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March 2008

February 2008

Transtlantic sweet pea plants

Sweetpeafireandiceheronswood I think this is a first! Plants of a recently introduced sweet pea in the old-fashioned style are now available - on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America in particular it can be hard to find sweet peas available as plants by mail order so this is a welcome development.

'Fire and Ice' is a recent introduction, an heirloom Grandiflora type, it's a red and white bicolour with a powerful fragrance. The wings feature an intriguing colour change: they start white with a blue edge and the blue colour slowly expands. It's great to see plants available by mail order on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sweetpeafireandice500It turned up by chance as a mutation in a row of plants of a maroon and violet bicolour on Mark Rowland's trials at Owl's Acre Sweet Peas in Lincolnshire in eastern England. He selected it out, trialled it to be sure it was stable and introduced it on a limited scale in 2005. It made its debut at the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Flower Show where the picture was taken.

Plants are now available in North America from Heronswood.

Plants are now available in Britain from Simply Sweet Peas.


Helleborusdbleintegrity500 This is just to day that you can read my article on hellebores in today's Daily Telegraph.

The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain's best-selling daily newspapers. Read it here.

You can read my earlier piece for the Daily Telegraph on winter arums here

And my piece for them on bergenias here

And my piece on winter flowering pansies here.

And another piece, on growing your own mistletoe, here.

Exciting new drought tolerant perennials

Baptisiastarlpbluescbg500 Tough, prolific and colourful drought-tolerant plants are becoming increasingly valuable and preparing a lecture on new perennials today, it struck me again how baptisias are under rated. And there’s been a flurry of new introductions in recent years which have greatly expanded the color range. They combine drought tolerance with an imposing presence and prolific flowering – and unlike lupines, which are rather similar in their general appearance, they don’t suffer from those monstrous gray lupine aphids and are less troubled by powdery mildew.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden Jim Ault, who brought us the Meadowbrite echinacea hybrids, has now introduced four hybrids in his Prairieblues  Series. Starlite Prairieblues is a hybrid between B. australis and B. bracteata with brilliant blue and white flowers on tall spikes. In a much darker blue, Midnight Prairieblues is a cross between B. australis and a seedling from a cross between B. tinctoria and B. alba. Opening yellow then developing rusty orange tints Solar Flare Prairieblues is another complex hybrid involving those same three species. Finally, Twilight Prairieblues is a bicolor in deep purple and yellow, this time derived from B. australis and B. sphaerocarpa.

At the North Carolina Botanic  Garden Curator Rob Gardener selected a hybrid of B. sphaerocarpa and B. alba he named ‘Carolina Moonlight’, with long buttery spikes over blue-tinted foliage. He also selected ‘Purple Smoke’, a hybrid of B. minor var. aberrans with blackish stems topped with smokey purple flowers.

All these baptisias are native to the North America; some overlap naturally in their distribution and some are isolated from each other. But bringing them all together in a controlled way creates unique genetic combinations – and unique plants with prolific flowering in new shades.

Baptisiawayneswpd26335400 But the old fashioned way also works. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina spotted an unusually vigorous and upright plant of B. alba, with dramatic spikes of white flowers, growing in nearby Wayne County. He introduced it as ‘Wayne’s World’. In Arkansas native plant guru Larry Lowman selected B. sphaerocarpa 'Screamin' Yellow' with unusually brilliant yellow spikes.

Remember that all these baptisias love the sun, tolerate drought and are hardy (zone 4 or 5) and easy to grow. I have to say that mine are not in full sun and so are less prolific than I would like. They also make great cut flowers; cut the stems when about a third or a half the flowers are open and put them directly into warm water contain flower preservative. They should last well.

Buy these baptisias by mail order in North America from Great Garden PlantsPlant Delights Nursery, White Flower Farm and North Creek Nurseries. Not all are yet available in Britain, but check the RHS PlantFinder to find who's selling what - the new 2008 edition, with new listings, will be available online in early April.

Spring lectures

Here's news of some lectures this spring.


28 February
University of Oxford Botanic Garden
No More Marigolds – Unusual Annuals for the Summer Garden

3 March
Hardy Plant Society (Middlesex Group)

8 March
Hidden Treasures – New Perennials from Across the Atlantic
NCCPG (North East  Group) – Newcastle-upon-Tyne

14 March
Hidden Treasures    New Perennials from Across the Atlantic
Hardy Plant Society (Staffordshire Group) – Little Haywood, Stafford


27, 28, 29 April    Heronswood Nursery, PA
Cancelled - sorry

More dates are scheduled for later in the year.

