December 30, 2012

The Last Days of 2012

The very last day of the year, December 31, is also Jim's birthday. The year passes, he grows older, and  a new year arrives.

As these momentous occasions occur, we take a tour of the garden in winter in the last days of 2012.

Happy New Year.  Happy Birthday.

Happy Winter.


December 27, 2012

A Roman Christmas

Come with me down a long corridor on a California winter's day.

And emerge into the sunshine of a Roman villa.

Walk with me down this long stoa.

There are curvy paths and gardens to get lost in.

Roses bloom in California in December.

And persimmons hang from branches.

The pool leads away toward the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

And celebrities are sighted.

It was a day spent at the Getty Villa in Malibu over Christmas.

The art, the Greek and Roman antiquities, the museum collections were all fascinating, but it is the perfect replica of a Roman villa's gardens and grounds that were most enjoyable.

John Paul Getty built it in the 1950s to house his immense art collections. He insisted on making an exact reproduction of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. He built it not to simply view what an ancient Roman villa looked like, but to wander in, to walk through, and to experience how wealthy ancient Romans actually lived.  Getty never saw it, he died before it was opened.

A second museum, the Getty complex, was later built on a hilltop in L.A. to house even more of his vast collections. Both the complex in L.A. and the original villa in Malibu are well worth visiting.

I had just read Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum. It's a fascinating expose of the very dirty business of museum collecting, focused on the scandal that rocked the Getty several years ago, and sent its curator to jail.

I love it when I get to see a place I have read about and that has consumed my imagination.

It's snowing here today in Connecticut, but our Christmas visit to ancient Rome in California is still a lovely memory.

December 24, 2012

It's Christmas


Can you let us know when it is over?

December 20, 2012

Aroma of Anise

After Christmas visits with family in L.A. and Denver I am way behind, and so I am going to do something I have not done before -- repeat a post first published two years ago. 

It's seasonal, and I am in the holiday mood now after our trip, so here you go:

The Scent of Christmas - December 2010
Christmas does not smell like pine needles or balsam fir to me.  The season is not evoked by cinnamon or cloves or peppermint.

All those are wonderful scents, but the one Christmas aroma that makes me shiver with pleasure is the smell of a Mediterranean evergreen shrub's seeds: Pimpinella anisum.

Anise (not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium) is a plant that looks to me a little like Queen Anne's Lace.  The seeds are used for herbal remedies and flavoring.  And it's that flavoring, the anise extract, that brings Christmas home to me the minute I smell it.

My mother made anise Christmas cookies every year and I make them now.  They were not elaborate pressed cookies or springerles or the Italian anise cookies you can find.  They were really just an iced sugar cookie with anise extract added, cut into Christmas shapes.  I love them.

Descriptions of anise flavor always say it tastes like licorice or tarragon, but it really doesn't.  It has a whiff of licorice, but it is much, much lighter, almost citrusy or even minty.  It is very refreshing.

Still, it's a taste that is not to everyone's liking.  Santa likes these cookies, and I love them so much I like to have a little anise in my garden. But I can't grow Pimpinella in my zone 5 / 6 garden.

I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it.  I have 'Purple Haze'.  It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care, although it does flop a bit in a charming kind of way.

There are other plants with anise scened leaves.  The most notable is  Illicium floridanum, called star anise or purple anise, which is a beautiful dense evergreen shrub with glossy leathery leaves.

