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Another grey week and another plant hunt for something special. Usually I have a list of plants in mind but right now it is hard because some of the plants I wanted to do were damaged by an unusually hard freeze which came in early November last year. At that time many of the plants were not hardened off for the winter with the damage especially seen by broad-leaved evergreens which have much browned and dead foliage now. In my wandering last week I stumbled upon two plants of the same family which are stars at this time of the year. They are the Algerian Iris (Iris unguicularis) and the Stinking or Gladwyn Iris (Iris foetidissima). They are the stars for different reasons as you will see!

 Winter or Algerian Iris (Iris unguicularis) is sometimes incorrectly labeled by its old name of Iris stylosa.

Winter or Algerian Iris (Iris unguicularis) is sometimes incorrectly labeled by its old name of Iris stylosa.


The first stop we make is with the Algerian or Winter Iris with its lovely large violet blooms. It was first described by Botanist/clergyman  Jean Louis Marie Pioret (1755-1834) in his journal ‘Voyage et Barbarie’ in 1789.  He had been sent to Algeria by Louis XVI between 1785-6 to study the flora. The lovely Iris is more widespread and found in area from Algeria and Tunisia across north Africa into Turkey, Greece Crete and Malta. In the vast area it is known to live int there is some variation in color and form.
The type of Iris unguicularis I have found in Victoria seems to be the 'Algerian' form which has the largest flowers of the species.

The type of Iris unguicularis I have found in Victoria seems to be the 'Algerian' form which has the largest flowers of the species.


Algerian Iris produce new leaves in late spring and through the summer. Often you can clip the old leave edges back when they get looking tattered. Iris unguicularis likes the sunniest, driest spot in the garden with the grittiest soil. At Government House in Victoria the plants are perfectly place in the terrace garden which is on a southern exposed rock-face.  The warmer and drier the summer the more blossoms will be produced.  One thing about these plants is they hate to be moved or have their roots disturbed in any way.
 A just opened Algerian Iris in the late afternoon sun has delicate coloring and scent.

A just opened Algerian Iris in the late afternoon sun has delicate coloring and scent.


The Gladwyn Iris is from more northern areas from southern England, Ireland through Portugal, Spain Canary Island on to Italy and finally the island of Malta.
The Gladwyn Iris (Iris foetidissma) is more famous for its brightly colored seeds which are seen during the winter months here.

The Gladwyn Iris (Iris foetidissma) is more famous for its brightly colored seeds which are seen during the winter months here.


The ‘Stinking Iris has gained an unfair reputation from its name. One has to crush the leaves and the flower to obtain even a faintly unpleasant scent. Iris foetidissima is a plant which has long been with us. It blooms in the traditional Iris time of late May and June, but, the flowers are small and often hidden in the foliage. The colors range from a creamy ochre into plummy shades.
The flowers of Iris foetidissima are often hidden in the plants foliage.

The flowers of Iris foetidissima are often hidden in the plants foliage.


The Gladwyn Iris is a plant of the woodlands, hedgerows, scrubs and cliff edges and other rocky sites. It is a plant which likes chalky and limestone  heavy locations. Gladwyn Iris can grow in the sun or dappled shade and like average soil. They like sufficient water when they are growing in the spring and then dry conditions the rest of the year.After blooming it produces larger than average seed pods which ripen through the summer and into early winter when they burst. Inside the pods are usually bright orange seeds which remain colorful throughout the winter. The other day I noticed pods recently opened and others still green and waiting to split. Just like the flowers there are other known seed colors which are sought after and they range from golden yellows to creams and white. Probably the most want of the Gladwyn Iris is Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’ with beautifully uniform cream stripes running up the leaves.
The variegated Gladwyn Iris(Iris foetidissma 'Variegata') is most sought after, as you see it is stunning in dappled location at Glendale Garden.

The Variegated Gladwyn Iris (Iris foetidissma 'Variegata') is most sought after, as you see they are stunning in dappled location at Glendale Garden.

Algerian and Gladwyn Iris are about the same height 45-60cm.(12-18 in.) and width They also share the same temperature tolerance to 15 c. (5 f.) or zones 7 through 9. Both plants are drought tolerant when they have been established. They are rabbit and deer resistant but can be damaged by slugs and snails. They make excellent specimens, accents s, mass evergreen plantings and work well in containers. Both of these species are not easy to find in plant centres or garden shops, the best bet would be to find them at garden sales or from specialty Iris growers.

Gladwyn Iris on the upper left and Algerian Iris on the lower right.

Gladwyn Iris on the upper left and Algerian Iris on the lower right.


This Odd Couple of the Irises:

Pacific Bulb Society has interesting note on both plants on this page, look down the page to find the species you are interested in: http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org/pbswiki/index.php/BeardlessIrises

Algerian Iris:

How to grow: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/4208463/How-to-Grow-Iris-unguicularis.html

Gladwyn Iris:

Wild in Malta: http://maltawildplants.com/IRID/Iris_foetidissima.php

……See you soon when we travel the path of plants again…..

