Sparkling new dwarf spring irises

Iris 'Eye Catcher'. Image © Alan Mcmurtrie
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.

Iris 'Storm'. Image © Alan McmurtrieIt’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.

Iris 'Splish Splash'. Image © Alan McmurtrieLike 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.

Four plant books from Timber Press: Dahlias, Snowdrops, Salvias and Sedums

Plant Lover's Guide To Dahlias by Andy Vernon. ISBN: 9781604694161A new series of books for gardeners on individual plants is a big deal. In recent years we've seen fewer specialist plant books published and, as the market for books on many plants is limited, publishers will rarely sanction a new book on a subject even if an earlier one is not up to scratch.

Neither will publishers produce different editions for the British and American markets. So the one book on a specific plant has to provide good information for both British and American gardeners – and this is a definite challenge when the gardening conditions and techniques are so different, tastes are so different, and the plants grown are often very different.

The first four titles in the new Plant Lover’s Guides series from Timber Press came out earlier this year. I’ve been using them, let’s see how they stand up. There are four titles: Dahlias and Snowdrops are written by Brits, Salvias and Sedums by Americans. Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade. ISBN: 9781604694352All the books share the same structure though, oddly, the book on salvias has the fewest pages in spite of the fact that there are at least twice as many salvias grown as there are snowdrops. All four are attractively designed, accessible, with excellent photography and clear typography. The authors clearly know their stuff, and write well.

The individual entries are similar in their structure, although organized differently, and each book includes 150 main entries – a tiny proportion of the more than 1500 salvias grown in gardens, and around 700 sedums for example. Clearly, many are excluded. In fact there's no entry for the first sedum I look up, the very widely grown ‘Iceberg’.

This prompts the question: are these books intended to highlight the author’s recommend plants, or for gardeners to find information about plants in which they’re interested? It’s definitely the former and of course an expert’s guidance is always valuable but these are books of inspiration not books of reference.

Plant Lover's Guide To Salvias by John Whittlesey. ISBN: 9781604694192A big issue that these four books fail to address adequately is hardiness. In two of the books, Snowdrops and Dahlias, the USDA hardiness ratings of the plants are not given at all; a significant omission. None of the four provide plant-by-plant hardiness information for British gardeners; the Royal Horticultural Society’s system of hardiness ratings is not included. The publisher tells me it would be “too confusing” to include both the British and the North American hardiness zones. Gardens Illustrated magazine, which sells well on both sides of the Atlantic, don't agree: they include both. The battle to persuade the RHS to adopt the American system (I fought hard!) was lost. The RHS now has its own system for Britain; the RHS zones should be there.

Another thing that puzzles me is awards. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Award Of Garden Merit (AGM) is well known and widely used in Britain and, perhaps unexpectedly, often quoted in North America as well. In the Snowdrops and Dahlia books plants with the AGM are noted, in the Salvia book not only are award-winners not marked but only half the salvias awarded the AGM are included. Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ is not noted as the US Perennial Plant Of The Year for 1997. In the Sedums book, some AGM plants are marked and others are not.

Plant Lover's Guide To Sedums by Brent Horvath. ISBN: 9781604693928It’s great to see this new series of plant books. OK, there are problems. It’s not easy to ensure that plant books work well on both sides of the Atlantic. And, of course, the individual requirements of these different plants should not be forced screaming into a rigid structure. What’s more, the economics of publishing are not at all what they once were and it’s tough for publishers to make a fair return on specialist plant books (tough for authors, too) and these books are issued at a fair price: $24.95/£17.99 before discounts, less for the Kindle editions although the Kindle versions are not available in Britain. Books on tulips, asters, epimediums and ferns on the way.

But it’s unfortunate that the value of so much good information, elegantly and attractively presented and brought to us by wise and experienced plantspeople, has not been matched by a consistent appreciation of the needs of gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, for gardeners not looking for exhaustive references, these books serve as a wide view into narrow subjects in an engaging and atractive way.

The Plant Lover’s Guides to Dahlias, Snowdrops, Salvias and Sedums are published by Timber Press.

Plant Lover's Guide To Dahlias by Andy Vernon. 9781604694161Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk

Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade. 9781604694352Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk

Plant Lover's Guide To Salvias by John Whittlesey. 9781604694192Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk

Plant Lover's Guide To Sedums by Brent Horvath. 9781604693928Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk

Snowdrops invasive?

Snowdrops naturalized in Pennsylvania: 2009. Image ©GardenPhotos.comBrits may think it a little strange for me to be writing about snowdrops in the last week of April but, here in Pennsylvania, we still have flowers on ours. And recently, for my first solo excursion in the car since my hospital stay, I went to take a look at some snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) growing in the woods a few miles away. I suspect that the site is that of an old homestead - itself long gone.

