Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rock Soapwort

What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, catalpa, Austrian copper, tea and pink shrub roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, yucca, red hot poker, fern-leaf globemallow, cheese, tumble mustard, stickseed, sweet pea, alfalfa, purple loco, scurf pea, milkweed, oxalis, scarlet beeblossom, white evening primrose, bindweed, perky Sue, blanket flower, fleabane, goatsbeard, native dandelion, needle, rice, June, brome and three awn grasses; buds on stickleaf; datura visible; large brown patches of dead tansy mustard and cheat grass.
What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Dr Huey, Lady Banks and miniature roses, privet, German iris, golden-spur columbine, hartweg, chocolate flower, coreopsis, Moonshine yarrow; buds on butterfly weed, anthemis and Parker’s Gold yarrow.
Looking east: Floribunda and Persian yellow roses, peony, oriental poppy, winecup, coral bells, cheddar pink, snow-in-summer, small-leaved soapwort, sea pink, Jupiter’s beard, snapdragons, Maltese cross, rock rose, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on hollyhock.
Looking south: Beauty bush, weigela, pasture, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid roses, raspberry; buds of daylily; mushrooms sprouted.
Looking west: Flax, catmint, baptista; buds on sea lavender and white beardtongue.
Bedding plants: Both moss rose and sweet alyssum still sparse after transplanting.
Inside: South African aptenia and South American bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Cottontail, hummingbird, gecko, bumblebee on pinks, small bee on rugosa, fly in Persian yellow, mosquitoes, large black harvester and small red ants; robins near village; Jack rabbit came in from the prairie Wednesday.