Ice storm and bird count

Archingbirch500Well - between the pneumonia, sinus infections, the ice storm that brought down most of two 50ft oak trees (one snapped right at the woodpecker’s nest) and which again bent our poor birch over so far that its top touched the ground… The chain saw jammed, the generator refused to start in the eight hour power outage, the internet connection vanished. Happy Days! It’s been a tricky week or two here in chilly Pennsylvania.

Some of the spruces and pines are still partly covered in covered in frozen snow. Pieris, kalmias, junipers and other evergreens are so weighed down - frozen to the ground for a week - that they may never regain their natural elegance. And those poor redpolls… where once we had a flock of forty, many were last seen huddled under the eaves… damp, soggy and sad. At the latest count we were down to thirteen – it’s Great Backyard Bird Count time so everything’s being counted. We have no flowers – so why not count the birds and help create a better picture of bird populations across the country? More details here.

A blue impatiens!

Impatiensnamchabarwensis I keep forgetting to bring this to your attention and now that spring is approaching for many (excluding, of course, those of us still battling with ice-rink driveways) I’ve remembered… a BLUE impatiens. Really? Well, yes. It goes by the tongue-twisting name of Impatiens namchabarwensis and in Britain there’s an improved form called ‘Blue Sky’.

This is a classic plant hunting discovery, the species was found for the first time by two botanists who trekked 100km from the nearest road to a gorge in Tibet which is almost the length of the whole of Britain and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. This was as recently as 2003, it was named in 2005 (after the gorge where it was found). You can find out more about its discovery here.

Seed went to the British National Collection of Impatiens, then to the plant breeding station at Thompson and Morgan Seeds in England where plant breeder Charles Valin set about transforming the tall and lanky plant – with spectacular blue flowers – into something more gardenworthy. ‘Blue Sky’ (previously called ‘Blue Moon’) is the result.Impatiensnamchabarwensisblu_2

Although the striking blue flowers were clearly dramatic, the plant was tall and lanky, did not branch well and flowered sparsely. In just a few generations of careful breeding and selection, Charles has improved the plants enormously and selected ‘Blue Sky’ which reaches only about 45cm/18in in height, branches well and is more prolific in flower than the wild species. It grows well in shade or in partial shade if the soil is moist and on cool morning the blue flowers will sparkle at their best, becoming more purplish as the day warms up.

‘Blue Sky’ is not yet available in the US, but the wild species is. And by the way, when you see the name Blue Diamond attached to it this is not the name of a special selection, it’s a “common name” give to it by, well, someone who didn’t fancy making a stab at pronouncing the botanical name!

Plants of Impatiens namchabarwensis ‘Blue Sky’ are available by mail order in Britain here.

Plants of the wild form of Impatiens namchabarwensis are available by mail order in the US here

Trapped in the house!

Frostedwindow400 Can't get out today. The driveway, the deck, all the snow in the woods, everything is coated in ice. I don't even dare walk down the driveway to get the mail. And the big maple just outside the back door is entirely encased in ice – from trunk to twig! I nearly fell over when stepping gingerly out on to the deck to fill the bird feeders.

Looking out of the kitchen window is like looking through that dimpled glass you find in old shower doors. The outside of the double-glazed windows is entirely iced and, as you can see, partially opaque. But beyond are our winter replacements for the garden’s flowers. It’s all very well for everyone in California, Florida, the Pacific North West and, of course, in Britain. But here in Pennsylvania we haven’t seen a flower for outside for months. Instead we have the birds – they’re our “flowers” for the winter.Cardinal

And boy are they having a tough time. Apart from the fact that the deck rail and the perches on the feeders are all iced and their poor little feet keep slipping off – yesterday’s blizzard of ice granules forced them to retreat into the evergreens. And today, the crashing of ice as it slid on to the deck sounded, as my wife judy put it, “like someone throwing a body off the roof”. And of course if it hit you on its way down, a body is exactly what you’d be!

Redpoll_2 But the solitary cardinal was back this morning, stuffing himself with sunflower seed. And a few weeks ago a flock of redpolls arrived for the first time since we’ve been here. They visit every day now, crowded wing-to-wing on the thistle feeder – I’ve counted sixteen at once and three waiting their turn.

So our weekend away is cancelled as the car would only slide off into the woods if were mad enough to venture down the driveway coated with an inch of solid ice. But the temperature has risen just enough for the window ice to melt so at least we can watch the birds. And now that the most helpful tech support agent in the history of sorrowfully calling help-lines has helped me get our wireless internet connection up and running again (thank you Canadian guy from Apple), well…now I can upload this. But now the temperature is dropping again...