Finding Purple in the Blue Ridge Mountains

My second June blog on the colour purple (see my first blog here) takes the shape of a travel journal. Not the one below, but one based on the fabulous natural landscapes described in the pages of this book.

Blue Ridge-Travel Guide

Did I know, when I left home in Toronto, that what I would find atop a mountain in North Carolina would fit into my June reflection of purple? Not at all. Did I know that my journey would be a celebration of a hue that some might argue rests more comfortably in the land of “magenta”?  No. But in looking back at the highlights of my few days last week in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it is “rosy-purple” that colours my memories.

From the beginning, then.

I am fortunate to have someone with whom I can share not just a love of the natural world, not just a passion for photography, but an enduring and easy friendship. And despite the miles between us, my friend Virginia Weiler (Ginny) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I have found several occasions to meet in diverse landscapes that celebrate our enjoyment of gardens and nature, like California’s Santa Ynez Valley mountain meadows and the Mojave Desert in 2004….

Ginny & Janet-2004-California

…. and New York’s fabulous High Line in 2012.

Ginny & Janet-2012-High Line

Our last time together had been on a little lake in Montebello, Quebec where Ginny and her long-time partner Claudine were married in September 2014. But there was no time for botanizing on that joyous occasion!

Wedding montage

This time, we decided to meet at the airport in Charlotte, NC on June 13th and drive north to the city of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountain Range.  As a honey bee photographer, I had a particular desire to visit the Blue Ridge in early summer, in order to see the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) in bloom.

Oxydendrum arboreum-Sourwood tree

Alas, though we saw lots of sourwoods and they were quite advanced in North Carolina’s June heat wave (90-95F), only the first nodding flowers had opened and the honey bees would not be in them for a while. (But check out the leafcutter bee holes in the leaves below).

Sourwood flowers opening-Oxydrendum arboreum

My request for sourwood gave Ginny the magical clue for our accommodation: a beautiful spot she knew well, having stayed there with Claudine before. The Sourwood Inn would be our home base for the next few days.

Sourwood Inn-Asheville North Carolina

At 3200-foot elevation on the richly-forested slope of Elk Mountain overlooking the Reems Creek Valley, the inn nestles on 100 acres. it is a family-owned bed-and-breakfast with 12 rooms. Ours was Room #5, a lovely, spacious aerie on the corner of the third floor with lots of windows for cross-ventilation. We loved our little balcony in the treetops….

Sourwood Inn-Balcony-Room5

….overlooking red maples, hickories (Carya cordiformis & C. glabra) and chestnut oaks (Quercus prinus), seen below.

Chestnut oak-Quercus prinus-Sourwood Inn

What a beautiful sound through the screen door as rain fell one night, stopping conveniently by daybreak. And the balcony was the perfect perch from which to hear songbirds early in the morning. Have a listen….

There is a lovely, Arts & Crafts furnished lobby….

Sourwood-Lobby sitting area

….and a big verandah with comfy rocking chairs. We ate our picnic dinner from town here one evening.

Sourwood Inn-Veranda

There are a few hiking trails skirting the slopes on the Sourwood property….


….and it’s fun to pick out the native shrubs & perennials I’m more accustomed to seeing as cultivated ornamentals, such as smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), below, among many others.

Aruncus dioicus-Goatsbeard-Blue Ridge Mountains

Breakfast at the inn was served either in the dining room or on a lovely stone terrace outside. This is where Ginny perused the maps of the area before we started out in the morning.

Map reading-Sourwood Inn

Typical of the Sourwood Inn was this delicious breakfast: cheesy grits casserole with scrambled eggs & fruit. Yum! I could be a southern girl, y’all!

Sourwood Inn-Grits Casserole Breakfast

After a morning at the Asheville Botanical Garden, below, the heat and humidity made us reconsider our initial plan to visit more Asheville sites.

Asheville Botanical Garden

Instead, we picked up a picnic lunch and set out up the Blue Ridge Parkway, Ginny at the wheel.   She decided we would visit Craggy Gardens (a natural mountain ‘garden’) in the Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

On each of our forays on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it wasn’t unusual for us to pull over to the grassy shoulder…..

Blue Ridge Parkway-photo stop

…. so we could snap breathtaking views like this one, further up the parkway, where the “Black Mountains” (for their dark conifers) begin….

Black Mountains-view-Blue Ridge Parkway

… or mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) growing right out of the rock….

