More glads

As a follow-up to the post on Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange,’ here are a couple more hardy glads that are currently blooming in the garden.  Both are significantly smaller than ‘Eno Orange,’ topping out at about 3-4 ft tall.

Yellow primulinus-type Gladiolus.

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Yellow Gladiolus dalenii (syn G. primulinus)

I got these corms from Nancy Goodwin of Montrose Garden last autumn, so this is the first time they have bloomed for me.  Nancy says that they were collected beside the railway tracks in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  They seem to be the species that was once called Gladiolus primulinus but is now considered a yellow form of G. dalenii.  To my eye, they appear identical to the plant that is sold by several nurseries as Gladiolus ‘Carolina Primrose.’

Gladiolus ‘Atom’

Gladiolus 'Atom'
Gladiolus ‘Atom’

This hybrid dates from 1946 but is still readily available from bulb vendors.  The color is very intense, but the simple form of the flowers seems to blend well in informal flowerbeds.  I grow it among asters and goldenrod that bloom later in the year, so it adds splashes of color to what would otherwise be an unbroken expanse of green.

Flowers from a lost garden

Virtually all of the woodland in the eastern U.S. is secondary forest that has grown up in fields left fallow when the focus of agriculture moved west in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The eastern deciduous forest grows back rapidly, but if you look closely, you can still see traces of the former inhabitants: the sunken course of an abandoned road, old trees whose shape indicates that they first grew in open fields, the remains of a stone foundation or chimney.  Occasionally, plants from abandoned gardens will persist in the shade of the new trees long after buildings have rotted away.

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White oaks in winter, surrounded by young loblolly pines

At the bottom of our property and extending onto our neighbors’ land is a grove of eight mature white oaks (Quercus alba) with broad, spreading branches.  And at the center of the oaks, surrounded by weedy young pine trees, is the remains of an abandoned homestead.  The crumbling stone and brick chimney sits on our neighbors’ land, and on the edge of our property is an odd square of bricks filled with very dark soil.  I wonder if it might be the foundation of the old outhouse.

old chimney in the snow
Sic transit gloria mundi.

In early spring, the ground around the chimney and under the oaks is carpeted with thousands of bright yellow daffodils.  They must have been planted by someone who lived in the house, and I’m sure they will still be there long after the chimney has crumbled.  Later in the spring, as the daffodil foliage fades, a few clumps of sword-shaped leaves grow up.  These are gladiolus, but they rarely bloom in the shade of the oaks.  Those few inflorescences that do appear are often nipped off by deer.

About five years ago, I dug up a couple of the gladiolus corms and moved them to a sunny flower bed beside our driveway.  In the richer soil, protected from deer by the fence, they have thrived, multiplying rapidly and forming large clumps topped with bright orange flowers in June.

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As you can see, the plants are very different from modern gladiolus hybrids.  They appear to be a very tall (up to 6 ft) form of the South African species Gladiolus dalenii, or perhaps a very early hybrid with a lot of G. dalenii in its makeup.  To help keep track of them when I give away excess corms to other local gardeners, I have given them the informal cultivar name Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange,’ referring to their color and the place where they were found:  Orange County near the Eno River.

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The nodding flowers, seen from below

So how long have these plants been hiding in the woods?  Gladiolus dalenii is one of the foundation species in the ancestry of the large-flowered hybrids, and breeding was well under way by the second half of the nineteenth century.  Once those improved hybrids became available, I can’t imagine that something like Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange’, with its rather ungainly spikes and widely spaced flowers, would have been tremendously popular with the average gardener.  On the other hand, I like it, so maybe other gardeners did too.  I wonder if it is an old “pass-along” plant that has been traded among gardeners since the early days of gladiolus cultivation.

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Thriving in the sun after who knows how many years hidden in the shade.

To see if I could learn anything more, I wrote to the niece of the woman who was the last inhabitant of the abandoned house.  She replied that her late aunt could have obtained the corms from her mother, my correspondent’s grandmother.  The family has lived in Orange County since before the civil war–the family patriarch was a former slave who became a successful farmer and land owner after emancipation–so is it possible that this Gladiolus was passed down from parent to child for a century or more before it finally ended up in the woods near our house?

I suppose I’ll never know for sure, but whenever I see the bright orange flowers, I’m reminded of the people who lived here before us.

