Mellow Yellow Magnolias

I had a glorious time wandering the paths of the Shrubs Section (Arbustes section en français) at Montreal Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanique de Montréal) last week (May 21-22). What became very evident was that – in the wake of the coldest winter in 10 years – the yellow magnolias in MBG’s outstanding collection were competing with each other to be the most beautiful and floriferous they could be.  Among the many was this lovely selection called ‘Sunburst’, one of three magnolias I discuss below that were hybridized by the late N. Carolina geneticist Dr. August Kehr (see below).  Magnolia 'Sunburst'

Though hybrid yellow magnolias often flower on bare wood before the leaves emerge, these specimens cleaved more to the innate property of one of the parents of all yellow magnolias, the native North American cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) to flower simultaneously with leaf emergence. Perhaps that is a function of climate and geography, since many of these selections seem to flower on bare branches elsewhere, according to photos on the internet. Still, the leaves were relatively small, so the flowers preened like large yellow birds – which just happens to be the name of the one of the best-known hybrids, Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’, below..  Magnolia-'Yellow-Bird'

That hybrid species name honors the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), whose magnolia breeding program was launched in 1956 and thrived under Dr. Lola Koerting at the Kitchawan Research Lab. ‘Yellow Bird’ was a second-generation cross between M. acuminata and M. x brooklynensis ‘Evamaria’, a rather muddy. yellow-flushed pink that was itself a 1968 cross between M. acuminata and the shrubby Asian M. liliiflora, below, which I photographed at Vancouver’s Van Dusen Gardens.  Magnolia liliiflora

Perhaps it’s best to start any discussion of yellow magnolias with the breeding parent.  Cucumber magnolia, named for the green cucumber-like fruit before it ripens to red, reaches its maximum size in the Appalachians, where trees can grow more than 100 feet in height and 60 feet in width.  The oldest-known specimen, at 432 years (300 years older than the average) is on a condo property in Canton, Ohio, where it towers over the oaks, elms and maples at 96 feet with a 69-foot spread, but most are of a more modest height. The species ranges into the most southerly part of Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Erie.  However, it does survive, if not exactly thrive, in Toronto – USDA Zone5a.  In fact, a specimen grows right in my neighbourhood, on the arboretum-like grounds of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Magnolia acuminata at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery - Toronto You can see the problem with M. acuminata, even on the smallish one in the cemetery: underwhelming flowers, and overwhelming leaves.  Magnolia acuminata branch

Still, a yellow-flowered magnolia was desireable so the BBG breeders looked for a way to develop garden-worthy yellow magnolias at a size that would suit residential gardeners. Magnolia acuminata with 'cucumber' fruit They found that certain southern populations of cucumber magnolia (previously classed as M. acuminata var. subcordata or a subspecies, but not currently recognized as different taxa by North American taxonomists) attained a more modest height and bore flowers of a better yellow, although less hardy. That gave them the material to make their first and arguably most famous, introduction, M. x brooklynensis ‘Elizabeth’ (1977), which was a cross with the smallish Yulan magnolia from China, M. denudata.

Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

But ‘Elizabeth’, diminutive southern/Chinese lady that she was, had the habit of turning a little pale in the heat. “Yellow-gone-to-cream” was not the color the BBG breeders had in mind, so the next generation of crosses aimed for colorfast yellows. Thus was born ‘Yellow Bird’, mentioned at the top.  Under Dr. Mark Tebbitt, the BBG next introduced M. x brooklynensis ‘Lois’ in 1998, a rich-yellow named for Lois Carswell, a former Chairperson of the Board of BBG.  A cross between M. acuminata and a sibling of ‘Elizabeth’ (M. acuminata x M. denudata), I remember being wowed by ‘Lois’ on BBG’s beautiful Magnolia Plaza just 5 years after her 1998 registration.  Not only does ‘Lois’ emerge later than ‘Elizabeth’, saving it from the frost devastation that can kill early flowers, it remains bright-yellow and flowers for several weeks. Magnolia 'Lois'

Three of the gorgeous yellows at Montreal Botanical Garden represent the breeding work of the renowned Dr. August Kehr (1914-2001) of Hendersonville, North Carolina. A retired USDA geneticist, his property was on Tranquility Place, so it was appropriate that his first introduction was named ‘Tranquility’.  Magnolia 'Tranquility'

Dr. Kehr hybridized M. ‘Golden Endeavor’ in 1988 and registered it in 1999. Its parentage is M. acuminata var. subcordata ‘Miss Honeybee’ x M. ‘Sundance’ (M. acuminata x M. denudata).  Magnolia 'Golden Endeavor'

