Driving around Pennsylvania or Northamptonshire, while keeping my eyes on the road, my peripheral vision always takes in what’s growing by the roadside. And there’s plenty to see.
One of the very first posts on this blog, way back in 2007, was about unexpected roadside plants and here we are almost ten years later and over the last few days I’ve spotted some more.
First, let’s revisit the Heathrow euphorbias (above). Having driven round the exit from London’s orbital motorway, the M25, for Heathrow every few months for more than fifteen years – about four years ago I spotted Mediterranean euphorbias bursting through the barrier. Driving my wife judy to the airport last week she snapped this picture on her phone through the car window as we whizzed by. Those euphorbias are still going strong.
Later, on the way home to Northamptonshire, I spotted something interesting as I turned off the northbound M1 motorway to head home. And it turned out to be a strange mixture of plants: stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) (below) scattered by the side of the road along with Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, grape hyacinths (Muscari), jonquil daffodils, flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and more: a strange mix of garden plants at an exit that’s a long way from a garden.
And then just yesterday, on the way back from the recycling centre, doing very nicely by the roadside – two or three patches of another Mediterranean plant: Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum) (above right). The Flora of Northamptonshire tells me that it: “originates from it formerly being grown as a medicinal herb”.
Now that our roadsides are not treated like lawns and mown every two or three weeks, there’s more and more interesting plants to see.
I’ve been doing some weeding. This is in our British garden where the weeds are always jumping at this time of year, especially when it’s been so wet and it’s been unwise to get on the soil.
I’ve also been having a clear out, bringing files and folders out from the back of the file cabinets and what did I find? My weed collection, three fat folders of pressed plants, that I made when I was a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London almost forty years ago (below right, click to enlarge).
And the first pressed plant I found in the first folder I opened was the same plant I’d just been pulling out of the garden: hairy bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta). We have a close relative, Pennsylvania bitter cress (Cardamine pennsylvanica) in our American garden.
And this brings me to my first rule of weeding: our top weeding priority should always be to pull out are the weeds that are in flower or developing seeds. Hairy bitter cress rarely grows more then 10in/25cm high but can still can produce 700 seeds and fling them 31in/80cm, but it can also produce seeds when just two inches (5cm) high. So pull it out. Now.
Many of the traditional rules of gardening have little value but “One year’s seeding makes ten years weeding” really is true. Dandelions (below), which as annoying in Pennsylvania as they are in Northamptonshire, can produce over two hundred seeds in one seed head. So - obviously - don’t let them seed.
My second rule of weeding is always to shake the soil off the roots after you pull out the weeds and before they go on the compost heap or (in those cities with green waste recycling) in the green waste bin. You can ship out a huge amount of good soil if you’re not careful.
And my third rule of weeding is this: get them when they’re young. When nasty perennial weeds like bindweed come through at this time of year, a one inch shoot is often an indicator of yards of root underneath. Later, when their twirling stems become entwined with our garden plants, it’s all but impossible to remove them. It’s so much easier when they’re just an inch high and, at this time of year, if you disturb the plants you’re trying to protect when extracting bindweed roots they’ll soon settle down again. By the time the bindweed is strangling your cistus (top) it’s far far FAR too late.
My final rule is this: Don't spend half a day weeding and then the rest of the week nursing your aching back. I did half an hour this morning and half an hour this afternoon and I’ll try to keep that up. But if I’d spent two hours forking out weeds at a single stretch this morning (as I was tempted to do) I’d not be able to get out there again tomorrow or the next day or the rest of the week. Little and often…
OK, it's time to get back to the bindweed and dandelions and the dreaded hairy bitter cress.
Guest post by lawyer (and nephew) Jonathan Weisbrod
I distinctly remember the first Flower & Garden Expo I attended. In the mid-90s, my family went to the Philadelphia Flower & Garden Show. It was a rather grand experience, between floral displays and booths upon booths of plants I had never heard of or seen before. Admittedly grandeur to someone under the age of ten is easy to come by.