Weather: Hard rain last Sunday night left water in the prairie and the needle grass immediately turned a brighter green. Rain continued off and on since, while the furnace came on when morning temperatures fell into the low 40's; 15:43 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Rock garden has been used to describe everything from alpine beds that reproduce conditions above the timberline to rocks strewn among bedding plants. They all have their roots in the Romantic movement that preferred scenes of dramatic nature to the orderly classicism of formal beds.
In one of the first alpine manuals, published in 1870, William Robinson suggested Saponaria ocymoides would fall "over the face of rocks" and was "excellent for planting on ruins and old walls." In this country, Louise Beebe Wilder believed "no edging is prettier than large irregular stones sunk part way in the earth" with plants like Saponaria ocymoides creeping and tumbling over them.
American interest in rock gardens had increased when steam engines made it possible for them to visit the Alps, the Mediterranean coast and Italy in the nineteenth century. Plants became souvenirs that showed they not only had done the Grand Tour, but had absorbed a superior aesthetic.
In 1886, the Scientific American told its readers the low-growing soapwort could be seen "hanging from the rocks by the roadside" when they drove out from Luchon in the Pyrenees. This year a tour group promises visitors they will see them blooming in May at roadside stops when they climb up from a Catalonian monastery near les Avellanes.
I know I was tempted after I saw pictures of lavender pink flowers spilling down a wall in one of the inexpensive catalogs that promote them as Mediterranean or Cote D’Azur Pinks. I installed my first plants in late summer of 1995 at the far south end of my retaining wall where they could fall over the edge. They didn’t survive the winter. I tried again in 2004, and this time planted two seedlings in spring farther north and below the wall. I added three more two years later that didn’t survive.
The winds are severe in both places, but the one area has more shade. Despite those pictures of perennials basking in the Mediterranean sun, they don’t like the heat and drought of early summer. Each year they begin blooming the end of April, first of May and stop in mid-June. Some years the leaves turn brown. Alan Armitage says they won’t survive southeastern humid summers, but here, after the monsoons have mediated the climate, they produce scattered flowers until the end of August.
The member of the carnation family is native to the lower elevations from the Pyrenees to the Austrian Alps, and grows down to the coast and on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. The reason so many tourists notice them is they are one of the first plants to colonize disturbed land like that created by their carriage roads. Researchers found they were abundant the second year after a fire in the Swiss Alps around 4000' while Angelika Schwabe’s team thought grazing might explain their increase since the 1930's in the Inner Alps of northern Italy.
The Saponarias, with their open heads of long-tubed five-petaled flowers, may not need rocks to flourish, but they must have winter. If they disdain the south, a Belgian team found they can grow nearly 1,500 miles north of their natural range. Jelitto tells growers if the dark brown seeds don’t germinate within three to four weeks, to cool the flats, and that young plants need three to ten weeks of cool temperatures to bloom. In my west facing eastern bed, the persistent leaves turn maroon in cold weather.
It doesn’t much matter if one plants these long-blooming flowers to create a rugged subalpine garden or if one simply wants a groundcover that can fill lots of bare ground, sooner or later the aesthetic and pragmatic converge. I might have wanted a Mediterranean look with soapworts hanging over the retaining wall, but they were going to survive where conditions best fit their needs and I could either figure that out by planting them in different places or fill my empty spaces with something else.
Notes:Catalogs for Van Bourgondien (Cote d’ Azur Pinks) and Spring Hill Nurseries (Mediterranean Pinks); website for Jelitto Staudensamen GmbH."Alpine Flowers in the Pyrenees," Scientific American Supplement, 561:110-114:2 October 1886.Armitage, Allan M. Herbaceous Perennial Plants, 1989.Moser, B. and T Wohlgemuth. "Which Species Dominate Early Post-fire Vegetation in the Central Alps and Why?," International Conference on Fire Research, 2006.Naturetrek Tour Itinerary. "Catalonia - Eastern Pyrenees," 2009, available on-line.Robinson, William. Alpine Flowers for English Gardens, 1870.Schwabe, Angelika, Anselm Kratochwil, and Sandro Pignatti. "Plant Indicator Values of a High-phytodivesity Country (Italy) and Their Evidence, Exemplified for Model Areas with Climatic Gradients in the Southern Inner Alps," Flora 202:339-349:2007.Van der Veken, Sebastiaan, Martin Hermy, Mark Vellend, Anne Knapen, and Kris Verheyen. "Garden Plants Get a Head Start on Climate Change," Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6:212-216:2008.Wilder, Louise Beebe Wilder. My Garden, 1916.
Photograph: Rock soapwort growing in front of a railroad timber retaining wall, 28 May 2009.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, Russian olive, Austrian copper, tea and pink shrub roses, Apache plume, snowball peaked, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, yucca, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, hoary cress, tumble mustard, stickseed, alfalfa, purple loco, scarlet beeblossom, oxalis, bindweed, blue gilia, perky Sue, fleabane, goatsbeard, native dandelion, needle, rice, June, cheat, single and three awn grasses; buds on stickleaf; buffalo gourd, purslane, tahokia daisy and ragweed up.
What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Black locust, Dr Huey, Lady Banks and miniature roses, German iris, golden-spur columbine, chocolate flower and Moonshine yarrow; buds on catalpa, privet, hartweg, anthemis and Parker’s Gold yarrow; squash up.
Looking east: Persian yellow rose, oriental poppy, winecup, coral bells, cheddar pink, snow-in-summer, small-leaved soapwort, sea pink, Jupiter’s beard, snapdragons, rock rose, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on hollyhock and Maltese cross; tomatillo up.
Looking south: Beauty bush, weigela, rugosa and rugosa hybrids, spirea, raspberry; Sensation cosmos
Looking west: Flax; buds on catmint and sea lavender; last of the herbaceous perennials emerged, shasta daisy and perennial four o’clock; buddleia coming up from the ground.
Bedding plants: Moss rose.
Inside: South African aptenia and kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, humming bird, bumblebee on Apache plume, bees and flies around beauty bush, orange butterfly on locust, vicious mosquitoes, small moths, large black harvester and small red ants; cow mooing somewhere nearby Wednesday morning

