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Sorting Through Bulbs

Finally, I’m doing it. I’m going through all those old bulb pots I’ve had skulking around, putting up fewer and fewer flowers and leaves, giving me a guilty quiver whenever I looked at them: I was being a bad bulb mother.

My idea was to go through them all, save the dirt – which I paid good money for – and retrieve as many bulbs as were still there. I knew whatever was left would probably have shrunk small, doing their best to survive by shriveling on their lean rations and making offsets. But I figured: in nature, bulbs revive after long droughts and difficulties; maybe I can find a way to help them do that.

When I find loose-tuniced bulbs, I’ve learned to unwrap them for the surprise inside.

I have a lot of fellow feeling for these bulbs. I myself am slowly,slowly convalescing from a long illness which was supposed to get worse and worse, shrinking my life into a small shriveled thing until it took me out entirely. Instead, despite the advice of the experts, I’m resurrecting.

So, why not my bulbs?

Some of them are rare antiques, bought at prices I don’t even want to mention in public; those I replanted right away. Others – Apricot Beauty, Queen of the Night, Thalia – can be bought anywhere, and if you shop right, can be found very cheaply. But don’t they deserve a new life, too, if I can help them to it?

So I’m sorting through all my pots, looking for hidden treasure.

This one reveals three offsets.

Some of the old containers turn up completely empty, with only a few papery bits of bulb tunic and dried nets of roots to show anything was there. I can’t help seeing the parable, here. Some aspects of my old life have been completely obliterated by going through this illness, become part of the compost for whatever comes next.

Other bulbs surprise me by their tenacity, like the mysterious bulbs I found in a pot today.

At first, I thought, “Are these lilies?” They already had roots going – my plan to go through the pots while the bulbs were still completely dormant had to go the way of many of my plans lately. I just didn’t have the energy or ability to do it this summer, not even little by little, as I am now.

But I couldn’t imagine that lilies would last unwatered that long. It’s my custom to leave my spring bulbs unwatered in summer, as they are in their native lands. That’s actually why I started gardening with bulbs. I had so little water available to me that I scoured books and catalogues, seeking beauty that didn’t requre water.

Lilies do, though, year-round, and they never really go dormant. But these bulbs looked wrong for lilies. Their thick white roots were a little fatter than lily roots, and when I brushed off the dirt, I couldn’t see scales on the bulbs.

Finally the mystery was revealed: I found a label, deep into the pot.

(And by the way, how do labels do that? I mean, I know some bulbs can burrow themselves deeper into the soil to resist drought, but labels? Do the bulbs teach them how?)

The label read, “F. persica”. Fritillaria persica, that elusive bulb which has never once bloomed for me, had not only survived, but multiplied. I’ve never bought more than five, and there were seven or eight.

I’m still not sure the fritillaria will flower for me, but I repotted it into nursery pots, as I have several other bulbs that were showing roots. The nursery pots are special situations designed to encourage bulbs tottering on the edge of extinction into resurrection. I split the bulbs into their separate entities and buried them in richer soil with good doses of organic flower fertilizer blend, azomite and greensand. I’m also experimenting with using mycorhizzae. I have no idea if this will actually help; I’m just going by instinct, here. But since instinct is the way I got through a medically incurable illness, I figure it’s worth the experiment. Resurrection is a chancy thing.

The surviving bulbs vary from about half-size (with darkened, tough tunics) to very, very tiny pale white offsets that don’t have tunics at all.

The fritillaria label managed to burrow deep and survive, but other labels have learned the art of transmigration, dematerializing from one reality into another. I’m putting most of the retrieved bulbs into paper bags with the labels in and the names written on the bag – but the biggest assortment of bags are named something like “T. ?” or “N. ?” for the anonymous tiny tulips and narcissi which abound in my old pots. Even the treasured antique ones (which I know by their special pots) have labels like, “antique tulip #1” and on through 4 or 5.

