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…