Weather: Rain off and on since Thursday has penetrated a few inches into my drive, but left barely a trace in the native yard. Plants that formed their buds last year, like daffodils and spirea, had a great spring, if they missed the days with extreme temperatures; those like needle grass that rely on current conditions are having an average season. 15:33 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Ranchers have no problems recognizing loco weed: it’s the purplish flowered legume, with pairs of leaves spaced along its stems like feathers and odd leaflets at the tips, that kills animals by attacking their neurological systems, enlarging their hearts and congesting organs like those used for digestion.
Discovering the source of the poison was an early conundrum for the agriculture department. In 1909, Charles Marsh identified the connection to locoweeds and noted the similarity between locoism and problems caused by Swainsona in Australia. Researchers first suspected barium was the toxic agent that caused horses to treat small stones like boulders and cows to stagger. Then they investigated selenium, but found it only produced some of symptoms and didn’t appear in all areas where livestock were sickened.
Finally, in 1979, Steven Colegate’s team identified the active chemical in the Australian plant as swainsonine, and scientists like Russell Molyneaux and Lynn James confirmed its existence in the two southwestern locoweed genuses, Astragalus and Oxytropis. Now Karen Braun’s group has found a fungus living within the plants is the actual producer of the dangerous toxin.
I have no way of knowing if the Oxytropis lambertii currently blooming in my drive is dangerous. Biologists culture their samples to detect the fungus. However, Michael Ralphs’ team found only three lambertii populations of one subspecies growing in southern Utah, Arizona and southwestern New Mexico contained swainsonine. They found none of the chemical in any of the plants from the rest of Utah, eastern Colorado, and northeastern New Mexico.
Even though lambertii is the most common locoweed in New Mexico, it probably needs more moisture than exists in this area, at least 16" a year. The taprooted perennials didn’t appear until I graveled my drive, and may either have come with the truck or been lying in the soil waiting for the right conditions.
Right now, one is in the drive outside my front porch that’s survived repair trucks, one hides in the grass at the edge of the gravel to the west, and two are at the eastern edge. There have never been more than four clumps, though ones have come and gone, and they’ve never strayed from soil with water trapped by gravel. This year, two have colonized, perhaps from underground runners.
The Astragalus growing outside my neighbor’s bark-covered fence may be as harmless and as accidental. The colony didn’t appear until he built the fence and planted some fruit trees. Again, the seed may have come with the wood or been waiting for ideal conditions. The pinkish, introverted pea flowers bloomed the past two weeks downslope from where he waters the trees.
My purple flowers with white reflector blotches on their upper petals differ from his because the individual florets are spaced along bare, straight stems while his smaller racemes cluster at the tips. My Oxytropis rise from basal rosettes of five widely separated pairs of grey-looking leaflets on stalks that may stand three inches off the ground and often persists through the winter. The leaf stalks with five to eight pairs on his Astragalus splay from stem joints that also hold the flowers. There are more leaf stems than flowers, and they reach beyond the color to catch the light. My leaf segments are flattened narrow lances with pointed tips, while his are narrower, folded down the center and blunted at the ends.
Ranchers really don’t care about such variability in nature. Marsh told them all they needed to know. The seed banks that produced my flowers and those of my neighbors make locoweed nearly impossible to eradicate. It will be a while before the discovery people should control an invisible fungus on the open range has any affect on livestock losses.
Notes:Braun, Karen, Jennifer Romero, Craig Liddell, and Rebecca Creamer. "Production of Swainsonine by Fungal Endophytes of Locoweed," Mycological Research 107:980-988:2003.Colegate, Steven M., P. R. Dorling, and C. R. Huxtable. "A Spectroscopic Investigation of Swainsonine an Alpha Mannosidase Inhibitor Isolated from Swainsona-canescens," Australian Journal of Chemistry 32:2557-2264:1979.Marsh, Charles Dwight. The Locoweed Disease of the Plains, 1909.Molyneaux, Russell J. and Lynn F. James. "Loco Intoxication: Indolizidine Alkaloids of Spotted Locoweeds (Astragalus lentiginosus)," Science 216:190-191:1982.Ralphs, Michael H., Stanley L. Welsh, and Dale R. Gardner. "Distribution of Locoweed Toxin Swainsonine in Populations of Oxytropis lambertii," Journal of Chemical Ecology 28:701-707:2002.
Photograph: Oxytropis lambertii at the east end of my drive, 19 May 2009; the pink flower held at the lower left is the last of the season from my neighbor’s Astragalus.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Scarlet Globemallow

