Behold the Jade Vine

In March, when the streets of Toronto are still lined with dirty snowbanks and the temperature hasn’t moved much above freezing for months, you can step into the jungle heat of a tropical rainforest as quickly as parking your car in the little lot behind Allan Gardens.  And there, just as you walk into the humid air of the first greenhouse, is a pendulous vision in turquoise.  Or is it celadon?  Or perhaps jadeite, the pale, blue-green mineral that fetches a fortune when it’s carved into pendants and rings?  Yes, that’s the colour exactly and why the sight of the jade vine in bloom is so transfixing, for it’s a colour found rarely in nature, and certainly not arrayed as impressively as this long dripping necklace of flowers, which can reach 18 meters (60 feet) in the wild, but is kept well-pruned here and in a second tropical greenhouse at Allan Gardens.

One of two jade vines at Toronto's Allan Gardens.

One of two jade vines at Toronto’s Allan Gardens.

Jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) was discovered in 1841 on the jungled slopes of Mount Makiling, on the Philippines’ Luzon Island, by members of the United States Exploring Expedition led by U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes.  One can only imagine how startling that apparition must have been, but we are left only with the description of the Harvard-based botanist Asa Gray, who had locked horns with Wilkes previously and elected not to join the voyage.  As part of the task of describing the thousands of plants collected by the multi-ship expedition, which ranged from Honolulu to Antarctica and involved several violent skirmishes with the natives (Wilkes was court-martialed at the end of the expedition, but acquitted), Gray named the vine in 1854. Its species epithet macrobotrys means “large grape cluster”, referring to the fruit.  The genus name derives from the Greek strongylos or “round”, and odon or “teeth”, referring to the rounded teeth of the calyx.  A member of the bean family,jade vine is bat-pollinated in the wild, thus it must be hand-pollinated in greenhouses to bear its fruit, which can grow to be melon-sized. This has been done over the years at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens in England, where seed conservation is an ongoing focus, especially in the face of loss of rainforest habitat.

Jade vine flowers hang in long trusses, or "pseudoracemes".

Jade vine flowers hang in long trusses, or “pseudoracemes”.

If you love this colour of blue-green and would like to bring it to your own garden, remember that paints and stains can introduce any hue of the rainbow, even those that are only found in the rarest of plants.  For me, that was as simple as adding a turquoise Muskoka chair to my cottage garden, where it offers a perfect perch from which to enjoy my wildflower meadows.

A Muskoka chair at my Lake Muskoka cottage - not quite jade-vine coloured, but close.

A Muskoka chair at my Lake Muskoka cottage – not quite jade-vine coloured, but close.

Orange When it Dies

Some of you might remember this.  A lovely early December dinner party with close friends.  The sweetheart roses weren’t expensive:  $9 a bunch, but worth millions in early winter cheer. And those silly cordial glasses we never use made great vases for them.

Orange sweetheart roses lined up with candles on my December table.

Orange sweetheart roses lined up with candles on my December table.

The next day, I cut the stems (remember, with roses you need to cut the stems under water, to keep air bubbles from forming), refreshed the water and placed all the little vases along my kitchen window sill. They warded off early winter chill.

A window-sill of orange cheer.

A window-sill of orange cheer.

And now it’s March and the dried roses (I hung them upside down from the basement clothesline for a few weeks in little bunches fastened with elastics) are still adding beauty – a great return on investment!  Check out the orange hypericum berries — now a dramatic black.  And look what happened when the roses died:  the orange died with them.  That would be all those flavonoids giving up the ghost.  But I do like crimson-pink. Especially in March when the first snowdrops are still weeks away.

The sweetheart roses in March.

The sweetheart roses in March.


White Delight: Four Perfumed Daffodils

I could get by in spring without tulips.  I could easily survive without the crabapple tree.  Lilacs? Meh.  But I would be utterly bereft without daffodils.  And not just any daffodils, either: no swaggering, yellow ‘Carlton’s or ‘Dutch Master’s for this daffy-don-dilly (though I’ve bought inexpensive mixes that contain all manner of yellows, and that’s okay.)  I prefer them white, or mostly white. But above all, they must be perfumed.

I don’t bother growing daffodils in the city.  For whatever reason (clay? alkaline soil? bad juju?), they are disinclined to do well there.  I grow them on a sandy hillside a few hours north of Toronto on the shore of Lake Muskoka.  They thrive there in acidic soil created by the weathering of the granite Precambrian Shield below it, and augmented yearly by the breakdown of white pine needles, red oak leaves and nothing else.  I sometimes cut the stems down after the flowers have withered and the foliage has yellowed, but not always.  It doesn’t seem to matter much.

Here are four of my very favourite daffodils, and why.  (I grow the first three, but love ‘Thalia’ and know it well from other gardens.  Note that all four are mid-late or late-season, which is just as well; snow can wreck a daffodil party.

