Toad-like blooms?

The common names of plants can be aptly descriptive, or absolutely puzzling. The mostly spotted blooms of  toad lilies (Tricyrtis) are exquisite, and indeed it is difficult to imagine that the flowers bear any resemblance to toads, so do not be dissuaded by such an unpleasant moniker. Toad lilies are pest free and easy to grow, and though the foliage is unremarkable through spring and most of the summer, the late summer and early autumn blooms are quite splendid.

Toad lilies prefer part shade or a mostly sunny spot with a bit of a break from the afternoon sun, and slightly moist soils. I’ve had poor results in dry shade, or in competition with tree roots. As I’ve increased my collection with plants purchased through mail order I’ve had a few problems with small pots surviving a short period of neglect through a a dry spell, but I’ve had no issues with more established plants in one gallon containers. I’m hooked on toad lilies to the extent that I’m determined to try every new introduction, so I’ve decided to construct a transplant bed where I can watch over the more tender newcomers.

The earliest of the toad lilies in the garden began to bloom at the start of August (Tricyrtis formosana ‘Samurai’, above), but most begin in early September with the heaviest flowering late in the month through mid October. I’ve found ‘Samurai’ to be the most undisciplined of the group with wiry stems that sprawl in every direction (though mostly they lean towards the afternoon sun), and blooms that are more scattered on branch tips than other varieties. This was the first toad lily I planted, and the original plant has been divided with several planted in increasingly dense shade, and one in nearly full sun that grows more compact (though still flopping about) and blooms more heavily.

Over a period of years I’ve planted a handful of ‘Sinonome’ (Tricyrtis x ‘Sinonome’, above) in bright shade, and a few in almost full sun that have grown wonderfully. ‘Sinonome’ seems not to branch at all (in sun or shade, even if cut back in mid summer), but stems grow straight and sufficiently rigid not to flop. Its flowers are more heavily spotted in purple than others, and often several on a branch tip bloom concurrently for a better show. The green foliage is glossier than other varieties, and in full sun it exhibits almost no stress or burning, even in the heat of summer.

The most compact of the garden’s toad lilies is ‘Miyazaki’ (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’ above) with stiff branches that are broadly vase shaped. There are flower buds at the base of each leaf node that open over a short period so that they will almost overlap when fully in bloom (below). Ideally, I would prefer a bit more spacing between blooms, but I don’t get to choose such things, and this is the most spectacular of toad lilies in full flower, though it is also the least tolerant of sun. 

‘Lightning Strike’ (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Lightning Strike’, below) is similar in habit and flowering to ‘Miyazaki’, though stems arch slightly more and flowers are spaced a bit. Its foliage is notably striped in gold so that it is the most attractive when not flowering, and in more dense shade in the garden it performs admirably. ‘Lightning Strike’ is the only toad lily that has spread itself from the main clump (though only by a few inches), and whether this is from seed or from the roots I haven’t discovered.

Somewhere in the garden I’ve planted ‘Tojen’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Gilt Edge’, and a yellow flowered variety (that isn’t flowering yet) who’s name escapes me, and forgive my poor memory and lack of organization in not recalling which is which and what is where. One newcomer to the garden this spring that has survived one hundred degree heat and my lack of attention is ‘Maya White’ (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Maya White’, below), which is too small at this point to tell much about its growth habit, but is blooming exceptionally for such a small fellow.

Toad lilies blooms are best appreciated close up, the closer the better. Crouching is not close enough for me, and on my knees I still lean lower to view them within a few inches of my nose. This is not an appropriate plant to be seen from across the neighborhood, but a splendid choice for gardeners who leisurely stop and kneel at every turn. Bumblebees are attracted to the flowers, and large bees must squeeze under the anthers, or cheat and pinch through the base of the blooms for their nectar. 

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Late September

The crinum (below) has finally come into bloom, a bit later than normal to my recollection. Though it is marginally cold hardy I planted it in a pot, and each October I lug it indoors to spend the winter in the basement along with elephant ears and assorted other tropicals. No more! In the next few weeks I’ll plant the crinum in a slightly moist spot in the garden, and let it fend for itself. The indoor storage space is becoming too crowded, and any plant that can possibly survive outdoors will be given the opportunity.

The challenge will be in finding an appropriate spot for the crinum where it can be seen, and where the soil is not too damp so that the huge bulb might rot. For the first winter I’ll cover it with an extra five or six inches of bark chips for insulation, and we’ll see what happens. 