And then there was ‘Sunburst’, its narrow tepals reminiscent of the star magnolia (M. stellata) in one its parents ‘Gold Star’, which was crossed with M. x brooklynensis ‘Woodsman’ by Dr. Kehr.  He selected ‘Sunburst’ in 1997 and registered it in 1999.   Magnolia 'Sunburst' - closeup

Two of the most beautiful magnolias at Montreal are the work of Dr. David G. Leach of the David G. Leach Research Station at the Holden Arboretum in Madison, Ohio, near Cleveland. ‘Golden Sun’ was registered in 1996, a product of “superior forms of both parents” M. acuminata x M. denudata. With its lovely bearing, waxy petals, and good colour, it was my favourite of all the yellow magnolias at MBG.  Magnolia 'Golden Sun'

‘Golden Goblet’ as the name suggests, has a tulip form that does not fully open. Bred by Dr. Leach from M. acuminata var. subcordata ‘Miss Honeybee x (M. acuminata x M. denudata), it is an early bloomer (though the flowers still held their yellow colour when I saw them) and very hardy.  Magnolia 'Golden Goblet'

Another famous magnolia breeder has his work on display at Montreal Botanical Garden.  The late Phil Savage (hybridizer of the popular ‘Butterflies’) of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, crossed M. acuminata ssp. subcordata x M. ‘Big Pink’ (Japanese Form) to produce ‘Limelight’.  I liked this one too.  In fact, I’d have a hard time choosing just one of these yellow beauties. Magnolia 'Limelight'

As its name suggests, another Phil Savage hybrid, ‘Maxine Merrill’, is a child of the ubiquitous and hardy, white-flowered Loebner magnolia M. x loebneri ‘Merrill’ crossed with M. acuminata ssp. subcordata ‘Miss Honeybee’. Magnolia 'Maxine Merrill'

For sheer novelty, I loved the interesting, pale flowers of ‘Banana Split’.  Imagine, if you will, a big, pink-striped, creamy-yellow banana peel, flopped open to the sun.  Now imagine hundreds of them open at the same time.  The shrub did have an ice cream sundae feel to it and is the progeny of a cross made in 1992 by the late Dr. August Kehr using ‘Elizabeth’ as the pollen parent with the saucer magnolia – M. x brooklynensis ‘Elizabeth’ x (M. x brooklynensis ‘Woodsman’ x M. x soulangeana ‘Lennei’).  It was registered in 1999 by Philippe de Spoelberch, the Belgian owner of the Wespeleer ArboretumMagnolia 'Banana Split'

I felt fortunate  to have visited Montreal Botanical Garden when these sunny beauties were in bloom, all reflecting the vigor of a most remarkable North American native tree.  And I enjoyed digging a little into the history of those who worked to bring them to gardens around the world.

To recap, here are nine of the most spectacular yellow magnolias: Yellow Magnolias at Montreal Botanical Garden

1- M. ‘Golden Sun’; 2- M. ‘Maxine Merrill’; 3- M. ‘Banana Split’; 4- M. ‘Yellow Bird’; 5- M. ‘Golden Goblet’; 6- M. ‘Sunburst’; 7- M. ‘Limelight’; 8- M. ‘Golden Endeavour’;9 M. ‘Tranquility’

Painting With Chartreuse

I am neither here nor there about hostas. I recognize that they’re good garden plants, great for shade, useful space-fillers and the bees do love the flowers (though, perversely, many gardeners cut them off to maintain the architectural look of the things).  And they do add a lot to the texture of a garden, especially in shady areas with other tonal variations on green. However, they can be overused, or misused (too much sun, too little water) or just plain abused (slugs, I’m looking at you here!)

But every once in a while, I see a really great use of hostas and I thought I’d share this one.  Hostas-Chinese Garden-Montreal Botanical Garden

It’s from the beautiful Chinese Garden at Montreal’s Jardin Botanique – a line of hostas that looks, from the other side of the pond, like a thick charteuse felt marker has been wielded against the sombre dark-green of the foliage nearby.  And it’s made more emphatic by the parallel line of water irises in the pond in front.  Line of hostas behind irises

When I got closer, I saw how beautiful it looks arrayed along the pebble-mosaic walk. Hostas & pebble-mosaic path

And, naturally, in such a stellar Chinese garden, it has to have the perfect name!Hosta 'Chinese Sunrise'

Daffodils on Lake Muskoka

I grew up on the mild west coast of Canada, where huge drifts of daffodils perfumed the air in springtime.  That sweet scent on the wind always seemed to me to be the height of something exotic.  And being able to pick a bunch of “daffs” to bring indoors seemed like the most luxurious of notions. But for one reason or other, I never had daffodils in my various eastern city gardens – at least for long.  I planted them all right, but they never thrived, perhaps because they disliked the clay in Toronto.  Whatever the reason, I didn’t worry much because there were lots of other bulbs and spring blossoms to enjoy.  And I could simply buy a bunch of daffodils at the greengrocer, right?

