Saturday, August 29, 2009

Species Lilies

I have a lot of friends who are plant hybridizers--good hybridizers--and for the most part, I love their plants. But there is one group of plants where my preference runs toward the wild species--untouched, unmanipulated, unmarred beauty. Species lilies.

These are lilies as they appear in the wild, untouched by human hand, and they are some of the most beautiful lilies in the world and in the garden. If you haven't grown species lilies, I would highly recommend you try. That is not to say that I don't like the hybrids. I do. I have 'Stargazer' and 'Casa Blanca' and 'Muscadette' and 'Scheherezade' and many others and they're all "wow" plants when they're in bloom. But there is something about the classic, wild beauty of a species lily that the hybrids, no matter how beautiful, can't match.

One of my favorites is pictured here--Lilium henryi var. citrinum. The "henryi's", in general, are easy to grow. The type species is a soft but rich orange color, petals strongly reflexed and covered in dark brownish-purple spots. There is also a hybrid known as 'White Henryi' whose flowers are less reflexed and are white with a tawny orange throat and little to no spotting. But it is var. citrinum that I like most. I like yellow, so it's a shoo-in in my book.

It is a robust grower, but I must admit, it absolutely has to be staked. No exceptions. As lovely as it is, its stems are a little on the weak side, but nothing that a sturdy bamboo stake won't rectify. That will turn some of you off, I know, but gardening is not without some work and staking is one of the least time consuming and most important of tasks once you learn to do it properly, and some plants are just worth it. Believe me, there are plenty of floppy plants that I've sent packing to the compost pile over the years, but there are some I make exceptions for.

The bulbs of Lilium henryi var. citrinum can grow to a very large size--one of the largest of the traditional garden lilies--occasionally weighing in at over 3 pounds and measuring over 2 feet in circumference (around, not diameter!). I threw that tidbit in to warn you that if you choose to grow the "henryi's" to use caution when staking. You don't want to drive your bamboo stick through the bulb!

Other species that are at the top of my "favorite lilies" list include: Lilium speciosum var. rubrum, Lilium regale, Lilium leichtlinii, Lilium pardalinum (the "leopard lily", native to California and the west coast, but performs exceptionally well in other locations), Lilium canadense, Lilium wigginsii (aka Lilium pardalinum supsp. wigginsii) and of course, many others. If you love lilies and you haven't grown some of the species, do a quick Google search and I'm sure you'll find some to fall in love with!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wait Until You See.....

.....the new redbuds coming to market in the very near future. Some friends and I took a trip to Winchester on Friday and stopped to see Harold and Alex Neubauer (all I can say about their nursery is WOW!) before heading on over to see our good friend and horticulture guru, Don Shadow. Don took the time out of his busy day to treat us to lunch and then showed us to the far corners of the nursery where the best-of-the-best called to us from across the acres. One of the most beautiful was the plant pictured here--Cercis canadensis 'Rising Sun'--with golden yellow foliage providing the perfect foil for the coppery-orange new growth and all of it (old foliage and new) highlighted with brilliant, hot pink petioles! This is my kind of plant! Flowering in spring, its blossoms will be the typical redbud color.

Just as a tease, we also saw burgundy-leafed weeping redbuds, a mottled green-and-white variegated cultivar, a weeping variegated variety and perhaps my favorite of all (except for 'Rising Sun', of course) a hybrid between 'Forest Pansy' and 'Oklahoma' that had leaves that looked like deep, dark burgundy patent leather! Shiny and almost black! Yowza! Just wait til you see what's coming!

