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February 2009

Forty seven PeeGee hydrangeas!

RHS Hydrangea Bulletin In North America PeeGee is now becoming a common name used for all varieties of the invaluable  Hydrangea paniculata – and not just Hydrangea paniculataGrandiflora’, which is the plant which first give rise to the name.

Many new varieties have appeared in recent years and forty seven different ones were recently trialled at the Royal Horticultural Society at their gardens just outside London. They were planted in 2004 and an invaluable report with descriptions of them all, and news of the ten awards is now available from the RHS website as a free download.

There’s more on the trial and the report in my hydrangea posting over on the RHS website. Why not take a look?

No flowers - but we do have birds

Pileated woodpecker. Image: Graham Rice/ It’s tough for gardeners here in north east Pennsylvania with not a flower to be seen. The ground is still frozen solid to a depth of probably a foot or more so everything is tucked up tight. Instead, we have the birds.

And one of the stars of the winter season is the pileated woodpecker. And he and she are both whoppers – 19in/48cm from stem to stern – with a brilliant scarlet crest. (Britain's largest woodpecker is the green woodpecker at 14.5in/36cm.) They come to the bird feeders occasionally, but we hear them most days; their hammering can be heard over half a mile from the tree at which they’re at work. And with no leaves to obscure the view, their size catches the attention as they move from trunk to trunk.Pileated Woodpecker on Suet Feeder. Image=

To the joy of all American householders the favourite food of the pileated woodpecker is the carpenter ant. (For British readers: this is a perilous creature which can eat its way through the wood of which most American houses are constructed.) The woodpeckers tear at logs on the ground to get at the ants inside and also excavate characteristically rectangular holes in trees. One nearby tree has received particular special attention.

Woodpecker holes. Image: GrahamRice/ So the pileated woodpecker is one of our winter stars that we can see from the house. We won’t see the occasional bald eagle and osprey till the lake thaws but with pine siskins by the dozen, goldfinches, two or three other smaller woodpeckers, the occasional red-tailed hawk, chickadees and the rest… Well, they’re great winter entertainment.

Coming soon: (probably) the only genuine squirrel-proof bird feeder – in the world!

Jelitto - Worldwide (not just Transatlantic) seeds

Echinacea purpurea 'Lucky Star'. Image: Jelitto The Jelitto seed catalog is a marvel. A fat full color catalogue bursting with a vast total of three thousand, five hundred and seventy five (that's…3,575) perennials. Yes, just perennials (well, that includes over 200 herbs). Eighteen echinaceas, thirty two hardy geraniums, thirty four hellebores, seventy four different delphiniums and one hundred and ninety six grasses and sedges – the list goes on and on… In fact it goes on for two hundred and eight large format pages. Jelitto supply many of the nurseries from whom we all buy our plants and wised-up home gardeners order their perennial seeds from Jelitto as well.

Headquartered in Germany, Jelitto also has offices in Kentucky, where the super-efficient Mary Vaananen is in charge (her mail replies fly back in seconds)  alongside perennial expert Allen Bush (yes, he’s a perennial expert as well as an expert on perennials – old joke, sorry). In Cambridgeshire in England, plantsman Richard Oliver runs things and an office opened in Japan in 2007.

The incredible range is one attraction. But, unlike many seed companies, Jelitto also produce a large proportion of the seed they sell themselves, either on their own production fields or under contract in the right climates around the world and they’re able to keep a constant eye on the quality of the seed crop.Stachys macrantha 'Morning Blush'. Image: Jelitto

They also raise and introduce their own varieties like Iberis ‘Snow Cushion’, Knautia ‘Mars Midget’ and Chrysanthemum ‘Snowdrift’ and work with other breeders to introduce plants like Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ and ‘Doubledecker’, Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Knockout’ and the Lady Series of hellebores. Of their six new  introductions for this year, Echinacea purpurea ‘Lucky Star and the blushed white Stachys macrantha ‘Morning Blush’ look outstanding. Both are from their own breeding.