Of course, snowdrops are not native here in North America; in fact, many enthusiasts for native plants describe them as alien invasives and spend a great deal of effort removing what they describe “infestations” or spraying them with weed killer. Japanese knotweed – OK, fair enough; but snowdrops?

So it was interesting to revisit these local snowdrops, which I last looked at five years ago (above left, click to enlarge), and to see how few there now are (below right, cick to enlarge)– there are probably about 10% of the number there were when I first came across them. Snowdrops naturalized in Pennsylvania: 2014. Image ©GardenPhotos.comAnd this is a factor that’s rarely monitored here in North America where the demand for instant removal of any plant that’s not native rings so loud: while non-native plants may establish themselves in wild communities and start to spread, they may also then decline and fade away.

And anyway: snowdrops are not exactly known for their capacity to smother other plants, in the wild or in the garden. In Britain, where they’re also not native, snowdrops are enjoyed and appreciated in the wild as delightful and harmless early season flowers. In the US, they’re eradicated.

The Dead Plant Society meets again

Some of this year's members of the Dead Plant Society. Image ©GardenPhotos.comThe autumn foliage has fallen, the first frosts have hit, there’s been a rough-and-ready tidy through the garden – so it’s time for another meeting of the Dead Plant Society. The last formal meeting was back in 2009 but, believe me, a lot of members have gone, come and gone again since then. Especially after the plague of voles a few years back.

Yet again the orphaned labels are all collecting in a coffee can – you’ll notice we’ve upgraded our brand of Cuban coffee since 2009.

The members of the Dead Plants Society fall into three groups: Those we know are frost tender – but which we didn’t get moved inside soon enough; those we hope will survive but don’t; and those you’d think it would be impossible to kill but which still never came back this last summer. Plus there’s also the Denial Of Death Department – the label is in the coffee can, but I can’t quite believe that it’s gone.

Frosted and gone
Impatiens 'Fusion Peach Frost': harmonious flower and foliage colors. Image ©GardenPhotos.com
We brought our spectacular Pandorea in along with scented-leaved geraniums and the superb Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ but a few others were, sadly, frosted to pulp.
Impatiens ‘Fusion Peach Frost’ A harmony in flower and foliage colour (above, click to enlarge) but it’s not always easy to find so a few cuttings would have been wise.
Cleome Senorita Series Propagated by cuttings, these long-flowering plants for sun are bushy and upright and without the spines or stickiness of the old big cleomes. The pink Senorita Rosalita is much more effective than the not-quite-white and not-quite-pink Senorita Blanca – but we’ve lost them both.
Begonia Bonfire Choc Red One of the recent B. x boliviensis hybrids, lovely with bronzed foliage and red flowers. Pulped by a surprise light frost, ‘Santa Cruz Scarlet’ is cozily tucked away.

Hopes dashed
We hope, we coddle, we talk to them nicely and play them soft music – and they die.
Lobelia 'Eco Pink Flare': found growing wild in Georgia. Image ©GardenPhotos.comLobelia cardinalis ‘Eco Pink Flare’ (left, click to enlarge) This gorgeous, found-in-the-wild pink form of the local native cardinal flower (which survives the winter happily growing in our little creek) seems to have given up the tussle with more vigorous neighbors.
‘La Crema’ This gorgeous new variegated sage struggled through one winter, died, was replaced, struggled through another winter, died - and I fear it’s now gone for ever. Hates being overwhelmed by its neighbors. But beautiful.
Stokesia laevis ‘Colorwheel’ The flowers open almost white, then mature through pale to lavender, and finally to purple. Should be hardy, the soil was probably too wet in winter. Find out more here.

What? It’s dead?!
These are tough and easy - they should not die. But they have.
Achillea ‘Pineapple Mango’ These achilleas are amongst the toughest of everything we grow, this one opens in rich pink, develops through salmon shades and matures pale primrose yellow. Well, it used to. Perhaps it’s those voles again.
Brunnera ‘King’s Ransom’ We tend to think that all the recent brunneras are tough – but not this one with its gold-edged silver leaves. At its best it’s weak; at its worst, it’s gone.
Heuchera ‘Rave On’ Fantastic flowers and foliage, and another genuine toughie, but representative of the heucheras munched by vine weevil.  ‘Raspberry Chiffon’ and the sail-though-the-winter ‘Citronelle’ are also gone.
Silybum marianum This spectacular plant with the name that never ceases to amuse kids, is a big and bold biennial with brightly spotted rosettes and towers of purple flowers. It should self sow, I blame the chipmunks for eating the seeds.