Narcissus ‘Fragrant Rose’ – Div 2 – Large-cupped – 40 cm (16 inch) – scent of raspberries and old roses – Brian Duncan Rathsowen Daffodils, N. Ireland, 1978 – peach pink cup – mid-season to late.  Take my word for it; this is a keeper, and so stunningly beautiful with its peach & yellow cup and that perfume, unlike any other daffodil.  I often place it in a vase alone so the other more typical daffodil scents don’t overpower it.

Narcissus 'Fragrant Rose'

Narcissus ‘Fragrant Rose’

Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ – Div 4 – Double – 35-40 cm (14-16 inches) – J.B. van der Schoot , 1923 – 3-4 flowers per stem – white with ruffled, cream/yellow segments – sweet-scented – late season.  When I was a little girl in Victoria, I called the slender jonquils and elegant, double daffodils in the big park plantings “narcissus”, as my mother and grandmother did, in order to differentiate them from the common old yellow daffodils.  These days, they’re all called daffodils, but ‘Cheerfulness’ is still the one I associate with Beacon Hill Park — it just wasn’t as far to bend down to sniff it then.  Here it is with blue grape hyacinths at the Toronto Botanical Garden.  

Narcissus 'Cheerfulness'

Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ – Div 5 Triandrus – 30-40 cm (12-16 inches) – pure white – M. Van Waveren and Sons, Netherlands,  1916 – 3-4 flowers per stem – mid-season to late.  This is one of the best multipliers, a great perennial, and you’ll not find a more elegant, pure-white flower.  It’s absolutely lovely with blue grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum).  

Narcissus 'Thalia' with grape hyacinths.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ with grape hyacinths.

Narcissus ‘Geranium’ – Div 8 Tazetta (Poetaz) – 50-60 cm (18-24 inch) – J.B. van der Schoot, the Netherlands, pre 1930 – up to 6 flowers per stem (usually less) – shimmering white with small orange cup – spicy scent – mid-season to late – AGM.  This award-winner (the Royal Horticultural Society’s 1995 AGM, i.e.Award of Garden Merit) is my all-time favourite.  After seeing it at the Keukenhof Gardens outside Amsterdam a years ago, I bought a few dozen to plant at the lake. ‘Geranium’ took it from there and I have loads now. The multiple flowers make it easy to pick a quick bouquet that will fill a room with perfume.  

Narcissus 'Geranium' at the top of my cottage hillside.

Narcissus ‘Geranium’ at the top of my cottage hillside.

Visit botanical gardens this spring and make a note of your favourites, too, but be sure to do the smell test! That way, when you’re ready to order your bulbs in fall, you’ll know exactly which perfume to plant where.


Primula: My Little Red ‘Firstling’

Some of the first flowers to arrive in Toronto nurseries in spring are the primroses or primulas.  That’s fitting, I think, because, the Latin word primulus means “the firstling of spring”.   Most of the early primroses we see in pots at the greengrocer or garden centre are polyantha types, like this perky ‘Danova Red’.  But, symbolically anyway, primulas always say “first spring thing” to me.  And for my first blog entry in The Paintbox Garden, this little red primrose represents my own “firstling”. 


Though fun to display in a basket on the kitchen table or in a spring-themed pot outdoors, polyanthas aren’t very hardy and tend to die off the next winter. To try to keep one going, plant it in part shade and moist, humus-rich soil and give it protection around the crown after the first freeze.

Primroses are interesting botanically, too.  Look closely at the center of the flowers.  Some have the female stigma thrusting prominently up on its long style with the pollen-bearing anthers far below (“pin” flowers), while others show a ring of male anthers well above the stigma, which sits concealed atop a very short style below (“thrum” flowers). Botanists call this arrangement of sexual organs heterostyly, a scientific word for a genetic chastity belt since it prevents the plants from self-pollinating, thus keeping the species strong.

Primroses have fascinated collectors for centuries, especially the fantastic Auricula types with their frilly, colourful flowers on stems rising from a rosestte of basal leaves. Auriculas originated in the 16th century with crossings of yellow Primula auricula with red and blue Primula hirsuta. A century later, as the crosses became ever more fanciful, French and Belgian Huguenot weavers built open cupboards to showcase their treasures as ‘theatre’, and to protect them from inclement weather. I loved seeing this whimsical Auricula Theatre at the New York Botanical Garden one April a few years ago.   An annual tradition since 2007, it was designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. RED-002-Auricula-Theatre

If you’re fortunate to have a really boggy area like this wonderful stream bed at the Takata Japanese garden at Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, you will likely have good luck with the elegant and hardy candelabra primroses (Primula japonica), whose flowers are born on sturdy stems 30-60 cm (1-2 ft) above the basal leaves. Here a reddish one (likely ‘Miller’s Crimson’) grows with ferns and other shade-loving perennials, adding just the right touch to a predominantly green scene.