Plantsman’s Corner: Darmera peltata

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I was walking in Salzburg University’ s small but quaint botanical garden a while ago when I stumbled upon two young gardeners (students?) cutting back a big patch of Darmera peltata.  My initial thought was why destroy such a beautifully established plantation, but as kept  walking along the waterway that separates the garden in two, I realized that it had maybe taken over too much ground and needed to give space over to others.  Darmera is not an invasive plant but it certainly knows how to fight its ground. It is very competitive and precious little can dislodge it once established. I left a clump unattended for more than 10 years in a field and when I went back, nothing had succeeded in growing through it, not even tree saplings.

The Darmera rhizomes are very tightly wound together that weeds and other plants have a difficult time establishing a foothold in an established Darmera colony.

The Darmera rhizomes are very tightly wound together that weeds and other plants have a difficult time establishing a foothold in an established Darmera colony.

This giant saxifrage used to be known under the descriptive name of Peltiphyllum (from the Greek peltos, shield, and phyllos, leaf) for its beautiful round plate-size leaves (glossy and slightly concave, unlike the similar but matte and convex Astilboides).  It had just changed name when I encountered it for the first time as a burgeoning gardener twenty years ago.

Darmera is a great bog plant that offers a good contrasting shape to reeds, irises, cattails and other linear marsh dwellers.  It is very easy to grow and although it relishes mud (even if it won’t survive with its rhizomes submerged in water), it will grow happily in ordinary garden soil. It will grow in full sun if the soil is damp, but prefers shade during the hottest part of the day. Although the plant is amenable to drier conditions, the foliage can start to look tired early on and flowering is diminished considerably. Darmera is normally grown as a foliage plant and advertised as such, but under auspicious conditions flowering is abundant and a beautiful sight.

Darmera peltata close up HQEarly in spring, its large pink umbels emerge from the mud on tall crimson stalks.  It is a welcome burst of life at a time of year when little else is out in the bog garden. I have been hopeful to find a white form somewhere but thus far none has materialized.  Perhaps if one went scourging its natural habitat on the West Coast of America in April, one might get lucky.  I haven’t come across a variegated sport either. The only variation I am aware is of a dainty dwarf form aptly called ‘Nana’.  I cannot establish how it originated but it has been around for a long time in the United Kingdom.  Despite its long period of cultivation, ‘Nana’ remains a rarity as it is a very slow growing plant.  Unlike the species, it needs a rich humid spot to do well and does not take kindly to dry conditions. Yet ‘Nana’ is a darling plant that fills a niche since most wetland plants are too aggressive and/or invasive for small ponds.  Its foliage also takes on colourful shades in the autumn more readily than the species and it is often ablaze with golden yellow and red in October here.

Darmera peltata 'Nana'

Darmera peltata ‘Nana’

Both the species and its dwarf form will take a few years to reach their full potential.  One can expect the foliage to be much shorter and smaller the first year and sometimes even the second year after planting. Darmera is not a plant that needs dividing often, mine has been in the same place for nearly 20 years and retains all its vigor.  Some books say that it gets thin in the center after a while, but that’s not my experience or what I have observed from other gardens. New rhizomes seem to fill gaps made by old ones that die out and the clumps remain dense for very many years.

Darmera peltata is one of the rare herbaceous perennials whose foliage will turn beautifully coppery red in autumn.

Darmera peltata is one of the rare herbaceous perennials whose foliage will turn beautifully coppery red in autumn.

As I looked at the Darmera removal operation in Salzburg, a second thought came to my mind.  These gardeners were going to need a lot of will power to dig this network of rhizomes after they finish cutting back the foliage.  They did not seem very enthusiastic, let’s hope there was machinery available nearby.

~ Philippe Lévesque

Hellebores at the Northwest Garden Nursery, Oregon

DSC_0487Were hellebores to flower at the peak of the spring entourage rather than late winter to early spring, they would not be as popular as they are with the horticultural cognoscenti. These herbaceous perennials, European and east Asian in distribution, have universal appeal that spans temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Going from John Massey’s poly houses of hellebores during February in England to Barb Jennings’s flowering plants during June in Tasmania, Australia, is a momentous lesson of popular garden plants. Part of their popularity owes to their remarkable promiscuity that a complex heritage has produced Helleborus x hybridus, and few interspecific crosses once thought untenable have been achieved through biotechnology ingenuity. Marketed along with cyclamen and primroses, these interspecific hybrids now appear in the potted plant section of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. However, Helleborus hybridus (once classified under Helleborus orientalis, a true species itself and uncommon in cultivation) has received the most scrutiny from plant breeders. The British and Germans have been breeding hellebores seriously for decades; Eric Smith whose breeding work with hostas yielded ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Moon’, hybridized and grew hundreds of seedlings in the 1960s, as did Helen Ballard who acquired species from the Balkans to enhance her genetic material. Adding to the British hellebore breeding circles was Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery who did much to popularize these plants, as well as Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery who was among the first to introduce a double-flowered seed strain Party Dress. Ashwood Nurseries, under Kevin Belcher and John Massey’s direction, developed their famed selections on these earlier breeders’ work. The German plantswoman Gisela Schmiemann who published a photographic tribute to Helen Ballard refined her seed strain sold under the Lady Series. Today the bloodlines of British and German hellebores are perpetuated within Winter Jewels™ series, the magnum opus of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne’s two-decade painstaking work.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom'

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom’

The O’Byrnes did not develop an interest in hellebores until they saw beautiful examples depicted in Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman’s The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, a book that was the source of Americans’ covetous envy at what the British grew. These hellebores were leagues away from the muddy colors and poor forms that plagued strains sold in United States.

The book that launched the O'Byrnes' lifelong passion for hellebores.

The book that launched the O’Byrnes’ lifelong passion for hellebores.

Motivated by the book’s pictures, the O’Byrnes first obtained seed from the hellebore specialists Will McLewin and Gisela Schmiemann. It took a seminal visit with friends to Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, England to convert them into full-time hellebore breeders. At least several dozen Ashwood hellebores, augmented by those from Blackthorn and the Dutch nursery De Hessenhof, were successfully imported to Eugene, Oregon where the O’Byrnes reside and garden.

Double-flowered selections are one of O'Byrnes' cornerstones in their breeding work.

Double-flowered selections are one of O’Byrnes’ cornerstones in their breeding work.

Eugene, 2 1/2 hours south of Portland, Oregon, has an ideal climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 70s and 40s F, despite being 100 miles inland and less within the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Because hellebores still continue to grow throughout the year, the mild climate encourages earlier maturity and consequently earlier flowering than elsewhere in United States. Ernie said that growing essentially ceases when temperatures fall below 35 degrees F, therefore seedlings in the Northeast US may take two to four years to flower. This climatic advantage allows the O’Byrnes to evaluate and cull failures in their breeding program.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush' shows the excellent traits of O'Bryne's focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion - any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush’ shows the excellent traits of O’Byrne’s focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion – any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house - 'Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond' can be seen in the foreground.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house – ‘Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond’ can be seen in the foreground.

Breeding usually starts in mid-January when the stock plants in the nursery’s three poly houses flower. The O’Byrnes’ tools of the trade include No. 6 watercolor brushes, tags, alcohol, and fabric bags. Like a roving bumblebee, Marietta transports pollen from one plant to another. She and Ernie then place fabric bags over the flowers during early April to secure the ripening seed lest any fall to the ground and make their careful record keeping negligible. Seed is usually harvested and cleaned in May, and then sowed (some seed are reserved for sale to overseas customers only; the O’Byrnes do not sell domestically to safeguard their work from being propagated illegally).