Denial Of Death department
I just don’t believe these are dead, the label should be in the border and not in the coffee can. Uvularia sessilifolia: a lovely local woodlander. Image ©Thomas G. Barnes @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’ Very early, very frost hardy – it must be there somewhere and might well open its first flowers in the next month.
Lilium philadelphicum This lovely tall local native lily is just beautiful but, although it usually emerges through lower perennials, may have been smothered like the Lobelia cardinalis ‘Eco Pink Flare’ farther along the border.
Uvularia sessilifolia (right, click to enlarge) I collected plants of this little local woodland Solomon's seal relation from the woods because the tips of each leaf were creamy yellow. In the garden, they all turned completely green and it set off to colonize with some vigor. Now it’s gone? Let’s give it another year.

Needless to say, this is just a selection from the Dead Plant Society’s members. They’ll continue to meet in the coffee can as long as we gardeners contrive to prevent their survival.

What’s this scilla doing in a wood in New York?

Siberian squill, Scilla siberica, growing in Sullivan County, NY. Image ©GardenPhotos.comNosing around in the spring woods yesterday, near the east branch of the Callicoon Creek in Sullivan County, NY, I spotted a speck of sparkling blue, amongst fresh foliage and the flowers of Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria. Seemed odd. Took a closer look, and it was a scilla. There were a few leaves and three stems with one flower on each.

The map on the USDA Plants website reveals that the Siberian squill, Scilla siberica (left, click to enlarge), has been found in seventeen north east states but, according to the New York Flora Atlas, never before in Sullivan County. The little trail is part of the Stone Arch Bridge Historical Park, but few visitors pass this way. A quick check with the Pennsylvania Flora Project reveals that it’s been recorded in three places here in PA (For Brits: Pennsylvania is the size of England.).

It’s not native, it comes from Russia. So what’s it doing in a wood in New York? The nearest house – not, it’s clear, occupied by a keen gardener - is hundreds of yards away. In more than ten years I've only once heard of the creek flooding the area in which it was growing, so a flood is unlikely have dumped a bulb. So where it come from?

One flower was already developing its seed pod, which had weighed down the stem so that the pod was resting on the ground. That’s one way for the seed to spread a few inches. It’s growing about 10ft/3m from the narrow trail so seed arriving on footwear seems unlikely.

I often take a walk along this trail in spring, and have never spotted it before. Although the flowers may only last a few days, in hot weather - it can easily reach 70+F/21+C in April.

So I wonder how it got there…?

Book Bullet: Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf

41uUUM2laKL._SS500_For a long time we’ve needed a book on snowdrops that most people can actually afford. The classic reference - a fine work though it is - is priced at £60/$103 so this little book, at a quarter of the price, is appealing for that reason alone.

The heart of this small format title is the series photographs of 300 different snowdrops. They are mostly in close up, mostly excellent though small, and the overall effect is very attractive. Some fail to show the feature that distinguishes the variety, but I’m looking forward to testing it against a couple of unknowns in the garden.

Each picture is accompanied by a few lines of text which varies from very useful to adequate to downright bizarre: “A snowdrop photographed in England, for which there is as yet no description available.” Errr… You took the picture, can’t you describe the plant?

The issues addressed in the text accompanying the images vary from plant to plant and while the layout of the book allows four short lines of text to each plant, many have only three, or even two, lines of text. Strange, when there’s so more to say about all of them.

In places the translation from the German is clunky, and not all the botanical oddities are attributable to the translation. To illustrate a plant, give it a name, then say that the name is going to be changed is not helpful.

However, having said all that, it will certainly appeal to many gardeners as their first book on snowdrops.

Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf is published by Frances Lincoln
  • Attractive presentation, with many appealing photographs
  • A useful start at an affordable price
  • Needed editing by a literate, botanically minded editor
  • American snowdrop enthusiasts not considered – but they will still find it useful.

The world's most expensive snowdrop

Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ - the world's most expensive snowdropRising from my sickbed after a week out of action, I find the world has gone mad - or has it? Thompson & Morgan have just spent £725 - that's $1146 - on one snowdrop. I'm pasting in their press release below so you can see what they say about it. Sounds astonishing - or "completely mad" as one garden writer as already said - but T&M's Paul Hansord is a smart guy. I've known him for decades, he knows what he's doing. And it does look gorgeous (left, click to enlarge). Here's todays's press release in full.

"On Thursday 16 February at 14:40 after a bidding frenzy of over 30 bidders Thompson & Morgan, the Ipswich based mail order plant and seed company, acquired the world’s most expensive snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ for £725.  This is a unique striking variety with a golden yellow ovary and yellow petal markings.

"The price is almost double the previous world record price for a single rare bulb of Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ sold for £360 last year. 

