Corn, Ornamental Japonica Striped Maize, photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau
parrot perched on liquidambar tree in North Hollywood, photo by Kenneth Roberts
Sacevola Surdiva Variegated Blue, photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau
It has been several weeks since Wisteria stopped blooming but still I think of it. Its curtains of opulent lavender-violet flower clusters are hard to forget. All year long, except for a single brief moment in late winter and early spring, wisteria is a vine that shows nothing of ornamental interest. It does serve a utiliarian purpose in covering an arbor and thus provides shade for those strolling or dining al fresco below. But without its flowers, Wisteria would probably not be planted much, if at all.
I think that people, too, have this wisteria like quality. We might go for months living a drab, humdrum sort of existence until we suddenly flower brilliantly for a brief, yet memorable, moment. Indeed, most of the time we do our jobs well and provide assistance and sustenance for others. Yet how often do we bloom, giving something that, coming from our best and truest self, delights and inspires the world around us? 150 fifty years ago in Lithuania there was a rabbi named Yisrael Salanter who said that “the greatest distance in the universe is the distance between your head and your heart.” When our noblest and most idealistic aspirations, those that we carry around in our minds, somehow reach our hearts, that is when we truly blossom.
“I have a very big camellia and it is over 50 years old. For the last few years, it has a lot of buds but they do not open up. They either fall or I take them off the branch after they fail to open. This year I had only 3 or 4 of them that opened. I have 5 other camellias and none of them have this problem. Can you tell me what causes it?”
Peggy Bertrand, West Hills
Camellias are perhaps the longest lived of all popularly grown flowering shrubs. There are camellias in European and East Asian gardens that are more than 500 years old and even camellias growing in containers frequently live for over a century.
The phenomenon of camellia buds that never open, typically referred to as as bud drop, does not have a simple explanation. It is thought to be a physiological disorder related to improper growing conditions. A number of factors, some of them at opposite ends of the spectrum, have been implicated in the occurrence of bud drop: dry soil, overly wet soil, freezing winter temperatures, excessively warm winter temperatures, and inadequate light exposure. Since camellias commonly benefit from the shade of surrounding or overhanging trees, I would suggest that such trees, growing in the vicinity of your camellia, may have increased in size over the years, leading to less light exposure and thus increased soil moisture, factors that could lead to bud drop.
Camellias became plants of popular ornamental interest by chance. In the 1500’s, Portugal enjoyed a monopoly on tea trade with China. Tea leaves are harvested from the Chinese camellia (Camellia sinensis) and so it was thought that Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) leaves could be brewed into a tea or tea-like potion. Alas, it was quickly discovered that the leaves of Japanese camellia were not meant for brewing but that its flowers were most remarkable, quickly making the plants that produced them desirable for their floriferous beauty alone. Incidentally, camellias were named in honor or Georg Kamel, a missionary and pharmacist who became famous for setting up the first pharmacy in the Phillippines. Among the medicinal compounds he administered were those extracted from a plant genus that would later bear his name.
Kenneth Roberts, whose outstanding photographs have previously appeared in this column, has done it again, thanks to some seldom encountered avian wildlife. “Until this week,” he wrote, “I had not considered the street parkway trees as an extension of my garden. Yet, again this April, parrots have returned to the same liquidambar tree they visited last year. So just as hummingbirds return to my honeysuckle and the squirrels come for the mulberry, the street trees provide more than just shade. I am always amazed at the large variation of wildlife in the city. With the parrots visiting for half an hour in the morning and a shorter evening visit, getting a decent photo was a challenge. But I got lucky. With a borrowed 200 mm lens and mother nature’s permission, I got the North Hollywood birds documented.”
Tip of the Week: If you take a fancy to variegated, pink and green and cream foliage, you might want to consider two recently introduced plants. One is for your vegetable garden, a variety of corn known as Ornamental Japonica Striped Maize and yes, it does produce edible kernels on the cob. This variety originated in Japan over 100 years ago but has only recently been brought into the regular nursery trade. The other introduction is a fan flower called Scaevola Surdiva Variegated Blue. Fan flowers are shown off to best advantage growing in pots or window boxes. If you insist on planting fan flowers in the ground, do so as edging along a walkway in order for their delicate flowers to invariably meet the eyes of passersby and thus be given their proper due. To view these and other new varieties of vegetables and ornamental plants that you may not find anywhere else, visit the web site at ngb.org.