Kalmia on rock-Blue Ridge Parkwayl

…. or capture wildflowers along the way, like the brilliant fire pink (Silene virginica)…

Silene virginica-fire pink

…and common golden groundsel (Packera aurea).

Packera aurea-golden groundsel

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in this area means going through a series of tunnels carved through the mountains.  These engineering marvels were dug mostly by hand by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Blue Ridge Parkway-Tunnel

After taking the turn at Milepost 367.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we drove a mile or so into the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area, where we ate our lunch. (Note, this is about 3 miles before the Craggy Gardens Visitor Centre at Milepost 364.6 further up the highway from Asheville).

Craggy Gardens-Picnic Area

Wild turkeys wandered about near the parking area here. They are plentiful in the Blue Ridge.

Wild turkey-Blue Ridge Mountains

Then we began the hike upwards through deciduous forest on this segment of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).  I wished I had done a little more training for climbing uphill at 5000+ feet elevation.  Breathe in, breathe out and keep those creaky knees bending.This was new ecological territory for me, with sun-dappled beech gaps (Fagus grandifolia) – a unique niche in these mountains.

Beech Gap-Craggy Gardens

There were beautiful wildflowers in the grasses, like the thyme-leaved mountain bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia) here with the emerging leaves of filmy angelica (Angelica triquinata), a native of rocky slopes and balds which bears green umbel flowers in August and September (and whose nectar intoxicates the bees!)

Angelica triquinata & Houstonia

As we neared the summit, we rose above intriguing plant communities cloaking the slopes, like the one below: yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), Canada blackberry (Rubus canadensis), foreground and – the star of Craggy Gardens and the mountaintops around here – the beguilingly beautiful Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).

Native forest-Craggy Gardens

There was mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) beside the trail here, too.

Kalmia latifolia-Mountain laurel

Then, suddenly, the woodland lightened, giving way to grassy meadows studded with Catawba rhododendrons. Without knowing it in advance, we had reached North Carolina’s spectacular version of ‘purple’ at just the perfect moment!

Craggy Gardens-Mountains to Sea-path

Also known as mountain rosebay, R. catawbiense is at home here on these mountains, where the air is cool and often foggy, and condensation from clouds provides ample moisture when the rains don’t come. It is a parent of the popular garden hybrid rhododendron ‘Roseum Elegans’,

Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

I watched Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) and this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on the blossoms.

Papilio troilus-Spicebush Swallowtail-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

Though the trail seemed to end at this sturdy trail shelter, also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, other hikers advised us to take the spur path to our right for the best rhododendron show.

Shelter-Craggy Gardens

I didn’t know it until I got home and did some research on Craggy Gardens, that the spur path took us onto the “bald”. That’s a fairly clear word that means what it suggests… a “bald” surface on a mountaintop that some sources call an ecological mystery. There are grass balds and heath balds, the latter featuring ericaceous plants like rhododendron, kalmia and blueberry and other Vaccinium species. The Craggy Gardens bald is a combination of both grasses and heaths.

Path-Craggy Gardens Bald

The rhodos here are old, their branches crusted with lichens.

Lichen on Rhododendron catawbiense

And the view of the Blue Ridges through those purple blossoms is simply breathtaking.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Grass Bald

I had to have my photo taken with that great background!

Janet Davis-Craggy Gardens-Blue Ridge Mountains

There were deciduous flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) on the bald as well.


And the occasional gnarled red oak (Quercus rubra) was up here, too. The red oaks have been the subject of a study on this bald and others, their ‘encroachment’ considered to be the result of the cessation of historical sheep-pasturing on the tops of some of the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago. When animal grazing was stopped with the creation of the park, the encroachment of the red oak was considered to be harmful to these special environments.

Quercus rubra-Red oak-Craggy Gardens

In fact, Ginny liked that old oak so much, she encroached herself into its generous branches.

Ginny in the red oak

Whether or not natural succession/reforestation of the balds might be considered more ‘natural’ in these mountains is debatable; nonetheless, there is park management to keep out woody invaders and retain the heath/grass nature of the bald.

The rhododendrons were alive with bumble bees doing their noisy ‘buzz pollination’. Hummingbirds are said to be fond of the flowers too.

Bombus impatiens-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

And the bald was popular with hikers, kite-fliers and dog-walkers too. Ginny struck up a conversation with two of them.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Bald-Virginia Weiler

After a short walk to an overlook, we enjoyed one more long gaze around this beautiful place – and thanked our stars that we’d hit peak rhododendron bloom (for the record, this was June 14th, 2016) without even knowing that’s what everyone who visits Craggy Gardens hopes to enjoy. Lucky us!

