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December 2009

Top shrub for dry shade

Thinking about plants which grow in dry shade, today. Seems to me that one of the stars is Aucuba japonica – often known as spotted laurel as it’s the speckled forms which are most often seen.

Aucuba japonica 'Variegata' - good in dry shade. Image © Do not reproduce without permission. The whims of gardeners are such that when a plant is recognized as both attractive and dependable and it becomes widely planted, after a spell in the spotlight its very ubiquity then sparks disdain. Such was the fate of the spotted laurel.

First introduced into the west from Japan as long ago as 1783, it was indeed the spotted form, ‘Variegata’, that we first grew and which first received an award - a First Class Certificate, no less - from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1865. ‘Variegata’, ‘Grandis’, with large plain green leaves, and the more slender-leaved ‘Lancifolia’, became staple plantings for many decades before the tide turned; until recently they were being torn out of shrub borders, mixed borders, informal hedges, windbreaks and soundscreens  - “boring” had become the sad conclusion. But it was no accident that in dry shady places they outlasted their neighbors, outlasted them by so long that they became scorned.

All forms are excellent dry shade plants for zone 6 and above. In the darkest and driest places those with broad, plain green leaves will be more successful than those with narrow or heavily speckled foliage but all are good. Plants are male or female so you need both for berries on the females.

Use them along boundaries as a background to smaller shrubs, perennials and bulbs; they’re ideal shrubs to soften corners in town gardens; aucubas also make fine large foundation plants for the north side of the house and even in dry shade are sufficiently dense and heavy-leafed to help buffer noise from roads and neighbors.

The names are in quite a muddle but in addition to ‘Variegata’, often said to be bettered by the similar ‘Gold Dust’, look for ‘Rozannie’. No speckles, but the fruits will develop without the need of a male companion.

Any other dry shade recommendations?

Lighter-than-air terracotta pot

Buddleja 'Buzz Magenta' - bad Photoshop job. Image: ©Thompson & Morgan The good people at Thompson & Morgan in Britain recently sent me a press release about their new plant catalogue (launching in a couple of days). And full of exciting new varieties it is – 80 in all. And they also sent a picture of one of their splendid new buddlejas.

I wrote these up over on my RHS New Plants blog in June. I also discussed here the fact that their picture shows a collection of cut branches arranged in a terracotta pot – not a plant actually growing in a pot! But then when I saw the (very large) image they sent me this time I noticed something else – the pot is hovering in mid air! Hooray for Photoshop!

The trouble with all this is if they can’t just provide a picture of the plant growing in a pot and looking great – it makes people suspect that the plant is not as good as they say it is. T&M do a great job at their trials, demonstrating a vast range of container plants thriving in their containers. Can’t we see these buddlejas doing the same?

I’ve highlighted examples from other companies in the past. Anyone got any more?

Christmas morning in the digital age

Christmas morning in the digital age. In bed with the laptops. Image © Do not reproduce without permission. On 12/25/09 8:07 AM, G Rice wrote:
Merry Christmas, precious.
On 12/25/09 8:08 AM, J White wrote:
And a Happy Christmas to you, honey. Did you see the wild turkeys go by the window?
xxoo j

On 12/25/09 8.10 AM, G Rice wrote:
I did! And they were looking much more plump than last time we saw them. Must be all that spilled bird seed. Just was well for them that we're mostly vegetarian

On 12/25/09 8:14 AM, J White wrote:
Speaking of eating, let's not forget to take the salmon for Christmas dinner out of the fridge. And Mr. Duffy is getting a bit cranky that nobody's given him his special expensive holiday cat food. He said he's going to take off the bow if something good doesn't happen pretty damn soon.
xxoo j

On 12/25/09 8.16 AM, G Rice wrote:
Oh no, you don't think he'll rush off and tear down the Christmas tree do you?
G  x

On 12/25/09 8.18 AM, J White wrote:
Bad things DO come in threes; I've been waiting for the third shoe to drop ever since the laptop disaster and the vomit on the furniture...

Would you get me a cup of tea when you get a chance?
xxoo j

On 12/25/09 8.21 AM, G Rice wrote:
Or something stronger? It is Christmas, after all.

On 12/25/09 8.23 AM, J White wrote:

Good idea. Forget the tea. Where's the vodka?
xxoo j

On 12/25/09 8.24 AM, G Rice wrote:

Ho Ho Ho!

[Notice we're wearing our traditional British holiday headgear - paper crowns for G&j and a gold bow for Mr Duffy - from the earliest possible moment on Christmas morning.]