Rumex sanguineus var. sanguineus Image: Jelitto OK… that all sounds like a bit of a eulogy – what are the problems? Well, some growers mention germination problems, almost always with the more obscure plants. The catalog features many plants which are unimproved wild species and sometimes germination can, indeed, be slow or unpredictable. It’s the nature of the beasts: these are not marigolds, after all. (Actually, they do sell one marigold… for the eradication of soil eelworms). Their alternative cultivar names are sometimes, shall we say, unexpected: Achillea filipendulina ‘Parkers Varietät’ is not the same as ‘Cloth of Gold’ – they’re two different plants.

Oh, and the website – it’s constructed in such a way that it’s impossible to bookmark individual varieties or for me to provide you with links to them. There’s a vast amount of good information there but, once you’ve found it, you can’t bookmark the page for next time. But they tell me that, as I write, a complete revamp is in progress.

There’s a minimum order charge of 25€/c$31, so you don’t want order just a couple of small packets. And you won’t get your order the day after you place it, each order is packed individually in Germany and sent (insured) from there. But they’ll sell you a 2€/c$2.55 packet for your home garden or they’ll sell you half a kilo to grow field full of cut flowers.

You probably already grow quite a few Jelitto plants, whether you know it or not. I suggest nurseries take another look at the vast Jelitto range and home gardeners try starting some from seed themselves. And if you've tried seed from Jelitto, please post a comment and tell me how you got on.

Orchids on the rise

Empusa pennata Mantis_RST83-TP. Image: ©Robert Thompson Specialist societies are an essential element of serious gardening all over the world. They do fine research and share it freely with anyone who cares to join or look over their websites and they organise shows, lectures, and visits to gardens and to see plants in the wild - events of all kinds.

But many are having a tough time. After all, gardeners are feeling the pinch like everyone else and when that mass of payment reminders arrives at the end of the year it’s tempting to cancel one or two memberships. [So, memo to societies: Change your subscription year from January-December, to, say, May-April.]

But one specialist society which is flourishing is the British-based Hardy Orchid Society (HOS). Of course Americans might wonder what, exactly, they mean by “hardy orchid” – cymbidiums are hardy outside in Florida, after all. Well, we’re talking about native European orchids and those from similar temperate climates around the world. So as well as Mediterranean ground orchids like the bee orchids and their many allies (Ophrys), a huge range of other cool climate American and Asian natives like ladyslipper orchids (Cypripedium) are covered.

The society deals with every aspect including how to grow and propagate them, conservation, photography, names and classification, and orchids in their natural habitats.

CypripediumGiselaPastel24829-600. Image: judywhite/ Founded in 1993, most of the almost 700 members are in Britain but there’s also a substantial number in other parts of Europe with a happy few in the USA.  Of course, members outside Britain can’t usually get to the many field trips (eleven scheduled for this year) but the HOS is worth joining for its quarterly full colour journal alone; it’s packed with good information – and the photography is spectacular. For example, amongst nearly 50 very well produced photographs in the current Journal the amazing image at the top of this post (click it to enlarge) is on the cover.

Shot in Italy by photographer and writer Robert Thompson, it shows a praying mantis camouflaged on the flowers of Orchis italica as it waits for prey. What an astonishing image. (The image is ©Robert Thompson Photography. Thank you, Robert, for allowing its use here.)

And these beautiful and fascinating orchids are only going to become more popular amongst gardeners as plants from commercial propagation, tissue culture and seed, become more widely available and less expensive. The continuing development of selections and hybrids which are more robust in the garden, like Cypripedium 'Gisela Pastel' in the second picture (courtesy of judywhite, author Taylor's Guide to Orchids - thank you) is also very encouraging and helps take the pressure off plants in the wild.

And you can find out more about it all by joining the Hardy Orchid Society. And by the way: the membership year for the Hardy Orchid Society already starts in May!

"Breakthrough Breeding"

Alyssum Clear Crystals advertisement It’s getting to me, isn’t it. Advertising plants in the trade magazines. After the plants advertised with no names, the Bacopa and the Mandevillas, here’s another ridiculous, but rather different case.

There’s a new alyssum from PanAmerican Seed, it’s called Clear Crystal®. OK, not everyone gets excited about alyssum but this actually looks quite a valuable advance – though not for the reason stated in their ad.

“First-ever colors” says the ad in Grower Talks. No. Alyssum Clear Crystal® Alyssum Clear Crystals Formula Mixed Image: PanAmerican Seeds comes in three very familiar colors: white, lavender and purple. Nothing “first-ever” about them. What’s more these same colors, and more, are already available in PanAmerican’s previous series of alyssum – ‘Easter Bonnet’. The breeder that really does have “first-ever colors” of alyssum is K. Sahin in The Netherlands. Some years ago K. Sahin introduced red, apricot, lemon and salmon in their Aprodite Series (scroll down where you'll find them under Lobularia - their correct botanical name). Alyssum 'Aphrodite Formula Mixed'. Image: K. Sahin So let’s not have any nonsense about how the same old colors are actually “first-ever colors”.

But. There’s one other thing about Clear Crystal® alyssum which really is genuinely new and important and which could convince all those people who never pay much attention to alyssum to take it more seriously. And it’s only hinted at in the ad.

These plants are tetraploid, with twice as many chromosomes as other alyssum. That means the plants are more vigorous – both for the grower and the gardener - the flowers are larger, they bloom for longer, the plants are tougher, and they’re more weather resistant. This is all hinted at by the phrase “bigger vigour” – fair enough.

But the “Breakthrough Breeding” is not the release of the same old colors, but that this is the first tetraploid alyssum. Perhaps they think growers will be put off by the word “tetraploid” – though retail seed company Mr Fothergill seems happy to use the term. Perhaps PanAmerican’s ad agency also think growers won’t know that the true “first-ever colors” come from another company.

Come on – be straight. Especially when there’s actually a great story to tell.

Trials judging postponed by snow

Royal Horticultural Society judges were due to assess the winter foliage of the bergenias in the trial at the Society's garden at Wisley near London today. No such luck - can't do much judging when the plants are completely covered in snow!!


In January, some plants in the Cortaderia trial were also still looking good, with their fluffy plumes still intact. Not today.


I don't think the judges were expecting to be assessing the Kniphofia (red hot poker) trial today - but it will be interesting to see if the results of the cold weather and unexpected snow covering.


Thank you to Ali Cundy of the RHS Trials Office at Wisley for these great pictures.

Every blog should have a cat

Over on the excellent Victoria’s Backyard blog – I discovered an unarguable truth about blogging.  Every blog should have a cat, Victoria asserts, and she accompanies this inescapable truth with a delightful picture of Pushkin.

Nickiviolas500 So… step forward, the first among equals of the Transatlantic Plantsman’s coterie of cats – Nicki. Here she is, hard at work amongst the violas. You’ll also find her hiding in the closet, monitoring the pine siskins on the thistle feeder, scampering at full pelt from one end of the house to the other, beating up her brother Duffy, squirming contentedly on the bed, snoring under the couch and all the while looking pretty and generally captivating.

You’ll also find her looking out of our front door at the bottom of the left hand sidebar.

Snowdrops? Or just snow?

Snowdrops at Dawyck garden Over in Scotland, their Snowdrop Festival gets under way today. All over the country gardens are opening to show off their sheets of naturalised snowdrops or their collections of special forms of which, of course, there are hundreds. There’s even a conference on snowdrops at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. The picture of the snowdrops at the gardens at Dawyck, the satellite garden of Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh shows just a part of the spectacle.

Ice formation by the Delaware River. Image: ©Graham Rice/ Things are different here in Pennsylvania. [Yes, it’s time for the traditional “compare the winter weather” post.) My snowdrop collection hasn't even peeped through the soil - it's still under more than a foot of snow and probably will be till March. Not much to see. For while, as I write, it’s 39F/4C at Dawyck near Peebles in the Scottish borders, here in Pennsylvania it’s 9F/-12C. And a couple of weeks ago it was down to -11F/-24C. Not particularly good gardening weather.

But there are compensations – like this lovely ice formation I found on rocks by the Delaware River as I drove to the radio station the other day.

There follows, in particular for British readers, some pictures of winter over here. Click on each for a larger version.  You have snowdrops – at the moment we just have snow.Snow in Oswego, New York      Log Tavern Lake in the snow. Image: ©Graham Rice/ blowing in Pennsylvania. Image: ©Graham Rice/