Thanks to Don for a fun day and to Harold and Alex for inviting us into the nursery on such short notice that morning. We appreciated it very much!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Of Summer Sunflowers

Being a Kansas boy by birth, one of my favorite of all wildflowers is the sunflower. "Wildflowers?", you may be asking yourself. Sure enough. Across the hills and plains of Kansas, at about this time of year, the wild sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) begin flowering. If you know where to look, you can find entire fields and valleys full of their brilliant yellow faces following the sun across the sky from east to west, sunrise to sunset. These are not the giant garden-variety sunflowers, but instead are a shrubby, multi-branched and profusely flowering sunflower that may have 50 or more golden yellow, 4"-5" diameter blossoms on each plant. Many of the florists' sunflowers are closely related--multi-stemmed, multi-flowering in a wide array of colors from creamy white through golden yellow to deepest burgundy. These are annual sunflowers, though, and what I really want to tell you about are a few of my perennial sunflower favorites!

The picture you see at the top of this blog entry is the foliage of what is, perhaps, my favorite of all of the perennial sunflowers, Helianthus salicifolius, or the willowleaf sunflower with leaves only about 1/8-inch wide and providing outstanding foliage texture in the sunny garden. It is a robust grower, reaching 5-7 feet tall and adding an additional 2 feet when in flower in late summer and early fall. Yes, it's tall, but it's also quite vertical and takes up a relatively small amount of space in the garden, so it's useful even in smaller spaces that need some vertical interest. A virtual cloud of 3-inch diameter golden yellow flowers appear atop the plant in September and last for 6-8 weeks, providing a spectacular late summer and fall display. If the height worries you, you can "pinch" the growing tips in June when the plant reaches about 3 feet tall and it will flower at 5-6 feet tall instead of the normal 8 feet.

Other perennial sunflowers that I have grown and loved over the years include Helianthus angustifolius, with leaves about 1 inch wide (and often confused, though I'm not sure why, with H. salicifolius, since they look nothing alike), also growing 6'-8' tall. This is commonly called the "swamp sunflower" and will thrive in wet locations where other plants suffer. However, it does spread by underground runners and may become quite aggressive in damp soils. Keeping it drier will help curb its desire to run and, quite frankly, I find it worth what little extra effort it takes to occasionally pare down the size of the clump. The benefits of having it in the garden easily outweigh any inconvenience, in my opinion.

A sunflower that not many people are familiar with but that I have great admiration for is Helianthus microcephalus, which literally translates to "little headed" sunflower. It is not as architectural a plant as the previously mentioned species, but the virtual cloud of small, clear yellow (not gold) flowers that appear in profusion from July through September make it worth a spot in the garden. One of the best features of this plant is its burgundy-red fall foliage color, which begins to appear in early fall while myriad yellow flowers are still clearly abundant. Slightly shorter than some, the little-headed sunflower comes in at about 5-6 feet when in bloom and should be spared excess fertilizer or water to keep it standing sturdily upright.

If you truly don't have the room for a larger growing perennial sunflower, then search out the fabulous dwarf form of Helianthus angustifolius named 'Low Down'. I'm not usually one who gets very excited about extremely dwarf forms of plants, but 'Low Down' is one of my exceptions. Topping out at only 1 foot tall, it completely obscures its own foliage with golden yellow flowers in autumn, putting on a spectacular 'Low Down' show!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Horticulture Magazine Article

While I'm doing a bit of shameless self promotion, in case anyone did not get to see the short article I did for Horticulture magazine's May 2009 issue about Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies', it is now available online. You can find it here:

With the publishing of my newest article in Fine Gardening, that makes the "Triple Crown" of gardening magazines for 2009. Garden Design in March, Horticulture in May and now Fine Gardening in the new October issue. Thanks to each and every one of you who follow along with the blog, visit the website ( and subscribe to the magazines or pick them up at the news stand or bookstore. By reading, you keep those of us who write doing what we love. Thank you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Big Bloomers in Fine Gardening

Hey everyone! Just a quick note to let everyone know that if you subscribe to Fine Gardening magazine you'll find me in the newest issue, October 2009, which hit the newsstands this week. (And mailboxes within the past 2 weeks.) So... hope you'll take a minute to check out my article, "Big Bloomers", and be watching here for a new "cool plant" post in the next day or two!

P.S. We officially had 12.5 inches of rain in the month of July at the farm. Wow! It has been a crazy summer. More on that soon, too!