The leaves emit a fragrance of anise when crushed.
Purple Anise, Illicium floridanum
I'd love to grow it, but there are a couple reasons I won't.  It is not hardy here, although I could put it in a container and bring it onto the porch over winter.  The other reason: it has stinky flowers.  The aroma is consistently described as smelling like fish.  How can a plant with leaves that carry the essential fragrance of Christmas for me smell like fish?
Eeeeww.  Star anise stinky bloom

Salvia guaranitica, Black and Blue Sage, is called Anise Sage.  I grow it, and it's a beautiful large sage with vibrant deep blue flowers.  But the leaves do not smell like anise.  When you crush them you get an interesting sharp scent, but it's not anise.
Anise Sage. I'm sorry, but it doesn't smell like anise to me

There is an anise scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, a native plant that is supposed to have leaves that smell like anise when they are crushed.  I could try that.  But I'm not sure where I'd put these big weedy stalks in my garden.
Anise scented goldenrod

There is also an anise scented basil I could grow in my garden . . .  but wait.  I mean, basil should smell like basil.  I like basil and I like anise.  I'm not sure what you gain by having one smell like the other.

In fact I'm not sure what I gain by trying to replicate such a specific and evocative memory of a smell in my garden.  While anise does come from the seeds of a plant, it's not the plant that carries the delight.

It's the cookies.

It's the season, it's childhood, my mother, and Santa.  It's snow and it's good stuff baking.  I really don't need to grow anise scented plants in my garden --- I just need to make sure there is anise extract in my pantry.

Mmmm. May you have as delightful memories of holidays and family.

And an update: 
I packed tins of anise cookies in my luggage on our trip, and each son's eyes lit up like Christmas lights with the first bite. They are grown men, living and working on the other side of the continent from me, but a tin of anise cookies brought them home again for a moment.

December 13, 2012

Exhaustingly Beautiful

I know you have a love - hate relationship with certain plants in your garden. Everyone does. There are always plants we think we adore but actually dislike.

Mine is witch hazel.

Everything about this woodland gem is appealing -- the fragrant winter blooms, the funny flowers, the artistic woodsy look of the vase shaped branches. The fall color, so rich and bright. The crisply pleated clean leaves. No pests, no bugs, no bother, just beauty.
Witch hazel has attractive pleated leaves.
Did I mention the fragrance and winter blooms? I love this plant.

Except that I don't.

I am having a hard time even tolerating the witch hazels in my garden.

There are four types of Hamamelis and I have several:
  • The native Hamamelis virginiana, which blooms in fall, is planted in the meadow behind my house.
  • The spring, or Ozark, H. vernalis that blooms in late winter is in my garden by the driveway.
  • The Chinese witch hazel, H. mollis, is on my list and I'll probably buy one this spring.
  • There is also a Japanese witch hazel, H. japonica, and when crossed with the Chinese hamamelis, several hybrid named cultivars were developed. I have H. x intermedia 'Diane' in the garden by the driveway.

Hybrid 'Diane' has tiny brick red blooms.
Really tiny. The few that bloom on my plant look stunted.
None of the plant descriptions mention that witch hazels are slow starters, but all of mine have sorely tested my patience, growing poorly and blooming very tentatively or not at all for the first seven years here. That has caused me to move them, replanting 'Diane' in three different locations so far. Which has set it back even further, I know.

None of the plant descriptions mention they are brittle, but mine fall apart in storms. They disintegrate, and actually split apart in order to lie down in the snow.
Poor 'Diane'

All of the plant descriptions and all of the witch hazels I have seen in other gardens bloom profusely and smell divine. Mine don't. They don't bloom much at all, and I have gone out on a winter day and sniffed and sniffed the tiny isolated flowers until my nose runs, without catching any scent at all.
A blooming Chinese witch hazel at the nursery.
I know it is more mature than mine, but how many years does it take?

My hybrid witch hazel 'Diane' in full bloom in late winter.
Embiggen this photo and you'll see those are mostly dead leaves, not flowers.
This plant has been growing in my garden for seven years now.

H. x intermedia 'Diane' blooming in March at the nursery.
Unlike mine, the flowers are profuse and colorful.

Witch hazels hold their leaves into winter and it is not attractive. The fall blooming H. virginiana holds onto leaves that hide all the little flowers when they open.
This is Hamamelis virginiana out in the meadow in November.
It is supposed to have tiny flowers behind its fall leaves
but not so's you'd notice.

