Friday, October 31, 2014

A Last Hurrah

My two China roses - 'Old Blush' and 'Slater's Crimson China' - are still flowering beautifully, even as the fall leaves accumulate around them on the balcony.

'Old Blush'

'Slater's Crimson China'

'Old Blush' again

Also... Happy Halloween! Not my favorite holiday - never been a fan of dressing up or decorations that purposefully try to be ugly, though I do love pumpkins - but I hope everyone is having lots of fun with their costumes and candy!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New Beginnings

As almost all vegetation outside is declining, inside some plants' growth cycle is just beginning. About a week ago I repotted last winter's freesia bulbs that had spent the whole summer tucked away in a corner of the back stairwell in some dry potting soil in a clay pot. They began sprouting with impressive speed, much more quickly than last fall.

The freesias (Freesia cv.) sprouting in the sunroom

We will see how they will do this year; last winter they flowered well but then developed a horrible spider mite infestation which persisted as long as the foliage remained and probably rather reduced the reserves that the little bulbs were able to store up for this season.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Settling in for Winter

Earlier this week I moved all the tender container plants inside. All that is left on the balcony now are the roses, a bigleaf hydrangea, and a few perennials, namely Hosta plantaginea and Petasites japonicus var. giganteus. All of these are normally hardy here, but seeing as they are in containers on a second-floor balcony I might bring them inside and put them in a cold, dark corner for the coldest part of winter just to be on the safe side. The sunroom, meanwhile, looks lusher than ever.

The sunroom the other day - when there was sunshine, rather than yesterday and today's gloomy darkness and torrential rain

On a separate note, happy Deepavali/Diwali everyone! दीपावली की हार्दिक शुभकामनाएँ!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cactus Surprise

Since last winter I have had an Epiphyllum specimen which I took to be a Dutchman's pipe or queen of the night epiphyllum (Epiphyllum oxypetalum), associated in much of South and Southeast Asia with a popular fairy tale about a prince, a fairy named Bakāvalī, and the fairy's magic flower with healing powers - in Malay it is even known as bunga bakawali or "Bakawali flower"! Tonight my plant's first bloom opened, and it has turned out to not be Epiphyllum oxypetalum at all but Epiphyllum strictum, very similar but with spidery flowers of even purer white.

Epiphyllum strictum

The flower has a spicy, grassy fragrance that carries quite far. I am very pleased with it. Though of course now I will also have to get a real Epiphyllum oxypetalum.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Last-Minute Success

Today may well have been the last really mild day of the year - temperatures are predicted to plummet tomorrow - and this morning when I looked out the kitchen window, I discovered a single beautiful bloom on the little moonflower (Ipomoea alba) that has been growing slowly and modestly all summer.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)

This may well turn out not just the first but also the last flower this specimen manages to produce but it really was gorgeous. I wonder if there is some trick to getting these to flower earlier, or whether it is just a matter of getting them plenty of heat and sunshine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yet Another Language and More Historic Texts

Like Sanskrit, Arabic has a sizable corpus of premodern texts dealing with agriculture and horticulture, beginning with the Nabatean Agriculture (الفلاحة النبطية  Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah)  produced in the early 10th century by the Iraqi Ibn Waḥshīyah, supposedly as a translation from Syriac. They have been studied much more extensively than their Sanskrit counterparts, especially the subset of gardening manuals that were written by medieval Arabic-speaking agronomists in what is now southern Spain. There is even a cool project focusing entirely on the extant collection of historic Arabic garden writing and the existing scholarship about it:

Have a look - there is a lot of fascinating stuff there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Fruit of Beautiful Trees

Today was the final day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, named for the hut - Hebrew סוכה sukkah, plural סוכות sukkot - that families traditionally put up for the duration of the holiday in commemoration of the temporary shelters used by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt and later on during the seven-day pilgrimage of the holiday itself. However, Sukkot also incorporates aspects of a harvest festival, and one of its characteristic elements is the use of what is known as the ארבעת המיניםarba'at ha-minim  or "four species," namely a fruit of the אתרוג etrog or citron (Citrus medica), a green, closed frond of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), a leafy bough of myrtle (Myrtus communis), and a leafy willow branch (Salix sp.). This is based on the following lines in the Bible's Book of Leviticus, unfortunately often known primarily for its draconian injunctions regarding human sexual behavior and cited all too often in the name of bigotry:

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:40)

The vague "product of hadar trees" of this translation is more traditionally read as "the fruit of beautiful trees" and taken to mean the etrog, which itself has quite an interesting history and set of associated traditions.

Festtag (Rabbiner mit Zitrone) by Marc Chagall, 1914

Interestingly, the Book of Nehemia later on in the Bible has a slightly different interpretation of the "four species":

They found written in the Teaching that the LORD had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, "Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written." (Nehemia 8:14-15)

Some of those identifications are again uncertain; in any case, this later version of the list - a variant reading of the passage in Leviticus? - somehow did not become entrenched as tradition.


Berlin, Adele, and Marc Brettler, ed. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2014

Things are largely winding down in the garden so pickings are a bit slim for this month - I must make an effort to plant fall-blooming bulbs and perennials next year! - but the marigolds are still going strong. Moreover, their warm oranges, yellows, and reddish browns suit the season perfectly.