Over the years since I’ve attended a lot of festivals and conventions celebrating everything from hot air ballooning to chili peppers, but beyond “craft & garden” fairs – nothing with horticulture at the forefront. As a recent transplant from New Jersey to San Francisco, it seemed appropriate to try and take in my new coast. Why not spend a day at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show? #throwbackthursday or in this case Saturday.
To be fair, I knew my past expectations needed to be tempered, still I was surprised by the amount of craft fair wares available relative to the garden vendors (how many people do you need selling aged balsamic vinegar?). The event felt more like a crafts fair with gardens added on than a garden expo colored by craft vendors. The proliferation of gutter cleaning devices, new windows, and college-student MLM king Cutco takes a bit away from the whimsy.
Oh right, the garden displays. There were some very pleasant, zen displays. However, they weren’t just an afterthought in this reflection on the show, they felt like one at the show itself. The actual garden displays numbered just over half a dozen but with rather narrow scope. As such a novice, perhaps it's not surprising the water displays jumped out at me most – but they certainly felt more the focus of each set up rather than anything floral (though a raining bridge is cool concept for a few minutes).
All-in-all mixed feelings, not an overwhelming disappointment, but far from a success in my book. I was able to learn a bit about products to implement in my own garden which certainly a big plus, if only I gleaned more about plants to put in it…
Gardeners and botanists both use common names as well as scientific names when referring to plants. Using common names for plants is more widespread in North America than it is in Britain, even among botanists, and even though common names are often simply made up if there doesn’t seem to be one already in use. But common names are confusing. After all, there are more than twenty different plants, from around the world, that are called “bluebells”.
Native Americans must have had local names for many native plants when settlers first arrived in North America but the settlers didn’t bother to learn them and simply made up new ones - or, as with birds like the robin, transferred a familiar common name to a plant that looked vaguely similar to one from back home.
So when I saw a large mature sycamore (above) way across the Delaware River the other day, its white branches ghosting against the oaks and maples behind, I was reminded of this: in Europe, sycamore is used for Acer pseudoplatanus; here in North America sycamore is Platanus occidentalis. The leaves are very similar, so I presume settlers simply transferred the name. But surely, native Americans must have had a common name for P. occidentalis. After all, I’m told they used to tap it for sap in the same way as sugar maples.
In Europe, P. occidentalis is the plane tree and its hybrid with P. orientalis is a familiar city street tree. In Paris, large plane trees in the streets are pruned – literally – into a plane with all the branches parallel to the street and none overhanging.
The sycamore of Europe, Acer pseudoplatanus (below) - whose botanical name, by the way, literally translates as “the maple that looks like a plane tree”! - is a menace. There’s a huge one in our neighbor’s garden in England and its seedlings spring up all over the place. What’s worse is that they get their new roots down deep quickly so that even when they’re less than a foot high they can be tough to extract, especially between the cracks in paving.
I’d much rather have the American version.
Acer speudoplatanus image (above) © Jean-Pol Grandmont. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
One of the most interesting features in the BSBI News, the magazine for members of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, is the section headed Adventives & Alien News. This is where news of the more interesting non-native arrivals is posted.
In the current issue there’s news of two related plants very rarely seen in Britain, one so unexpected that it gets a short article all to itself.
The most surprising news is that Pelargonium inodorum (above), a native of Australia and New Zealand, and not grown in British gardens, has been found growing on the Isle of Wight - off the south coast of England. Spotted last September, it was happily flowering away on a sandy bank near a boating lake in the town of Ryde, across the road from the beach. It seems to have been there for a few years as there are large and small plants.
Interestingly, it is also said to have become established in California, but the California Native Plant Society has no records. So often, when a non-native plant turns up in the wild in America, the reaction is to discuss how to eliminate it. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland publishes records and monitors the continuing status of new arrivals so that any such decisions can have a scientific basis.
