Saturday, March 29, 2014

Signs of life

Begonia pedatifida
Begonia pedatifida (late March 2014)

After our coldest winter and latest spring in many years, I went out in the garden this morning and pushed away the mulch from some of my plants, and this is one of the things I found.  This unimpressive-looking little sprout has me excited, because it's a begonia, and it survived my area's coldest winter in 20 years.  This is Begonia pedatifida, a Chinese species that already has a reputation for being fairly hardy but this winter was the real test.  What I find interesting is that the rhizome creeps along the surface of the soil; aside from a bit of mulch this plant had virtually no protection all winter, yet still made it through several nights in the 9-12 degree (F) range and several extended periods with temperatures well below freezing.  This thing is pretty darn hardy.  With any luck I'll have it blooming in a couple of months, when I can attempt some crosses with other begonias.

Begonia pedatifida
Begonia pedatifida, leaf (September 2011)

Begonia pedatifida
Begonia pedatifida, flowers (June 2012)

And as for my indoor plants, spring can't come soon enough.  I am up to my ears in plants that are ready to go out, and they are overflowing into places where I don't usually grow plants.  Here are some of my begonias, waiting under a table by the back door for a bit of warmer weather when I can finally put them outdoors!

Waiting in the wings

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: summer of 1984


This isn't my favorite photo of myself, but it shows some of the people I worked with in the summer of 1984, just after graduating from Cornell University.  That summer helped change the direction of my life when I worked as a seasonal gardener at the Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, New York.  I had gone along with my friend Jim Steuerlein, an ornamental horticulture major who was looking for a summer job and had heard they were hiring, and I was looking for work myself as I was about to graduate with a degree in Entomology and had no job lined up.  Almost on a lark I decided to apply, and I was hired.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cold rhodies

Cold rhodies
Rhododendrons (and rabbit) at 10 degrees

I'm just back from Buffalo, having spent a week with my family so I could help out after my father's stroke last November.  Buffalo being Buffalo, it was ten degrees (F!) when I got up early this morning to spend one last hour with my dad at the nursing home before flying back to DC.

I've written previously about "fatsia flop", when the leaves droop and look like boiled spinach.  These photos show my parents' rhododendrons doing much the same thing this morning.  It is apparently a common characteristic of broadleafed evergreens to droop or curl in cold weather, looking seriously damaged but miraculously recovering when temperatures go back above freezing.  It's hard to believe that these shrubs will be smothered in flowers in just a few weeks.

Cold rhodies
Rhododendrons with deer fencing

My father planted two rhododendrons over 40 years ago, and liked them so much he went on to plant several more over the years.  The rhododendrons have grown enormous and they are his pride and joy.  Because of an exploding deer population, he puts up fencing every fall to protect them; otherwise the deer will completely defoliate them over the winter.  And what an awful winter this has been for all of us; no matter how bad we've had it in DC, my parents have had it a whole lot worse in Buffalo.  They normally spend their winters in Florida but that wasn't possible after my father's stroke last fall.  And of all the winters for them to be stuck in Buffalo, this was the worst one in 20 years.  I can only hope my father can make it home to see his rhododendrons blooming this year.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Will summer ever come?

March snow

This has been the winter that just won't let go.  Just two days after a lovely springlike day that saw crocuses blooming, we got whomped with another snowstorm.  The forecast as of last night was 3 to 6 inches of snow for the region, and 1-3 inches of snow in the city.  Hoo-boy were they wrong!  I measured 8 inches of snow on my back deck this morning.  The above photo shows the view from the deck this morning.  Meanwhile here is the deck itself:

March snow

After a winter like this one, it's hard to remember that summer will eventually come, and the weather will be warm again!  In fact before you know it, we'll all be complaining about the heat and humidity.  In just a few months this will be the view from my back deck (perhaps minus a few of the palms!):


And this will be the deck:


In the meantime, all I can do is dream, and keep reminding myself that spring is right around the corner!

Lazy morning

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Signs of spring

Crocus tommasinianus

After a long and punishing winter, all it took was one beautiful, warm and sunny Saturday for the crocuses to pop open.  Crocus tommasinianus, or "tommies" (delightfully known as "elfenkrokus" in Germany), are one of the species more suited to southern gardens with short, relatively warm winters.  They are also supposed to be squirrel-resistant and have certainly proven more long-lived and reliable than any other crocus I've attempted here.