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Although wholesale nurseries are the primary beneficiaries of the hellebores, the O’Byrnes open their premises twice – one in mid to late February, and another in early March (the last two years had them sold out earlier on the first weekend, causing cancellation of the March open house) – for hellebore enthusiasts to purchase flowering plants. People often queue hours early prior to the 10 am opening for the first dibs on particular colors or shapes, and a mad frenzy of flailing arms and elbows and crouched knees explode in the sales area. It is impressive to see the nearly emptied poly houses in photographs posted on Facebook. “The first year we introduced payment by credit card,” Ernie said, “all our sales went up the roof because people were buying more plants.” Our visit did not coincide with the open days, but we did see the preparations in progress – plants were organized by color and priced accordingly by size; a part time employee was re-potting some overgrown seedlings.

The O'Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this 'Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine'.

The O’Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this ‘Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine’.

What does the future hold? “We want to concentrate on rich colors,” Ernie emphatically said, “we’re moving away from lighter colors like white and pink. And there is always room for better doubles.”  Such strive for excellence certainly puts the O’Byrnes at the pinnacle of their hellebore breeding game, and we can only wait with abated breath for exciting strains in the future. ~Eric

For more info, visit the Northwest Garden Nursery.

Book Review: The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik

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Behind each creative mastermind is someone who possesses the expertise to obtain the ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ for the vision to be realized fully. Just as the fashion designer cannot complete a collection with a team of seamstresses or tailors to execute his designs, the landscape architect or garden designer is dependent on someone who can supply plants for their projects. Midwest plantsman Roy Diblik was tasked to source and grow for the Lurie Garden in 2001 – hardly any nurseries in the Chicago area had the variety, quantity or quality that Piet Oudolf sought. Diblik co-runs Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, a 1 1/2 hour or so drive from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune article in 2010 christened him the ‘perennial persuader’. This ‘perennial persuader’ irrevocably altered Piet Oudolf’s original planting plans, especially after he took him to Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and other Midwest landscapes. Now Diblik aims to proselytizes a wider audience through The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden (Timber Press 2014).
Roy wants his readers to revise their attitudes towards traditional gardening practices where herbaceous perennials are regarded for landscapes. For instance, the conventional method of incorporating manure and compost generously into the topsoil causes herbaceous perennials to senesce prematurely and weeds to prosper instead. Nor does the wood chip mulching benefit perennials.
The first few chapters are the requisite ones that address plant selection, site preparation and planting and maintenance.  Any gardener can tell you that keeping ahead of weeds is always an ongoing battle – and weeds almost always seem to mushroom overnight after a good rainfall. As Diblik points out, weed suppression is an inescapable legacy of agricultural history for every healthy plant community contain few species of high fecundity and rapid colonization, and the rogue’s gallery of worst weeds sandwiched between weed control tactics and maintenance (i.e. watering. division) is useful as horticultural texts often skirt over the culprits.
The list of plants in Chapter 5: Key Plants for Know Maintenance Gardens may attract detractors for its lack of encyclopedic depth, but Diblik makes it clear that his selection fulfill the following criteria: hardiness and reliability in the Midwest and Northwest; adaptability within different climatic and soil variations; gradual beauty over the years. And his selection is on the mark as I have grown a few of the plants like Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Solidago spahecelata ‘Golden Fleece’ in my parents’ former garden and observed them in compromising public spaces repeatedly. Who can argue with a man who introduced Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the best ornamental grasses? Diblik even gives deserving due to sedges, which are woefully underused in gardens, and their diversity remains untapped for gardens. Narrowing the list to proven performers ensures that his readers have a better rate of success and once gratified, more open to experimentation with experience.
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For those hesitant about using these plants, garden plans either named after places or paintings are included. It is no coincidence that the paintings can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago for which Diblik designed the plantings. Cezanne’s The Forest Clearing, a tonal study of green and blue, inspires a sunny planting of Allium (A. atropurpureum, A.  flavum, and A. moly), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Carex flacca, Echinacea ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’,  Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, and Sesleria autumnalis. The ‘creative intersection’, the lack of which my blog collaborator Jimmy laments in a recent post, reveals Diblik’s artistic leanings.
Towards the end is a nice acknowledgement of individuals who have influenced, inspired, or worked with Roy in the Midwest US. I would have been interested to read more about the interesting work of these individuals, but that angle is entirely a book in itself. Cassian Schmidt’s gravel garden at Hermannshof, a brilliant garden itself in Germany, is an interesting case study for potential tough areas like parking lots or overscheduled people interested in the beauty of gardens, but lacking time to maintain them.
Photographs, while nowhere dreamy or moody as those in pretty useless books, illustrate the concepts well. They are solid, playing out Diblik’s practices well.
Informative and well organized, the Know Maintenance Perennial Garden rounds out nicely the spate of books regarding ecological or naturalistic gardening and native plants.

Plantsman Corner: Salvias of Slovakia

Seeing garden plants in the wild is always a pleasant, if not eye opening, experience. Familiarity is heartwarming, but one can also learn much from observing the immediate environment in which plants grow before tailoring our gardens to suit them once we return home.

Three of the most commonly seen salvias in Slovakia are Salvia glutinosa (upper left). S. nemorosa (bottom left), and S. verticillata (right). All species are forebears of our garden plants that are now popular in naturalistic gardens.

Three of the most commonly seen salvias in Slovakia are Salvia glutinosa (upper left). S. nemorosa (bottom left), and S. verticillata (right). All species are forebears of our garden plants that are now popular in naturalistic gardens.

I spent this past summer in Slovakia, a mountainous country situated in the hearth of Eastern Europe. It is a place of great biodiversity, and I enjoyed admiring the flora and botanizing. Although a wide array of plants is well represented, it is the wild sages (Salvia) that largely impressed me. They are ubiquitous and widespread throughout the country. Owing to their resilience and adaptability in disturbed habitats, salvias have an advantage over other species in the agrarian landscape here.

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The first Salvia I encountered was Salvia nemorosa. It is common in central and southern Slovakia, growing in meadows and disturbed areas. Salvia nemorosa seems to love roadsides and a trail of purple often accompanied me on my peregrinations down to Austria or Hungary. Its flowering is a long affair, and even if it had been in bloom for some time since my arrival in early July, the flowers are still going strong as I pen these words at the end of August. The color is consistently a dark magenta-purple in the wild, although considerable variability appears in cultivation. Numerous cultivars have been selected for size and color, ranging from the diminutive blue ‘Marcus, scarcely a foot tall, to the tall pink ‘Amethyst’, towering over 3 feet.

Another cultivar worth mentioning here, but rather rare in North America is ‘Pusztaflamme’, an aberrant mutation with branched spikes of flowers that form a cone-shaped head. One presumes it must have been found in a meadow in Hungary since puszta, (pronounced ‘pussta’), is the Hungarian word for prairie. ‘Pusztaflamme’ is also known as ‘Plumosa’, a name that describes well the chenille-like texture of the flowers.

Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna' still remains one of the best selections as seen here in late May at Chanticleer.

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ still remains one of the best selections as seen here in late May at Chanticleer.

Although any Salvia nemorosa is deserving of a place in the garden,  some sort are more dramatic than others. ‘Caradonna’, bred by Beate Zillmer of Zillmer Pflanzen in Uchte, Germany, is perhaps the most famous for its narrow spikes of dark purple flowers on black stems, an intense, but luminous combination.

Another common Salvia in Slovakia is a superb garden plant that I grow with fondness and ease in Canada: Salvia verticillata. This plant seems to prefer ditches, vacant lots and meadows where I saw it bursting with surprising vigor in gravel and even in dense grass. Its hardiness probably comes from its woolly leaves that retain moisture when needed and its long taproot capable of drawing water and minerals from deep down below. I had known Salvia verticillata well as a tough plant, having used it in less than ideal conditions without adverse results. Unlike other salvias, it does not need regular division or replacement, and indeed resents being moved (although recovery will happen within a year). Unsurprisingly vegetative propagation is difficult. Luckily, seeds are plentiful and easy to germinate, including the rare white form that comes true to type. For the rather special (but somewhat gloomy) all-dark cultivar ‘Purple Rain’ (which does not set seeds), basal cuttings in spring is the best option.

