First pelargonium from seed!

I am beyond excited that the first pelargonium I grew from seed, Pelargonium quinquelobatum, flowered this week. I have been obsessed by this species pelargonium since seeing it last summer at Derry Watkin’s nursery, Special Plants, near Bath. Its quixotic color stopped me short: I had never seen a flower so unusual.

One of my first jobs while studying photography at university was working in a photo processing store where I sat at a machine that developed customers’ photos—back when we all still used film, ha! Part of my job was evaluating the images and making color corrections to remove incorrect balances in cyan, magenta, and yellow. I developed an excellent eye for seeing unusual color casts at that job, and when I look at the flower of Pelargonium quinquelobatum I immediately see a strange muddle of cyan and magenta in its petals that resembles a poorly balanced photograph. This color in a flower absolutely fascinates me, but the maddening thing is that I’ve found it impossible to capture in a photograph, despite trying different cameras, lenses and light conditions. Though the flowers in my images here look like a generic rose, they are far from that color in real life.

I originally tried to grow Pelargonium quinquelobatum (named for its five-lobed leaves) last summer. I had no luck with germination, I suspect because the extreme heat made it challenging to control the temperature in my glasshouse. This year I sowed reserved seeds on March 12, and they sat for months doing nothing, until I about gave up. And then one precious seedling poked its head above the soil, and the only way I could tell it was a pelargonium and not a wind-blown weed was from the distinctive smell of its leaves.

I coddled this young plant, and it is the one you see in these pictures. The irony is that when I potted it on a couple of weeks ago and stuck it outside with the rest of my collection, two of its kind germinated right at its base, no doubt from seeds that hitched a ride into their new container! It always humbles me that though we work so hard to nurture plants sometimes all they need is to be left alone to get on with their lives in their own good time.

In other unusually colored pelargonium news, I’ve achieved my first flower on Pelargonium gibbosum. It’s a stunning lime-green, another color not often seen in flowers. I bought this young plant last month at Fibrex Nurseries, home of the national pelargonium collection. That trip was a pilgrimage for me, and will no doubt the the subject of a blog post some day soon.

Dec. 20: Floral advent calendar: Saponaria × lempergii 'Max Frei'

Saponaria x lembergii ‘Max Frei’ was new to me this year when it flowered in my garden at work. I was really taken with its delicate pink that collaborates well with other colors. It went on to further impress me by its long bloom period—much of the summer into autumn—and foliage that stayed neat and attractive.

Here it is in full flower at work in July.

It’s not a plant that screams for attention, but it just quietly goes about its business looking good for months on end. I am impressed by it and glad we got to meet.

Dec. 18: Floral advent calendar: Antirrhinum majus 'Chantilly Bronze'

How’s this for a dose of serious summer color? Growing at Great Dixter this June, Antirrhinum majus ‘Chantilly Bronze’ really impressed me with its stature, vigor, and full-on vibrancy. I love the way the blooms of this snapdragon form a mouthwatering color gradient that conjures tangerines, melon and papaya. The phrase tutti-fruitti comes to mind.

‘Chantilly Bronze’ might not be the easiest flower to work into a border design in most gardens but it fit perfectly at anything-goes Dixter. I’d like to try growing it in a cut flower garden some day. It’s pretty lurid, but I love it.

Dec. 17: Floral advent calendar: Ceratostigma willmottianum

Chinese native Ceratostigma willmonttianum, below with the blue flowers, was new to me when I started working in my current garden last year. I was already a fan of its smaller relative, C. plumbaginoides, so when I discovered the same great autumn foliage color and glowing blue blooms in a larger plant with a more substantial, shrubbier form, I was smitten.

Ceratostigma willmonttianum leafs out in spring and patiently sits, looking rather nondescript, until autumn. Just as everything else starts to poetically senesce, its leaves turn a vibrant red in bits and blue flowers appear that glow in the increasingly earlier twilights. It hangs on in this wonderful combination of red, blue, and green for weeks, extending the floral interest into the very gateway of winter.

I especially like it combined with the sedum, vitus, phlomis, and melianthus in my garden at work, above. The blues and pinky purples are an unusual take on an autumn color palette and a nice change from the usual yellows and oranges.

Dec. 16: Floral advent calendar: Pelargonium quinquelobatum

While we’re on the subject if indefinable flower colors, I must include Pelargonium quinquelobatum. This member of the Geraniaceae family actually stopped me in my tracks while walking through Derry Watkins’ Special Plants nursery near Bath this August.

Its flower is another of these colors that’s hard to capture in a photograph. Perhaps the best description comes from Wooten’s, which calls it “an iridescent moonbeam color. Truly beautiful.

I’d call the color quixotic. I’ve never seen anything like it in a flower. It simply doesn’t seem possible and yet I held it in my hand.

I bought some seeds of Pelargonium quinquelobatum from Special Plants and sowed a batch this summer on the off chance they might take. No germination. Good thing I held back the second packet and I will try again this spring. Derry said it’s a bear to propagate from cuttings but easy from seed. I hope the season will be on my side when I try again because this is definitely a pelargonium I want to add to my growing collection.

