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Epimediums and Hellebores Thrive in Dry Shade

Epimedium ‘Rubrum’

Dry shade is a challenge in the garden, but epimediums and hellebores, two very different plants, both turn dry shade into an opportunity. For years I admired epimediums in other gardens, always asking the name of the beautiful low plant with heart shaped leaves. Sometimes I got no answer, but even when I did I was incapable of remembering the word epimedium. I finally saw a pot of this plant at the Blue Meadow nursery in Montague and, out of the several varieties there, each with a nice little name tag, I bought Epimedium ‘Rubrum.’ I chose this because it was listed as the most hardy. Even then I was afraid Heath was too cold, but a friend who was working there that day just shrugged and told me to give it a try.

“Give it a try,” is always good advice. A plant in a pot is not much of a financial investment, and we all must learn to endure disappointments and failed experiments if we are to have a happy life.

Epimedium ‘Rubrum’ has thrived in my garden, planted beneath a ginkgo tree which provides shade for part of the day. I love the heart-shaped green leaves with their reddish border. The tiny pink flowers were a bit of a surprise. I had never actually seen an epimedium in early spring when it blooms. The delicate little flowers are best seen at eye level which means not only down on hands and knees, but maybe even down on your stomach, chin in hands, to admire them at leisure.

I have given away bits of E. ‘Rubrum’ to friends, assuring them that this easy care plant will increase at a stately rate. It is not invasive. It is a native ofAsia, but adapted to a well behaved life in Zones 3 to 9, depending on the variety. I later learned that there are some very hardy varieties.

Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’

And there is variety. I bought my second epimedium, E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ at the Bridge of Flowers plant sale a couple of years ago. The yellow flowers at the end of wiry stems are slightly larger so it is easier to see why epimediums are sometimes called bishop’s hats and fairy wings. It is less easy to see how anyone came to call it horny goat weed or rowdy lamb herb. Perhaps goats and lambs find it intoxicating, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Now I have two varieties of epimedium, but if you look at the Garden Vision  or Plant Delights catalogs you will see dozens of epimediums in many shades of lavender, purple, red, pink, white, orange and yellow. The flowers take many forms, including some that almost look like spiders, and the foliage varies as well. Not all the varieties have heart-shaped leaves, some are spiky and some are mottled.

Epimediums require very little care. The dying foliage should be cut down in the fall to clear the way for early spring growth.

Garden Vision nursery is located in Phillipston, Massachusetts. They open their nursery to viewing and sales the first two weekends in May.

Hellebores are another early bloomer that doesn’t mind dry shade. Right here I should say that any new plant should be kept adequately watered while it is settling in the first year, giving it time to let its roots grow enough to support the plant even when it is dry.

The term shade has many shades. Pun intended. There is dense shade like that under evergreens, there is high shade, a much weaker shade created by trees whose foliage begins up high, and dappled shade that dances dark and light. There is summer shade that is created when trees are fully leafed out, and the early spring sun can no longer shine through bare branches in the same way. But remember, some sun is usually needed for any flowering plant to actually bloom.

The BridgeofFlowershas a few hellebores, otherwise known as Christmas or Lenten roses because they bloom early in the spring. I always think of them as having blossoms in shades of green, but some bloom in shades of white, pink and deep red. On the Bridge they get a lot of sun which shows you how tolerant they are of differing conditions. They can survive in the shade, but they need some sun to bloom well.

Hellebores have deep roots and they do not need dividing the way most perennials do. This means they should be planted in a soil deeply dug and well enriched with compost and aged manure.

They are quite trouble free, and have a long bloom period. The dead flower stems should be cut back after blooming, and the dying foliage can be cut down in the late fall.

Last year I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museumfor the opening of the newly designed and planted Monk’s Garden. This small area is now a serene woodland underplanted with many hellebores as well as other groundcovers. Michael Van Valkenburg, the designer, said the place would be ‘crazy with hellebores” in the spring. I am planning to make another trip this spring and admire the craziness.

In the meantime I’m waiting for the snow to leave so I can see my epimedium shoots, and wonder where I might plant a hellebore.

Between the Rows   March 29, 2014


Tree Peony Extraordinare – Guan Yin Mian

Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony

Guan Yin Mian is my favorite tree peony, a native Chinese plant.  Guan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion, or in terms more familiar, the goddess of mercy. During our years in China I became familiar with Guan Yin who is much given to appearing in visions, giving women the babies they and long for,  and who laughs that  we can struggle so – as she helps us. She is often shown wearing a gown with a rice plant design. Because out of her compassion, she transformed the weedy rice plant into a food plant that would feed millions.

