Thursday, July 15, 2010

Quote of the day

Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
- Henry James -

...and now, off to Scandinavia. We'll be spending four lazy weeks with the families, sitting in the shade and inhaling the ripening green scents of high summer, occasionally plunging into the brackish water of the Baltic sea... I'll be back late August.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

... and slender, native Columbia lilies

A fully open Columbia lily, with golden, gracefully curved petals spotted with dark mahogany freckles.
Lilies are out not only in the gardens of Pacific Northwest, but they are also blooming wild on the mountainous, rocky slopes of the area. Tired from the 4th of July celebrations, we took our girls for an easy hike to the top of the Little Si just outside the Seattle metropolitan area. On the way up, we ate our lunch surrounded by peckish squirrels making eager calling noises for others to join the expected feast.

Mount Si hiding in the fleecy coulds, as seen from the top of Little Si.

Between the cliffs, the slopes were filled with slender lilies bearing their golden flowers with curved petals like glowing little lanterns. They were small, barely two feet high (0.5m), and most of them had only managed to produce one or two flowers at the top of their meager stems on the stony soil. Delicate and elegant, they looked almost out of place on the barren hillsides, like young ladies dressed to kill but nowhere to go...

*A newly opened bud; the tips of the petals are starting to curve upwards.
Back home, I identified the flowers as Columbia lilies, Lilium columbianum, that grow on elevated hills from northern California to British Columbia. Their flowers resemble in appearance the "Turk's cap lilies" like Lilium martagon, L. henryi and L. tenuifolium, and they even share the typical whorl of leaves that grows circularly from the nodes of the stem.
Despite all the other, lush vegetation we saw during the hike - ferns, salmonberries, giant redwoods - it was these glowing, fragile lilies that made the deepest impression on me. Maybe it was the crawl through the thicket to catch the photos, but afterwards I felt like a modern day plant explorer hunting for new treasures, despite actually having been only a couple of steps from a popular hiking track...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Giant Himalayan lilies

The Giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, in full bloom beside a velvety Hydrangea aspera at the Bloedel Reserve gardens. I'm sorry for the poor photo quality; it was difficult to catch the lily in the bright sunlight...
A real photographer never takes pictures in full sun, I read somewhere; he or she only works on over-cast days, during the tentative light of the early morning, or in the warm, soft glow of the evening. But I rather accept the less than ideal conditions than leave things undocumented... Like on last Saturday, when my dear, non-gardening friend Tina was on a brief visit from Berkeley. I just had to show her the Bloedel Reserve, one of the greatest gardens in North America, and despite the relentless high noon sun, I tried to catch a picture of the Giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, that was in full bloom, towering almost 10 feet above the soft, humus-scented ground of the gardens.
I first met these huge, regal lilies in Marian's garden last year, and have been fascinated by them ever since. Originating from the lush and fertile mountains of the Yunnan province in China, they were discovered (to the eyes of the Western gardeners...) by Scottish plant explorer Robert Fortune in mid-19th century. Giant Himalayan lilies can be cultivated at least in Danish gardens, but I had never seen as far up as in Stockholm; I would be very interested to know if anyone there has grown them. They are quite expensive to buy as bulbs, but as they do not like transplanting, they are safer to grow from seed. Their journey from seed to a flowering plant takes five to seven years, so they are definitely not something for gardeners expecting instant effects; therefore, they remained a collector's plant even in climates well-suited for cultivating them.
A tuft of leathery, glossy leaves of young Himalayan lilies, not yet ready to flower.
During the first five to seven years, the lilies only make large tufts of glossy, leathery leaves. Then, when the bulb is mature, a tall shoot emerges from the centre carrying narrow, jade-green flower buds. In the middle of summer, the buds start to open one after another, from the bottom of the raceme and upwards, revealing the large, white bell-shaped flowers with a touch of burgundy in the throat. The flowers emit a heady fragrance during the night-time; only one lily plant is enough to scent a whole garden. After two weeks the Giant Himalayan lilies finish their flowering and if left in place, the dry, soaring stems will fill the air with sparkling, translucent seed. Exhausted by their magnificent performance, the mother bulbs die after flowering, leaving their offspring in the soil, ready to start the long cycle of life again.
Browsing through some gardening literature, I found some quite eccentric advice on how to plant Giant Himalayan lilies. Miss Gertrud Jekyll, for instance, advised on digging a hole of one cubic yard, filling it with compost and manure, and tossing in a rabbit before planting the bulbs. Major George Sheriff, a Scottish plant hunter and botanist who visited the Himalayas, went further and recommended digging a far larger hole, as according to him only a dead yak will do being a native to the same area as the Cardiocrinums.
I guess the rabbit would be the most realistic option for a home gardener like me, and even then I would be quite concerned about the local dogs getting wild about my gardening methods... But given how long time it takes for the lilies to flower, I won't be growing them any time soon as I don't know how long I will be tending my present garden; it would be too sad to leave them before they flowered. So I guess I just have to be content with admiring them at a distance.