What’s blooming in the area: Austrian copper and pink shrub roses, Apache plume, skunkbush, yucca, peony, oriental poppy, fern-leaf globemallow, nits-and-lice, hoary cress, tumble mustard, stickseed, wooly and common loco, scarlet beeblossom, oxalis, blue gilia, alfilerillo, perky Sue, goatsbeard, native and common dandelion; needle, rice, June and three awn grass; some cheat grass turning brown.
What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Black locust, Lady Banks rose, German iris, golden-spur columbine, first chocolate flower; buds on Moonshine yarrow; grape leafing; cherries, sand cherries, and Siberian pea pods forming.
Looking east: Snowball, Persian yellow rose, winecup, mossy phlox, coral bells, cheddar pink, snow-in-summer, small-leaved soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, last year’s snapdragons, rock rose, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on hollyhock and sea pink.
Looking south: Beauty bush, rugosa rose, spirea peaked; zinnias germinating.
Looking west: Vinca, flax; leadplant up.
Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum.
Inside: South African aptenia and kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Long red snake, rabbit, humming bird, other birds heard but not seen, gecko, bumble bee on locust, ladybug on goatsbeard, miller type moth, large black harvester and small red ants.
Weather: Spring winds, summer heat; yesterday’s winds and clouds left little water; last useful rain 5/03/09; 15:11 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Delicate is not the first thing I associate with the mallow family. Maybe smores by the camp fire or hollyhocks behind a fence, but not translucent etherealness.
Scarlet globemallow is a useless name for the flowers blooming in my yard: they’re the same color as the copper globemallows that will appear later this summer. I distinguish them by their habits. The current plants stay short with silvery, divided leaves and dense racemes, while the later ones get tall with widely spaced flowers on woody stems and leathery, serrated leaves.
The one remains a perpetual youth, the other becomes the wizened crone who spent too long in the sun. Sphaeralcea coccinea blooms in May, with occasional flowers in August and September; angustifolia comes into bloom in late July and stays around until late September. The one reopens each morning, the other seems forever available.
Neither are scarlet or copper, but tangerine. The five petals of the late summer cups have the uniformity of paint, while the early flowers are luminescent with white bases beneath the characteristic, protruding stamen columns. A few on the prairie are darker, while one that appeared in my yard in the middle 1990's was white. It survived until a bad storm in 2000 sent sheets of water down the drive that broke away the soil surrounding soil the basal leaves.
The currently blooming perennials have adapted to the short-grass prairies west of the Mississippi, ranging from Chihuahua to the grasslands of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, while the other is native to the desert scrub of the southwest from Colorado through central México.
Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley reported the first, which they still called Malvastrum coccineum in 1915, grew in the "open hills and plains, in the Upper Sonoran zone" throughout the state, while the other, which they identified as Sphaeralcea lobata, was found on the "open hills and in river valleys, in the Lower and Upper Sonoran zones" and was a nuisance in the irrigated fields of the lower Rio Grande.
In my yard the hard brown seeds of the more exquisite one have germinated in the needle grass where there’s a bit more water. Along the road to the north, they stay back from the shoulder. One group has spread through its rhizomatous roots along the tracks left by off road vehicles. In the prairie, away from the arroyo and ranch road, a few have emerged from deep taproots next to bunches of grass where wind currents dropped the seeds.
The elusive globemallow may be the atypical graceling among the mallows, but it still has the family chemistry. Most Malvaceae contain mucilage that forms a protective film over inflamed tissue. The Lakota chewed roots of the prairie plant to create a lotion to protect their hands from fire and scalding during ceremonies, while the Santa Clara used powdered roots of the arid species to treat snake bites and "sores in which considerable pus appears."
The Tewa speakers also used the mucilage from powdered root skins to make face paint and associated it with the medicines used for broken arms and legs. William Dunmire and Gail Tierney report Picuris used the roots of the early summer plant to make castes for broken bones, while Santo Domingo used an unidentified species as the bonding agent in calcimine house paints and Taos mixed the mucilage with mud to harden their floors.
Local people may have treated the two plants interchangeably and botanists may have taken a while seeing through variations that didn’t connote species, but there does remain a difference between the piqués of an ephemeral flower that comes back year and year, despite the hazards of southwestern life, and its plodding cousin.
Notes:Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, and on-line database summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including Dilwyn J Rogers, Lakota Names and Traditional Uses of Native Plants by Sicangu (Brule) People in the Rosebud Area, South Dakota, 1980; Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, 1919, and Shelly Katheren Kraft, Recent Changes in the Ethnobotany of Standing Rock Indian Reservation, 1990.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.
Photograph: Scarlet globemallow, 9 May 2009.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Baby Blue Iris

