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

male hummingbird
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.

 

Alien sea creatures?

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A tentacled horror from beyond space and time
Aristolochia fimbriata flower
Aristolochia fimbriata flower

The flowers of the white-veined pipevine, Aristolochia fimbriata, resemble some strange sea creature with an array of tentacles surrounding a rugose head and dark maw.  The “mouth” won’t consume anything larger than the small flies that it attracts as pollinators, but the flowers aren’t the only thing about this plant that is vaguely Lovecraftian.  A. fimbriata is also a host plant for the sinister, spiky caterpillars of the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor).

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Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

It has been suggested [1] that pipevine swallowtail caterpillars mimic tropical Onychophorans (velvet worms), and the two horns do give it vague resemblance.  I’m not sure the theory makes sense, though.  The caterpillars’ diet of toxic Aristolochia leaves probably makes them less palatable than the velvet worms they are supposedly mimicking for protection, and some other caterpillars that feed on toxic plants (e.g. Monarch and Gulf Fritillary larvae) also have spikes or tendrils as part of their warning to predators.

The heart shaped leaves that the caterpillars feed on are as beautiful as the flowers are weird:

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Variegated foliage of Aristolochia fimbriata

Many Aristolochia species are large, climbing vines, but the stems of A. fimbriata stay small, no more than a foot or two long, and instead of twining, they creep along the ground around other garden plants.  This is a plant that plays well with others.

Seed production is quite prolific in my garden, and in some flowerbeds the plants have started to form a very pretty summer ground-cover.  Nevertheless, A. fimbriata doesn’t seem to be an invasive species; the seedlings surround the original mother plants and haven’t spread to other parts of the garden.  And in any case, biological control comes on blue and black swallow-tailed wings.

A. fimbriata is a subtropical species native to southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.  Its foliage turns to mush at the first frost, but the tuberous roots are completely hardy here in the piedmont.  Seed also overwinters in the mulch of my flowerbeds and sprouts in the spring.

The butterflies arrived early this year, and the first crop of caterpillars have reduced many plants to stubs.  Now, there are chrysalids scattered around the garden.  When ready to metamorphose, the caterpillars will travel a considerable distance to find a good spot:

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Pipevine swallowtail chrysalis on a thornless blackberry, about fifteen feet away from the nearest A. fimbriata plants.

The butterflies will probably emerge and lay the next generation of eggs  just about the time the foliage starts to look good again, but hosting such beautiful insects in the garden is well worth a little leaf damage.

Notes

[1] “It has been suggested”–The passive voice here is a weaselly way of indicating that I have read this in various places but haven’t been able to track down the original source.

May flowers

I love bright red flowers.  Hummingbirds also love red flowers, and I love having hummingbirds in the garden.  Therefore, I plant a lot of red flowers.  Here are a few that are blooming now:

Spigelia marilandica (Woodland Pinkroot)

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Spigelia marilandica

Spigelia marilandica is one of the most beautiful North American wildflowers, and I am trying to spread it around the garden wherever I have the morning sun/afternoon shade that it likes.  Seed is difficult to collect, because the seed capsules explode when ripe, propelling the seed some distance from the mother plant.  I carefully dig up the resulting volunteer seedlings and move them to new spots.  The flowers have the classic “red tube” appearance of hummingbird pollinated plants, and the flaring petals can be yellow or green.  S. marilandica is native to the southeastern U.S., including extreme southwestern North Carolina (Cherokee and Macon County) [1].

Silene virginica ‘Jackson Valentine’ (Fire Pink)

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Silene virginica

Silene virginica is native to the NC piedmont, although this particular clone comes from Alabama.  S. virginica is usually short lived and needs to be frequently propagated from seed, but the nursery that sells ‘Jackson Valentine’ claims it will survive for several years.  This is year two, so we shall see.

Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal’

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Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal,’ blowing out the sensor on my iPhone camera

Many people know Hippeastrum, because they are the “Amaryllis” bulbs sold around Christmas time, but in Zone 7 and southwards, they’re worth trying in the garden.  Hippeastrum x Johnsonii and the ‘Mead Strain’ of H. vittatum hybrids are the best known hardy varieties of Hippeastrum, and I have planted both.  However, this spring the best show was put on by this little Sonatini hybrid that I planted last year.  Supposedly, ‘Red Rascal’ has been bred for cold tolerance, so it will be interesting to see how it does long term.  I won’t be surprised it it thrives.  A surprising number of South American bulbs do well in North Carolina, as long as the bulbs are planted six or eight inches deep and well mulched.

Sprekelia formosissima (Jacobean Lily)

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Sprekelia formosissima

A native of Mexico, Sprekelia formosissima is a close relative of Hippeastrum. It  is supposedly hardy in eastern North Carolina, but I haven’t had the courage to risk my plants yet.  Instead, I grow a clump of bulbs in a 10″ diameter pot and over-winter them in the greenhouse with my other tropical amaryllids.

Stenomesson miniatum

Stenomesson miniatum flower
Stenomesson miniatum, another South American amaryllid

Stenomesson miniatum is from Peru, so I don’t think there’s any chance it would survive a winter out in the garden.  Like Sprekelia formosissima, it stays dry and warm in the greenhouse during the winter and goes outside when the danger of frost is past.  The little flowers are orange, but I like orange flowers just as well as red.  The bell shape is a clear indicator of hummingbird pollination.

Reference

[1] Weakley, A.S. (2015) Flora of the Southern and Mid Atlantic States.  University of North Carolina Herbarium, Chapel Hill, NC.  http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm