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Soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

Despite the snow, hail, and rain so copious it forms little sheets and streams of water in the yard, there’s one native plant that’s coming up, unstoppable. Soaproot.

Soaproot was one of the first plants I got to know, many years ago, when I moved to this area. I was camping out by the river, near what turned out to be a seasonal stream, and there was a good colony of soaproot there.

Soaproot loves to colonize

Later on, I found out that soaproot really likes moist soil, and seems to prefer dirt so wet it’s underwater part of the year. But I’ve also seen it on hilltops near no obvious source of water whatever. It might have been a high-water-table indicator: there were madrone trees all around them (soaproot likes shade), and although madrones will take drought, they love water. The trouble is, I know the well on that property was a very piddly one. Did they just drill in the wrong place? Or are madrones and soaproot less thirsty than I thought? Just another mystery.

…in fact, they love colonizing so much that the storm-damaged leaves crash together sculpturally

Soaproot, as you might have guessed by the name, has a bulbous root that can be used as soap; it lathers when you mix it with water.

Trouble is, that root is about 2 feet down, and the heavy clay soil makes tough digging. Camped out there by the river, I decided to dig up my soaproot in the original style: I used a stick.

That method took me two days and a good share of my patience. You can’t pull the root up; the stem breaks off, as I repeatedly found. So, I kept digging.

I dug only a couple of hours a day. Digging through clay with a stick is a little like serving up sugar with a needle: if you’re diligent, it works, but it’s slow. Probably the Maidu of the area had more patience than I. And maybe better digging skills.

When I did get down to the hairy, bulbous root (the outside has fibrous covering) I found it difficult to deal with. It has many layers, like an onion, only more slippery.

This soaproot is almost at full height; the plants in the pot aren’t even up yet

The reason I was digging up soaproot was that I had heard it was a remedy for poison oak, and which I had a case of. (Poison oak is not at all picky about where it grows: shade, sun; wet, dry: it’s all good.) I did manage to get the root to lather, and it did help with the itching, but I’m forced to say that Fels-Naptha laundry soap did a better job, and was less sticky. (This was before I heard about the torture by testing animals get, or at least got, at the Fels-Naptha labs. I stopped buying their soap. It seems to me that there are a lot better and more interesting ways to test soap.)

I did not use the hairy outer covering of the soaproot as a brush, or try roasting and eating the bulb, as Indians who live in soaproot’s range used to do. I’ve eaten a lot of bitter, acrid, and acidic wild foods (at least once), but the idea of roasting one of those slippery, soapy roots is not appealing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re like onions, and get sweet when you roast them.

Although I am unlikely to dig up any soaproot with a stick this year, I enjoy its cheerful, persistent, burgeoning presence, and look forward to the stems of delicate white flowers– sometimes only a couple of feet tall, sometimes towering to four feet, glinting white in the shade.

In the center of the rosette, the stalk is just beginning



Spring Bulb Shopping 2: Old House Gardens



I’m reposting this series on my favorite bulb catalogues because – there’s still time to shop! By now, the selections at bulb companies are low – but the prices are excellent. This is the time to get great deals, and we’re lucky that even Old House Gardens – dealer of rare and hard-to-find heirloom bulbs – is having a sale. 

One of the first places I shop is Old House Gardens. That’s because it’s the only place I know of where you can get a true, broken tulip like ‘Insunlinde’, above.

Broken tulips were the ones that people spent fortunes for–and lost fortunes on. They were the junk bonds and unaccredited mortgages of their day; people hung out in bars and negotiated for futures of bulbs–for futures of shares in bulbs–all of which could be destroyed by bad weather, mice, or a tulip thief.

While they don’t quite cost a fortune today, broken tulips (which, as you can see, are quite a different animal from Rembrandt tulips, nice as they may be) are still not something most of us can afford to buy in bulk. Neither are many of the antique and heirloom bulbs offered at Old House Gardens. But, as Scott Kunst himself points out, where else can you buy an antique so cheaply?

On the other hand, the bulbs I’ve gotten from Old House Gardens are some of the most honking bulbs I’ve ever purchased anywhere, so you do get a lot for your money. (Except for some of the rarer bulbs, such as the really antique close-to-species varieties of tulips and freesias, which were just never meant to be big, Old House Garden bulbs are by far the biggest I’ve seen anywhere.) I never get cheap, inferior bulbs, but OHG bulbs are the top of the top of the bulb world, big, fat, healthy, and bursting with (often) multiple blooms.


Colleen Bawn daffodil, 1885. One of the most beautiful I know.

Many of the bulbs Old House Gardens offers are from small growers, who specialize in growing the older types because they love them. Several of the growers are from the U.S., which is unusual, although some of them also come from overseas. Other bulbs come from bulb-preserving organizations in Britain and the Netherlands. Old House Gardens is, even now, in the process of negotiating for their own growing farm, so they will soon be growing on some of the bulbs themselves.

The catalogue lets you know exactly where your bulbs came from–something most catalogues don’t reveal. And this is good, because if your climate is close to the climate where the bulbs were grown, they’ll be a really good match for you. And anyway, it’s just interesting to know.

Another good thing about the Old House Gardens catalogue/website is that it’s fun. It is clearly written by people who are delirious about bulbs, and don’t care who knows it. There is information galore: what year the bulbs came out (when that information is available), which specific cultivar the bulb is (although there are hot arguments in the heirloom bulb world about who knows what and who can know what as far as bulb identification. Anyway, this catalogue will give you a good start). And lots of cultivation information–much of it gathered from devoted readers–on growing bulbs in different climates: warm winters, cold winters, humidity, dryness, and all those other factors that make gardening so interesting. (There are even more articles and links available on the website.)

Scott Kunst originally started his company because of a mad love for ‘Prince of Austria’. When he found out this scented deep-orange tulip (from 1860) was going off the commercial market, he decided it had to be preserved, and he was the one to do it. Things snowballed from there.

For people who have older houses and would like to design period gardens to match them, Old House Gardens is a find. Historical preservation sites order from Old House Gardens. You can check the dates in the catalogue against the date of your house, and find a large selection of bulbs that will fit your period. Or periods: it’s generally OK to use bulbs from a generation or two back, because often people kept to the old favorites, just as we do today.

Old House Gardens also has a summer bulb section in its catalogue, where you can find a smaller but interesting selection of summer or greenhouse bulbs.

For those who enjoy diversity, shopping at Old House Gardens is a way to support people who preserve it–and to do a little preserving ourselves. And there’s an added bonus: older bulb varieties were generally bred with the gardener in mind, so they tend to perennialize and naturalize easily. Newer types, bred with greenhouse florists in mind, tend not to.

Because OHG gets bulbs that are in limited supply from small growers, they can run out of bulbs rather quickly, especially their most popular types. This is a good reason to order early. Another good reason to order early is that it makes you order quickly, which in my case means I’m not going to have time to spend the kind of money that would buy a city house, garden, and a coach house, the way they did during Tulipomania.

But if I had to go bankrupt, this would be a deluxe, beautiful, heavenly way to do it.


Old House Gardens catalogue

Mike Dash, Tulipomania, Victor Gollancz, 1999



It’s always healing to admit your mistakes.

If a bit embarrassing.

I’ve been entirely mistaken about what makes tulips thrive. Or at least I’ve been very mistaken about some of them.

For years, I’ve been saying that tulips like a dry summer, that they thrive in the dry summers that mimic their ancient Mediterranean origins. I even started this blog because of that (you can read about it here).  I chose to focus on tulips because I lived on a piece of land that had a very very sparse well for about 10 people. I couldn’t have a well-watered garden, so I looked for plants that could do with very little of it. Bulbs were one of the obvious winners.

And bulbs did very well for me, once I stopped trying to plant them in the clay and decomposed granite that is our soil here – what is left of it after mining and clear-cutting. When I planted bulbs in containers of fluffy boughten soil, they came up lavishly in spring, richly unlike most other flowers you can grow in the woods. I didn’t have to water them in summer, and some of them came back.

But most of them didn’t, and I was always on the search for bulbs that would become perennial, bulbs I would never have to plant again. The closest I’ve come are some forms of narcissus, all older varieties, which came back for at least a few years: ‘Hawera’, ‘Thalia’, ‘Geranium’, and the sometimes-anonymous yellow trumpet daffodils that I either order or pick up at the hardware store. Most bulbs are much better bought from a specialist, but daffodil bulbs are so tough that sitting out with light streaming on them really doesn’t affect them all that badly. (And our hardware store is smart enough to put them in covered outdoor area, where they stay cool.)

Tulips were a different story. Even the ones that came back for a year or two died out, or reduced to single, blind blades, despite all the hours I hovered over them (figuratively or actually), cultivating, fertilizing and theorizing. I theorized that bulbs closer to the species, the ones who hadn’t been coddled by being hybridized in the rich wet northern fields of the Netherlands – I thought those tulips might come back more easily.

And I was sort of right. The beautiful T.  batalinii in its various forms often came back for me for a year, maybe two – and then disappeared.

But T. clusiana, which is one of the tulips dearest to my heart, stubbornly refused to return. I mean the original T. clusiana, not the upstart modern versions. (You can read a long caption on some of the different types of T. clusiana here and a post here, where you will find that I’ve actually fallen in love with one of the modern types. Nonetheless, that doesn’t keep me from my devotion to the original.)

The original T. clusiana - more slender, more elegant, more vividly colored than its descendants and imitators

T. clusiana is an ancient tulip first grown in Europe by Clusius, who was the first director of the botanical garden in Leiden, in the very early 1600s. This was the first beginning of what would turn into Tulipomania.

Anna Pavord’s The Tulip (which in the hardback form is an excellent, although not absolutely reliable (who could get every detail absolutely correct in such a huge compendium of knowledge from so many sources, including the field?) ) – Anna Pavord’s The Tulip says that Clusius got T. clusiana from a guy in Florence who got it from a guy in Constantinople, who probably got it from somebody else, eventually going back to someone who made a living – or part of one- by digging tulips in the wild and bringing them to the city to sell.

The Tulip also points out that, in the wild, T. clusiana grows in the wet fields of Iran and on to the Himalayas. No wonder it disappeared when I tried to grow it as a dry-summer perennial. I was making the assumption that ALL tulips came from the Mediterranean, or the dry mountains inland. I was making the assumption that dryness was over the entire landscape.

Well, you know what they say about when you assume: you’re making an ass of u and me (thus foreshadowing the days of texting). Of course the Mediterranean has wet areas, just as my very own dry-summer county does, and of course some tulips come from regions far from the Mediterranean, just as the madrones in my northern California home are the very bottom range of madrones that start in British Columbia, or beyond.

And then, as my Anonymous Gardening Expert says, a few hundred years of cultivation in those rich, relatively fluffy, lowland soils in a cold-winter Europe, a few hundred years of breeding to bigger and fatter bulbs and blooms, changed tulips utterly as plants.

The proof of it is in my garden, poking its nose (or noses) up, showing me my longstanding error. The salmon parrot bulbs I planted last year – one of the biggest and most effulgent types of tulips, the easiest types to lose – are coming up again. These are the ones I planted in the big raised garden bed, as a kind of cool-weather crop. I expected that, after I had watered and fertilized my hungry crops all summer, the tulips would turn to mush. Although I also wondered if, perhaps, they might return. The beds are rounds made of hardware cloth (1/4 inch metal mesh) lined with hay; they have excellent drainage.

Not only have the tulips returned: their noses have the double nested form that shows they will flower, every one of them. Most of my other last-year-and-older tulips, the ones in the dry containers, are coming up blind – the single blade that says, “I’m still here, but no flower this year. I just don’t have the energy.” The tulips I’ve been trying madly, for years, to get to return.

