Dec. 21: Happy Solstice

It is the day of the darkest night, and my most important holiday of the year. Flowers, with all their vibrancy and vigor, just don’t seem appropriate for a day dedicated to drawing in and embracing the shadow side of winter as we anticipate the return of the sun.

I took this photo out the window of my car as I was stopped at one of the innumerable roadworks I encounter in my daily commute. It was just past four in the afternoon, and today the day length will be one second shorter than yesterday at seven hours and 54 minutes. But tomorrow, we gain four seconds of new light and begin to climb out of the dark. Happy Solstice, wherever you are.

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. 19: Floral advent calendar: Fagus sylvatica var. heterophylla 'Aspleniifolia'

I love trees, but they don’t usually lend themselves to casual iPhone capture like smaller plants and flowers. Thought it’s not a flower, I’ll make an exception for tonight’s advent post: Fagus sylvatica var. hetrerophylla ‘Aspleniifolia,’ or the fern-leaved beech. This particular specimen grows at Bath Botanical Gardens, and was photographed on a visit there this August.

I was wandering the gardens when I saw the small tree, above, and was instantly intrigued by its beautiful foliage and distinctive glow. I thought it was a perfect small tree until I walked a few steps further and saw:

What I had mistaken for a sapling was actually just a layered branch of this much-larger, majestic beech.

My husband reminded me tonight that our encounter in Bath wasn’t my first exposure to this tree. There is actually one growing at the Edinburgh Botanics, and on one of our school walk-arounds our beloved professor Phil Lusby stood under it and remarked that it was beautiful. “It’s as if it produces its own light,” he said. My iPhone photos may not be the best at conveying this characteristic, but what he said is true. It is a remarkable tree.

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. 13: Floral advent calendar: Vigna caracalla

In October I visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virgina, which is also my hometown. I toured the gardens, which were disappointing and a real shock after being spoiled by the high-level horticulture I am exposed to living in Britain. However, one plant that stood out to me was Vigna caracalla, or snail vine. Jefferson wrote of the plant:

"The most beautiful bean in the world is the caracalla bean which, though in England a green-house plant, will grow in the open air in Virginia and Carolina." (Source: www.monticello.org)

Vigna caracalla is in the Fabaceae, or pea family, and one can see a faint resemblance to sweet peas (Lanthyrus odoratus) in its blooms. It is apparently sweetly scented as well. This South American native was introduced to European cultivation in the 1830s. Now that I am living in England I should get some seeds and have a go at growing this “green-house plant.”

Dec. 12: Floral advent calendar: Tulipa 'Absalon'

2018 was the year I fell in love with tulips. I’d never really liked them, but looking back I realize that’s because I thought tulips were all like the technicolor mixed municipal displays that just seemed so shouty and coarse. This year I was exposed to some more exotic and refined cultivars that really caught my eye, and I also got into historical tulips that can be more subtly beautiful than their modern counterparts.

One of my top tulips this year was ‘Absalon.’ It’s a very rare Rembrandt tulip from 1780. I just adore its mixed swirls of mahogany and gold, with each bloom having different markings from the next. This color pattern of yellow or white streaks on a purple, red, or brown background is characterized as a “Bizarden” (bizarre) tulip, the rarest of them all.

Rembrandt tulips became popular in 17th century Holland during ‘Tulip Mania,’ the national craze for these “broken,” bicolored tulips. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the bicolor variations were caused by a tulip-specific mosaic virus that “broke” a petal color into something other than its original. These tulips were so prized they took pride of place in the Dutch floral still life paintings of the time, including in what is probably my favorite painting, Jan van Huysum’s, “Still Life with Flowers and Fruit” (1715). I used to regularly visit this painting when I worked just blocks away from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and I’d stand in front of it and marvel at the life captured in paint. Look closely and you’ll see a tulip that very much resembles ‘Absalon’

Jan van Huysum, Still Life With Flowers and Fruit, 1715. In the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Image in public domain.

