What Books Can Do…

The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.  I suppose the whole of life is like that: the endless complications, the endless difficulties, the endless fight against one thing or another, whether it be green-fly on the roses or the complexity of human relationships.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

It’s about time to prepare my rose bushes for the summer.  They already budding.  Michigan’s weather has been strangely mildly this winter which has caused the flowers, bulbs and trees to burst forth their early buds.  I’m praying we don’t get an ice storm.  I should be researching and learning about what to do with them, but I haven’t because I’m still in hunker down mode.  Although the winter has been mild we still get our cold days that make me want to curl up and read a book.   So, I have read many so far this winter but what to read next?  Usually I let the spirit guide me, or a book idea I have will flush out one in particular.

“The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.”  I like to think this also applies to reading and continuing one’s education which works to brighten one’s curiosity.  I have a library of many books.   The problem however, with owning so many books is the perplexity of what to read next.  It comes over me and I stand agape at my shelves pulling different ones – reading a couple lines, hastily replacing them with an idea of when to commit myself… I know what I would read again if only I’d allow myself, but what of these other stories?   My next favorite could be among them!  Their contents are a mystery and it is always a risk for me to delve into the unknown.  Only dangerous because once I start I must continued until the tedious end, even if it’s not to my taste.

In a couple weeks I’ll go to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit the battlefield.  I began studying the Civil War in seventh grade when I read a book entitled Red Cap.  Something drew me to the book.  What was it that made me pick it up off the library shelf when I was twelve and furiously read every word?  What was it that struck me as a young child when I read the tragic story of Ransom Powell and his comrades?   I was so touched by their story that it ignited in me a flame of respect and understanding, as well as a thirst for all knowledge of this violent war.
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 So with this trip on my mind I suppose I should delve into my arsenal of research books.  I have many and usually by the time we get to the site my husband and I have a general knowledge of how the battle went down.   Unless one visits the site however, it is hard to capture the scope of footwork involved as well as the lay of the land.

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When we go to a battlefield the first thing I do is visit the Civil War Trust website and watch the marvelous animated map of the battle.  You can find their whole list of animated maps here.   Then I delve into my volumes of Battles and Leaders of the Civil war which is a first-hand collection of memoirs and letters from all battles and skirmishes.  After scouring the index of all my memoirs I then tap into the index of my 53 volumes of the Southern Historical Society Papers which documented every detail of the Confederacy.  I mean EVERY detail.  It even includes locations of where legs and arms are buried.  This collection was a gift from my parents and I cherish it very much.  Not only are the books beautifully gothic but they smell of old paper with a smack of cigarette smoke – I’m guessing from the previous owner.

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This is the wonderful power books have.  One book transformed my whole life.  I became more interesting and I became interested and curious.  With every fact there were counter facts and myths which I endlessly researched to debunk.   There were biases and shame on men who didn’t deserve their worth to be judged poorly by history’s malice.   Studying the war is an occupation that has kept me occupied for decades and will continue to do so until my death.  What a wonderful gift from such an unexpected source; a child’s book.

 What books have you read that peaked your interest and transformed your life?

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To The Jungle…

…As monks will seek in contemplation’s cell
An increment of quiet holiness,
Prolonged novena,- so the Winter gives
A blameless idleness to active hands
And liberates the vision of the soul.
Darkness is greater light, to those who see;
Solitude greater company to those
Who hear the immaterial voices; those
who dare to be alone.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

 

In winter, one tries to distract oneself with projects.  I have begun another novel (I just finished my second).  This one takes place in a jungle- somewhere, I haven’t quite placed it.  I’ve been watching documentaries on South Africa, South America and I threw in one about the Galapagos while I was at it.  I’ve also been listening to a lot of African music and much of Yo-Yo Ma’s silk road project-which takes its listener all over the world and back.  So I don’t quite know yet- and I may just shelf it all together.  Right now, I’m praying for focus since I have another story I shelved a year ago.  To which do I devote my time?   Perhaps spending so much time with my orchids is putting this foreign jungle in my head.  Should I shake it? or let it be?
But the orchid set in rock and rooted in trees – like nature’s intention: their white, moth-like flowers cascading…
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I had a dream last night that my spring bulbs were coming up.  However, I feared not all would not make it.  Then Vita’s voice reassured me by repeating a little known fact: some take two years to really get going.   But what about my hellebores?  Have they begun… I woke up on my way to find them – waking to the harsh reality that I will not find them for another nine weeks.  So again, I must find a little delight indoors.