Unreturning tulip blade, next to Iris danfordiae

Long ago I made a conclusion, and I based all my efforts on that conclusion. One problem: the conclusion was based on a very scanty knowledge of the situation. The conclusion came early in my learning about tulips, and I never re-inspected it. I took it for granted as a given, and based all my subsequent decisions on it.

It seems to me that a lot of life runs that way. For instance: is faster always better? There’s even an online commercial that says so. But, is everything going faster making people happier? Is it making the rest of the world happier? Or healthier? Is it always such a great thing? Does it even feel good all the time? Could it be that some things feel better slower, and others faster, or even that varying the rhythm like the seasons do would work better for us as a species and a planet? Did we base the conclusion that faster is always better on someone else’s theory, a theory that sprang from an incomplete understanding, and became common knowledge?

In my own life, I look at my own assumption that making an error – especially a huge crashing error like this – is something to be ashamed of, and either fluff over or immediately remedy by a brazen crusade for the new notion. In some circles, admitting to this kind of error could crash a career, or even an entire academic discipline: for twenty years my tulip “career” was based on my understanding – no, my knowledge – that tulips prefer dryness. (Yes, tulips need drainage, or they rot. But drainage may be achieved by many methods, not just by keeping the soil dry.)

But what kind of silliness is it to shrink from admitting my errors? Isn’t it what makes life interesting, that we keep discovering new things, or new joys in old ones? Isn’t it the page-turner aspect of life that keeps it alive for us? And can we ever, really, predict a future, or declare absolutely that our lives are going to be a certain way, forever?

Even my new Tulip Truth, my new revelation being proven in the garden this moment, may not be more than partial.  Old House Garden Bulbs, a small but mighty operation that keeps heirloom bulbs in circulation by growing them on city farms – their directions for assured tulip bulb increase is to dig up tulip bulbs every year after they go dormant, and store in a dry cool place. That’s what they do, and their business proves it works. But they’re in Michigan.

If I dug my tulips up every year in my climate, would they multiply? It’s a moot point: I don’t have the energy and I don’t have the dry cool place. I will enjoy seeing how my new theory works, though: feed tulips like crazy, and give them good drainage and rich soil, see what happens. I planted more tulips in the garden beds last fall, so I’ll have more test material. Or fun.

This time I won’t assume that this is the method that works for every tulip, or even every gardener. I’ll just be interested to see what does work, and go on from there. Isn’t that, pretty much, the essence of gardening?



Since I haven’t written in here for a year, and I assume I have a readership of zero, I feel oddly free saying this: I’m no longer capable of writing a chatty, informative blog about gardening. And I’m not going to.

The twists and turns a long, debilitating illness takes you through – they shave off the extra bits, in my case the part where I decided that a chatty informative tone would be the way I got my Garden Information out there. I no longer have the energy to maintain an extra personality that I manufactured in order to accomplish a special task. I’m not sure I have the desire any more, either.

Because part of that chatty informative extra personality was designed to hide my real agenda. Even though I hinted that my garden experiences are not entirely in the rational world, in the past I’ve been pretty shy of actually saying how that works for me.

Well, gardening is not entirely in the rational world for anybody, as every gardener knows who has FINALLY FIGURED OUT something – only to find that, next year, that that thing doesn’t work at all.

In my case, I’ve not only accepted that gardening doesn’t always make sense: I’ve courted the irrational aspect of gardening. I would say, “that unscientific aspect of gardening” – only science really does come into it. It’s just that some of it’s wacky science. Or cutting-edge, as some of us like to call it.

Or magic, as some of us have called it for years. Plants are an easy access to a power that goes way beyond the rational; that’s the way it was for the first people who needed to know which plants to use for medicine and food; that’s the way it has been for me since my first memory of meeting a plant.

I’m just coming out of the closet about it.