The recent cool nights should serve as a reminder, but I’m certain to forget to bring the tropicals indoors until there’s a frost warning  one evening. This year more of the tropicals will be banished to the basement rather than the kitchen and dining area. The gingers have become huge, and the bananas will barely fit through the door, so either they move downstairs or my wife and I will have to. This summer I purchased a tall, rather leggy Tibouchina (above), and though I had plans to prune it back so that it would fill in, there were so many flower buds that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Without interference on my part the somewhat bare bottom has filled in nicely. It will come inside for the winter, and will certainly get a spot where I can watch over it. 

Several years ago I planted several autumn saffron, sometimes called autumn crocus. It is not a crocus at all but colchicum, and is not likely to be mistaken for a crocus since the flowers are much larger. The double flowered ‘Waterlily’ flowered nicely, then disappeared forever, but plain old Colchicum byzantinum (above) has grown and flowered reliably, and spreads a bit (but only a bit) every year. I’m certain that I screwed up somehow in planting ‘Waterlily’, but now I don’t recall where it was planted, so I don’t know if the spot was too wet or whatever else might have gone wrong. There is hardly an easier plant to grow, so I’ll probably try this one again sometime if I can remember to order them earlier than today (when they’re nearly past bloom).

The past six weeks have been exceptionally rainy, and there have been few sunny days so that many late summer bloomers have been delayed into autumn. Unless a killing frost comes early there should be no concern. The toad lilies and perennial sunflowers (in bud, above) have just begun to flower, and they will be enjoyed into October along with autumn blooming azaleas and hydrangeas.

Anytime but September

In recent years the pink Japanese windflower (Anemone x hybrida ‘September Charm’, below) has flowered in August, or October, but not September. I suppose that in most years out of ten ‘September Charm’ will flower sometime in September, and this year it began to bloom with the turn of the calendar page. I learned long ago that calculating blooming times is risky business with too many variables in temperature, sunlight, and rainfall. So, why bother and who cares? They’ll flower sooner or later, and usually within a week or two of “normal”, unless it’s another week earlier or later.

In my experience the white windflowers (below) keep to a more reliable schedule, blooming a bit later than the pink, but predictably by mid September. Once you have grown windflowers, the origin of the name is quite obvious. The plants grow tall and upright, and the flower stems rise another foot or more above the foliage so that they bob to and fro in the slightest breeze. I’ve had young plants topple over in a gale, but established windflowers only lean a bit, and almost never flop so that staking is not needed. The foliage is unremarkable, and a clever gardener might figure a way to plant supporting neighbors, but mine are planted in the open and nothing much comes of it.

In the first year and second Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, below) grows weakly, and the gardener will wonder whether the sparse clump will survive. If planted in partial shade it picks up some vigor by the third year, and after four or five years the healthy clump makes you forget that there was any bother at all. A large root division taken in mid spring will grow without skipping a beat, even if planted in a bit too much sun (that would spell the doom of a smaller plant). For my money, the larger the plant from the start the better, and I wouldn’t consider a two or three inch pot unless I was able to grow it along for another year in a transplant bed.

After gardening for forty years I’ve come to the realization that a transplant bed is nearly essential, and though I haven’t yet set one up, I’m determined to build one for the oddballs not available in the garden center that I purchase by mail order. I can’t count the number of small plants that I’ve set out in the spring that are never to be seen again. When small pots or bare roots are planted in little pockets spread out through the garden I have little chance of paying much attention to them, and it takes only a few warm days without water for them to disappear.

The soil in the transplant bed should be heavily amended with compost so that plants are easily dug in, but are also easily dug out when they’ve grown to a sturdier size . No doubt I’ll be adding to my collection of toad lilies in the spring, and along with a few spigelia, paris, corydalis, and whatever else catches my fancy, I’ll slip them into the ground in one spot where I can see the whole batch at once so that there’s some possibility that I’ll be able to watch after them. The end result will almost certainly be cheaper than paying for plants that live for a month or two (though by no fault of the nursery that supplied them).

The other grass that thrives in the shady garden requires no attention at all, except to pull seedlings that surround it in late spring each year. Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, above) will grow in nearly any shade, though it resents dry shade. With a slightly moist soil sea oats grow vigorously, and I’ve found they are splendid companion plant for hostas and other broad leafed perennials. To one side of a clump of sea oats bright yellow Creeping Jenny carpets the ground, and the many thousands of seedlings that pop up are a considerable nuisance. Beneath the hosta, no seedlings, so the lesson here is not to plant ground huggers nearby, or you’ll be forced to chop the seedheads off in late autumn before they drop to the ground.

