers of M. japonica may lack the showiness factor people seek in winter flowering shrubs. Those willing to accept less fragrant, but showier flowers can look towards Mahonia x media.
A hybrid of M. oiwakensis subsp. lomariifolia (syn. M. lomariifolia) and M. japonica, Mahonia x media originated in the batch of open-pollinated seedlings in northern Ireland. One seedling was grown at Savill Gardens, England, where it was named ‘Charity’ (its siblings were respectively named ‘Hope’ and ‘Faith’). Breeders expanded the selections, which vary in flowering times and mature sizes. Generally Mahonia x media tend to form taller, if not tighter, statuesque shrubs than M. japonica. They are surprisingly architectural as their leaves have this precise zig-zag pattern somewhat tiered on the stems.
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Some people are highly dismissive of mahonias’ ranginess over time. Pruning the stems hard to 1′ to 2′ will encourage new shoots to develop – it is advisable to cut in spring for the plant to heal and regenerate rather than autumn or winter. Others might view the leggy stems as an opportunity to underplant with interesting shrubs or perennials to conceal them.
Mahonias do best in mild winter regions. They require protection from winter winds, which can scorch and tatter their beautiful foliage. Although the damage appears cosmetic, the effect is rather distracting for the evergreen leaves can be long-lived. In fact, open and sunny exposed locations are not ideal for mahonias, which tend to be understory shrubs in the wild. I often see robust plants in northern exposures, and in dry shade where other plants would fail. It is a common sight in London to see mahonias somehow flourishing in those dark corners, lurking furtively until their flowers appear, awakening the bleary landscape.