Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Beautiful Verbascum

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have sort of a "thing" about Verbascums, more commonly known as mulleins. Verbascum thapsus, introduced from Europe and now common throughout the United States, fascinated me as a kid with its densely furry rosettes. I didn't really care much about the flowers; the single yellow spike seemed almost a disappointment after the exotic prelude. It felt like it should do so much more!

Turkey is the center of distribution of the genus Verbascum, with some 75 or more species. Most, but not all, are furry, some densely so. Many do leave V. thapsus trailing in the dust when it comes to flowers, with as many as 100 spikes in dense candelabras. Their leaves are also extremely varied, with an indumentum ranging from thin and brown to dense, deep and white, some dull, some shimmering. Some have neat rosetts, others have contorted leaves that form an almost ball-like plant. The leaf margins of some are smooth, others are deeply convoluted, and others, like the one above, are delicately and exquisitely fluted. And it seems that wherever I travel in Turkey, I come upon a new one that I've never seen before. What I didn't expect was to find a new and beautiful one right in my own back yard! Well, at least in Istanbul's back yard; more specifically, on Kınalıada, the first of the Prince's islands off Istanbul's Asian coast.

I went with two friends the day before Easter, and took a hike around the back side of the island, taking pictures of wild flowers coming into bloom and collecting wild greens. And there, down near the sea, was a small patch of one of the most beautiful mulleins I think I've ever seen. Of course it's the one at the top of the article.

One extremely frustrating thing is finding a beautiful plant in some out of the way place that you'll probably never get back to and realizing that there won't be any seeds available until several months hence. But a very nice feature of mulleins is that their seed stalks tend to persist from the previous year, and very often there is still some seed to be found. I was lucky this time as well. There wasn't a lot of seed, but really, how many of a plant like this do you need?

If anyone knows the species of this particular plant, I'd love to know!

My Iris Fantasy

To me, iris are such beautiful plants that you hardly have to write anything about them. They speak for themselves. They also hold a special place in my heart because my mother had a long row of them in her garden back in Iowa where I grew up. Each spring as they bloomed, I would go down the row smelling each one, and marveling at the wonderful scents. At their best, the fragrances are truly delicious, almost hinting at edibility. Not so much at the bronze and yellow ones, which often smell more like something that came out of a male cat, but even those are interesting.

Iris aren't very popular in Istanbul, because they're associated mostly with graveyards, which explode with iris every spring. So the only tall bearded you see here is generally the very early purple I. germanica. Luckily for me, the fact that purple iris grow in graveyards doesn't count against iris, it just makes the graveyards that much more beautiful! This is one of the blooms on a plant that pops a good week and half before any of the rest. Other than that, it's almost identical with them.

In my mother's garden, there was a particular sky-blue one that sticks in my mind. I have no idea what the name of the variety was. But the blue was so pure and clear that sometimes I wonder if the reason I've been unable to find anything like it, is that I've idealized it in my mind and nothing will ever measure up. And I had a fantasy when it came to that iris. I had it with most of them, but it was especially the clear blue one that brought it up. It was not enough to look at the iris, or smell it; I wanted to be inside the iris. Maybe it was the fact that the upright, incurving standards of bearded iris suggest a room by their very shape. I wonder if I'm the only one who thought of it. But who wouldn't want to walk inside a cave of their favorite color, backlit by the sun, and surrounded by the intoxicating scent of iris?

I used to think that at least the bees could enjoy it. Later I learned that the inside of the "room" formed by iris petals are of absolutely no interest to a bee at all; they enter the little "ramp" over the yellow beard, three on each flower. So I needn't envy them, my fantasy remains mine.

Iris Catchup!

No, this post will not contain any suggestions for making a condiment out of spent iris flowers. This has been a pretty busy time for me, so although I've been out snapping pictures of the spring rush, getting them posted has been another thing altogether. So now it's catch-up time! There's a lot going on out there now, but I'll start with the iris.

In cas you were wondering what the nondescript white bud from the "Messin with my Mind" post turned into, I think you'll agree it was well worth the wait! A beautiful unidentified (by me) very substantial white Pacific Coast Iris.

Here's a top view.