Frick and Frack in early fall. Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' is on the left and a Hamamelis vernalis is on the right.
Fall color is confused, and later in winter it gets worse.
See? It's December and the same two witch hazels have managed to turn a hot mess into a brown wreck.
And this goes on all winter. Snow cover does not improve the look.

Tell me again why I love these frustratingly unattractive plants.

Why do I grow them? Why am I going to buy more? Such as the Chinese witch hazel called 'Sweet Sunshine' which I know I must have this spring, and maybe another hybrid cultivar, 'Jelena', or a new introduction I saw that was described in the nursery catalog as "exhaustingly beautiful".

Exhaustingly beautiful?

Yep, that sums it up.

December 9, 2012

More Russian

My last post was a self indulgent memoir about my time in Soviet Russia. Are you ready for another Russian themed post? This one is about a plant, so we are back on track, gardeners!

Russian sage is an easy-care, drought tolerant plant that is very popular. Everyone has it, and you see it growing everywhere. It is Perovskia atriplicifolia, a member of the mint family and not a salvia at all despite being called sage.

It was named for Vasily Alekseevich Perovski, a Russian diplomat from Turkestan, where the plant originates. I can't help it, I just saw Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley at the movies, so I am all about 19th century Russia at the moment.

Gas stations and parking lot strips have Russian sage sitting in big forlorn clumps in mulch deserts. It's an overused plant that just looks tired to me, and I stopped noticing it long ago.

But then I saw this scene at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts last summer. Really, couldn't you imagine a 19th century countess sweeping down those stone steps, rustling the frothy purple spires as she passes?

When it is used well Russian sage in bloom is something to behold. By itself it is unkempt and weedy, and standing alone the haze of flowers looks grayish. Uninteresting.

But paired with strong dark colors, weighty stone steps, and the solid forms of large glossy leaves, its unruliness is tamed and the color is enriched. The whole plant is transformed.

Don't stick Russian sage in a spot by itself. Don't expect it to carry the visual weight of a garden or form the anchor of the design, even though it's big and purple. Russian sage needs to be tightly packed with other things. It adds airiness to the density of what surrounds it.

This plant needs companions, both for support to keep it from splaying, which it will do anyway, and for the color contrast that rich and dark tones nearby give it.

In a brand new garden bed I have planted some young, still wispy Russian sages with a clump of bright yellow black eyed Susans and a new mahogany colored redbud, 'Forest Pansy'.

I can't wait for this area to mature to see whether I'll achieve the effect of tamed wildness, dense structure, and rich contrast that made the combination I saw at Berkshire Botanical Garden so satisfying.

There are no dramatic stones or big glossy leaves here to counter the feathery purple blooms, though. Perhaps some fat leaved shiny bergenias below the redbud, unless it's too sunny for them? I am always weak on using bold foliage in my gardens and could use some help with that.

Russian sage is transformed by the plants around it, so give it bold friends nearby and good companions all around. And if you pass by in your Russian ballgown, on your way to a doomed romantic assignation, this lovely plant will rustle with your skirts.


December 5, 2012

Long Ago in a Different Place

I have been to Venice, Italy when the high water flooded St. Mark's Square and we could see how precarious the future of this exquisite city really is. This jewel of European culture may not endure.

I have been to Venice Beach, California where time has stopped in some permanently wacky version of the counterculture 1960s. It endures, a skeevy, riotous caricature of a moment in time, forever preserved.

And I have been to The Venice of the North, the city of canals now called St. Petersburg in Russia. It is the definition of endurance, a city that has been named, renamed, governed, re-governed, under siege, freed, economically upended, and through it all it is still there.

It wasn't St. Petersburg when I was there. It was Leningrad.

I was a student in 1969, spending a summer semester at a university in the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War. The Vietnam war was in full force. The space race was on with the Soviet Union, and while I was there that summer Americans made the historic first landing on the moon. 

It was the tensest of times. It was the most exhilarating of times.