Salvia pratensis, commonly known as meadow sage, colonizes open fields and meadows. It has given rise to the hybrid Salvia x sylvestris.

Salvia pratensis, commonly known as meadow sage, colonizes open fields and meadows. It has given rise to the hybrid Salvia x sylvestris.

Fairly common in Slovakia too but only in short-grass meadows (including lawns) is Salvia pratensis. Linnaeus clearly observed the species’ habitat preference for pratensis means ‘of meadows’. Although Salvia pratensis comes in a variety of colors in gardens, the ones I saw flowering were all a particularly dark purple color. Flowering was not abundant in late summer because Salvia pratensis is a spring-blooming species. The few I saw flowering already had been mowed down and were on their second flush of flowers (an observation that I will not hesitate to put in practice). Although there was no color variation, the intensity of the color –the shade that my camera unfortunately refuses to capture as it should – impressed me. In the garden, Salvia pratensis does occur in various shades of white, pink, or purple, as well as bicolored. This species is usually propagated from seeds because clumps do not increase fast and therefore yield little divisions, but outstanding cultivars are occasionally propagated vegetatively from basal cuttings or tissue culture. One such example is the outstanding ‘Madeline’, a bicolor blue and white selection from the Dutch nurseryman and designer Piet Oudolf. Oudolf too has introduced a hybrid between Salvia nemorosa and S. pratensis (hybrids are now known as S. x sylvestris), ‘Dear Anja, in honor of his charming and eccentric wife. It is a luminous plant with blue flowers born out of dark magenta calyxes. If I were forced to choose only one salvia, ‘Dear Anja’ would probably be it. Unfortunately It is a difficult plant to propagate and has thus far remained rather elusive.

Salvia pratensis withstands the competition with the grass well.

Salvia pratensis withstands the competition with the grass well.

The last Salvia species I encountered on my walks in Slovakia less common and only in hedgerows and forest edges (sometimes even deep into the forest itself), was the lovely yellow Salvia glutinosa. I was surprised to see it in the shade since it has always grown well in full sunshine in my Canadian garden. Perhaps moisture is a deciding factor since Slovakia only gets half the rain we receive at home. Salvia glutinosa is a beautiful plant and one of my favorite salvias with its large heads of pale yellow flowers and its hastate foliage. It is the European answer to Japan’s Salvia koyamae, which coincidentally prefers partial shade. I look forward to trying Salvia glutinosa on the edge of our woodland, perhaps amongst Aconitum uncinatum or Actaea.

~Philippe Levesque and Eric

5-10-5: Laura Ekasetya, Horticulturist, Lurie Garden

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Laura Ekasetya was a week-long guest horticulturist at Chanticleer earlier this year, and I sensed in her an astute and inquisitive mind about plants and gardens. It is infrequent that we hear about the individuals who maintain the work of creative visionaries while keeping it afresh and evolving, and Laura is one of those fortunate souls who oversees the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois with her team of coworkers and volunteers. Coincidentally her colleague Jennifer Davit, the garden’s Director and Head Horticulturist, was my classmate when I enrolled in the public garden management course at Cornell. She had nothing, but plaudits for Laura’s work in tending the garden.

 

Connecting art and horticulture: After School Matters student painting in the garden.

Connecting art and horticulture: After School Matters student painting in the garden.

Please introduce yourself.
Laura Ekasetya, horticulturist at the Lurie Garden
The arts or the horticulture?
Horticulture and art are intertwined. Even though on a day to day basis I am not designing gardens, I’m maintaining the integrity of Piet Oudolf’s creative work, with plants providing the medium. I’m surrounded by the link between art and gardens every day. The modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago overlooks the Lurie Garden.  The garden’s topography was designed with that wing in mind, even though the expansion of the Art Institute was still in its planning stage at the time of the Lurie Garden installation. On a daily basis I am maintaining living art as a conservator would do, though the effect of time on a planting design is welcome. I recently read a gardening memoir “The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden” by Alain Baraton who has managed the over 2,000 acres of grounds including 230 acres of gardens at the Palace of Versailles since 1982. He writes that public horticulture is “an art de vivre–an art of living well and helping people to live well.”
Volunteers plantig Echinacea simulata

Volunteers planting Echinacea simulata

What does your job involve on a daily basis?
I spend much of my time working outside weeding and editing the planting design. I work with eight terrific hands-on volunteers who help out two days a week, and part-time with an intern. I also give tours and teach workshops as part of the Lurie Garden’s year-round environmental programming. I spend a good deal of time answering visitor questions. I update plant information on our website and record the bloom times of the plants in the garden as well as keep our Facebook page interesting. I assist with maintaining our two beehives. I do my best to record the variety of wildlife in the garden such as insects and migratory birds.
Visitors admire the beautiful planting of Gentiana andrewsii (bottle gentian)  in Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta (calamint) as Laura photographs the flower.

Visitors admire the beautiful planting of Gentiana andrewsii (bottle gentian) in Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta (calamint) as the Lurie Garden intern Erin Dumbauld photographs the flower.

 

Laura carefully consults the detailed color-coded map of the plantings for the bulbs.

Laura carefully consults the detailed color-coded map of the plantings for the bulbs.

How did you become interested in plants and horticulture? What led to your current job at the Lurie Garden in the Millennium Park?
In early grade school my family lived for a few years in Midland, Michigan where I would ask my parents to take me to Dow Gardens, a lovely botanic garden, and the Chippewa Nature Center which has woodland trails to explore as well as a log cabin homestead with a vegetable garden.  Seeing pink lady slipper orchids growing in their natural environment was really exciting to me.  We moved to a rural area in central Illinois where I enjoyed gardening in the yard, but never realized that there could be career possibilities. I did a lot of farm field work every summer since age 11, so doing labor intensive work outside is something I’m very used to. I came to horticulture as a career choice post college after working a few uninspired years for clinical research trials at a medical school. I volunteered at the Chicago Park District where I learned about a horticulture degree program at a city college.  I interned in the city’s forestry department for a year and then came to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a seasonal where I enjoyed working in the research evaluation gardens. After three years I came to the Lurie Garden. This is my 4th year at the garden.
Baptisia alba var. macrophylla looks in scale with the Chicago skyline from this perspective.

Baptisia alba var. macrophylla looks in scale with the Chicago skyline from this perspective.

Central Park in New York City has an Arcadian landscape idyll envisioned through Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux who looked towards the pleasure parks and landscape gardens of Europe for inspiration. These greensward parks have become the imprimatur by which future parks were created. In contrast, the Millennium Park seems futuristic in fusing art, architecture, and landscape design  Some people may argue that the ‘smoke and mirrors’ detract from a park’s primary purpose as a place of tranquility and recreation, a green respite from the urban jungle. What are your thoughts about a traditional park versus a contemporary park that deploys entertainment venues and interactive art?
It does seem on the surface that fitting in all these recreational areas with a prominent music venue, a restaurant, and places for displaying art exhibits is a lot to ask of 24.5 acres, but great cities are all about maximizing what can be done with limited land. Much thought went in to planning the park in a way that its various components would work well together. The Lurie Garden is visually connected to the Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion, but the garden is also separated from the rest of the park by its 12 foot high Shoulder Hedge that surrounds the garden on two sides. When you look out at the garden facing the hedge, you see the skyscrapers towering above the park and then a lovely row of mature maples and then the hedge of Thuja which steps the garden down to human scale. This relative calm of the garden allows the visitor to observe the smaller things happening down at the level of the plants. Various pollinators and other wildlife become noticeable. It’s exciting to see the gleaming architectural work of modern man towering above the natural architecture of the plants which host the drama of insect life. They live among us largely unnoticed, though they were around long before humans, and our bodies will one day be consumed by these smaller lives. Taking in these two opposing worlds gives visitors a chance to step outside the routine drum of office life and experience something that refreshes the senses. It was always in the plan for Millennium Park to have an area specifically set aside for a garden. Eleven different landscape architect firms submitted plans for what was then called the “Monroe Garden.” Fortunately,  Kathryn Gustafson (GGN Llc.) teamed up with Piet Oudolf to create the design that became the Lurie Garden. Their work really is what allows this contemporary park to also have a quiet side, though it is every bit as interactive as the other features of Millennium Park.
Exquisite plants and combinations can be admired throughout the Lurie Garden merely a stone's throw from downtown Chicago: Echinacea pallida in morning fog; Thalictrum 'Elin' with Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'; Allium atropurpureum and Monarda bradburiana;  Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' with the salvia river in the background.