As it happens, there’s news of a related plant that has also started turning up on the Isle of Wight. A heron’s bill that’s native to North Africa, Erodium trifolium (left), was first spotted near Dartford in Kent in 1999, but has now been found in two different places on the Isle of Wight. A large plant was found on an industrial estate and half a dozen plants on a mown roadside verge. That original find in Kent was described as “an extensive weed on walls and roadsides”.
This is a very attractive species which is grown in gardens and listed in the latest RHS Plant Finder as stocked by five nurseries, none of which are on the Isle of Wight.
Other interesting sightings mentioned in this latest BSBI News include:
* Portulaca oleracea, the kitchen garden purslane, native to India, established in two sites in different parts of Sussex;
* the drought tolerant Gaillardia x grandiflora naturalised on sand dunes in Kent and increasingly popular in gardens;
* purple-flowered Verbascum phoenicium, found in Staffordshire in the English midlands.
The point of all this is that recording these plants, and following their status over time, is the basic science from which conclusions can be drawn about their spread – or their disappearance. Indigofera hirsuta is considered invasive in parts of North America, but a plant of the closely related Indigofera heterantha found in Sussex in 2012 has since gone. We need to know when species do not spread as well as when they do. Ripping them out as soon as we see them tells us nothing.
Thank you to Peter Heenan of Landcare Research for permission to use his image of Pelargonium inodorum. The image of Erodium trifolium is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Details here.
The day the echinaceas died... It was yesterday. And this is how it happened.
Echinaceas, coneflowers, and especially all the fancy hybrids that have come on the market recently, like ‘Flame Thrower’ (above) and all the doubles (below), hate bad drainage in winter. That’s what kills them. But yesterday that’s exactly what they got.
On Sunday night the temperature in our garden here in Pennsylvania went down to -10F (-23C). So, after a temperature almost as low the night before, and low temperatures for a few days before that, the ground was frozen solid to a depth it was hard to assess.
And then it snowed. Not a lot, just a couple of inches and the whole garden looked lovely. But then, yesterday, Monday, it got warmer. A whole lot warmer, and quickly. By early afternoon the temperature had risen to 48F (9C), and the snow had melted and the top inch or two of soil had thawed out as well.
But because the soil was frozen down deep, all the melted snow just sat there on the surface, in puddles – it could not drain away because the soil underneath it was frozen. Our borders were covered in pools of water, yesterday, and they’re still there this morning.
And in those puddles of thawed snow are the crowns of our last remaining echinaceas (this has happened before...) – and echinaceas hate bad drainage. So those last few may well die.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon that comes into play in Britain all that much, or in parts of the USA where the winters bring less ferocious frosts. Because if the soil is not so solidly frozen, melted snow drains away and impacts much less on our, rather sensitive, echinaceas.
But here's what's important: it reminds us that, wherever we garden, it’s bad drainage in winter that prevents us enjoying the vast range of exciting new echinaceas for years and years after we first planted them. Which is a shame, because they really are gorgeous. As you can see.
Reticulata irises are one of the joys of spring, but we seem to have been growing the same varieties for decades. In fact, the ones I used to look after when I worked in the Alpine House at Kew Gardens over thirty years ago are, basically, the ones we still grow. Well, until now.
There’s a fascinating piece in the Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly membership The Garden this month, by Assistant Editor Phil Clayton, about Canadian iris breeder Alan McMurtrie and the amazing varieties he’s developed.
It’s been a long haul. Alan began his work many years ago, soon after I was working with the irises at Kew, in fact, but it takes five years for the seed produced by crossing one variety with another to build a big enough bulb to flower. And that’s only the start, because after two or three generations of crosses and selections and a new seedling is finally seen to be good enough to be named – then a large number of bulbs have to propagated so that they can be sold and that takes a long time. Alan has been developing these lovely little plants for thirty years and only now are his new varieties becoming available to gardeners.
