Monday, September 26, 2011

Toad Lilies

Samuri Toad lily
The 'Samuri' Toad Lily has variegated leaves

The name “toad lily” may sound like an oxymoron. But this is one toad you don’t have to kiss to get a princely flower.

Its exotic blooms, often a combination of purple and cream, resemble miniature orchids. They also provide wonderful color in the shade garden this time of year when few other perennials are blossoming.

These Asian natives have been in cultivation for quite a while. They were discovered in Japan in 1784 and have been grown in this country since the 1890s. It was only after the Chicago Botanic Garden published a 10-year evaluation of the plant in 2001, however, that toad lilies started becoming more widely available.

Toad lilies, or tricyrtis, require at least part shade and a soil that is consistently moist and fertile. They keep on blooming for a long time, often until a hard frost, and spread by underground rhizomes. Its arching stems will form a "colony” over time.

If you're a worry wart, they are very reliable. Toad lilies are slow to wake up in the spring like many other late bloomers so be patient. And because their flowers are so intricate, you need to put them near a bench or a path where you can admire them up close and personal.

Exactly how toad lilies got their common name is unclear. The blooms are spotted, not unlike a toad. The plants like moisture, unlike some other lilies. Search the Internet and many articles say that early hunters used to smear it on their hands to help them catch toads. Some sites even link the name to a fictitious tribe in the Philippines during the days of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-loving wife Imelda (!?)

Wherever its common name came from, be sure to jump on this plant for some fall color. I promise it won't give you warts.

(Photo by Lynn Dipple)

By Karen Geisler

Friday, September 16, 2011

From Soup to Nuts

Now Cheesier echinacea
Now Cheesier echinacea

Have you ever noticed how many of the newer perennials have food-inspired names?

Several of the latest coral bells or heuchera have yummy-sounding titles as do many new coneflowers or echinacea. In fact, you could make a whole “meal” with them if you toss in a few old standbys.

Guacamole hosta
Guacamole hosta
For starters, there’s Guacamole (hosta). First course: Tomato Soup (echinacea). Follow that with Mac 'N Cheese (echinacea) or maybe Now Cheesier (echinacea). Have some Fried Green Tomatoes (hosta) on the side.

Want something to drink? There’s Spilt Milk (hosta), Spilled Milk (pulmonaria), Bowl of Cream (peony) and Milkshake (echinacea). You also could enjoy Coconut Lime (echinacea) or Sweet Tea (heucherella).

If you'd prefer something stronger, there's Merlot (echinacea), Blackberry Wine (corydalis), Raspberry Wine (monarda) or Peppermint Schnapps (hibiscus).

Lemon Queen helianthus
Lemon Queen helianthus
Need some fruit to cleanse your palate? Check out Hot Papaya (echinacea), Lemon Queen (helianthus) or Tangerine Dream (echinacea).

If you still have room for dessert, there are plenty of sweets: Crème Brulee (heuchera), Plum Pudding (heuchera), Key Lime (heuchera), Caramel (heuchera), Peach Flambe (heuchera), Chocolate Chip (ajuga), Cotton Candy (stachys) and Raspberry Sundae (peony), just to name a few.

And then there’s chocolate -- lovely, delightful chocolate, good for whatever ails you. You could build a whole garden around plants with chocolate in their names. Two of the best are Chocolate Ruffles (heuchera) and Chocolate Joe Pye Weed (eupatorium).

If you'd prefer something lighter, try Pistache (heuchera), named for the tree that produces pistachio nuts.

Pistache heuchera
Pistache heuchera
Ironically, and perhaps thankfully, none of these perennials with food-inspired titles smell like their namesakes. The only plant I’ve ever found that even remotely smells like food is an ornamental grass called prairie dropseed or sporobolus heterolepsis. Its plumes smell like hot buttered popcorn to me on a good day although my husband can’t smell it at all.

The trend toward food-related perennial names is a bit puzzling, as you don’t see many such names much among annuals, trees or shrubs. The only candidates that come to mind are Chocolate cosmos and Popcorn doublefile viburnum.

Maybe it’s because developing new hybrid plants is a lot like cooking – take a cup of Plant A, add a dash of Plant B, put them together in a warm environment and … well, you get the picture. At least putting these food-inspired plants in your garden won’t pack on the extra pounds the way the real thing would.

All this, however, does leave me wondering what's next. At this rate, it probably won’t be long until someone comes up with a plant named PB&J. Just remember you heard it here first.

(With photos by Lynn Dipple)

By Karen Geisler

Friday, September 9, 2011

Circle Onion

Circle onion in full bloom
The circle onion in full bloom
It’s always a bit sad in my garden this time of year. There are sedums and grasses blooming, but the coneflowers are a little long in the tooth and almost everything else looks a bit tired. One big exception is a plant at the end of my front sidewalk – allium senescens ssp. glaucum, better known as the circle onion.

It’s a funny name for a cool little plant. And it has a number of other nicknames as well. Among them are German garlic, Blue Siberian onion, cowlick onion, corkscrew ornamental onion, spiral onion, curly chives and circle chives.

Circle onion flowers
 A closeup of the circle onion's flower
One look at the plant, especially in the spring, explains why. Its blue-gray leaves form a spiral, almost a cowlick of sorts. Even this late in the season, when the plant explodes into a bouquet of purple-pink lollipops, the foliage is still a bit twisted and curly.

Like all alliums, or ornamental onions, it likes a well drained site with plenty of sun. The plant tops out at 10 inches tall when in bloom and spreads about 6-10 inches wide. It’s deer- and rabbit-resistant, a big plus.

You can easily divide circle onion. In fact, you need to divide it to keep the plant vigorous once it gets large. I’m going to have to divide some clumps this fall that have been in the ground for about three years. Just make sure you keep the “bulbs” intact.

Circle onion
Circle onion's foliage

What separates this plant from its cousins is that the foliage is nice before and after it blooms. Many alliums that flower in the early summer go dormant after they bloom. In other words, the leaves die. That can leave a bit of a hole in your border unless you put it near other plants that will grow and cover the spot.

Circle onion, though, keeps on giving the whole season long. So if you want some gorgeous color in the late summer and some fantastic foliage, consider putting some circle onion on your plate.

By Karen Geisler

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Metallic Blue Lady

Metallic Blue Lady Lenten rose
Hellebore orientalis 'Metallic Blue Lady'

The foliage of 'Metallic Blue Lady'

 I'm not easily impressed by a perennial, but I recently saw one that knocked my socks off -- a hellebore or Lenten rose called 'Metallic Blue Lady.'  The leaves this time of year have a wonderful silvery sheen. In spring, it has a dark, dark purple flower.

It reminded me that fall is a good time to plant, especially when it comes to spring-blooming perennials like hellebores. Planting now allows them to develop a strong root system. The soil is warmer now than in spring, making it easier for them to get established. And cooler air temperatures (believe me, they are coming) will further encourage root development instead of growth above ground.

The same thing applies to a lot of other plants as well. Peonies, for example, are best moved in the fall. Also, if you plant mums early enough, they have a better chance of coming back on their own next year. So if you want to brighten up your garden next spring, doing a bit of planting this fall can put you ahead of the game.