Fun with plant names

Hebejeebie Plant names exasperate many gardeners But some of the more entertaining aspects of the naming of plants, and of other forms of life, derive from the fact that – if they follow certain rules as to the way the name is constructed – scientists can name new plants, animals and insects pretty much whatever they like. And they do. How else would a new genus from New Zealand, related to Hebe, come to be called Hebejeebie (left)?

At Kew, long ago, I remember coming across a plant labeled Cirsium acaule subsp. inacaule – literally: the stemless thistle that’s not without a stem! Now I find, courtesy of the wonderful Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, that there’s a plant called Eriogonum inflatum var. deflatum – named by Ivan Johnston, formerly Associate Professor of Botany at Harvard. Then there’s the little lily relative, the European may lily, which was once called Unifolium bifolium (but is now, I’m sorry to say, Maianthemun bifolium). There’s also, it turns out, a beetle called Euphoria morosa.

You have to admire the botanists who split of a few species from the genus Allium to create Muilla (right)Muillamaritima  (Sereno Watson, another Harvard man, was responsible for that one) and some from Arabis to create Sibara. And there’s the orchid taken out of the genus Aerides and named Sedirea.

Some botanists just like to oh too clever. French botanist Raymond Hamet and his friend Alice Leblanc together named a new Kalanchoe: Kalanchoe mitejea – mitejea is an anagram of Je t’aime. And Sir Peter Scott coined a name for the Loch Ness Monster, Nessiteras rhombopteryxm, which is literally “Ness monster with rhomboidal fin". But it was also noted that the name is an anagram for "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.

Some names are just too too too too long. That’s all there is to it. For example, there’s a longhorn beetle called – the label would take up most of the museum case – Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis var. nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta.

Two tongue-twisting cacti, Austrocephalocereus dolichospermatichus and Weberbauerocereus cephalomacrostibas, both need a deep breath before attempting. The label for Saxifraga aizoon var. aizoon subvar. brevifola forma multicaulis subforma surculosa would be bigger than the plant. But Aquilegia flabellata nana pumila alba 'Rama Lama Ding Dong' (a dwarf white columbine named by Diana Reek of Collector’s Nursery in Washington state) fails as the Latin part of the name is not formulated correctly. Perhaps Aquilegia flabellata var. pumila forma alba 'Rama Lama Ding Dong' is more correct.

Iaio But don’t you prefer the wasp Aha ha? Named by Arnold Menke of the Ammophila Research Institute in Bisbee, Arizona, he also used the name as the license plate for his car. The relatively common Asian vesper bat Ia io (left) has the shortest of all zoological names, and there’s also supposed to be an orchid called Ada aa but this name may never have been validly published. Shame.

None of these are made up - I give full credit for many of these to the collection of strange scientific names at Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature. Thank you Mark Isaak (who, I’m sure, would be delighted to hear more). For some great fictional plants visit Shady Deals Nursery.

A bobcat in our woodpile

Young bobcat looks out from the woodpile. Image: © Looked out the window today, here in the woods in north-east Pennsylvania, as we were starting to get the Christmas Tree decorated  – and there’s a cat with no tail in the garden, right outside the window. Actually, the poor thing has got itself inside the deer fence and is trying to get out. But it’s not a stray house cat… It’s a bobcat, notoriously shy, and a youngster at that. (Click the images to enlarge them.)

Bobcats are American native wild cats, similar to the Scottish wild cat but in fact more closely related to the lynx. In the whole of Pennsylvania there are reckoned to be only 3,100 bobcats. Pennsylvania is about the size of England, by the way: 46,000 square miles/120,000 square kilometers. That’s one bobcat to every 15 square miles - and there’s one in our woodpile. It’s been holed up there all day. We’ve been stringing the lights on the tree and breaking off to watch through binoculars and shoot pictures through the deer fence.
Bobcat takes shelter in the garden woodpile. Image: ©
As its favored habitat of dense brushy forest matured – or was eaten by deer – the bobcat became increasingly rare and the state Game Commission banned hunting and trapping in 1970. Numbers began to increase. In 2000, with numbers in Pennsylvania above 3,000, so the Game Commission again allowed hunting and trapping. Many British readers will be amazed that an animal so rare should be hunted - and the Game Commission came into plenty of flack for its decision - but in this country, where so many people hunt everything from bears to quail, it’s not a simple issue.

