Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • Living Treasure from the Past
Gardening at the Sink with Peony-Scented Dish Soap
Have you ever been excited about dish soap? As head dish-washer at our house, that’s exactly how I felt when I saw peony-scented dish soap at the supermarket recently.
With a vintage vibe and environmentally-friendly ingredients, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day household products have a gained a national following. The company’s founder named the company for her mother, saying she was inspired to make cleaning products that “smell nice, like my mom’s garden.”
Scents include basil, lavender, and honeysuckle, along with more unusual “limited edition” fragrances such as rhubarb, sunflower, and – the one I plan to try next – radish.
So does the peony-scented soap really smell like peonies? Not to my nose, but it does smell wonderfully flowery and fresh, and I like it a lot. See their full line-up – from air freshener to hand lotion – and find a source near you at MrsMeyers.com.
Searching for the Lost Daffodils of Reverend Engleheart
You may not know it, but if you love ‘Beersheba’, ‘Lucifer’, or ‘White Lady’, you’re a fan of the Reverend George Engleheart.
One of the greatest daffodil breeders of all time, Engleheart introduced some 700 named varieties starting in 1889. Although most of these have been lost over the years, a brand new National Collection in England is hoping to find and preserve as many as they can.
Engleheart was the vicar of a small country church when he first started breeding daffodils in the 1880s. Once a minor garden flower, daffodils at the time were on the rise, championed as perennial, graceful, and old-fashioned – heirloom, that is! – in contrast to the new, brightly colored exotics that filled Victorian carpet beds.
Engleheart was so devoted to his daffodils that it’s said parishioners would sometimes find a note tacked to the church door reading, “No service today, working with daffodils.” His place in daffodil history was assured in 1898 when he sold three bulbs of his vividly orange-cupped ‘Will Scarlett’ for the equivalent today of over $12,000.
The new National Collection holds just 34 of Engleheart’s 700 daffodils, with another four located but not yet in their hands. To help them find more, the Collection’s Anne Tweddle asked us to spread the word about their project, so that’s what we’re doing.
For more about Engleheart and the Collection, including a full list of their cultivars and photos of most, go to suffolkplants.org.uk/national-collections/narcissus. For a complete list of his 700 introductions, enter Engleheart in the Hybridizer box at daffseek.org. And if you know where the Collection can find any they don’t already have, Anne would be very happy to hear from you at email@example.com.
2. For each tuber you’ll need some potting soil, a zip-lock bag, and a clear plastic deli container. Any size is okay as long as the tuber fits, Rita says, since it won’t spend much time in either.
3. Put some moist (but not soggy) potting soil in the bag, lay your tuber on it, and close the bag most of the way. Set it someplace warm (room temperature is fine) and bright (but not in direct sun), and keep an eye on it.
4. Within a week or two you’ll see eyes – little purplish or pale bumps like the eyes of a potato – emerging from the crown just below the old stem. Poke a drainage hole in the bottom of the deli container, fill it with damp potting soil, set it on a saucer (or in a shorter deli container, as in the photo above), and plant your eyed-up tuber with the crown covered by about an inch of soil.
5. Keep it warm. Within a week or so, small white roots will begin to show at the sides of the container. Enjoy that sign of progress as you wait for the first sprout to emerge above the soil which, according to Rita, sometimes takes as long as two more weeks.
6. Once you see a sprout, give it as much light as possible and gently shake the container once or twice day to help strengthen the new growth.
7. As your last-frost date approaches, get your dahlia acclimated to outdoor conditions by hardening it off. This means setting it outside for a short period of time every day. Start with an hour or so in a sheltered spot and gradually increase the time and exposure until your plant is tough enough to spend all day in full sun.
8. When it’s hardened off and the last-frost date is past, gently remove it from the container and plant it outside, burying the tuber a little deeper than it was in the container. Water it well and enjoy!
The past is full of a rich diversity of plants – and flower pots.
In his 1859 Manual of Practical Gardening, George Glenny wrote that “there is nothing half so good as the old-fashioned pots.” These looked just like the clay pots we use today except their rims were narrow. They were offered in 23 different sizes, starting with two-inch “thumbs” and increasing inch-by-inch all the way up to pots 24 inches across – a range you’re unlikely to find today at even the biggest big-box store.
