Heaven Scent Flower

I trace the origin of my present obsession with growing carnations – big, fat, fragrant carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) – to the movie, Jean de Florette, that I saw back in 1986. Not that I aspire to labor under the weight of hauling water long distances to care for my plants, as did Ugolin. And not that I’m hoping to get good money selling the cut flowers at a local market.

Actually, my only memories of the film are of the charming countryside of Provence, of Ugolin crouching over the plants and lavishing them with care, and of the pretty pink flowers. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Ugolin’s carnations even got as far as the flowering stage. Anyway, in my mind’s eye I see those pink blossoms and smell their spicy perfume.
Carnation, fragrant and pretty
With good soil and ample water, my carnations have an easier time of it that did Ugolin’s. Too easy, perhaps. Carnations don’t need or like overly rich or wet soil. When it came time to plant out my seedlings, I recalled those scenes in Jean de Florette. The ledge of soil held up by a stone retaining wall along the south side of my house provide the good soil drainage and sunlight that suits carnations. Lavender, another Mediterranean plant growing on a wall nearby, will help make the carnations feel right at home.

  The biggest threat to my carnations is winter cold and wetness. And even then, these carnations, although technically perennials, are typically short-live perennials that peter out after a couple of years. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seed or root from cuttings.

Like Ugolin, I’ll soon be carefully nurturing some new seedlings. Whether planting, picking, taking cuttings, or preparing them for winter, I’ll also be hunched over my carnations and lavishing them with care, in the months ahead. It’s worth it, for the pastel flowers, and especially for the flowers’ heavenly scent.

And Some Things for the Other Senses

What’s the attraction of southern Europe? The climate there is so different from here in the Wallkill River valley, yet I am attracted to and keep trying to grow Mediterranean plants such as carnations, figs, pomegranates, lavender, black mulberry, and rosemary. All these plants thrive in dry summers and cool, not frigid, winters; minus 20°F is not an uncommon low winter temperature here.

Large cardoon plant

Cardoon, last year

Add to the roster here artichoke and cardoon, two more Mediterranean plants that I set out last spring, for the artichoke, the spring before for the cardoon. (The very mild temperatures of the previous winter let the cardoons survive their first winter outdoors.) That was after sowing each plant in later summer and having it winter in the very cool temperatures of my greenhouse, which provided the vernalization the plants need to flower their first season outdoors.

Both cardoon and artichoke grow as a whorl of spiny leaves from the center of which rises a main flower stalk with smaller flower stalks branching off lower down. Like carnations, they are short-lived perennials. Like carnations, they are easily propagated, in this case by seed or by offshoots that grow at the base of the plant

Cardoon in bud

Cardoon in bud

Like carnations, the biggest threat to artichokes and cardoons around here is winter wetness and, especially, cold. Winter cold will assuredly kill them unless they are protected in some way. To that end, late last fall, I cut down the plants and covered each with a large, inverted flowerpot in which and on which piled leaves for insulation. 

Cardoon  & artichoke protected for winter

Cardoon & artichoke protected for winter

During the warm spell a week or so ago, I pulled back the leaves and uncovered the plants. Cardoon leaves had sprouted more than a foot high within their winter home! Without light, the leafy stalks were ghostly white.


Cardoon, after winter

Cardoon, after winter

That’s okay; cardoon is sometimes purposely blanched to make its flavor more mild. A few days of light will green them up. That’s okay too; I’m growing cardoon for its bold visual presence — last year the plants leaves formed a 3-foot-high, blue-green, mound of spiny leaves up the center of which rose flower stalks at the top of which opened blue flowers resembling enormous thistles.

Cardoon flower

Cardoon flower

As for the artichokes: Not a sign of life. Perhaps winter cold or moisture did them in. Perhaps mice lunched on the roots. Perhaps there’s life beneath the ground, still to awaken. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.


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


 Death shows Life

   It was with red rose in hand — a long-stemmed red rose — that Deb returned from a recent bridal shower. The rose was a party favor, the flower a welcome sight in the dead of winter. It found a home in a vase of water on the kitchen table.
    After a week, the rose was still sitting on the kitchen table, its bloom looking as perky as the day it had arrived. After two weeks, still no change.
    Okay, I’m sure that the vase was clean, the water fresh and initially warm (for quicker absorption into the stem), and that the base of the stem was freshly cut at a 45 degree angle just before immersion. All that, and the cool room, would make the blossom last longer. But that long?

Commercial rose, after 2 weeks

Commercial rose, after 2 weeks

    No special potions were added to the water. Like sugar, to feed the leafless stem and flower. Or an acidifier to make the water’s acidity more near that of the cell sap, stabilizing the flower’s color. Or an inhibitor to prevent microbes from running amuck. Such potions can be purchased or made at home by mixing: 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of plain household bleach, 2 teaspoons of lemon or lime juice and a quart of lukewarm water; or mixing 2 parts water to 1 part tonic water (or non-diet lemon lime soda).
    The problem was that the blossom was eerily too alive after a couple weeks. Without roots, sunshine, or leaves, the flower should have started dropping petals and looking generally forlorn. It didn’t, at least not quickly enough to exude that there was a life force within.
    Contrast this behavior with that of the carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) that blossom sporadically in my greenhouse through winter.  I cut the fragrant, pink blossoms, put them in a vase of water, and within a week they’re spent.
    I’ve gained appreciation for the transience of cut blossoms. Their timely decline and death declare their aliveness.

Blame it on (a) Gas

    Comparing roses and carnations may be like comparing apples and oranges.
    Ethylene, a simple gas that’s also a potent plant hormone, comes into play here for its role in plant senescence, including that of cut flowers. Combustion, whether from a cigarette, an automobile engine, or a candle, produces some ethylene, as do plants themselves, especially when they are wounded or in their final throes of aging.
 Carnation, fragrant and pretty   Carnations are among flowers, along with baby’s-breath, lilies, snapdragons, and most orchids, whose ethylene production ramps up as senescence begins. These flowers also are very sensitive to the effects of ethylene, which speeds aging, which generates more ethylene, which further speeds aging, which . . .
    Roses, in contrast, are less sensitive to ethylene. (And ethylene plays no role in the decline of daisies, daffodils, and irises.) Also, as a commercial product, the long-stemmed, red rose that sat on my kitchen table could have been pre-treated with silver thiosulfate or aminoethoxyvinylglycine, both ethylene inhibitors.
    No matter. I don’t require a whole lot of carnation blossoms, and new ones appear at a rate sufficient to replace spent ones, or, if slower, to increase appreciation for each new one.

In the Greenhouse, Out with the Old, In with the New

    All winter, the greenhouse beds have been vibrant green with lettuce, arugula, celery, parsley, mâche, chard, kale, and claytonia. Just lately, the greenery has lost some of its vibrance.Lettuce going to seed
    Planted in early fall, these greens grew to size — as hoped — to provide good eating through winter. Over the past few weeks, as days grew short and dim, and temperatures cooled, the greenery — as expected — mostly just sat still. In anticipation, I had grown them to size before the onset of winter. A bigger greenhouse would allow for a little something to be harvested from a lot of little, slow growing plants, enough for the daily fare. But the greenhouse is what it is.
    And some of the lettuce plants, though not very big or old, are going to seed. It seems that lettuce transplants, rather than plants from seeds planted right in the ground, are more prone to this bolting.
    Time for some fresh young growth: I pulled out some old and bolting plants, and sowed fresh lettuce, spinach, and arugula seeds. Growth will be slow for now; older plants should supply sufficient harvest until young’uns are ready for picking.