Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crab Apple

What’s blooming in the area: White and pink flowered trees, including apples and choke cherry, iris, moss phlox, donkey tail spurge; honey locust and grapes leafing.

Beyond the walls and fences: Cottonwood, western stickseed, hoary cress, tansy mustard, alfilerillo, goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June and cheat grass; buds on fernleaf globemallow; tree of heaven and Virginia creeper leafing.

In my yard: Sour and sand cherries, Siberian pea tree, lilacs fragrant, tulips, grape hyacinth, baby blue iris, vinca, yellow alyssum, oxalis, small-leaved saponaria; buds on spirea, snowball, peonies and Bath pinks; black locust, catalpa, snowball, forsythia and rose of Sharon leafing; red hot poker, baptisia, sidalcea, Rumanian sage, Saint John’s wort, Maximilian sunflower, chocolate flower and coreopsis coming up; planted sweet alyssum, California and Shirley poppy seeds.

Bedding plants: Pansy, sweet alyssum.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Heard bees around lilacs; small brown birds were mining seeds under the sour cherry after they decided the flowers weren’t to their liking; gecko ran from the sprinkler; cabbage butterfly, grasshoppers, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Windy days and warm nights; arroyo bottom bleached out last Sunday; snow remains in Sangre de Cristo; last rain 3/8/11; 14:05 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The season for white and pink flowering trees is passing. Some I knew, the apples, the choke cherries, the purple leaf plums. The rest could have been anything I’ve seen sold locally, white flowered plums, sweet or sour cherries. Apricot and Bradford pear flowers came and went.

The pinks are a mystery. In other parts of the country they would be Japanese cherries or flowering crab apples. Here peaches arrive late in the season, and already are leafing, perhaps skipping reproduction this year.

I’ve seen more crabs in local stores than ornamental cherries. When I went to the local hardwares early this week, only one had anything pink, and they were the unlikely eastern redbud and crape myrtle. Either the stock was picked over, or the big boxes have driven the smaller retailers to offer less from fewer suppliers.

Crab apples are the hardest to identify from the road. Although a few varieties are pink, many have pink buds that open white, while others have pink flowers that fade to white. Many species and cultivars that are white from start to finish merge into the general background of anonymous flowering trees.

Thomas Jefferson planted Hewe’s crab apples at Monticello. The juicy fruit, widely used then for cider, is thought to have been a hybrid between the domestic apple brought from England, now simply called Malus domestica, and the native Malus angustifolia.

George Washington asked to have crab apples planted with other trees beyond the south end of his house at Mount Vernon in a grove whose main intent was aesthetic. It’s not known if he meant the pink flowered angustifolia or Hewe’s, which opens pink before turning white. He only specified flowering trees.

The distinction between useful and ornamental crab apples was well established when I was growing up in Michigan. The native Malus coronaria, which grew on the feral land between the housing development and the farms, had nasty thorns. The hard fruit was too sour to eat fresh, although it supposedly produced good jelly. The flowers changed from rose to white.

Flowering crab apples grew in town and were descended from species imported from northeastern Asia. The Siberian crab apple, Malus baccata, with white flowers, was introduced to westerners in 1784. After Perry forced open Japanese ports, nurseries offered Malus floribunda which has rose flowers that turn white. They’ve since been crossed and recrossed to produce the trees currently sold.

The distinction we had between useful and decorative Malus varieties exists here, but is maintained between apples and flowering trees. Orchards lie near the ditches in the front or side yard, often serving as a barrier between the house and the road. Pink crab apples, for only the pink can be distinguished when white flowers abound, usually are grown near the house, often behind a wall that protects their roots and trunks from the hostile winds and unrelenting sun.

While boundaries between ornamental and edible apples exist to most people, there are those who ignore the classification. Some believe flowering trees pollinate their orchards. In Yugoslavia, researchers found they got heavy fruit set on Golden Delicious with floribunda, baskatong and robusta crab apples, but that floribunda’s natural flowering time was earlier than the apple’s. In India, a group found floribunda bloomed with Red Delicious but didn’t produce as much fruit as Snowdrift and Manchurian varieties. Golden Hornet worked best for them with Golden Delicious.

Baskatong is a Malus baccata-adstringens hybrid developed in Canada with rosy purple flowers that fade pink. The pinkish flowered adstringens resulted from crossing a baccata with a domestic apple. Robusta is probably a Malus baccata-prunifolia hybrid from China with pink or white flowers.