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I was delighted yesterday when I saw my chocolate oncidium had shot up a flower spike and will bloom soon.  I have not seen its little dark purple flowers (above) for a year now.  It is called “chocolate”, because their intoxicating fragrance is just like chocolate with a hint of sweet vanilla.   Oncidiums are much like Phalaenopsis where they must be watered once a week and they require a similar atmosphere and light.

The Dendrobium Nobile also require water once a week, sometimes twice a week depending on how dry it is.  They also require a lot of sun and humidity.  But in order to bloom they need a six week drought period.  Mine bloomed two weeks ago…

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If you have more than one orchid, watering can be a dreadful task-especially if you have to fertilize or if you are using special water.  In my case, I use distilled.  Distilled water is an extra expense and one not to be wasted.  In order to conserve as much as possible I pour a quarter of the gallon-perhaps more, into a large bowl.  First I let my tillandsia soak a bit (but that is another post).  One by one I bring my orchids to their bath; oldest to newest.  Why in this order?  Because my newest are still being monitored for disease.   I water them last in order to keep them isolated from my healthy orchids.   After you’ve had them in your possession for two-three months and you don’t see any evidence of pests or disease, the order will not matter.
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So I will set them in the bowl, and taking a tinier bowl or cup, I’ll lift water onto the roots (only) until they are thoroughly soaked.  I will then let the orchid drain and put it back in its decorative pot by a window.  After watering, some experts recommend you place a blooming orchid exactly in the position you found it so it will not twist its flowers – they will do this to find light.

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It’s simple once you have a little routine established.  I have a friend who is mother to forty orchids-all phalaenopsis.  She places them all in the bath tub and gives them a “bath” literally.  It’s really what is easiest for you.  She and her orchids don’t seem to mind the chlorine water we have here in Detroit.   I’m sure most orchids can handle regular tap water so make it easy on yourself if you’d like.   They are easy to care for and their blooms last for months – really a great way to occupy yourself until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime they will inspire me to finish what I’ve started in my novel.  Back to the jungle I go…

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Examining The Garden of Love…

Today as I was driving down Oxford Street I saw a woman on a refuge,  carrying the Lighthouse.*  She was an unknown woman, – up from the country, I should think, and just been to Mudie’s or the Times, – and as the policeman held me up with his white glove I saw your name staring at me, Virginia Woolf, against the moving red buses, in Vanessa’s paraph of lettering.  Then as I stayed there (with my foot pressing down the clutch and my hand on the brake, as you will appreciate,) I got an intense dizzying vision of you: you in your basement, writing; you in your shed at Rodmell, writing; writing those words which that woman was carrying home to read.  How had she got the book? Had she stalked in, purposeful, and said “I want To the Lighthouse”? or had she strayed idly up to the counter and said “I want a novel please, to read in the train,-a new novel,-anything’ll do”?
Anyhow there it was, one of the eight thousand, in the hands of the Public.

-Vita Sackville-West
July 27th, 1927
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf

*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in 1927

 

For a moment let us take a break from the garden.  Like our beloved plants, we too need winter’s snooze to renew our energies.  Let us shed some old leaves in order to gain new, healthier ones- read some garden books.  For me, this includes books involving one of the greatest gardeners I know: Vita Sackville-West.

As this blog is also about Vita Sackville-West I thought I would dive into her personal life a moment…

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I’m reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf.  The letters themselves are interesting but do not pay much attention to the introduction.  Written by Mitchell A. Leaska, it rambles for forty pages, and is nothing short of nonsense.  It is not my style to criticize other writers.  His writing is fine.  There is some valuable, straight information – but I think some of his content is…unfair.  Mostly, it feels as though the editor struggles to make sense of their relationship (whether he does or not)- it is in his tone.  Written in 1984, homosexual love wasn’t commonplace or openly acceptable.  The tone of his writing is as though he felt they were drawn to each other because each had something for which the other yearned-not mere attraction, but rather control and perhaps a little competition on Vita’s end, and a certain neediness on Virginia’s.  In my experience, twenty-year relationships are not usually built on egotistical motives.

