Category Archives: Plant Portraits

Early Spring Blues at Wave Hill

wave_hill_blues72Hey New Yorkers, you shouldn’t miss this scene. All at once and everywhere, Glory of the Snow, Chinonodoxa sardensis, has created carpets of  blue on the grounds of beautiful Wave Hill in Riverdale. I had an hour or so to wander the grounds before my talk in the city on Wednesday, and was able to capture a few images.

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On the slope behind the building that houses the Glyndor Gallery, there were easily a gazillion bulbs just beginning to open.  I have no idea how many were originally planted, but over the past 50 years (guessing) Chionodoxa  has self sown with total abandon. Take note: it is deer resistant so it is the perfect bulb for naturalizing in a woodland garden.

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Chionodoxa sardensis

From each bulb rise 4-6″ stems bearing 5-10 starry blue flowers accented with white centers which give quite a jolt of color.  Plant where you won’t mind the foliage lingering while it stores energy before dying back. Glory of the Snow starts blooming just as Crocus begin to fade and is a good companion bulb to the earliest daffodils, Adonis and Hellebores.  Hardy in zones 3-8.

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

What shrub has evergreen foliage resembling both holly and fern, blooms in late fall/early winter with a candelabra of fragrant primrose yellow flowers, is drought tolerant once established and not a favorite of marauding deer? Answer: Mahonia x media ‘Charity, a hybrid of the two species, M. japonica and M. lomariifolia.

Ever since I saw a form of Mahonia  blooming in winter in the Plymouth MA garden of my friend Susanne, I have wanted to have this plant in my garden. Certainly, this is pushing the hardiness limits in our neck of the woods, so I have been  scouting for a very protected spot (thinking of a clearing in our now dense grove of Yellow Groove Bamboo).  ‘Charity’ is hardy to 0 degrees F, but we usually dip below that for at least a day or two each winter.

Of course all of you who live in balmier zones 7-9 should consider giving this winter interest plant a try.  It is a broadleaf evergreen, and so it would be prudent to choose a site with protection from winter winds and strong western sun. Plants develop a vase shape and usually grow to 5-7’ tall but can reach 10’ in mild climates, with a width of 3-6’. The flowers begin forming in late October, providing unexpected color when you need it most from late November into January. The multiple upright racemes of small flowers are magnets for bees, who may venture out on mild days. Rich blue fruit follow in spring, thus the common name Grape Holly,  and these are relished by birds. Older foliage may take on reddish tones in late winter, and tarnished leaves should be pruned once fresh growth begins to unfurl.

Mahonia can be grown in full sun or dappled shade, but if grown in full sun it it may require a bit more watering in dry spells. I should also add that the foliage has rather unfriendly sharp edges, and can deliver a “look but don’t touch” message to passerby.

Do you grow any forms of Mahonia and how have they performed where you live? Please share your experience.

Winter Prep for Tender Succulents

sucpotfall500_72As we advance into autumn, your succulent planters may look so beautiful that  you may want to wait until the last minute to protect your plants.

deconstruct1_succulent500It usually happens sometime in mid October in southeastern MA,  when a cloudless night will allow temperatures to drop into the low 30’s and a light frost nips unprotected tender plantings (yep, that’s what happened here). If a frost catches you by surprise, your plants may only have suffered slight foliage damage which can easily be trimmed off.

deconstruct2_succulent500Small containers can simply be moved inside, but you’re probably not going to want to move a big heavy pot. The only thing to do to preserve your plants in this case is to dismantle your planting. Carefully pry loose the root balls to get at the plants. (Thanks  Peter Tracey for acting as our model!)

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Have a wheelbarrow nearby to transfer your unearthed roots.

deconstruct6_ssucculent500Prepare a very well drained planting medium suitable for succulents. We use a barky perennial mix with added perlite and coarse sand. It is important that your plants don’t spend the winter in soil which stays moist all the time. Try to transplant into pots that are just big enough to contain the root ball. (This will help keep the pots on the dry side and will not take up much space.)

deconstruct_succulents.onPlace your pots near the sunniest windows in your home. The days are getting shorter and low light levels may can cause your plants to stretch towards the window. Rotate your pots to compensate.  We water only when the pots are dry, and wait until late winter or early spring to fertilize.

See the Rehabbing Succulents Post for spring care.