Snowdrift was bred by the Cole nursery, perhaps from a white flowered sargentii, while the Manchurian crab apple is a subspecies of baccata with pink buds and white flowers. The white flowered Golden Hornet is probably a Malus zumi selection made by John Waterer and Sons. Zumi itself is possibly a baccata-sieboldii cross from Japan with pink buds and white flowers while sieboldii, sometimes called the Toringo crab, is a Japanese dwarf with pink buds that turn white.

Red and Golden Delicious are the most common apples grown today. Both were introduced by the Arkansas Stark Brothers, the one from an Iowa tree.

Plant breeders have gone farther in eroding the distinction between large sweet and small acrid species. They introduced a crab apple gene into domestic apples to create resistence to the apple scab fungus. Ironically, they only know they used the floribunda clone 821; they don’t know if it was a pure floribunda from Japan or some hybrid spawned by the collectors at Arnold Arboretum who sent them the original seed.

The distinction between an apple and a crab apple may be as much an artifact of culture as the one I grew up with between wild and domesticated crab apples. They’re all members of the same genus of the rose family.

The thing that has always stopped me from using crab apple as the generic term for any unknown pink tree here is that I was always told crab apples prefer acidic soil like that found east of the Mississippi. Either the soil is different closer to the river than it is where I live or hybridization has produced lime tolerant cultivars, or the pink trees remain a mystery.

Notes: For more on the two Delicious apples, see entry on orchards for 14 December 2008.

Cultivar and species information from Liberty Hyde Bailey and Ethel Zoe Bailey, Hortus, 1934; Harrison Leigh Flint and Jenny M. Lyverse, Landscape Plants for Eastern North America, 1997; and Alfred Rehder, Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs, 1947.

Dalzell, Robert F. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America, 2000.

Gautam D. R., D. D. Sharma and Ali M. Rashil. “Evaluation of Crab Apples for Pollination,” Indian Journal of Plant Genetic Resources 13(2):2000.

Gvozdenovic, D., Z. Keserovic, J. Ninic-Todorovic, and L. Vujic. “Wild Apple Species as Pollinators for Golden Delicious Clone B,” Savremena Poljoprivreda 44(

Hokanson, S. C., W. F. Lamboy, A. K. Szewc-McFadden and J. R. McFerson. “Microsatellite (SSR) Variation in a Collection of Malus (Apple) Species and Hybrids,” Euphytica 118:281-294:2001; on clone 821.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Hewe's Crab Apple,” information and tree available on-line.

Photograph: Pink flowered tree grown lacy under Siberian elms behind a wall outside the village, 17 April 2011.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: White and pink flowered trees, including apples and choke cherry, scatty forsythia, first lilacs, tulips, moss phlox; local ditch running.

Outside the walls and fences: Cottonwood, western stickseed, tansy mustard, alfilerillo, native and common dandelions, cheat grass; buds on fernleaf globemallow; Russian olives leafing, but still have last year’s fruit; Juniper berries forming; Siberian elms beginning to drop seeds; Russian thistles germinating; new pigweed seedlings up.

In my yard: Sweet, sour and sand cherries, Siberian pea tree, baby blue iris, grape hyacinth, vinca, yellow alyssum; buds on daffodils; new leaves on sea lavender, Goodness Grows veronica, Mönch aster; lilies and hostas emerging; peach, beauty bush, weigela, caryopteris and Russian sage leafing; mahonia leaves turned green in center after the plant was soaked by a hose leak.

Bedding plants: Pansy, sweet alyssum; buds on snapdragons. The big box where I bought the alyssum is selling plants three times the size as the nursery where I got the pansies and the local hardware where I found the snapdragons at nearly half the price.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Bees around Siberian pea; house finches and other small brown birds flee when I get near; gecko, small black ants, house fly outdoors.

Weather: Winds and no rain; snow remains in Sangre de Cristo; last rain 3/8/11; 13:45 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: At work, I talk with a woman who believes global warming is directly responsible for her allergies. Since scientists report the one is increasing, she anticipates years of worsening problems with the other.

Would that causality were so simple.

Recently a team led by Ulf Büntgen published its survey of tree rings in central Europe for the past 2,500 years that suggested between the years 250 and 550 the climate changed every decade or so, alternating between wet and dry, cool and warm. That was centuries before the next major climate change, the ice age that began in North American in the 1300's, and apparently was totally unrelated.

He told Michael Marshall, those oscillations were particularly difficult for farming societies like the Roman Empire, because they were long enough to “harm agriculture but are not prolonged enough for people to adapt their behaviour.”

