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Although 2020 has been a pretty alarming year in all sorts of ways, there was a silver lining: my flower garden ended up being unusually fulsome and colorful this year. Unfortunately photographs don’t really do gardens justice (just like the camera “adds 10 pounds” to portraits, it apparently subtracts 20% of blossoms and color). Even so, I think a little bit of the prettiness shows up in these pictures.

Brooklyn was appropriately rainy and not too hot. Even though I have a shade garden where barely anything grows (except for the trees which are the true stars of the show), there was still plenty of color, texture and form to keep things exciting.

Spooling through theses pictures makes me wish I had taken some shots in summer when sundry flowers were at their apex, but at least these allow you to see some of the Halloween decorations I put up (and the “Furnace Flounder” sculpture which I lugged out into the elements). I can’t believe I haven’t posted about my garden since spring (when I was busy painting watercolors back there).

The Floundering Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2018) mixed media

I don’t know what I am going to do when winter brings gray desolation to this refuge (and cracks my sculptures to pieces). I guess I can always start thinking about next year’s garden and how it could be better. For one thing, maybe I will be able to have parties again with lots of guests to enjoy it with me. In the mean time I am going to go out and soak up some of the last rays of September sun and listen to the crickets. Even this slow, messed-up year is starting to gallop by as summer dies. Maybe I will find some more pretty flower pictures to post before the frost starts though.

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

This lovely little yellow flower is Eranthis hyemalis, more commonly known as the winter aconite.  Native to the woodlands of continental Europe, the winter aconite is a member of the sprawling & poisonous buttercup family (which includes beauties and horrors like the monkshood, the ranunculus, and the delphiniums).  Eranthis hyemalis which is now blooming here in New York (in gardens which are eccentric enough to have it) is a quintessential spring ephemeral—it blossoms and grows in earliest spring before any trees are in leaf—or even in bloom.  The plant flowers and puts out leaves and gathers sunlight and stores energy all before the other plants even start.  Then, as the woodland canopy expands above it and as its growing spot is covered with shade, the aconite dies back to its hardy underground tuber which remains dormant until next spring.  Although it lives in verdant forests it could almost be an ascetic desert flower based on its hardiness and hermit-like lifestyle.  It would be a big mistake to mistake the flower for a weakling or a vegetable–like the other buttercups, all parts of it are ferociously poisonous.  Do not eat it (or smoke it…or even look at it funny)!

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

A Toad Lily blossom

A Toad Lily blossom

Time for a short flower post to highlight the joys of the late summer garden! Toad lilies are delicately beautiful woodland flowers with a somewhat awkward English common name. The genus name “Tricyrtis” is not very euphonic either, but the pretty little spotted members of the lily family are a real highlight of temperate gardens at the end of August and into the still-warm fall months.

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Toad lilies are natives of Asia where various species range from the Himalayas east across China and all the way out to Japan and the Philippines. The flowers are various soft shades of blue, purple, mauve, and brown with little dark animal-like spots (which give them their English name). They are perennials which sprout from a creeping rhizome and they are hardy enough to resist extremes of both heat and cold. In their native habitat they grow at the edges of forests and bamboo groves—which makes them shade tolerant. Look at how pretty they are!

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Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?

"Old Rose"

“Old Rose”

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

One of my favorite spring flowers suffers unjustly from a tainted name. When visitors to my garden see the beautiful dark colors and delicate fairy shapes of this plant and ask its name, I am always loathe to say “columbine” because people then want to talk about the infamous high school shooting which took place in Colorado in 1999 at Columbine High School (columbines grow naturally in Colorado and are the state flower there). Indeed when I googled the name of the flower to search for pretty floral pictures I got all sorts of insane teen gunmen, digital tributes to victims, and soppy made-for-tv movies. This is a shame, since columbines are not just lovely, but hardy (all the way to the frigid depths of Zone 3) and easy to grow. Columbines are flowers of the genus Aquilegia which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. They hybridize prolifically, so it is hard to pin down the exact wild species. In addition to their hardiness they easily germinate from seeds.

Columbines (Aquilegias)

Columbines (Aquilegias)

The flower’s common and scientific names are also weirdly at odds. Aquilegia is the Latin name for eagle. The flowers received this fearsome name because the long flower spurs were thought to resemble eagle’s claws. Columbine is Latin for dove—since it was thought the inverted flower looked like five doves nestled together. It is strange that gardeners use a (tainted) Latin name at the expense of a different yet equally euphonic Latin name. I think we should henceforth call columbines aquilegias and put the columbine name behind us. Indeed, forgetting the Columbine massacre itself might be for the best, since greater media attention may lead to copycat attacks. [I realize that I am now guilty of writing about Columbine too–so I earnestly entreat any teenagers who are somehow reading this blog post about flowers not to shoot up their high schools. Stay in school, kids, and grow up to write eclectic blogs about winsome spring flowers: that’ll really teach the bullies!]

columbine flower

With their elongated petal spurs and delicate shades of pink, blue, purple, and yellow, aquilegias are extremely pretty. Yet their prettiness belies their poisonous nature. Like many shade plants, aquilegias have poisonous seeds and roots. Indeed they are related to the infamous aconitums—which are also a part of the treacherous buttercup family. Hopefully other gardeners will follow my lead in calling columbines aquilegias—but more importantly, you should follow good example by growing them—they are really magical.

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

 

A Close-up photo of a Foxglove from "Ledge and Gardens"

The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring).  While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge.  Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove.  I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them!  I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.

Foxgloves in my Brooklyn Garden

Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time.  About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.  The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump.  During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers.  The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.

A Second Photo from the Garden

Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth.  In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother.  Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove.  Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril).  On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”

A Patch of Foxgloves

Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic.  Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights).  Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.

Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”  The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.

Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy.  If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.

Le Café de Nuit (Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

 

Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms.  Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen.  The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display.  However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms.  Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!).  It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”

A Red Horse Chestnut Tree (Aseculus x carnea) in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides.  In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree.  It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.

A Horse Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring.  In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored.  Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German).  It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful.  The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.

The Bavarian Beergarden (Otto Piltz, 1875)

Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now.  I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring.  It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen).   It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.

Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!

(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)

Flowers of the Red Horsechestnut Tree

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