He’s been continually expanding the range of colors and color combinations. The white ‘White Caucasus’ and the blue-and-white ‘Eye Catcher’ (top) were amongst the first to be named but Alan also has improved varieties in the familiar blue and purple shades, 'Splish Splash' (below), along with new varieties in vivid yellow, and orange, yellow with navy blue marks and with smokey tints ('Storm', left) or brown speckles… They’re just amazing.
You can read the article about Alan’s irises from The Garden online, and in next month’s issue of another Royal Horticultural Society magazine, The Plantsman, you can read a more detailed account. Alan McMurtie is refreshingly open about his work and Alan's website includes many pages of details and a huge number of pictures.
Alan is lecturing in Britain this month, so this is a great opportunity to hear about his irises from the man himself. He’ll be speaking at the RHS London Flower Show on 16 February, at a meeting of the Scottish Rock Garden Club in Dunblane on 20 February, and at the Alpine Garden Society’s show at Harlow in Essex, just north of London, on 27 February. At present, he has no North American lectures scheduled.
Like to buy some bulbs? In Britain take a look at the offerings from Jacques Amand, at Broadleigh Gardens, at Pottertons, and at Rare Plants. In North America you can buy some of Alan’s varieties at McClure & Zimmerman, at White Flower Farm and at Botanus.com. Of course the plants are flowering now, you ill be able to order bulbs later in the year.
Jacques Amand featured Alan’s irises at the Philadelphia Flower Show last year, and will do so again next year, but this year the theme is tulips. This week’s RHS London Flower Show will feature an extensive range, shown by Jacques Amand
Oh, yes… You want to know how to grow them. Here’s what Alan recommends:
“They should be planted 3in (8 cm) deep in well drained soil (a touch deeper is fine). They don't mind snow melt in the spring, but don't like to be near a downpipe in summer. Plant about the same distance apart. Resist the urge to plant too close together. If you've given them the right conditions they will form clumps.
“Remember new bulbs are forming at the base of each leaf. They represent next year's bloom. So don't go ripping them out and wonder why you don't have flowers next year. The longer they stay green, the bigger the bulbs will be.”
Images © Alan McMurtie Thank you for making details of your work so freely available.
“The Christmas Roses with which one meets in the majority of gardens are not white, but pink, or more or less suffused with pink or dirty purple.”
Really? Well, perhaps it was true in 1878 when a certain Mr. D. T. Fish wrote those words in William Robinson’s epic journal, The Garden, although it seems unlikely. He then goes on to explain in detail how to make Christmas roses (Helleborus niger) white.
Even allowing for the artist’s overenthusiasm, this Giant Christmas Rose, illustrated in The Garden in 1878 (above), is impressive and well illustrates how the coloring works: individual flowers open white and develop pink tones and become richer in color as they mature. Sunset Group, collected in Slovenia by veteran British hellebore expert Will McLewin was similar (but a whole lot less dramatic). Dark stemmed ‘Louise Cobbett’ opens with pink backs to its flowers and later develops additional pink tints but it’s not the color of the Giant Christmas Rose.
Neither is Blackthorn Group (below), developed by acclaimed hellebore and daphne breeder Robin White from ‘Louise Cobbett’ (right) and ‘White Magic’ although it’s a lovely thing.
Strangely, Josef Heuger, in Germany, who has introduced so many fine forms of the Christmas rose recently - ‘Jacob’ flowers dependably in November here in Pennsylvania - has created no pinks. Most of the pink ones such as ‘Pink Frost’ which listed as H. niger by mail order nurseries are actually hybrids. If Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery in Oregon, who’ve created so many spectacular double and single forms of H. x hybridus, turned their attention to Christmas roses we’d be in for a treat.