The Goths, who invaded the Empire, probably weren’t any better at adapting to change, but their migratory lifestyle made it easier for them to move when conditions worsened, then settle when things improved.

Historians are too aware of the many factors involved in the decline of the Roman Empire, to accept the possibility that an unstable climate alone was responsible, or even basal. Likewise, anthropologists haven’t been able to build a defendable case that the coming of the ice age was the reason the Anasazi abandoned the Four Corners. They can agree the move was preceded by drought and increased violence, but they can’t agree if diminished resources were the primary factor or human urges and egos were more important.

The arid southwest probably has had an unstable climate ever since the Rockies rose to divert moisture laden winds millions of years ago. Last winter and early spring were unusually wet and cold; then in late spring, temperatures rose abruptly and the rains stopped. We had almost no snow this winter and no rain until last week. Winter temperatures were abnormally cold; this spring has been unusually warm and windy. Our geographic location makes it difficult to know if these variations, and are our allergic reactions to them, are part of a long-term planetary trend, or just another cycle.

Native trees, like the one-seeded juniper, adapted to environmental stress centuries ago. Last year, after an unusually wet winter, male junipers produced more pollen than they had in a decade, 2,245 grains per cubic meter of air. This past March 8, during the drought, pollen levels reached 3,364 grains, nearly 50% more than last year’s record set on March 24.

I didn’t notice a larger berry crop last fall, but the heat and drought that followed the spring pollen release could easily have intervened to offset the effects of male activity. Last weekend, the female tree near my house had begun to produce purple fruit, but not enough yet to suggest it has the same response as the males to severe conditions.

I blame the high pollen counts on variations in moisture. Others blame the cold winters. The man measuring the pollen for Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, Dan Gates, blames an abrupt warm period just before the pollen was released for the concentrated density.

My Siouxland cottonwood is supposedly a sterile male. This year it produced mounded rosette fountains along its branches before it leafed, as if it were doing everything in its power to produce pollen. The native male is now blooming down the road, but it’s too soon to know if the flower chains will be longer or more pollen laden.

In contrast to the dioecious natives which have responded to stress with greater attempts by males to perpetuate the species, imported hermaphroditic members of the rose and olive families have given up trying to reproduce, and are concentrating their resources on their own survival.

For two years past, the bountiful flowers on forsythia shrubs were killed by frost. Some plants in the area this year are blooming fine, but most are chartreuse from a distance with sparse bits of yellow up close. Mine doesn’t even have a flower on every major limb.

Apricots, for the most part, simply didn’t bloom. My tree had two flowers, each at the tip of a vertical branch. A week after I watered it for three hours, it produced a few more. When I walked over to my neighbor’s tree, which usually is cloaked in white, his only flowers were way at the top and not every branch was fruitful. Apial dominance, that tends to limit fruit production to stem ends, even in good times, was defining what was allowed to reproduce.

Again, I tend to blame the lack of water and assume they'll leaf when they get some moisture, but others are blaming that February cold spell and fear the trees have already died.

If people here were still dependent on what they grew, these would be hard times. Last year, there was no fruit, the tomatoes were meager and the corn didn’t grow much. The men who run a truck farm down the road abandoned their field in July. This year there will be few apricots.

Unlike the recent settlers, who haven’t yet had time to adapt to climatic oscillations, the grasses and annuals that were here first will do fine. On the prairie last Sunday, a few days after our only spring rain, there was more green at the bases of the needle, rice and blue grama grass clumps. The ring muhly is beginning to revive in my yard.

The first seeds up along the road were the allergenic pigweed, which promises reinforcement for the woman’s perception that her well being is determined by something greater than mere weather and my view that pigweed is simply exploiting our constant abuse of nature.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested a person couldn’t perceive the true pattern of motion while sitting in a moving train. Likewise, we can’t recognize geologic trends until they’re finished. We have clues. But, when we try to apply the general to our personal situation, our expectations define what we experience. We can’t know definitively why this year is so hard on trees and shrubs, if it’s the cold or the drought or the winds, if it’s global warming or routine climatic instability, if it’s human behavior or something beyond.

We can agree, it’s been one tough, colorless spring.

Notes: See entry on vinca, 21 December 2008, for literary-cultural responses to one of those periods of agricultural failure.

Büntgen, Ulf. Quoted by Michael Marshall in “Fall of Roman Empire Linked to Wild Shifts in Climate,” New Scientist, on-line 13 January 2011.