Despite my labeling mania, my deep personal religious practice of using permanent aluminum labels which become engraved with the stroke of a ball point pen, many of the pots are complete mysteries to me now. At one time this would have irritated me immensely: all that labor lost.

But now, I just have to laugh. All that effort, all that obsessive and – I have to admit it – somewhat self-righteous labeling, all of that jaw-tightening effort to make sure everything was put into its proper category, remembered by its proper name, done right.

What was I trying to accomplish by that, I wonder? Why were those labels – which will probably last longer than my body – such a point of fervor? As Wallace Stevens put it, “Oh blessed rage for order, pale Ramon.” Well, I got pale on my rage for order, all right, pale enough that I’m putting aside both rage and the need to impose my conception of order on a deeper order that already exists.

Instead, I’m just enjoying myself. Resurrection can be fun.

Here’s the latest offering for my “T. ?” bags, to soak in kelp water and maybe do some juju on before I plant. (The labels? Not only do I have bulbs without labels, I have labels which have lost their bulbs. Since they have two sides, I’m saving these to be repurposed, also.)

Sorting through bulbs has an Easter-egg-hunt aspect to it. I’m never quite sure if I’ll find something or not, or what it will be if I do. I don’t have any way of predicting what will thrive and what will give up the ghost. It’s a good harbinger for my own future life, which may present me with unknown gifts, fragmented remains of something which once flourished in my garden, or something I can’t even imagine.

The pleasure is in not knowing.

And waiting for spring.


‘Zinfandel’ looks more like ‘grape’ to me

I was letting my sweet pea vines grow out so I could collect seed. As all seed-collectors know, this means you have ratty drying vines for a while.

But then something miraculous happened.

My sweet peas started flowering again.

I don’t live in those wonderful cool-summer climes where you can have sweet peas all summer, or so I thought. This year, for the first time, I may have sweet peas spring, summer, and fall.

What brought this on?

Part of it I have to lay up to compost tea, which I’m using for the first time this year in my garden. I have to say I’m a fan; my other flowering plants are sitting up and flowering robustly, at a time of year when they usually get a little pale and droopy.

But the varieties of sweet pea have a lot to do with it, too; ‘Zinfandel’ and ‘Cupani’ have special talents for lasting out the summer.

In case you’re not familiar with them, here’s a little description.

Unless your zinfandel comes in a bottle with a plastic screwtop and a long list of artificial colors on the label, it won’t match the hue of ‘Zinfandel’ sweet peas.

I suppose ‘Grape Juice’ is just not as marketable a name, although it’s a much better indicator of the color, a straight-on Concord purple. At least that’s what they look like in my garden.

The developing buds have a two-tone look, with a grapey center.

Maybe the name ‘Zinfandel’ was inspired by the yes, slightly winy, attractively deeper note to that high-arching intoxicating sweet pea scent. These flowers may not have matched my expectations colorwise – I put them in a container with ‘Falling in Love’ poppies , expecting an exuberant shades-of-red experience. But they have exceeded my expectations for fragrance – which is indeed deep and almost winey. And they are gorgeous.

Some of them have white on their keels, others are the deep, solid, violet-purple all through. They scent the house beautifully without being overpowering (to me, anyway). And in the garden, they didn’t look bad against the ‘Falling in Love’ poppies, either. (I like it when the garden offers me a color combination I wouldn’t have thought of by myself.)

I’ve even had a branch of them sport to fuchsia flowers, not a favorite color of mine in a sweet pea, but still an interesting variation with, appropriately, a slightly more upper-note scent than the dark purple ones.

The most remarkable thing about ‘Zinfandel’ sweet pea, though, is its heat resistance. We’re among the folks who have had a cooler year than usual, this year, with rains into June and mild temperatures (in the eighties F/high twenties C) into July.

So at first I ascribed “Zinfandel’s’ long-lasting blooms to the weather.

Now it’s August, we’ve had plenty of days in the nineties F (over 32 degrees C), and ‘Zinfandel’ is still blooming away.