Not Just Fall Color: Enkianthus campanulatus

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Enkianthus fall foliage

Redvein Enkianthus is about to betray its quiet charms any day now, with a display of technicolor fall foliage in shades of gold, orange, fiery red through purple. In mid to late spring it delights in a more soft-spoken way, bearing dainty clusters of white or red bells, depending on the cultivar. E. ‘Lipstick’ has white bells delicately edged in brick red, ‘Red Bells’ are colored, as the name suggests, coral red, and ‘Showy Lantern’. A slow growing shrub at first, it is often listed at growing from 6-8′ tall and 4-5′ wide, but with age it can easily reach 15′ or more with a wider reach. In fact, Enkianthus campanulatus can be pruned to from a lovely small tree. It is a perfect candidate for the partially shaded garden, both large and small.

Enkianthus campanulatus

Enkianthus campanulatus

Enkianthus 'Lipstick'

Enkianthus ‘Lipstick’

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Enkianthus c. ‘Red Bells’

Enkianthus c. 'Showy Lantern'

Enkianthus c. ‘Showy Lantern’

Grow Redvein Enkianthus in full sun or partial shade. It enjoys an enriched, well drained, acidic soil that stays evenly moist, although we have found it to be quite forgiving of dry spells, once established. It is deer resistant, but please note that deer will eat almost anything if hungry enough. Perfectly hardy in zones 5-8, with some reporting success growing it in zone 4B.

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Magnolia macrophylla ashei

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Magnolia macrophylla ashei foliage

There is no other way to say it: Ashe’s Big Leaf Magnolia is boldly beautiful. Folks often grow Magnolias for their early spring bloom, but you will want to seek out Magnolia macrophylla ashei for its large green foliage (up to 2+’ in length) which is undersided in a lovely shade of  silvery celadon. (Floral designers take note: the foliage is gorgeous when cut and dried for winter arrangements.)  Early summer flowers are sweetly fragrant with white petals  accented with a red brush stroke and are large as well, up to 1′ across.

Magniolia macrophylla ashei, a Southeastern US native,  forms a large shrub or small tree. It’s tropical appearance belies its hardiness as it is easily grown in zones 6-9 (with reports of it also growing in zone 5 with protection). The form ashei is a smaller tree than the straight species, and is often seen as a multistmemed shrub but can be pruned to form a small tree, growing to 15′ tall in its northern most range, and up to 25′ tall in milder climates. Big Leaf Magnolia prefers a sunny or partially shaded place in a border with rich evenly moist soil that has good drainage. Very windy spots are not recommended, as the gorgeous foliage will get damaged. Another positive note…Big Leaf Magnolia is deer resistant.

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3 Unique Hydrangea

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Hydrangea serrata ‘Kiyosumi’

More subtle and nuanced than the big mop heads, the species H. serrata hails from the higher elevations of Japan and Korea and is considered more reliably cold hardy than most H. macrophylla. What caught my eye about this particular selection H. ‘Kiyosumi’ , even before the blossoms developed, was the attractive brick red tint to the new foliage. The 4-6″ lace caps are composed of tiny rose tinted fertile flowers, accented with a skirt of larger florets colored white to pale pink with a rim of brick red. This compact selection grows 4′ x 4′, and is hardy to -10F without stem dieback. H. serrata ‘Kiyosumi’ does bloom on old wood, and I can vouch that it survived the winter of 2014-15 quite admirably.

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Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’

An old favorite for the shade garden is the double form of Oakleaf Hydrangea, H. ‘Snowflake’. The bold oak leaf shaped foliage is handsome all season, but in early summer it bears long (10-15″) panicles of exquisite double white to celadon green florets which age beautiful to shades of pale green and rusty rose. It’s grace and beauty never ceases to draw compliments.

Like all H. quercifolia, ‘Snowflake’ blooms on old wood, so care should be taken when pruning so you are not sacrificing too many potential blossoms. H. quercifolia ‘Snowflake’ grows 7-8′ tall and wide, but the weight of the blossoms gives it an arching habit. Although this particular form can be grown in full sun if it has evenly moist soil, it has always been happier in our  cooler, shady border. It is hardy in zones 5-8.

