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Every year this late in the season many of the native trees and shrubs here are suffering from drought conditions and start shedding their leaves. Fall here is drab with dried brownish leaves caused by the dryness. My mother commented on how drab it is here compared to the interior where glorious golden Birch and Poplars color swaths along hills and valleys. Happily there are good plantings in the mot surprising places which are enlivened with the best of fall colors from around the world. One place near me is a big mall which has spectacular shades or orange, peach and reds starting with the Sweet Gum(Liquidambar styraciflua) which provides a backbone of crimson running through the parking lot.

The Sweet Gum trees in Broadmead Village Shopping Centre in Saanich B.C.

The Sweet Gum trees in Broadmead Village Shopping Centre in Saanich B.C.

We are lucky here that we can grow plants from anywhere in the world. Sweet Gum come from south eastern North America, growing from Connecticut in the north moving west to the very southern edge of Ohio and south to Florida and down through mexico into mountainous areas of Guatemala.  They have long been used by the various native groups medicinally. Medicinally the resin(sweet gum or liquid amber)  was used as a balm for various ailments but has been found to be not particularly useful. It’s sweet scent has meant it has been used in the as a fragrant adhesive, the manufacture of incense as well as in perfume industry. The resin was collected and used as a chewing gum. At one time the gum was mixed with wild tobacco and smoked at the court of the Mexican emperor.

Liquidambar styrciflua (Sweet Gum) are amoung collection of trees at  the Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich.

Liquidambar styrciflua (Sweet Gum) are among collection of trees at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich.

Francisco Hernández (1517-1587) was a botanist studied Mexican flora and was the first to write about Sweet Gum trees in his work published in 1651. He wrote about a large tree which produced a fragrant gum which was amber in color. The tree was brought to Europe by John Bannister( a missionary) in 1681 and specimens were planted at Fulham Palace Gardens. At that time it was called Styrax liquida.

The fruit of the Sweet Gum tree is a multi-capsuled bauble which is unpleasant to step on.

The fruit of the Sweet Gum tree is a multi-capsuled bauble which is unpleasant to step on.

One of the main reasons for planting Liquidambar styraciflua is it’s wonderful fall colors. It has a very wide range of shades ranging from a black plum through reds and crimson into oranges and peaches. This quality makes many people long for this tree when they move to other places. There is nothing like seeing the hills dotted with the flaming reds as autumn  as it starts to cool off. The leaves of this tree seem to keep their color for extended periods than many others, so we get to enjoy the effect for longer than most other species which drop their leaves quickly after they start to color up.

A crimson bed of Sweet Gum leaves under a crispy brown Red Oak leave.

A crimson bed of Sweet Gum foliage under a crispy brown Red Oak leaf.

Sweet Gums are often mistaken for Maples and they are not. Liqiudambar styraciflua are members of the Witch Hazel family. You can tell they are not maples by their fruit which is a spiky ball. Their leaves are attached to branches in an alternate pattern, whereas Maple leaves are always in opposite pairs. Sweet Gums also have interesting corky twigs which are ditinct from smooth Maple branches.

The very 'Maple-like' leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua.

The very 'Maple-like' leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua.

Sweet Gums do grow to be stately trees of up to 40m (130ft) so placement is important.  They tolerate zones 6-10 (-5c and up). They grow best in deep, rich, slightly acid moist soil. These are trees which like wet conditions and often grow in swampy areas. Full sun is a must to get the best color display in autumn. I see these trees used in many places, boulevards, parking lots school yards and other tough places.  They are also used as specimens. there are quite a few cultivars (clones) to choose from which give options in hardiness, shape and form, less seedy and color options. There should be one that will fit into any need.

Shades of Liquidambar styraciflua in a pond.

Shades of Liquidambar styraciflua in a pond.

Be sure to be on the look out for Sweet Gum in the coming weeks as the autumn season becomes  more pronounced in your area.

More About Liquidambar styraciflua:

Some excellent photographs of the flowers, fruit and bark of Sweet Gum: http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/list.html

The Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich has good specimens of many trees: http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/science/facilities-installations/ios-ism/index-eng.htm

Description of growing the tree and list of common cultivars(clones) available: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ldplants/list.htm

In depth description of growing and knowing Sweet Gums:

http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/pocketgardener/source/description/li_iflua.html

Until We Meet Again Later…..

