cutflowers of summer


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Dahlia coccinea ‘Orange,’ Mendocino Botanical Garden

Thank goodness there’s not a crazy nativist strain complicating appreciation of summer’s most colorful annuals.
The only walls associated with these summer beauties might be the ones surrounding your cutting garden (you lucky devil!)
Cosmos, zinnias, and dahlias, the mainstay of summer vases, are all outsiders that emigrated via European explorer ships from Mexico and South America.
And how far they’ve come! Zinnias have even been germinated on the International Space Station.
And dahlias — well, the colors and shapes are sometimes almost too outre to be believed.
The more outlandish are generally grown for cutting, not for associations with other plants in the summer garden.
That’s because a flower as big as your head will require several stakes to keep from crashing face forward.
Smaller-flowered, more graceful varieties like “Bishop of Llandaff’ are often included in summer borders, but even these won’t thrive in dryish gardens like mine.
Here’s just a small sample I found at a local nursery’s dahlia cutflower contest last weekend that shows their incredible range.

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My first trip to the Pacific Northwest (in plant years, when Hinkley still owned Heronswood) included a stop at Swan Island Dahlias, whose catalogues I perused into tatters.
Their growing fields are a hallucinatory experience. In the UK, Sarah Raven has been a staunch champion of dahlias.
Floret Flower Farm provides detailed growing instructions here and also ships tubers.
On a much smaller scale, my little community garden plot is starting to favor flowers over edibles, with as many zinnias planted as beans and tomatoes this year.
To grow zinnias for cutflowers, my usual brand of tough love won’t cut it. With the possible exception of cosmos, the cutflowers of summer need the best growing conditions you can give them.

Cinema Botanica: Only Lovers Left Alive



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If time is an ocean, then 2015 is already bobbing with the detritus of Best-of-2014 lists. I usually love these lists but just don’t have any idea where to look now that there’s so many out there. There was a time when the year ended was avidly commemorated with just The Los Angeles Times print edition, with Charles Champlin (who passed away November 2014) recounting the best movies, Robert Hilburn handling music, and the Book Review insert filled with enough of interest to fill an afternoon. This would have been in the LAT’s heyday up to 1980, when Otis Chandler shaped it into a world-class newspaper, fortuitously a period that overlapped my childhood. Strange how exciting it once was to read the papers! Now I’m sounding as wistful, if slightly less cranky, as a character from a favorite film of 2014, Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, in Only Lovers Left Alive by director Jim Jarmusch. Yes, it’s another addition to the trendy vampire genre, which could be seen as cynical calculation for instant box office, except Mr. Jarmusch swears he was unaware of the recent blood-sucking cultural touchstones like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and the Twilight series. (I know it’s possible to have somehow missed them because I have too.) And it’s pretty obvious by now that Jarmusch never thinks of box office receipts anyway. For Mr. Jarmusch, having vampires as protagonists allows him to play around with some of the best set design outside a Wes Anderson movie, backed by his own brooding musical score, setting the stage for a slow, moody, and meandering exploration of lives that are not book-ended or back-stopped by the usually inevitable counterpart. That implacable open-endedness to existence has bested vampire Adam, a musician, capital R Romantic, and collector of rare musical instruments (like Jarmusch).


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Adam’s house in Detroit, image found here

Lives spanning centuries will of course have their favorites, and Adam seems to have become emotionally stuck in the beginning of the 19th Century with the Romantics, even if he does admit Lord Byron was a “bastard.” Adam has temporarily found a solitary haven to sulk in the post-recession ruins of Detroit, while his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) favors Tangier. Where Adam has become disgusted by everything 21st century, with all of us non-vampire “zombies” literally ruining and poisoning his world, Eve, esconced in Tangier, seems to have managed to glide gracefully through the centuries, philosophically treasuring the best they have to offer, such as in the many books with which she surrounds herself, appreciating and including modern writers like David Foster Wallace. (And when I say Eve glides gracefully, just watch her walk through the streets of Tangier in her boots and cream trousers.) Adam and Eve are tall and lean, pale and gorgeous, with only their hair betraying the many centuries under their belts. Vampire hair shows its age, becoming stiff and coarse, in case you didn’t know.

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image found here


As with a lot of our occupations, the actual “work” of being vampires has changed too; with human blood mostly too poisoned to gamble on, the nocturnal hunt for victims has turned into a discreet and relatively bloodless affair of bribing local medical professionals for regular infusions of plasma that has been scrubbed, screened, and vetted by the best practices of modern science. Their best friend is vampire/Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, just one example of the literary insider humor that suffuses the film. Many conspiracy-minded scholars have long suspected that someone other than William must be the true author of Shakespeare’s work, with the contemporaneous playwright Marlowe always a prime candidate. Jarmusch has professed himself a believer in the fraud theory, which feeds his strong opinions about our misguided notions of celebrity.