But it’s not compost tea alone that’s creating the ‘Zinfandel’ miracle. I planted ‘Cupani’ sweet pea side-by-side with ‘Zinfandel’. ‘Cupani’ has been, for decades, one of the two reliably heat-tolerant sweet peas that actually flower here before they croak. (You can read about the other one, ‘Painted Lady’, here.)

Two-tone heirloom ‘Cupani’

There’s good reason for that. ‘Cupani’ is one of the original wild sweet peas, brought into the garden from the Italian roadside by a Sicilian monk, Francesco Cupani, who sent them to a friend in England, thereby starting a mania which has never quite subsided in that country.

Originally, the Latin name of ‘Cupani’ was Lathyrus distoplatyphyllos, hirsutis, mollis, magno et peramoeno, flore odoratissimo, purpureo. We can thank the efforts of Linnaeus for the shorter version.

Since, like Brother Cupani, I collect seed, I let my sweet pea vines live on to the bitter end, dry leaves and everything.

Usually when you do this, flower production stops: as most gardeners know, sweet peas are one of those flowers that really really need picking (or deadheading) to keep blooming.

I never bothered much with this before, because the hot weather called an end to sweet pea season long before it was an issue.

But this year is different. In searing late August, ‘Cupani’ has a gradually come back and has a fairly respectable scattering of blooms. ‘Zinfandel’ is even more abundantly blooming (in a relative sense); it keeps producing beautifuly-formed, modestly pickable amounts of sweet peas.

‘Cupani’ close up

Cupani, like many heirloom sweet peas, is not as large or as ruffled as the commercial ones grown today. But its two-tone blossoms are a respectable size (I do think the compost tea helps here), and have a beautiful straight-on honey scent.

You can get ‘Zinfandel’ at Renee’s Garden – or whatever gardening center in your area sells Renee’s Seeds. As the writeup claims that ‘Zinfandel’ is exclusive to Renee’s, you may not be able to get them anywhere else. The link I’m giving takes you to their entire sweet pea selection, which will not be a problem for the true sweet pea devotee.

‘Cupani’ is available some years through J.L. Hudson , and reliably, in plant or seed form, from Select Seeds , and other purveyors of heirloom flowers.


Since I don’t yet have any thornless brambleberries, I’m giving you a photo essay on why they are so desirable.

I garden in a small space. So when I decided to grow brambleberries, I thought it’d be smart to look for thornless ones. The thorny kind tend to go where they are not wanted, slicing through my shirtsleeves and stabbling my bare feet.

While I’m generally in favor of looking to local nurseries for plants, in this case I had to search a little further. In fact, my search led me so far that I’m breaking up the info into two posts, so you won’t get tired. (The second post will come out next week.)

My love for berries goes way back. I had a berry-loving grandmother in the Pacific Northwest, where brambles are legend, and she taught me to love them. She was the one who named salmonberries and thimbleberries for me, sparse glowing surprises at the half-shaded edge of the forest.

Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) and thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus) are lovely garden plants in the right location, small, and nowhere near as aggressive as their other bramble kin. But if you’re looking for serious berry production, you must go to the other brambleberries. And many of those other varieties are specialty items you can’t find everywhere – especially if you want the thornless versions.

I get stuck by those suckering shoots that seem to rise up in an instant, where no blackberries were before.

If you want an in-depth rundown on the different kinds of brambleberries, their habits and diseases, you can read “Blackberry Production in Oregon” by the berrygrapeorg. Oregon is prime territory for berries, as we will see, so it’s bound to be an excellent resource. This blog from Oregon gives you the gamut of brambleberries in less formal language, but with lots of detail. If you want the easy-reader description of the brambleberry family, keep going. This is it.

These tiny but fierce prickles on the backs of the leaves slice me when I think I’m reaching for something soft.