 

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There are some plants that are just plain strange! Even the family(genera) they are associated can be weird. Many of these peculiar plants have unusual flowers or growing habits because they might live in unusual situations or bloom out of season when there are few bees to spread the pollen. One family with strange flowers is the members of the Araceae family. The namesake of this family is the species Arum and the most common type seen in gardens is Arum Italicum (Cuckoo Pint).

This Arum italicum with its freshly unfurled leaves and bright seeds is a showy addition to the late autumn garden.

This Arum italicum with its freshly unfurled leaves and bright seeds is a showy addition to the late autumn garden.


The Cuckoo Pint is one of the best known members of the Araceae family which all have several characteristics in common.  All members of the family have spathe/spadix flowers which make them stand out from other plants.  The spathe is a specialized leaf which protects the spike(spadix) of tiny flowers. The spathe is generally much larger than the complete spadix and is often showy and can be colorful. In the case of Arum italicum the tiny flowers’ are usually on very short stems and the spathe is a greenish color. The flowers structures are usually hidden underneath the much larger leaves. Another thing common to Aracae members is they all have calcium oxalate found in all parts of the plants. Calcium oxalate is a chemical compound that is a well-known irritant and anything which has it must be handled with care.
All parts of the Cuckoo Pint has calcium oxalate in it.

All parts of the Cuckoo Pint has calcium oxalate in it.


Arum Italicum is a fairly widespread plant and grows wild in southern England most of southern Europe, Northern Africa and into Asia Minor. It is an ancient plant and representations are seen painted on the walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak in the ancient capital of Thebes in Egypt, the plants are not native to that area. During the 16th century the roots of Arums where boiled and powdered to produce a white starch which was used to stiffen collars and ruffles of the elaborate clothing of the times. Later the same powder was added to cosmetics called Cyprus powder which was used for the skin in Paris. The thick gummy sap of the plants was at the time was collected and refined for use as a substitute for soap for laundry. It’s hard to believe  we used this plant for these things as processing it would have been a long slow process and in some cases taking many weeks.
 The seedheads of Arum italicum on elongated stems beginning to ripen in the early June.

The seed heads of Arum italicum on elongated stems beginning to ripen in the early June.


Arum italicum has a life cycle which backwards compared to most plants we are familiar with. Here the leaves are produced every autumn and winter over into the spring, they area undamaged by frosts.  In spring Cuckoo Pint flowers are produced and the foliage later withers leaving the elongating floral stems with the seed developing on it.  As the seed is almost is ripe new leaves unfurl in late autumn and a new cycle begins again. The seed ripens and is sown in the winter as it has a short viability and does not tolerate drying out at all therefore the time of ripening guarantees the best chance of germination.
 The same Cuckoo Pint in late August with the seeds starting to color up but no leaves in sight yet.

The same Cuckoo Pint in late August with the seeds starting to color up but no leaves in sight yet.


Arum italicun is an attractive plant for the garden and can be used in number of ways. It is very tolerant of shade and even deep shade and can be planted in areas where many other plants will struggle. It is quite a show at this dark time of the year and provides late autumn and winter interest. The bright color of the seeds are noticeable deep in a border or it can be used in a container for a winter show. Cuckoo Pints can be placed as accents or specimens and work as a groundcover if they are in a spot where they can naturally produce seedlings.
 The variation of leave coloring and varigation is typical of seedling Arum italicum, no two plants are identical.

The variation of leave coloring and varigation is typical of seedling Arum italicum, no two plants are identical.


Growing the Cuckoo Pint is easy, you need a site with rich slightly acidic moisture retentive soil and full sun to shade. If you like more leaves plant them in more shade and for more seedheads a bit more light. Arum italicum die down during the summer heat and you might need to mark the site so you do not over plant on them. You should consider wearing gloves when handling any part of these plants do to the calcium oxalate found in the plant might irritate your skin. Wash your hands after touching any part of the plant. If you are worried about pets and children eating any part of this plant you might choose to put it deep in a border where they will be less noticeable (except to you). One good thing about this plant is that slugs and wild life generally does not touch it.  Propagation is by seed or division of clumps during May and june when the plant becomes more dormant.
Here at Finnerty Gardens the Arum italicum has found a happy home and has spread under this Davidia tree.

Here at Finnerty Gardens the Arum italicum has found a happy home and has spread under this Davidia tree.

Cuckoo Pints are hardy to -25 c.(-13 f.) or zone 5 through 9.  An average plant grows about 30cm(1ft.) tall and wide.  Spacing is 45cm (16 in.) apart of you want more of a mass planting. Breeders have become interested in this plant and there are now have selected leaf types which are more marbled and showy, these should become more common in time. Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ for a long time was considered to be separate form has now been demoted to plain Arum italicum.
Looking for the elusive Cuckoo Pint:

Some species of Arums to compare: http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org/pbswiki/index.php/Arum

Growing Arum is easy, check here: http://www.perennials.com/seeplant.html?item=1.077.120

Calcium oxalate and what it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_oxalate

The Araceae family: http://zipcodezoo.com/Key/Plantae/Araceae_Family.asp

…………Hope you come back here soon……….

