Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wild Blue Iris

Someone once said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire, and we can say theWild Blue Iris is neither very Wild, nor always Blue.

Here it is in its white form. It surprised me in the garden the other day. I had gotten some seeds for Iris versicolor, alba form, from a seed exchange, I forget which one, and had grown some plants. Then the first ones bloomed, all blue..... I gave most of them away and chalked another one up to experience. I didn't really want to try to get seeds from the blue ones and grow them and see if any white ones appeared. A few plants I kept and put in the Rockery and kind of forgot about.

So it was a bit of a thrill to see this!

There was only one flowering stem, but it had 3 buds and they all opened. The flower seems a bit 'skinny', but otherwise a regular I. versicolor. Next year's flowers may be more substantial; it isn't unusual for a plant's first flowers to be a bit small.

Then there is the 'red' form, called 'Kermesina'. It seems to come true from seed. All the plants I got bloomed purple-red like this.

But my favourite is still the plain, common blue one. It is an adaptable beast and will do quite well in a variety of situations. In the wild you may find it on the shores of rivers or lakes, or in a bog. In the garden, it will cope with typical flower-border conditions. I know a field near my place that has a few inches of soil over a flat limestone pavement and it blooms there by the hundreds every year.

But seeing this Iris in a bog, as I did at the White Lake Fen, is a revelation.

The leaves were a full 3' high, the flower stalks were a good 12" above the leaves, and the flowers were twice the size of the ones I have at home. The picture above was taken near the Fen. It was a very sunny day and the image is a bit contrasty, but you can see the vigour of these flowers.Clearly it likes to have its feet or at least its socks, wet.

There are actually two native Wild Blue irises, I. versicolor, and I. prismatica. I. prismatica differs in having very narrow leaves and somewhat more narrow petals. I don't know of it occurring in the wild in the Ottawa Valley, but if you can get a plant, it should do fine in your garden just like its cousin. These irises have fibrous roots like the Siberians, and can be handled in much the same way. They need dividing every few years to encourage blooming, but other than that, need little care. Full sun is best, but they can manage with dappled shade. They are not as susceptible to the various miseries that afflict Bearded Iris, another blessing.

If you love blue flowers, and what gardener doesn't, you need this one!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ladyslipper Season

June 17 has snuck up on me! This is the peak of the Ladyslipper season here, and I can't let it go by without a post about our local Cypripediums. It's a long post, but then they are fascinating plants.

We have 4 species in the Ottawa Valley, one of which is considered to have two sub-species. At one time it was thought that there was one more species, Calypso bulbosa, which, while not a Cypripedium, does have a slipper-like lip and so is often considered one of the Ladyslippers. But the references are to areas which are now totally built over, or to Gatineau Park. It is of course possible that there are still Calypsos in the Park, but no locations are officially known at this time. In the Canadian Field-Naturalist Special Issue on Orchids in the Ottawa District, 1997, the reference to Calypso includes the sad note, 'observations...(were) made at two now extinct colonies in Eastern Ontario'. The Calypso orchid is common enough in the West, and like so many plants native to the Western half of Canada, it has trouble surviving our warmer and muggier summers.

Here is a collage of our local Slippers.

As you can see, our Ladies are well-slippered.

Starting at the top left, our undoubtedly most famous Cyp is C. reginae, the Showy Ladyslipper. This is an orchid people travel to see, and usually consider it worth the trip. It stands up to 2 feet tall, the flowers are usually 2 to a stalk and up to 5" across. The sepals are pure white, the lip is white with a varying amount of rose stippling.

The Purdon Conservation Area, which has an interesting history, having started as one man's hobby, showcases the Showies. You can check their website (click the link) for a report on the blooming schedule. I just did, and they report few plants in bloom. It is a late year, the nights having been cool, so the Showies are yet to do their thing. The site also tells you how to get there, etc. etc. By the way, this is a great place to take a non-hiking friend as you can see everything from the boardwalk. It is an easy walk, and you can have lunch in Almonte afterwards. Another place to see them, and also an easy walk, is the McNamara Trail in Arnprior. I don't know the names of the various trails, but if you stay to the left from the start you will soon come to a long boardwalk, and there are wonderful plants of Showies at each end. You'll have to look into the low trees and shrubs, but you'll see them. Last year these were the largest and most impressive Showies I saw anywhere, and that is saying something.

Show Ladyslipper is not too difficult to grow, but does not moisture at the roots, especially in the spring.

Our next most famous Cyp is the Pink Ladyslipper. I think it is mostly famous because everybody either jumps to tell you that you can't grow it, or asks how and where can they get one.... both are kind of right. It is difficult to grow, no question. It needs moisture but perfect drainage, acidic pH, dappled sun, no disturbance, and just the right soil fungi. Not something most home gardeners can provide. But if you have a suitable woodland or marshy area, then they aren't any harder to grow than any other orchid.

C. acaule flowers stand about 18" above the large soft pleated leaves. Each growth sends up two leaves, with the flower stem arising directly from the 'nose'. A happy plant can spread to many 'noses' over the years. One I first noticed as a tiny leaf in 2002 now has 8 growths. It appeared in my tiny marsh-side bog and seems happy growing in the moss. The patch in the picture is taken elsewhere in my woods, in the opening left when some large Pines went over. C. acaule and White Pines have a close relationship, both needing the same or similar soil fungi to start their growth cycle. There had been no Ladyslippers there for many many years, but when the Pines fell, they appeared in numbers. The seeds must have lain dormant in the soil for a very long time. Many did not survive because once the Pines were down, the area became very hot and dry in the summer. This patch has, however, done well. I moved several plants into my Sampler Garden, and they have done fine as well. One thing to know about orchids: they have different roots than other plants. They are few in number, do not branch very much, are thick and covered with a spongy coating that absorbs water and nutrients, and they are very susceptible to fungus or bacterial infection. So damaging the roots is very serious. Stepping close to the plant can break the roots and the plants may not be able to grow new roots in time to build up sufficient reserves to survive. That is one reason transplanting them is so difficult, and another is that the roots tend to be much deeper and more widely spread than one thinks. I've seen people dig them as if they were a border perennial and they were reluctant to give away too much soil.... not only bad, but won't work.