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) are some of the most well-known brambles (which, for the plant geeks among you, are the genus Rubus, and in the rose family – you can tell by the flowers). I first knew them as cobbler. My grandmother used to make it (for purists, a cobbler is not the same as a crisp. You top the berries with globs of sweetened biscuit dough, instead of the oatmeal-brown sugar thing). She was particularly partial to the small, trailing wild berries – not the hulking later-fruiting Himalayas introduced by Luther Burbank. Like a genie out of a bottle, these blackberries have taken over the land. (They are the very thorny blackberries pictured in this post). My grandmother would pick the Himalayas when they came in season, but she preferred the early small trailing ones that are really native, small bursts of intense flavor.

There is more choice for thornless blackberries than any other bramble fruit. It’s hard to tell, even from the descriptions, what the difference is between them. “Doyle’s thornless” gets huge ballyhoo here: it’s the best for yields and range tolerance. But then here is “Triple Crown”, which is also the best in yields and vigor. It ripens a week or so earlier than “Chester”, which is a long-known thornless variety. As is “Black Satin”, “Arapaho”, and a long list of others.

If you want to see some of the huge selection available, try here , here , here , and here (search “thornless” to get their full selection of brambleberries, including thornless blackberries), or go to One Green World , and good old Gurney’s .
If you want to know good ways to prune them, the West Virginia Extension Service has an excellent site on that. And a horticulturalist from the University of Kentucky offers an evaluation of different training systems for thornless blackberries here.

But those smaller blackberry shoots that camouflage themselves in the grass are pretty sneaky, too.

I’ve ordered the “Wild Treasure” thornless blackberry from Raintree Nursery – they claim it’s an unspined offshoot of my grandmother’s favorite trailing blackberry. I’m trying “Black Pearl”, too, a blackberry which is supposed to taste like marionberries.

Marionberries (Rubus x or Rubus sp., since it’s a cross) are a lesser-known brambleberry. They’re named for the county in Oregon where they were bred, a cross between a Chehalem blackberry and and Olallieberry blackberry. I didn’t know Marionberries were blackberries until I looked them up for this article.

It’s been awhile since I had marionberries, but my memory is that they have a redder taste than most blackberries, a sort of winey background flavor that lingers on the tongue. I do, deeply, remember a marionberry pie I ate in Oregon on a road trip. It was a regular two-crusted pie in a diner on the side of the road, and I savored its flavor for another two hours of driving.

Loganberries (Rubus loganobaccus) are another of the lesser-known brambleberries – not many people outside of the Pacific Northwest seem to know about them, but they taste sort of like darker, bigger raspberries on with more depth to their flavor.

There’s a gorgeous picture of thornless loganberries (which they say are a type of blackberry cross) at Raintree, where you can also purchase them. You can find thornless loganberries here, too.

Next week: thornless boysenberries, youngberries, and raspberries


Black Oaks Leaf Out (Quercus kelloggii)

Every year I get to watch a show.

It only lasts for a week, maybe ten days, so I have to pay attention. And it’s worth paying attention, because when the oaks leaf out, the whole world changes.

The first signs are the swelling buds,  starting to unfurl.

At this point, it’s something you can only see close up. If you’re too busy to look around you, you’ll miss it.

That tiny red tinge expands until it’s noticeable, except to people who are always in a rush. Suddenly, all over the hills, there’s a soft, rusty tinge.

While the rusty leaves are coming out at the bottom of the tree, there is more action up above: some of the leaves that get more sun are already turning an incredible briliant chartreuse, making a beautiful rust-and-green contrast in the trees. I bet you are expecting a spectacular photo right now, but unfortunately I can only say that I try every year – and so far have failed to capture how the light glows through them. I’ll keep trying.

Once the leaves have turned that brilliant, translucent green, I get to see another color show: the contrast of sharp spring green with loud shouting fuchsia blooms of redbud. That’s another show that I haven’t been able to photograph to my satisfaction, and it lasts only a few days. Maybe some things are only meant to be enjoyed live.  I do often wonder, though, why it is that in clothing, say, or room décor, I would loathe the chartreuse-and-fuchsia combo – but in nature, I love it. Maybe it’s something about the light.

