Anna Naeser: Anna’s Garden
August 2, 2008
The gravel on our steep driveway kept following the siren call of gravity into the road, and when Gerry got tired of shoveling it back up, we paved the drive with asphalt. When we did, I lost one of my most productive seedbeds.
Plants that had refused to self-sow in the garden beds had volunteered happily in the gravel drive, which looked utterly inhospitable to me. I miss the Johnny-jump-ups, Viola tricolor, with their petite violet, yellow and white faces the most. A winter hardy annual for me, and occasionally even a perennial, it was always the first flower to bloom after the crocuses. When the tender hot-weather annuals like petunias and marigolds flaunted their intense colors it would lie low, then perk up again as the days grew shorter and cooler, blooming until cold and snow shut all flowering down for good. I keep trying, but they haven’t found another congenial home. They last one season and then disappear.
The next hardy annuals to bloom that also colonized my gravel driveway are usually love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, and California poppies, Eschscholzia californica, from the end of May into June. The name of one common seed mix, Persian Jewels, is a good description of the clear shades of blue, white and rose in which N. damascena comes. I’m partial to the white strain, Miss Jekyll Alba. Best of all, though, is the guileless sky blue that must be the dominant species color, because all of my volunteer seedlings end up with it eventually, no matter what seed strain I purchased.
The jazzy true orange of the common California poppy perfectly complements the blue of the love-in-a-mist. As the brief bloom time of love-in-a-mist ends, another tough volunteer annual, bachelor’s buttons, Centaurea cyanus, carries on the color scheme with its trademark cornflower-blue flowers until midsummer. And the poppy never quits. I suspect several generations of seeds germinate and flower in a season. (Some seedlings overwinter for an early start.) The habits of all the frost-tolerant annuals I have observed in my garden are much less uniform and predictable than I used to believe, full of surprises.
Speaking of surprises, every gardener I’ve spoken with agrees that this is an unusual gardening year. My love-in-a-mist, California poppy and cornflower all bloomed late, more or less simultaneously. Then in late July, after the cornflowers had petered out with the summer hollyhocks and black-eyed Susans, a whole batch of love-in-a-mist came into bloom. Of all the anomalies this year, this one has bemused me the most. I photographed them on July 22 at their peak, when every stage of flowering from bud to seed was present.
This week, the intricate flowers, a lacy doily of hair-like green bracts presenting blue petals, have morphed into curious green, balloon-shaped capsules, elegantly striped lengthwise with purple bronze and crowned with spidery “horns.” They are interesting in bouquets or can be dried at this stage for winter arrangements. Soon the whole plant will turn brown and dry up. Then I’ll pull it up and scatter the seeds.
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The flower of love-in-a-mist is interesting. What look like petals are sepals. The true petals, very small and deeply divided, are actually partly hidden under the stamens. What looks like one seed pod is actually five, inflated and fused, each filled with the small, intensely black seeds that give the genus its name, which is derived from the Latin word “niger,” meaning black. The seeds rattle in the dry capsule.
Native to the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, this member of the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae, was named by Linnaeus himself in 1753, so it is old-fashioned in the real sense, having been cultivated in gardens for centuries in Europe and the Middle East. It has a long history in American gardens, too, having reputedly been sowed by Thomas Jefferson. It is one of the historic plants still grown at Monticello today (as is Centaurea cyanus).
And where did this charming, old-fashioned flower choose to sprout and bloom? Along the margin of the driveway, where the aging asphalt paving and the stone-capped concrete retaining wall meet ” first a ribbon of love-in-a-mist, and then one of California poppy, neatly separated as if I had taken a seed packet of each and sowed one and then the other. I can’t think why the two flowers didn’t mingle.
Punctuating the neat line at one point is the large, silver-felt rosette of a mullein in its first year. It will look very dramatic when it sends up its tall, sturdy arms next summer and flowers.