Oh, and on a purple note, these are the colours that the internet attributes to the Catawba rhododendron: “lilac-purple to magenta”, “deep pinkish-purple”, “rosy-lilac”, “lavender-pink”, “pink-purple”, “violet-pink” and “purplish-pink”. Remember what I said about “purple” being a muddy minefield of a hue? Well, turns out that was a “bald” exaggeration. It’s just open to creative interpretation!

June Purple at Spadina House

There’s no better place to celebrate ‘purple’ – my featured colour for the month of June – than the lush, lupine-spangled, late-spring gardens in the ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House.

1-Spadina House gardens-early June

Now a city-owned museum, Spadina House was built in 1866 by Toronto’s James Austin (founder of Dominion Bank, later merged to become Toronto-Dominion Bank, then TD Bank). The property, at the time a 200-acre concession, had been settled originally in 1818 by Dr. William Baldwin, an Irish-born lawyer, doctor, schoolmaster and eventual two-term assemblyman in the town of York (later called Toronto) on land inherited by his wife Phoebe Willcocks and her sister Maria, from their father Joseph.  Sitting at the crest of the hill that leads from midtown to downtown – in historical geologic terms, it’s the escarpment overlooking the sloping shoreline of Lake Ontario’s ice-age predecessor, Lake Iroquois – Dr. Baldwin mentioned the name for his new rural home in a letter to his family in Ireland. “I have a very commodious house in the country.  I have called the place Spadina – the Indian word for Hill or Mont.”  Baldwin’s name came from his hearing of the Ojibway word ishapadenah, which meant “hill” or “rise of land” (and its correct pronunciation for the house is Spa-DEE-na, not Spa-DYE-na).   Using a width of two chains (132 feet), Dr. Baldwin also laid out Spadina Avenue itself from Queen Street north to Davenport, at the bottom of his hill.  In 1837, Lieutenant-Governor Bond Head ordered the extension of the road further south, almost to the lake

0-Spadina House

 What is Purple?

Before we head to the back garden at Spadina House, let’s look for a moment at colour . Purple is not a spectral hue, like short-wavelength indigo and violet – the “I” and “V” in our old mnemonic ROYGBIV for the red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet of the visible spectrum we see in a rainbow.

Visible spectrum

Rather “purple” is a word that people today use to describe various combinations of red and blue; it’s also sometimes used to describe colours that are really indigo or violet. It’s a muddy minefield of a colour word, its use open to broad interpretation and its misuse widespread (especially in plant catalogue descriptions!) But purple has an actual history, its etymological origins in the Greek word πορφύρα (porphura), the name given to an ancient pigment from the inky glandular secretions of a few species of spiny murex sea snails that have been harvested from the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps as early as 1500 B.C.  In her fascinating book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay recounts how she visited the Lebanese city of Tyre, stayed in the Murex Hotel, and sneaked past guards to get to the ancient dye baths that gave rise to the colour Tyrian purple.  When she finally found samples of cloth dyed with the colour in the National Museum in Beirut, Finley was surprised and delighted. “Because it wasn’t purple at all: it was a lovely shade of fuchsia.”  More like the hue Pliny wrote about in the first century A.D. “Next came the Tyrian dye, which could not be purchased for a thousand denarii a pound”, and “most appreciated when it is the color of clotted blood, dark by reflected and brilliant by transmitted light.” A colour, perhaps, like this web version of Tyrian purple, below, which looks like Finley’s deep fuchsia-pink.

4-Tyrian purple

The august figure in the centre of my Tyrian purple sample is the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 (482-565). Note the “clotted blood” colour of his garments.  Justinian was responsible for building the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 537, and there is a purple connection to that ancient structure. When I visited it a few years ago, I was struck by the crimson-red pillars; they are made of the mineral porphyry, a word which also traces its roots to the Greek word for purple.

5- Porphyry-Hagia Sophia

If you were of high enough rank in the Byzantine Empire to warrant Tyrian purple robes, you were considered “born in the purple” and your honorific name very possibly reflected that fact, as with young Porphyrogenetos, below, (Latin, Porphyrogenitus, Greek Πορφυρογέννητο), son of the emperor.