If Eve is adroitly surfing the waves of time, Adam has hit the rocks and wishes only for release, especially when his hideaway in Detroit is discovered by his unwanted music fans. When the two vampires eventually meet up in Detroit, watching them drive through its empty streets at night is another of the slow pleasures of the film (“look, it’s little Jack White’s house!”) I’ve heard a lot of complaints that not much really happens in the movie, whereas I feel that an excess of plot would only break the exquisite mood the movie builds up. But through a couple of mishaps, a bit of forward momentum does develop and carries our two vampires out of the comfort and safety they have so carefully constructed, once again having to reinvent themselves anew and get out there and bite some necks. Eve’s wisdom and a night out on the town in Tangier ultimately lessens Adam’s ennui. The best summation of the movie I’ve found is this: “Read broadly and learn many things. Appreciate and cherish the old but be constantly open to the new. Immerse yourself in the arts. Dance. Make friends.Find love and give love. Be aware of the state of the world but don’t dwell on it. Doing great work and getting it out there is better than – and sometimes antithetical to – being famous. And frozen blood on a stick is a surprisingly refreshing treat.” (by Devin Faraci, Badass Digest)

And why does a vampire movie (the best, in my admittedly narrow opinion, since Let The Right One In) merit entry in the Cinema Botanica? There’s actually a couple reasons. For one, the vampires are keenly aware of the natural world, which they address in proper scientific Latin, as when Eve encounters a grapevine and purrs with tender familiarity, “Ah, Vitis vinifera!” Not to mention their absorption in an outcropping of mushrooms they stumble on in one of their night-time rambles. Crouching down for a closer look, Adam laments ruefully “We don’t know shit about fungi.” So the vampires’ hyperawareness of the natural world will strike a familiar chord with plant lovers. The collector mania exhibited by Adam will have a familiar ring for agave lovers too. But there’s also Tilda Swinton, who has quite a few links to garden culture and could even be considered something of a garden muse. Early in her acting career, she worked with film maker Derek Jarman, who is also revered for his shingle garden known as Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent.


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Phoot of Derek Jarman by Howard Sooley

Another link would be Swinton’s role in the movie Orlando, based on the book Virgina Woolf wrote about her great friend Vita Sackville-West. Woolf doesn’t bother to develop a framing device of vampirism to explain how her hero/heroine Orlando manages to live many centuries, as well as switch gender, but it was all meant as an affectionate tribute to her friend Vita, who was not allowed to inherit her beloved ancestral home Knole because she was inconveniently the wrong gender. Vita Sackville-West went on to create one of the most celebrated gardens in the world at Sissinghurst, also in Kent, England. (Garden maker and writer Sarah Raven, married to the grandson of Vita, has a new book out on Sissinghurst, “The Creation of a Garden.”)


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Evidence of Vita and Virginia’s friendship can still be found at Sissisnghurst today, in the portrait of her friend that is still kept on Vita’s desk (found here)


Of Tilda Swinton, Jarmusch has this to say: “She has an ability to prioritise what’s really important in life. Once I was listening to her, I think we were at lunch with Patti Smith, and I thought: ‘Oh boy, if all culture breaks down, I’m following them. They’re my leaders, the women are the way to go.'”

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counting euphorbias

Tis the season to celebrate euphorbias, since many of us will be living with or gifting/regifting one of its tribe over the next couple weeks, the poinsettia. Call me scrooge, but I’d much rather think about the ones planted in my garden than the holiday favorite with the flaming red bracts. Since first digging the garden 26 years ago, there’s always been at least a couple euphorbias around, and that will certainly be true again for 2015. I’m referring to the herbaceous and shrubby kinds, not the succulents, whose numbers are legion. This genus is ginormous, the largest genera of flowering plants in the plant kingdom, named after Euphorbus, physician to the Mauretanian King Juba II (first century B.C.), whose exploitation of its medicinal properties earned him a place in botanical nomenclature. But the white sap is notoriously toxic and the stinging enemy to the mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth, so I can’t imagine how and in what form Dr. Euphorbus delivered the medicine. Even getting the sap on the skin causes a strong reaction in some people, though I seem to have the hide of a rhino and haven’t had a problem so far. I’ve grown many of the different herbaceous kinds over the years, which generally tend to be short-lived for me. Many will seed around, whether lightly or alarmingly, and species do occasionally cross, like the famous Euphorbia x martinii, a naturally occurring hybrid between characias and amygdaloides. The euphorbias are standouts here in winter and spring for a sunny, dryish garden, and I’ve long been faithfully trying out any new kinds that come my way.