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Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Zebra’

I was recently alerted about the new Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Zebra’ from my gardening friend Barbara Smith, who suggested it as a great Hydrangea for cut flowers. (Didn’t need much convincing; I bought 3). This new patented selection is a sport of the all white cultivar H. ‘Schneeball’ (German for Snowball) and is distinguished not only for its 3.5-5″ trusses but for its very dark green foliage and almost black stems. I hear the flowers age to a wonderful pale green. Plants form compact shrubs 3-4′ tall and wide.  I suspect that this form will only bloom on old wood, so I am trialing one in a protected area and the others in a more open spot in the garden. The literature says it is hardy to zone 5, but we’ll see if that means bud hardy, won’t we?

The Other Hardy Hens & Chicks

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Jovibarba heuffelii with small Sempervivum, Echeveria & Orostachys in the background.

The most familiar hens and chicks are in the genus Sempervivum. I’d like to introduce you to the  less familiar with same common name which are classified in the genera Jovibarba, Orostachys and Rosularia.  All are members of the Crassulacea family.

A rosette of Sempervivum flowering

A rosette of Sempervivum flowering, but with a number of offsets surviving.

Like Sempervivum, all are monocarpic, which means when the main rosette erupts into flower, it will set seed and cease to exist. (You can see why it is a good thing that many offsets of new plantlets have been freely produced.)

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Jovibarba hirta ssp arenaria

The genus Jovibarba is sometimes classified as a sub genus of Sempervivum.  Jovibarba is distinguished by blossoms bearing pale green to yellow 6 petaled flowers compared to Sempervivum’s 10-12 petaled pink blossoms. There are only 3 species in the genus: globifera, hueffeli and hirta. J. globifera and hirta freely produce stoloniferous offsets but  J. heuffelii’s “chicks” are tightly attached to the crown, and need to be severed to propagate more babies. J. hirta ssp arenaria  forms dozens of delightful miniature rosettes (1/4-3/4”) of pale gray green leaves covered with tiny hairs. Cool temperatures bring out red foliage highlights. Grow in a lean soil with sharp drainage in hardiness zones 5-9.

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Orostachys spinosus

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Orostachys minutum

Orostochys is a slightly bigger genus…it includes the more popular O. iwarenge (Dunce caps) as well as several others that are garden worthy subjects. The mature rosette of O. spinosus gives the appearance of a silver sunflower with an array of silver quilled foliage surrounding a center of congested tiny tight leaves. It is hardy to zone 4-9, but requires very well drained soil. O. minutum (also listed as O. spinosum minutum) is quite petite as the specific name suggests, producing clusters of 1/2-1” rosettes of blue gray foliage. It  would make an excellent alpine trough plant.

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Rosularia muratdaghensis

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Rosularia serpentinica

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Rosularia chrysantha

The genus Rosularia includes about 35 species. We have grown R. muratdaghensis, R. serpentinica, and R. chrysantha. Both R. muratdaghenis and serpentinica form tight mounding rosettes of gray green foliage, accented with red tones in cooler temperatures. R. chrysantha has a mat forming habit,with rosettes of soft velvety green leaves. All 3 species demand lean soil with excellent drainage and are are hardy in zones 5-9.

Digiplexis x ‘Illumination Flame’

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Sometimes amazing things happen when you cross similar plants from different regions: Digitalis (European Foxglove) and Isoplexis (Canary Island Foxglove. The result: beautiful perpetual blooming 3′ spires of tubular flowers, which are colored sunset coral in bud and then open, exposing yellow throats with hints of apple green. This particular selection, ‘Flame’, is the first of the Illumination series introduced by Charles Valin which won the prestigious award of Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2012.

Last year we grew Digiplexis ‘Flame’ in a large pot. It began to bloom in early June and carried on for months, well into September. The blossoms are sterile, which tricks the plants to be constantly in flower.  We brought the container into the cool greenhouse to winter over and it’s back up and about to start the show all over again. This year we’ve also planted it in our garden beds for the constant color it provides. We envision it as the vertical complement to Dahlias and Summer Phlox in a sunny, enriched , well drained border which gets an average amount of irrigation. I can attest that the hummingbirds were regular visitors, as were bees and butterflies, and I suspect it is deer resistant as well.

Because Digiplexis inherited its hardiness genes from its Canary Island parent, it will only winter over outdoors in zones 8-10, (although one of our customers bragged to me the other day that hers wintered over outdoors in a protected spot in zone 7).  Dig  up the roots after the first frost, as you would a Dahlia and store in a cool spot that stays above freezing for the winter. Gardeners in warmer winter climates don’t have to worry about this, and I can only imagine the display in their garden year after year!