Dec. 15: Floral advent calendar: Iris 'Langport Storm'

I gave up on growing bearded iris at my house in Virginia after multiple cultivars succumbed to iris leaf spot, a fungal disease that causes round brown lesions on the leaves and eventually weakens the entire plant. It’s too bad, as I love bearded irises, and I fell even more in love when I saw Iris ‘Langport Storm’ at Sissinghurst in mid-May.

Many descriptions of ‘Langport Storm’ say it must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, and I agree. It’s a mix of pink, purple, blue and brown that’s hard to pin down in a description or a photograph. I love flower colors that defy characterization, and Iris ‘Langport Storm’ does that in spades. It’s definitely one to tempt me back to growing bearded irises again.

Dec. 14: Floral advent calendar: Rosa 'Penelope'

Rosa ‘Penelope’ is my favorite rose of the year. Here it is growing in the garden I manage at work. ‘Penelope is a repeat-flowering hybrid musk rose that puts on a gorgeous display for most of the summer. It is exactly what I think the platonic ideal of a rose should be. I love the shape of its flowers, their color, and the way their tone changes from bud to bloom, and I especially like how healthy and vibrant its foliage remained with no chemical sprays or extra attention. ‘Penelope’ also has nice rose hips in the autumn if you can resist deadheading.

Rose hips including those of ‘Penelope,’ a coral-pink. Illustration by Graham Stuart Thomas via RHS.

‘Penelope’ was bred in the U.K by a British horticulturist and reverend, Joseph Pemberton, who lived from 1852-1926. He lived long enough to see his creation win a National Rose Society Gold Medal in 1925, but not long enough to see it awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993. ‘Penelope’ clearly has staying power, and once you grow her it’s easy to see why.

Dec. 10: Floral advent calendar: Viola x wittrockiana 'Bunny Ears'

On the totally other end of the viola spectrum from yesterday’s post is this hybrid Viola x wittrockiana ‘Bunny Ears,’ which was developed in Japan and is relatively new to the U.K. market. While Viola spathulata is an understated and elegant species, ‘Bunny Ears’ is a highly bred cultivar that purists may find a bit over-engineered. I, however, love it. The elongated upper petals that give it its namesake are very unusual in violas, and the smaller-than-standard flower size is intriguing and invites close observation. I am always on the lookout for nice violas, finding them indispensable for winter container displays, and I believe I’ve found a new favorite in ‘Bunny Ears.’ It’s just that little bit more interesting than your usual bog-standard garden center viola.

I sowed ‘Bunny Ears’ from seed this summer and now have a few plants blooming in clay plots right outside my front door. Together with some pots of Erigeron karvinskianus they make a cheerful winter display of tiny, unique flowers that are helping to fight off the dark days of mid-December.

Dec. 9: Floral advent calendar: Viola spathulata

Viola spathulata is a totally charming little plant with beautifully colored flowers. I really like the dusky purple that’s such a toned-down change from more highly bred bedding violas. Viola spathulata, which is native to Iran, is a favorite of alpine and rock gardeners and looks equally pretty growing in a small pot or on a tufa wall. Here it blooming in late April in the alpine house at RHS Harlow Carr.

Dec. 8: Floral advent calendar: Sparmannia africana

Sparmannia africana, photographed here in March at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, is native to damp forested areas of the western and eastern African capes. It is a member of the Malvaceae (mallow) family, like hibiscus and Tilia, a common tree in Britain. Sparmannia africana was introduced to European cultivation in 1778 and became a common glasshouse plant.

Sparmannia africana doesn’t produce useful timber, but it can be used to make fiber, giving it a common name of African hemp. However, it never caught on as a commercial fiber plant once it was found to be inferior to jute.

The stamens of Sparmannia africana flowers are sensitive to touch, an adaptation it developed to possibly facilitate pollination. When brushed by an insect the stamens puff out, pushing pollen onto the insect’s body, which it then carries off to fertilize another bloom.

Dec. 7: Floral advent calendar: Salpinglosis sinuata

It’s not very sophisticated, nor subtle, but I love it. This is Salpinglosis sinuata, growing in the glasshouse at Parham House. It’s a bit like a cooler, more exotic-looking petunia, to which it is related. It’s common name is “painted tongues,” and I get the sense it is an bit of an old-fashioned glasshouse/bedding plant that used to be more popular than it is today. Regardless, it is fantastic in the glasshouse, and it is a plant I’d love to try. I don’t know the cultivar of this one, but many are available to grow from seed.

Dec. 6: Floral advent calendar: Tweedia coerulea

The specific epithet of my next flower, Tweedia coerulea, gives away that it is yet another of my favored elusively colored blooms. “Coerulea,” quite simply, means blue. This plant is sometimes seen under the synonym Oxypetalum caeruleum, but the meaning of the specific epithet stays the same.