Perhaps the editor would not have spent so much time trying to analyze the dynamics of a man and a woman?  Must the reader be tortured for forty pages while he tries to roll it around on the end of his pen?  He seemed himself quite confused to say the lest-which is odd because upon researching his work, it seems he spent nearly a lifetime on the relationship between these two woman.  For example, he makes assumptions that seemed a bit lazy in explanation:

With the same pen she used to write her letters to Virginia, Vita would in a few years write a novel in which her sadistic hero would say to his lover:  “I should like to chain you  up … naked and beat you and beat you till you screamed.””

Then he goes on to explain that this must have been a fantasy to Vita (who did have an aggressive personality), that she would have liked to do this to Virginia.  What!  An author does not tell its character what to do, it is quite the opposite.  The character tells the author what to write, it has nothing to do with the author personally – at least it shouldn’t, not literally anyway.   If this man were a novelist, he would have been able to imagine that was the case-unless I have misunderstood him which I hope I have.

So while my eyes scanned the pages of this introduction, my mind rambled with objections.  Rather than being on a sort of aggressive competition, which the editor insinuates-I would argue these two women (1) Were physically, mentally and emotionally attracted to one another.  (2) Felt deep respect and admiration for the other’s accomplishments.  (3) Acted as muse for one another (Virginia would write Orlando in which Vita represents the protagonist and the story represents her life).  (4) They were also each other’s sounding board.   It is quite a thing for one to be admired for one’s talent by a friend in the same field, and yet feel safe to feed off that person’s knowledge at the same time because neither is preparing for a competitive rift.

Both were open about their flaws in writing and in life.  Virginia, ill much of the time, did not like to write long letters, but the little she wrote is to the point and entertaining to read.  She was a keen observer of people, a quality which made her writing so superb.   She pinpoints Vita’s secret flaw almost immediately when she writes,

“…And isn’t there something obscure in you?  There’s something that doesn’t vibrate in you: It may be purposely-you don’t let it: but I see it with other people, as well as with me: something reserved, muted- God knows what… It’s in your writing too, by the bye.  The thing I call central transparency- sometimes fails you there too…” -Virginia Woolf; November 19, 1926

I would say this translates to Vita’s aloofness.  She seemed present but only giving half of herself- thinking of other things, never focused on present life- mind always floating back to her little desk and her pen…then later her garden…perhaps?  Like an over-energetic squirrel- secretly pining over their nuts while they look you in the eye and “listen” to conversation.  I’ve met many of them.  From what I gather, she did not feel she belonged to the tribal, communal world of the human race- rather, she would have liked to have peace and quiet alone in the woods or her garden.  However, that image paints her as soft and angelic-she could play that part, yes.  But she was also aggressive and raw.  She was incredibly independent and loved her solitude (she would go on to write an expansive poem about it.)

Vita is very open about her disinterest in the human condition and human relationships which is perhaps why she was so good a gardener.  She examines this flaw in herself, calling Virginia a sort of witch for figuring her out so correctly in the quote above.  This is one, I think, major difference between them.  The editor points this out in his intro and I agree with him here, that it is perhaps the difference which drew them together.
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Photo taken from The New Yorker.

In 1930 Vita moved to Sissinghurst and began creating the gardens which would one day be world famous and stamp her name solidly onto history’s plate.  Virginia and she continued writing and seeing each other despite the petrol rationing of World War II.  Then suddenly at fifty-nine years old in 1941, six days after Vita had seen her healthy and fine, Virginia killed herself.  Fearful of going mad again and putting her husband through the hell of it, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse.

For the rest of her life Vita wondered if she could have saved her friend’s life had she been there.  It was a pang of unending regret that coiled itself into the very soil at Sissinghurst.  It is where Vita dug out all the suppressed hurt and pain of the past and planted instead not only a garden, but the best version of herself.

