Visual Delight, and some Aroma

I once grew a rose, Bibi Maizoon, that I considered to be as close to perfection as any rose could be. Its blooms, that is. They were cup-shaped and filled with loosely defined row upon row of pastel pink petals, nothing like the pointed, stiff blossoms of hybrid tea roses. Completing the old-fashioned feel of Bibi Maizoon blossoms is the flowers’ strong, fruity fragrance.
Bibi Maizoon rose
(In case you don’t know who Bibi Maizoon was, she was a member of the royal family of Oman. The Bibi Maizoon rose was bred by British rose breeder David Austin.)

The bush itself was as imperfect as the blossom were perfect. Where to begin? For starters, the thin stems could hardly support the corpulent blossoms. Couldn’t, in fact, so the blossoms usually dangle upside down. Upside down blossoms were not that bad because I considered Bibi best when cut for vases indoors to better appreciate her rare appearances and fragrance.

Top those deficiencies with the fact that Bibi Maizoon was also only borderline cold hardy in my garden and you would rightly guess that I no longer grow this rose.

I haven’t abandoned David Austin roses. I generally like them for their old-fashioned look: the bushes are, well, bushy and full; the blossoms have softer colors than those of traffic-stopping hybrid tea roses; and they are disease resistan and strong-growing.

I’ve previously praised the variety L. D. Braithwaite for its almost nonstop, dark red blossoms, red tinted leaves, and ability to laugh off any amount of cold. Three other varieties — Golden Celebration, Lady of Shallot, and Dame Judi Dench — came into my garden in the last year, their blossoms with varying degrees of yellow, the first a pure golden yellow, the second apricot-yellow, and the third apricot orange. Delicious. They all seem, so far, near-perfect.

Golden Celebration rose

Golden Celebration rose

Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

Organoleptic Delight, and also Beautiful

Ellison’s Orange is as unknown to most people as is Bibi Maizoon. It’s an apple, an old and very delicious apple, and, oddly enough, ripening right now. Everywhere else I read that this apple is supposed to ripen later in September and on into October, yet every year my Ellison’s Orange fruits ripen about this time of year.

Like Bibi Maizoon, Ellison’s Orange has its good and bad sides. On the plus side, it bears very well and at a young age. It also seems to be somewhat resistant to scab and cedar apple rust diseases, contradicting other sources on this point also. And what a beauty the fruit is, with its orange blush over a yellow background.

For me, the downside of this variety is the absolute necessity to pick it at just the right moment. One day an apple seems puckery underripe; the next day it might be sleepy and soft. If I harvest very carefully, I catch an apple at its delectable best, which is sprightly with an intense flavor that hints of anise seed.
Ellison's Orange apple
I made my tree from a piece of stem whose cells trace back over a hundred years, to the garden of a Reverend Ellison in Lincolnshire in the east of England. The parents of the reverend’s new apple weren’t lightweights. One parent, Cox’s Orange Pippin, the king of British apples, has an intense flavor that sometimes hints of anise seed. The other parent, Calville Blanc, an old French apple popular in the court of King Louis XIII, has a spicy flavor with just a hint of banana. No wonder Ellison’s Orange tastes so good – as long as I catch it at the right moment.

Another Tasty Delight

If you buy corn at a farmstand or market these days, no need to have boiling water ready, as gardeners did in the past to stop enzymes from starting the conversion of kernels from sugary sweet to starchy bland. Two genes incorporated into modern corn varieties dramatically slow this flavor decline. They also ratchet up the sugars, making modern corns supersweet to begin with.

Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite variety of sweet corn, the only variety that I grow, is the old variety Golden Bantam, which lacks those modern corn genes. Although not nearly as sweet as modern hybrids, Golden Bantam has a very rich corny flavor with – to some tastes — just the right amount of sweetness.

 Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

Golden Bantam was introduced into the seed trade in 1902 by W. Atlee Burpee Company, who got their original 2 quarts of seed from New York farmer William Coy, who had tasted and enjoyed eating some ears at his cousin’s house in Massachusetts. Long story short: Everyone fell in love with Golden Bantam and it became the most popular corn of its day. An article in The Boston Transcript of 1926 states that “In the twenty-four years since [1902] it has made more friends than anyone else could make outside the movies. Which proves that popularity does sometimes follow real merit.” It’s an odd way to compliment but you get the picture.

Golden Bantam pre-dates hybrid varieties, the latter of which, in addition to other characteristics, ripen very uniformly. In a backyard garden, a whole bed of corn ripening at once isn’t necessarily a plus. I want to eat some corn every day, with a little extra each day for freezing.
Corn hills
My four beds of corn, the first planted in mid-May (around the date of our last-killing frost of spring)  and the subsequent beds staggered every two weeks, provides just that. We’ve eaten corn almost every day since each mid-August and Golden Bantam shows no signs of slowing down or boring us.