Even to myself. I was in the garden, looking at a rose bush that is very skinny and long, from having been in inadequate sun for too long. (I’m actually in the middle of moving it, but in my current state, that has to happen about ten feet at a time, on a good day, so its progress down the garden has been very stately.)

That rose bush had been moved to a spot in the garden where – finally—I could walk entirely around it, view it from every angle. I thought, “OK, this would be a good time to prune that rose. It’s dormant, it needs it, I can do it without any awkwardness.”

My next thought was: “I’d better go and look up how to prune roses again.”

And the thought that followed that? “Why do that when all I have to do is get in tune with the plant and ask it where to make the cuts?” I did, and I got directions.

But before I acted on them, I had a little moment of self-doubt: had I read the plant correctly?

So I compromised. I went inside, and I looked up pruning roses. And, as far as I could interpret the instructions as they applied to my spindly rose bush, they were giving the same advice as the rose bush itself. You cut just above a 5-leafed twig; that makes sense, because leaf buds are where mitosis happens, the cell division that makes new growth (and, with any luck, a fuller rose bush, with more roses). A place where mitosis happens is a place that will make new growth when you cut it off – often two branches instead of one.

And, of course, I cut out the deadwood, but that’s a no-brainer. (Fortunate: since some of my health issues are neurological, lack of brain is frequently what I have to work with.)

There are infinite resources of information available to us, at any time, all around. All we have to do is listen, and learn how to receive it.

Well, maybe there’s one more thing: we might have to get over feeling that we’re crazy. We’ve been carefully taught how NOT to receive that information, because it’s just, well, not rational, is it? (No, it’s not, but what’s that got to do with anything?) About the time when we were being gently told that our invisible friend wasn’t real, and that magical speaking plants were just a pretty story, we began closing our ears to those worlds. The worlds where anything can shift in an instant, where we aren’t limited to human speech or human understanding. The worlds of that peace we so often find in the garden.

That’s because a garden – and this isn’t even weird science, it’s accepted physics – a garden is really a dancing whirl of waves and particles which can part, shift, and rearrange in an instant. Which respond to our desires. (Yep, they’ve done tests for that, too.) And since cities, buildings, oceans, and human bodies are made of that same dancing whirl, a garden is a place where we can return to feeling that we belong in the world, that the world can be a beautiful place to be, and our part in it can be beautiful, too.

When we do without the leafy ornament of words, the extended branches of meaning, the hard dead carapace of a past life, we return to our natural selves, opening to the ever-moving life that flows around and through us.


Dahlia atropurpurea in its more purple guise.

Dahlias have been on my mind lately. This fall, I had a noticeable gap in fall color. My young blueberry bushes had a spectacular range of leaf-colors, better than I’d hoped, ranging from dull matte wine-red to yellow and red with bits of flame in it.

But deer had pruned my “Emperor of China” chrysanthemums to the ground, and my late-blooming sweet peas were about the only other fall color I got. When my Old House Gardens catalogue arrived, I fell victim to the beautiful shapes and colors of their heirloom dahlias, and ordered six.

Naturally, when I got to my favorite historical library, where garden books from the eighteen hundreds are on the open shelves for all to peruse, I turned to books and sections on books about dahlias.

I love historical garden books. The first one I picked up, Joseph Breck’s** Flower Garden, published in 1851, starts each plant section with a quotation of poetry, if one is available. Attributions aren’t given; you get the feeling that these are poets you’re just supposed to know, the way we know quotes from Beatles songs and TV shows.

The poetic heading for Breck’s dahlia section is:

“In queenly elegance the Dahlia stands,
And waves her coronet.”

But the laudatory poetry ends at the first sentence of prose:

“The Dahlia is a native of Mexico, found on the table lands of that country, and I have sometimes wished it had been let alone there, ‘to waste its sweets on the desert air.’ It is so capricious in its flowering, so subject to the ravages of insects, so much influenced by too much heat, or too much dryess, or too much wet; and then, just as it begins to give promise of abundant bloom, having escaped all the casualties of the season, is cut down by the frost, and becomes a blackened, hideous object in the garden;, that, after many disappointed hopes, I have been sometimes disposed to say, I would not try it again.”