Exquisite plants and combinations can be admired throughout the Lurie Garden merely a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago: Echinacea pallida in morning fog; Thalictrum ‘Elin’ with Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’; Allium atropurpureum and Monarda bradburiana; Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ with the salvia river in the background.

I visited Millennium Park several years ago during the American Public Garden Association’s annual conference, and was fascinated by the dichotomy between the two art installations Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain and the Lurie Garden. It was fun to watch the public interact openly with these public art. Then you enter the Lurie Garden where the reactions were more ‘hushed’ and still enthusiastic about the lush plantings. What has been the public reaction towards the plantings in the Lurie Garden?
Though I wasn’t living in Chicago at the time, I did attend Millennium Park’s opening to the public in 2004. As the Grant Park Orchestra finished its performance for the evening, the Redmoon Theater company marched over Frank Gehry’s BP bridge bearing torches. The crowd from the concert spontaneously followed the parade of dancers to the Cloud Gate sculpture where a fire-themed performance was reflected into the mirrored “bean.” This performance fit well with the way the park encourages the visitors to physically interact with its features. People can go under and through Cloud Gate, even though it is a well regarded work of art.  Fountains you are allowed to get into? Now that is an exciting concept. The Crown Fountain is full of families laughing and having a good time all the while literally immersed in fine art.  The Lurie Garden has a water feature in the form of a stream that invites the visitors to dip toes in water on a warm day, a perhaps less jubilant activity than what goes on at the Crown Fountain, but one which encourages relaxation and taking in the surroundings peacefully. The way the paths of the garden move through the perennial plantings, you end up brushing against the plants. You really feel like you are in the middle of a meadow. The general visitor response at the time of the opening was a mixed one. The Seam feature has lovely lighting in the evening so that was easily appreciated early on, but to those not familiar with perennial gardens, they may have been underwhelmed at the size of the individual plants. It took about two years for the plants to grow to a size where the non-perennial plant savvy visitor could really “get” the garden’s design intent. Now when visitors see the garden for the first time they are amazed that such a vast expanse of planting exists right in downtown Chicago.  The south entrance along the Seam has arborvitae on both sides for 70 feet or so and then opens up to the garden. A few years ago I was working near that part of the hedge when a child entering the garden shouted out, “This is Narnia!” There is a something similar to walking through C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe in entering Lurie Garden. It seems magically larger than its 5 acres somehow, and this is probably a result of the layered planting design having enough balance between complexity and coherence.
Piet Oudolf photographing the Lurie Garden from the Art Institute of Chicago

Piet Oudolf photographing the Lurie Garden from the Art Institute of Chicago

Piet Oudolf obviously cannot be at the helm of the Lurie Garden physically all the time, and somehow the Lurie Garden has to evolve without losing the Oudolf’s signature touch. Oudolf himself has moved away from the drift-like sweeps of his earlier work at Pensthorpe and RHS Wisley towards looser, less definable matrix planting that mimics nature. Do you and your coworkers see a similar gradual development towards that style? 
Piet has stayed involved with the garden since its inception, so yes I would say any change in his own style would have some effect on the garden today. We were fortunate to have him here this July to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Lurie Garden and Millennium Park. He suggested a number of small changes to the garden that largely involve adding new plant species and improving on existing plant combinations by adding even more variety to them. Possibly because of the High Line project in NYC where the plantings are more intermingled, some visiting garden design enthusiasts have wondered if we will keep the salvia river (a large drift of four varieties of salvia) as a feature in the garden. The Lurie Garden has a completely different scale than the High Line, which has narrow plantings. The salvia river works well both with the scale of the garden and with its tendency to be viewed from above by the Art Institute, by the surrounding sky scrapers, and even from the part-shade Dark Plate side of the garden which is topographically higher than our full-sun Light Plate. The salvia river is iconic to the Lurie Garden and to Chicago.
Editing is a continual process integral to the Lurie Garden for it referees the dominant plants from overtaking lesser ones and maintains the overall balance. Contrary to what one thinks, a pile of Eryngium yuccifolium awaits composting, not replanting bare-rooted! Although people confess having difficulty keep it alive, this native species does exceedingly well at the Lurie Garden.

Editing is a continual process integral to the Lurie Garden for it referees the dominant plants from overtaking lesser ones and maintains the overall balance. Contrary to what one thinks, a pile of Eryngium yuccifolium awaits composting, not replanting bare-rooted! Although people confess having difficulty keep it alive, this native species does exceedingly well at the Lurie Garden.

Clumps of Pycnanthemum muticum are thinned out and have been donated to Neighborspace Community Gardens. Removing self-sown seedlings is not enough alone since thinning existing clumps must be done to keep the plantings within scale.

Clumps of Pycnanthemum muticum are thinned out and have been donated to Neighborspace Community Gardens. Removing self-sown seedlings is not enough alone since thinning existing clumps must be done to keep the plantings within scale.

There is sometimes a mistaken belief that naturalistic gardens, especially those by Piet Oudolf, are relatively low or no maintenance, needing little human input. How do you cope with self-seeding plants or plants in the original design that failed to thrive?
Because the Lurie Garden is a chemical free garden, all removal of self-seeding plants and other weeds is done by hand. Our team of 8 gardening volunteers have been working with the garden for several years, so they are very knowledgable about the garden. We do thin some seedheads to minimize the number of seeds. Chasmanthium latifolium has beautiful spikelets that also, unfortunately drop a good number of seeds. Thinning the spikelets by half actually allows them more room to rustle in the breeze. Sometimes less is more! We do the same to Anemone hupehensis, Penstemon sp., and Scuttelaria incana. For our Amsonia species, we remove the seeds entirely. Though these pods are attractive in winter, we have other less prolific seeders that provide winter interest, so we can reduce maintenance while still keeping a winter garden. When plants do not perform as well as expected we replace them with something that will. We consult garden magazines and books, Piet Oudolf, and Roy Diblik to select something better. Often Roy will grow the plants for Lurie at Northwind Perennial Farm.
The first snowfall of Winter 2013-14 falls upon the maples still in autumnal foliage.

The first snowfall of Winter 2013-14 falls upon the maples still in autumnal foliage.

