A close encounter – Blue poppies!

Alas not in the Himalayas, but fortunate to see them ‘in the flesh’ at Lost Horizons. Like from another planet, these fabled blue poppies are actually not true poppies. In the Fam. Papaveraceae, they belong to the genus Meconopsis, derived from the Greek mecon (poppy) and opsis (like): poppy-like.
Meconopsis grandis – the Blue Poppy, the national flower of Bhutan, was discovered in 1922 during a British Himalayan expedition to Everest.

Meconopsis grandis

Meconopsis betonicifolia (or Meconopsis bailey) – The Tibetan Blue Poppy, was discovered in 1913 in the gorges of Tsangpo River in Tibet by a British army officer, Major Frederick M. Bailey. Both were introduced in 1926 at the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual show, causing a blue-poppy- philia (corrected – thanks Jo Ann) that lasts through this day.

Voyage from the Land of the Rising Sun – Japanese Epimediums

Epimedium grandiflorum arrived in Europe, in Antwerp, with Philipp Franz von Siebold’s plant collection from Japan, in 1830 according to some reports. Actually, during his 8 years in Japan, Siebold sent three shipments with an unknown number of herbarium specimens to Leiden, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. The important thing is that among them there were 2 plants of Epimedium grandiflorum, one with white flowers, and one with pale-violet flowers. They were planted at the Ghent Botanical Garden. Unsurprisingly, the large spurred flowers received a lot of attention because the only species of Epimedium known at that time was E. alpinum, which has small flowers. The Japanese name of E. grandiflorum – ikariso, comes from: ‘ikari’ – anchor and ‘so’- plant, the four long curved spurs of the flowers suggesting the four-claw anchor used by Japanese fishermen.

Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Purple Prince’

Epimedium grandiflorum spread rapidly into cultivation. Currently, there are countless varieties of this species, and it has also contributed as a parent of some important hybrid groups such as E. x rubrum, E. x versicolor and E. x youngianum. It has three recognised forms today: f. grandiflorum, f. flavescens and f. violaceum.

Epimedium sempervirens ‘Variegatum’

Epimedium sempervirens, resembles very much E. grandiflorum with the exception of the evergreen leaves and of a more elongated rhizome. It is endemic to the western side of S. Honshu. E. sempervirens has crossed with E. diphyllum in the wild to produce the white flowered E. setosum. I already featured the sweet E. sempervirens ‘Candy Hearts’ in ‘Plant Valentines’, and now the answer, if someone was asking – yes, there is a variegated Epimedium, see illustrated E. sempervirens ‘Variegatum’.

Epimedium diphyllum is actually the first Epimedium that arrived in Europe from Japan, sent by Franz von Siebold to Leiden. From there it spread to other botanical gardens and nurseries in England. A small and dainty species, today is known more in cultivation through the garden hybrids that belong to E. x youngianum. The name E. x youngianum is used to include all the garden hybrids between E. diphyllum and E. grandiflorum. The numerous varieties that exist in cultivation exhibit usually intermediate characteristics between the parents. In the wild, the same combination of parents lead to a new species: E. trifoliatobinatum.

Epimedium x youngianum ‘Beni-Kujaku’

Besides these, there are many Japanese hybrids of unknown parentage. They can vary greatly in their flower shape, size and colour. Japanese Epimediums have the same requirements for cultivation as the Chinese ones, with the only difference that they prefer a slightly acidic substrate. Using a fertilizer for acid-loving plants would probably give better results, especially if the irrigation water is alkaline. 

Epimedium 'Sakura Maru'

Epimedium ‘Sakura Maru’

If you didn’t get ‘hooked’ yet on the Chinese Epimediums I’m sure now is the moment.

There are so many varieties on the market today and it is hard to choose only a few images to represent the whole range of Japanese Epimediums. The following gallery presents only a few from the many Epimediums that one can see at Lost Horizons Nursery from Ontario.