Anyway, it’s interesting (if difficult to believe) that pink was once normal in Christmas roses and that detailed suggestions were given in The Garden for turning them white. And what, in short, were the recommendations: “light soil”, “a warm, sheltered, partly-shaded situation” and “cover them with glass”. Somehow that doesn’t really seem a very convincing way to change their color…
Coleus are enjoying a spectacular - and well deserved - revival. And while Dibleys in the UK and Glasshouse Works in the USA have kept the old favorites available for many years, amazing new varieties of coleus in even more colors and color combinations, from seed and from cuttings, are now being introduced at an astonishing rate. There are even coleus for hanging baskets.
A fine new book on coleus appeared about five years ago (forty years after the previous one), three years ago almost a hundred were trialed outside by the Royal Horticultural Society and so coleus are now again getting the recognition they deserve. Those startling colors just keep tempting us and they look so good with some many other foliage plants and flowers.
In North America coleus (and of course their botanical name is Solenostemon) have remained popular as outdoor summer foliage plants for borders and containers. In Britain, they were relegated to conservatories and greenhouses because of the strange belief that they didn’t perform well outside. But I remember back in the 1980s – yes, yes, I know – that one of the star plants of the summer plantings along the Broad Walk at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew was coleus. Two old varieties in particular, ‘Sunset’ and 'Picturatus', were often used to edge the beds.
As I write Glasshouse Works in the US are listing 132 different coleus, Dibleys are listing twenty four coleus, fifty three coleus are promoted by the Proven Winners brand in the US but in the UK Proven Winners don’t feature any at all. But in just two years Terra Nova Nurseries (famous for the vast number of heucheras they’ve developed over the years) has introduced thirty seven new coleus in seven different series - in just two years! And their 2016 introductions have not yet been announced.
Terra Nova have spent eight years developing coleus and their introductions vary from tight and compact to big and bushy with two series (Color Clouds, below, and Color Carpet) intended for ground cover and hanging baskets. You can check out their series and all the individual coleus varieties at the Terra Nova home gardeners website.
At the moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, you’re probably most likely to see seed-raised varieties such as the monster-leaved Kong Series and ‘Chocolate Mint’ (above). But look out for these new series from Terra Nova and give them a try.
RHS Award of Garden Merit
These eleven coleus were awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit, or had earlier awards reconfirmed, after being trialed the RHS Garden at Wisley and also on the Victoria Embankment in central London: ‘Black Prince’, ‘China Rose’, ‘Gay’s Delight’, Henna (‘Balcenna’), ‘Juliet Quartermain’, ‘Pineapple Beauty’, ‘Pink Chaos’, Redhead (‘Uf0646’), Trusty Rusty (‘Ufo6419’), Versa Crimson Gold (‘Pas733805’), ‘Winsome’.
As you take time off over the holiday season, here's some reading to set you up for the best of this season in the garden.
Choosing Flowers: Hellebore Combinations (Organic Life - US)
Edibles: Cooking with nasturtiums (Plant Talk blog - UK)
Award Winners: Ten of the hardiest plants for British gardens (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
This strange season: Not yet winter in Pennsylvania (Transatlantic Gardener - US)
Movies: Not reading but viewing (Transatlantic - US)
Choosing Flowers: Five Super-Hardy Perennials (Organic Life - US)
New Plants: Sparkling new yellow cosmos (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
Choosing Flowers: Five Shrubs That Add Color To Winter Landscapes (Organic Life - US)
Propagation: Raising plants from seed in Rootrainers (Plant Talk blog - UK)
Award Winners: Ten winter shrubs for fragrance (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
Edibles: Kale belongs in the flower beds (Organic Life - US)
Choosing Flowers: Black(ish) beauties (Plant Talk blog - UK)
Indoor plants: Indoor foliage climbers (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
This strange season: Warmest ever autumn in Britain (Transatlantic Gardener - UK)
New Plants: Trends in hellebores (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
Choosing Flowers: Blue favorites spark white varieties (Plant Talk blog - UK)
Award Winners: Pick of the latest awards to perennials (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)
New Plants: A big step forward in Sweet Williams (Royal Horticultural Society - UK)