What are some of the challenges you and your co-workers face in maintaining a large public garden in an urban environment?
Most days, visitors are just happy to have a quiet place amid bustling downtown and are respectful of the garden and the staff. We have round-the-clock security including cameras in Millennium Park so that helps a lot with some of the strange things that are bound to happen in a free public park that is open from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm every day of the year. The park expects 5 million visitors this year. Fortunately, if a well-attended parade or concert dramatically increases foot traffic to the garden, we can temporarily close the garden and then re-open once the crowds have dispersed. Sometimes people try to pick a flower as they walk by, but most of our plants near the edges are really tough prairie plants such as coneflowers that can’t be easily picked. This bends the stems so I have to prune that type of damage in the morning, but really most people just stop and take photos and enjoy the garden in a way that causes no damage.  People occasionally step in the beds to have their photo taken. Often they don’t realize that this action can smash the plants and cause soil compaction, and they apologize after that is explained. We do have signs asking visitors to stay on the paths. We have great security that handle this issue well when staff are not around. Our garden is just as photogenic from the paths. We have this really observant security guard, Officer Barlow, who has been with the park since it opened. He is really great at his job and keeps a sharp eye on things.
Insect visitors abound at the Lurie Garden (clockwise beginning left): Bee on Inula magnifica 'Sonnenstrahl' backed by Polygonum polymorphum; eastern swallowtail butterfly on Erygnium yuccifolium; great black wasp on Erygnium yuccifolium; dragonfly on Allium 'Summer Beauty'

Insect visitors abound at the Lurie Garden (clockwise beginning left): Bee on Inula magnifica ‘Sonnenstrahl’ backed by Polygonum polymorphum; eastern swallowtail butterfly on Erygnium yuccifolium; great black wasp on Erygnium yuccifolium; dragonfly on Allium ‘Summer Beauty’

Stilted Performance on Allium atropurpureum: A female red-winged blackbird tries to upstage the late spring floral display of the Lurie Garden.

Stilted Performance on Allium atropurpureum: A female red-winged blackbird tries to upstage the late spring floral display of the Lurie Garden.

The presence of wildlife in urban areas is always welcome. Have you see noticeable increase of wildlife taking advantage of the Lurie Garden during their migratory journeys? 
The garden is just two blocks from Lake Michigan on the Mississippi flyway so migratory birds stop and rest in the Lurie Garden on their journey. We have plenty of insects and seeds for them. Many birders come to the garden during migration season. Since birds generally migrate at night, the morning and lunchtime are great times to see many different species of birds. We are a birding hotspot on Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology citizen science website, ebird (http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L2132400). Insects such as monarch butterflies lay their eggs in the garden, and twelve-spotted skimmer dragonflies are around in summer and migrate with the dragonfly swarms along the Great Lakes in fall.
Two of Laura's favorite places include the Chicago Botanic Garden's Lavin Evaluation Garden (left) and Singapore's Gardens by the Bay (right).

Two of Laura’s favorite places include the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lavin Evaluation Garden (left) and Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay kk(right).

What places and gardens inspire you?
The research evaluation gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden always inspires. There’s a beautiful view of Oehme Van Sweden’s Evening Island garden from the Lavin Sun Evaluation garden. Seeing all different cultivars growing right next to each other is really interesting. Many of the plants are part of Jim Ault’s breeding program, and it’s fun to see what is happening there. I often consult Richard Hawke’s evaluation notes on the CBG website.
Possibility Place Nursery, run by Connor Shaw and his sons, is an adventure. They propagate most of their stock from wild-collected seed, so it’s great to associate with people who have a lot of patience and passion for regionally native plants.
Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, WI is inspiring as well as charming.
Gardens by the Bay in Singapore has got to be the world’s most over-the-top horticultural project. Keeping glass houses cool takes more energy than the other way around and yet these two stunning 2.5 acre conservatories are carbon positive! This place is a joyous theme park for plants.
Guest gardening with Chanticleer horticulturist Dan Benarcik and assistant Tom Maczko earlier in spring

Guest gardening with Chanticleer horticulturist Dan Benarcik and assistant Tom Maczko earlier in spring

I had the opportunity to work as a guest gardener at Chanticleer for a week last May. That was a very inspiring experience for me. The staff there have such thoughtful visions for the areas they manage. I learned a lot from envisioning the different garden areas through the perspective of each person I worked with. The variety of plants at Chanticleer was thrilling.
Geum triflorum shows the apt name of prairie smoke as the pink plume-like seed heads develop. Despite being a North American native, it is still uncommon in American gardens.

Geum triflorum shows the apt name of prairie smoke as the pink plume-like seed heads develop. Despite being a North American native, it is still uncommon in American gardens.

The Europeans have always appreciated our Midwest flora that the garden writer Allen Lacy often joked about our plants going aboard for an European education before we American gardeners accept them in our ‘beds’. Only in the last ten or so years have we seen reinvigorated breeding programs in Baptisia, Coreopsis, and Echinacea on our shores. What are some of the North American prairie perennials or woody plants you feel are overlooked or underused? Some may be good candidates for breeding.
Pycnanthemum muticum is such a fantastic pollinator attractant that I can’t imagine having a garden without it. It doesn’t take over as readily as other mountain mints, and its mossy-green color is uncommon. This plant requires a bench in front of it so that the insect variety can be fully appreciated. I also love Euonymus atropurpureus for its color and showy fruit; it looks like a valentine. This shrub could be a good candidate for breeding for compact habit. An underused tree in the landscape is Carya illinoinensis. For areas in need of large shade trees, it really produces prodigious quantities of fantastic pecans (you will need two trees). Though more popular as a crop in the south, the pecans from this Illinois native and its cultivars have a higher oil content and superior flavor.
We are trying out Euphorbia corollata in the garden next spring. I’m really excited to see how this native beauty will fit in with the Light Plate plantings.
What is your desert island plant?
 A durian tree. If I’m alone on a desert island there will be no one to complain about the smell.
What is your advice for those seeking a career in public horticulture?
Find mentors in the field, and if you can’t go work for them offer to help them out with something. Learn everything you can from those who have made horticulture their life’s work. I’m fortunate to have a boss who demonstrates amazing leadership and organizational skills. Your career will develop much more quickly if you work hard for people who have ability and are patient and confident enough to share that with others.
Herbaceous perennials are tied back to plant bulbs without damaging the growth. Here volunteer Dan Buonaiuto is planting tulip bulbs for next spring's show.

Herbaceous perennials are tied back to plant bulbs without damaging the growth. Here volunteer Dan Buonaiuto is planting tulip bulbs for next spring’s show.

What do you look forward the most in the future?
Several years ago at the Chicago Botanic Garden I was planting some evaluation plots with Jim Ault and a group of volunteers. These two older ladies, who turned out to be sisters and in their late 80’s and mid 90’s, were barely holding each other up as they hobbled along the beds. They asked about this nearby plant and Jim told them it was a phlox he bred that he intended to put on the market but that it wouldn’t be available for a few years. They said they looked forward to having it in their gardens. I love the optimism there.  Gardeners get a reputation for being grumpy, but really we are the most optimistic people around. That’s what I look forward to, a lifetime of looking forward to the next plant.
Thank you Laura!
~Eric

Plantsman’s Corner: Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’

Cirsium!

‘It is my own fault if I idealize a thistle until the thistle and I both think it is a vine,’  wrote Mary Cholmondeley in her Victorian novel Red Pottage. One may be forgiven to surmise that the famous icy blue clematis that bears her name was so called in this quote’s honour, but alas Mr. Noble named his vine a good 13 years before the famous passage was written. One wonders if Mrs. Cholmondeley was serious when she suggested she liked thistles so much as to idealize them. History does not tell, but it is clear that not everyone in her time liked thistles. A hundred and fifty years ago, when life still depended largely on cultivating the land with horse and plow, they represented challenges to the farmer who struggled to eradicate them from his field. Sheep or cows find them too prickly on the tongue, forgoing them altogether. The propensity thistles have in colonizing pastures anew with their abundant seeds or questing roots bristled the American political leader Robert Green Ingersoll to say that “The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.”. Perhaps he was not aware of the beneficial aspects thistles have on the ecology of meadows and wastelands. He may not have tasted the delicious pale honey made from their nectar or the beauty of their flowers. Ellen Willmott, the eccentric horticultural heiress would have disagreed with him on at least one thistle that she particularly liked and, it is rumoured, spread around gardens that she visited. Erygnium giganteum is now affectionately called Mrs. Willmott’s Ghost’ as a result of her seed scattering efforts, a rebellious act deemed guerrilla gardening today.

