Porcelain Berry Bright…

Another vine which is giving me great pleasure at the moment is Vitis heterophylla, an East Asian.  You can’t eat it, but you can pick it and put it in a little glass on your table, where its curiously coloured berries and deeply cut leaves look oddly artificial, more like a spray designed by a jeweler out of dying turquoises than like a living thing.

 

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; October 12th, 1947

As I write this it’s raining.  Not a downpour but rather a slight drizzle.   I took a walk around my garden and noticed my honeysuckle had burst forth some new blooms.  I rested by them a moment to catch their scent.  I won’t smell them again for many months.  For here, in this state, we have been trained to succumb to the “fall” of good weather, predictable weather, and give in to the desolate, the gray, the wet, the cold.  I sat there with the last breath of honeysuckle flower and watched the sparrows fly madly in flocks above the autumn colored leaves.  It made me rather sad, but one must shrug it off, live day by day and start plans for next year’s garden.

So for next year, remember: when the garden gets rather dreary like this, one can always plant something that will excite and add color.  Intrigued by Vita’s description, I was determine to find myself some of these magical autumn berries for myself.   I went to the local nursery and found something similar.  Because the Vitis heterophylla doesn’t grow well in our harsh Michigan winters.  I have found instead porcelain berries, the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.  They belong to the same family and are almost identical, save their foliage.

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The berries started to appear around mid-September, but because I had just purchased it from a green house, it might have been a little ahead of its natural schedule.   I planted it against my garage and gave it some lattice to climb up.  It does not have “suckers” so it will not do any damage to your walls.  It does however have those cute little arms that reach out and twist themselves around whatever they can.  It grows quickly but not as quickly as the morning glory vine which I talked about last week in my post, Morning Glory: A Warning.  This one seems rather easy to control since its growing period occurs before the berries appear.  Then it conserves all its energy to produce its brightly colored fruit.   You can trim it and train it to grow just how you want it.

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They are fun.  I couldn’t believe the different shades of blues and purples it will produce.  I picked up a couple antique butter dishes like the one above and put a handful in with a little water (otherwise they’ll shrivel), they do make quite a display.  In a larger bowl with some of their beautiful leaves intermixed would be a nice too.  Or perhaps drying them?There are countless decorative ideas one might do with them.

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So if you’re looking for some added color to your garden or want something out of the ordinary, try porcelain berries.  They are a fun juxtaposition to all the autumn colors we’re so used to seeing.  So much so they might become the conversation piece of your garden.   After all,  it isn’t something your neighbor might grow.  Visitors that might not know what they are will be intrigued and applaud your discovery. 

It’s good for one’s garden to inspire others with a bit of whimsy and wonder.  Don’t you think?

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Hollyhocks That Grow On Trees?

Spring and summer are well provided with flowering shrubs, but it is a puzzle to know what to grow of a shrubby nature for colour in the late months of July, August, and September.  There are the hibiscus (Althea Frutex) which are attractive with their hollyhock-like flowers…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
June 25th, 1950

Everyday I run two miles with my dog and my kids in tow on their bikes, and everyday  I pass by the same bushes.  They sit in my neighbor’s yard oddly out of place toward the road.  I never realized these bushes were anything special until July rolled around.  With the heat of summer beautiful blooms began to emerge.

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Tall bushes they were, at least eight feet, with abundant blooms.  I thought immediately  I should plant several along my fence to block out my neighbor’s barking dog.  Perhaps the solution should come from these enormous shrubs of flowering beauty since they grow very tall and can live a life-time or more.

Indeed, they look like tree hollyhocks as Vita has mentioned in her books.  Miniature hollyhocks in fact, that come in a variety of color.  My neighbor has three, two white, and purple.  It was the white that caught me because I remembered seeing something similar in pictures of the white garden at Sissinghurst.

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At first I didn’t know what they were and I asked the neighbor if they were some sort of hibiscus.  She shook her head,  “No,” she said. “They are Rose of Sharon.”
This puzzled me because I thought for sure I was correct.  Being she is new to the neighborhood and had only just inherited those bushes I decided I would do some research before taking her word for it.  The name spelled out in my mind and I remembered Vita mentioning something about Rose of Sharon.  However, she does not refer to them as Rose of Sharon, rather she called them by their Latin name, Hibiscus Syriacus.   So we were both correct.