Tree peonies are not really trees. They have a shrubby woody structure, so unlike herbaceous peonies they do not die down to the ground in the fall. Like herbaceous peonies they are long lived plants, and a mature plant can carry nearly a hundred gorgeous blossoms.  In spite of their fragile appearance they are very hardy. A Heath winter is as nothing to them. They bloom here at the end of May and into June, but their bloom period is short. Also that is the time of year when there can be heavy spring rains beating down of the large blossoms which are fragile.

Nameless white tree peony

A tree peony should be planted where it will get at least 6 hours of sun. They will tolerate, and welcome some shade. The soil should have a pH between 6.5-7.5 and be  well drained. I cannot say I have ever tested my acid New England soil for any of my peonies, but I  routinely spread a few ashes, or a bit of lime.  If you are  going to plant two or more tree peonies together  allow four feet between. You want to allow room for years of growth and heavy bloom. Also, make sure you plant them deeply enough, with the roots two or three inches below the soil surface. Again, this is very different from herbaceous peonies which should have the root just below the soil surface.  After the first year, unless there is a serious drought, watering is not needed. Remove spent blossoms. In the spring I prune off any branches that have suffered winter damage, and spread compost around the peonies. You can use a low nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will result in weak growth.

Tree peonies, all peonies, require very little maintenance and suffer very little from disease or pests. They are beautiful and graceful and I love them. The snow is not yet melted here, but the air is softer and the sun brighter. I am looking forward to Guan Yin and her tree peony sisters, the most spectacular of my early bloomers.

Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony

Ginkgo – The Ancient Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba – Maidenhair tree

While we were living in Beijing we became fascinated with the ginkgo tree, sometimes called the maidenhair tree. This is an ancient tree and fossilized leaves dating back 270 MILLION years have been found. They saw the rise and fall of the dinosaur. Today it grows in many temperate and sub-tropical areas of the world because it is so unusual and beautiful and because it is so adaptable. It even tolerates pollution and is used in cities as a street tree.

Ginkgo leaves are distinctive with a fan shape, veins radiating from the stem end and a kind of waxy feel to the leaf.  Their flexible stems allow them to flutter in the breeze, giving form to a summer zephyr. And of course, in the fall they turn a brilliant gold, and most of those leaves will drop all at once during an autumnal night. The leaf above has two lobes which account for its name Ginkgo biloba, but it can have no lobes, or three lobes.

When we planted our trees everyone said “but their fruit stinks.” So I have heard many times before.  Was I worried? No. First off I have never experienced this stink in New York City or Beijing. Second, I have been told that they will not produce this fruit until they are over 30 years old – and we are old enough not to worry about things that may not happen for another ten or twenty years. As our construction guy said when we told him we were putting of a portion of our project he asked, “How long you plan on livin’?”

Ginkgos are male and female. I don’t know what we have. Perhaps we only have males and will never have to worry about stinky fruit. I did hear recently that nurseries propagate only male trees for this very reason. A friend told me that male and female ginkgos have different shapes.  One is more upright, and they other is more horizontal, but she didn’t know which is which. If anyone can illuminate this theory I will be glad to hear it.  I have both upright and horizontal trees. No sign of stinky fruit.

Our trees are about 15 years old, ceremonially planted by grandsons when they were between one and three years old. It was a great day, and the trees a tangible reminder.

My Ornamented Life – Part 4

During our two different years in Beijing, China, Henry and I were untethered from all our usual responsibilities and routines. This was sometimes exciting, and sometimes unnerving as we learned about the 5000 years of Chinese history and culture, made wonderful friends from around the world, ate great food, and saw amazing sights.

Monkey King and Pigsy

We learned about the great Chinese classic, Journey to the West, and read the children’s version. We also met a five year old American boy who was living at the Friendship Hotel with his parents. Papa was teaching constitutional law! The boy loved Money King and had memorized the whole children’s version – all 36 volumes. He knew of all about Monkey’s mischief and valor, all his magic powers including his magic cudgel that Monkey kept behind his ear when it wasn’t needed. Monkey was travelling with his three companions, the (Buddhist) Monk, Friar Sand,  and Pigsy who can never totally control his appetites, at the Buddha’s request to bring the sutras back to China from the west. They have many exciting adventures along the way – and learn many lessons.