If I wanted to emulate Mrs. Willmott’s defiant act with my own favourite thistle, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, the effort would be fruitless since it is a sterile plant producing no seeds whatsoever. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is remarkably well behaved for it is reliably perennial, floriferous and self-supporting without the conquest ambitions of other thistles. In our garden, it starts blooming with camassias, early geraniums, Siberian irises and Martagon lilies and will go on flowering until severe frosts silence the show. Because the raspberry-red flowers beg for silver leafed plants, we too have planted the thistle with Salix exigua and shimmering pink Geranium psilostemon ‘Rose Finch’ to great effect. It would look stunning with the lacy Ammi majus ‘Queen of Africa’ and the sapphire spires of Anchusa azurea ‘Loddon Royalist’. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ makes a superb cut flower, especially as its side shoots are of sufficient lengths for arrangements without compromising the plant’s growth. Its brushes are a unique crimson red that blends well with other colours, offering that touch of dark refinement often needed in floral arrangements.

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“Rivulare”, meaning “of the riverside” hints at the cultural preferences for Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’. In dry soils, plants will be stunted, becoming poor semblances of their counterparts in rich, moist soils. Deadheading will be inconsequential since the plant is sterile, flowering continuously until summer heat exhausts it. Flowering will resume in autumn to accompany the New England asters and sunflowers.

European horticulturists and garden designers have wholeheartedly embraced Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ for its richly saturated wine-red flowers. Dan Pearson has used it very effectively at Home Farm where he planted it with glowing orange Eremurus. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ featured prominently in Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf’s 2000 Chelsea Flower Show garden’s mixed borders of Astrantia major ‘Claret’, Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus’ (red valerian), and dark-leafed Actaea. At the Battersea Park’s Old English Garden, the young British garden designer Sarah Price uses Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ with Cenolophium denudatum (Baltic parsley), salvias, and scented herbs.

Unfortunately its availability in North America is limited. We imported our stock years ago from Great Britain and we sell out every spring. As Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is one of our most requested plants and demand far outweighs the supply. We hate disappointing clients, so it has been a challenge to keep sufficient stocks through the years. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ does divide easily and increases steadily but since division is our only mean of propagation (root cuttings have never worked, despite what literature says), it does take time to build stocks. Perhaps one day it will be micropropagated and we can use it with wild abandon!

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Even scarcer still is the other known cultivar ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’. A sport of ‘Atropurpureum’, it was recently been introduced to the horticultural world by the British gardener Trevor Edwards. We have not had the opportunity of growing it yet, but it is reputedly an equal stalwart in the garden as ‘Atropurpureum’, its difference lying in its bright purple colour rather than crimson, an easier hue to combine with some pinks and yellows. ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’ should be a welcome new addition that will no doubt sustain the popularity of this thistle for years to come. No doubt both Mrs. Cholomondeley and Mrs. Wilmott would have approved and, we hope, perhaps even Mr. Ingersoll.

~ Philippe and Eric

 

 

Perennial Favorites

Shopping at special nurseries off the beaten track, such as Marchants Hardy Plants,  Lewes, East Sussex, UK can yield uncommon good garden plants.

Shopping at special nurseries off the beaten track, such as Marchants Hardy Plants, Lewes, East Sussex, UK can yield uncommon good garden plants.

A good garden should have a few workhouse plants that look good regardless of the growing season, one or two rarities that need a bit of cosseting or sheltered protection, and a smattering of annuals, tender perennials, and bulbs. Pam and Sibylle, the former head gardeners of Sissinghurst Castle Garden, always said that for every three plants, one plant will do well while the other two will be mediocre or do poorly. Where space is limited, one becomes more selective and discriminating on plant selection. As I move into my new house and have one’s garden to call my own finally, I am forced to be catholic about what plants to grow. Visiting nurseries and gardens enable me to see how the plants look at maturity, whether the colors are appropriate for my designs, and what new plants have been introduced. The following herbaceous perennials and grasses, which tend to peak in summer, have caught my eye during my forays.

Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’

Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’

Autumn may seem ablaze with incidienary hues, yet a cooling refuge can be found among the dark blue-violets of aconitums. Being poisonous, aconitums do not fall prey to herbivorous critters. Their common name monkshood do resemble the ecclesiastical vestments of the religious higher clergy. The best of the lot is Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’, a worthy tribute to Georg Arends who gave the horticultural world several outstanding perennials. Offset by glossy dark-green leaves on strong stems (5′ to 6′ tall), its glowing rich blue-violet flowers arrive in early to mid October just as the first of autumnal tints appear on trees. Do not plant ‘Arendsii’ in dry soil, which causes the lower stems to defoliate – rich, moist soil will produce the most floriferous plants.

Aruncus 'Horatio' with carices, Heuchera villosa 'Brownies', and Tricyrtis at the High Line, New York

Aruncus ‘Horatio’ with carices, Heuchera villosa ‘Brownies’, and Tricyrtis at the High Line, New York

Aruncus ‘Horatio’

Aruncus ‘Horatio’ first came to my attention at the High Line where Piet Oudolf planted it with carices and Heuchera villosa ‘Brownies’. Its flowers had long finished, yet they did not detract from the plant in any way, providing a textural, if not tonal, contrast with its companions.

Curiously difficult to acquire in the nursery trade, Aruncus ‘Horatio’ was one of the four seedlings (other three being ‘Johannifest’, ‘Woldemar Meier’, ‘Sommeranfang’) raised, evaluated, and named from the German nurseryman Ernest Pagels’ deliberate cross between A. dioicus and A. aesthusifolius. ‘Horatio’ is said to be more drought tolerant and robust than either species, and has this added advantage over Aruncus, despite being white-flowered only. It inherited from Aruncus aesthifolius a finer and more delicate form, and the flowers do not turn brown simultaneously as they do in either parents. Instead, a two bicolor effect develops as the newer flowers open cream and older flowers gradually turn brown. In autumn the foliage can develop autumnal tints.

Hakonechloa macra is a study of graceful fluidity, a contrast  with the large Bergenia leaves (Abhazaki Garden, Victoria, BC, Canada).

Hakonechloa macra is a study of graceful fluidity, a contrast with the large Bergenia leaves
(Abhazaki Garden, Victoria, BC, Canada).

Hakonechloa macra

Hakonechloa macra is a rare example where its variegated versions ‘Aureola ‘ and ‘Albo-Striata’ are more readily available than the straightforward species. It is a telling fact when Internet searches turn up ‘Aureola’ more than the species itself. As long as adequate moisture is provided, the green-leafed version is more tolerant of light than ‘Aureola’, which look unattractively bleached under full sunlight. Tom Stuart Smith, the British garden designer, favors Hakonechloa macra in his commissioned work especially as a ground cover against rigid shapes (in a London courtyard, H. macra swirls around clipped boxwood balls and Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian tree fern).

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Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has been the benchmark by which subsequent heleniums have been judged. It does not seem prone to pests and diseases that beget the newer cultivars, and will flower for a long period as long as the flowers are regularly deadheaded. However, Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ has risen to be a equal contender – its clumps multiply within a short time, yielding more divisions to share or spread in the garden, and its cut flowers have remarkable longevity, holding up well and always inviting praise. The flowers of ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ appear more brilliantly saturated with reds, oranges, and yellows than ‘Moerheim Beauty’, and tend to hum with pollinators. In a large garden, I would plant aconitums, asters, dahlias, and grasses with Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ for that grand autumn spectacle.