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The Modest Christmas Cyclamen

I went to a Christmas party given by a neighbor of mine…All the things appertaining to a cocktail party were standing about, on tables; but the thing that instantly caught my eye was a pot plant of cyclamen I had not seen for years.
Delicate in its quality, subtle in its scent, which resembles the scent of wood violets, it stood there in a corner by itself, looking so modest and Jane-Austen-like among its far grander companions.  It had a freshness and an innocence about it, a sort of adolescent look, rather frightened at finding itself in company of orchids and choice azaleas and glasses filled with champagne cocktails.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

 

I thought that was an interesting glimpse from one of Vita’s many garden books.  They are sometimes more like glimpses into her private life.  Her garden books are quite a pleasure to read if you know someone who might like to take a little journey to Sissinghurst (figuratively speaking).  I read this passage back in June and couldn’t wait to share the idea of giving cyclamen away at Christmas.  It’s such a lovely idea!  If I were ever the recipient of such a gift I would treasure it as I do all my other gifted plants.
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My local greenhouse is full of color right now – so uplifting.   I realize it’s almost Christmas and heaps of snow cover the ground, but the greenhouse will never fail its customer; bearing an open wallet and a generous nature.  They have an abundance of different cyclamen right now, so go in and take your pick!   If one takes good care of it, the corms will continue to flower for years.  They can be taken outside in the spring and brought back in when the temperature drops.

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Here is what Vita says about the care of indoor cyclamen:
“A pot of cyclamen is a favorite Christmas present, and very nice, too, but by this time (March) some recipients may be wondering what to do with it.  Don’t throw it away.  It will repeat its beauty for you year after year if you treat it right.  Treating it right means (1) keeping it moist so long as it continues to flower and to carry leaves; (2) letting it dry off by degrees after the last buds have opened and faded away; (3) keeping it, still in its pot, un-watered, in a frost-proof place during the remaining cold weeks, and then standing it out of doors, still un-watered, still in its pot, throughout the spring and early summer in a shady place (4) starting it into life again in July or August.  Staring it into life again merely means giving it water again – very simple.”

In addition to this she warns,  if you see a yellowing leaf clip it with scissors, never pull the leaf as you might take a bit of the corm with it.  Also if there is a withering flower cut this also, never pull.

 

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They are beautiful flowers this time of year.  I like the pure white myself.  To me, they are reminiscent of white doves – an appropriate symbol for the Christmas season.  They come in a variety of colors and the frilly ones have a citrus fragrance to them and are quite attractive- like little pink ballerinas.

Hardy cyclamen do exist of course, but I’ve been told in Michigan their success rate is low since the squirrels get after the corms.  I don’t really see why this wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere, but perhaps our soil is easily penetrated, as opposed to the clay soil Vita complained about at Sissinghurst Castle?

Have a splendid holiday season, and do consider giving the gift that keeps on giving- you might just ignite a love for gardening in an unsuspecting relative or friend.

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Bugbane: The Angel Of The *Fall*

Not often now, in my saddened old wisdom, do I get enticed by catalogue descriptions into ordering something which I know is almost bound to disappoint.  Yet from time to time I fall.  I do not regret this.  If one lost the capacity of falling, it would mean that one had passed from the trustful meadows of youth into the skeptical deserts of age, and that would be a pity for any gardener, since gardening is essentially a hopeful, optimistic occupation.

-Vita Sackville-West
February 7, 1954
More For Your Garden

Is she not amazing?  I fall deeper in love with her writing every time I pick up one of her books (I practically have them all).  Just when I think I have gotten use to her poetic prose and fanciful descriptions that waver between gardening and the meaning of life, I am struck again by her ability to encapsulate all that is true and meaningful beyond the garden itself.

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Yes I too make mistakes, or rather I’m sometimes disappointed with my choices.   This realization never happens right away however.   I think in most cases you just have to give it time.  For instance, I was unsure of my choice of the Bugbane or the Cimicifuga.   After a long spout of no luck in our shady front yard and after being told I would never be able to find any flowering plants for shade, I was pointed in the direction of the bugbane by a very knowledgeable nursery worker.  I was told it was slow to grow and that it may not flower for three years.