4-Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos baptizes Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos

But much earlier – 500 years earlier – Roman emperors had worn Tyrian purple, including the most famous of all, Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.).  In fact, unless you had the power and wealth to wear Tyrian purple robes, you were prohibited from wearing the colour, and could be executed for daring to do so. When Caesar visited Cleopatra in 49 B.C., her sofa coverlets were recorded as having been “long steeped in Tyrian dye”.  And in the painting below by French artist Lionel Royer, “Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar” (1898), we see Caesar adorned in Tyrian purple robes.

Julius Caesar-Tyrian purple

Over the eons, I think it’s clear that  we’ve come to view “purple” as less reddish (as in clotted blood) and more blue, a kind of deep, rich violet. So let’s head to the flowery back garden at Spadina House and see if we can visually puzzle out some other “purplish” hues.

Back to Spadina House

In the large ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House, the “cottage garden look” is very much in evidence. Within a formal structure of four even quadrants and intersecting cinder paths are rows of vegetables, strawberries and herbs surrounded by a billowing perimeter of herbaceous perennials, including plants like Virginia bluebell, lupine, peony, iris, anthemis, Shasta daisy, veronica, tradescantia, catmint, Japanese anemones and asters, among many others. Old-fashioned annuals grown in cold frames beside Spadina’s greenhouse are planted in the borders each spring.  Behind a hedge to the north is an orchard of heritage fruit trees, and south of the house are lawns with old shade trees overlooking downtown Toronto and Spadina Road. And next door is famous (but much younger) Casa Loma.

2-Vegetable garden-Spadina House

But in early June, it’s all about lupines, irises, sweet rocket, baptisia and peonies, and there’s a decidedly PURPLE tinge to the garden.


Leaving aside Tyrian purple from ancient history, to my eye this is what purple should look like.


To see a contemporary emblem incorporating the colour purple, look no further than a U.S. military Purple Heart.

7-Miliary Purple Heart

















At Spadina House, purple is at its best in the deepest-colored flowers of the gorgeous Russell hybrid lupines. Purple lupines grow with lilac-purple chives (Allium schoeneprasum) ….

8-lupine & chives-Spadina House

…..and with mauve and white sweet rocket or dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and luscious violet-purple bearded irises….


Sometimes those purple lupine flowers have Tyrian purple markings (or what we might nowadays call fuchsia-pink) and attract the attention of bumble bees who are strong enough to force open the petals.

10-Bombus bimaculatus on lupine

Some of Spadina’s beautiful Siberian irises (Iris sibirica) are also purple.

11-Siberian iris & Hesperis matronalis

Now I’m going to move on to another ‘purplish’ colour, one that takes its name from the visible spectrum, but also gives its name to a large class of flowers, i.e. violets. In this case, I’ve added a little VIOLET poster girl to the colour swatch, our own native common blue violet Viola sororia. Notice that qualifier “blue”….. ?


Though colour terminology in flowers is very arbitrary, “violet” is also seen as purple by many, but it does have more blue than my purple swatch above. It is seen in many of Spadina’s lovely old bearded irises.  Note the difference in hue from the lupines.


Bearded irises come in a rainbow of colours, but the duo below is the classic complementary contrast of yellow-violet from the artist’s colour wheel.

14-Violet & Gold irises

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), below,  is a pretty June companion for violet-purple bearded iris.

15-Violet Bearded iris & valerian

Columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) are charming June bloomers and their colour can be violet-purple, as well as pink, white, yellow, red and much more.

17-Aquilegia vulgaris

Here with see violet columbines with a single orange poppy (Papaver rupifragum).

18-Aquilegia vulgaris & Papaver rupifragum

And here is columbine consorting nicely with yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) in front of Spadina’s greenhouse.

19-Aquilegia vulgaris & Iris pseudacorus

There is an intense colour of violet with much more blue (yet still not completely in the blue camp) that can be described as BLUE-VIOLET, below.

20-Blue Violet

At Spadina House, some of the Siberian irises have much more blue pigment in their petals and can be described as blue-violet.

21-Blue Violet-Iris sibirica

Another purplish colour that borrows its name from the world of flora is LAVENDER. Although there are a number of plants we can call ‘lavender’, the one I think of as having flowers of this colour is English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. That is the plant I’ve put in my lavender-purple swatch below. Less intense, more blue, but a sort of greyed blue.


At Spadina House, I do see English lavender in June, looking quite lovely with the miniature pink rose ‘The Fairy’.

