Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cheddar Pinks

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, some grasses.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral and purple beardtongues, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Quail feeding yesterday afternoon.

Weather: Very cold the end of the week with ice still floating in the river yesterday morning; changes in daylight stretching to 10:14 hours today are noticeable during my daily commutes; last snow 1/06/08.

Weekly update: The cold returned, and this time there was no insulating snow.

Many surviving leaves have turned burgundy, including those of purple asters, beardtongues, small-leaf soapwort, and cheddar pinks. Most will survive this week, but the pinks are always problematical. In the best conditions, they thrive for a few years, then die in the first spell of harsh weather.

It’s more difficult than it should be to replenish them each year. Not all commercial varieties grow here, and those that do aren’t always offered. Seedlings need to be transplanted early, but last year Bath’s Pink didn’t appear in Santa Fe outlets until June. They died in the drought.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus isn’t doing much better in the wild. Both Poland and Germany list it as an endangered species. The population in the Jura Alps, which spreads from Switzerland into France, Luxembourg and the Saar valley, is declining. The only place it naturalized in England is the limestone cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset near Bristol.

The species not only has limited soil preferences, but needs a long cold period before it blooms. Sonali Padhye’s team found they bloom four to five weeks after exposure to 68 degree temperatures, but that the grassy clumps only produce spotty single five-petaled fringed flowers unless those warm temperatures come after a transition time when the crown has been able to bulk up with narrow, gray-green leaves.

The only reason I bother with them is they are the only thing I’ve found that will grow in the exposed conditions on the east side of the house where the snow melts immediately and the winds whip through in spring.

Apparently, Dianthus emerged within the carnation family about 13 million years ago during the Miocene when grasses were spreading, the seas receding, and the Eurasian landmass forming. Harry Godwin found fossil relics of gratianopolitanus in deposits from the last glacier in England, and noted they still grew on limestone grasslands like those beyond my fence.

The particular variety currently offered that survives best here, Bath’s Pink, is from north Georgia where it adapted to granite soils, hot summers, and high humidity. Landscape designer Jane Bath gave pass-along plants she’d nurtured to Marc Richardson and Rick Berry to test before they released them to the trade in 1987 through their Georgia nursery, Goodness Grows.

Luckily, Bath’s Pink is still offered by one mail order house with an early discount deadline. So yesterday, before I went to the post office, I was out looking at motley leaves, wishing they were tea, and could tell me how many I should order, if the plants I receive will grow, and if there is any chance I’ll be able to buy more this spring. They wouldn't tell me how long, how severe this winter will be, or even how they were doing.

Bath, Jane. "The Story of Bath's Pink," Georgia Perennial Plant Association Perennial Notes, winter 1994.

Godwin, Harry. The History of the British Flora, 1975, cited by Peter Poschold and Michael F.WallisDeVries,"Ths Historical and Socioeconomic Perspective of Calcareous Grasslands - Lessons from the Distant and Recent Past," Biological Conservation 104:361-376:2002.

Padhye, Sonali, Beth Fausey, Erik Runkle and Art Cameron. "Day Neutral Spring-Flowering Perennials," Greenhouse Grower, March 2006.

Photograph: Cheddar pink leaves, some burgundy, some still green, 19 January 2008.

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