We were told that we could not begin to understand China until we had read the three great classics, Outlaws of the Marsh, Dream of Red Chamber, and Journey to the West.

Do you have ornaments, or books,  from any of your travels?

Beauty Heart Radish

Renee's Garden Watermelon Radish

One of the New Plants for 2011 profiled in the new issue of The American Gardener published by the American Horticultural Society is a Watermelon Radish from Renee’s Garden.  I am ashamed to say that when I first came across this beautiful vegetable in Beijing I insisted on calling it a turnip. Who ever heard of a radish as big as a baseball?  My Chinese colleagues insisted on calling it a radish, but in spite of the fact that their English was excellent I thought it was some sort of mis-translation.  I have been put straight.

I have bought seeds for this radish before, but not been very successful, probably because I have not kept it properly watered. All radishes need consistent moisture to size up well. Now that I have my Front Garden which is easily watered I plan to try again. It also should be planted in midsummer as it likes the cool weather. A good prospect for succession sowing.

Photographs do not really do this vegetable justice. The pink center is beautiful ringed  with white an almost translucent rim of tender green. In Beijing we often ate this as a fresh pickle and I hope I can recreate that recipe. It is beautiful and delicious.

When I have seen this radish at local farmer’s markets it is usually called Watermelon Radish, but I love the Chinese name Beauty Heart. I was glad that Renee gave both.  I wonder if there will be any for sale at the Winterfare farmer’s market in Northampton tomorrow morning. I’ll be looking.

Thanksgiving with Chinese Characteristics

Me with the Manager of the Foreign Experts Dining Room

I wanted to share a special Thanksgiving memory today.

Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, with gratitude for the fruits of the soil that have sustained us through another year. It is also a time of gratitude for the other blessings of our life,  especially the family and friends with whom we celebrate. Sometimes it is the Thanksgivings celebrated far from those we love that have a special place in our memory.

As the current news is so filled with reports from China, I could not help thinking of  our 1989 Thanksgiving in Beijing, celebrated with other Americans, and a community of Foreign Experts who lived in the Friendship Hotel. This was the year of the exuberant Beijing Spring, followed by the monstrous Tianenmen massacre.

During my tour as a ‘polisher’ or sub-editor for Women of China magazine, a common descriptive phrase in our reporting was socialism with Chinese characteristics to distinguish China’s economic system from the Soviet system.  Nowadays there might be more talk about capitalism with Chinese characteristics, but times change.

The obvious truth is that any system or ritual when shifted and practiced in a different culture will inevitably be transformed. There is no such thing as a direct translation.

A brief word about Foreign Experts and the Friendship Hotel.  The hotel, really a walled collection of buildings, apartments, meeting rooms, shops, and infirmary, much like a college campus, was built by the Soviets in the 1950’s when they sent hundreds of Foreign Experts to Beijing to help build the New China.

By the time we arrived the Foreign Expert system was on the wane and most of the Hotel residents were Japanese businessmen and their families, but still there were professors and journalists from the US and Europe who took up residence in small hotel apartments. The apartments included a western bathroom, and a Chinese kitchen that included a two burner propane stove, a small refrigerator (which not many Chinese would own at that time) a sink and a small cabinet for dishes, pots and groceries.

The kitchen equipment was so minimal that most of us Foreign Experts didn’t cook very much. We joined each other for lunch in the Foreign Experts Dining Room where we enjoyed a limited menu and discounted prices, good Chinese beer, and endless conversations about what all the confusing events of that historic year meant to the Chinese and to the world.

In the evenings we often went out for Uigher noodles near-by,

For most of the year this was more than adequate and we enjoyed many wonderful meals while we made friends with people from all over the world. However, as Thanksgiving loomed,  something more was demanded.

Henry and I discovered an indoor market not far from the Hotel. We wandered through the big space while vendors caught and held out fish dripping and flapping for our inspection. We looked at vegetables, half of which we recognized. We laughed at the caged chickens that clucked and crowed, but we knew this was not where we would get our Thanksgiving feast.

First off, there was no turkey in sight, but it wouldn’t matter because traditional Chinese cuisine does not call for an oven. No bread, cakes, roasts, or roasted turkey.