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Vita advises that they should be placed in the warmest sunniest spot you can find.  She often thought the spot she had hers could have been a tad more sunny. She says most, “are trained as a standard, with a great rounded head smothered in creamy flowers blotched with purple, giving the effect of an old-fashioned chintz; but charming as the hibiscus can be, I suspect that it needs more sun than it usually gets here, if it is to flower as we should like.  Perhaps I have been unlucky, although I did plant my hibiscuses-or should it be hibisci?- in the warmest, sunniest place.”

I think it would be a good investment when looking over shrubs to plant this fall to consider the Hibiscus Syriacus.  The flowers last quite a long time and in a warm, sunny place, as Vita suggests, its foliage will be full when it’s not in flower so you can use them to equally block a view while enhancing it.

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Astilbe & The Romanovs

People often ask what plants are suitable for a shady situation, by which they mean either the north side of a walk or house, or in the shadow cast by trees.  There are so many plants that no one need despair.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

Astilbe and the Romanovs, perhaps that will be my next book title.  I did somewhat draft a love story last year that took place in wintertime Russia.  For this piece however, we’re talking about a plant, not a flaxen haired blonde of Russian decent.  

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband and I have had some trouble with our front yard.  Everything we planted there seemed to die or resist flowering.  We face north and I did despair thinking I would have to stick to boring old hedges.  One nurseryman told me ‘sorry there is no hope.  You can only plant boxwoods and such’.  But Sir, I need flowers and color!

It now strikes me odd that a nurseryman would say such a thing, they are indeed many beautiful plants that will tolerate shade.  When I ripped out the holly bushes and planted them elsewhere I replaced them with Astilbe or False Spiraea.
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They are flowering now, and have already grown rapidly.  The variety I choose are the Chinese Astilbe or Purple Candle.  I’m told they will grow quite large.  I am hoping they spread out so I gave them room to do so.  Perennials are known to sleep, creep, and leap in three years time, but this Astilbe has grown very much just in the two months I’ve had it. I’m very excited to see what it does in three years.

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The one getting the most shade is doing the best, surprisingly.  Flowers need sun in order to bloom and they get just enough here I suppose – less than four hours.
It tickles me that the astilbe will let you know immediately if it needs water.  The little ends of its flower spikes will droop in the slightest drought.  So I have to keep an eye on them and water them constantly.

Their flowering is almost done, but the bees and other flying creatures have enjoyed them.  It seems they turn colors as the blooms progress and die.  Going from a bright, almost florescent purple, to a faded purple with a green underlay; very pretty.  

As I observed their faded blooms the other day, the Romanov family came to mind. I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s the romantic nature of the faded purple that reminds me of this faded Royal family of Russia.  I find their history quite interesting, but perhaps I was reminded of them because their reign looked solid and eternal just as my astilbe blooms, then suddenly they are gone with a flash of light and with an exhaustion of energy.  So sudden it seems that my astilbe blooms should be dying; their blooms look so permanent and stable.  

I do suggest, by the way, reading some Russian history.  Rasputin, and the end of the Romanovs, for example was an interesting chapter.

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Anyway, they do have a fragrance.  It is sweet like clover.  I’m sure you could cut a flower spike, but why do this when their spikes are a bit sparse, unless of course your collection is large.  I can imagine they would droop in water anyway. Rather, I wonder if they would make a pretty dried flower?  I’ve read in this great book Making the Most of Shade by Larry Hodgson, that the author will not cut his spikes off in Fall.  Instead, he lets them remain unless he wants to use them in a dried arrangement.  He says, “They turn brown it’s true, but still add interest right into winter.”  He also suggests leaving the flower spikes, and they will collapse on their own just in time for Spring.

They have many benefits, beside being interesting to look at, they are also deer and bunny resistant.  There are many different varieties from which to choose, and they come in an array of colors and sizes.  I suggest planting a few in a dark unused corner and see how they do, you really would thank yourself in three years time.

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Survival of the Fittest: Milkweed

The bees think that I have laid it for their especial benefit.  It really is a lovely sight; I do not want to boast, but I cannot help being pleased with it; it is so seldom that one’s experiments in gardening are wholly successful.

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
June 18, 1950

A couple years ago we discovered a milkweed plant in our back garden.  Since, it has seeded many times over.  Once only considered a weed has gained a new appreciation in my book.  As I look at the many milkweed plants we now have I realize how beautiful their shapes are.  Indeed it should be grown in every garden.  Not good for cutting and bringing into the house, no.  They are strictly there for the bees and butterflies.

