Six on Saturday

Once again, I am joining The Propagator for Six on Saturday. Visit the comments section of his blog to learn about gardens from around the world.

1. Aphids. The tell-tale leaf curl, gleam of sticky residue. A closer look reveals innumerable tiny forms, black, gray, bright green, seemingly motionless, in actual fact busy sucking the life force from my plant. I admit that my first instinct is to reach for the horticultural soap, to direct a firehose-strength spray at the afflicted stems, to pick off and ruthlessly crush each little perpetrator. But an admittedly superficial horticultural education stays my hand. There must be food to attract and retain the beneficial insects that keep aphids and their brethren in check. The system will find balance – not immediately, but in its own time. Patience and a willingness to accept some damage are called for. So I have been waiting, watching, hoping that the natural checks and balances will kick into action before my plants are annihilated, hoping that the aphids are not communicating a virus for which there is no natural defense. So far, I have seen more lady bugs, including juveniles. The affected plants have not died and both seem, for the moment, inclined to bloom. A tenuous faith is affirmed.

3. Seedling setbacks. Of the seedlings I have bought or grown, few have survived the ravages of the garden’s night time visitors. Basil, cucumber, and ornamentals alike have suffered, leading me to contemplate new protective strategies (cloches of hardware cloth or tops of soda bottles?) Any recommendations?

2. California pipevine. Finally, after purchasing seeds online, and sowing those seeds without a single seedling emerging into the light, sulking in my disappointment, reading several articles about the object of desire and pining away, I have at long last got my hands on a real, live California pipevine. I had hoped to train this strange specimen up a trellis situated between the perennial beds and the berries, but several sources suggest that the pipevine prefers at least part shade. So it has been planted instead by the stream and will, if all goes well, be trained to ornament the railing of the back deck. This fascinating vine, whose flowers resemble those of a carnivorous plant, apparently pollinated by tiny fungus gnats, which it traps in its pipe-shaped flowers long enough for them to become thoroughly coated in pollen. The flowers are reputed to emit a rather foul, fungal odor to attract the chosen pollinator. On the less repugnant side of things, the California pipevine is the only host plant of the California pipevine swallowtail, which lays its eggs on the leaves. The toxic leaves nourish the caterpillars without harming them; the accumulated poisons serve to protect the butterflies from predators. The chrysalis bears an appealing resemblance to furled pipevine flowers. If my vine survives and grows, I will be watching closely for signs of the gnat upon whose grotesque appetites the plant depends for its survival, and the beautiful butterfly in whose life cycle the vine plays such an important role.

Aristolochia californica

4. More natives acquired. Limnanthes douglasii, Clarkia purpurea, Mimulus guttatus.

5. Marshmallow. The Seed and Scion Exchange seems to have receded into the hazy past, a thing too wonderful to have occurred in fact. And yet, some evidence remains. Admittedly, kale and lettuce starts perished in the recent greenhouse catastrophe, while pea starts have struggled (displaying shocking ingratitude for the charming trellis I constructed for them). Comfrey failed to sprout from the roots that were lovingly planted and watered, and the few seeds I brought home have remained unplanted. But the unpromising stump of marshmallow has begun to send forth green shoots. Marshmallow from which marshmallows are no longer made. Apprently sometimes savored as a delicacy, the plant (of which leaves, flower buds, and roots are edible) was at other times consumed as a last resort during periods of famine. Water used to boil any part of the marshmallow can handily be used as an egg substitute. Traditional herbalism makes use of this plant’s properties to heal respiratory conditions.

Factoids aside, I’ll admit that the appeal herbs hold for me is only partially based on an interest in the immediate practical applications they could have in my home, as food, medicine, dye, etc. To a greater extent, it derives from a fascination with the ways plants and people interact, have interacted, since people first came to be. An herb is by definition a useful plant, and reading the history of any herb’s uses evokes a social order past when the power of plants, and the extent of our dependence on them, were better appreciated. Ideally I would love to cultivate a collection of herbs along with their common and arcane histories. I fantasize about wandering among perhaps formally arranged beds, knowingly rubbing leaves and harvesting flowers. In reality, I believe I already grow more herbs (useful plants) than I realise. Perhaps I should refocus my ambition on becoming becoming better acquainted with my plants.

Althea officinalis

6. Plants in bloom.

Starting top left: Lupinus, Eschscholzia californica, Juncus, Achillea “Moonshine,” Gaura “Siskiyou Pink,” Nicotiana, Baptisia australis, Mimulus guttatus, Verbascum “Southern Charm,” Verbena bonariensis

14 thoughts on “Six on Saturday

  1. The California pipevine sounds like a fascinating plant. I’ve adopted the same approach with the particularly horrible looking dark aphids on a Black Lace Elder. I was all set to banish them but remembered that I did more damage than good with a soapy garlic spray on another elder last year. I’ve spent a week trying to encourage the sparrows to discover them and I think they finally have.

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  2. Good luck with your California pipevine. I have another aristolochia here: aristolochia fimbriata, which gave me some flowers last year (very characteristic like you described.)
    The only big worry I have is spider mites attack… the plant can’t be outside and benefits from the greenhouse, so do spider mites…

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  3. I first saw Pipevine butterflies on another gardening blog, they are really beautiful creatures, what a treat it will be if they visit your vine! I have similar moral dilemmas when faced with aphids. Totally agree re the fascination of herbs and their uses, the old herbalists…here in Belgium some of the abbeys and monasteries recreate the old medicinal herb gardens, and I ponder how much more indirect our relationship with plants is now.

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  4. I think you’re right about the aphids – they generally get held in check naturally. I find that plants that get really badly infested are often already a bit sickly. Healthy plants usually seem to sort themselves out.

    I can see why you’ve been so keen to get hold of Californian pipevine – it seems like a really interesting plant. I’m glad you managed to find one!

    Nice to see the Californian poppies in flower. I really like the way their buds open 🙂

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  5. Good luck with your Pipevines, the Swallowtails will be worth it. I have one of the east coast variety here and just beautiful, making the garden worth the time. Seeds can be frustrating, your flowers look wonderful. I am growing Rosella for the second year, edible Hibiscus with many uses and still learning about it. Last years flowers are still in the freezer.

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  6. I’m very excited about your Californian Pipevine. It’s not something I’ve heard of but am very excited to see the flowers on yours when they arrive. Ps I’m with you on the greenfly – I leave them be and along come the ladybirds and hungry larvae to munch on them all. Nature in balance.

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