Here’s the latest video from the garden, taken a few days ago on a cool, cloudy afternoon when the bees and butterflies were taking the day off. On sunny days I often can’t get too close to flowers without risking being stung, or frightening the butterflies, but on a cloudy day they’re off doing whatever it is that they do.

A cool September afternoon

The orbicular blooms of Aralia ‘Sun King’ (below) are a bit unusual, appearing much like small satellites attached to thin wires for a homemade science project. Rarely are the flowers shown in perennial catalogs or references, mostly because the bright yellow foliage is the aralia’s foremost attribute, but also because the blooms are not showy from a distance (even from several paces).

Bees, small wasps, and tiny ants certainly appreciate the blooms (see video below), and on a cool, sunny September afternoon the mostly shaded plants are buzzing with activity. Two plants are beside each other in the shade of a large Seriyu maple, but one gets a bit of late afternoon sun so that tender new growth was injured in the heat of summer. In the sunnier spot the shrub-like perennial is slightly more compact, but the brightly colored leaves are more effective in the shade.

With cooler temperatures the remontant mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’, below) have begun to bud, and despite the extreme heat through the summer there was not a time when each of the shrubs did not have a bloom or two. The blue mopheads (‘Penny Mac’, ‘Endless Summer’, and ‘Mini Penny’) flower dependably in late spring and autumn, and sporadically in the summer while the white ‘Blushing Bride’ rarely reblooms. 

The foliage of young hydrangeas is occasionally plagued by leaf spot in humid summers, but I rarely see any on shrubs that are partially shaded. The foliage on one mophead in nearly full sun is a more faded green, but only a few leaves near the ground have any spot at all. The hydrangeas that are shaded for a part of the day suffer less stress from heat, and so they are considerably larger than the one planted in sun.

The butterfly bushes continue to bloom into the late summer, and on sunny days a few butterflies will float between flowers. Years ago I planted the large growing ‘Black Knight’ (Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’), but the grade beyond my back property line was altered so that the garden was constantly wet, and the buddleia failed after a few years. In the past year I’ve planted more compact growing butterfly bushes ‘Miss Ruby’ (below) and ‘Blue Chip’. Both seem more floriferous, and the tighter growth will require much less severe pruning each spring. 

Blooming in mid September

I realize that by happenstance I’ve begun to assemble quite a collection of hummingbird mints (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, below). With little planning I’ve added a few from the garden center, and one or two that sounded too good to pass up were purchased by mail order. In similar fashion I’ve purchased enough coral bells and coneflowers to fill a smaller garden, but many of these have been disappointments or failures, so that only a few dependables of each remain. The hummingbirds mints grow successfully, some modestly and others like gangbusters. 

As happens too frequently to someone who should know better, I’ve paid far more attention to planting and keeping up with the garden than I have to record keeping, so I’ve lost the names of several of these wonderful hummingbird mints. Thus, I can recommend only a few by name, but I’m confident that any will be splendid additions to the sunny (and preferably dry) garden. All are sturdy, even in poor, dry soils, and their blooms attract all sorts of flying and buzzing beasts from late spring into the autumn.

As surrounding neighbors have encroached with ever deepening shade, a yellow leafed agastache (probably Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’, above) has become only slightly less vigorous, and perhaps a bit floppy. It has seeded itself modestly, and so far as I can tell the seedlings are identical to the parent plant. ‘Summer Glow’ (below) has been planted for only a year, but in the dappled shade of the Golden Full Moon maple it has grown nicely though its blooms are likely to be a bit more sparse than in full sun. 

One hosta or another has been flowering in the garden since late in the spring, and now the latest in the garden is blooming. Though most hostas are grown for their foliage and not flowers, this green leafed hosta (below) with a slight variegation of gold fades considerably in summer, so the nicely formed blooms easily outperform the foliage. For some reason tiny ants are drawn to the bloom, and perhaps this is typical of other hosta flowers but it has escaped my attention until  now.

The liriopes (Liriope muscari’ Variegata’, below) are valued for their grass-like foliage, but the purple flower spikes in late summer are delightful. The green and white variegated liriope is most commonly used for edging planting beds, but I’ve filled difficult open spaces with poor, gravelly soil, and it grows without a hitch.

