Sunday, August 13, 2006

Garden Phlox

What’s blooming in the area: Apache plume, winterfat, lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, golden eye, tahokia daisy, stickleaf, white evening primrose, velvetweed, horseweed, pigweed, white sweet clover, toothed spurge, golden hairy aster, goldenrod, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, bindweed, rose of Sharon, roses, sweet pea, bouncing Bess, canna, heavenly blue morning glory, cardinal climber, pink evening primrose, trumpet creeper, silverlace vine, native and farmer’s sunflowers. More hay cut.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black eyed Susan, blanket flower, lance-leaf coreopsis, chocolate flower, perky Sue, Hartweg evening primrose, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, butterfly weed, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Yellow evening primrose, garlic chives, California poppy, winecup, floribunda (Fashion), large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, coral beardtongue, h ollyhock, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum, tamarix.

Looking south: Zinnia, crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid (Elisio).

Looking west: Perennial four o’clock, purple coneflower, white phlox (David), white spurge, larkspur, frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, blue flax, sea lavender, Russian sage, ladybells, purple ice plant, caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, bees, ants, grasshoppers, mosquitoes. Sheep are back.

Weather: Rain Sunday and again Thursday night; river still running brown; standing water in places all week. Neighbors, especially those who’ve recently moved near the flood plain, continue to use backhoes to reroute water to the nearby arroyo.

Weekly update: My white phlox is finally filling its heads with clusters of flat-faced florets. Down the road, purple ones have been blooming for more than a month. Indeed, the first flowers of July are already gone.

When I was a child, I associated phlox with daylilies and peonies, the costly plants that arrived in fall as bare roots. They can still be expensive and can still be ordered as dormant crowns, but they also can be found in pots in spring.

I associated them then with herbaceous borders I saw in photographs of grand estates. Even now, when I see mass plantings through the gates of the two local Santa Fe style rancheras, I count the flowers and multiply by 10. If their gardens were new, they would cost something like $500 to install. Mine would be $25 today.

Phlox began its ascension into the aristocracy around 1730 when John Bartram sent seeds to England. By 1851, Joseph Breck knew men there and in this country who were exchanging seeds that improved each generation and reproduced prolifically.

When distinguished amateurs produced better plants they stimulated interest among the more discerning gardeners who in turn provoked the efforts of commercial breeders like Victor Lemoine in Nancy, Wilhelm Pfitzer in Stuttgart and Karl Foerster in Potsdam. White Flower Farm still assures its customers garden phlox will establish "any well-bred border."

Genealogists haven’t tracked the pedigrees of individual plants the way they have roses, so experts only say modern hybrids are derived from Phlox paniculata. They rarely mention they’re part of the phlocideae branch of the polemonia family which Raven and Axelrod believe evolved during "a summer-dry climate" in the California floristic province about 13 to 15 million years ago in the Langhian Miocene.

Despite the veneer of Philadelphia respectability, the family developed in the wild west. And like all mainline families with their black sheep, cultivars insist on regressing back to the rosy purple species. Bissland says it happens when the roots get hot. Gardner suggests Darwinian selection occurs when the "vigorous magenta flowers...crowd out the superior strains." More likely, it’s the same inbreeding that makes F2 hybrids feckless.

Rancheras can’t enforce exclusive rights to purple phlox. A large colony grows under piñons along a wall near the village and another clump exists along a heavily shaded irrigation canal just a bit beyond the rancheras. One blooms under a trumpet creeper nearer my house and a large plant prospers in front of a single-wide near the orchards. They probably began as small gifts or purchases that found likely places, then naturalized.

My white phlox have yet to go native. I tried David and Miss Lingard in 1997 after I discovered plants could survive with little care under the drip line of the west side of the garage where the ground freezes in winter and there’s shade in the mornings.

The plants sputtered along a few years, then Miss Lingard failed. I replaced her with more David in 1999. Then last year, the year of the grasshoppers, they colonized and were one of the few untouchables to flower. Since my current 17 stalks are still in clusters, I assume the five plants put out new shoots from their crowns.

David is now touted as the ideal plant for reverse snobs, the women who join environmental groups to save the planet instead of garden clubs. The seedlings were discovered in the 1980s by volunteers for the Brandywine Conservancy.

Like all the cultivars ever introduced, some individual, in this case Richard Simon, believed it was commercially viable. The conservancy let several nurseries accumulate stock, and now, it’s available everywhere, emblazoned with its "plant of the year" stickers. But, the Perennial Plant Association intimates they’re not just any red, white or blue variety offered by the cheaper mail order catalogs; these could qualify for the DAR, just might be descendants of those seeds collected by Bartram.

David’s for sale, and it’s possible to locate strains with names like Blue Paradise, but the purple phlox down the road cannot be bought. Here in the valley, it’s a tough native, too democratic to be fenced in by conventions, and quite willing to prostitute itself with flowers in July.

Notes:Bissland, James H., quoted by Alfred Carl Houttes, The Book of Perennials, 1948.

Breck, Joseph. The Flower-Garden, 1851, reprinted by OPUS, 1988.

Gardner, Jo Ann. The Heirloom Garden, 1992.

Perennial Plant Association, "Phlox ‘David’," available on-line.

Raven, Peter Hamilton and Daniel Isaac Axelrod, cited by C. D. Bell and R. W. Patterson, "Molecular phylogeny and biogeography of Linanthus (Polemoniaceae).," American Journal of Botany 87:1857-1870:2000.

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