Rosa 'The Fairy' & Lavandula angustifolia

And it’s also in the flowers of the herbaceous clematis, C. integrifolia, seen here with sweet rocket.

23-Lavender-Clematis integrifolia & Hesperis matronalis

Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a wonderful native northeast perennial, and though it doesn’t sit perfectly in my lavender-purple camp, being a little more intensely blue, it is quite close.  And certainly not a true blue.

24-Baptisia australis-Spadina House

Here it is with the classic white peony ‘Festiva Maxima’. Isn’t this beautiful?

25-Baptisia australia & Peony 'Festiva Maxima'

Now we move to yet another variation on blued purple that takes its name from flowers. I’m talking about LILAC. In my view, this one should look as much as possible like the flowers of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), so that’s what you’ll find in my lilac colour swatch, below.  In art terms, this one might be described as a tint, i.e. paler in intensity.


At Spadina, some of the columbines are soft lilac.

27-Aquilegia vulgaris

And some of the bearded irises, too, like the luscious heritage iris ‘Mme. Cherault’.

28-Iris 'Mme. Cherault'

The next variation on purple moves further into the red family. Meet MAUVE, below. This color has its etymological roots in the French language, for the French word for the European wildflower common mallow (M. sylvestris) is la mauve. However, its language roots aren’t buried in ancient Greece, but in east end London in Victorian times. For it was here, in 1856, that Royal College of Chemistry student William Henry Perkin, while using coal tar in a quest to discover a synthetic alternative to malaria-curing quinine, came up with a solution with “a strangely beautiful color”. At first, according to Victoria Finley in her book, he called it Tyrian purple, but changed the name to a French flower (la mauve) “to attract buyers of high fashion”.  It was a great hit. “By 1858 every lady in London, Paris and New York who could afford it was wearing ‘mauve’, and Perkin, who had opened a dye factory with his father and brother, was set to be a rich man before he reached his twenty-first birthday.”


Mauve’s affinity to red means that people will often say “mauve-pink”, rather than mauve-purple, but there are good reasons for including it in my discussion of purples, if only to differentiate it visually from the more blue hues.  At Spadina House, we see mauve in many of the sweet rocket flowers (Hesperis matronalis).


It’s quite clear, when I contrast sweet rocket with some of the irises, that our lexicon for colour proves to be difficult and often ambiguous. Colour vision is a relationship, not an absolute, that depends on our own eyes and of course colour rendition in the medium for viewing, if not in ‘real life’, i.e. a phone or computer screen. What I see is a mauve sweet rocket flower beside a bearded iris with light violet standards and true purple splotches on the falls. But this is a tough one!

29-Bearded Iris & Hesperis matronalis

Finally, here is mauve sweet rocket with more of Spadina’s beautiful lupines.  And what colour do you think those lupines are? I will leave that one with you to ponder.

32-Hesperis matronaiis & Purple Lupines

Later in the month, I promise another look at purple — this time without quite so much colour terminology.  Happy June!

Not a Blog!

This is not a blog. I repeat: this is not a blog.  It is merely a taste of blogs to come this year. And they will be about COLOUR!  Or color (if you prefer it without extraneous British/Canadian vowels).

Flower Colour Array-ThePaintboxGarden

Yes, I thought it might be time for The Paintbox Garden to adhere to its stated theme. So each month of 2016 will be devoted to a different hue, beginning with JANUARY, which will be white as the driven (or walking) snow. White as in wonderland, appropriate to the season. White as an even paler shade of pale. And of course, white as in perfume – coming up soon.

White Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

FEBRUARY will be red, as in better — than dead, paint the town —, roses are —,  and UB-40s favourite beverage.  And the longest, boldest wave length in Isaac Newton’s spectral light arsenal. Plus, of course, swamp hibiscus.

Red Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MARCH will be green (yes, I know, hackneyed Irish trope for St. Paddy’s). But it is the only really important colour in the garden paintbox, as all chlorophyll-lovers know.  Nevertheless, as Kermit is fond of saying, it ain’t easy being green.  My March blogs will help dispel that notion.

Green Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

But being Kermit-green is definitely easier than being chartreuse, which is half-green and half-yellow. I will squeeze some limes… and chartreuses…into my March blogs as well.

Chatreuse Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

Because it’s the cruellest month, as T.S. Eliot reminded us, APRIL will be blue. Actually, I chose blue for April because of all those lovely little azure bulbs that spring up from the snow. But there will be azure blues….

Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

….and lighter sky-blues for the entire gardening season, too.