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When we first come to be interested in flowers and gardening we often are totally in awe of the range of colors in flowers, we are like ‘kids in a candy shop’ and want to try every type and color tone. Slowly as we are exposed to other gardens and by reading(if we do) we learn more about composition of a garden and what makes for good design. We become more connoisseurs of  more subtle things like shape, texture of leaves, buds and bark. This is when we start to pass from being a consumer of gardens and plants to be more of a student of them and can fully appreciate what is trying to be achieved.  Astilbes are like this to me, I first was agog in their range of colors and then learned to love their texture within not only their flowers but their beautiful and useful foliage.

A fine show of blooming Atilbes in the Japanes Gardens at Glendale Gardens, Saanich.

A fine show of blooming Atilbes in the Japanes Gardens at Glendale Gardens, Saanich.

I first really got to know Astilbes when I worked for a wholesale perennial nursery, there we shipped literally thousands of Astilbes a year. They sold least a couple of dozen hybrids form the common types sold strictly by color to those named varieties which were being introduced to North America for the first time. It was quite an awe inspiring sight to see blocks of several hundred of one color type blooming at the same moment.  I soon learned that not only did the flowers have an interesting range of forms(from droopy and open to upright and tight) but the leaves often changed color as they matured some having bronzy tones and others keeping a bright green shade throughout the year.

Astilbe x 'Fanal', one of the most vibrant reds in the flower world.

Astilbe x arendsii 'Fanal' bred by Georg Arends, one of the most vibrant reds in the flower world.

Most Astilbe plants originate in Asia except for A. biternata which comes from eastern North America. Not surprisingly the first plants where grown in botanical collections as early as the 1830s, from that time many more have been discovered.  Georg Arends(1863-1952) is responsible for popularizing Astilbes. He took the many known species and started crossing them to create a completely new group of plants. Many of his plants have become famous since their introduction in the 1920s and 30s and are classed as ‘x arendsii’  One of his famous introductions is the first ‘red’ Astilbe ‘Fanal’ in 1933.  His ‘White(Weisse) Gloria’ from 1924 is considered to be the best of it’s color.  You can still count on easily finding ‘Amethyst, Bridal Veil'(Brautschleier), Cattleya, Granat, Hyacinth(Hyazinth) and Pink Pearl(Rosa Perle) in nurseries today.

Astilbe x 'Peach Blossom' which was introduced in 1902.

Astilbe x 'Peach Blossom' which was introduced in 1902.

There are several other groups of Astilbe hybrids which have been developed; x japonica look alot like x arendsii and have the same species as the parents.  The ‘chinensis’ groups generally all have mauve to magenta colors, more rough foliage texture and flower spikes of a slightly different shape.  A newer group from A. simplicifolia offers more restrained smaller plants which have delicately colored flowers and foliage.

Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila', a minature which is easily grown from seed.

Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila', a minature which is easily grown from seed.

Astilbes are very useful in the garden and are adaptable to many uses. They tolerate shady to bright sun as long as they have a good supply of water which is why they are often seen in boggy places or alongside water. They look attractive from the time they emerge from the ground with their delicate foliage and associate well with other plants such as Hosta, Heucheras, Ferns, Iris and Polygonatums to create beautiful nuanced foliage tapestries.

A lovely colorful shady border with Astilbes at Government House in Victoria, B.C.

A lovely colorful shady border with Astilbes at Government House in Victoria, B.C.

To grow Astilbes you need need rich moisture retaining soil which has lots of humus in it.  They prefer to be situated in shady or dappled sites which are out of  the way during the mid-day heat. Once they have flowered they should be pruned down so they can produce a fresh crop of leaves.  When selecting your plant consider it’s size as they range from miniature which are suitable for a rockery to fairly giant 4-5ft(1-1.5m) tall. They are generally hardy to zone 4(-20C) but with winter protection will survive lower temperatures. I have found Astilbe chineisis ‘Pumila’ thrives at zone 3a(-40c) in my mothers’ garden so much that it has been divided several times and produces large clumps which make a nice carpet there.  To have a longer bloom period select several varieties; x arendsii and x japonicas bloom earlier with chinensis a little later.