Tall African marigolds (Tagetes erecta)

Spontaneous color variation in 'Tashkent' French marigolds (Tagetes patula)

Luckily, quite a few things should be gearing up to flower indoors in the coming months. And I have been buying bulbs for forcing, and I am sure there will be the occasional spur-of-the-moment flowering house plant acquisition as well.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

From My School Readings

The texts I study for my academic research include a genre of Sanskrit texts on the topic of Vṛkṣāyurveda, literally "knowledge of the life span of trees" but more generally to be understood as "horticulture". Large parts of these texts, which are mostly in verse, deal with the minutiae of how to best plant different trees, fertilizer recipes, techniques for warding off and destroying insect pests, and the like. Occasionally, however, they take a step back from such practical matters to touch upon more aesthetic concerns and to ponder the importance of gardens and gardening more generally. In this vein, the following verse opens the first section of two vṛkṣāyurveda texts, the Vṛkṣāyurveda of Surapāla presumably written in 12th-century Bengal and the Upavanavinoda or "enjoyment of pleasure groves" section of the Śārṅgadharapaddhati, an encyclopedia produced in the 14th century in the Central Indian region of Bundelkhand:

पुंसां सर्वसुखैकसाधनकराः सौन्दर्यगर्वोद्धुर-
क्रीडालोलविलासिनीजनमनः स्फीतप्रमोदावहाः ।
युक्ताः सन्ति गृहेषु यस्य विपुलारामाः स पृथ्वीपतिः ।।

puṃsāṃ sarvasukhaikasādhanakarāḥ saundaryagarvoddhura-
krīḍālolavilāsinījanamanaḥ sphītapramodāvahā
yuktāḥ santi gṛheṣu yasya vipulārāmāḥ sa pṛthvīpati

He is the lord of the earth in whose abode there are spacious gardens,
Endowed with wide, gleaming ponds with an abundance of lotuses opened by buzzing bumblebees,
Which provide the means of men's greatest delight
In the manner of beautiful women thrilling in amorous play, unrestrained in pride in their beauty, flourishing and bringing joy.

 Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) at a nursery in Michigan

Another endearing - if much less polished - verse from a shorter treatise rather prosaically entitled Vṛkṣādīnāṃ ropaṇādiprakaraṇa or "the method of planting, etc., of trees and more" takes a somewhat sassier tone:

न खाताः पुष्करिण्यो ऽपि रोपिता न महीरुहाः ।
मातुर्यौवनचौरेण तेन जातेन किं कृतम् ।।

na khātāḥ puṣkariṇyo 'pi ropitā na mahīruhā
māturyauvanacaurena tena jātena kiṃ kṛtam

What is achieved by the birth of a child that robs the mother's youth
(But) by whom no lotus pools are dug nor even any trees planted?

Clearly these texts are trying to make a claim for the importance of horticulture that goes well beyond the merely practical to include moral or ethical notions and a particular vision of earthly success and accomplishment. Grand gardens are a prerequisite of kingship - or, more generally perhaps, of elite social status - but they are also "the means of men's greatest delight" and thereby that which makes such good fortune truly enjoyable. A life entirely devoid of gardening, on the other hand, is envisioned as a waste not only of that individual's time but of the self-sacrifice made by the person's mother in giving birth to and raising him or her.


Gopal, Lallanji. Vṛkṣāyurveda in Ancient India (with Original Texts and Translation). New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 2000. 

Śārṅgadhara. Upavanavinodaḥ. Girija Prasanna Majumdar, ed. and trans. Calcutta: Indian Research Institute, 1935.

 ———.  Upavanavinodaḥ. Kṣṇānandajhā-viracitayā Śyamalayā Hindīvyākhyayopetaḥ. Darbhaṅgā: Kāmeśvarasiṃha Darabhaṅgā Saṃskr̥ta Viśvavidyālayaḥ, 1984.

Sureśvara. Vṛkṣāyurveda: Das Wissen von der Lebensspanne der Bäume. Rahul Peter Das, ed. and trans. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1988.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Unexpected Orchid

Yesterday morning my mom said she would send me some pictures of an orchid that had started blooming in my room at the house in Michigan. I was expecting it to be some kind of Phalaenopsis or allied hybrid, of which there have always been a few somewhere in my collection of houseplants. I was surprised, then, when the pictures came and the blooming orchid was in fact a Dendrobium hybrid which I had bought at Trader Joe's when I was still in high school and which had not flowered in many years.

The Dendrobium in question, against the background of my parents' Mid-Century Modern sitting room

This makes me wonder what triggered it to bloom after all these years. For the one other Dendrobium that I had owned before this back in Germany, the trick appeared to be a noticeable difference between night and day temperatures during the summer, best achieved by putting the plant in a sheltered place outdoors. I wonder if a change in temperatures was involved here as well.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Other People's Flowers

There is a garden near our place that is a stunning riot of color from early spring through late fall, with a different set of flowers predominating in each season. I usually make a detour on my way home from work every couple of days, just to track the changes. Spring, for instance, sees huge masses of tulips, daffodils, and other spring-flowering bulbs, followed by tree and herbaceous peonies and rhododendrons. From late summer through fall, tall dahlias are the stars of the show, interspersed with various other late flowering annuals and perennials.

Many gardens around town are  quite manicured and there is no shortage of creative design either, but hardly any have such diverse and labor-intensive plantings all through the seasons.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Some Quick Updates

The last two weeks have been very busy, with too little time left over for gardening and even less for this blog. Hopefully that will change soon and I will be back with more regular and more extensive posts. In the meantime, however, I wanted to share just two somewhat exciting developments from the garden. The first has to do my "Queen of the Night" epiphyllum (Epiphyllum oxypetalum), which for the first time has begun to set some buds.

Beginnings of flower buds on the Epiphyllum oxypetalum in the sun room

Development number two concerns yet another variety of rice, 'Hmong Sticky', which was the third and final one to begin heading at the beginning of September. The first grains are starting to change color, so it appears that at least some heads may in fact ripen before it gets too cold!

Rice 'Hmong Sticky' (Oryza sativa) just beginning to ripen in the downstairs garden

Soon it will also be time to start bringing all the tender container plants inside. The sun room and south-facing windows will turn into an instant jungle, but the balcony will seem empty and bare...