What’s blooming in the area: Last apples, Austrian copper, Persian yellow and Dr. Huey roses, Apache plume, rosy-purple flowered shrubs, skunkbush, first oriental poppy, fern-leaf globemallow, nits-and-lice, hoary cress, purple, tumble and tansy mustard, stickseed, loco, oxalis, some type of short lavender phacelia, blue gilia, alfilerillo, perky Sue, goatsbeard, native and common dandelion, June, cheat and three awn grass; buds on hollyhock; Siberian elm has invaded one of the active hay fields.
What’s blooming in my yard: Lilac peaked, forsythia, spirea, Siberian pea, tulips, grape hyacinth, German and Baby Blue iris, vinca, mossy phlox, coral bells, cheddar pink, snow-in-summer, small-leaved soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, yellow alyssum, flax, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on some roses, snowball, beauty bush, sea pink, and Moonshine yarrow; tamarix, sand cherry and Russian sage leafing; Illinois bundle flower, lilies, butterfly weed and baptista up; pied snapdragon made it through the winder.
Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum.
Inside: South African aptenia, kalanchoë and zonal geranium; another new snake plant sprouted.
Animal sightings: Snake, rabbit, birds, gecko, bees, dragonfly, small moth, baby grasshopper, harvester and small red ants; quail and hummingbirds are back. Some noisy black bird, smaller than a starling, has staked out the peach this year; hopefully it eats grasshoppers.
Weather: Bare root plants that didn’t go out until after the last frost are in shock because they didn’t have enough time to settle before this week’s afternoon temperatures rose for hours into the low 80's; windy yesterday; last rain 5/03/09; 14:54 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Iris are quintessential passalong plants. They spread through rhizomes that form impenetrable woody brown mats that must be thinned to prevent the plants from choking themselves. Once they go dormant in summer, little can harm them. Gertrude Jekyll used to take a plasterer’s hammer to hers, while a woman I knew in Michigan took some she found in a discard pile that had been exposed for months.
My first Michigan plants were some coffee-colored German iris that came in a shopping bag from a friend who’d bought a home with a neglected garden in rural Metamora. My first iris here were some tall blues I salvaged from my abandoned yard in Abilene, Texas.
A few years later, a man in Los Alamos gave me a grocery bag of root sections he’d thinned for his in-laws in October that he said were Baby Blues. They’re blooming now, about nine inches high and a pale, almost silvery blue with white beards.
Those particular iris are probably the result of more swaps and trades among friends than can be recounted. Michael Foster used to receive rhizomes from American missionaries and others traveling in the middle east which he would add to his iris garden in Cambridge, England, before trying to cross them with other iris, just to see. When friends came to visit, Laetitia Munro says, they usually left with bags filled with his surplus.
Some of his crosses produced spectacular blooms because some of his gifts had mutated into tetraploids with double the usual chromosomes. He called one Amasia for the area in Turkey where it was found; another, Ricardi, was named for its collector in Palestine.
After he died in 1907, Robert Wallace sold some of Foster’s hybrids through his Essex nursery, while William Dykes used his notes to publish The Genus Iris in 1913. By 1920 there were so many tetraploid varieties being offered under so many names, a group of concerned gardeners and nurserymen met in New York to bring order with the American Iris Society.
Despite the publication of their first list of valid names in 1922, people continued to trade their rhizomes and experiments with friends. In the 1930's, two men swapped pollen to overcome problems with crossing species with asynchronous bloom periods. Paul Cook’s Tennessee-grown German irises flowered the same time as the earlier blooming dwarf pumilas were opening for Geddes Douglas in Indiana.
Their lilliputs sparked another flurry of breeding activity as others sought to produce what the AIS renamed standard dwarfs. The flowers remained the size of germanica and the leaves still reached the lower flowers, but the stems shrank to hold two or three closely spaced buds that looked good in mass plantings. Lilliput falls flared out so they and their beards could be seen from above.
My plants are clones of something that was growing in White Rock in 2000, but they are not identical. Some have horizontal petals, some do not. A few have darker blue veins on their falls, while others are more purple. It may be color varies by minute differences in soil and exposure in my yard, or that the early ones differ because temperatures and sun angles are lower, but it also may be that the inherent variability of irises has reappeared after the plants survived outside the standardizing conditions of the horticultural industry.
I’m not sure Baby Blue is a registered name; today it’s used for a cultivar of the Alaskan Iris setosa. It doesn’t really matter: passalong plants almost always acquire folk names. Like Foster I sometimes associate mine with places like Metamora and Abilene, but more often I call them by the memories they evoke of Ruth and Steve and Claude.
Austin, Claire. Irises: A Gardener's Encyclopedia, 2005.
Hobhouse, Penelope. Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, 1983, compilation of writings by Jekyll with commentary by Hobhouse, including quotation from page 225.Munro, Laetitia Munro. "Notable Irisarians: Sir Michael Foster," available on-line.
Photograph: Baby Blue iris after last weekend’s rain, with grape hyacinths, reddish sea lavender stems from last summer, and gray Silver King artemisia leaves; one on left has horizontal outer petals, while falls on right are curved; 3 May 2009.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Grape Hyacinth

