My Quest, Fulfilled

    For thirty years, I’ve longed to catch at least a glimpse of Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) in blossom; finally, yesterday, I achieved that goal. I wish I could say that I braved high seas to get to India, then traipsed across increasingly mountainous plains, and finally clawed my way up some jagged peak before coming face to face with the blossom. No, I was in Philadelphia, at the the Philadelphia Flower Show, when I remembered that nearby Longwood Gardens puts on a show of Himalayan poppies each year in early March. All that was needed was to brave traffic for the one hour drive (40 minutes without traffic) over to Longwood.
    It was thirty years ago that expert plantsman and orchid hunter Norman Kellar told me of his admiring the blue poppy’s sky blue blossoms, both in reality and in reflection, from across a pond in England. The flowers, he said, are the purest blue of any flower. Did Longwood’s show meet up to my thirty year buildup? Yes. The petals, delicate as tissue paper, are a sky blue, the bluest I’ve seen in any flower. The center of each nodding blossom is lighted by a bottlebrush of orange stamens.Blue poppy
    So why haven’t I, and why didn’t Norman, just plant Himalayan poppy to enjoy in our own backyards? The plant thrives — no, survives — only where summers remain cool. Above 70°F, the plant can’t photosynthesize, so it starves. I’ve tried growing blue poppy in the past. Each time it grew fine until July’s summer heat caused it to collapse, dead.
    Longwood’s plants avoid heat by starting life in Alaska, where the plant thrives. Young plants are shipped in from Alaska in the fall and kept dormant in cold storage. Brought into Longwood’s cool (50-60°F) conservatory in January, they slowly awaken and, finally, blossom in March.
    My plan is to sow seeds in potting soil in a seed flat in late summer, then water and chill the flat in a refrigerator for a few weeks. (Some seeds need that chilling to break their dormancy or speed germination. Whether or not blue poppy needs it, a few weeks of cool temperatures will do no harm.) By early fall, the seedlings should be up and growing, which they can do outdoors and then, if needed, in the greenhouse. When cold temperatures and low light slow the plants into dormancy, I’ll store the pots at a cool location in my basement.
    Finally, in January, I’ll move the plants to a sunny window to begin growth. That time of year, even sunny windows don’t get too hot. Come March, with luck, a green thumb, and clicking my heels together three times, the sky blue blossoms will be staring at me — or out the window.
    My first sighting of “our” bluebird was a week ago. Next year, looking at blue poppy plants blossoming at a window and bluebird outside the window would be a very nice prelude to spring.

Three Perennial Treats

    Flowers have never been a focus of my gardens, and less so as each year goes by and I pay more attention to more enduring elements of my yard, such as fences, arbors, hedges, trees, and walls. Still, some flowers, such as the blue poppy, are worth the effort.
    In years past, seed flat upon seed flat of all kinds of flowers would occupy growing space. This year: Just one flat of perennials, that one flat with four mini-furrows, one for dianthus, one for cardinal flower, one for foxglove, and one for purple coneflower. Each of those mini-furrows will yield enough seedlings, to be carefully separated then planted in individual cells of potting soil to grow into plants, for transplanting, for a nice show this summer and beyond.
    The main attraction of the dianthus, for me, is its fragrance. From descriptions, the Riesen Giant Superb Mix Dianthus I just sowed seems very similar to the Dianthus caryophyllus that I grow in the greenhouse except, in contract to its greenhouse cousin, this dianthus is allegedly cold-hardy outdoors in Zone 5. (I have the feeling that both dianthus’s may be the same; the “giant” and “superb” in the name hooked me.)

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

   Cardinal flower is perennial, but not a long-lived one. It thrives in wet areas and, in congenial locations such as, I hope, here, will self-sow. This flower first caught my attention when its spike of fire engine red blossoms stared out at me from deep, deep shade. Deep shade is not home to many colorful flowers.
    With spikes of pastel-colored blossoms, foxgloves have a charm evocative of blowsy cottage gardens. They also are only weakly perennial; but they self-sow readily. Their popping up willy-nilly around any garden from self-sown seeds adds to their blowsy effect.



    One downside to foxgloves is that flowers all line up only on one side of the flower spike, facing the sun. Except for the Excelsior series of foxgloves, which is what I have sown this year. It will be interesting to see how thoroughly the blossoms embrace the spikes and then how future years’ blossoms, from self-sown seedlings, display themselves, especially since they’ll be mating with run-of-the-mill foxgloves already growing here.
    Nothing special about coneflowers. They’re native, easy to grow, and common. They’re also pretty.