Glenny describes other more unusual pots, too.
“Some pots have been made with feet to stand in saucers to keep the bottom drain-hole out of the water that runs through. . . .
“Others have been made with hollow sides to be filled with water, that the sun may not burn the young fibers [roots] next the side.
“Some are made with gutters all round the top rim, that a glass shade may cover the plant; and the edge being in this gutter filled with water [which] excludes the air, these are admirably adapted for fern-growing in dwelling-houses, each being, so far as the plants are concerned, a small Wardian case [terrarium].”
Maybe most unusual was the verbena pot. Verbenas, introduced from South America in the 1820s, were wildly popular, and British potteries responded by developing a special pot to display their sprawling growth.
“The body of the [verbena] pot is like another,” Glenny wrote, “but the upper part, occupying one-third of the whole height, they turn outwards and form a broad dish, giving us a surface, twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, on which we can spread and peg down the plant to cover the whole. It has been usual to grow them in large pots, and have a round wire about two inches above the pot, and so tie the plant down upon it to cover it. These [verbena] pots will doubtless become popular for that purpose. They are light, compared with a fourteen-inch pot, and yet possess all the advantages of one that size; and we must admit that the appearance is greatly before [better than] a platform of wire-work.”
Renowned garden designer and author Mary Keen says dahlias – including some of our heirlooms – are “an indispensable feature” of her Gloucestershire garden.
In her long career, Keen has worked on many grand gardens, including those of the Rothschilds. At home, as she wrote in the July 2017 issue of Gardens Illustrated, she prefers the informal look of “a mingled matrix with a few spots of larger, brighter plants.” In this setting, “dahlias are a much better bet than roses.”
And here’s a tip: Mary says if you use too many “attention grabbers” such as tulips, peonies, delphiniums, and dahlias, “planting lacks depth and mystery.” But “you can scale down the impact by choosing more subtle forms” such as single, cactus. and waterlily dahlias which “lighten a planting better than a dinner-plate flower.”
Eudora Welty on Gardening, Creativity, and Where the Wonder Is
That’s not just any woman weeding her garden in this 1940s photograph – that’s the iconic Southern writer Eudora Welty.
Welty was a lifelong gardener, and in a conversation shortly before her death in 2001, she talked about gardening, her work as a writer, and finding wonder:
“I think that people have lost the working garden. We used to get down on our hands and knees. The absolute contact between hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener. People like to classify, categorize, and that takes away from creativity. I think the artist – in every sense of the word – learns from what’s individual; that’s where the wonder expresses itself.”
Nancy, believe it or not, “has about 1750 irises in her care. She keeps them in a master Excel file on her computer, and brings printouts of the file to the garden where she can make notes.
“‘I needed something that would stand up to the wind, and sheets simply tore right out of a three-ring binder,’ she explains. ‘Clipboards were unwieldy and the wind would catch papers and tear them off. Then I found a system called Pro-Click, which allows me to print right on perforated sheets and bind them myself. The sheets flip 360 degrees and I can easily open the bindings to add and remove sheets, and the paper doesn’t tear out of the binding. I haven’t chased a paper across the field since I started using it.’
“ProClick supplies are readily available online and at office suppliers. A pre-packaged presentation kit comes with 50 sheets of perforated paper, two clear front covers, two black back covers, and two reusable spines, all for less than ten dollars.”
In a pioneering article in the May 2007 issue of Horticulture magazine, Betty Gatewood sang the praises of heirloom daylilies.
“Daylily fanciers today usually dismiss [heirlooms] as historical curiosities of limited interest,” she wrote. “The oldies, they believe, have been superseded by varieties with larger, showier flowers, sturdier stems, longer blooming periods, or other perceived advantages.”
But heirloom varieties, she points out, have their own special virtues.
First of all, “they retain the classic lily shape that has largely been bred out of modern daylilies. They are supremely beautiful. For this alone they are worth seeking out. . . .
“Many are fragrant.
“Their thinner, smaller flowers mean that deadheads are not very noticeable – in contrast to modern daylilies, which are disfigured by heavy, ugly spent blooms. . . .
“The old varieties range widely in size and in bloom time – daylilies flower in my garden from mid-May until the end of September, sometimes longer.