What’s blooming in the area: Apple, rosy purple flowered shrubs, iris, hoary cress, purple, tumble and tansy mustard, stickseed, golden smoke, oxalis, flax, blue gilia, perky Sue, native and common dandelion, June, cheat and three awn grass; grapes and Virginia creeper leafing; Russian thistle and pigweed coming up.

What’s blooming in my yard: Lilac, forsythia, spirea, Siberian pea, tulips, last daffodils, grape hyacinth, baby blue iris, vinca, mossy phlox, coral bells, first small-leaved soapwort, yellow alyssum, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on snowball, cheddar pink, sea pink, and Jupiter’s beard; catalpa, black locust, and Rose of Sharon leafing out; purple coneflower and purple ice plant coming up; piñon transplanted in 2006 now knee-high.

Inside: South African aptenia, kalanchoë and zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, birds, gecko, red and black ants, flying grasshoppers, first stinkbug, bumblebee on Siberian pea, hummingbird bird moth on Persian lilac.

Weather: Temperatures remained above freezing all week; rain and wind yesterday; 14:31 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Infrastructure is more than dams, ditches and roads. The expansion of gardens and gardening in the nineteenth century depended as much on complex social networks as it did on faster rail and steamship transportation.

Maximilian Leichtlin, the man who introduced the grape hyacinths now blooming to the west of the house, was born in 1831 in an area where local aristocrats’ gardens had trained a cadre of local workers. The Margrave of Baden-Durlach, Karl Wilhelm, had moved his capital to Karlsruhe in 1715, then planted a lustgarten supplied with plants by Christian Thran whom he sent collecting in Algeria and Tunisia.

