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January 7, 2016

— Katharine White, in The New Yorker, March 1, 1959, collected in Onward and Upward in the Garden

28 Newly Added Bulbs

Cool Gray Iris

Fragrant Glads

Warm Winter? Relax!

How ‘Jane Cowl’ Got Its Name

Plant of the Year is Heirloom

Happy New Year! We hope your year ahead is full of everything that makes you happy.

We’ve added a LOT of bulbs to our website since our last newsletter. Some we’ve never offered before, some we’ll never offer again, and all of them are unique and wonderful.

Last-Chance Iris — Due to over-crowding in our Ann Arbor micro-farms, we’re offering these four iris for the first and ONLY time this spring: ‘Lavandulacea’, ‘Neglecta’, ‘Perfection’, and ‘The Red Douglas’.

Last-Chance Dahlias — Although they bloom beautifully, these two dahlias multiply so slowly that we’ve reluctantly decided to offer them for the LAST time this spring: ‘Princesse Louise de Suede’, ‘Madame Stappers’.

More Dahlias and Iris — We weren’t sure if we’d have enough of these treasures to offer this year, but we do! ‘Jersey’s Beauty’, ‘Kidd’s Climax’, ‘Klankstad Kerkrade’, and ‘Tommy Keith’ dahlias, as well as ‘Quaker Lady’, and ‘Honorabile’ iris.

Great Glads — Five are small-flowered cuties: ‘Bluebird’, ‘Caribbean’, ‘Kakaga’, ‘Melodie’, and ‘Sunbonnet Sue’. And the rest are just rare and fabulous: parrot glad (from 1830), ‘Charisma’, ‘Contentment’, ‘King Solomon’, ‘Snow Princess’, ‘Spring Maid’, ‘True Love’, and ‘Violet Queen’.

Fragrant Peonies — All for fall-planting, including ‘Baroness Schroeder’ (first time ever!), ‘Mrs. F.D. Roosevelt’ (fewer than 50 available!), and extra-fragrant ‘Myrtle Gentry’.

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Once scorned as boring, gray is now one of the coolest colors around, as anyone knows who’s picked up a shelter magazine or watched a home improvement show recently.

But gray flowers?? Believe it or not, one of the most beautiful iris I know is the luminous, pewter-gray ‘Florentina’, and two of the 20th century’s leading horticulturists agree that it’s something special.

In her 1916 best-seller My Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder called ‘Florentina’ “a charming inhabitant of old gardens” and “one of the loveliest of irises,” and in 1930 the first president of the American Iris Society, John Wister, wrote that it “well deserves all its popularity, as nothing is better either for massing or cutting.”

Wister described its unique color as “pearly white,” and some gardeners see it as a very pale lavender, but to Wilder and me it’s truly gray. Wilder called it “French gray,” a pale gray warmed by a hint of brown or gold, but to my eye it most resembles the silvery gray of softly polished pewter.

‘Florentina’ is “invaluable to us in creating May pictures,” Wilder wrote, no doubt in part because gray goes well with just about everything. She suggested combining it with pink bleeding heart and Single Late tulips, yellow leopard’s bane (Doronicum), and lavender woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), or planting it “in spreading groups near pink-flowered crabapple trees.”

So, are you cool enough for this gloriously gray beauty? Order a few now for delivery in April!

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Bill Seidl of Wisconsin emailed us a while ago looking for a fragrant glad from the 1950s. Although we couldn’t find it for him, he taught us something about why gladiolus fragrance is so elusive:

“From about 1957 through 1967,” Bill wrote, “I hybridized glads with fragrance as a goal. No progress. In 1968, for $200, I imported 20 bulbs of ‘Lucky Star’ from Joan Wright [its New Zealand breeder] and worked at fragrance from that angle. Still no improvement.

“Dr. Robert Griesbach [the famous breeder of lilies and daylilies] worked at it at the same time and gave up after a while. He realized before me what the trouble was: ‘Lucky Star’ has a genetic makeup of AaAa, where A stands for the fragrance gene from Abyssinian glads [which Joan Wright had already discovered were virtually impossible to cross with regular glads]. Unfortunately during meiosis the genes segregate uniformly rather than randomly, which means the pairings are always Aa, never AA or aa. So when you cross them with regular glads, which don’t have any fragrance, the resulting plants are always Aaaa — or in other words, there is always a DECLINE in fragrance.