Sky-Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MAY will be pink, as in the darling buds. Think crabapples, weigelas, columbines, peonies, and phloxes and hydrangeas for later in the season. There will be lusty pinks…

Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and delicate, light pinks.

Light Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

I’ll skip magenta because I wrote a love letter to that neon hue in 2014.

JUNE will be purple. Riots often break out about what purple means (for the record it comes from the Greek word porphura, for little murex sea snails that bleed that dark crimson ‘purple’ dye). So let me say June will be about lilac-purple..

Lilac-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

.. through lavender-purple…

Lavender-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… into violet-purple…

Violet-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and finally rich, royal, Seagram’s Bag, Tyrian purple.

Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

JULY will be all sunshine: lots of yellow…

Yellow Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and gold.

Gold Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

AUGUST will be black(ish). And hopefully some good thunderstorms!

Black flowers & leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

SEPTEMBER will be every lovely shade of brown, as in grasses and seedheads.

Brown Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

OCTOBER will be jack-o-lanternly, clockworkly-orange.

Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

And I’ll throw in peach (even though it likes to party with pink, too)…

Peach Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and apricot (even though it sometimes hangs out with the gold crowd)…

Apricot Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and salmon for a well-rounded fruit & fish diet.

Salmon-Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

NOVEMBER will be wine or burgundy, because who doesn’t fancy a little vino in dreary November.

Wine Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

DECEMBER will be silver, as in bells, hi-ho, and Long John.

Silver Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

And that’s a promise!

Star-of-Persia: An Onion Wrapped in a Mystery

A few weeks ago, I began to write a blog on Allium cristophii, whose common name is star-of-Persia or Persian onion. As it’s now early autumn and bulb-buying time is on our gardening calendars, I wanted to share some images I’ve made over the years that show this ornamental onion as an unusual, but beautiful, component in a series of late-spring/early-summer plant vignettes, including the one below showing it cavorting with Astrantia major ‘Roma’ at the Toronto Botanical Garden.  But in order to provide as much taxonomic background as possible, I began to dig a little into the history of the plant – an excavation that became either a dark pit or a productive mine, depending on how one views botanical trivia as an obsession.

Allium cristophii & Astrantia major 'Roma'

As a somewhat ‘mature’ gardener, I remember when bulbs were often found for sale as Allium albopilosum C.H. Wright, referring to the white hairs on the leaves.  That taxon was assigned to a herbarium specimen in 1903 by Kew herbarium assistant Charles Henry Wright, and describes the lovely illustration below, which was made in 1904 by John Nugent Fitch for Joseph Hooker’s Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Volume 130, ser. 3 nr. 60 tabl. 7982). However, the name was rejected in 1995 as a synonym by Kew taxonomist Rafael Govaërts, in favour of Allium cristophii subsp. cristophii Trautv. (for Ernst Rudolf von Trautvetter 1809-1889, Russian botanist and former director of the Botanical Garden in St. Petersburg).

Allium albopilosum-John Nugent Fitch-1904

Fair enough. All who are familiar with the plant know it as Allium cristophii these days, though it is almost always misspelled in the trade as “christophii”. Perhaps it’s that irritating lack of accuracy that made me look more deeply into the history of the plant.  Who was “Cristoph”?  How was he related to Trautvetter?   And therein, as Winston Churchill once said of Russia, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  Interestingly, Russia figures in the plant’s nomenclature, for its earliest basonym, Allium bodeanum Regel , honours the Russian diplomat Baron Clément Augustus Gregory Peter Louis de Bode, first secretary to the Russian legation in Persia (now Iran).  In 1845, he published a 2-volume memoir titled Travels in Lúristán and Arabistán.  It’s available online via Google books, so naturally, I spent the better part of a few days skimming his rich account of his 67 day winter journey (December 23, 1840-February 28, 1841) from Tehran through Persia and back to Tehran – a journey of 353 farsangs (that’s the distance at which you can tell if a camel is white or black) or 1253 miles.  I was looking for mention of the allium, of course, and though I knew the dates could not possibly agree with its flowering time, I was nevertheless intrigued to read his observation in this little passage, on pages 376-378  of Volume I, about another bulbous plant from the region, which is likely either a Puschkinia or Chionodoxa (now Scilla), given the “blue and white flower” and its early emergence alongside narcissus (likely N. tazetta).  More importantly, it establishes his close relationship with Friedrich von Fischer, director of the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden – and presumably the consignee of bulbs of star-of-Persia gathered by de Bode at some other time.