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In Color: Hardy Succulents

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum 'Pacific Blue Ice', Sedum 'Angelina', Semeprvivum 'Carmen', Sedum album 'Coral Carpet', Sempervivum 'Topaz', and Sedum stefco

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum ‘Pacific Blue Ice’, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Semeprvivum ‘Carmen’, Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’, Sempervivum ‘Topaz’, and Sedum stefco

It is early April here in New England, and as the snow retreats, a walk about the garden reveals color from unexpected plants…winter hardy succulents. Yes the early crocus and snowdrops are showing off, but they will come and go quickly. Since we’re still flirting with frosts and will not begin to see rich greens and bright pastels until the end of the month, the delicious burgundy and coral tones taken on by many hardy Sempervivum and Sedum provide a different color palette. These hardy succulents may not grab your attention when plant shopping, since many gardeners aren’t selecting plants at nurseries until warmer temperatures prevail. By late spring, the intense foliage hues change to more muted blue green and olive coloring. And of course, there are many more brightly colored blossoms to distract us.

If you’re taking a survey of your gardens right now, consider where you can use the rich, changing colors and textures that winter hardy succulents provide. They require minimal care and look good year round, especially the “evergreen” forms. Many are hardy into zone 3 plus are deer and rabbit resistant.  They ask only for sun and good drainage, and can winter over admirably in containers as well.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

In bloom: Tender Succulents

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Flowers of Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’

Most of us select our ‘tender” succulents by virtue of their unique forms or foliage in desert tints of sage green, blue gray, dusty rose, plum, khaki gold. A few put out flowers during our northern hemisphere summers, but many warm winter succulents bloom when the day length is shorter…mid-late fall, winter, and early spring.  These succulents add astonishing color to a windowsill display while we wait for spring to really settle in.

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A peak at some of our Aloes in bloom.

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Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’…a cross between an Aloe and Gasteria

I’ve been collecting “tender succulents” for more than 15 years, and one of the frustrating things I constantly come across are mislabeled plants. We now have an excuse to visit southern CA more frequently as one of our sons is living there, and since this is where more succulents are grown than anywhere else, I have made it my mission to visit botanical gardens and nurseries from Santa Barbara to San Diego in search of proper names. The most common succulent genera are Aloe, Crassula, Echeveria, Gasteria, Graptopetalum, Kalanchoe, Pachyphytum and Sedum.

What makes things very curious is that there’s been a lot of inter breeding going on, and by that I mean crossing one genus with another. For example, Echeveria crossed with Sedum becomes Sedeveria.  Because these genera are so closely related (many are in the Crassulaceae family) this works, and some interesting new plants have been introduced. This does however complicate identifying misnamed plants. The foliage isn’t always the tell tale sign; the flower formation can give better clues, but even then…take for example Graptoveria ‘Moonglow’, a cross between Graptopetalum and Echeveria.

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Graptoveria ‘Moonglow’

The flowers of Echeveria tend to be bell shaped with many variations: tightly closed, flared, chunky, narrow and are held on short or even tall stems that can be terminated with a few blossoms or multi branched. Graptopetalum blossoms are star shaped with prominent stamens and are held on upright stems in branches of a few to many flowers. The flowers of Sedum are held in terminating clusters of star shaped inflorescences. The intergeneric crosses display a mix of these flower formations, and here is where further research is required. I plan to continue to study the differences.

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Sedum ‘Limeglow’

Photo documentation is essential in keying identity. I now have a set up for plant portrait taking, and will continue to photograph the various flower forms as  plants continue to open bud.  Here are a few photos of various succulents in flower.

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Echeveria ‘Dondo’

Mystery Echeveria…purchased as 'Fleur Blanc'

Mystery Echeveria…purchased as ‘Fleur Blanc’

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Mystery Echeveria…also purchased as ‘Fleur Blanc’

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Pachyphytum oviferum…or “Moonstones”

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Echeveria ‘Lola’

Echeveria parva

Echeveria parva

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Sedeveria ‘Harry Butterfield’

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Mystery Sedeveria

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Sedeveria blossom

I have yet to find an authoritative source, online or in print, documenting and clarifying information on succulents. It is a challenging task, for sure. Do you have a resource or guide you refer to? Please share if you do.