Crinum

The heat and humidity are cranking up, and we are entering Crinum season in the garden.  Crinum are classic southern garden plants, something you just won’t see in gardens in the U.S. northeast or midwest.  They are large bulbs (some softball-sized or bigger) that produce masses of foliage and large, intensely fragrant flowers during the hottest part of the year.  The bulbs are very long lived, and many hybrids are “heirlooms” that have been passed down from gardener to gardener for the last century or two.  However, as interest in these plants wanes and waxes, interesting new hybrids are still being made.

Crinum is a pan-tropical genus of the Amaryllidaceae, the amaryllis family.  Most of the showy hybrids are derived from South African species, with occasional crosses to a few South American or Asian plants.  The most hardy and suitable for growing in Zone 7 tend to be crosses with the African Crinum bulbispermum.  The majority of plants that I see in gardens around here seem to be the old hybrid Crinum x powellii ( C. bulbispermum x C. moorei), in either its pink- or white-flowered incarnation.  I planted my first Crinum x powellii ‘Alba’ bulb this spring, so I don’t expect flowers from it this year.  Several other hybrids are blooming now, though:

Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’. A “milk and wine lily”

This one is supposedly Crinum bulbispermum x (scabrum x bulbispermum).  It has 4-ft long arching leaves and large, fragrant tubular flowers on an inflorescence about 4-ft tall.

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’ foliage

The individual flowers only last a day or two, but they’re produced successively over the course of a week to ten days.  Multiple inflorescences are produced over the summer months; my plant is currently blooming on inflorescence number three for the year, and two more are growing rapidly.

Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

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Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

This is a hybrid of unknown parentage dating from the early 1900s.  Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South (Timber Press) writes that Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ is one of the “most beautiful and rewarding of southern perennials.”  I can’t disagree.  Unlike C. bulbispermum hybrids that can look messy when their foliage gets whipped around by the wind, Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ has neat, upright, sword-shaped leaves about 3-3.5 ft long.  The flowers open pink and fade to white, and they have the most amazing fragrance, particularly in the evening.

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Crinum Mrs. James Hendry, plant habit

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ — Maybe

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Mislabeled plant. Maybe Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’

This plant was supposed to be a striped hybrid but was clearly was mislabeled.  I am fairly sure that it is  Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet,’ a hybrid dating from around 1915 that is generally considered to be one of the best ‘red’ (i.e. reddish purple -there are no true reds) Crinum hybrids.

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The buds of Crinum macowanii (Zambia form) were attacked by slugs this year, but I hope it will produce another inflorescence later in the summer.  I’m also hoping that this will be the year that some seed-grown Crinum bulbispermum ‘Jumbo’ plants finally bloom.  I also have a couple of small Crinum buphanoides seedlings that are still in pots.  They will remain in the greenhouse for a couple more years, until I can be sure that the bulbs are large enough to survive the rigors of a North Carolina winter.

Summer begins

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Male ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at one of our feeders

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer holiday season in the U.S.  In my garden, summer begins when the fireflies appear, and the baby hummingbirds fledge.  We spotted the first fireflies a couple of weeks ago, but this week the population increased dramatically.  When the sun goes down, the garden is filled with slowly flashing yellow lights as the little beetles fly up from the grass and flowerbeds.

During the day, the action is a lot more frenetic.  Since early April, a few adult hummingbirds have been visiting our two feeders, which I refilled once a week or so.  But suddenly there are dozens of hummers jockeying for position, and we go through a liter of sugar solution a day.  Their harsh chattering and the sound of buzzing wings fills the air as they dogfight over the lawn and chase each other away from the feeder or favorite flowers.  Occasionally several will settle down to drink peacefully at the same feeder (four on the small, six on the large), but it never lasts long.  Another soon shows up and starts a chain reaction fight in which the tiny birds orbit the feeder like fighter ships in a Star Wars movie.   I have counted ten or more at a single feeder, and the other is just as busy.

Ruby throated hummingbirds

On dry, sunny roadside banks and meadows, patches of bright orange show that the blooming season of native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has started, and as Spigelia marilandica finishes flowering, A. tuberosa takes over as my favorite flower in the garden.

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Asclepias tuberosa. The best specimen in the garden is a volunteer seedling that sprouted in the gravel path beside the mint patch.