Back to Fruit

    Enough with the frills! Back to pruning kiwifruit and grape vines, blueberry, gooseberry, and currant bushes, and the plum, pawpaw, mulberry, a pear trees. They are pretty, too, and give me fruit.
Fruit bowl with fig, grape, persimmon, nashi


Too Hot Here For These Gems, But Maybe I Can Trick Them

   It was decades ago that Norman — gardener, orchid expert, one-time cattle farmer, and lawyer — described to me his first sighting of blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. He was traveling in England, and at this particular garden was a pond whose far side was electrified by the sky blue petals of blue poppy, perhaps the purest blue of any flower. The mirrored surface of the water stepped up the voltage, as do the frilly clusters of golden anthers trembling in the center whorls of petals.Blue poppy at Longwood Gardens
    Since then, I’ve lusted for blue poppies but have yet to see the plant in bloom. Twice I tried to grow it, from seed. Each time the seedlings germinated and got off to a good start. Each time, in July, as temperatures here started to get steamy, the plants collapsed, dead. Blue poppy is native above 10,000 feet in the Himalayas and doesn’t like hot weather.
    I don’t feel compelled to grow the plant (although that would be nice); I just want to feast my eyes on those bluest of blue petals. To see the plant in bloom requires being somewhere: 1) in late spring or early summer, 2) with cool summers, 3) where blue poppy grows wild or has been planted. The second condition, cool summers, is found in North America in the Pacific Northwest, New England and adjacent parts of Canada, and Alaska. I like hot summers so I’m not relocating to any of these places in order to grow this plant. Also, my garden is particularly needy and entrancing in late spring and early summer, so I’m not leaving then.

I Almost Cross Paths With Blue Poppy, After 20+ Years

    As it turned out, I just missed an opportunity to see blue poppy in bloom at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. Not only is Longwood not far from here, but I happened to be in nearby Philadelphia two weeks ago, when the plant was in bloom. Who would have thought blue poppy could be grown in Pennsylvania?
Close up of blue poppy    I had, at least, to find out how the plants are grown there. As described by Longwood horticulturalist Jim Harbage, each October Longwood has potted plants shipped from a nursery in Alaska. The plants are put into cold storage until early January, then brought into Longwood’s cool (50-60°F) conservatory to slowly awaken and, finally, blossom in March. After bloom, the plants, although perennials, are discarded.
    Most important is to keep temperatures below 70° F. Research at Longwood Gardens showed that respiration outpaces photosynthesis at warmer temperatures. The plant, essentially, starves. Warmer temperatures also cause some purpling of the petals, ruining the whole reason for growing the plant.
    Could Longwood’s prescription be mimicked in my greenhouse? Probably not.  Longwood’s large, high-ceilinged conservatory, with dappled shade from tree ferns and citrus trees, perhaps also cooling mists of water puffed into the air as needed, is a lot cooler than my greenhouse. Here, greenhouse temperatures on sunny days in February and March soar, despite vent fans, into the 80s.
    How about a sunny window sill? Temperatures are cool in my house, more so the further you go from the woodstove. So that’s a possibility. But purchasing new plants every year could get expensive, especially plants that are good only for compost once their blossoms fade.
    How about starting the seeds in early or mid winter for planting outdoors to blossom before temperatures get too hot? Or starting the seeds in fall and exposing the young seedings to very cool temperatures for more assured earlier blossoms outdoors? Blue poppy, if it behaves like many other perennials, should blossom the first season if started very early or if tricked into thinking it’s been through winter before blossoming. I later learned that Chanticleer Garden, also in the Philadelphia region, gets outdoor blossoms from plants purchased in October, wintered in cold frames, then planted outdoors in March. Bloom is in April; composting is in June.
    The most important and most reliable route for me to eye blue poppy in bloom is to pencil in a trip to Longwood Gardens for early March next year.

King Red, For Fruit & Beauty, Also Elusive . . . Do Far

    My blue poppy experience is reminiscent of my experience with another plant of western Asia, a plant variously called King Red Russian olive, iğde (in Turkey), botanically Elaeagnus angustifolia var. orientalis, or, erroneously, Trebizond date (which is a persimmon species).

King Red seeds, sprouting last spring

King Red seeds, sprouting last spring

    King Red is invasive out West but definitely is not invasive here. As with blue poppy, I’ve grown the plant from seed only to have it collapse, dead, when steamy weather arrived.
    Beautiful blossoms are not the attraction of King Red, although they do sweetly perfume the air in spring. Rather, it’s the bright red fruit that is highlighted by the gray-green foliage and, when dried, is like sweet talcum powder contained within a cherry-sized, brittle shell. Even without the flowers or fruit, the tree imparts a soft, Mediterranean look to the landscape, much like an olive tree, a relative.
    I started some seedlings of King Red Russian olive last year, hoping for some genetic variability in heat tolerance. All the seedlings thrived, probably because of last summer’s relatively cool temperatures.

King Red branch that someone sent me

King Red branch that someone sent me

   The seedlings are now dormant in 4 inch pots in my basement. I want 20 foot tall King Red trees so eventually the baby trees need to be planted out. I’m scoping out suitable locations with cooler microclimates. A spot receiving only morning sun is the current best candidate.
    Perhaps in a few years I’ll be eating home-grown iğde while enjoying the sight of blue poppies.