Which of us has not been jilted by a plant, and retained the mixed feeling of a teenager who can’t help being attracted to someone who used to be close, but now doesn’t even deign to notice our existence?

Will disappointment be the story of my dahlias? I have tried them before, one put up a few leaves; the others disappeared.

But at this point, I’m still hopeful: not inclined to take Breck’s dim view of things:

“True it is, that, after paying extravagant prices for new sorts, I have frequently been disappointed in not having a single bloom; and what is worse, the roots may not get strength enough to stand through the winter, even with the greatest care.”

In my own garden experience, I can’t really blame the dahlias for their poor showing. I ordered them on sale, late; planted them two months later, and proceeded to abandon them completely for months. This was due to my health, which didn’t run to taking care of all the plants I greedily acquired.

But I did successfully grow one dahlia last year: the august ancestor of many, Dahlia atropurpurea, whose picture you see above. I can’t agree with Breck’s dismissal of what I assume to be the same plant (nomenclature is a chancy thing when you’re reading historical garden books; Latin names were thrown around like confetti, and not infrequently the same plant had several of them, none of which may be the one that’s used now, or even in recent times).

“It was first introduced into England in the year 1789, was but little noticed, and soon lost. It was reintroduced in 1804, then a single purple flower of not much interest.”

I loved the mahogany-purple of this dahlia, which changes with the changing light, and obliged me with more flowers than I really deserved, for I threw it in a pot with some hard-clotted compost and left it to its own devices. Since I didn’t prune it back, it grew a single slender stalk of a few feet in part sun, and while it gave me only a couple of flowers at a time, they were magnificent, and more than I could have expected.

But, like sweethearts, the same plant may be a joy to one and a disappointment to another. I can’t help feeling that Breck is prejudiced. Cultivation was my main interest in this entry, because I wanted to repeat whatever it was I did that allowed the Dahlia atropurpurea to do as well as it did.

While Breck is more straightforward in the sections about growing dahlias, notes of chagrin keep creeping in. The dahlia cultivation section of The Flower Garden leads off like this:

“Too much has been said and written about the cultivation of the Dahlia.”

About the disposal of dahlias in the garden, Breck says:

“Dahlias look best in groups, as they hide each other’s ugliness…”

Even the propagation section sounds a soft note of scorn. Breck discusses storing the roots in a cellar over the winter:

“There is no danger from rats or mice or any other creature. I never knew an animal to touch them. You could not catch an old rat even to smell of them the second time.”

When I perused the cultivation section more thoroughly, I found a useful hint which I had not seen elsewhere – and perhaps the deep-buried root of Breck’s disappointment:

“While I resided in Lancaster [Massachusetts], my garden was situated on the banks of a branch of the Nashua River. In hot weather, a damp or mist rose from the river every night, and gave my Dahlia plants a good wetting. I did not have any difficulty then with the Dahlia; it flowered in great profusion, having had nearly one hundred blooms on a plant at one time.”

I am more fortunate than Joseph Breck; when hot weather comes, I have the technology to take his tip and mist my dahlias. Whether or not this will lead to a flourishing relationship, only time will tell.

Next post: Dahlia lovers (and more confused nomenclature)

* For those of you who are wondering, why the lengthy title, my title is a pale copy of the effulgently prolix titles of the 1800s. They cover entire pages, in a show of fonts and layout that I wish I could find online today. For a full view of the glory of Breck’s title page, check out this Google books link, where you will find a photocopy.

** Yes, this is the Breck of Breck’s catalogue. While he was clearly very interested in bulbs – he has much fuller writeups on them than some of his contemporaries – he also covered the full range of plants. In those days, U.S. horticulture was in its infancy, and there was less specialization. I’m not sure how the current Breck’s catalogue came to be bulb-centric.