This is one of the best insect plants that you can grow in North Carolina.  Like all milkweeds, it is a food plant for the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Monarchs are becoming very scarce, sadly, and in ten years gardening at this location, we have only had caterpillars one year.  But A. tuberosa flowers provide food for bees and other butterfly species, and those are not in short supply:

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Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting A. tuberosa flowers
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Pipevine swallowtail butterflies (Battus philenor) on A. tuberosa

When the plants are finished flowering, they attract beautifully colored milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that feed on the developing seeds.  But no matter; enough seed survives to float away on tufts of fluff, so that more plants appear every year.

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Oncopeltus fasciatus nymphs on A. tuberosa follicles.

Once planted, A. tuberosa can be tricky to transplant, because its tuberous roots grow deep and break easily.  If you plant a couple of potted seedlings, they’ll cross-pollinate and give you plenty of seed that you can spread around.  It seems to take about two years for seedlings to reach blooming size, and a couple more to grow a really nice clump.

Much less colorful but still elegantly beautiful, Yucca filamentosa is also blooming now.  I planted it on the dry mound around our wellhead, along with the prickly pears and a few other xerophytic plants.

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Yucca filamentosa

It was supposed to be the variegated clone, ‘Color Guard,’ but it seems to be some sort of unstable mutant.  New growths come out variegated, but over the course of the year, they darken until they are indistinguishable from a wild type plant.

On the other side of the house, Hydrangea quercifolia, oakleaf hydrangea is also blooming white.

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Hydrangea quercifolia

This is a southern species, with a native range centered on Alabama.  It is a much more reliable bloomer than the Japanese Hydrangea macrophylla, because the new growth is less susceptible to damage by late freezes.

Some cultivated clones have inflorescences made up entirely of large sterile flowers, equivalent to mophead forms of the more familiar H. macrophylla.  However, I prefer the look of wild type plants, equivalent to a lacecap H. macrophylla, with a few sterile flowers surrounding clusters of tiny fertile flowers that attract many bees.

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The H. quercifolia flowers are looking their best this week, and they’ll continue to look good until the Japanese beetles, the scourge of summer, arrive to devour them.  That could happen any day.  I saw a few beetles this week, munching on banana leaves, but most will emerge over the next couple of weeks.  If I can keep the beetles from doing too much damage to the hydrangea, its inflorescences will slowly turn pink and will be attractive until well into autumn.  Eventually they’ll dry out and turn brown, but they’ll remain on the plant and, together with the peeling bark, provide winter interest.

Family heirloom

My wife’s maternal grandparents were florists, and they planted a variety of interesting flowering plants in the garden of the house that they built in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania about eighty years ago.  My mother-in-law and father-in-law still live in that house, so I have been able to dig up bulbs and take cuttings of the old plants for my own garden.  Among them is a prickly pear cactus that blooms every May:

Opuntia humifusa
Spineless prickly pear cactus

My best guess is that the plant is Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear.  It is completely spineless, with smooth, soft-looking pads and buds that invite one to touch it, but it has a secret weapon.  Instead of spines, each areole has a cluster of glochids, little barbed hairs that detach at the slightest touch.  They’re maddening and virtually invisible.  Removing them from skin requires a good pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass.

Despite the glochids, I think this plant is worth growing for its family history, its beautiful yellow flowers, and its red fruit that remain colorful through the autumn and most of the winter, even after the pads have shriveled in the cold.  Our local chipmunks seem to enjoy eating the fruit.  Then they leave cactus seed poop on the railing of the deck.

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Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) eating an Opuntia fruit in late winter.

In addition to the heirloom Opuntia, I also grow a larger species that is relatively common in local gardens.  This plant has a more erect growth habit with long spines on large pads.  The pads flop over during the winter but do not shrivel as much as those of O. humifusa.  There may be a tag buried down in the middle of the clump, but I am disinclined to search for it.  This will have to remain “Opuntia sp.

Opuntia sp.
Opuntia sp.

Both prickly pears are hardy, tolerant of humidity and rain, and easy to propagate from pads pulled off the main plant.  I’m not sure if either of our children will be interested in gardening, but I hope someday to be able to pass on to them a piece of great grandma’s cactus.