Of Roses and Berries

Roses Come and Go

I once grew a beautiful, red rose known as Dark Lady. For all her beauty, she was borderline cold-hardy here. Many stems would die back to the graft, and the rootstock, which was cold-hardy, would send up long sprouts. Problem is that rootstocks are good for just that, their roots; their flowers, if allowed to develop, are nothing special.Dark Lady roseAfter a few years of watching the weakened plant recover each season, I made cuttings from some of the stems. The cuttings rooted and the new plants, rather than being grafted, were then growing on their own roots. Even a cold winter wouldn’t kill the roots, living in soil where temperatures are moderated. If the stems died back to ground level, new sprouts would still sport those dark, red blossoms.

I planted my new Dark Lady in a bed on the south side of my house. There, with the brick wall of the house adding a few extra degrees of warmth in winter and spring, Dark Lady might better survive winters coldest nights and get a jump on spring. What’s more, the roots had ample soil to explore rather than being restricted within the narrow, dry bed along my terrace where the mother plant had grown.

The new Dark Lady grew reasonably well in its new bed, but still not as well as I had hoped. Dark Lady is one of the many “English roses” bred by David Austin to have the blowsy look and fragrance of old-fashioned roses coupled with disease resistance and repeat blooming of contemporary roses.

Dark Lady eventually petered out. She’s been superseded by some newer creations from David Austin: L. D. Braithwaite and Golden Celebration are standouts as far a hardiness and beauty, and I expect the same of Dame Judi Dench and Lady of Shalott.

L D Braithwaite rose

L D Braithwaite rose

Global warming has, no doubt, also been a help.

No Sharing of My Highbush Blueberries

Pity the poor birds. My fat, juicy blueberries have been ripening and now there’s a net between them and them.Blueberries galorePutting up the net always brings the words of fruit breeder Dr. Elwyn Meader to mind. When I visited him back in the 1980s, the old New Englander, still active in his retirement and growing about an acre of blueberries, among other crops, recounted in his slow, New Hampshire accent, “It takes a patient man to net an acre of blueberries.” Covering my two plantings encompassing a total of about a thousand square feet always creates a little tension.Netting blueberriesI now feel like a captain setting sail on an old sailing vessel, with all the sails trim and masts set. Except rather than sails and masts, it’s a blueberry net that’s spread tightly over the permanent, 7-foot-high perimeter of locust posts and side walls of anti-bird, plastic mesh. That netting covers 16 bushes within a 25 foot by 25 foot area. Rebar through holes near the tops of the locust posts keeps that side wall mesh taught and 18” high chicken wire along the bottom keeps rabbits, which love to teethe on that plastic mesh, from doing so.Netted blueberriesDon’t worry about the birds. They get their fill of berries elsewhere. I don’t net my lowbush blueberries, nor my mulberries or gumis. Birds don’t usually share the mulberries or gumis with me. This year, for some reason, they are sharing.

Juneberry, a Blueberry Look-alike

Birds also have free access to a blueberry look-alike, juneberries, the plants of which are sometimes called serviceberry, shadbush, and, in the case of one species, saskatoon. The bushes are common in the wild and, because of their pretty flowers, fall color, and neat form, also planted in landscapes.

Juneberries are small, blue, and dead-ringers for blueberries but have a taste all their own: Sweet with the richness of sweet cherries, along with a hint of almond. The birds seem to enjoy them as much as they do blueberries.Juneberries, fruit in handJuneberries are related to apples and pears, not blueberries, and share some of their kin’s pest problems. Especially in my garden. They’re one fruit that didn’t grow well for me so, years ago, I finally dug the plants up.

Neither I nor birds need go far to find wild juneberries or bush or tree types planted for landscaping. They usually bear pretty well because of growing in microclimates more suitable than here on the farmden. In this low-lying valley, the air is too humid, cool, and conducive to disease.

With all the rain this spring, I’ve noticed that the crop on wild and cultivated juneberry plants has been hit hard by rust disease. I hear tell, though, that plants were bearing well at a nearby shopping mall: There, sunlight beating down on nearby concrete and, perhaps, less rust spores wafting about, create a microclimate conducive to good crops of berries.


Any gardening questions? Email them to me at and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at

Potted alpine strawberries

Talking Fruits & Pleasant Aromas


August 6, 2014, “Trials, tribulations, and rewards of growing fruit” meeting of Home Orchard Society (, North American Fruit Explorers (, and California Rare Fruit Growers ( Conference, Troutdale, OR.

