Saturday, September 13, 2008

Colchicum autumnale

Suddenly and without warning, the colchicum have popped and begun spreading their autumn cheer through the garden. They act sort of like the "surprise lilies" (Lycoris) in that one day there is no sign of them, the next day there are buds poking through the soil and within 3-4 days of announcing their arrival they are in full bloom. It's a sure sign that autumn is on its way--shorter days, cooler temperatures and less humidity. Hallelujah!

There are a number of species and cultivars of colchicum, which go by the common names of autumn crocus (which they aren't) and also field or meadow saffron (which they also are not). Colchicum are colchicum--there are autumn flowering crocus (genus Crocus) and saffron (also genus Crocus) does happen to flower in the fall, too. I'd be careful of confusing colchicum with saffron, as the former is actually quite toxic. It's the bulb that is poisonous, but you certainly don't want to lace your loved ones' dinner with colchicum stamens (the herb saffron is the stamen of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus) without knowing for certain that it won't inflict serious bodily harm.

Colchicums come in a variety of sizes and colors, mostly in the pink/lavender/white range and nearly all are somewhat larger than crocus in all respects--bigger flowers, bigger foliage, bigger bulbs. Of all of these, the species Colchicum autumnale is perhaps my favorite. It's not the largest of all of them, but it certainly is one of the most vigorous and robust. From a single bulb about 5 years ago, I now have at least a dozen large clumps scattered about the garden now. They multiply rapidly, so much so in fact that I noticed the other day that some of the bulbs have actually been pushed up out of the ground. Time to divide them again!

Early next summer, after the foliage has died completely down to the ground, I'll dig and separate the bulbs and replant them in small groups around the garden. When I divide, I usually plant 3 bulbs back into each generously sized hole and within 2-3 years they need dividing again.

Because of the overcrowding the show is spectacular this year, each clump sporting well over 50 blooms. The other great thing about colchicum is that not all of their buds open at once. The bulbs will continue to push buds up through the ground for about 2-3 weeks, the peak of bloom being the first week to 10 days and then slowly tapering off after that. After flowering is finished, a small rosette of foliage will appear and remain hunkered down close to the ground for the winter. Come spring, this rosette will grow and expand into a good sized clump of strappy green foliage and by mid- to late June they will have gone completely dormant waiting for just the right late summer day to poke their noses through the soil and regale us all with their beautiful blossoms again.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Exquisite Lady

This entry is not about plants. Nope. That's right. It's not about plants. It's about the lovely lady that you see pictured here.

"Lovely lady?" you ask. Yes, the lovely lady in the picture--the eight-legged one.

How do I know she's a lady? Well--no offense to the ladies--but in this particular case it is specifically because of her, uh, full-figured appearance. Now don't start getting all hot under the collar girls. She has the right to be plump. You see, she's carrying next years offspring and is living out the last few weeks of her life in absolutely divine style in the display garden at Moore & Moore West. I've been watching her for several weeks.

My fascination with the black-and-yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia), also called the "writing spider", started as a child. They used to string their amazing webs between my mother's peony bushes in the summertime--sometimes several of them within the 10-foot by 20-foot bed. Rather than being afraid of them, mom showed me how to catch small grasshoppers and flick them into the spiders' webs so that I could watch the spiders race down and bind them tightly in a silk cocoon, only to come back later and feast. So rather than being terrified of spiders as a child, I was fascinated by them--and I am to this day.

As I photographed this beautiful little lady today, she was repairing her web from a morning rainstorm. She carefully--methodically--checked each and every silken line that was still attached to the nearby plants. Any that were weak or broken she carefully detached, balled up and discarded. Then, immediately, she ran a new line from the center of the web back to the same plant and continued doing this until she had all of the "spokes" of her wheel replaced. Once that was finished she carefully worked her way from the center of the web in outward spirals, replacing the old tattered web with one that was sparkling and new.

The entire process took about 20 minutes and I sat watching, completely enthralled by a process I've watched hundreds of times, but so entranced and so excited that I couldn't move. It was a childhood moment all over again and tomorrow morning, as she rebuilds her web, I'll be watching if I can. She's growing larger everyday and she probably has only a few weeks left, at most. You see, once she spins her egg sack in a hidden, out-of-the-way place (probably the nearby juniper) and deposits the eggs that will hatch into next year's brood, she'll die. Her job for this summer will be complete and on a warm, quiet spring day next May the next generation will hatch to take their mother's place in the world.