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.