Crocus tommasinianus showing natural variability in flower color

The species was originally described by William Herbert in 1847 from plants "found wild in naked mountainous places in Dalmatia [now Croatia].... by Signor Tomasini*, president of the magistracy at Trieste".  Flowers range from pale lavender to medium purple.

I obtained my tommies several years ago from Brent and Becky's Bulbs, one of my favorite sources.  I also ordered 'Ruby Giant', a cultivar with much larger and deeper purple flowers and usually sold as a selection of this species, but apparently a hybrid.  'Ruby Giant' blooms a bit later and doesn't seed itself around like the species.  I prefer it to the species for its saturated color, but keep my tommies around because they're always among the first plants to bloom in my garden every spring... and after a winter like this one, it was quite a relief to see something other than dead plants or snow.  Now if only spring would stick around for a while!  Depending on whose forecast you trust, we have anywhere from two to eight inches of snow predicted by tomorrow morning.

Crocus tommasinianus
Crocus 'Ruby Giant', blooming in March 2009

*The specific epithet "tomasinianus" has since been corrected to reflect the accepted spelling of Muzio Giuseppe Spirito de Tommasini, a.k.a. Mutius von Tommasini, after whom many plant species are named.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is my palm dead?

Fried palms
Garden, mid-March after our coldest winter in 20 years

Is my palm dead?  Lots of people are going to be asking that question over the next few weeks because frankly, the palms look dead.  The short answer: maybe, maybe not.  Hardy palm legend (and mystery author) Tamar Myers supposedly once said, "don't declare a palm dead until spring, and don't declare one alive until summer."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday

Parrot Jungle

It was 1974 or so when my entire family--all 6 of us--plus my cousin and grandfather piled into our blue station wagon for our first trip to Florida.  How we managed the 2-day drive without the kids killing each other--or our parents killing any of us--I don't know.  We stopped to visit my cousins in Lynchburg, Virginia along the way, where my grandfather stayed while the rest of us made our way to central Florida, somewhere outside Orlando where my father had arranged for us to rent a tiny cottage by a lake for a week.  The lake even had an alligator, which people fed from the dock.

We took day trips to visit tourist attractions like Cypress Gardens, Weeki Wachee, Disneyworld, Bok Singing Tower, Kennedy Space Center, and Parrot Jungle*, where the above photo was taken.  My father said to me a few years ago that he thought he had over-planned our family trips, and that we should have spent more time relaxing.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  I reassured him that I loved the trips and all the things our family did.

That trip to Florida made a huge impression on me.  I remember orange groves, and palms trees, but the "Jungle Cruise" at Disneyworld probably made the biggest impression on me and I came home dreaming of tropical plants and landscapes, determined to somehow reproduce them even if only in miniature.  So when you see me working with palms, bananas, and elephant ears in my back yard, what you're seeing is that 12-year-old kid all grown up but still dreaming.


* Does anybody else remember a "Parrot Jungle" from the 1970's?  This apparently now-defunct attraction would have been somewhere near Orlando, not the Parrot Jungle in Miami.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The sordid underbelly of Ft. Lauderdale*

Florida 2014
Lorikeet (Butterfly World, Coconut Creek, Florida)

* Well, technically, Coconut Creek

During our recent vacation in Ft. Lauderdale, one of the places somebody recommended  we visit was Butterfly World, in Coconut Creek just a short drive to the north.  I always figured it was a tourist trap, or something for the children, but we had a free afternoon so what the heck.  It turned out to be nice enough, the kind of place I appreciate visiting once but probably never again (for one thing the admission was rather expensive, and that was after we paid to drive into the park in the first place).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Flowers of Ft. Lauderdale

Florida 2014
Passiflora sp. (Passifloraceae); Butterfly World, Coconut Creek

As yet another winter storm heads towards this way, threatening not only several inches of snow but temperatures into the low teens, I'm still thinking about my vacation in Ft. Lauderdale last weekend!  Here are some of the tropical and subtropical flowers I've seen there.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Begonias in my bathroom

Begonia hybrids
This is normal, right?  I'm sure everybody grows begonias in their bathroom.

This is the time of year when I start running out of space.  I propagate lots of plants indoors over the winter, particularly the begonias involved in my breeding program.  Virtually all of my plants are grown outdoors in the summer, but in the fall I take cuttings of the ones I don't want to lose (which turned out to be especially good insurance this winter!).  Meanwhile I have hundreds of seedlings from the crosses I made last year, and they keep getting bigger and bigger.  Inevitably, sometime before the weather warms up enough to put everything outdoors, they take up all the available space indoors and then some, and I start getting creative.