I prefer the green leafed ‘Big Blue’ to the variegated, though both are in the garden. A few year ago I planted an improved green leafed liriope, ‘Cleopatra’ (below), and though it is not significantly different from ‘Big Blue’, the foliage is slightly wider and darker, and the flower slightly more purple. I have planted it at the edge of the driveway in impossibly compacted ground, and surrounded by a thick carpet of ivy. For whatever reason, the ivy refuses to clamber over the low growing liriope except for an occasional stray stem.

The last of the coral bells (Heuchera, below, and I am supposing this is the last since by my recollection all the others have flowered earlier) is now blooming, and of course I have forgotten its name, but it’s a vigorous grower with slightly yellow foliage. Its flowering stalks are compact and upright, in contrast to the nodding flowers of most coral bells. I’ve had more than a few of the newfangled heucheras fade and eventually perish, but this one grows a bit larger each year, just like it should. 

I have grown a bit tired of brightly colored new this’s and that’s that are sent to market without much concern for their long term vigor, but I suppose that I’m only a little annoyed since I keep biting for new ones. The latest is a foamy bell (Heucherella ‘Golden Zebra, below, a cross of heuchera and tiarella), and though I’ve only planted a few I’ve had good success. The foliage on ‘Golden Zebra’ is remarkably bright, and I’ll be overjoyed if it proves to be dependable.

With plenty of rain and cooler temperatures there are plenty of flowers in the garden, and so as not to tire you out I’ll cut this short (or not so long) and return in a few days to update the remainder. Later in the week we’ll take a look at the marvelous toad lilies, and then the spring and autumn flowering Encore azaleas, so there will be a bunch of blooms to cover in the following weeks.

Unintended fruit in mid September

I took a leisurely stroll through the garden Saturday morning for the first time since the heavy rains ended, and with a bit of sun the lawn has firmed up so that I can walk without turning my gardening sandals to a muddy mess. An abbreviated tour a day earlier had shown no damage from the week long storms, but lots of blooms coming along. So, I spent most of the late morning wandering about, stooping and kneeling to catch up after too many days looking at the garden from the kitchen window as the rain poured down.

The passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata, above) has been trained up the column and along the roof line of the summer shade house (a distance of fifteen or sixteen feet) until it has reached the end of the cable that I attached earlier in the summer. I have trained the still vigorously growing shoots to double back rather than growing into the Seven Son tree, and now that I am satisfied that the cable has been successful, I’ll install a cable to guide the vine along the roof line in the other direction next year.

There have been many dozens of flowers through the summer, and numerous buds are still to open until frost kills the vine to the ground. Passion vine requires a bit of maintenance to keep it in bounds, and I’ve begun to have suckers pop up between the stone slabs in the patio. They are easily pulled, but they’ll be back, and through the years the vine becomes ever more vigorous, so this is not one to plant and forget. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a low maintenance garden, but if a gardener has an inclination to keep his work to a minimum, passion vine is a poor choice.

Tropical (non cold hardy) passion vines are often found in garden centers, but the flowers of this cold hardy type are as splendid as any, so unless a different colored bloom is desired I can think of no good reason to plant any other. The vine emerges late in the spring, so the gardener must exercise caution not to give up on it, and then later to pull it as a weed. A stout support is required for the passion vine, but certainly not of the sturdiness necessary for wisteria. The vine dies to the ground each winter, so it does not get woody, and the stems are rather light in weight.

In any case, I bring the passion vine up because a fruit (above) has developed, the first I’ve seen since I planted it. The smooth skinned, lemon sized, green fruit hangs down from the roof exactly in the middle of the path onto the stone patio so that I must veer to one side or the other to avoid it. I’m not certain how to determine when it’s ripe, but the fruit is too large for birds to eat, so I suppose that I’ll taste it when it’s ready.

Though the planting around the swimming pond has become quite a tangled jungle, I managed to get close enough to the ‘Black Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, spring blooms above and fruit below) to see a few clusters of small dark berries. The berries are not abundant without another variety as a pollinator, but birds have discovered them, so it appears that the berries are gone as soon as they ripen. The elderberry was planted only for ornament, so I’m happy to leave the fruit for the birds.

‘Black Lace’ demands a bit of annual pruning of branch tips to maintain a more compact form, but even if allowed to sprawl the form is not awkward and the foliage is quite wonderful. The dark purple foliage is deeply divided, similar to a Japanese maple, and it doesn’t fade severely in the heat of summer. Several years ago I planted a yellow leafed form with broader leaves, but it pooped out in July and failed to survive the year. Perhaps if it had been planted in more damp soil it would have fared better, but ‘Black Lace’ has not been particular at all.