Then we heard the Friendship Hotel could cater to its foreign guests and their native celebrations. We could order a roasted turkey, with gravy, to be delivered to our apartment for a festive meal!

We ordered the turkey from the Foreign Experts Dining Room, and  requested extra chairs and tables from the fuyuans, service people who took care of our building, and sent out our invitations. We were almost ready.

Kari Huus and me in Beijing 1989

Kari Huus was a new American friend. We managed to snag a portable electric oven, the size of a small microwave,  that made the rounds of the Foreign Experts. I don’t even know who owned it, but we claimed it and spent an afternoon making a rectangular apple pie. No pie plates in Beijing.

There were lots of apples in the open air market across the street from the hotel where we bought our vegetables, eggs and peanuts, and flour from the state store. Beijing is in the north of China where wheat is as common as rice is in the south. The Chinese don’t traditionally have baked bread, but they do have various kinds of steamed buns, jiaozi, the classic stuffed dumplings, long noodles and pinched noodles so flour is a common necessity.

Butter was not common nor a necessity. We had to buy Danish butter from the Friendship Store in the center of the city, but butter, flour, common cinnamon and apples are all it takes to make an American apple pie. And a circulating oven.

On Thanksgiving ten guests showed up breathlessly at our fourth floor apartment, American, Canadian. Swiss, British and German, each carrying a dish to share. Some brought sweet potatoes (a common street food in Beijing), already roasted in 50 gallon drums,. Others brought vegetables, extra plates (we were all transients in Beijing and no one had service for 12), bottles of beer, and some precious coffee for after dinner.

As we all sat down to a transformed ritual meal, what did we celebrate? For me, it was a celebration of laughter, miraculous new friendships that endure, and new understanding of a world more dangerous and complex than I had ever imagined.

Between the Rows  November 20, 2010

Autumn Equinox, Moon Festival – Two Cultures

Today (or tonight actually, at 11:09) we in the west mark the Autumnal Equinox, when the length of night and day are exactly equal. Since it is the sun that determines the length of the day we could consider this a solar ‘festival’. The solstices and equinoxes occur at about the same day every year.

In China festivals are calculated by a lunar calendar, which means they are movable feasts, as is the Christian Easter. The most important date in the Chinese calendar is the Spring Festival or New Year celebration which usually occurs sometime between mid January and mid-February. The second most important celebration is the Moon Festival or mid-autumn festival. This year our Equinox and the Moon Festival occur on the same day.

In our modern times the equinox does not merit much of a celebration, but when we lived in China we loved all the excitement around the Moon Festival which mostly involved gazing at the moon and eating fancy, and expensive, round pastries called Moon Cakes, which were sold in fancy red and gold boxes. I have to say, I never developed a taste for Moon Cakes, but I did like the idea of them and even bought a mold for making them in a kitchen supply store on a back street in Beijing.

Wooden Moon Cake Mold

Unfortunately I never figured out how to use the mold which is about an inch deep, nor did I develop an Americanized version of the moon cake that might have fewer than 1000 calories and be filled with things more to my taste than egg yolks or bean or lotus paste. My husband and I often stop to admire the moon in all it’s phases, but have never held an official Moon Viewing Party.

Yesterday on Marketplace, the NPR business program, I learned from Rob Schmitz in Shanghai that there is a big black market in moon cakes, or more specifically, moon cake vouchers. Important business people and public officials could never eat all the expensive moon cakes they recieve as gifts, and this is understood, so people buy and give moon cake vouchers, which the recipients sell on the black market to get the money (bribe?) and those without influence to sell, can buy the moon cakes on the black market, for a price which will fluctuate as the season progresses. After today the vouchers are worthless.

Hou Yi

Of course, if there is a festival, there must be a reason. As usual there are many versions of the story of Chang e, the lady in the moon, but it all begins with Hou Yi, a master archer. The Mother Sun had ten sons and when they travelled above the earth one by one, plants grew and the world was a happy place. One day the ten suns decided to go all at once and soon the earth was a parched desert and people were dying. Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one to provide light and warmth.

As a reward the Queen Mother of the West gave Hou Yi a pill of immortality. The single pill was to be cut in half so that he and his wife, Chang e, could both become immortal. Hou Yi kept the pill in a box, and one day he went away. While he was gone Chang e looked in the box, as she was forbidden to do, and suddenly Hou Yi walked in and she was so startled  that she accidentally swallowed the pill.

