Flying on the witch’s broom – Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia

Scopolia is a genus ignored by the horticultural ‘mass-marketers’, thus the only information about it comes mostly from medicinal/ethnobotanical references. Scopolia carniolica and its more ornamental yellow-flowered variety (var. brevifolia), are perennial plants from the mountains of central and eastern Europe. They flower in early spring at the same time with the hellebores, only that they will usually go dormant in early summer, allowing the display of other beauties afterwards. The name commemorates the Italian physician, botanist, geologist and chemist Prof. Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723-1788).

Scopolia carniolica

Like many other members of Fam. Solanaceae (nightshade family) they contain alkaloids which depending on the dose can be medicinal, hallucinogenic or poisonous. There haven’t been though any reports of people dying from Scopolia and actually the highest concentration of alkaloids (e.g., scopolamine) is in the rhizomes. We might end up with some flying squirrels around us, but that’s about it. Because of its hallucinogenic properties (said to give a sensation of flying) it was regarded as magical in medieval Europe and was one of the plants associated with witchcraft. It was also used as a sedative prior to surgeries, as a truth serum and as a cosmetic – for the dilatation of the pupils, considered attractive at the time (Atropa belladonna was used for the same purpose). Today its active compounds are used in medications against motion sickness.

Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia

Scopolia carniolica forms a 40 cm tall clump, adorned with bell-shaped, deep-purple flowers, while S. carniolica var. brevifolia is a little more showy, with bigger and more numerous yellow flowers. They flower very early in the season when not much else is around, as you can see in the image, and they are a good source of food for pollinators too.

A big clump of Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia takes the center stage of a stock bed in the spring at Lost Horizons Nursery. It will be followed by the Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’, which continues the show for the rest of the season.

Scopolias are very hardy, perfect for a woodland setting in part-shade and with a moist substrate. They are particularly useful in the early spring garden, until other plants are starting to emerge. Most often they’ll go dormant in early summer; great ‘followers’ can be tall varieties of Epimedium, Disporum and Polygonatum, or they can be used around shrubs and trees just for the spring display.

Rainbows in the spring: Reticulate Irises

While I was away for a couple of weeks, things have gone crazy in the garden. Yesterday I run outside in a hurry to take a few images of the reticulate irises. I really love these dwarf irises and I planted them everywhere: in the sun, in part shade, in containers and every other corner where I can still dig a small hole, including small pots for winter flowering. The name of the genus comes from Iris the ancient Greek Goddess of the Rainbow. Along with the snowdrops and crocuses the reticulate irises announce the beginning of Spring with a splash of colours. 

Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’ flowering in the winter

They belong to a group of small bulbous irises from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Georgia and adjacent areas. In the spring, it is easy to recognize their leaves, which are square or almost cylindrical in cross section. The bulbs have netted tunics, hence the common name: Netted Irises. Most of them are very hardy, flowering in early spring as soon as the snow melts, and going dormant in the summer. Very easy to grow, they require only a very well drained soil, in order to survive dormancy.

Iris reticulata ‘J.S. Dijt’

Iris reticulata is the best known species with colours ranging from sky blue to violet to purple. There are quite a few cultivars in the trade and some that are hybrids with other species. With careful selection you can have a display of dwarf irises from early March till April, depending on the location.

Iris reticulata ‘Purple Gem’

But the queen of the dwarf irises in my garden is Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’. The result of a cross between Iris winogradowii and Iris histrioides done by British plantsman E.B. Anderson in 1960, it flowers right after the wild I. reticulata and it has big, orchid-like flowers with an intriguing pattern.

Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’

Other species not so often cultivated from this group include: I. pamphylica, I. histrio, I. danfordiae, I. kolpakowskiana and I. bakeriana. Check out Alan McMurtrie’s website to see what hybridizing reticulate irises involves and from there you’ll be able to have a look also at Janis Ruksans catalogue.

 Update – Spring 2013

Just a few more images with dwarf Irises from my small rockery – I particularly liked the combination with Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite). What remains to be said is that after flowering the leaves will continue their growth in order to feed the bulbs for the next year flowers. This translates in a period of some sort of ‘weedy-ness’ which can hardly be obscured by other plants in a small area. Therefore, for next year I will move quite a few of them from the rockery in containers.

Voyage from the Land of the Rising Sun – Japanese Epimediums

Epimedium grandiflorum arrived in Europe, in Antwerp, with Philipp Franz von Siebold’s plant collection from Japan, in 1830 according to some reports. Actually, during his 8 years in Japan, Siebold sent three shipments with an unknown number of herbarium specimens to Leiden, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. The important thing is that among them there were 2 plants of Epimedium grandiflorum, one with white flowers, and one with pale-violet flowers. They were planted at the Ghent Botanical Garden. Unsurprisingly, the large spurred flowers received a lot of attention because the only species of Epimedium known at that time was E. alpinum, which has small flowers. The Japanese name of E. grandiflorum – ikariso, comes from: ‘ikari’ – anchor and ‘so’- plant, the four long curved spurs of the flowers suggesting the four-claw anchor used by Japanese fishermen.

Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Purple Prince’

Epimedium grandiflorum spread rapidly into cultivation. Currently, there are countless varieties of this species, and it has also contributed as a parent of some important hybrid groups such as E. x rubrum, E. x versicolor and E. x youngianum. It has three recognised forms today: f. grandiflorum, f. flavescens and f. violaceum.

Epimedium sempervirens ‘Variegatum’

Epimedium sempervirens, resembles very much E. grandiflorum with the exception of the evergreen leaves and of a more elongated rhizome. It is endemic to the western side of S. Honshu. E. sempervirens has crossed with E. diphyllum in the wild to produce the white flowered E. setosum. I already featured the sweet E. sempervirens ‘Candy Hearts’ in ‘Plant Valentines’, and now the answer, if someone was asking – yes, there is a variegated Epimedium, see illustrated E. sempervirens ‘Variegatum’.

Epimedium diphyllum is actually the first Epimedium that arrived in Europe from Japan, sent by Franz von Siebold to Leiden. From there it spread to other botanical gardens and nurseries in England. A small and dainty species, today is known more in cultivation through the garden hybrids that belong to E. x youngianum. The name E. x youngianum is used to include all the garden hybrids between E. diphyllum and E. grandiflorum. The numerous varieties that exist in cultivation exhibit usually intermediate characteristics between the parents. In the wild, the same combination of parents lead to a new species: E. trifoliatobinatum.

Epimedium x youngianum ‘Beni-Kujaku’

Besides these, there are many Japanese hybrids of unknown parentage. They can vary greatly in their flower shape, size and colour. Japanese Epimediums have the same requirements for cultivation as the Chinese ones, with the only difference that they prefer a slightly acidic substrate. Using a fertilizer for acid-loving plants would probably give better results, especially if the irrigation water is alkaline. 

Epimedium 'Sakura Maru'

Epimedium ‘Sakura Maru’

If you didn’t get ‘hooked’ yet on the Chinese Epimediums I’m sure now is the moment.

There are so many varieties on the market today and it is hard to choose only a few images to represent the whole range of Japanese Epimediums. The following gallery presents only a few from the many Epimediums that one can see at Lost Horizons Nursery (near Guelph in Ontario).

Non-plants related: David Mitchell’s book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, recreates with authenticity the atmosphere of the nineteenth century Japan, and the life on  Dejima, an artificial island close to Nagasaki Harbor, where Siebold also lived during his stay in Japan around the same time period.

From the Mountain of a Hundred Plants – Chinese Epimediums

“Lady White, a half-serpent, half-female, was running an apothecary, known as the Temple of Preserved Harmony. When an epidemic broke in Zhenjiang, she proclaimed that herbs were the answer, and then set out to gather them on the Mountain of a Hundred Plants. The afflicted population miraculously recovered after drinking her herbal remedies”, at least that’s what the legend says…

It is believed that for over 5,000 years, the Chinese have been compiling medical treatises. The first recognizable description of a Chinese Epimedium, the ying yang herb (E. sagittatum), was given in the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia: Shen pen ts’ao ching (Han dynasty) and later in the famous Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu (Ming dynasty). Considered the most comprehensive Herbal Encyclopaedia, with 8,160 different prescriptions, it was written by Li Shih-Chen over a period of 27 years. In it he expanded and classified most of the known herbal remedies and introduced new ones. Li Shih-Chen, believed to be the greatest naturalist in the Chinese history, is commemorated in the name of Epimedium lishihchenii (that explains the difficult spelling we have to endure!).

Epimedium lishihchenii

Epimedium lishihchenii

The bridge between the Epimediums used as medicinal and Epimediums used in horticultural purposes, like in many other cases, is short and easy to be crossed. Maybe they all come from the Mountain of a Hundred Plants, or maybe not, they are  wonderful anyway. From the evergreen leaves, often with red or mahogany mottling to the big spidery, campanulate or small but numerous flowers, in a wide array of colours, everything speaks in their favor. Many species have been discovered only in the last decades and even more are eagerly awaiting for their ‘collector’. Japanese botanist and horticulturist Mikinori Ogisu had been a major contributor to the knowledge of the genus Epimedium in China. He discovered and introduced new species in cultivation, collecting and photographing hundreds of plants. Illustrated here are  two wild collected clones, from a hybrid ‘swarm’ between E. acuminatum and E. fangii, discovered on Mount Omei, released as E. x omeiense ‘Akame’ and ‘Stormcloud’.

Epimedium x omeiense 'Stormcloud'

Epimedium x omeiense ‘Stormcloud’

Note on the cultivation: these Chinese natives grow in the temperate forest of mountainous regions in part shade, requiring moisture and a rich, organic substrate with good drainage. So, forget about the myth that all Epimediums are plants good for dry shade conditions – some are and some are not! For the Chinese Epimedium species imagine you are in a lush forest where green, shiny moss blankets rotting stumps and rocks, water is trickling gently nearby, dragons are flying…..(or match them with good garden companions like Hosta, Polygonatum, Disporum, ferns…).

Many species have been introduced in cultivation in the last 10-15 years, along with a plethora of hybrids and varieties. The following gallery presents just a few from the many Chinese Epimediums from Lost Horizons Nursery.

Epimedium acuminatum

Epimedium acuminatum