The Large Yellow Ladyslipper is, to my mind, our most beautiful Slipper. The bright yellow flower, set off by the light green leaves, catches my eye just right. I have several clumps, although none of them were here naturally. There are some on my neighbour's side..... maybe seeds will waft over some day? Anyway, these are the easiest Cyps to grow. They do well in any humusy woodsy soil. They can take some shade, or more sun if they get enough moisture. Again, clumps can become quite large. I got my first clump from someone who grew them beside her garage. They were between the garage and the sidewalk, in pure rubble. She never watered them, or weeded them, and she picked them for her vases. When I saw them there were hundreds of blooms. I really wish she would come back from Vermont and advise me about mine, they aren't doing nearly so well!

Botanists have decided our Yellow Ladyslippers are different enough from the European one to be a different species, so they are now C. parviflorum. I say 'they' because there are two forms: C. parviflorum pubescens and C. p. Makasin. The latter is much smaller and has redder sepals. Telling one from the other is like identifying Canada Goldenrod: there are two ways to do it. You can spend a couple of hours with a number of specimens, your textbooks and a strong magnifying glass and identify Solidago canadensis with a 95% probability of being correct, or you can glance at your specimen, mentally eliminate a few it can't be, and announce that it is S. canadensis and have a 95% chance of being right. Actually with the Yellow Slippers, it is easier: if you are wondering, then it is C. p. pubescens. If you are looking at C. p. Makasin, you'll know it. Trust me.

The last, and least, of our Slippers is the Ram's-head. It is small, only about 8 - 10" tall, and the flower is, well, dingy. If you get close you'll see it has intriguing details - long hairs around the opening, a delicate stitching of red lines.... great style in the swept-back sepals. But really, this is a plant for the specialist. It is actually fairly easy to grow, but as I said, for the specialist. It does not clump, at least I have never seen it so, and it shabs out quickly after it finishes blooming. If you have a shady mossy spot and you can get a plant, try it.

If you'd like to see the Ram's-head, there are lots in the Marlborough Forest. They bloom a bit later (and for longer) than the others, so you can go see the Yellows, Pinks and Showies first, then go see the Ram's-heads. If you start now you can catch them all this year!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Major Hillside Rework

I've been busy re-working what I call my Hillside Garden. It's called that because.... well, because it is a hillside! When the house and studio were being built, the bulldozer pushed the topsoil from the foundation sites to the side and up over a large exposed granite outcropping. Men with bulldozers do these things.

Here's a picture of what it looked like last fall:

I'm actually rather pleased about that picture, simply because it shows that my garden really does merge into the surrounding woods fairly well. Of course, last summer was a dreadful drought year so the plants in the garden were all shorter and skimpier than usual, but still the basic idea of the garden was working.

But I didn't do any real weeding last year, having lost heart due to the drought, and had done very little the year before. My garden had been on a garden tour the year before, and I ran out of time for getting ready (story of my life) and ended up yanking weeds instead of digging them out. As a result, grass and other nasty stuff got seriously established. So it was really time to give the area a going over. It was rather daunting, being larger than it looks in the picture and having a lot of clay in the soil. Also it is much more on a slope than the picture shows. Maybe this picture makes it clearer:

That was the year after we moved in. The picture shows about half the Hillside area.That wheelbarrow is still going, by the way. The metal thing in the middle ground is the wellhead; remember it as I have a great plan for it and will tell you about it as soon as it is done.

I finished the last bit of the digging part of the re-working yesterday. The perennials I am keeping have all been lifted, de-grassed and re-planted. Many many things that were either proving invasive, like Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' or too inclined to seed themselves around, like Digitalis grandiflorum, or otherwise undesirable, have been pulled out and trucked to the compost heap. Things like Bearded Iris have been divided and reduced. One thing I wonder about: how did someone who decided, quite rationally, not to have Bearded Iris end up with so many? I've also added some new things like a rose-coloured Veronica, several Oriental Poppies in peach shades and some yellow Heleniums. I have searched for red Heleniums, which I left space for, but no luck. Have to get some seed, I guess. They're easy enough to grow.

Here is what it looks like now:

You can see, especially in the back, that there are large gaps, best thought of as Planting Opportunities, and that the foreground is still a bit of a muddle. Still some Geranium sanguineum (super-invasive and a job to dig out) to get rid off but I thought I'd do that after it blooms, and I'm not sure I'll leave those Chives. I like their shape and don't hate the colour, but they're kind of spreadacious too. Maybe some better mannered Alliums could replace them. The large open area behind them, by the way,  is deliberate. The path, which you can't see, is between the Chives and the open area, and the open, graveled, space is very restful. It sets off the terraced hillside, links this garden area to the others here, and acknowledges that this is really all a rock garden. Best idea I've had so far, putting pea gravel along the Hillside path.

It was quite a job, but in the end I enjoyed it. The weather really helped, lots of soft rain and fairly cool temperatures. Most of the plants I lifted never even wilted. Actually, even the stuff on the compost heap didn't wilt.....