Pg. 376, Volume I – (January 31, 1840).  “At a quarter past nine, the village of Bú-l-feriz became discernible in the direction north by NNE. At half past nine, we crossed the river of Bú-l-feriz. At a quarter past ten am, we turned to NNW by NW, and passed by the remains of some stone walls. At three-quarters past ten, we crossed two rivulets, the second was a stream of some size, but both were overgrown with high reeds (kamish). At eleven am, our party ascended a hill, and went along a high table land with traces of cultivated ground and former habitations. It had been inhabited by the Bú-l-ferizi, who not able to resist the encroachments of the Bahmeï, had deserted the spot and removed near Behbehán.

The meadows are covered with narcissus and another bulbous plant with a root as large as a strong muscular fist, and called by the natives piyáz (onion), ‘unsul, or piyázi Gúristan, because it sometimes grows among tombs. This plant is known to the Persian apothecaries, and used, if I recollect right, as an astringent. The late Hakim Bashi of the Shah ‘Mirza-Baba, (a man esteemed and honoured by all who knew him), requested me before I set out on my journey, to procure him, if possible, some bulbs of this plant. which I did, and at the same time, sent a few to Mr. Fisher* (sic), the Director of the Botanical Gardens at St. Petersburg. I have since had the pleasure of seeing one of these plants thriving under the assiduous care of that gentleman. I am told that it bears a blue and white flower.” (* Friedrich Ernst Ludwig von Fischer (1782-1854) was a German-born Russian botanist and the director of the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden from 1823-1850.)

So that I don’t bore you completely with taxonomy, let’s have a brief pictorial interlude from our lovely allium – here with June peonies at Toronto’s Spadina House Museum & Gardens.

Allium cristophii & Paeonia

Leaving aside Baron de Bode and Allium bodeanum, whose collection details either went unrecorded or are buried in the 19th century papers at the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden, let’s move on to the name Allium cristophii.  Its first record (written as “Cristophi”) was published by botanist Ernst Rudolf Von Trautvetter in the Russian botanical journal Trudy Imperatorskago S.-Peterburgskago botanicheskago sada.Acta Horti etropolitani – Volume 9, 1884, page 268. Interestingly, though the plant is listed with description of the parts preserved in the herbarium, Trautvetter’s record of its supposed discovery is not exactly a glowing paean to the mysterious Dr. Cristoph.  For it reads in Latin, “Allium Cristophi Trautv. (Molium Rgl.All. p 12) – Dubium est utrum in Turcomania australi anne in Karabach species haec a Cristoph reperta sit.”  There are a few ways to translate this cryptic comment, but let’s go with this: “It’s doubtful that (or whether) this species was discovered by Cristoph in south Turkomania (or) in Karabach.” So, where does that leave us?  Is Trautvetter doubting that Cristoph found it in either of those places, or that Cristoph found it at all? Again, a mystery inside an enigma – since it sheds no light on “Cristoph”.  And yes, it would be nice to know who the man is, given how lovely his namesake looks with Geranium psilostemon, seen here in the third week of June at Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden.

Allium cristophii & Geranium psilostemon

Certainly, the most knowledgeable contemporary taxonomist working with the genus Allium is Reinhard M. Fritsch of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research at Gatersleben, Germany.  It was he who proposed conserving A. cristophii Trautv. against A. bodeanum Regel (in Taxon 48, August 1999, Item 1419, page 577), though his bid to change the name to “christophii” based on common usage, was rejected. The following capture of the page shows the taxonomic history. The part that interested me is: “The first herbarium specimen with hairy leaves was collected by Cristoph in 1883 or somewhat earlier, in Transcaspia near Akhalteke (then also named Karabakh). The corresponding sheet bears three rather complete leaves (10-12 mm broad and up to 45 cm long) and a scape (38 cm long) with an inflorescence in full bloom.  Trautvetter (l.c.) described it as “A. cristophi”.”  But who was Cristoph?

Taxon 48-August 1999-Allium cristophii

In 2013, Fritsch co-authored a comprehensive treatise on alliums with the exciting title A Taxonomic Review of Allium subg. Melanocrommyum in Iran.  Allium cristophii, say the authors, “is an extremely polymorphous taxon especially concerning shape and density of indumentums of leaf laminae, length and diameter of scapes, dimension and density of inflorescences, as well as shape and color of tepals.”  This statement accurately reflects what I’ve found so fascinating about Allium cristophii, having observed it in numerous gardens.   Sometimes the starry flowers are silvery-lilac, other times they’re much more violet; sometimes they rest on squat, short stems, like this one, barely reaching the top of hosta leaves, at Toronto’s Casa Loma…..

