An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

January 26, 2012

Out of Africa with Iris unguicularis

Several years ago I made a conscious effort to add more perennials that would bloom at times of the year when few other plants were blooming. I added gallardia, cestrum and cuphea to cover the hot gap from late June until fall. For winter I already had color from camellias, hellebores and my edgeworthia, but I wanted more, especially since winter is my least favorite season. Anything I can get to bloom then delights me.

Iris unguicularis (commonly known as Algerian iris) is native to North Africa, Greece and parts of the Middle East. I planted mine two falls ago, and last winter I think it bloomed once or twice. This year it  first opened in November, had a couple of blossoms in December and has now bloomed twice in January. I have read that it is a opportunistic bloomer waiting for warmer spells of weather during the winter months and should continue until March. The buds are apparently freeze-proof, but the open flowers are not. They are typically shades of blue, but white and pink cultivars exist as well. The strap-like evergreen foliage reaches 12-15" tall, and the flowers tend to open a little below that. They are sweetly fragrant, but aging knees make you think twice about getting down to enjoy the aroma. This iris prefers full to part sun, lean soil with smart drainage, likes dry summer weather and is hardy from in zones 7-9. These conditions are not a problem for me.

Iris unguicularis

January 21, 2012

Museum Weather

Typical of Tidewater winter weather, a chill clammy rain is falling today making it a good day for indoor activities. A trip to the museum might be a good choice, so I thought I would post some pictures from this summer when we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This venerable institution has something for everyone, including many well-known masterpieces. Our friend David who knows a thing or two about museums refers to it as "a great big mess of a museum", but you should take that as a compliment.

Philadelphia Museum of Art (2)

The first thing I noticed about the museum was its setting, occupying a prominent place on a hill overlooking downtown Philly, among some of the city's parkland. This elevated position and the museum's Greek architecture make you feel you are about to enter a temple, a temple dedicated to art. The exterior colors of the museum and its friezes also reminded me that the white marble temples we know from the ancient world were probably even more colorful than this building. I also appreciated, and was surprised by, the landscaping which was a great mix of ornamental grasses, flowering perennials and colorful shrubs.

Philadelphia Museum of Art (9)

Philadelphia Museum of Art (10)

Philadelphia Museum of Art (8)

Philadelphia Museum of Art (5)

Cue the theme from Rocky.

Philadelphia Museum of Art (6)

As much as I enjoyed what was outside, we were there to see what was on the inside. Through the front entrance is the Great Stair Hall with a statue of Diana at one end and an Alexander Calder hanging from the ceiling.

Ghost - Alexander Calder

One of the artists I particularly wanted to see was Philadelphia's own Thomas Eakins. This painting is The Agnew Clinic and what follows is a bronze model of Eakin's hand by Samuel Murray.

The Agnew Clinic - Thomas Eakins

Cast of the Right Hand of Thomas Eakins - Samuel Murray

Three Musicians - Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians - Pablo Picasso

Sunflowers - Vincent van Gogh

Sunflowers - Vincent van Gogh

Mother Roulin with Her Baby - Vincent van Gogh

Mother Roulin with Her Baby - Vincent van Gogh

The Lifeline - Winslow Homer

The Lifeline - Winslow Homer

Devil Face Jug by Davis Brown was created just south of me in North Carolina and I was glad to see it among the more traditional works.

Devil Face Jug - Davis Brown

In the spirit of equal airtime here is a crucifix ...


... and what became one of my favorite pieces, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, by Rogier van der Weyden. It had its own altar-like setting.

The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning - Rogier van der Weyden

The museum had quite a few pieces by Virginia-born, Cy Twombly, and all of his works there were displayed in his own gallery that reminded me of a chapel.

Cy Twombly

I think my favorite thing about the Philadelphia museum was the collection of period interiors and all of the architectural bits and pieces they had gathered.

Period Rooms (3)

Period Rooms


Ceremonial Teahouse Sunkaraku (Evanescent Joys)

Pillared Temple Hall

Stained Glass

My least favorite thing in the museum was this painting, which I think is called The River of Life is called The River of Life by Leon Frederic (thank you Becky).  I can't find any information on-line as to who the artist was. It is perhaps the most disturbing painting I have ever seen.

The River of Life

The River of Life (2)

We will end our day at the museum with this piece, appropriately titled The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, by Bruce Nauman.

The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths - Bruce Nauman

You can see my entire set of photos from the Philadelphia Museum of Art here on my Flickr page.  Y'all go on ahead, and I will meet you at the car, I think I left my umbrella in the coat-check room.

January 15, 2012

Bloom Day: A Few New and a Few Déjà Vu

Like much of the country, winter has been reluctant here in Tidewater. It has made several quick appearances, but has yet to unleash its full potential, keeping a few plants in a state of confusion and causing others to swell up a little early. I never thought I would say anything like this, but I do wish winter would get here for real and stick around a while, not because I like winter, I don't, but to keep the plants on schedule.

Perhaps the most confused plant I have is one of my Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). It almost opened in time for December's Bloom Day. I know it looks a little haggard, but you must play the hand you're dealt.