Anyway, as we strung the lights on the tree, out in our big woodpile, under the tarp, the bobcat peeped out.  Judy was promptly on the case:
1. She called the Game Commission, which operates an inquiry service even on the Sunday before Christmas – they said they’d check with an expert and call back with some advice.
Judy puts out food for our young garden bobcat in the garden woodpile. Image: © 2. And, with it being 20F/-6.5C outside, snow swirling round in vast flurries, she broke out the cat food. A bowl of milk, a dish of dried kitten food, and a dish of Friskie’s Ocean Whitefish Dinner.

Bobbie the Bobcat was soon tucking in – but of course the milk and Friskie’s froze solid. Now, of course, in winter, bobcats must be used to eating frozen food but I had a brainwave: Put a housebrick in the oven to warm it up, then use it to keep the food from freezing. And so it was: as darkness fell Bobbie the Bobcat was enjoying a second helping of Friskie’s, and milk, and water – kept in prime condition sitting on a hot housebrick.

The Game Commission called back. The kittens are born in spring, and by this time of year, they said, they should be able to look after themselves, even with snow on the ground. So we need to help Bobbie out from the deer-fenced garden. As darkness fell, I wedged the gate open enough to let Bobbie the Bobcat out, but not enough to let a deer in.

This has been a great treat. Stringing lights on the Christmas Tree one minute, watching a wild bobcat in our woodpile the next.

I wonder if Bobbie the Bobcat will be there in the morning…

New wildlife sighting

Opossum_2 Every night I go out on our raised deck to bring the bird feeders in. There’s still a chance of a hit from a black bear so it pays to be cautious.

And sometimes, over the last couple of weeks – for the first time in the ten years we’ve been here – I’ve looked down from the raised deck and 10ft below, shuffling about, is an opossum. They’re not rare, I’ve often seen them squashed on the road but never in our garden. I suppose it’s the fallen sunflower seed from the feeders that attracts them – although two halves of a slightly moldy lime also disappeared fairly promptly.

They’re strange creatures… not mammals but marsupials, which is perhaps unexpected in the north east USA. In fact they’re the only north American marsupials.

Of course, opossums are known for “playing possum” – basically, pretending to be dead. With so many seen squashed on the road I wonder how long it will be before natural selection takes a hand. The British hedgehogs’ natural response to danger is to roll into a spiny ball – doesn’t work with cars. But hedgehogs are now seen to continue to run across roads when a car approaches, rather than roll up. So watch out for opossums that run instead of play possum.

Anyway... now I always throw a few extra seeds down there. Winter is upon us, after all.

The image is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Shot by Cody Pope.

Spectacular Japanese dicentras

Dicentra 'Burning Hearts' - glorious new Japanese dicentra. Image: ©Walters Gardens, Inc Lecturing to the Master Gardeners of Rhode Island on Saturday, there was quite a gasp when I showed pictures of Dicentra 'Burning Hearts'. And after I featured it on my Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog a couple of weeks back I got such a response by comments, emails and tweets that I thought I’d look at the whole series here. So far there are three: ‘Candy Hearts’, ‘Burning Hearts’ and ‘Ivory Hearts’.

First to come was ‘Candy Hearts’, a cross between a red form of D. peregrina and D. eximea. It features rose pink flowers over grey green leaves. Next came the sumptuous ‘Burning Hearts’ with silvery blue leaves and deep red flowers edged in white and the latest to appear is ‘Ivory Hearts’, with white flowers and gray-blue leaves. The leaves of all are very lacily divided into slender segments, all have an unexpectedly long flowering season.

Japanese plant breeder Akira Shiozaki with his dicentras. Image: ©Luc Klinkhamer All were raised by Japanese breeder Akira Shiozaki from Fukagawa City, Hokkaido. For many years he’d been developing forms of the small, intensely blue-gray leaved D. peregrina, a species from eastern Siberia and China which many find difficult to grow. But then he decided to cross these Dicentra 'Ivory Hearts' - new Japanese dicentra hybrid from Akira Shiozaki. Image: ©Pioneer Gardenswith pink flowered D. eximea from North America to introduce a more robust habit while retaining the foliage color.

His work continues, and not yet released is Fire Cracker (‘Rekka’), again with finely divided blue-gray foliage and flowers in rose pink which are lightly scented of hyacinths. This is the first in a new range of scented dicentras and is a hybrid of D. peregrina ‘Hien’ and D. eximea. Most similar to ‘King of Hearts’, the flowers of Fire Cracker are darker in color and the foliage more blue – and of course there’s that scent.

Dicentra 'Fire Island - new Japanese dicentra hybrid from Akira Shiozaki. Image: ©Luc Klinkhamer Also look out for Fire Island, not yet released, in very dark red with a dark edge; like the Hearts Series it’s long flowering and easy to grow – but not yet available.

‘King of Hearts’ is a similar plant, with similar parentage, and often assumed to be part of the same series. However, ‘King of Hearts’ has different origins. It was developed over thirty years ago in Washington State by Dr Marion Ownbey. It’s a hybrid between D. peregrina and a plant which is itself a hybrid between D. formosa subsp. oregana from the west coast and D. eximea from the east coast. It features pinkish red flowers are gray foliage.

All these dicentras are fine shade garden plants. And with the addition of fragrance - a first in dicentras – they are sure to be in demand. ‘Burning Hearts’ did well here in Pennsylvania this year, bulking up steadily from small starts, and it’s foliage lit up a dark corner even though the plants were not large.

Gardeners: I think you need them. Nurseries: you’d better stock them. In the US try Pioneer Gardens and Skagit Gardens. In Europe start with De Vroomen.

The cat killed my laptop

Mr Duffy meditates on his crime. Image: © My computer is dead. The handsome Mr Duffy got himself locked in the home office in the middle of the night - long story – decided that the only way to get out was to tear around all over the furniture like a mad thing. And he knocked a large external hard drive and the laptop off the desk. The laptop fell on the hard drive and its keyboard is bashed in. Now, instead of that reassuring Mac chime – all it did was make a plaintive little squeak, and died.

Of course, my back-up using Apple’s superb Time Machine is right up to date – but the standby machine is too old to run it. I can’t access my files until the new machine arrives. And some crucial software I use every day is too new (even though it’s not THAT new) to run on the old machine.

So for the first time in ages I feel cut off from the world – I’m a writer, I don’t use the phone, I write. And I get used to the email software pulling email addresses from the address book and never needing to remember them – but that address book is not now accessible. So if you’re waiting to receive a response to an email – I’m sorry, as of now I can’t access it and can’t remember your email address.

It sounds feeble, doesn’t it, the cat killed my laptop. Like that old schoolboy standby: the dog ate my homework. The dog ate my homework. Image: ©Ingham Intermediate School District (Came across this cartoon showing an alternative solution!) Talking of homework excuses, I remember a kid in my class at school arriving at school on a sunny summer day drenched from head to toe and with an empty school bag: he said he couldn’t hand in his homework cos his bike had hit a rock as he cycled along the river and he’d fallen in and his homework was swept away. Wouldn’t you rather just do the homework than deliberately ride your bike into the river?

Off to see the insurance company now…

Lady Chatterley's Lover

LCL From two friends in England comes this book review from the American magazine Field and Stream, November 1959: 
"Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been re-issued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper.

"Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper."

Nothing to add, really.

Variegated rhododendrons - more coming?

RhodoPresidentRoosevelt39287 Lecturing to a chapter of the American Rhododendron Society about perennials recently proved interesting in way I didn’t expect: I got the chance to talk with rhododendron breeder Tom Ahern. His first interest was in creating yellow and orange flowered types that are hardy in his area of Pennsylvania (zone 6A: -10 to -5F/-21 to -23C), like his ’Orange Ruffy’. Then he became more interested in breeding for good foliage.

I asked him why there were so few variegated rhododendrons – after all, their flowering season is short so variegated foliage would be a good year-round feature. He explained that in rhodies variegation is caused by a virus and is not inherited when hybridizing so you can’t breed for it. He also pointed out that some variegated varieties are rather floppy and they also often revert to plain green; the plain green shoots must be cut out otherwise they take over but this often ruins the look of the plants.

In theory you should be able to create a variegated version of any rhodie by approach grafting. You grow ‘President Roosevelt’(above), for example, and another variety in pots, position them so a stem of each touches, shave a sliver off each stem, and bind the two cut surfaces together. The virus in the sap of one would be transferred to the other. Don’t understand why this hasn’t been done? Any rhodie experts know?

But now that rhodies are being grown in the laboratory in tissue culture, variegated sports are turning up – like 'Claydian Variegated', a tissue culture sport of 'Madame Masson'. These will be genetically variegated so RhododendronYakuPrincess could be used for breeding. Is the variegated sport of ‘Yaku Princess’ (left) virus or genetic?

Either way, as more variegated sports turn up and these are used in breeding we can look forward to more variegated rhododendrons. And any form of good foliage is valuable in plants with such a short flowering season – however flamboyant.

Tom Ahern is also a highly accomplished bird carver.

* More on variegated rhododendrons from Ron Rabieau of Rare Find Nursery (scroll down). Update: unfortunately this article has been taken down, but there is an interesting discussion of variegated rhododendrons in this piece from Dr Philip Waldman.