This is another South American native photographed at Derry Watkin’s amazing nursery near Bath, Special Plants. After meeting Derry during her talk at the Parham House garden weekend, my husband and I stopped in to visit her on a weekend trip to Bath this August. It was hard to take a step in her nursery without oohing and ahhing, and the visit got even better with a walk around her unique garden, which is the work of 20+ years by a serious plantsperson. Derry, an American, married a British architect who designed her a house with a wall of Streptocarpus instead of curtains. I’ve stood in this house, and seen this wall and…be still my heart.

Derry has long lived in the U.K., starting her world-renowned nursery at age 40. She told me the nursery business doesn’t make any money but sure is a fun lifestyle. Of the myriad fascinating plants that stood out to me that day, this Tweedia has a color, uniqueness, and vivacity that can’t be ignored, much like Derry herself.

Dec. 3: Floral advent calendar: Lapeirousia oreogena

This little beauty is Lapeirousia oregena, a member of the Iridaceae (Iris) family and native to the northwestern cape of South Africa.

This specimen was photographed in the Davies Alpine House at Kew Gardens in March, with Saxifraga x hornibrookii ‘Riverslea’ in the background. Alpine houses in early spring are some of my favorite places. They look like jewelers’ cases, full to bursting with tiny, colorful gems to catch the eye. Despite its tiny size, with each flower about the size of my fingernail, this Lapeirousia really stood out to me that day.

Dec. 1 Floral advent calendar: Lunaria annua 'Chedglow'

I visit gardens, plant shows, and nurseries year-round, and I am constantly photographing plants and flowers that catch my eye. I have collected thousands of these flower photos that never make it into blog posts but are still valuable to me for education and inspiration. I thought it would be nice to share some of these flowers here, one for each day of advent this December.

First up is Lunaria annua ‘Chedglow,’ which caught my attention in April at the Harrogate Flower Show. This plant was all over the nursery displays, actually glowing when exhibited on dark backgrounds. Its deep purple-brown leaves and magenta flowers looked particularly fine with the dark-leaved elder, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ (below).

Lunaria, or honesty, is a biennial that germinates one year to flower the next. I bought some seeds of ‘Chedglow’ and sowed them this past summer, when I sowed other biennials such as wallflowers and foxgloves. All my other seeds germinated and went on to grow well, but ‘Cheglow’ refused to appear. It’s too bad, but I was consoled to learn that the gardeners at Sissinghurst had trouble germinating it this summer as well. At least I am not alone…and there is always next year to try again.

True blues

Last month Japanese reserchers announced they'd genetically engineered the first truly blue flowers by modifying Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium) with genes from Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium) and butterfly pea (Clitoria terniata).

First genetically modified blue chrysanthemums. Image by Naonobu Noda/NARO.

Blue flowers are rare, occurring on fewer than 10 percent of the world's 280,000 plant species, and they come about by a complex interaction of colour pigments called anthocyanins, growing conditions, and ambient light. What's more, the plants that produce "blueish" flowers aren't common in the commercial horticultural or floristry trades. The Japanese researchers claim their discovery means we could some day see blue roses in wedding bouquets or blue carnations lining the garden path. 

Australian Bluebell, Billardiara fusiformis, photographed in Australia

Why anyone would want to breed a flower that looks like one of those horrible dyed jobs languishing in cellophane at the supermarket is beyond me. I prefer to appreciate my blues as nature made them, even if they are considered some variation of pink or purple according to the RHS flower colour chart. There's something special about blue flowers, and their relative scarcity makes them that much more affecting.

The photos in this post show some of my favorite blue flowers as I've encountered them. There are just few enough to make each sighting special, which is something that I suspect will be lost if more commercially available blue flowers flood the market. 

Field forget-me-not, Myosotis arvensis, photographed in Scotland

This spring I spent some time photographing the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis 'Slieve Donard')  at the Botanics, and as each visitor turned the path to see them I heard audible gasps. If blue flowers are more common, will they elicit the same response? I doubt it. 

Meconopsis 'Slieve Donard' at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Brunnera macrophylla 

Corydalis flexuosa 'Balang Mist' 

Muscari azureum

Borago officinalis

There's no need to get too worked up yet, though, as genetically modified plants are still banned in the E.U. Given the rising concern about genetic modification in horticultural plants, spurred on by this year's orange petunia kerfuffle, I suspect GM chrysanthemums will not be welcome here any time soon, true blue or not.

Happy Independence Day

For the first time in my life I've not celebrated one of my favorite holidays: July 4. I love this day because it occurs in my favorite season and usually involves the year's first ripe homegrown tomatoes, sweet corn, sweat, grilled meats, bikinis, large bodies of water, watermelon, and finally, fireworks.

Being a new resident of the country from which America broke means I keep my patriotism on this holiday pretty quiet. This year my homage to my home country is simply this bouquet of flowers I grew on my plot at school and here at home. That Ammi majus will be as close as I come to fireworks this year, but I think it captures the spirit. Happy Fourth of July to my American expat friends and everyone back home.