...upon learning that the botanical name of the blackberry lily has been changed from the luscious, toothsome Belamcanda chinensis to...Iris domestica? I hereby protest.
Our little* burning bush bloomed for the first time this spring, with barely noticeable yellow blooms, the size of a pinky nail. This fall's first berries are sprinkled delicately throughout the denuded branches. Its fall color was rich this year, thanks (I think) to rain and more rain. The berries and the leaves were persimmon and pomegranate juxtaposed, colors that shouldn't go together, but they did, and they do.
*'Rudy Haag' is actually compact, smaller than 'Compactus', and way smaller than the species, which is alatus? or alata? or just apparently the topic of another taxonomical food fight: "This is because botanists disagree as to whether the genus name Euonymus should be treated as feminine ("alata") or masculine ("alatus")".
Since the climbing hydrangea here has (a) decided it's never going to bloom, at least not this decade, and (b) become favored fodder for this summer's roaming swarms of Japanese beetles, it's just as well that 'Grandpa Ott' morning glory has shown up to take up the slack. I planted Grandpa Ott seeds a couple of summers ago, in a sunny planter way around the corner from the chimney pictured here. Grandpa Ott has reliably reseeded around the garden without being weedy, and it's a welcome sight wherever it newly appears. My husband's of the view that ironweed (Vernonia) is the plant world's best purple, but I think Grandpa gives it a run for the money, no?
(...and the talk gets so topical*)
The caladiums are happy in today's humid heat. I used to think that I didn't like caladiums. I'd seen them in too many desultory container plantings, where it seems that they could be swapped out with a fake fabric floral counterpart with no one the wiser. But a bargain-bin bag of a a dozen tubers came our way this spring, which I tucked in here and there in the north-facing shady garden. The spaethes are unfurling gracefully, some with a faint tinge of pink, and complement the minichromatic greens and white of this bed nicely. They might convincingly pretend to be a long-lost distant cousin of 'Jack Frost' brunnera, or of 'Beacon Silver' lamium.
*Gratuitous reference to a pair of lyrics from Elvis Costello's "Riot Act", on the occasion of hearing that he'll be opening for
Sting [updated: The Police] in Milwaukee next week [updated: today (July 25)...and through serendipitous happenstance, I'll be in the audience].
Observed, this July morning, while waiting for the left-turn green light off the Rimrock Road exit: sky-blue chicory next to violet thistle next to ivory Queen Anne's Lace, with rust-colored seedfronds of dock for contrast, and egg-yolk yellow bird's-foot trefoil (the same weed that I can't bear to yank out of my lavender bed) lapping underfoot. It's beautiful!
In the modest 48-square-feet-plus-whiskey-barrel allocated to edibles in my garden, form often trumps function in the things I grow to eat: lemon cucumbers, red okra, scarlet runner beans (two varieties), rainbow Swiss chard, Chinese long beans, Green Zebra tomatoes, purple-black Diamond eggplant, Jimmy Nardello's red sweet chili pepper, a collection of herbes de Provence + herbs of "Scarborough Fair", and the 6-foot endive that looks like a big weedy mistake for all but the first hours of the morning, when it blooms with the blue that I cannot live without.
I've purposely stocked my vegetable beds with ornamental edibles, but the balloon flowers in my perennial back border are a surprising edible ornamental, as it turns out. Platycodon (platy, the prefix, meaning "broad", and codon, the suffix, meaning "bells": thank you, Dictionary of Botanical Epithets!) grandiflorum's an invaluable garden citizen. It blooms tall and long, and the blue velvet texture of the specimen in the photo above (looks much better "in person", trust me) is a knockout against bright pink phlox or lemon yellow daylilies.
Platycodon is doraji in Korean, celebrated in folk song. What's edible is not above-ground, but below: the fleshy taproots (pictured here, if you scroll down some) are peeled, soaked, julienned and spiced, and eaten as banchan. It's crunchy and very yummy; I'd been eating it for years and years before finally cluing into its floral connection.
I'd never sacrifice the balloon flowers in my garden just to get to their roots, but they're prompting a summer day's fantasy: a platycodon farm, with acres planted to billowing fields of the broad bells, in blue, pink and white. Mmmm.
The yews made it out of rehab this year, and the garden is benefiting from their triumphant comeback. Five years ago, they were the typical overlooked foundation hedge, trimmed into the classic crew cut, barely concealing barren, knobby-kneed branches and a hollow interior of brown and dying needles. They're planted in a tough site—fully shaded northern exposure in inert subsoil, "mulched" with black pumice stones that look like charcoal briquets—so the thought of tying them to the bumper of a pickup and extracting them like an achy tooth was briefly tempting, but impractical.