“Their colors are clear and stable; they combine well, and most suffer little weather damage.
“They are vigorous and naturalize well.”
“Some modern varieties bloom longer,” she adds, “but I would rather have three weeks of a flower I love than months of one that is commonplace.”
You can read the entire article here. Although most of the 35 daylilies she mentions are impossible to find today, we offer eight of them on a rotating basis and we’re building up stock of ‘Libby Finch’ and ‘Neyron Rose’.
In 1879 a customer wrote to nurseryman James Vick, editor of the popular Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, praising a white dahlia that was “the prettiest thing I ever saw” with flowers that “didn’t look much like dahlias, but more like asters.”
Vick explained that “this class of dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet,” and added that “there are two very good white sorts, White Aster and Little Snowball.”
But do the neatly rounded flowers of ‘White Aster’ really look like asters?
Not compared to the perennial asters that are commonly grown in gardens today, but back in 1879 the most popular asters – by far – were the annual bedding plants known as China asters, Callistephus chinensis. Vick devoted an entire page of his 1872 catalog to images of them, including ‘Imbrique Pompon’, which is pictured here. Although it’s a highly idealized image, I hope you’ll agree that it looks something like a pompon dahlia – and some modern China asters do, too.
But originally ‘White Aster’ looked even more like an aster because its petals were notched at the tip, making them look narrower, more numerous, and, well, more aster-like. You can see what I mean in this magnificent chromolithograph which was published full-page in Vick’s Monthly in 1878. Although none of the dahlias in the image are labeled, I’m virtually certain that’s ‘White Aster’.
Dahlia genetics are complex and unstable, though, and apparently sometime during ‘White Aster’s long history its DNA reverted to producing normal, rounded petals. (Something similar seems to be happening with ‘Old Gold’, whose petals are sometimes notched and sometimes not.) The change must have occurred sometime after 1956 because the de Jager catalog that year describes ‘White Aster’ as having “lovely laciniated flowers.” Although nowadays “laciniated” refers to the fringe-like petals of dahlias such as ‘Tsuki Yori no Shisha’, its dictionary definition is simply “cut into narrow lobes; slashed; jagged.”
Of course it could be that today’s ‘White Aster’ is simply an impostor substituted for the real thing sometime between 1956 and when we first acquired it 50 years later from one of Germany’s oldest and most respected dahlia nurseries – but, at least for now, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and believe that it’s the real thing minus the notching.
Could the notching reappear someday? Yes! So please keep your eyes peeled and if you ever find a notched bloom on your ‘White Aster’, contact us ASAP. With a little luck we might be able to root a cutting and eventually re-introduce the original, more aster-like ‘White Aster’.
(Thanks to garden historian Thomas Mickey who inspired this article and shared the amazing chromolithograph with us. Read his blog post “Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines” and more at American Gardening.net.)
Enormous Tulip Genome is Mapped to Help Breed “Greener” Varieties
Here’s some cutting-edge news from the 182-year-old Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s latest newsletter:
“A consortium of three Dutch companies . . . have sequenced tulip DNA using Oxford Nanopore Technologies and the TULIP algorithm (The Uncorrected Long-read Integration Process).
“It seems the tulip has the biggest genome that has ever been sequenced. Its size is estimated to be nearly 11 times larger than that of humans.
“Far more work lies ahead to analyze the data but the intention is to link gene sequences to particular characteristics that can be manipulated to ‘transform tulip breeding, making it faster, more predictive, and above all “greener” because we will focus on varieties that can be grown sustainably,’ according to Hans van den Heuvel of Dümmen Orange [one of the largest Dutch flower breeders and growers]. This would mean using genetic engineering to raise tulips with in-built resistance to pests and diseases, thus reducing the use of chemicals, for ecological and financial benefits.”
At Dümmen Orange’s website, van den Heuvel goes on to say that “the tulip genome makes the human genome look tiny: the entire human genome fits into one tulip chromosome.” Bas Reichert, CEO of the lab that sequenced the genome, says the project “proves that this technology is now feasible and affordable” and will “further accelerate developments in the ornamental sector.”
So are fragrant, deer-proof tulips that return and bloom for decades just around the corner? Maybe not, but it looks like our centuries’ old quest to develop better and better tulips is about to enter a momentous new stage.