It's already opened its last bloom for this year.
While we're on the subject of Pacific Coast Iris, here's the third one that bloomed for me this year. It's another I. douglasiana, a nice rich purple. I had to play with the colors a bit on photoshop because many digital cameras turn deep purples into blues. This is the closest I could get to the original hue.

In addition to the PCIs, I also had my first bloom of Iris graminea, a truly unusual and beautiful small clumping iris with blossoms that smell somewhat like plums. The only negative point is that the blooms tend to open down in among the leaves, but it's such an interesting shape and lovely collection of shades that I'm perfectly happy to overlook its little flaw.

There's more to come, some of my tall bearded iris look ready to bloom for the first time this year. Other plants will come in "Catchup II," to be posted when I can get round to it!

Spring Makeover!

I'm a plant freak, so my attention (and money) tends to go toward plants and whatever I need to keep them thriving. But the hardscape of a garden is important too, especially what's underfoot. Back in Iowa, m moms gardens were mostly borders along the house and the corner of the yard, so there were no paths per se. When I started making my own gardens, they were not part of the yard, they werethe yard, and so the problem of how to get through them emerged.

I do love brick paving. In Seattle I was lucky to find a huge pile of bricks from a torn down wall, and had enough to pave the path down to a nice grassy circle below. In my last garden, in Kocamustafapaşa, the soil was full of bricks as well, so I got at least enough to pave a circle. But there were no free bricks to be had in my present garden. I got the paths laid out, but they were paved with dirt. And of course, dirt is...dirty! And it grows weeds rather quickly. At the left, you can see the layout early on, dirt paths and all.

So pretty early on, I opted for my second favorite option: gravel paths. Only I couldn't find the gravel I wanted. I like a light gray almost white gravel; I think it shows off the plants the best. Unfortunately it just isn't to be had here. I found some light reddish-brown gravel that might have harmonized with the walls, but it just didn't feel right. What bothered me about it was the color - a somewhat odd bluish-gray. Dark. Believe me, I went all over looking for alternatives, but everywhere, it was the same.

Then I found a pile that looked a little better; and it turned out it was the same stuff, but it was dry and had sat out in the weather for a while. So finally, I just bit the bullet and had it brought in. Because my uppermost garden is down three flights of steps, I couldn't have it dumped; it had to be bagged. I started with thirty, but the bags werent' overly full, so I ended up getting another ten. And here is the result!

To be honest, I still would have liked to find something just a bit lighter; hopefully it will lighten up a little. But the garden really does feel like a completely different place now! You can see the rather striking difference in color between the moist gravel and the pieces that have dried in the foreground.

Over most of the path, I used the plastic mesh bags the gravel came in underneath the gravel in order to make it a bit harder for weed roots to get into the soil. Overall, "weed barriers" are hooey, especially over actual planted area. And they don't really keep weeds from growing. But in my last garden I did notice the same bags under the patio did give me a bit of a margin, and they were easier to pull.

I've also left one section unlined. Why? Gravel is actually provides an excellent environment for starting some seeds, because it holds in some moisture. I remember back in Iowa, our best evenin primroses grew out of the layer of rocks on our patio, and the Verbascum olympicum I saw on Uludağ was also often growing in gravelly areas. So it will be a bit of an experiment. I don't think I'll regret it!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Messin' With my Mind

I can get very nostalgic about plants. A particular plant or flower can have the same effect on me as a smell does, whisking me back to a distant (or not so distant) place or time. When I was about 35 years old, I went to eastern Washington, and noticed that there was sagebrush growing there. I got out of the car, plucked off a sprig, and as soon as the smell hit my brain I was transported to the age of 9, on a dusty roadside in a somewhat bleak landscape in Montana.

In Greece and Turkey, blood red poppies are everywhere in the spring. And years after I'd returned from Greece and the first Greek poppy bloomed in my Seattle garden, it was almost as if the garden disappeared and I was alone on the flank of Mt. Lycabettus in Athens, marvelling that a plant could poduce something so purely red.

Some plants can really mess with your mind though.