Jason of Garden in a City reminded me of that long ago summer with his post on visiting his son in St. Petersburg.  And Nadezda of Nadezda's Northern Garden has rekindled my memories with all of her posts of St. Petersburg that show a beautiful city and gardens.

When I was there it had a remnant of aged greatness, but it was a stark and Communist-gray sort of place. World War II was a memory, but not that distant -- only 25 years earlier, still vivid to middle aged and older people living there -- and the war in Leningrad had been devastating and unimaginable. There were no men visible on the streets of the city, at least no older men of the generation that had been decimated by the war. Babushkas and younger women drove the buses, cleaned the streets, ran the shops. There were no men.

The city is built in an area Peter the Great reclaimed from swamps in 1703, just as the Italian doges built up Venice on islands in a lagoon in the Middle Ages. 

There are hundreds of bridges crossing the river and canals, and in summer, when the sun barely sets in this northern city, the sight of dozens of drawbridges over the Neva River opening up their arms in the softly lit middle of the night to let the boat traffic pass was haunting. Unsettling, though, with sunshine illuminating the emptiness of the sleeping city at 3 in the morning.

In 1969 there was color and beauty in the historic buildings like the Hermitage. But the city itself was a gray, blocky looking place, a Soviet city with functional signs that told you where stores and shops were, but had no need to advertise. There were no brands, no clamor of signage on stores and no competition for your business. There were few goods to buy anyway.

And the people looked the same way, all dressed alike, all somewhat gray looking. But then you struck up a conversation and . . .

. . .  behind their Communist blankness, they were delightful individuals, proud of their city, stoic about their history, welcoming to hopelessly naive strangers like myself, and utterly gracious. I met a man on the tram, and he invited me home to his apartment. 

I was 19. Whose mother lets a 19 year old go to a place like Communist Russia, where an obvious lack of any mature sense would allow her to get picked up on the tram by a strange man? Or worse? What was I thinking then? But I went with him, met his wife and child, had a truly wonderful meal in their tiny apartment, and had an experience that our official student tour guides would never have allowed.

And that was not the only experience -- we all constantly escaped our strict government assigned student group guides and met people, talked with them, exchanged books they couldn't buy, found out more about the world we were visiting, and even argued with them about our way versus their political system, something that would have made our government chaperones apoplectic.  

But we never did get to meet any of the North Vietnamese students living on the dorm floor just below ours. American students were assigned different times in the dining hall, and there were guards at the stairwells to their floor. It was the Soviet Union, after all, and we were at war with our host country's guests.

It was a rewarding several months, and I loved the people we met, the beauty of a historically rich city, and the learning experience at the university. But it was also a claustrophobic and confining experience.

At that time Soviet news was so strictly monitored that I felt not just homesick for my own culture, but cut off from the world. I wanted a Coke so badly. I wanted news of the world, not propaganda.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, we knew it was happening, we knew the world was watching but we got no news. The American students in our dorm huddled around a radio and listened to Voice of America broadcasts about it. There was no official news of this historic event. The Soviet Union attempted to jam the VOA broadcasts.

And yet the next day, and for days after, walking down a street in Leningrad we were greeted by passersby with shouts of congratulations, Поздравляю!!  People knew all about it, they could easily tell by our dress that we were Americans, and they were genuinely excited for us. They congratulated us! That has always been one of the most moving memories of my time in that strange and different place.

How glad I am that a couple of the gardening blogs I follow have brought back those memories from 43 years ago. And now, reading those posts, St. Petersburg does not seem so strange or different at all.

It is not going to disappear as its watery sister Venice in Italy may do. It is not frozen in an artificial era like hippy Venice Beach. The Venice of the North has changed dramatically, but it has endured with grace.

I have no pictures from my trip so long ago. The pictures here are from Wikipedia. We did not compulsively take pictures in those pre-digital days, and besides, I was young and thought I was way too cool to go around looking like a tourist. Traveling light, with no money for a good camera or film or photo prints, my whole trip was unrecorded. I regret that.