Sunday, August 15, 2010

Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue'

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Heavenly Blue morning glories, purple phlox, Sensation cosmos, cultivated and farmer’s sunflowers; someone down the road’s selling green chili.

Outside the fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, whorled milkweed, leather-leaf globemallow, velvetweed, scarlet beeblossom, white and yellow evening primroses, bindweed, datura, pale trumpets, clammy weed, stickleaf, Dutch, white prairie, and white sweet clovers, buffalo gourd, goat’s head, alfilerillo, silver-leaf nightshade, prostrate knotweed, toothed spurge, lamb’s quarter, pigweed, Russian thistle, goat’s beard, paper flower, spiny lettuce, horseweed, strap-leaf and golden hairy asters, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, goldenrod, gumweed, snakeweed, Tahokia daisy; late summer grasses; buds of ragweed.

In my yard looking north: Miniature roses, golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, squash, naturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Parker’s Gold yarrow, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, orange coneflower, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Hosta, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, coral bells, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaf soapwort, baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppy, reseeded and Crimson Glory morning glories, garlic chives, cut-leaf coneflower, zinnias; color showing on Autumn Joy sedum buds.

Looking south: Blaze and rugosa roses, rose of Sharon, Illinois bundle flower, sweet peas, tomatillo.

Looking west: Russian sage, buddleia, caryopteris, catmint, lady bells, David phlox, flowering spurge, blue flax, perennial four o’clock, calamintha, purple ice flower, purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum, tomato, pepper.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, goldfinches on chocolate flowers, geckos, sulfur butterfly, bees, black harvester and small red ants, mosquitoes, worms.

Weather: Rain Monday afternoon and Thursday evening; people out early in mornings on rider mowers or with hand tools beating back the pigweed and whatever else has sprouted with the monsoons; 13:35 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Pruning is one of those great mysteries shrouded in wisdom both conventional and esoteric.

Centuries ago, horticulturists discovered pruning improved the yield of fruit trees and kept plants within their allotted orchard spaces. When my apples finally get large enough to need care, all I’ll need do in late winter is wait until I see the men with large orchards out with their shears and ladders and imitate.

Since the middle ages, people with formal gardens found the best species for hedges and drives, the ones that could be pruned to shape and continue to produce leaves. The most ambitious invented topiary. More mundanely, I’ve always had neighbors concerned with how to trim their privet and evergreens.

In my dry and windy yard, where concerns for formal shape are a luxury, I let shrubs take their natural form and only worry about dead wood and branches that slap me in the face. My work takes place now, when I know what’s dead, rather than late winter before the killing winds of early spring. I just hope opportunistic insects don’t invade the cuts.

The caryopteris are a group of shrubs that accommodated themselves to humans, but were never highly cultivated in northeast Asia. When Alexander von Bunge and Robert Fortune first found them, they believed them wild.

The blue-flowered shrubs weren’t hardy enough to survive French and British winters, nor dramatic enough to warrant greenhouse room. They died out and more vigorous specimens were discovered, but still carried warnings from William Robinson that they were "not quite hardy perhaps in all soils."

In their next transformation, after the hardier individuals survived being collected and moved about the globe, shrubs crossbred when species taken from Mongolia and Canton were grown near one another near Guildford in the early 1930's. Arthur Simmonds’ Caryopteris clandonensis dominated the market because it was hardier and more floriferous.

It since has undergone the next phase of domestication, the search for the best of the hybrid’s varying seedling. Mine came from one found in Longwood Gardens in 1981, a mere 148 years after Bunge found its mongholica parent and 137 after Fortune sent back the other, the incana known to Robinson.

My caryopteris has only known four phases of life with humans. It still hasn’t been modified enough to behave like a common garden shrub. When leaves first appear in late April, they emerge at the base. Then they form of silver-green sheath some inches back from the brownish-red stem tips, leaving a bare interior. Only now that the weather has cooled slightly with afternoon clouds and occasional rains have leaves filled in along the dark grey branches.

When I began cutting out the dead wood last week, the totally leafless stems at the bottom were quite gone, but many smaller stems were still pliable enough to suggest they were alive and, if winter never came, would eventually produce leaves, and possibly flowers. In a good year, they prosper; in a bad remain bare, dormant fingers overshadowing the flowers with their palings.

Garden writers have simplified the instructions for those who expect shrubs to be attractive all year. They tell buyers the plants are essentially herbaceous perennials that can be cut back severely in winter because the flowers only appear on new growth.

I suppose that would work, if one really knew in February what would survive April, or had faith all would be as expected. But in this unpredictable world, I fear preemptive action could be too shocking. And so, instead of a neat, densely flowered mound, I have a plant with a woody central section surrounded by younger, more uniform growth on stems that have reach far from the main stem. It’s also produced pups, either seedlings or suckers, that are blooming.

Most surprising, when I was removing the dead wood from the base, I discovered the second shrub I’d bought in 1997, the one that had died out in 2003, was putting out new growth. Appearances to the contrary, it hadn’t died, but only been sleeping for seven years.

Plants grown comfortable with pruning shears through centuries of co-existence are not the same as still half-feral ones that botanists can‘t even agree are members of the verbena or mint families. Only the nature we’ve created does as we expect. The rest is always a bit risky.

Miller, Diana. "RHS Plant Trials and Assessments: Caryopteris," 2007, available on-line.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984.

Photograph: Caryopteris ‘Longwood Blue,’ with old woody section rising above new; Jemez and wild trees in back; 14 August 2010.

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