by Jane Solomon
At the end of my opening column I said I’d write first about composting. Indeed, I’ve been hard at work on a short series (the hardest part of which is keeping it short). You’ll see the first installment soon, but meanwhile here are a few seasonal notes I’d like to share.
Music in bloom
A high point of my spring gardening season is Member’s Day at the annual National Arboretum Plant Sale. I’ll write more about that great event as the time draws nears. When I go, I’m very disciplined. I have a shopping list, I stick to it, and then allow myself a bit of browsing at the end. Now just past Labor Day, one of those end-of-the-day impulse purchases is in its fully glory.
It was the name that caught my eye: Musical Note Plant (Clerodendrum incisum), so called for flower buds which resemble large white musical notes just before they bloom. (“Quarter notes Mom. It should be called Quarter Note Plant,” declared my son Sammy. Fourteen-year-olds find fault everywhere they look.)
My plant is covered in large clusters of three-inch-long quarter note buds along with some open exotic-looking flowers. The long trumpets have purple-red stamens that extend a full inch and a-half, tipped with a dollop of yellow pollen. I think it’s smashing.
While the flowers last only a day or two, the plant is pretty from the time the buds first form. They begin tightly wound, like a headful of pin curls that haven’t been combed out. Then they unfurl into their long notes, followed by the flower. It’s probably been ten days since I noticed it first in bud, so the entire show lasts about two weeks. The cycle repeats throughout the summer.
The genus Clerodendrum includes several hundred tropical and subtropical flowering plants. My knowledge of tropicals is limited – the interest is there, just not the time. Over the years I’ve found a few favorites and bring them inside over winter and this will join them. If you come across it, I highly recommend it as a potted plant close to where you sit outdoors and can enjoy it in all its lovely and unusual phases, even if just grown as an annual.
The perfect shrub
I was reading a professional landscaper’s website one day. She wrote that people often ask her if she has a “perfect shrub” to recommend. She would dismiss the rather silly question until the day she realized that in fact she had one. I have it too and I couldn’t agree more. It’s called Abelia “Rose Creek” and mine are in full bloom right now.
Abelias are low-maintenance deciduous shrubs that thrive in bright sunny spots. Depending on the variety, they can get very large – up to eight feet tall and wide. They’re considered a tad old fashioned, but they’re nice, undemanding plants. Most bloom in mid- to late summer and into early fall and if you look, you’ll notice quite a few flowering in Forest Hills around now. In short, they’re fine plants, pretty in flower, a lot of green for little effort, but nothing to get excited about.
So what makes this one so special? I’ll give you a Casey Kasem-style countdown and work my way to the top.
6. Like its relations, it’s happy to bake in the sun. Mine grow at the base of the driveway along the sidewalk and it gets extremely hot.
5. I don’t give them any attention. In fact I forget about them and they never complain.
4. In the seven or eight years they’ve been there, I’ve never fertilized them. I’m sure that male dogs “fertilize” them in passing, but I never see any damage.
3. I’ve never pruned or shaped them and they’ve grown into lovely three- to four-foot mounds. It’s one of several dwarf varieties and I needn’t worry about them outgrowing their space.
2. The leaves are a bright, glossy green and the stems are red – these simply always look great.
Finally, the number one reason why this shrub is perfect: By mid-August, Rose Creek gets completely covered in clusters of tiny white trumpet-shaped flowers, which appear atop rose pink brachts (if I have my terminology correct). I’ve read it’s the most densely-flowering abelia variety.
Still not convinced? After the flowers drop, the rose-colored brachts remain a long time, giving the appearance that the shrub is still blooming. Then for a special bonus, the flower is a magnet for bees and butterflies.
As I was snapping photos of a tiger swallowtail, the shrubs were positively alive with buzzing bees. No gardener can ask for more.
The perfect cucumber
You may be surprised to learn that these pretty yellow orbs are cucumbers. They’re called lemon cucumbers, just for their looks. They’re most often used in Indian cooking: for curries, chutneys and relishes. A friend supplied the seeds so I thought I’d give them a try. They grew vigorously and produced heavily; so far so good.
I happen to like the flavor and crunch of cucumbers, but generally peel them and seed them as the skin can be bitter and the seeds annoying. I had high hopes that I might be able to skip those steps with these as the skins are purported to be tender and the seeds small if picked early. So it was with great disappointment that I cut into my first lemon cucumber only to find a center full of large seeds. I cut open a smaller one. Same big seeds, less edible flesh. I took a bite and the skin was tough and bitter. These would definitely need to be peeled and seeded.
Jack, my stepfather who died last year at 89, thought cucumbers had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He was a funny man and could always be relied upon to deliver his favorite lines on cue. At the mere mention of cucumbers, he would quote Winston Churchill – a favorite source of withering one-liners. The only way to prepare cucumbers, he would say, is to “peel them, seed them and throw them away.” I can’t find an attribution anywhere so it may be apocryphal, but it certainly has a Churchillian ring and it always made us laugh.
And laugh I did the other day when I set out to make a cucumber salad with my lemon cukes. I peeled them and I seeded them, only to find so little left that throwing them away was the only reasonable option!
Jack would have howled and declared it to be the perfect cucumber. So I dug in my heels and persevered, peeling, seeding, chopping and laughing until I finally had enough to make a tiny cucumber salad paired with some tiny cherry tomatoes. As I worked, my husband Daniel joined me and we spent some time remembering this man whose delightful company we greatly miss. I won’t bother making another salad with these cucumbers nor will I grow them again. Still, I harvested something more than worth the effort.