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I worried yesterday.  As the drought has caused everything to droop, I thought for sure the milkweed would die.  But in the wee small hours of the morning it cooled off and everything seemed to bounce right back.  Moisture evaporates from plants in direct sun forcing them to wilt faster.   My husband informed me however, not to fret about the milkweed, they are survivors.  Their roots tunnel themselves way down into the ground making them extremely hardy.

Aside from this, they practically force pollination.  They have slits in their tiny flowers in which the little legs of bees and other insects get stuck.  They can easily escape of course, but in the meantime, the milkweed has traded pollen with the winged creature.

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May I also comment on its scent?  Like honeysuckle and lilac.  It wafts through the air hoping to attract its soul mate: The Monarch Butterfly.

I believe the monarch butterfly must covet the milkweed more than any other creature.  The two practically share the same DNA as the milkweed creates a safe haven for its eggs and food for their baby caterpillars.  The caterpillars climb and eat, enjoying their happy feast the whole way.

The milk that is expressed out of the milkweed leaves (hence its name) is toxic.  The fat little caterpillar is not affected however, but instead takes on the milkweed’s toxicity.  It is this sap they have ingested since their birth that makes monarch butterflies poisonous to predators, thus solidifying their survival, making them as ‘fit’ as the milkweed itself.

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Spiderwort or The Unfortunately Named

It is sufficiently remarkable that a great and powerful noble should have accepted so frank a criticism from a peasant, little more than a child.  He was more accustomed to see such people tremble in his presence.  Such impertinence must have taken his breath away.  Besides, it attacked him in his most private feelings.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc; 1936

I like to learn things.  A “natural curiosity”, as my Grandma calls it, will keep one from being bored.   In fact, in my house, the word “bored” is considered a bad word.  It strikes me right to my core when my children say they are bored, because all that means to me is that they haven’t yet learned the ability to entertain themselves or they themselves are boring.

We have spiderwort plant growing behind our fence, completely neglected.  It was growing there when we moved in and we left it.  There was not much we cared to do with that plot of land anyway.  It is a scraggly, sloppy looking thing.  It just hangs there with its electric blue flowers that only seem to minimally dot the green foliage from afar.  I never thought much of it, in fact, I’ve always observed it as an ugly plant.  But as I’ve learned many times in life and in the garden, it is easy to make enemies of those we don’t know well.

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So let us get to know the spiderwort a little better, and perhaps from now on the sight of it won’t aggravate me.  We will perhaps satisfy our natural curiosity in doing so…

The unfortunately named spiderwort actually has many good qualities, and it has proved itself a very useful plant for centuries.

The word ‘wort’ originated in Middle English.  Middle English; think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  ca. 1343-1400

“Whan that April With his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr…”

I could read Chaucer all day but alas, we must continue with today’s acquaintance.  The word ‘wort’ applies to plants or herbs used for medicinal reasons.  The root of the spiderwort are used as a laxative.  Brewed into a tea, they will help with numerous stomach ailments, including kidney pains and “women’s complaints”.

Its flower, the electric blue stars that smile with yellow stamens, can actually be eaten.  I can imagine it used as a decorative edible garnish for a summer dinner party in the garden. The sun sets in the background as your glass of Sauvignon Blanc politely sweats in the warm summer night air, while you get the pleasure of studying solely this flower at close range.

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Perhaps while you’re at it, you’d like to use its tender young leaves in your salad?  Yes, you can!   Forget the romaine, walk a little further to that forsaken plant round the corner and pluck some leaves to add something a little different; texture or otherwise.

Speaking of its leaves, the larger ones contain a mucus that can be used as a healing ointment.  This is also where the word ‘spider’ comes from.  If you tear a single leaf, this mucus-like substance will thread and stretch just like a spider web.

Well?  What say you?  Will you look on with disdain and turn your nose up at the spiderwort?  Or have you gained a new appreciation because you’ve gotten to know it better?   Personally, I’ll take the later response.  From now on it will remind me of the days centuries ago when Chaucer wrote of the great pilgrimage, and Middle English reigned in the world of literature.  Perhaps the peasant is the noble one after all.

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Deadly Nightshade

This remedy she rejected, saying that she would rather die than do anything that she believed to be a crime or contrary to God’s will.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc: 1936

In one of my favorite books (I mean, if I was stranded on a deserted island (touch wood), this would be one of the books I would take) the protagonist tries to unsuccessfully kill herself with the deadly nightshade berry.