Echinacea purpurea

Underneath the Coneflower are blooms more typical for January, some yellow Violas (Viola x 'Sorbet Yellow Delight).

Viola x 'Sorbet Yellow Delight'

The very satisfying Viola x 'Delta Tapestry was also planted again this year.

Viola x 'Delta Tapestry'

I also tried a new Pansy variety, Viola x 'Persian Medley'.

Viola x 'Persian Medley'  (2)

Viola x 'Persian Medley'

Viola x 'Persian Medley'  (3)

Most of my Camellia sasanqua varieties have finished for the year, however, the 'Yuletide' is still going quite strong. I regret ever speaking ill of it for being bloom-stingy the first few years I had it. Certainly it has made up for its initial slowness.

Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide'

'Les Marbury' is the only one of the Camellia japonica cultivars I have that opened early, but the rest are nicely budded, and I hope they stay that way a little while. I am sure its been mentioned here before, but 'Les Marbury' is supposed to be pink and white stripes, however, mine is not. The star-in-star flower form makes it worth keeping, even with a color I don't like.

Camellia japonica 'Les Marbury'

Also falling in the Déjà vu category is Chaenomeles x 'Hime' which has now had flowers on it for 3 months.

Chaenomeles x 'Hime'

Last week I noticed the first of my Hellebores (Helleborus orientalis) had opened. Just about all of mine were unknown seedlings given to me by a good friend, and I can't say enough nice things about her or Hellebores.

Helleborus orientalis

Lastly, a Narcissus that always opens too early for its own good.  This is 'Grand Soleil d'Or' which has really looked nice this year with our lack of severe winter weather.

Narcissus 'Grand Soleil d'Or'

Has your garden had winter yet? Or like me, are you in a late fall limbo?  Share what you have, and see what others have for the first Garden Bloggers Bloom Day of 2012, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Garden.

January 8, 2012

Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Steroidal Giant'

A few years ago a friend of mine asked if I wanted a small piece of Tetrapanax papyrifera dug from her gardenI was familiar with the plant from the display gardens at work, and I was also familiar with how much real estate it demanded and how weedy it could become. Just as I was about to say "no thank you", she mentioned that this one was one called 'Steroidal Giant'.  Intrigued I asked what made it different, and she told me that the plant would get at least 10' tall and the leaves would get 3' across. I promptly accepted, and then (like so many other plant decisions I have made) I would just have to figure out where the hell I would plant it.

The young plant ended up being put in the shade of a large Willow Oak in the back garden, but it did get a blast of morning sun.  Because of the Oak, the bed tends to be on the dry side, so I gave the new plant plenty of water that summer. It grew very well and died to the ground in the fall.  Late the next spring it came back to life with the new shoot emerging from the ground covered in brown felt, looking like a bizarre claw-like structure. It quickly shot up, and by the end of the summer a substantial trunk had developed. That winter the foliage died back, and I thought for sure the trunk would die too.  However, the next spring, several of the "claws" emerged from the top and grew to an impressively substantial size by early summer, and I had Tetrapanax coming up all over the place. By fall the plant was easily 10' tall, and by mid-November a bloom stalk emerged.

Last winter (2010/2011) all of my plants, including the Tetrapanax were flash-frozen by the severe and early cold weather we had in December.

Like many parts of the country, we have had a mild winter so far this year, and the Tetrapanax was able to mellow and take on some rich colors.  The mid-ribs turned pink, the upper leaves were burgundy and from underneath they were amber. The pictures below were taken last Sunday on New Year's Day.

By today, after a low in the 20's this week,  all was brown and the leaves are falling off.

Tetrapanax papyrifera is native to Taiwan and southern mainland China, where it has been used for close to 2000 years in traditional medicine and to make a fine paper from the pith.  This paper is very white and readily absorbs liquids, so inks and dyes take to it well. One of its common names is Rice Paper Plant, but it should not to be confused with either rice or Edgeworthia, which also goes by that name. The paper made from this plant was also used to make fairly realistic artificial flowers and to staunch bleeding.  In the 1800's, an export trade arose in China of watercolors painted on this paper, with the subjects showing Chinese flora and fauna or scenes of everyday life.

Despite its exotic origins, Tetrapanax papyrifera grows pretty easily here in the coolest part of zone 8, further south it is a deciduous shrub, and further inland to zone 7 it is a root hardy perennial. Though it is listed as preferring full sun to partial shade, mine has done well in mostly shade, and after the first season has needed no extra summer moisture.  It spreads by underground stems and many come up every summer. They are easy to pull up, and I pot a few to give away and the rest are composted, but I wouldn't turn my back on any strays.

If you would like to learn more about this plant, the paper made from it and the paintings, Harvard University has an interesting page on the topic, which is where I got some of the information in this post.

A Tidewater Gardener will mark its fourth anniversary later in the month. Several times since I started this gardening blog, I have had to occasionally remind myself to actually talk about gardening and garden plants (especially since I am so easily distracted). So this post was an effort to bring the topic back home.