It was very small when I planted it.  I divided it into three or four other plants because the roots had grown so tight in the planter.  When I separated them with my clippers they faltered for a week or so but soon flourished and grew quite rapidly.  To my surprise, they did flower this year and I have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful blooms of the Cimicifuga, or if you would like to use its most recently changed name the Actaea Racemosa, during this time of the year when we gardeners thirst for a fresh surprise, a little color and a little fragrance.

 

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Speaking of fragrance, the Bugbane has an interesting one.  I would say it is that of sour vanilla, but it’s not exactly off-putting.  It rather draws the nose to its tiny white stamens again and again in order to pinpoint the scent exactly.

They like partial sun to shade and moist soil.  They are not picky about the nutrients or the acidity levels, they can flourish in all.   However, the more sun they get the more they will bloom, and the blooms will reach about 2-3 feet if not more.  I’m getting many blooms on mine and it is practically in full shade so that should tell you something.  Water them like you would any other new plant for the first year, then ignore them.  They are wild in their genealogy so given this fact they are more hardy and pest resistant like other wild plants.

 

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Bugbane has many names.  For instance, it is sometimes called black snakeroot.  Do not confuse the bugbane or black snakeroot with the white snakeroot.  The white snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol which causes tremors in cattle if ingested and if humans ingest the milk by an exposed animal or eat the meat they will get milk sickness.   It is known that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness when he was young.

The black snakeroot actually has many medicinal properties that frontiersman and Native American’s used.  It is said to repel bug bites, and help calm menopause and acne just to name a few.  However, I’d suggest going to your local drug store for the remedies of said afflictions.

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The bugbane is indeed the saving grace, an angel if you will of the autumn and I too was victim to the “fall” as Vita explains, but I have yet to be disappointed.  I will wait, and in the spring I will spread the plants out to create more of a happy crowded appearance mixed with the astilbe I mentioned in my post Astilbe & The Romanovs.  Since its leaves are still green and the astilbe look dead (which I hope isn’t the case) adding these to the mix would add interest and color for all seasons.  When they really get going they will be gorgeous.

Larry Hodgson describes in his book, Making the Most of Shade that planted in numerous groups, the bugbane will present a striking show – like roman candles set against their dark green foliage shooting up toward the sky.  I will do my best to reproduce this effect for you and all passersby in the coming years.

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In Themes Of War…

Honour the gardener!  that patient man
Who from his schooldays follows up his calling,
Starting so modestly, a little boy
Red-nosed, red-fingered, doing what he’s told,
Not knowing what he does or why he does it,
Having no concept of the larger plan.
But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

I love Vita’s poetry.  It took me awhile to like poetry and even still sometimes it’s hard for me to understand.  I think in order to love poetry one must know the author and the times in which they wrote.  Vita loved her garden.  Her compilation of poems The Garden cover all four seasons.  However, there is one recurring theme which trickles in every now and then.  It is that of the second World War.  I’m sure she had written these poems in the last year of the war at least.  When the poems were published in 1946 there was still a residue of it in England at this time.  If one reads carefully it is there, quiet but ever-present…

“Yet shall the garden with the state of war
Aptly contrast, a miniature endeavour
To hold the graces and the courtesies
Against a horrid wilderness.  The civil
Ever opposed the rude, as centuries
Slow progress labored forward, then the check,
Then the slow uphill climb out of the pit,
Advance, relapse, advance, relapse, advance,
Regular as the measure of a dance;
So does the gardener in little way
Maintain the bastion of his opposition
And by symbol keep civility;
So does the brave man strive
To keep enjoyment in his breast alive
When all is dark and even in the heart
Of beauty feeds the pallid worm of death.”

Did you hear it?  The themes of war?

She speaks of it often in her writings.  She describes gardens abandoned or neglected in the years of war.  She talks about rose bushes, relinquished for that time being, growing wild because they had not been pruned and were more beautiful than ever before.