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First the euphorbs returning for 2015. There’s tree-like Euphorbia lambii fattening up after the recent rain, losing its scrawny summer looks.
This euphorbia seeds around like nobody’s business. But it’s tall, incredibly tough and tolerant of a dry summer, so it gets a pass.
Hardy down to 25 to 30 degrees.

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By February it will look more like this (February 2013)

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In bloom April 2013, illustrating a euphorbia’s attractions: smooth, blue-green leaves arranged in whorls with a shaggy chartreuse inflorescence

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Also fattening up is a young E. atropurpurea. After a wobbly first year, it’s exciting to see it settling in and appearing to choose life. From Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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Here it is at the Huntington Botanical Garden, flaunting its atypically fabulous wine-colored bracts.
I had never heard of such a euphorbia before and stood slack-jawed before it when first stumbling across this beauty.

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There was much gaping and sputtering, and then a frenzied search for my son Mitch, who was photographing barrel cactus elsewhere in the garden (see here).
I dragged him back by the sleeve to take this photo. And then I chased this euphorbia across a summer of plant shows, ultimately finding a source at Annie’s Annuals. Bless you, Annie!

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Also returning is Euphorbia rigida, just not this specific plant, which declined and withered away. A couple pieces were salvaged.
It also reseeds, but nowhere at the level of E. lambii. When I find these seedlings, they’re carefully potted up. Photo from February 2014

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spring 2012. So this plant lived at least three to four years. The clay here might have something to do with the shortened lifespan.

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Euphorbia mauritanica in the front garden, where the sun/shade shifts around quite a bit throughout the year.
These are probably leggier than they should be, but I’m hoping they’re in shape for a good bloom this spring.

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Here’s the ideal Euphorbia mauritanica, included in a design by Dustin Gimbel.

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My straggly Euphorbia ceratocarpa, appearing to have barely survived a recent move to clear out the compost area.

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Old photo from 2009 when the smoke tree ‘Grace’ ruled the garden and I continually wore that green robe through the winter.
Euphorbia ceratocarpa is on the left against the fence. Golden blur on the right was a duranta.

Unfortunately, this is the best photo I have to illustrate why I’ve carefully nurtured this one ratty-looking plant from a single cutting for the many years after the mother plant died.
There’s very little information available on this euphorbia for gardens. English plantsman John Raven grew it, and his daughter Sarah Raven has this to say:


This is one of the most open-growing and perhaps less elegant of the euphorbias, forming big, rangy clumps nearly 1.8m (6ft) across. But it is definitely a contender for the longest-flowering plant I know. I’ve had one that is yet to stop blooming outside the kitchen at Perch Hill since March 2006. It has not had a single week’s pause, and you can pick decent-sized stems right the way through the winter. I cut some for an arrangement at Christmas, when there is almost nothing of this brightness still surviving. E. ceratocarpa is also very easy to propagate. The cuttings that my parents collected all took extremely easily – even after several days wrapped up in damp loo roll in a plastic bag – and those few plants have created many thousand since. This euphorbia should certainly be more widely grown.” – source here.

Easy to propagate? Ha! I’ve had cuttings take a year to root. The only other person I’ve come across who grows it is garden designer/author Rebecca Sweet. It reminds me of a big, blowsy, lime-green hydrangea when in bloom.

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Euphorbia mellifera is another big shrub like E. lambii, but more lush. Fairly fast growing, this one was planted out from a 4-inch pot last year.
For zones 9 to 11 or container culture. Reseeds lightly here.

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And then there was the moment when the pale, variegated euphorbias entered our lives. ‘Tasmanian Tiger,’ discovered in a garden in Tasmania in 1993, was the first.
Because they turned up at the local nurseries, I grabbed a couple this fall to plant near Leucadendron ‘Ebony’ while it gains size. Short-lived plants have their uses too.

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I tend to try all the pale variegated ones. Some have proved to be stronger growers than ‘Tasmanian Tiger.’
A new one to me, at the nurseries this fall, under Native Sons label, E. characias ‘Glacier Blue’

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An old photo of a bloom truss from Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan,’ which I remember as a very robust grower.

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This non-variegated form of E. characias turned up at local nurseries too this fall.
Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl,’ so named because part of the flower structure has a “black eye.”

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An old photo of a blooming Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow,’ whose leaves have bright yellow variegation that flushes red with cool temps of fall/spring.

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From April 2011, Euphorbia mellifera almost out of frame at the upper left, ‘Ascot Rainbow’ blooming lower right.

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I’ll end with a photo of this incredibly weedy self-sower brought home years ago. Possibly Euphorbia nicaeensis.
A nuisance, yes, but the fresh color and meticulous arrangement of the leaves keeps me from weeding every last one from the garden.

Enjoy (or give to your mother) your Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia) this holiday season, and as alway, mind the sap!