_____, Willy Tegel, Kurt Nicolussi, Michael McCormick, David Frank, Valerie Trouet, Jed O. Kaplan, Franz Herzig, Karl-Uwe Heussner, Heinz Wanner, Jürg Luterbacher and Jan Esper. “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility,” Science, on-line 13 January 2011.

Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “March's Yellow Smoke,” Albuquerque Journal, 17 March 2011.

Photograph: Siouxland cottonwood, 10 April 2011.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bedding Plants

What’s blooming in the area: White and pink flowered trees, including Bradford pear and choke cherry, forsythia still sparse, first lilac, tulips, daffodils, moss phlox; apples leafing.

Outside the walls and fences: Western stickseed, tansy mustard, native and common dandelions, cheat grass; prickly pear, blue grama and rice grass greening; leather leaf globemallow, sweet sand verbena, bindweed and heath asters emerging; chamisa leafing; leaf buds on tamarix and Russian olive; many new leaves on the prairie are emerging next to clumps of grass, not in open spaces.

In my yard: Sweet and sour cherries, Siberian pea tree, hyacinth, tiny pushkinia; coral bell leaves turning green; peonies, Maltese cross, lady bells, tansy, pink salvia, catmints, Parker’s Gold and Moonshine yarrows poking up; cottonwood, spirea, purple sandcherry, privet and Japanese barberry leafing; buds on yellow alyssum.

Bedding plants: Buds on pansies and snapdragons.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Uncovered an earthworm when I was planting pansies near the Japanese barberry; bees around Lapins cherry; stink bugs are back.

Weather: Winds all week, rain Wednesday night; last weekend the arroyo bottom was dry enough to work the calves; 13:27 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The 1970's energy crises changed the definition of early blooming.

When the tetraploid Sensation cosmos was introduced in 1930 as an earlier blooming plant, advertisers meant it would flower before frost. Now, when seed companies tell growers a plant blooms early, they mean it requires less time in an energy-intensive greenhouse.

When OPEC stopped shipping petroleum to the United States in October of 1973, in response to this country’s support of Israel’s war against Egypt and Syria, greenhouses were particularly hard hit by sharply increased prices during their winter growing season. Owners replaced glass and plastic, insulated, improved their lighting, and took whatever other steps they could afford.

However, no sooner did they make an improvement, than increased prices ate the savings, and left them where they were. In 2008, Walter Nelson figured heat represented 13% of the production costs for western New York nurseries, while Wayne Brown found total energy, including heat, light and irrigation, was 25 to 30% in neighboring Ontario. Both suggested it would take only a very small increase in petroleum prices to severely damage the profits which were simultaneously being squeezed by big box customers who were setting low contract prices for vendors while making demands for more services that increased their labor.

Some nurseries tried saving energy by growing their plants at lower temperatures, something pansies especially like. However, Erik Runkle found that, while the resulting plants were more vigorous, they required a longer crop time, so the actual costs were higher. In Grand Rapids, the total energy cost for a 288-cell plug of heat-demanding petunias transplanted on January 29 for sales on April 1 and grown at 58 degrees was 56¢, while it was 31¢ for plants grown at 68 degrees after being transplanted on March 2.

Others have looked at lowering their labor costs, which Nelson says were 45% of the total in New York and Brown set at 30 to 35% in Ontario. The latter suggests larger operations, with greater financial resources, had been adopting some of the automation used in Europe to do such tasks as seeding, transplanting, mixing soil and filling cell packs.

Traditionally, bedding plant growers planted seeds in shallow flats, then hired seasonal help, often women, to transplant the small seedlings into sale packs. Some would eliminate the transplanting by planting several seeds in each cell, then hire local people to prick out all but the most viable plant from each unit. With plants like moss roses, they left the extras to give a fuller look with smaller individuals, even though the plants were probably weaker from having to compete for resources.

When I planted out my pansies last weekend, I discovered the consequences of these attempts to save money. The sale packs had the usual four legs for roots, but the top third wasn’t subdivided. I assume this was done to make it easier for unskilled labor or machines to drop seeds.

In one pack, there was an empty cell. In another, one seed had taken root on the bridge between two legs, and its roots hadn’t been able to develop. In the third, the one that had landed on the bridge sent its roots into the leg with another plant, making them impossible to separate. In effect, each four cell pak had only three plants, which effectively increased my purchase price from 55¢ to 74¢.