A low growing Astilbe simplicifolia hybrid blooming by a pathway.

A low growing Astilbe simplicifolia hybrid blooming by a pathway.

Astilbes are often used as cut flowers. The trick is to cut them before the blossoms have opened. They also can be preserved as dried flowers this way. The foliage is also a nice addition to a bouquet as greenery.

A mass planting of Astilbe at U.B.C. Botaincal Garden in Vancouver, B.C.

A mass planting of Astilbe at U.B.C. Botaincal Garden in Vancouver, B.C.

To Learn More About Astilbes:

A little about Georg(e) Arends and growing Astilbes: http://www.youngamericangrowers.com/app/our_plants.asp

A good article about Astilbes: http://www.arhomeandgarden.org/plantoftheweek/articles/Astilbe.htm

Until we meet again next week…..


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When I moved from the northern B.C. To Vancouver to go to school one plant which I did not have any experience with was Rhododendrons. Most of the time I have lived on the coast I have ignored them as they are a flourish of color in the spring and then just somewhat shapeless evergreen blobs the rest of the year. I had heard about a wonderful collection of Rhododendrons at Playfair Park and decided I must check them out.

Playfair Park Rhododendrons In May 2006.

Playfair Park Rhododendrons In May 2006.

The experience of seeing the variety at Playfair Park which is made up of many species more than hybrids and crosses made me change my mind about ‘Rhodos’. The Rhodos there are big and small leaved, fuzzy or grainy textured, and bloomy along with every color imaginable  blooming over many months. I went back week after week photographing trying to label what I saw and what really took my breath away every year has been the numerous  Rhododendron augustinii and their incredible color. It truly is to dream about.  Now every spring I hunt for Augustine’s Rhododendrons and hope to find new ones at other sites.

Rhododendron augustinii 'Cox's Form' at Glendale Garden.

Rhododendron augustinii 'Cox's Form' at Glendale Garden.

 Augustine Henry (1857-1930) was the first person to discover and send samples of this plant back to Kew in London in 1899. He was trained as an Assistant Medical Officer and was posted with the Chinese Customs Service in Shanghai in 1881 where he quickly picked up the ability to speak the language.

Rhododendron augustinii ssp. augustinii much like August Henry Would Have Seen.

Rhododendron augustinii ssp. augustinii Much Like Augustine Henry Would Have Seen.

From there he was posted to Yichang(Ichanh) in remote Hubei Province (Central China) in 1882. There he investigated plants used in Chinese medicine. While there he started to collects plant specimens and seed to send to England.Later he was stationed in Sichuan and Yunnan, both areas where forms of Rhododendron augustinii is found. over his lifetime August Henry contributed 15,000 specimens including seeds and 500 plants to Kew Gardens and worked with many other important plant explorers of his time. He is truly one of the giants of the plant world as we know it today.

Rhododendron augustinii ssp. hardyii, Found by Joesph Rock

Rhododendron augustinii ssp. hardyii Found by Joesph Rock

As soon as Augustine’s Rhododendron came to England it was a hit and was soon gained an AM(Award of Merit) in 1920.  The pureness of the blue color is unusual in the plant world and is coveted by all who see it. because of it’s color many forms of this plant have been collected. It has been crossed and recrossed with itself to produce dazzling results such as Lionel Rothchilds’ (Exbury) ‘Electra’ from 1937 which is an augustinii X augustinii ssp. ‘chasmanthum’ cross.   

Rhododendron augustinii 'Electra'

Rhododendron augustinii 'Electra' at Playfair Park.

Rhododendron augustinii has since been crossed with other blue and violet flowering Rhodos’ and the results have ranged from the icy blue ‘Blue Diamond’ through violet blue of ‘ Blaney’s Blue’ to the truly bluest of blue of ‘St. Breward’ and many more which have become famous in their own right. 

Rhododendron augustinii x St. Edward.

Rhododendron augustinii x St. Breward. found at Finnerty Gardens.

