Garden Notes: Mother’s Day ideas

Camellias make a great gift.

Lush camellia blossoms at Polly Hill Arboretum. —Susan Safford

The memorable Mother’s Day gift is the one that survives and flourishes. Mother’s Day is linked in American culture with cards, flowers, and flowering plants. For a gift plant to be successful, pay attention to pot tags that describe how and where the plant is to be grown.

However, remember also that the origin of Mother’s Day was as an antiwar gesture, not a horticultural one. It honored Ann Jarvis, a West Virginia peace activist, who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Much like plants, which we nurture and cherish, children, too, are precious.

Roadside attraction

The egg-yolk-yellow ribbon at Polly Hill Arboretum, bordering State Road in West Tisbury, is Narcissus ‘Ceylon,’ a great choice. The 1943 classic is described as “buttercup yellow petals with a red/orange cup; longest lasting, up-facing blossoms and a terrific perennial …”

‘Ceylon’ is also sunproof, with cups that do not fade with age, and qualifies as what Becky and Brent Heath term a “55-mile-an-hour plant” — high visibility, even at 55 mph from the highway.

The arboretum grounds contain much more; mid-spring is a great time to walk them. Bulbs, flowering trees and shrubs, perennials, and woodlanders, including the colorful striking camellias that have grown at PHA since the early 1960s, their survival and bloom then more tenuous than now.

At present, it seems normal to have plants in our gardens formerly identified with the gardens of Middle Atlantic and Southern regions. Some of this is due to breeding programs for greater hardiness, and some to changes in weather and climate patterns.

I am thinking of crape myrtles, nandina, and some of the less hardy rhododendrons, and magnolias such as Magnolia grandiflora; but there are many more that are joining in, as the higher-numbered USDA plant hardiness zones creep northward. Nonetheless, cold blasted most of my edgeworthia flower buds this year.

Hardier camellias, surviving outdoors, would be delightful, since these are among the handsomest of flowering shrubs. Readers know I love them; I am happy, although not quite content, with the ones that spend their lives indoors with me.

Therefore it is exciting to see local garden centers stocking camellias that are specifically bred for success in our region. This doesn’t mean ignoring suitability in planting locations. That is still critical: while plants may technically survive, flower buds may be ruined, or defoliation occur. The PHA camellia location demonstrates high shade and some wind protection and thermal mass from stone walls. Factor in deer protection too.

The undesirables

Invasive exotics announce their presence by leafing out in advance of native vegetation. Once the growth is all tied together and riddled with bird-sown poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and grapevines, it is one tough job to clear, and even mighty oaks bow down under the weight.

I have been pulling jungle-grade ropes of vines and other invasives out of an up-Island landscape. Barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Oriental bittersweet, garlic mustard, multiflora rose, Japanese knotweed (or “bamboo,” Polygonum cuspidatum), autumn olive — they seem inspired by a universal understanding that getting a jump on the natives will yield advantage.

These weeds, i.e., “plants out of place,” in our landscape scheme of things are largely products of disturbance. Island development is creating plenty of it. Topsoil is cleared, large holes dug, hilltops removed, material brought in from elsewhere.

These actions contribute to the arrival and establishment of invasive exotics that are dealt with by application of herbicides that end up in our environment and us. Perhaps a predator from the original environment is imported. Wildlife aids the dispersal of fruits and seeds. It is all job insurance for gardeners.

Andrew Cockburn wrote an interesting piece, “Weed Whackers,” ( on invasive exotics, finding the ecological arguments against their presence parallel to and reminiscent of arguments against undocumented aliens.

And another: “Scientists thought they had created the perfect tree. But it became a nightmare,” a fascinating work of plant hunting and breeding history,, by Adrian Higgins (no relation) in the Washington Post. It describes the entwined destinies of plant hunter Frank Meyer, of Meyer lemon fame, and the Bradford pear, which went from paragon to pariah in the plant world.

Taking the time to read these two articles will be thought-provoking for all plantspeople and gardeners.

In the garden

Cool damp conditions reduce losses when dividing plants such as phlox, garden mums, grasses, and daylilies. Side-dress perennials with organic soil food (fertilizer). Place supports/staking for tall-growing perennials such as peonies.

Showy bleeding heart (now Lamprocapnos spectabilis, formerly Dicentra spectabilis) is up and blooming. This improbably beautiful plant is known in various colors and cultivars, as are those that remain in Dicentra. New growth of L. spectabilis is lush and easily broken by wind. Staking mars the graceful effect, so give plants shelter or woodland settings.

Soil temperature in our vegetable garden, not an early site, is still a cool-range 59°. However, cool-season seedlings from its seed bank are up and growing, radicchio, cilantro, and dill for example, as well as weeds happy with the recent cool, wet spell.

Asparagus, lovage, lemon balm, and sorrel are growing well. Comfrey is blooming. Early insects welcome its drooping white, blue, and salmon-red flowers, and the resulting seedlings are cropping up around the garden too.

Eventually the comfrey plant produces a deep root system capable of pulling up minerals from the subsoil, benefiting nearby plants. Meanwhile, still small seedlings are easily transplanted to partner with plants that might benefit from this, such as fruit trees. Comfrey also possesses qualities that yield an effective homemade plant feed, according to Alys Fowler in a Guardian (U.K.) column,