Hosta & Alliuim cristophii

….or hosting a clambering Clematis integrifolia, standing no more than 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) tall…

Allium cristophii & Clematis integrifolia

…while in other situations, the bulbs can grow decidedly taller, to 60-90 cm (60-90 inches), as with Geranium pratense here at Spadina House.  This seems to be one of the vagaries of the species, and what you get with one bulb purchase isn’t necessarily what you’ll get with another.

Allium cristophii & Geranium pratense

Nonetheless, such a strikingly large inflorescence can look completely awkward on its own, and star-of-Persia definitely needs company to show off its merits.  It’s even fun popping up through a shrub, as with this Spiraea japonica ‘Little Princess’ at Van Dusen Gardens.

Spiraea japonica 'Little Princess' & Alliium cristophii

Other beautiful companions include catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’), shown here at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Allium cristophii & Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'

Meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’) is a perfect June partner, also at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Allium cristophii & Salvia nemorosa 'Amethyst'

Grasses make great pairings with alliums, and A. cristophii is no exception. Here it is at Van Dusen Gardens with Bowles’ golden grass (Milium effusum ‘Aureum’), illustrating the fact that purples and chartreuse/limes always make good partners.

Allium cristophii & Millium effusum 'Aureum'

And how great is this combination, star-of-Persia held in the embrace of variegated Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’) at the Toronto Botanical Garden?

Allium cristophii & Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus'

As with all the ornamental onions, of course,  Allium cristophii offers abundant nectar for bees, especially honey bees.

Honey bee on Alliuim cristophii

But it still bothered me. Who was “Cristoph”? In describing the etymology of the specific epithet, Fritsch and Abbasi write: “Dr. Cristoph was a physician and plant collector travelling in the Caucasus, North Iran, Transcaspia…”  Perhaps, but his name did not emerge amongst the plant collectors at the time. And misinformation, as always, abounds on the internet. An online company called Seedaholic says: “The first herbarium specimen with hairy leaves was collected by Eugenius Johann Christoph Esper (1742-1810), a German entomologist in 1883.”  Despite the obvious difficulty of collecting herbarium samples in remote regions more than 70 years after you’ve died, it seemed more likely that Trautvetter was referring to a plant collector associated with Russia or St. Petersburg. (And it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only obsessive who’s gone on record looking for the mysterious Dr. Cristoph. You should be able to click to translate from Dutch to English. She & I came to the same conclusion, independently. ) So I kept digging; perhaps Cristoph wasn’t a plant collector, but was indeed an entomologist. Then this obituary popped up, from a Google books scan of the Entomologists Monthly magazine, Vols. 30-31. Could Hugo Theodor Christoph (1831-1894) be the mysterious “Cristoph”?  The dates fit for 1885, and he was collecting in Transcaspia for Russia.  Along with butterflies, might he have gathered a starry onion?  And was his name misspelled by Trautvetter, back in St. Petersburg?

Hugo Theodor-Christoph-1831-1894

If for no other reason than giving him his historic due, I’d love to discover the identity of this mysterious “doctor” whose name is attached to one of the most interesting of the ornamental onions, a bulb whose starry spheres add just the right touch to romantic June garden vignettes like the one below, at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Allium cristophii-Toronto Botanical Garden

So, Dr. Cristoph — or Dr. Christoph — whoever you were, here’s to you!

Sleeping Crocuses

I ran out the door, glancing briefly at the little crocuses peeking out from under the mess of stems left over from last summer’s garden. Their silken purple tepals were open to the April sun like tiny fairy chalices, the miracle of spring spangled across the wet, brown leaf litter.  “Pick a few,” I said to myself, but I was late for an appointment.

Why does the warm weather always arrive before I’ve raked? Why don’t I cut the garden down in autumn?  Why bother asking those questions when it’s the same old thing, year after year.  When I returned home, the clouds had emerged and the crocuses had closed against the dropping temperature and impending rain.  But shy crocuses in little vases today are better than mud-splattered crocuses in the garden tomorrow.  So spring came indoors for the night.

'Purple Remembrance' and 'Pickwick' Dutch crocuses in bud vases.

‘Purple Remembrance’ and ‘Pickwick’ Dutch crocuses in bud vases.