Meanwhile, the oaks are going about their business, making the subtle tassel-like flowers that unite the green and rust of the leaves above them.

The leaves are still small enough to let the light through, like a glorious stained-glass window that is constantly overhead.

It’s not long until they become a fluffy opaque green. They’re full size, but they won’t take on their hard, dark green coating for a few weeks. These particular leaves were witness to snow.

In May. (I know I keep saying that, but really: snow in mid-May? For those of you who believe California is a tropical paradise…well, it’s not.)

In fact, this whole show is about a month late this year, like the cranes, the wildflowers, and the temperatures. I’ve heard reports of weird, not to say disastrous, weather in all parts, so I can be grateful that our peculiar weather is just an extension of the cool season. We are lucky.

And I think that I am lucky when I have the chance, each spring, to walk under that original cathedral of shining oak leaves, borne on high, arching branches.


Willow (Salix species)

Last week it snowed.

In April.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I live in a state where we have fires in summer, if things aren’t wet enough, and where wells run dry. So I’m not complaining. I’m just saying, we’re about a month behind where we often are this time of year.

The cranes knew it: sandhill cranes fly over at the very beginning of every spring and fall, and they didn’t start until later than usual; I saw the last flight a month ago. The bulbs all knew it; my first daffodils are just fading, when in other years I’d be in the midst of the full spurt of tulips.

And the willows knew it.

Willows are a tree people tend to pass off for most of the year. Oh, there are basket-weavers who keep an eye on their coppices (coppicing is when you prune the willows severely, so that they grow straight and slender, young and smooth and whippy, best for weaving). And there are the famous weeping willows that get celebrated in song and story, most noticeably on blue willowware.

But mostly people pass by the willows; they are often scrubby trees that make disreputable-looking branchy knots with the other creekside, soggy-land shrubs. I’m not even sure of the identity of my own willows (and I’m the kind of person who usually checks). They may be red willows, or one of 14 other species that my usually-reliable Sierra Nevada Natural History lumps together, pictureless and undescribed.

This is the only time of year that most people pay attention to willows, and I know the reason why: their catkins.

You can see several stages of catkin pollination, here

With only soaproot, chickweed, and bittercress doing anything in the garden, it’s wonderful to see any flower.

And there’s something about the furry, quilted texture of willow catkins that’s especially appealing. Maybe the furriness gives us a sense of warmth, subconsciously?

Whatever the appeal, every year I have to go out and cut pussywillows, and bring them in.

In the hothouse of the bottle on my kitchen windowsill, they make little leaves way before they appear on the outside trees.

You can’t see it, but they are making a tangle of roots in the bottom, as well. Willows are notorious for their rooting powers; there are stories (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) of European Americans bringing willow switches from their homes in the east, over the Oregon trail to the west coast, where they stuck them in the ground and sprouted them.

Maybe. I have rooted a willow cutting I left in a bag for a month. (Not a new technique; I just forgot it.)

But I’m going to get the best use out of my willows later on, when I’m taking cuttings. Willow water is famous for helping plants to root; there’s a substance in them called auxin (found in high concentration in tip growth, and used in commercial rooting compounds) which stimulates root growth.

If you want to read more about it, there’s an article by the reliable Fine Gardening here.

Maybe if I had read that article earlier, I would have had more spectacular results. My  laissez-faire attitude: get a five-gallon bucket, put a lot of water in it, cut up a lot of new willow stems (the ones with the smooth skins, not the ones with the rough bark), and let them soak. When I want to water in transplants, I use that water, and I use it on plants that look less than well-established, too. When the water level gets low, I top it up. Sometimes I add more stems. Most of the time, to be honest, the whole thing dries up until next year.

I cut willow stems every year. Because, like willows catkins, they subtly remind us: we have lots more flowers coming. And  fruits to follow.