But when we built our cottage north of Toronto on Lake Muskoka a dozen years ago, I planned to have meadows with long grasses and wildflowers.  And I kept thinking about those mouthwatering photos of daffodils splashed across the English countryside.  As I was considering my options, I walked past my neighbour’s cottage down the shore and noticed lovely clumps of orange-trumpeted, white daffodils in her terraced beds.

“They’re so lovely,” I said to her. “Were they difficult to get established?” Laughing, she replied: “I didn’t plant them.  Charlie Peck did.” Charlie Peck, I knew from family stories, had owned her cottage in the 1950s.  If daffodils had been growing down there without any gardener’s help for more than half-a-century, I figured they’d do just fine for me.  So began my Lake Muskoka daffodil quest. Daffodils edging the path

At first I bought them in cheap mixes, balancing like a mountain goat to plant them in the sandy, acidic soil on the hillsides. Daffodils on the hillside

Then I ordered them by name, looking for “good naturalizers”, like ‘Ice Follies’, and cute ones like yellow-and-white ‘Pipit’.  Then I got very specific and bought sweetly-perfumed ones like gorgeous ‘Fragrant Rose’ and ‘Geranium’ and the poet’s daffodil (N. poeticus ‘Actaea’).  (To see my favourites, have a look at this post.)  Narcissus poeticus-the poet's daffodil

And slowly but surely, they’ve been multiplying, finding their place among the emerging penstemons and lupines and beebalms.Daffodils suit naturalistic plantings

And in late May, when the woods are adorned with trilliums, trout lilies and mayflowers; when my cottage path is overrun with violets and wild strawberries; when blackberries clamber up the hillside and wild columbines, blueberries, black huckleberries and black chokeberries open by the lake, I have the most exquisite springtime luxury of all – I have daffodils on my table. Daffodils in vintage bottles

And sometimes, I even pack ‘em up to take back to the city.Daffodils heading home in the L.L.Bean bag


Under the Garry Oaks

I was very fortunate during my recent week in British Columbia to see two Garry Oak Meadows in public gardens.  And ironic, in a way, for though I spent my first ten years as a little girl in Victoria, likely skipping through the oak meadows in Beacon Hill Park filled with azure-blue camas and snow-white fawn lilies, I had no idea what a charmed environment I was taking for granted.  Imagine seeing this (photo taken at my cousin and fruit guru Bob Duncan’s tiny Garry Oak meadow in Sidney), and not being mesmerized, even as a child. Quercus garryana & Camassia leichtlinii

The Garry Oak ecosystem celebrates the floral associations of the only oak native to British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon, Quercus garryana. (Its range also extends into parts of California).  Drought-tolerant and rugged, the garry oak is a transitional species that depends on disturbance (historically fire) to forestall the succession of meadow and oak woodland to Douglas fir forest. And as my friend Philip Van Soelen of California Flora Nursery says: “For thousands of years Native Americans were managing these Garry oak ecosystems in a form of permaculture. The fire which kept the conifers at bay was their primary & most powerful tool. The native bulbs, wildflowers & acorns were important food supplies”

Nevertheless, it is a fragile plant community threatened by development, a deadly gall wasp and oak leaf phylloxera. It is so near and dear to British Columbians that there’s even an association and website devoted to it, The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team.  So it was a thrill, on my very first day, to visit the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific in Saanich, Victoria and meet members of the HCP Native Plant Partnership Group standing in the rain, eager to give tours of the small Native Plant Garden and the recovering Garry Oak Meadow within it. The sign at the edge listed the plants one could expect to see at various times of the year.