Seed companies have responded to higher energy costs by developing seeds that are ready for market sooner. Once people were told to plant pansies in late summer and let them winter over for spring blooms. Now, Sakota tells growers the elapsed time between sowing and marketing for the Crown series is ten to eleven weeks. Stokes tells nurserymen that Karma and Mammoth are ready in ten to twelve weeks, while HPS suggests the total crop time for its pansies is twelve to fourteen weeks. In other words, seeds can be planted in January for April sales, saving five months of worry that something will destroy the seedlings.

The problem for home gardeners is that ready for market means “in flower,” not “strong enough to survive transplanting.” My largest pansy plant is three and a half inches high and four inches wide; the smallest is one and half by two inches. It would take a great many plants to create a massed effect of color, at least nine per square foot at a minimum cost of $6.66.

Brown found consumers had responded to these changes by no longer buying bedding plants, but would buy larger plants in containers and hanging baskets. They simply weren’t willing to nurse along puny seedlings or look at bare ground while immature plants gradually came to size. Plants like pansies, after all, are only good for about a month before rising temperatures stop them from blooming.

The problem with the new seeds for growers is they are more expensive. A thousand Swiss Giant open-pollinated pansy seeds are sold for $3.63 by Stokes and for $4.75 by HPS. In contrast, a thousand Majestic Giants II F1 hybrid seeds are $32.50 and $42.50 respectively. According to Nelson, seeds and plant stock represent 16% of the total cost of production in western New York, more than is spent on heat.

HPS suggests the cost of the Majestic Giant II seed is somewhat offset by the fact the plants are naturally compact and don’t require growth regulators. Most of the chemicals nurseries use, as well as their plastic packages, are ultimately dependent on the same energy conglomerates that supply the natural gas for heat and gasoline for transportation. All these additional overhead costs increase when the price of a barrel of crude oil rises.

I no longer expect much from bedding plants. I only buy those like tomatoes and snapdragons that I can’t grow from seed and that have proven their ability to survive. However, if I ever want to see more than the usual yellow composites in summer, I’m dependent on nurseries to provide me with plants. They must continue to exist for me to be completely happy.

Ironically, while energy costs have radically changed the industry since 1973 - sending cut flower production to South American and Africa where labor costs are cheaper and moving winter vegetable production to the southwest and México where energy costs are less - the high cost of transporting bulky, perishable products with low profit margins has kept bedding plant growers near areas with large population centers. Even though California, Texas and Florida were three of the top five bedding plant growers in the middle 1990's, Michigan and Ohio were still in the top five, while Ontario increased its exports to this country since the middle 1980's.

The pansies I bought two weeks ago came from Colorado.

Notes: 2011 catalogs from Stokes Seeds, Inc., and HPS, the Horticultural Products and Services division of RH Shumway’s.

Brown, Wayne. “A Profile - The Ontario Greenhouse Floriculture Industry,” 1 June 2003, reviewed 18 March 2010.

Nelson, Walter E. “Greenhouse Energy Management,” 2008; it’s possible his price for seed and plants combines the costs of nurseries that specialize in germinating seeds and those that buy the plugs to grow for market; petunias were more severely affected by being grown at lower temperatures than were pansies.

Runkle, Erik, Jonathan Frantz and Matthew Blanchard. “Energy-Efficient Annuals: Scheduling Bedding Plants,” Greenhouse Grower, April 2009. He’s not including the cost of the time for germinating seed when temperatures can’t be manipulated, and heat and moisture requirements are usually higher. For Pansy Crown, Sakota Seed says the pre-transplantation time is 5 weeks and post transplanting time is 5-6 weeks.

Sakota Seed America, Inc. “Pansy Crown,” revised 15 August 2007, available on-line.

Photograph: Pansies, 6 April 2011, 15 days after purchase and 3 days after transplanting; snapdragon in back

Sunday, April 03, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: Few apricot or forsythia flowers, perhaps because of the dearth of snow and rain; daffodils, lavender moss phlox; silver lace vine leafing; lilacs leafing with buds emerging; village ditch running.

Outside the walls and fences: Dandelion, cheat grass; Siberian elm bright green.

In my yard: Lapins cherry, hyacinth, oxalis; leaves opening on Bradford pear and roses; buds forming on sand cherry; Silver King artemisia emerging.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium; first aptenia flower since the cold of winter.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, light colored snake, gecko, harvester ants, hornet in the house.

Weather: Warm afternoons and winds; last rain 3/8/11; 12:59 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I have strong memories of pansies, but, strangely, no recollection of what they looked like.

The first comes from my childhood when pansies were the only bedding plant my mother would buy - perhaps the only ones she could afford, and possibly the only ones available. They were put in the shade of the apple tree where they survived until fall, blooming off and on. I suppose most were purple, as pansies were then, but they could have been white or yellow. I don’t remember.