On my trip back to the US last Oceober, I brought several Pacific Coast Iris varieties. It's an amazing group that doesn't thrive (or even survive) everywhere. But since Istanbul winters are almost indistinguishable from those of coastal N. California or Oregon, and the season was right, I thought I'd give it a go. Bare-rooting plants is always stressful, but if you're going to do it to a Pacific Coast Iris you better do it at theright time of the year.

So they seemed to settle in quite well, and several weeks ago were obviously sending up flower buds. Last week the first bud started to open, showing a tantalizing line of purple. ("But that's not purple on that bud in the photo, and it's not a line!" you must be thinking. True, on both counts. Don't be so literal-minded!)

Anyway, when you see that on a tall bearded iris, you know you'll have a flower very soon. It's as if the ecological knowledge born of their evolution in lands filled with hungry slugs and snails is telling them, "better get on with it!"

Now the Pacific Northwest is famous for slugs too, giant ones, and to read some garden writers from there you'd think that Seattle and its surroundings would be little more than a barren field of slimy green stubs. But our natives are actually pretty harmless. It's the imported varieties that cause all the damage. Emmet Watson would agree if he were among us today.

So every morning I would grab my camera and head down into the garden, brimming with the expectation of finding either the first bloom of a PCI in Istanbul, or a snail-eaten stub. And every day, I found neither: just a slight bit more purple edge had shown itself. It was only by the day before yesterday that the entire bud had emerged, ready to burst into bloom.

Yesterday morning, once again, I stumbled out of bed and down to the garden, camera in hand. And there it stood, tall, proud, stately... and still defiantly closed. And it sat that way all day. If it weren't for slug bait*, it would have suffered the same fate as the Siberian squills (or green and blue stumps thereof) that surrounded it. It was something like holding a lollipop in front of a sugar-starved 4-year-old and asking him to please not lick it. Who could blame a snail?

It's taxing on the psyche. I'm confident that if I were a Hosta grower here, by now I'd be full-on, certifiably, bat-shit crazy.

Well, this morning it finally did pop. And predictably, since I haven't had a Pacific Coast iris blooming in my garden for ten years now, it was one of those time-tunnel experiences. Against the very real sound of the chickadees and the familiar cool breeze on my face offset by warmth of the sun on my back, I could almost feel the gentle green embrace of my old garden, and the sweet resinous aroma of budding poplars that fills Seattle every spring.

Of course summer will be the real test of these beauties; Istanbul gets hot. I'm hoping the cooling effect of the nearby Bosphorus will help them pull through; back in Kocamustafapaşa with its more Mediterranean microclimate, they would almost surely be toast by July. Maybe mine will be. That's okay, I have other nostalgia plants on the way...Geranium x magnificum, night-scented stocks, Korean chysanthemums...

So I suppose I've almost come full circle. Iowa to Illinois, where I grew my mom's evening primroses as my tie to home, Illinois to Greece where I grew...well, almost nothing...Greece to Seattle and Greek poppies tied me back to the fleeting green of a Greek hillside; and now Seattle to Istanbul, with Pacific iris. Though with all due respect to the folks in Helena, I'm kind of hoping the next step will not be me, trying to garden on a dusty hot roadside in Montana!
* "Oh dear, slug bait?!" I can hear the more ecologically minded of my readers clucking. Tsk tsk! But I challenge any of you to resist after you've picked and smashed hundreds upon hundreds and still come out to find your newly-emerged beans and peas, your clematis, all your bulbs, your iris, your...just about everything, mowed to the ground. In fact I challeng you to try and raise anything here without it! I would smash them in the hundreds and more just materialize. We've got an acre or two here after all. "Get a goose!" they say. I can hear the neighbors now as the goose begins honking. And I can see me as it goes through the garden, eating a beakful of rarities for every snail it downs! "Get rid of their hiding places!" If that means pulling up all the wild flowers, all the borage, white comfrey, arum, smyrnium et al. that grow here, and tearing down all our rock walls, I suppose that would be an option.

Honestly I'd rather not use it. We don't have the harmless-to-wildlife brand here. Fortunately there is a tiny granular one of a bizarre color and not much smell; I've never seen any bird or animal (outside snails) show the least interest in it. But snails - five or six species, all of them voracious - are simply part of the landscape here. Between slug bait and a couple of gypsies from Adapazarı, they are kept moderately in check.