But for the purpose of this post I’ll speak of a different type of war.  Sometimes I feel like preparing for winter is akin to preparing for war.  Protect those you love as the blistering winds are upon us.  In other words, it is time to shut one’s garden down.   The frost will come soon.  So save those that may still bloom behind the comfort of glass on your windowsill, and clip those you can dry.  A reminder of the summer sun will remain in the dehydrated petals for you to gaze upon all winter long.

I have clipped my sweet woodruff to dry for Christmas sachets.  It hangs for now in my kitchen as you can see below.  In my post Short and Sweet Woodruff I explained that if you clip sweet woodruff in autumn and dry it, it will make lovely sachets that smell like freshly cut grass all winter.  Vita mentioned keeping one under her pillow to capture the scent while she slept.

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Similarly, I dried the lavender and my astilbe spikes.  I talked about astilbe in my post
Astilbe & The Romanovs.   I’ll use the astilbe in vases around my house to add interest to a space.  The lavender however will be crushed with the sweet woodruff and stuffed in the Christmas sachets.  I love homemade Christmas gifts.

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The one cut flower that will dry amazingly is the zinnia.  Since we’re getting very close to a heavy frost I will cut them all.  It pains me to do so since some have yet to bloom.  But the bud stage actually produces a very interesting dried specimen.  Also hydrangea are very interesting too.

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So go out and save a bit of your garden before it’s too late.  You’ll applaud your own resourcefulness.   When times get a little too dreary this winter always think about next year’s garden, entertain yourself with fantasies and possibilities.  Think of the most outrageous thing you can do and make it happen!

“…But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.”

A good gardener is not afraid to experiment.

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Above: My Experiment: Morning Glory in a vase.  Do you think these buds will open?

Inspire us, in what ways have you experimented lately?

This Morning…

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Dahlia: A Nuisance

…a dahlia is a nuisance, because its tubers have to be lifted in autumn, stored in a frost-proof place, started into growth under glass in April, and planted out again at the end of May.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958


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I had no idea what a dahlia was when my husband brought home a bag full of tubers one Spring afternoon.  He had been working on a road project that day and an old Italian man gave him a tour of his garden.  He had brought his dahlia tubers from Italy.  They had been split numerous times since I’m sure, but the DNA from the original remained. I had no idea what would pop up when my husband showed me the long ugly tubers, which I thought looked more like spindly potatoes.  The old Italian man warned Bryan that the tubers must be planted in the ground that week or the flowering will come too late.

I thought I would dig a deep hole and plop the tubers in like some sort of bulb.  No sir!  Like magic, Bryan saw the old Italian man again that week.  Like a wise shaman of flowers he informed my husband that the Dahlia tubers should fear no risk of frost because they are taken out of the ground directly after flowering and put in box of peat moss and placed in a warm spot for the winter.   He went on to explain that because of this the tubers do not have to be planted very deep.  In fact, the tubers like to be just a couple inches below the surface.  Instead of planting the long ugly things vertical like one would suspect and would be the easiest task, one must instead dig a horizontal hole and lay the tuber inside like one would a casket.  This is precisely why they are considered a nuisance and I almost resented the Italian gift, but the flowers are so beautiful it’s worth the trouble.  So every fall we exhume the ugly tubers from their resting place and follow the advice of the wise old Italian.

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Yes, it’s true the tubers are very ugly indeed and looking at it one might think in fact they all should be buried like little caskets because they look to be dead.  I myself threw one unremorsefully into the vegetable garden thinking the last growth had sucked the life out of it.  But to my surprise, my son found it growing amongst the vegetables happy as a clam.  I have since transplanted it into my garden and it is now the biggest, healthiest of the lot. Don’t be fooled by those ugly little tubers, the flowers they produce are one of the most striking flowers of all, in my opinion.  They are related to the zinnia and they have the long lasting quality of keeping itself fresh in water, and I’ll bet they dry nicely too although I haven’t tried.  Perhaps I’ll cut one and see; as Vita always says, “a good gardener is one who makes experiments”.

They are somewhat of a nuisance though, because they can not be forgotten as a perennial or a bulb would be.  Because of our cold climate, they must be raised up out of the ground and stored

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