Karl Wilhelm’s grandson, Karl Friedrich, redesigned the gardens around 1800 and sold off the original orangery and greenhouses, no doubt to courtiers who had multiplied when he was made Grade Duke of Baden. During Leichtlin’s childhood the gardens were neglected by succeeding dukes, but were revived by Friedrich I in the 1850's. Soon after Leichtlin moved to Ghent, where he worked for Louis von Houtte’s nursery for 17 years.

Leichtlin returned to the Karlsruhe region in 1871 where he established a private garden near Baden, which had developed into a luxury spa and casino. His primary interest was bulbs, including gladiola and crocosima from southern Africa, hostas from Japan, and even a form of mariposa lily from the Sierra Nevada. Like any modern Wall Street tyro, he used the contacts and knowledge he had developed when he worked for someone else.

As soon as he knew something about a plant, he exploited the networks that were developing commercial markets by sending bulbs to important gardeners, nurseries and publishers. In 1878, Baker described his Muscari armeniacum in The Garden Chronicle in England. In 1892 Leichtlin began writing his own "Notes from Baden-Baden" for Americans reading Garden and Forest.

His rival, George Gaw, used political contacts to study the crocus. He asked British consuls in Trebizond and Erzerum in the 1880's to send him bulbs. He passed the ones he didn’t need to friends like J. E. Elwes, who in turn sent the most promising to Barr’s Nursery. They introduced a light blue flower as Muscari conicum. When the Dutch publicized a different plant with the same name, Barr renamed its Heavenly Blue.

Until international groups were organized to agree upon nomenclature, gardeners weren’t able to order bulbs, seeds or roots with the trust that has proven necessary to the spread of trade. In 1926, Kew Gardens’ Botanical Magazine determined Elwes’ plant was the same as the darker one grown by Leichtlin. Louise Beebe Wilder believed the pictures of Muscari armericum she saw in van Tubergen’s catalog looked like Heavenly Blue, but when they grew they were stronger, taller, and a "rich blue-violet in color, the teeth white but not very conspicuous."

Catalogs can still be misleading. Last fall I needed to replenish my grape hyacinths and innocently ordered Blue Spike because the suppler’s picture showed a dark blue flower. The color in my soil is much greyer. The fatter heads are both more visible and, unlike the photograph, harder for my eye to blend into a pattern.

Taxonomic agreement is still missing. Some retailers describe Blue Spike as a hybrid. One calls it a mutation, and many simply say it’s a cultivar. A few mention the flowers are sterile and won’t reproduce like the species. Unfortunately, the catalog I read wasn’t one.

I planted my first grape hyacinths in 1997. The next year there were far fewer plants, but those that survived were beginning to naturalize from bulb offsets when they were nibbled in the dry spring of 2000. The rabbit or ground squirrel ate more in 2003 and I replenished them in the fall. Again I lost a number the first year, but was seeing those best adapted to New Mexico start to come back when a gopher burrowed in the area in 2007.

Wilder loved her Heavenly Blue, but warned readers to "keep it out of the rock garden" because the seeds and bulblets make it "almost impossible to eradicate." Here, nature keeps it in check. I should have ordered the species because the qualities that make it aggressive elsewhere are the very ones I need for it to come back in after the initial die off. The quality of the modern marketing infrastructure is so high, I forget caveat emptor.

Schmidt nursery's website has the most information on the life of Maximilian Leichtlin.

Wilder, Louise Beebe. Adventures with Hardy Bulbs, 1936, reprinted in 1990 by Collier’s American Gardening Classics series; her source for the story about Gaw is the 1926 Botanical Magazine article that redefined Heavenly Blue.

Photograph: Blue Spike grape hyacinth with smaller species grown from bulblet or seed in rear, 25 April 2009.