Memoirs of a Midget by Walter De la Mare caught my eye as I wandered about my favorite used bookshop Downtown Booksellers.  I intended to give it to my brother as a birthday gift, but as I read the first page I became so enamored with its story and prose that I ended up keeping it for myself.

It was like a secret.  Its title was practically unknown to all, and its author, equivalent to an indie rock group with just a small following.  Even so, it remains one of my favorites and I can’t understand why it doesn’t stand alongside the classics of Austen or Fitzgerald.

SONY DSC“Its bitter juices jetted out upon cheek, mouth, and tongue, for ever staining me with their dye.  Their very rancor shocked by body wide awake.  Struck suddenly through with frightful cold and terror, I flung the vile thing down, and scoured my mouth with the draggled hem of my skirt.” – Walter De la Mare; Memoirs of a Midget 

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I realize Vita would not have had much experience with nightshade, but I was riding along the Paint Creek Trail the other night and saw its scraggly vine creeping along the riverbank.  Its flowers were beginning to turn themselves into berries.  This is where the toxin alkaloid solanine dwells, and I was reminded of the passage above.

The toxin however exists only in the leaves and un-ripened berries, although I wouldn’t eat the ripe ones either.  The toxin can kill you if injested in large quantities, and it is known to cause problems in small children if eaten in any quantity.

Solanine contains properties which are anti-fungal and pesticidal.  This is the plant’s natural defense, making it entirely disease and pest resistant.  Can one of you rosarians please get some of this Solanine in a rose bush?   We’d never have problems again – Yippee!

An interesting fact; this toxin is also produced in potatoes right under the skin, so green un-ripe potatoes should always be peeled.  In fact, some of the toxin still exists in ripe potatoes!  You have to deep-fry them to eliminate most of it.  Boiling doesn’t do the job as well.

Thanks for reading!  Go out and get yourself a copy of that book!!

If you’ve read it, what did you think?

 

Ramble On…

He kept them sitting for hours over the dinner table, he who was usually so impatient to move away; he kept them entertained by anecdote after anecdote, reminiscence after reminiscence, observation after observation…

-V. Sackville-West
Easter Parade: A Novel
Copyright: 1953

 

Allow me, if you will, to ramble a bit?  Ramble like a climbing, rambling vine?  One that reaches and twists until its head is in the sun or in this case the truth?

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The Clematis, if planted with good support, such as a twiggy bush – like a rose or lilac, will grow well and fast.  If the support is not there, it will falter and stagnate.  I have also heard that it will produce more blooms if grown horizontally.  Take for example, my neighbors clematis which grows on our side of the fence, much to my delight.  It grows horizontally through the fence and rambles about itself, see the abundance of blooms as a result?

However, for my three varieties of clematis I have chosen other plants to support them.  I have two growing throughout my lilac bush, and I recently discovered a third I assumed was dead. See my post, The Living Dead, for a good lesson on this.  Perhaps I should have read my own post.  Anyway, I thought about transplanting it to the lilacs as well, but instead I simply left it alone and planted a yellow rose bush beside it.  This purple Clematis growing through my yellow Floribunda Julia Child rose will make a striking combination when they begin to flourish.

SONY DSCThe clematis found its way to the rose without any assistance from me.  It shot up from the ground erect and happy, strong enough to support itself, but as it grew too long, it slumped over and slithered across the garden like a snake in search of a branch to coil and climb upon.

 

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The honeysuckle (featured in yesterday’s post Honeysuckle Fireworks ) has done well for me, I am surprised actually because the first year is usually hard on my perennials.  I watch the newly planted with nail biting anxiety, and at the slightest inconsistency or yellowed leaf, I worry and fret.

It seems this year more so than others, I have subconsciously made bright decisions about troubled plants.  I will attribute this to all I’ve read in books for the past two years.  In the past, information that had enlightened me was soon forgotten.  This year however, my focus has been more acute and I’m able to recall garden truths on a whim as if someone besides me has thought of it.

One such example of a bright decision was the transplanting of our Holly bushes.  They were originally planted in complete shade and continually had spots on their leaves and weren’t growing.  So I dug them up and planted them on the west end of the house where the morning sun would touch them.

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I gave them a drop of fertilizer and destroyed all their yellowing leaves as some looked to have the dreaded black spot fungus.  Again, evidence to me that they just needed more sun.  Since bacteria and fungus is usually killed by UV rays I would think more sunlight would lessen the chances of the black spot coming back.  But I am no botanist, this is only my educated guess.  Either way, they are doing quite well. They are now producing beautiful, perfect growth rapidly.

Thank you for reading!

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