I am fortunate to have a couple bulbs of ‘Absalon’ growing in my garden, and at £5.00/bulb they are treasure to me. They bloomed beautifully this year, and I am hoping they return for 2019 as tulip mania has definitely hit my household.

Dec. 11: Floral advent calendar: Hibiscus schizopetalus

We’re back to Kew Gardens, this time in the tropical glasshouse in March, for tonight’s flower: Hibiscus schizopetalus. Like Sparmannia africana, Hibiscus schizopetalus is also in the Malvaceae, or mallow family. It has the common name of ‘Japanese Lantern,’ despite being native to Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania, where it grows in tropical conditions. I am more accustomed to the smaller Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which I grew in outdoors in summer containers in the U.S. H. schizopetalus is a much larger shrub, growing to 3-4 metres, and it was really neat to see its captivating blooms from standing eye-level.

In Britain Hibiscus schizopetalus survives only in a glasshouse or conservatory, but there it makes a stunning display. Its specific epithet, schizopetalus, refers in Greek to its deeply divided petals (schizo=split+petalus-petals).

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. 5: Floral advent calendar: Puya alpestris

I have a well-documented affinity for a blue flower, and today’s is a stunner. Puya alpestris is a bromeliad native to southern Chile. Unlike many other bromeliads, which grow in trees, Puya alpestris is terrestrial, which makes it convenient for growing in a pot. I saw it in flower in early June at Sissinghurst Castle garden where it stopped me in my tracks with its metallic teal blooms.

Puya alpestris is hardy to a few degrees below freezing, so after a summer idyll outdoors it should be returned to the glasshouse to overwinter. It is supposed to be relatively easy to grow from seed, which is something I plan to try as soon as I get a glasshouse at home.

Dec. 4: Floral advent calendar: Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'

Cosmos are one of my favorite flowers. Along with zinnias, they are some of the first plants I grew from seed as a child and I associate them with the beginning of my interest in horticulture.

There has been an explosion in cosmos introductions lately, and as gimmicky as some of them sound I still want to try them all. A new-to-me variety this year was Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes.’ Some of the blooms, like the one above are double, while others are single. ‘Cupcakes’ was the first to flower in my home garden in July, mixed in a bed of other flowers for cutting. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved this variety. Its fused petals really do make the flower look exactly like a paper cupcake wrapper. And it was the last plant to blacken in the autumn frosts, succumbing just last week after giving me an astonishing five months of flowers.

The soft pinks and whites of ‘Cupcakes’ mix nicely into bouquets such as the one I put together from my cutting garden this July along with another nice new Cosmos, ‘Fizzy’ series. Also included are Malope trifida ‘Alba,’ Bupleurum rotundifolium 'Griffithii,’ Ammi majus, Orlaya grandiflora, and Matricaria recutita (German chamomile), and the wonderful ornamental grass Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion,’ all grown from seed this year.

If you do grow cosmos in Britain, keep in mind they don’t like being cold in the spring. This never seemed to be an issue when I grew cosmos in Virginia, probably because it got so hot so fast and the summer climate was more similar to the plant’s native Mexico. This year’s cool and protracted English spring, however, found my seedlings languishing despite the protection of the cold frame. Once they got a little heat, though, they were off and away just fine with no ill effects, .

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. 2 Floral advent calendar: Allium amethystinum 'Red Mohican'

I’ve seen the new Allium amethystinum ‘Red Mohican’ described as the punk rocker of the plant world, and that’s not a bad description. Mohawk comparisons aside, when I first saw this plant in July at the Parham House annual garden weekend, what first drew me to it was its color. It is one of my favorites, an unusual deep, bricky red that reminds me of the desert Southwest.

The flowers aren’t large, being comparable in size to the much more common Allium sphaerocephalon, so I imagine it would take quite a few of these still-expensive bulbs to have much effect in a border design. I did see ‘Red Mohican’ used this way in a small section of garden at Parham, below, and I liked the effect especially next to the bronze-leafed fennel.

Because of its novelty and sophisticated color, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of ‘Red Mohican’ soon. Will it be the “it” plant of Chelsea 2019?