They probably hadn’t changed much since the late nineteenth century.

Pansies had begun as wild members of the violet family. The first were natural hybrids of Viola tricolor and Viola arvensis grown in the gardens of Mary Bennett and James Gambier in the early 1810's. James Lee, a nurseryman, introduced new species from Europe to encourage men like Bennet’s gardener, William Robinson. Gambier’s gardener, William Thompson, produced the first modern blotched flower in 1830.

While the English aristocracy was primarily interested in cultivating perfect individual flowers for exhibition, seeds of the improved viola crossed the channel where French and Belgium breeders experimented with massed plantings grown as annuals. By 1900, the major growers of what was soon called Viola wittrockiana were Bugnot, Cassier, Oldier, and Trimardeau.

When my mother was buying her plants in 1950's, the Thompson and Morgan seed catalog still reflected the aesthetic distinction between England and France. Swiss Giants, which won an All-Selection award in 1933, were bred for cut flowers, while Westland Giants were listed as a “Continental variety.” The rest of the 26 cultivars were individual colors or strains, including Maxima, advertised as a mix of show varieties “saved from one of the finest prize collections in England” and Roggli, introduced in 1930.

By the time I began trying to grow pansies in Michigan in the mid-1980s, the British seed catalog had expanded to 40 choices, divided by bloom size. They still carried Coronation Gold, King of the Blacks, Roggli, and Ullswater Blue, but the abilities to survive adverse conditions and look good in beds were mentioned.

A great deal had changed between the two publications. Sakota Seed had introduced the first F1 hybrid, Majestic Giant, in 1966, and breeders’ knowledge of ideal conditions had increased. Today, Sakota recommends its Crown series be planted in acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 5.8 and fed nitrogen and boron. Humidity should be 100% , with the germinating temperature between 64 and 69 degrees and 3,000 foot candles of light. As they grow, the temperature should be reduced to 55 to 65 and the light increased to 7,000 foot candles.

Not everyone follows those instructions. When researchers at the University of Florida tested pansies, they improved their germination potting mixture with dolomite, superphosphate and hydrated lime, then planted them out in fields of augmented fine sand. On their ranking scale of 1 to 10, most were judged fair (6) to good (7). Crowns, evaluated by color, varied between 6.6 and 6.7, Sakota’s Crystal Bowls were between 5.5 and 7.3, Sluis and Groot’s Roc between 6.4 and 7.6, and Goldsmith’s Universal Beaconsfield was 6.6.

Needless to say, when I’ve tried to grow pansies, my conditions were less than optimal, and my experiences haven’t matched those of my childhood. After trying two years in Michigan with what was available, Majestic Giant, Crystal Bowl, Universal Beaconsfield and Roc, I gave them up as a waste of money. The Majestic Giants and Crystal Bowls I bought in alkaline New Mexico in 1995 and 1996 died within a week of being planted.

My next memory of pansies comes from my only visit to Europe in the mid-1980's, where my hotel was a converted hunting lodge near Chantilly. The grounds were small, but the owners wanted to give the illusion of Versailles or the Tuileries, which they did with a large mound of pansies placed at a middle distance from the entrance. I think they were planted in tiers of color, but I don’t remember. I suspect, as soon as they went out of bloom, they were replaced with some other flowering plant.

The inability of the new cultivars to survive was unimportant, so long as they bloomed for several weeks. Pansies served the same function as cut flowers, disposable symbols of elegance whose very ephemeralness was a sign of luxury.

This year I decided to try the squarish stemmed flowers again, in a place so shaded that whatever grows there leans across the path after the sun. I figured if I treated them like the French, as a temporary spot of color to be replaced in a month, they were worth the 55¢ I paid per plant.

Alas, I’ve gotten older. I’ve lost by childhood illusions that wonderful flowers last all summer. I’m now forced to sample the more sophisticated European acceptance of fleeting beauty captured for an instant. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, “I remember them well.”

Cuthbertson, William. Pansies, Violas and Violets, 1910.

Howe, T. K. and W. E. Waters “Two Year Evaluation of Pansy Cultivars in the Florida Landscape,” Florida State Horticultural Society Proceedings 109:311-318:1996.

Sakota Seed America, Inc. “Pansy Crown,” revised 15 August 2007, available on-line.

Thompson and Morgan. Catalogs from 1955 and 1986.

Photograph: Rose Crown pansy, 30 March 2011.