Non-plants related: David Mitchell’s book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, recreates with authenticity the atmosphere of the nineteenth century Japan, and the life on  Dejima, an artificial island close to Nagasaki Harbor, where Siebold also lived during his stay in Japan around the same time period.

Podophyllum pleianthum?

Podophyllum pleianthum is one of the most astonishing plants to witness flowering. Invariably almost everyone seeing the big, mature clump close to the propagation house at Lost Horizons, is asking: What is this?. After providing the botanical name, we add the common one: Chinese Mayapple, and relief follows, we all heard about Mayapples, haven’t we?

Podophyllum pleianthum flowering at Lost Horizons Nursery

But this Chinese mayapple is a special one. It was included in the Section Dysosma, along with other Podophyllum species  by J.M.H. Shaw (1999), on the account of the multi-flowered inflorescence with typically dark purple-red flowers and other characters. Its native habitat extends from Taiwan and eastern China through to Yunnan. The story behind its introduction in cultivation is this: it was first collected in 1881 from Tamsui, by T. Watters, the British Consul in Taiwan at that time. Then Consul H.C. Hance, an amateur botanist as well, published its first description in 1883. Specimens were sent from Hong Kong botanic garden to Kew Botanical Garden, where it flowered first in 1889. Material in cultivation today represents the clones from Taiwan and mainland China, also seedlings grown by different nurseries. Plants in cultivation can present variations in habit and in the length of the foliar marginal teeth.

As one can see from the above image, a mature plant can have 1-3 huge leaves, up to 40-50 cm in diameter with about 8 lobes. Juvenile plants present usually, triangular, hexagonal or almost circular leaves. Sometimes people look in disbelief at a 2-3 years old plant because of the different leaf shape. As in many cases, we can say that it goes better with the age, although I would grow it even if at a permanent juvenile stage – all Podophyllum baby plants are amongst the cutest possible! Inflorescence is usually located in the axilla of the petioles. Flowers are dark-reddish purple, attracting attention and smelling somewhat unpleasantly being pollinated by flies. Fruits are fleshy berries, yellowish-green when ripe. It is considered a self-incompatible, obligate outcrosser, so you would need a few flowering plants growing close by to have viable seeds, or if other flowering compatible Podophyllum species around you may end up with some hybrids! The seeds have to be cleaned from the fleshy fruits and sown immediately for best results. It is a woodlander, growing well in  shade to part-shade, in a humus rich soil,  with good drainage; if happy will even start to self propagate through the underground rhizomes. One of its features distinguishing it from other Podophyllums is that it doesn’t go dormant in the summer. Although not too early to show up in the spring, the huge, leathery, glossy leaves will grace the garden until November. Over the winter would benefit from a layer of mulch, especially at a young age.

Note: In the nursery trade there is a significant confusion regarding the identity of this species, understandable, because according with J.M.H. Shaw, there is actually a “Podophyllum pleianthum- versipelle complex which comprises a group of closely related species, which tend to intergrade, probably as a result of hybridisation”. Many nurseries are still listing a ‘Dysosma versipelle’, which is  anyone’s guess since this name was misapplied in the past to anything belonging to this complex. Other species from this group that resemble P. pleianthum are: P. versipelle (with several subspecies and varieties), P. hemsleyi, P. mairei and P. glaucescens.

Davidia involucrata

The tale of Davidia involucrata

I also mentioned the name of Ernest Henry Wilson in connection to Deinanthe caerulea, which opened the fascinating subject of botanical explorers. Many of the plants they discovered bear in recognition their name in the specific epithet. When being associated with a real person, Latin names become suddenly more familiar, which makes remembering them easier. Specific epithets like: menziesii, wilsonii, hookeri, fortunei, farreri, douglasii, van houttei and so on are bringing back the memory of A. Menzies, E.H.Wilson, J.D.Hooker, Robert Fortune, C.P Thunberg, Reginald Farreri, David Douglas, L. van Houtte and all the others. Considered by some as ‘crazy’ people, they often risked their lives collecting plants in remote countries, often for very little financial reward. Wilson first started collecting plants on behalf of Veitch & Son Nursery in 1899 and then he worked as a collector for Arnold Arboretum. From his many expeditions in China, Japan, Korea, he collected a huge number of  species, the list of his introductions runs into the thousands! His first mission in China was very specific: to find and collect seeds of Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree, known only from a herbarium specimen sent back to France by French missionary Father Armand David. 