HCP-Native Garden Sign

The entrance was spangled with great blue camas (Camassia leichtlini ssp. suksdorfii) and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium).  Appropriately, there was a native bee nesting box as well. HCP Native Garden & bee box

And as we set out in the rain, I marvelled that we were now celebrating an environment that so many of us take for granted or ignore completely as being “just bush”, with the rotting stumps hosting huckleberries and bigleaf maple sprouting where it found a little sunshine.  My tour guide told me they hear this from visitors all the time.  “How nice that you’ve left this in its natural state,” they declare. Only she and the other volunteers know how much work has gone into this woodland treasure, now 14 years since its beginning as a barren lawn with picnic tables and orchard grass. HCP's Native Plant Woodland

The garry oaks were just coming into leaf, their branches dripping with moss. HCP's Garry Oak Woodland

And at the base of their trunks grew the spring wildflowers that have partnered with them from time immemorial.  The shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) were almost finished here, but there were still a few shimmering white fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum). Fawn Lily-Erythronium oregonum

And I found one or two western white trilliums (T. ovatum) now aging to pink, and a few chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis var. affinis) still nodding their dusky brown heads. Trilllium ovatum & Fritillaria affinis var. affinis

The volunteers used naturescaping principles:  watering only to establish plantings; no fertilizer or pesticides; sheet mulching; weeding out invasives; path-building; and design of a hedgerow and bog. They were exceedingly proud of their artfully-designed stump plantings. Stump planting

And they pointed out the licorice ferns (Polypodium glychirriza) on moss-covered rocks that look so natural, you’d never guess the boulders were brought in for just that task.  Licorice fern-Polypodium glycyrrhiza

It was late afternoon when I thanked the volunteers and bade them farewell, but I would think of them later that week when I made my annual visit to the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden.  For there, adjacent to bustling S.W. Marine Drive with the David Lam Asian Garden on the far side of the road and forming the entrance to the alpine garden and edible garden on this side was a beautiful Garry Oak Meadow of an entirely different kindUBC's Garry Oak Meadow in early May

Begun in 2006, it is a nod to the iconic ecosystem, though not a recreation, since Garry oaks did not typically grow in this area.  But it allowed UBC to feature the beautiful native plants in a high-traffic spot.  I was wowed by the meadow filled with annual pink sea blush (Plectritis congesta) interspersed with great camas (C. leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii).  Great camas & sea blush

Small camas (C. quamash) had already bloomed, but I was able to detect one of the significant clues to telling the difference between the two, since great camas has the endearing trait of twisting its withered tepals around the forming fruit to protect it.  Camassia leichtlinii with twisted tepals

Here and there amongst the pink sea blush were brilliant splashes of spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum).  Lomatium utriculatum & sea blush

I was so happy to have seen my second Garry Oak meadow at this spectacular pink-and-purple stage, since in just a few weeks’ time, the meadow will have transformed itself into a cheerful expanse of woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum) and yarrow.  UBC's Garry Oak Meadow in late May

And that’s a whole new story for another day! Wooly sunflower - Eriophyllum lanatum

The Horticulture Centre of the Pacific

I’m heading off to British Columbia today – and, of course, there will be gardens.

My first stop in Victoria is always the wonderful Horticultural Centre of the Pacific.  It’s a combination of display garden and horticultural college (Pacific Horticulture College) with myriad themed gardens. As you enter past the gift shop & nursery area, you come face to face with a lovely burst of color in the Hardy Plant Garden. HCP-Hardy Plant Garden

It’s a little early for the Herb Garden, but I’ll wander through and see what’s new.HCP-Herb Garden

The Mediterranean garden looks better in the summer (below), but there’s always something blooming here too.HCP-Mediterranean garden

The Birds, Bees & Butterflies Garden does a lovely job of attracting them all, HCP-Birds-Bees & Butterflies Garden

but I love to see them on tender plants I never get to see here, like the orange ball tree (Buddleia globosa).  Honey bees on Buddleia globosa

And there are always a few gorgeous Pacific Coast Hybrid irises around as well. Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris

There’s a Winter Garden that entertains visitors from autumn to early spring and a Heather Garden filled with all manner of Erica and Calluna species.  And I’m hoping the Native Wildflower Garden will have lots of blue camas (Camassia quamash) and fawn lilies (Erythronium oreganum) in bloom.

But the real draw in spring is the Hosta & Rhododendron Garden, with a fabulously colourful array of azaleas and rhodos in a beautiful setting.HCP-Rhododendron Garden

And of course I always make it over to the far side, where the Takata Japanese Garden has a number of beautiful features, such as the dry stream bed…HCP-Takata Japanese Garden

the pond with the zigzag bridge…HCP-Takata Garden Pond

and the serene Zen Garden. HCP-Zen Garden

Visitors to Victoria often stop at Butchart Gardens, and I go there myself whenever I have the time, because they’re second to none as a large-scale display garden.  But the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific is my idea of a little treasure