Monday, September 29, 2008

Two new phenomena

Front garden: absolute Koyaanisqatsi. From this chaos I will have a driveway, which will be worth a future blog entry (yes, really!).

Back garden: a bloom I never saw before emerging below a toppled tree. Did I plant it, I wonder? What is it??

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pokeweed Story

Pokeweed in Robeline, Louisiana

[I’m still thinking about hurricanes, naturally. Have you seen the photos of Galveston? Oh, what a disaster.] The spring after Hurricane Katrina went by New Orleans, I visited the city with some folks from my congregation. The People’s Institute had invited us and they graciously hosted us. We were taken on tours of the devastated city from their point of view.

We drove through the wards with Dr. Richards. At one point, she suddenly broke off midsentence, saying, Stop a minute! She sprang out of the car and over to where she had seen a large, hearty-looking pokeweed plant growing in front of an empty house. She snapped off a stalk and came back with it, full of enthusiastic energy. As we drove on, Dr. Richards told us the traditional way of preparing pokeweed by boiling it till the toxins were cooked out, and then it was safe to eat. Ruefully she shook the stalk. I don’t think this one would ever be safe to eat, growing out of that toxic soil, she said.

All the time we drove through the wards she held the pokeweed. Watching the leaves wilt over the vivid red stem seemed like an analogy to the city that I couldn’t quite articulate. When we said our goodbyes, the pokeweed was left on the seat of the car, a strange souvenir of New Orleans.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Theory of Place-Holder Plants

...shown in a very roundabout way by hurricane debris. Everyone here has a hedge-sort-of-thing between the street and sidewalk, courtesy of Hurricane Ike.

My own Ike hedge is modest, since much debris is now in the compost.

In the middle of the mess, schoolhouse lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) are looking weary but present.

I had schemes for robust, useful, and fabulous plantings of the "hell strip". They were further incited by a look at this Seattle blog, Greenwalks. Up till now, my strip was practically a monoculture of liriope spiked with some bulbs, a parsley hawthorne youngster, and some oaks. When we moved in here, the front "garden" was a mud flat migrating to the curb. I took emergency measures to stabilize it: I dug enough clumps of liriope from our old home to make hundreds of transplants for the hell strip. Then on Thanksgiving Day I enlisted all family members to plant them. That day, my Theory of Place-Holder Plants was born.

Say you have some place to plant, but what you want to plant there is out of season/stock/budget. I say go ahead and put in free, tough, boring plants to hold the place. They help keep the soil in the beds loose and inhabited. They are a little like cover crops. When the plants you really want arrive, out go the place-holder plants.

Who knows when the city will collect all this biomass thrown down by the hurricane. I am now quite pleased that there is not much but liriope growing under the pile. Liriope will survive. Some day, I will make a more creative planting of the hell strip, but I will always keep a place for another hurricane hedge.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Ike Update

It's not that bad for us. I wasn't even around for the storm; I was in dry New Mexico. When I got back to Houston, the neighbors were having a little party by candle light and an acoustic jam in the frontyard. Shattered trees were all around, and the power was off, but it was strangely cool, mosquito-free, and good.

Now the sweetness of that first evening home is gone. The mosquito population is mighty, the mercury is rising, and the electricity is still off. Gas and ice are luxuries we try to do without. Communications are conducted by cell phones that are always nearly discharged.

All these annoyances are so minor compared to life on the coastline right now. My garden was roughed up, but not drowned in saltwater. We have fallen trees, but not fallen buildings, in our landscape. We have friends with electricity who have brought cold drinks, offered laundry and beds in air conditioned guest rooms. This is no Katrina for us and I am so thankful!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cuban Invasion in the Brickpile

I began seeing a very zippy brown lizard in nurseries a few years ago. You might never notice it if it stayed put, but it sees you before you see it and skitters dramatically to someplace it considers safe. It is Anolis sagrei, the Cuban brown anole. I assume they came over in plant shipments from Florida. Now I see them flinging themselves around my backyard whenever I go out. Cuban brown anoles are like our green anoles on amphetamines, but of course, brown. Some worry that these little invaders will pressure the green anoles out. But if my backyard is any indication, they prefer different niches.

Green anoles hang out in plants and sometimes on walls. This one likes the Lindheimer muhly grass. They are mellow and into unbroken eye contact. In a good mood, they are bright green with random sprinkling of sky blue scales, and a ring of powdery blue eye shadow which puts me in mind of a truckstop waitress.

Cuban brown anoles hang out in the brick pile and on the driveway, and they don’t mind the construction site which takes up half of the backyard. This one only stopped long enough to get photographed because it hesitated to hurl itself into the dark crawl space.

For more about Brown anoles, there is an interesting article on invasive reptiles in Texas here.

Crinums with Provenance

Here’s a Crinum americanum/spider lily photographed fresh this morning. I acquired the original plants on a lunch break in a park. They were being dug up and dumped because the neighborhood wanted something more tidy and spectacular. It’s not a front-of-the-bed plant but it has some great qualities and is native here. The blooms smell like lemons and magnolia. It’s happy in shade or sun. You can’t kill it in standing water or dried out clay—it’s perfect for rain gardens.
From my garden they have now gone to various plant sales, Native Plant Society swaps, and even a bayou restoration project. That’s an honorable career for a plant once headed to the trashbag.

This Deep Sea Lily came from a 19th century place in the Old Sixth Ward which belonged to my friend Ms Alex. It has six-foot long floppy foliage which gets tangled up in an undersea way. It is probably Crinum x herbertii, an old hybrid with African ancestors. For some reason, Ms Alex and I decided to divide her clump of lilies. Chipping away the clay, I got an education on what a monster bulb this thing has. Eighteen inches down I was still trying to dig under the bulbs but splitting them midway. The ones that I got out intact looked just like leeks on a grand scale.
I replanted them at home without much forethought, and now they are completely shaded, which means they should be relocated somewhere sunny. I think about all the excavation required and I can’t get excited about it. The flowers on my variety are so-so compared to other “Milk and Wine” types, and the scapes fall over the instant the buds open. But it has great bluish green foliage and I do love a blue-green plant.

There was a sad one-leafed lily growing right up by the dark foundation of our neighborhood abandoned house. I wanted to rescue it and put it in my bed for wayward amaryllises, because that’s what I assumed it was. I took a hand spade, a bag, and the dog (for cover) down to the house one evening and I lifted that little bulb. Five fingered gardening, I think it’s called. Stealing. The plant is quite robust now, but didn’t bloom with the amaryllises this spring.
In June, I lucked into a ticket to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with Ms Kelli and family. On rambles I saw Hymenocallis spider lilies in beautiful clumps along the undeveloped beaches. Here's one blooming by a beach hut at our resort, Iberostar Quetzal.

When I got home, my hot ‘amaryllis’ was blooming—and it’s a Hymenocallis. I didn’t get a picture. I wasn’t garden blogging then. Now I’ve found out there are a zillion varieties of US and Mexican Hymenocallis, according to Scott Ogden’s book Garden Bulbs for the South. Guess I have to wait till next year when it blooms if I want to know what kind it is.
I have to say I like my passalong crinums with a little shady history more than the blank slate plants I get from a nursery.