"Over the last few years the amount paid for unique Galanthus bulbs has been steadily rising as they have created more interest and in 2008 a single rare bulb fetched £226. 

"Thompson & Morgan hopes to be able to produce this variety and bring pleasure to as many gardeners as possible.  These unique Galanthus are notorious for their slow rates of multiplication but we hope to be able to look into commercial production via tissue culture, which will be the most time consuming and expensive part of the venture – buying the bulb was the easy part!

"When Thompson & Morgan purchased the world’s first Black Hyacinth ‘Midnight Mystique’ in 1998 for £50,000 a bulb, it took 15 years before it was available to the general public and demand has always outstripped stock. 

"We anticipate this beautiful snowdrop will create interest amongst enthusiasts and home gardeners alike, thanks to the ‘snowdrop mania’ that has descended on the UK in recent years.  What a welcome sight snowdrops can be at the start of spring.

"Last year we sold over 1 million snowdrops and have tried for many years to source the right golden variety in order to bring a wider range of unique snowdrops to the home gardener.

"The stunning snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was named after the owner of the garden where it first appeared as a seedling in a Scotland a few years ago and it has not been identified growing anywhere else.

"To celebrate this ‘snowdrop mania’ Thompson & Morgan are offering customers the chance to buy 75 single snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) bulbs at less than half price for £7.99 code YP05902 available on our website www.thompson-morgan.com. (UK customers only)."

I wonder how long it will be before we see Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ in the Thompson & Morgan catalog...

Book Bullet: Crocuses - A Complete Guide

CrocusesThis imperious volume is an exhaustive and profusely illustrated account of Crocus species in the wild and in gardens. Based on the author’s own studies of crocuses in the wild, and his experiences growing them in his Latvian garden, it’s the wild species – about a hundred of them - which take precedence.

The detail given over both to the place of these species in their natural habitat and to how to grow them well is rich and fascinating and the three hundred pictures are invaluable. But, like the recent book on Phlox from the same publisher, with the focus on wild species many popular cultivars receive minimal treatment.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary book and testament to the enthusiasm and insight of a great plantsman.

  • Comprehensive overview of Crocus species and how to grow them
  • Three hundred excellent colour pictures

Crocuses: A Complete Guide to The Genus by Janis Ruksans is published by Timber Press.


Two daffodils I’ll never grow (and two I will)


We all appreciate that daffodils can be amongst the most delightful of spring bulbs, that they’re so easy to grow and that they come in such vast variety simply adds to their appeal. But, there are exceptions. Some are just plain ugly.

These are two I noticed last year and in 2009 in the daffodil trials at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley near London. [This year the trial is cut back dramatically and hidden away, I’m sorry to say.] Why would you grow such horrors? It’s not just that they destroy the very concept of the daffodil – simply being different is no good reason for condemnation, after all. It’s that they’re inherently ugly.

‘Jersey Torch’ (above left, click to enlarge) has degenerated into a confusing mess of petals while ‘Apricot Whirl’ (above right) looks as if it’s been punched in the face. Doubtless these are, in a technical sense, triumphs of the plant breeders’ science. But what’s the point of devoting such high skill to create such pitiful results? I’m relieved to see that neither has been awarded an Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

But some new daffodils are really lovely, like the two varieties, ‘Reggae’ and ‘Intrigue’, that I spotted last year in Wisley’s now discontinued display of AGM winners. I wrote them up over on my (also discontinued!) Royal Horticultural Society Trials and Wards blog. These I’ll be ordering.

February's flowers

Graham Rice,february,flowers,hellebores,snowdrops. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)

A few years ago, in the middle of February, I shot this picture of flowers from my British garden (click to enlarge). An encouraging selection, I thought, for what is often the most harsh of the British winter months.

The picture not only shows what is only a selection of February's flowers, but reveals that even in the most icy month of a British winter there are many good plants at their best. It also shows some of the plants that make good companions for hellebores - one the most popular perennials on both sides of the Atlantic and the essential winter and early spring plant.

The plants in the picture are:
Arum italicum ‘White Winter’
Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’
Cyclamen hederifolium
Eranthis hyemalis
Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Rubra’
Galanthus ‘Merlin’,
Galanthus ‘Ophelia’
Galanthus ‘Viridapice’
Helleborus foetidus
Helleborus odorus
Helleborus x hybridus forms
Pulmonaria seedling
Pulmonaria rubra
Ranunculus ficaria ‘Collarette’
Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’

So, even as winter drags on (although this year spring has definitely sprung aleady back in Britain), there are attractive flowers and attractive foliage plants emerging to delight us.

You can buy postcards featuring this picture.