August 9, 2014, “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” and espalier tour, Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation (, Mt. Vernon, WA.

August 10, 2014, “Luscious Landscaping — With Fruits!” sponsored by City Fruit, Bradner Gardens, Plant Amnesty, Seattle Fruit Tree Society, and the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals,, Warren G. Magnuson Park, Seattle, WA. 

Earliglo strawberries are on the wane. Time to move on to other fruits, still strawberries but very different strawberries in all respect. Alpine strawberries. The largest of them are the size of a nickel but each packs the flavor of a silver-dollar sized berry.

Alpine strawberry is one botanical form of wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca, often referred to by the French name, fraise de bois), a different species from the familiar garden strawberry. Wood strawberries are dainty plants that grow wild along the edges of woods in Europe, North and South America, and northern Asia and Africa. This is the wild strawberry of antiquity, mentioned in the writings of Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny, the strawberry that garlanded medieval religious paintings and was later depicted in grand proportions in Bosch’s Garden of Delights (c. 1500).
‘Pineapple Crush’ white alpine strawberries
The alpine form of wood strawberry was discovered about three hundred years ago east of Grenoble in the low Alps. It soon surpassed other wood strawberries in popularity because of its fruits are larger and borne continuously throughout the growing season, and because the plants do not make runners. I’ve even coaxed them to bear fruit in small (4-inch) flowerpots.
Some alpine strawberries bear white fruits, and those are the ones I grow, for two reasons. First, the flavor, sweet and pineapple-y, is better than the red ones. And second, being white, the birds don’t notice them so I can wait to harvest until they are dead ripe and delicious. All season long.

That same leisurely harvest is not possible with another uncommon fruit that’s just starting to ripen. Gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora) have a pleasant, tart flavor with a bit of astringency. More than a bit until they are thorough ripe. The variety I planted, Sweet Scarlet (from may be a tad sweeter than run-of-the-mill varieties.
The three-quarters-inch-long gumi fruits, scarlet red and speckled with silver, make a striking picture as they dangle on long stalks from the undersides of the branches. Birds also find the fruits very attractive. I’ve grown gumi for many years and last year was the only year in which I was able to harvest gumis ripe and in quantity. That was the one benefit of last summer’s invasion of cicadas, which birds evidently found more luscious than gums.
Cicadas or not, I’ll keep growing gumis. The large shrubs are able to garner nitrogen from the air, the leaves have an attractive silvery sheen that contrasts beautifully with the scarlet fruits, and the flowers perfume the air with a sweet aroma.
Perhaps the birds will leave me a few fruits to enjoy.
Read and learn more about alpine strawberries and gumis in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (2004).

Let’s segue from tongue to nose and eyes. For years I’ve grown various David Austin roses with increasing success, the increase due to Mr. Austin’s breeding increasingly better roses rather than to my increased skill as a rosarian. It’s cold here on the farmden, and cold is what usually weakened or did in the roses.
My attraction specifically for David Austin Roses lies in the full bodied bushes, their pest resistance, and — most important — the old-fashioned shapes (often rounded or cup-shaped), colors (often pastels), and fragrances of their blossoms.
‘L. D. Braithewaite’ rose
‘Strawberry Hill’ rose
Last winter was brutal for many plants, roses included. Yet the variety L. D. Braithwaite rose, planted in an unprotected location just outside the vegetable garden, weathered the cold unscathed. It is now drenched in deep red blossoms against a background of reddish leaves. The variety Charlotte didn’t fare so well. It was killed to the ground, perhaps lower; I dug it up.
The variety Strawberry Hill suffered some dieback despite protection afforded by the south-facing brick wall of my house. I’m glad I didn’t trash this bush because it’s also now covered with blossoms — flat-topped cups of pink petals that emit a sweet, almost candy-like fragrance. Delicious!

And more good scents: Catalpa. Although native to a relatively small area in the Midwest, catalpa can now be found throughout the East and as far west as Utah. And it’s spreading.
But let me first backtrack to a few years ago at the local farmers’ market. One farmer had buckets filled with white blossoms that rivalled orchids. I looked and looked at them, trying to figure out what they were, then finally asked. I was embarrassed to learn that they were catalpa blossoms, which I’ve admired for decades but always from afar and with their surrounding cloaks of large leaves.
This year I decided to cut some blossoms, strip off the leaves, and put them in a vase. And that’s when their delectable scent was fully revealed.
By the time you read this, catalpa’s will have finished blossoming. Mark your calendars for next year.