Instead, I pruned them severely, especially trimming the tops and sides with the hope that it would allow more light and encourage new growth from the bottoms up. The four little evergreen stumps looked ridiculous for a few years, but growing they were, and every spring, I kept trimming, and trimming. And, finally, this spring:
Gentle, lush sprays of succulent, lime-green growth. Look; touch.
I'm told that our house sits on what used to be farmland not more than a generation ago, and mullein (Verbascum thapsis; common mullein, wooly mullein, flannel plant...you get the idea) is a farm weed that shows up here and there every season. I'm fond of this weed. The leaves are softer and silkier than lamb's ear (but to describe them as "a kind of Native American Charmin"? Eeuuww).
Mullein in the wrong place at the wrong time is gangly, ugly, and yes, weedy. But sometimes it just shows up where, it turns out, it needed to be. This summer, it's next to the David Austin rose 'Graham Thomas', punching up the yellows in a mostly bronze-leaved bed, and helpfully obscuring the rose foliage that's already tattered and pitted with blackspot.
Last summer, it added heft and textural contrast to the agastaches and penstemons:
In the early days of this garden, I sought out and planted the verbascum 'Helen Johnson', enthralled by the description that I'd read in Jamaica Kincaid's garden book. Her delicate buds were pretty, her dusky peach-salmon color unusual, and she didn't last more than one season. I think I'll stick to the great mullein, and look forward to its surprises in the seasons to come.
When they named any thing, they turned toward it, and as they spoke, I saw and remembered that they called the thing they would point out by the name they uttered.
Saint Augustine, Confessions
Linnaeus was born about 300 years ago. (His birthday is officially commemorated as May 23, 1707, but given the fits and starts of Sweden's Julian-to-Gregorian calendar transition between 1700 and 1753, I believe I'm within the grace period of not having to turn to the "Belated Birthday" rack at Hallmark just yet.) His father, Nils, created the surname "Linnaeus" after the littleleaf linden tree (Tilia cordata) on the family homestead.
His love of flowers developed an an early age, and it is recorded that when only eight years old he was nicknamed "the little botanist."
Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1958 edition).
The Prince of Naturalists, Barton called Linnaeus. The Great Architect. The Swedish Sage. God's Registrar.
[Narration of the imagined Meriwether Lewis]
Brian Hall, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark.
I love those botanical names, even when I'm bamboozled by pronunciations (Cotinus coggyggria, anyone?) and frustrated by the it's-Mahonia-no-it's-Berberis types that keep rearranging the sock drawer. Forest for the trees, folks, forest for the trees:
The first word in his scheme of Latin binomials tells the genus, grouping diverse plants which nevertheless share a commonality; the second word names the species, plants alike enough to regularly interbreed and produce offspring like themselves. It is a framework for understanding, a way to show how pieces of the world fit together.
Sue Hubbell, A Country Year: Living the Questions.
"It is a marvelous creation, isn't it? Linnaeus's system? The most valuable contribution to natural history since Noah put saw to gopher wood. His binomial standard reminds me of terrestrial coordinates, the genus, say, representing latitude, and the species longitude, so that the two of them in conjunction enable you to pinpoint the one precise location or the one recognized scintilla of Creation, that is here, this one, and no other."
Dialogue of the imagined Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, from I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company.
This statue and I arrived on campus the same year, 1976, but it wasn't until one spring morning last year that I spent more than a passing moment in its company. I was at the medical center to accompany a family member (with an ailment favorably resolved for now), for a procedure that would take most of the morning. I was reading King Dork, and figured that my steady stream of low chuckles occasionally punctuated by the poorly suppressed outburst of laughter would be inappropriate comportment for the waiting room of the PET scan department, so I walked down the Midway and visited Linnaeus. The statue's surrounded by beautiful gardens (which wasn't always the case), and I sat down on one of the garden benches. Across me was a crabapple tree, every limb full and drooping with blossoms, and behind me another, which pelted me with petals like ticker tape with every musky sweet breeze.
This statue of Linnaeus is uncommonly expressive. He's on the go, with one foot stepping off his pedestal. A book is tucked under his arm, and he's clutching a bunch of flowers—could they be of his beloved tea plant (Camellia sinensis)? The visage is intelligent, engaged, and even a little bemused:
I read in one of my handbooks, written before it was considered necessary to be dull to be taken seriously:
"Delightful Linnaeus, who dearly loved his little joke, himself confesses to have named the day-flowers after three brothers Commelyn, Dutch botanists, because two of them—commemorated in the showy blue petals of the blossom—published their works; the third, lacking application and ambition, amounted to nothing, like the third inconspicuous whitish third petal."
From A Country Year: Living The Questions.
To the man, our latter-day Adam, who named living things: Happy three-hundredth birthday.