“At age 83 I do not intend to start over with glads,” Bill added. “But in 1968 I also spent $200 to buy four peonies from Japan, the first intersectional hybrids by Toichi Itoh. That was a better investment. It inspired me to get into peony breeding. Now you can find me on the internet if you type my name and ‘peony’ into any search engine.”

As for ‘Lucky Star’, Bill says he still plants “six corms every year in a pot atop a five-gallon pail, which makes for easy watering,” and he still enjoys its fragrance, which he pointed out is “best sniffed toward evening.” To sniff it yourself, order ‘Lucky Star’ now for spring planting!

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“My bulbs are already coming up! What should I do?” We’ve been hearing that from a lot of customers recently.

The good news is that most plants are tougher than you might think, and they’ve been evolving to cope with erratic weather for millennia.

Most fall-planted bulbs, for example, require a certain number of hours below 40 degrees or so in order to produce enough gibberellic acid to allow the leaves and flower stems to lengthen normally — which means most foliage won’t emerge very far above ground this early. And most bulb foliage and even flowers can take freezing in stride. When temperatures drop below 15 degrees or so, any foliage that’s above ground may be killed, but whatever is still underground will be unharmed and continue growing normally in the spring.

On the other hand, there’s not much you can do to protect your plants from the weather.

You could scatter a layer of loose straw, hay, or evergreen branches over any foliage that has emerged. This will help protect it from the drying effects of winter sun and wind, and prevent the ground from repeatedly freezing and thawing which can damage roots.

You can find other helpful information in the Weather and Hardiness section of our Newsletter Archives, or check out “How Will This Mild Weather Affect Our Plants” at Larry Hodgson’s Laidback Gardener blog.

Other than that, we suggest you just relax, accept that Nature is a lot more powerful than we are, have faith in the resiliency of plants— and maybe make a New Year’s resolution to do something more this year to be good to the Earth.

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Before it sells out early this year (as it always does), here’s a bit of history about big, beautiful ‘Jane Cowl’. Sent to us by our good customer Jim O’Donnell of Philadelphia, it’s from the November 1927 edition of Garden and Home Builder:

“In the large class at the American Dahlia Society’s show for seedlings” — which are dahlias that are not yet named or for sale — “not one of the more than thirty varieties exhibited could be casually passed by. Judging this rich amount of material occupied the gathered experts for some considerable time, and it was by no means an easy walkover for the winner; and yet, when Miss Jane Cowl [one of the most famous actresses of that era], who honored the exhibition with her presence on the first day, was invited to select out of the seedlings the one that should be named for her, she unhesitatingly and almost instantaneously decided on the same bloom that the judges had already selected for the big award.

“It would not be wise, however, to argue from this that the expert judges might be done away with. Miss Cowl, of course, selected the bloom that pleased her most without any regard to its comparative distinctiveness and other qualifications and standards by which the experts must measure any newcomer. There is, however, much satisfaction to be had in the fact that the popular favor and expert judgment in this instance, at all events, did coincide.”

See what Miss Cowl and the experts liked so much here, and if you decide you have to have it, be sure to order soon!

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Although it’s not a bulb, the 2016 Plant of the Year of the Perennial Plant Association is an heirloom — and extraordinary.

‘Honorine Jobert’ is one of the oldest Japanese anemones, dating back to 1858. According to William Robinson in The English Flower Garden (1893), it “originated at Verdun sur Meuse in the garden of M. Jobert. From a large tuft of [normally pink] A. japonica, a stem arose with pure white flowers.” Jobert named it for his daughter, and it’s been gracing gardens ever since.

A big clump of ‘Honorine Jobert’ flourishes by the front sidewalk of one of the old houses in our neighborhood, and every fall my wife and I make multiple pilgrimages to it (with Toby, of course) so we can gaze at its exquisite flowers.

A vigorous perennial, ‘Honorine Jobert’ does best in zones 4b-7b, in light shade and alkaline soils that never dry out completely. It can be slow to get established, but once it does it spreads eagerly, it’s deer-resistant, makes a fine cut-flower, and will light up your fall garden. Learn more from our friend Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, and look for it online or in local garden centers this spring.

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Thanks to all of you who’ve liked our Facebook page — 13,293 strong when the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve!

But why stop at “like”? To get our weekly shot of heirloom-flowered inspiration all winter long, click “Follow” under the “Liked” button near the top of our Facebook page. We’ll look forward to seeing you there — and before you know it, spring will be with us!

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December’s articles included “broken-color” iris, growing lilies in the living room, The Artist’s Garden, fall crop-failure lilies now available for spring planting, instant gift certificates, and more. You can read all of our back-issues, by date or by topic, at

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