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When I finished Horticulture school in North Vancouver I was lucky to be picked to work a practicum position over the summer months while school was not in session(the rest of the year students did the work). It was like another 4 months of school which I was paid to attend. We did all the jobs needed at Park & Tilford Gardens ranging from pruning in the rose garden to maintaining the baskets in the huge parking lot. Along with Park & Tilford there was another much smaller shopping center we occasionally did work at, this is where I learned first hand why Firethorn(Pyracantha species)  it’s well deserved  name.

The bright berries of  this Firethorn show up well against this enterance.

The bright berries of this Firethorn show up well against this entrance.

The tip of every branch is ended with a stout thorn which is often completely hidden by the dense evergreen foliage. The first time I pruned one of these shrubs, my leather gloves where punctured and slashed. I also was punctured and it did burn a bit, I was told this was caused by the chemicals the thorn exuded. The name Pyracantha(Pyrakantha) literally means ‘fire-thorn’ in Greek – pyr meaning fire and akantha for thorn.

A wonderfully creative use of Pyracantha espaliered along the enclosure of the Japanese Gardens found at Glendale Gardens in Saanich

A wonderfully creative use of Pyracantha espaliered along the enclosure of the Japanese Gardens found at Glendale Gardens in Saanich.

There are several species of Pyracantha which have been crossed to give us a range of colorful berries and slight variations in leaves. Firethorns come from an area starting in Southern Europe and traveling across Asia to Taiwan. Several species are found in China. Pyracantha coccinea which is found in Italy into Asia Minor was the first to be used horticulturally. It was more formally introduced and named in 1629.

The leaves of this specimen are distinctly different then most commonly seen forms of Firethorn.

The leaves of this specimen are distinctly different then most commonly seen forms of Firethorn. This is Pyracantha 'Navaho'.

Firethorn is one of the most versatile of all shrubs and is used in challenging and varied sites. Often we first come across this shrub used as a barrier in parking lots or  as hedges. In those cases it often is severely pruned and most of its colorful berries are lost. It makes an interesting free form shrub if given the space it needs, as it grows quite large. Better use will be where the berries are highlighted as a wonderful fall feature.  the berries are also edible and one can make a tasty jelly with them.

A colorful espaliered Pyracanatha at the back of a grocery store in Sidney B.C.

A colorful espaliered Pyracanatha at the back of a grocery store in Sidney B.C.

Pyracantha can be worked into most situations. To get the best display of berries and flowers grow them in full sun, they are not particular about soil and will take any situation as long as it is not water-logged. They need adequate water during their May-June blooming period to produce a good berry crop. Firethorn adapts well to poor soil and drought conditions, here we have droughts every year from June through October with no damage to these tough shrubs.  they also survive well in areas with air pollution.  Pryacantha are surprisingly hardy as well, regularly tolerated -15c(-5f) which might cause them to loss some of their leaves.

A stunning yellow form which is rarely seen here. It might be Pyracantha 'Shawnee' but I am not sure.

A stunning yellow form which is rarely seen here. It might be Pyracantha 'Shawnee' but I am not sure.

As you can see, Firethorns can grow to be very tall and wide. It is possible to have a shrub which grows to a space of 4.5m x 4.5m(15ft x 15ft).I have seen them pruned very thin and grown to hide an ugly chain-link fence.   Fortunately Pyracantha can easily be pruned hard into attractive shapes as well. One of the most interesting examples I have seen was when I was in Japan visiting my sister. Christmas trees were created by twisting 2 color forms together into a traditional tree shape, with the berries as bright ribbons of gold and red. they were very festive and all that was missing where the presents. It was very impressive and probably expensive to create.

A very long driveway with a double Pyracantha hedge. This is the famous Woodwyn Farm  in Central Saanich.

A very long driveway with a double Pyracantha hedge. This is the famous Woodwyn Farms in Central Saanich.

When selecting a Firethorn consider the space it will take up first. Many of the newer varieties are smaller and there are even some very compact forms which are used for Bonsai. Choose a berry color which will stands out best for where it is planted. Here the most commonly seen form is Pyracantha ‘Mohave‘ which has a bright orange berry, it is hard to find any other colors which is a pity.

Pyracantha 'Mohave' growing on an arbor, a popular choice in townhouses and condominiums.

Pyracantha 'Mohave' growing on an arbor, a popular choice in townhouses and condominiums.

To learn more about Firethorns:

How to grow this thorny customer: http://www.floridata.com/ref/P/pyra_coc.cfm

A little about the different species of Pyracantha: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyracantha

Until we meet again….

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