 

The coral orange spires of Kniphofia 'Nancy's Red' erupts from self-sown Erygnium giganteum (private garden of Sally Johannsohn, Tasmania, Australia)

The coral orange spires of Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ erupts from self-sown Erygnium giganteum (private garden of Sally Johannsohn, Tasmania, Australia)

 Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’

Except for a few species like Kniphofia caulescens and K. northiae, kniphofias will rarely win the foliage sweepstakes for their unkempt leaves. Even the flowers can brown in an unappetizing way. Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ is a tidy plant – the grass-like leaves do not kink in a disheveled pile, and the narrow spikes of coral-red flowers are profuse, attracting hummingbirds. It is reliably hardy, a virtue infrequently seen in showier kniphofias. I can imagine clumps of Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ with the steel blue Ergynium planum, serpent-like coils of blue-green Euphorbia myrsinites, and rosettes of orange-flowered Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum.   

Phlomis russeliana

Phlomis russeliana

Phlomis russeliana

Phlomis russeliana is not an ‘instant gratification’ candidate for it needs at least three to four years to fulfill its full potential. For the first two years, it may throw a sporadic flower spike, instead focusing on root development (the North American prairie herbaceous perennials, Baptisia and Silphium, behave similarly). The whorled yellow flowers are arranged tier-like on the thick stems. Even if Phlomis russeliana failed to flower, its felted heart-shaped leaves are handsome, offering a solid foliar bulwark against finer textured plants. The most effective combination I have seen was in a trifecta with Stipa gigantea and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at Cambridge Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK. The durable seedheads are worth keeping for winter interest. Phlomis russeliana has been crossed with Phlomis fructiosa to produce ‘Edward Bowles’.

Thalictrum 'Elin' with Carpentaria californica (private garden of Sally Johannsohn, Tasmania, Australia)

Thalictrum ‘Elin’ with Carpentaria californica (private garden of Sally Johannsohn, Tasmania, Australia)

Thalictrum ‘Elin’

Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum can be unforgivingly floppy if not staked whereas Thalictrum rochebrunianum rockets upward without additional support. Coen Jansen, the Dutch nurseryman whose unerring eye for selecting good garden plants has rewarded us gardeners, combined the best attributes of these two meadow rues through ‘Elin’. From Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum comes moody blue-green foliage suffused with purple and T. rochebrunianum the self-supporting habit. ‘Elin’ can tower to 6′ in ideal conditions – in areas with hot summers, the foliage may become tatty and late summer dormancy can be expected. Because ‘Elin’ is a sterile hybrid, division is the best means of propagation (commercial nurseries depend on tissue culture).

 

In addition, I have shortlisted the following plants with promising potential and deserving wider evaluation.

Agapanthus ‘Timaru’ – London’s The Financial Times garden columnist Robin Lane Fox singles out ‘Timaru’ and ‘Jack’s Black’ among the best free-flowering New Zealand agapanthus hybrids that are hardy in United Kingdom and other places with moderate winters. He writes: “Two to look for are Jack’s Blue and the vivid Timaru. They send up flowers into early October and are extremely free-flowering at rather different heights. Jack’s Blue is tall, with stems up to four feet, but the flowers appear in quantity in a good shade of rich purple-blue. Marginally, I prefer Timaru, which is about two feet high and extraordinarily generous with a long succession of strong blue flowers on many separate stems.” While agapanthus are not reliably hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region, I’m always on the outlook for good container subjects. Because their foliage is rather boring, agapanthus must be distinct and flower profusely enough to be worth the trouble.

Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey Blue ‘Lisslitt’ – Perovskia or Russian sage is one of the quintessential summer perennials, yet sometimes I find its color a bit lackluster in our heat and the stems susceptible to flopping (save for lean soils). Lacey Blue is reputedly shorter and more floriferious, a better choice for smaller gardens. If the under 18″ height of Lacey Blue proves true, then I am keen to pair it with Agastache rupestris.

Stipa lessingiana – Nassella tenuissima has become a garden designer’s cliche for introducing a naturalistic, cloud-like effect, and one can hardly deny its versatility. Stipa lessingiana, a steppe grass from Caucasus and Siberia is said to be hardier and taller than Nassella tenuissima.

~Eric

Fragile and Resilient as a Poppy

Dear Jimmy,

Late May to early June is usually a jubilant time for me – the late spring growth has rapidly matured, the evenings stretch longer, and the vitality of foliage, still pristine and relatively unmarred, awakens the eyes jaded from winter. It is too the time of poppies -even the name ‘Poppy’ itself has a playful, pop-up art connotation, a concept that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the color synonymous with poppies, a bright red unadulterated by blues or yellows, jolts the senses in its unabashed brilliance.
In the chalk fields of the Norfolk Broad a few years ago, I witnessed hundreds of Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas), dabbed like the red spots of a pointillist painting. At Chanticleer, parts of the Pond and Gravel Gardens become a sea of red, as long as winter has been merciful enough to let any seed or seedlings survive (this past winter was a brutal one, reducing the sea to more of a trickle). The poppy seems a symbol of beauty at its fullest and most fragile – a rainstorm easily send the curtain down on the flowers – that belittles its resilient profundity. Each flower dwindles to a capsule that expels hundreds of black seeds, a fraction of which secures the plant’s future. I’m often taken by surprise at the number of seedlings appearing in the garden the following spring. A seedling then quickly mushrooms into a fat clump transmogrifying into an airy framework of wiry stems and flowers with heat. After a few weeks, the entire plant becomes a desiccated skeleton having fulfilled its purpose. We pull it out, scattering its seeds wide in hopes of seeing more next year.
In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.

In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.

The Flanders or corn poppy has become a floral remembrance of WWI and WII battlefields – it has been said that poppies emerge thicker where bloodshed was the heaviest. Farmers regard them as agricultural weeds, although modern farming practices have more or less obliterated them. These poppies are ‘relics’ of a cultural landscape in which organisms had evolved in sync with traditional principles of animal husbandry, delayed tilling, and hedgerows.
Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.

Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.

Horticulturists took among themselves to select and breed for paler colors, which collectively became known as Shirley poppies. Shirley poppies will often revert to the standard red species if not carefully edited for rogue seedlings and separated physically. Their flowers have a silvery shimmer, a pearlescent quality made surreal during cloudy days.
The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.

The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.

The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) seems to be a hypersexualized version of the Flanders poppies – its petals have become larger, fuller, and deeply crinkled like the finest chine crepe, its stamens and anthers sultrier like mascara-lined eyes, and its colors ‘less’ pure in red, washing into pinks and creams. Even its basal rosettes are bullies, making the Oriental poppy less of a partner to tango with than the Flanders poppies, which pirouette gracefully and spontaneously amidst other plants. In large gardens they look stunning with bearded irises, peonies, and other traditional cottage garden perennials.
The opium poppy has a duplicitous status  - it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).

The opium poppy has a duplicitous status – it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).

Ever since the Wicked Witch of the West sent Dorothy and her entourage into a soporific slumber with a field of poppies, the opium poppy has had a less salubrious reputation as a source of narcotics, including its derived product heroin. It irreversibly altered history when China was forced to concede Hong Kong to Great Britain in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. With darkness comes benevolence – the poppy seeds beloved in breads and cakes and poppyseed oil are from the opium poppy.
The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.

The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.

My heart belongs to the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum), which possesses the same saturated red of the Flanders poppy, but stamped with the trademark black splotches.Without these black splotches, the flowers look rather ordinary and merely attractive. At Great Dixter this poppy flowers with the magenta Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus at Great Dixter – it is a daring combination the late Christopher Lloyd loved in its irreverent cheekiness. Unfortunately the ladybird poppy is not a reliable self-seeder. The best way to hedge against no-shows next year is to start them from seed under cover, prick the seedlings individually into plugs, and plant as soon as possible when the roots have filled out. Autumn sowing is best as it goes for annual poppies. As you know, the effort is always worthwhile and I often dream of combinations with the ladybird poppy – the bright blues of Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Ball’, the whites of Orlaya grandiflora, or orange geums. A field of them would be magical, evoking what John Keats wrote in Endymion: “Through the dancing poppies stole A breeze most softly lulling to my soul.”