We must consider ourselves lucky that Augustine’s Rhododendron is an easy adaptable plant to grow. It grows best in a sheltered posistion such as under  or mixed with deciduous trees and shrubs. Rhododendron augustinii requires rich acidic soil which is moisture retaining, but well drained at the same time. Rhodos have shallow fine roots which can easily be damaged so it is advised to use mulch year round with little planting underneath.

Augustine Rhododendrons seen in the Rhodo grove at Playfair Park.

Augustine Rhododendrons seen in the Rhodo grove at Playfair Park.

Rhododendron augustinii plants are rated at zone 7b (-15c or 5f.) and grow up to 10ft(3m) in 10 years. These plants can be specimens in the garden because they have excellent small foliage and often become more tree form with age.

Happy Augustine’s Rhododendron Hunting!

Links to this weeks member of the plant world:

An excellent page of ‘augustinii’ pictures:http://www.rhododendron.dk/augustinii.html

Technical information on Rhododendron augustinii.http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200016341

All about Augustine Henry, a famous and important plant explorer.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_Henry 

Until we meet again later this week….

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(Coast)Silk Tassel Bushes or Garrya elliptica are a very unusual plant to come across. The first time I saw one I was thrilled, I had never paid attention to the rather boring ungainly shrub located at the top of the long perennial border at Playfair Park in Saanich. It was early in the year and I knew  that this garden had a wonderful collection of Rhododendrons which I wanted to check on, they were not in bloom yet,  instead I found a Garrya.

Winter Damaged Garrya at Playfair Park.

Winter Damaged Garrya at Playfair Park.

The first thing I realized on seeing this plant for the first time is that at other times without its catkins I might have thought it was an Elaegnus which has similar leaves but not flowers. Garryas are dioecious meaning they are male or female plants(Holly is another plant like this). They both have long catkins but the males clones are the most prized.  Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ is the most commonly grown male clone which can have catkins which are up to 12in (30 cm) long.

Garrya Male Catkins

Garrya Male Catkins

Garrya ellipticas are true west coasters and don’t like living far from the ocean, this is because there are smaller temperature swings when closer to a large body of water (marine effect).  Their range extends all along the coast from southern Oregon through California. There are a total of 18 Garrya species found along the West coast  from Washington state through to Panama and east to Texas

A Happy Garrya at Glendale Gardens

A Happy Garrya at Glendale Gardens

Here in Victoria We live in a rain shadow which keeps us drier and warmer than the  the British Columbia mainland. We have a very moderate climate which is similar to their native habitat of Chaparral, mixed evergreen forest or coastal Sage scrub. Garryas’ where first found by David Douglas in 1828 and named for Nicolas Garry who was the Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  He assisted Douglas in his explorations in the Pacific Northwest.

A well placed Silk Tassel Bush

A well placed Silk Tassel Bush

Placement of Silk Tassel Bushes here here is a very tricky thing. They like full sun to part shade preferably in mixed deciduous trees and shrubs to show off their winter blooms. The most important thing is to make sure this plant is kept out of the drying burning winds that can occur during a cold snap such as the ones we have during the November to March period.  Best placement is bottoms of slopes or beside walls or fences. Another use is as a transitional plant from a  naturalised setting into the more structured garden.

Winter damage to the evergreen foliage.

Winter damage to the evergreen foliage.

Garryas are easy to please,  for luxuriant growth they ask for no less than 25 in.(25cm) of rain. They are not very particular to soil and tolerate clays if they are well drained and nutrient rich. They will grow into a substantial 12ft(4m) by 12ft(4m) multi-stemmed shrub which is deer and rabbit resistant. They can be lightly pruned after blooming primarily for shape, do not too far down into the bush.  Although these plants can take temperatures as low as 4f(-10c) they prefer a warmer climate.  Zones 7 through 10 is recommended.

Lnks to this weeks Subject:

A very informative site about Garryas

http://groups.ucanr.org/sonomamg/Plant_of_the_Month/Garrya_Elliptica.htm

Playfair Park in Saanich is one of my favorite parks for great plant specimens. I will be regularly writing about the plants here.

http://www.saanich.ca/resident/parks/playfairpark.html

David Douglas, an important plant explorer who introduced many species into cultivation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Douglas

Which plant will I write about next week? It’s still a mystery to me, check back on Wednesday for a clue.

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