Davidia involucrata

To make a long story short, he found a new grove of trees and collected lots of seeds, along with many other plant species, but still the credit for introducing the tree went to Father Paul Guillame Farges, because from a package with seeds he had sent to a friend (supposedly exactly 37 of them!), one germinated exactly in the same year Wilson had begun his trip! The tree was named in honor of the first collector Father A. David. The main feature of this medium size tree, which stimulated the frenzy of collecting it, ii is the great number of white flower bracts that look like petals. Like in other members of Fam. Cornaceae, flowers are small but associated with a pair of up to 25 cm, pure- white bracts. When it flowers in May-June, thousands of white bracts flutter with each breeze resembling white doves or handkerchiefs. Wilson compared them with “huge butterflies hovering amongst the trees”. Unfortunately, it is a tree mostly seen only in Botanical Gardens in Canada and the USA  – why?!. Another of Wilson’s introduction – Acer griseum, the Paperbark Maple, wasn’t ignored as bad by the horticultural tradesmen but still it is underutilized considering its many qualities. You can see a very nice specimen in the Display Gardens and also buy it at Lost Horizons Nursery. Now I cannot stop and have to mention another rare, exquisite small tree that we owe to Wilson: Heptacodium miconioides, maybe the object of a new plant portrait soon.

Acer griseum bark

In his town of origin, Chipping Campden in UK, as a memorial to mark the centenary of his birth,  a garden was  created, including many of the plants he discovered and collected – Wilson Memorial Garden.

Lots of books are available for some more winter reading on the subject of Botanical Exploration.For those not really into books, there is always Google; here’s a link where you can read a bit about other Plant Explorers.

Hauntingly beautiful – Deinanthe caerulea

I really wanted to have my first post in the first day of the New Year (call me superstitious if you want), but it was hard to decide which plant should be the first to write about. After some ‘deep’ thinking I had to choose the hauntingly beautiful Deinanthe caerulea. Most often you hear the term associated with a piece of music that lingers in your consciousness; the same goes for this plant. Once you see it in flower, you’ll never forget it. It has a name that suits it very well: from Greek – deinos=extraordinary and anthos=flower, indeed ‘the extraordinary flower‘. A perennial plant with a shrub-like appearance, originally from China where it grows in “moist forests in valleys: at 700-1600m” (Flora of China, vol.8), Deinanthe caerulea was discovered and introduced by the renown plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson – known as ‘Chinese’ Wilson. A relative of the Hydrangeas, it belongs to the Fam. Saxifragaceae, having typical textured leaves with forked tips and blue-lavender nodding flowers, the fertile ones with a central boss of violet anthers. Like a jewellery of the shade garden when in flower in June-July, the whole plant has a  bold, rough look the rest of the time, however demanding your attention even then. Most often people stop and ask – what’s this plant? – long before the flowering starts.

A mature clump of Deinanthe caerulea in the trial bed at Lost Horizons Nursery

A typical woodland plant for humid, shady sites rich in humus soil,  it can be propagated by division or cuttings, as far as my personal experience. Probably with perseverance by seeds would be a viable method too, as I’ve seen some that managed to ‘get away’ by themselves in the nearby pots. One important question would be where to find to buy it? Easy for me to answer because I happen to work at the only place where one can find to buy it in Ontario, Lost Horizons Nursery, where many other woodland gems await to be discovered. There is even a variety with a deeper bluish color called ‘Blue Wonder’, which is always in limited supply. Another nursery that I know would have it is Fraser Thimble Farms in BC and besides these, you can only try mail-order nurseries from the States and UK.