~Eric

 

Plantsman’s Corner: Convallaria majalis

In the second of the series Plantsman Corner, Philippe Lévesque reflects on the lily of the valley, its cultivation, and its varieties.
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‘Sweetest of the flowers a-blooming, in the fragrant vernal days, is the lily of the valley with its soft, retiring ways’
The words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar resonate now as they have done for people for a century.  It might be because of its humble stature and coy nature that lily-of-the-valley is seen as a symbol of purity. Virgin Mary’s tears shed on the cross transformed into the lily-of-the-valley’s white cupped flowers. Apollo was said to carpet the ground with lily-of-the-valley for his nine muses to walk, gracing their steps with its scent. Many a bride, including the royal brides Grace Kelly and Kate Middleton, buried their noses in bouquets of lily-of-the-valley. But if lily-of-the-valley did originate from Greece, it has long deserted the defied grounds for gentler, moister forests of the temperate regions. Traveling far and wide, the plant is now found as a wild flower in Europe, North America and Asia. And everywhere it is found, it has captured the heart of people through their nose!  Its potent fragrance is its best feature, and one of the most evocative.
Speirantha convallaroides bears a passing resemblance to Convallaria, but differences are clear in its scattered starry flowers.

Speirantha convallaroides bears a passing resemblance to Convallaria, but differences are clear in its scattered starry flowers. Photo by Philippe Levesque

In botanical circles, Convallaria majalis is considered a member of the lily family, or more specifically the Asparagaceae (previously put in its own family Convallariaceae). It is a parent of Solomon Seal (Polygonatum and Maianthemum), but surprisingly shares kinship with asparagus, dracaenas, and sansevierias. Its closest ally is probably a little-known Chinese plant, Speirantha convallarioides (syn. S. gardenii).  Often called false lily-of-the-valley, it has similar foliage, the same strong fragrance but starry flowers like a Maianthemum. Rare in cultivation it is occasionally available from specialist nurseries. It is not as resilient to the cold as Convallaria, having semi-persistent foliage but is worth a try even in cold climates where snow is reliable.
The colonizing trait of Convallaria majalis either can be a blessing or curse depending on the gardener.

The colonizing trait of Convallaria majalis either can be a blessing or curse depending on the gardener.

As far as gardeners are concerned, lily-of-the-valley is a plant that divides opinions. It is beloved not only for its beauty, but for its tenacity. In The English Rock Garden, Reginald Farrer wrote: “Lily of the Valley is the worst of all delicious weeds where it thrives.” One of the toughest garden plants, the lily-of-the-valley can grow just about anywhere except in water. It will proliferate in dry deep shade (although flowering will be compromised). However, what some see as a blessing is a curse for others. It is un-tamable and the novice has to learn the lesson firsthand. For the first few years, plants seem weak and then suddenly and insidiously explode everywhere. Summoned by people to rid their gardens of the lily-of-the-valley, we have dug up and transplanted more plants than we care to remember. Relocated under birches and conifers where little else would grow, the lily-of-the-valley now forms a sea of green. It receives nothing more than a meagre spread of mature every two years.
In nature, lily-of-the-valley is a bio-indicator of ancient woodlands where intense root competition does not deter it. Each individual plantlet, called a pip, will colonize tough areas in time if well-watered and fertilized. The trick to successful transplanting in inhospitable places is to water and feed it well for the first two years before leaving the plants to their own devices. The ground is best left uncultivated during planting. We just put a layer of soil/manure mix on the ground, spread the pips, and then cover them up with more soil and mulch of shredded leaves. This method works just fine, saving you the back-breaking work.
There are interesting variants of the lily-of-the-valley. A pink form ‘Rosea’, is not a clean vibrant colour, but not without its charms. Seemingly more fragile in appearance, it is equally resilient, despite not forming as a dense a ground cover. We have left a clump to roam for a decade in a grove of sugar maples before, and although it fought its ground superbly, its naturally long rhizomes sent it far and away, leaving large gaps unfilled. It is best to grow ‘Rosea’ interspersed with other woodlanders such as Anemone nemorosa, Hylomecon japonica or Cardamine pentaphylla, all valiant at competing with tree roots. We received our pink-flowered plants as Convallaria transcaucasica and have been selling them as such since we cannot ascertain their true identity. Authorities disagree over whether ‘Rosea’ is just a variant of C. majalis or a separate species. It seems different from C. majalis with its narrow, bluish, and thin leaves and long undivided rhizomes.
Another botanical conundrum is Convallaria keiskei, the Asian lily-of-the-valley, or, as some botanists insist, only a large variant of C. majalis.  We have limited experience with this plant, but were promised a lily-of-the-valley double the size of the usual one. Such size would be nice for bouquets because the species makes a rather unimpressive posy. In the cut flower trade, a particularly vigorous form, ‘Géant de Fortin’ is usually gown. We acquired another large pretender under the name of ‘Bordeaux’ a couple of years ago but so far, it hasn’t impressed us.  It could do once it really settles down. The one cultivar that does excite us with its vigour is ‘Hardwick Hall’, a variegated form having a delicate cream edge to its wide leaves. It is surprisingly strong growing, and so far, not in the least invasive, growing in a dense clump after a decade in the ground. It could just be a coincidence, although other people have said the same thing.  A well-behaved lily-of-the-valley, now, that’s precious!
We recently tried a couple of other variegated sports similar to ‘Hardwick Hall’.  ‘Hofheim’ is very similar with its variegation perhaps a little brighter, whilst ‘Haldon Grange’ has a wider cream brim, like brushstrokes, less defined but very nice indeed. These cultivars are subtle in comparison to the most striking ‘veined’ sorts.  ‘Albostriata’ (syn. ‘Variegata’) is a beautiful plant with a variegations alongside the leaf veins. It is unfortunately slow-growing and unstable as shoots vary in intensity, sometimes coming up completely green. By contrast, the arrestingly intense ‘Vic Pawlowski’s Gold’ is more stable, reverting occasionally but slower in growth.  A special mention has to be made of the bizarre form ‘Gérard Debureaux’ also known in English-speaking countries as ‘Green Tapestry’.  It excites people with its streaked and splashed leaves, yet it looks like a beautifully virused plant! We haven’t grown it, but read that it is vigorous, so perhaps it’s not afflicted by viruses at all, just a freak variegation. Less dramatic is the sport found in Luxembourg and named after a Dutch town, ‘Landgraaf’. Golden-leafed forms exist as well. Infrequently available and expensive is ‘Fernwood’s Golden Slippers’ discovered by Maine nurseryman Rick Sawyer. Similar to ‘Fernwood’s Golden Slippers’ are ‘Aurea’ and ‘Golden Jubilee’, both European introductions. They are all suitably vigorous considering how pale they are.
In terms of flowers, we have already mentioned the pink one, but we haven’t touched on the double forms. Two different plants appear under that definition.  The first, ‘Flore Pleno’ is the nicest with double flowers, subtle, with a hint of pink. It is rare and what is often sold under that name is the common ‘Prolificans’, a different plant altogether with clusters of tiny cream bells along the stem instead of single double flowers. Although the flowers can look messy in the garden, they do make a lovely posy.
There is so much one could say about lily-of-the-valley; information abound about this demure little flower. The Danish would tell you proudly that it is their national flower, the French would inform you that it is a harbinger of happiness for them, whilst the Germans would no doubt link it to their goddess Ostara.  Whatever the significance of lily-of-the-valley might be, what is quite certain that it does not leave anyone indifferent!