Chang e and the Jade Rabbit

Because one pill was an overdose she began to float up into the air. Hou Yi could not shoot an arrow to catch her for fear of hurting her and so she floated right up to the moon where she lives today, all alone except for the Jade Rabbit. I’m not sure how the Jade Rabbit got to the moon. But I do know that is why when the Chinese gaze at the moon they see Chang e, not a man in the moon.  Or they might see the Jade Rabbit.

And when they celebrate the Moon Festival they gather with family and friends, and think of lonely Chang e who is forever separated from her husband and all that she loved on earth.

Three Lilies

White Henryi lily

Last fall I planted six lilies in the herb bed right in front of the house. Three Henryi lilies which are gold, and three white Henryi lilies, all from Old House Gardens, one of my favorite bulb suppliers.  White Henryi was the first to blossom, dazzling white with its golden throat.

Mystery lily

Then this lily bloomed. I’ve got a bit of a prop to hold up the blossom so I could photograph it. It is neither the white or gold Henryi. A natural hybrid? Unlikely.  Probably just a mis-labelled bulb, so now I have three varieties of lily in this bed.

Henryi lily

Henry’s lily is beautiful with its recurved petals, but it has an extra layer of meaning for me because it is a Chinese wildflower. My husband Henry and I spent two separate years living and working in Beijing; we continue to learn about this important and complex culture.  Elizabeth Licata has Henry’s lily growing in her garden, and hers has reached the promised height of 6 feet.  I have hopes for next year.

Muse Day May 2010

Thom Chiofalo's Garden

“What, if anything, do the infinity of different traditional and individual ideas of a garden have in common? They vary so much in purpose, in size, in style and content that not even flowers, or even plants at all, can be said to be essential. In the last analysis there is only one common factor between all gardens, and that is the control of nature by man. Control, that is, for aesthetic reasons.” Hugh Johnson

Hugh Johnson created a notable garden at his home in Essex, England, then wrote a notable book, The Principles of Gardening:  a guide to the art, history, science and practice of gardening. this is an encyclopedic book that is great fun to dip into.

I liked this quote which I found in a newer book on my shelf, Why We Garden by Jim Nollman. I was particularly taken by it because I remember so well my confusion when we went to China and found the concept of garden so different. Shan shui translated literally  means mountain water but it is the way the Chinese refer to gardens.  We went to one famous  garden in Suzhou, the garden city of China, and it contained nothing but stone. But by that time I had adjusted somewhat to the many differences between the Chinese garden and the “English” garden that I was familiar with.

Despite the differences in cultures I think Hugh Johnson got it right when he said, on the very first page of his book, “The first purpose of a book is to give happiness and repose of mind.”

Visit Carolyn gail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago to see how the muses inspire in other gardens.

Pam Oakes' perennial border

Year of the Tiger

L. henryi

The Chinese Year of the Tiger has been rung in with drums and dancing, and jiaozi, the delicious stuffed dumplings  that are said to be shaped like silver money and symbolize a year stuffed with good things – and riches.

We have celebrated many Chinese New Years since our first trip to live and work in Beijing in 1989. While there we learned that while there are 12 animals in the 12 year Chinese zodiac, the full cycle takes 60 years to complete. Every 12th year is considered a ‘dangerous’ year, and when you think about it there are often great physical and social changes every 12 years or so. Puberty at 12,  marriage at 24, full family life at 36, and edging into old age at 48. When you arrive at 60, the full cycle is complete and you begin again; 60 is a time of new energy and new possibilities.

My husband Henry was born in the Year of the Tiger and it just occurred to me that I made a lucky choice when I  planted Henry lilies from Old House Gardens last fall.  Henry’s Lily (Lilium henryi) is an old Chinese wildflower that is described as having ‘tawny-orange petals’ which sound very tigerish to me.

I have been planning a Henry garden, or at least a Henry collections for some time. In addition to Henry’s Lily, I also planted White Henryi, lily (white with a’starry heart of apricot and cinnamon”) a newer lily hybridized by the same man who created my sturdy and hardy Black Beauty lilies.

So far, the only other Henry plants I have are the white flowered clematis henryi that climbs through my Celestial rose, and  Henry’s Garnet sweetspire, a small shrub that has white summer blooms and crimson fall color.

I am looking for suggestions for other Henry plants and will welcome all the help you can give me.

Images courtesy of Old House Gardens.