The crop of blueberries was sparse earlier in the summer, and I didn’t harvest a single berry, leaving them for the birds. In the past, when there were eight or ten large shrubs in the garden (that have since been removed to make room for something or the other) I enjoyed picking a handful of berries as I wandered about, and usually I would double back for another handful. Sometimes I’d pick enough to take in to share with my wife, but now I’m happy enough to let the birds have their fill, and I’ll pick up a quart or two when I visit the local grocer. Eating the warm berries as I strolled the garden seemed a just reward for my efforts, but today there are fewer on the small shrubs, so as long as the quantity is limited I prefer to keep the birds happy.

Okay, enough!

With one hundred degree temperatures and parched ground only a few weeks ago, I’ve no doubt that many area gardeners were praying for rain, and sho’ nuff, here it is. In my garden I’ve had nearly ten inches this week, on top of several inches from the hurricane and assorted storms a week earlier, and others in the area have gotten over twenty inches (and counting). If plants are in standing water that persists longer than a day that can be a problem since most will tolerate only short periods of flooded soils, but the soils in most gardens are only saturated, and I’ll bet the barn that sooner than later the rains will subside.

Maybe by tomorrow, and then the sun will pop out and plants will be happy, very happy! Before the recent deluge there had been sufficient rainfall to revive plants from their heat induced stupor, and now heavy rain over a period of days has percolated deeply into the soil. This dampness will persist for weeks with cooler September temperatures, so conditions will be ideal for growth and flowering.

I haven’t been around the garden much for a few days, but during a brief break in the monsoon I took a waterlogged stroll to see if there were any disasters to address. Fortunately, there were none. There’s a bit of standing water in the back garden, but not enough to worry about, and it will be gone with the first sunny day.

I believe that at this time a year ago I planned to do some serious chopping of the sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata or C. terniflora, above) that is climbing through a tall threadbranch cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea) after it finished blooming, and of course I didn’t, so it’s back and flowering again. Somehow, it doesn’t appear to have grown much this year, and perhaps it’s a bit smaller than a year ago (if that’s possible). So, the aggressive vine has done no further damage to the cypress, and I’m likely to let it go for another year.

(I’m a big believer in delaying projects, and often the need to do them goes away. Trees that fall are unsightly for only a year or two before they rot, and piles of leaves and debris decay even more quickly. My wife finds this attitude incredible, but if I ignore her reminders long enough she usually gives up. If not, she offers to take care of the task herself, and she knows that I’ll do just about anything to keep her from “helping” in the garden.)

The yellow leafed aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, above) is blooming, and as expected the flowers are unremarkable when compared to the brilliantly colored foliage. Still, the small, globular white blooms are unusual, even if they aren’t very showy. The foliage is quite splendid for a shady spot, where the bright yellow shines, and the aralia will grow to three feet (or more) tall and wide, so it works well planted to the back of the shady border. I’m certain that there are all sorts of amazing color combinations that are possible with such a bright yellow, and I’ve planted the annual, metallic purple Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus, below) in front. As color blind as I am, this will wake you up on a rainy afternoon.

A year ago I planted a few of the wonderful salvia ‘Black and Blue’ (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, below) which is variously described as cold hardy to zone 7 or zone 8, and unfortunately it did not survive the winter. Many Mediterranean-type plants that are plenty cold hardy do not survive wet winters, and perhaps this is the problem with the salvia, though I’ve not seen anyone mention this. Nevertheless, I’ve planted ‘Black and Blue’ again, with hopes that a second chance might bring success. They bloom off an on (mostly on) through the summer, and with cooler temperatures in early September they are particularly floriferous.

Also, with cooler temperatures the Encore azaleas have begun their late summer bloom, and on the heavily shaded south side of the garden there were a few scattered flowers on ‘Autumn Twist’ (below) early in August. On older plants ‘Twist’ has branches that are nearly all purple, while others are striped with varying amounts of white and purple. The solid purple flowers are probably a reversion to ‘Autumn Royalty’, but if that is the case the reversion doesn’t seem to be taking over the plant, only select branches, so I see no harm and don’t plan to prune this section out.

Other Encore azaleas are heavily budded, and I expect flowering from the middle of September until frost, or into late October, whichever might come first. With damp soil conditions I’m looking forward to an outstanding late summer and autumn in the garden, and now if it will dry out enough for me to get around I’ll be happy.