Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Change in the Weather

Monday was windy and I found this Baltimore Oriole nest on the ground under a Buckeye tree. I was pleased to find it because in the late Spring was sitting under the tree with my friend Bob and he asked: "What was that bird." Oblivious as I often am, I replied, "What bird?" I'd missed it, Bob explained that a bright orange bird had just flown into the branches right above us. We both looked up into the tree, and didn't see anything. I told him I was pretty sure it must have been a Baltimore Oriole as I'd seen nests in this tree in other years.

Orioles like the edges of woodlands, they don't particularly like to nest around houses as some birds do. Because of that latter bit, I've always been a bit surprised to see that particular tree used. It's close to the barn and the bright yard light. In spite of their proximity, I don't often see the Orioles, especially the male. People who feed birds often attract them with an orange nailed to a tree. While the fee primarily on insects they enjoy nectar and fruit too. Along with oranges, grape jelly is a favorite. One of these days maybe I'll learn to look for birds better. It certainly looks like an engaging hobby. Knowing the bird songs surely is an advantage, especially for shy birds like Baltimore Orioles.

The nest is fascinating, woven with some precision to make a secure basket which can swing in the wind. I notice in the bottom there is a lining of white fur. It looks like it's fur from my white cat Alex, but it probably is bunny fur, stolen from nests rabbits make for their own young. For such a bird of such industriousness, it's remarkable my sightings are so rare.

Tonight they are predicting a mild frost. The roadside asters are quite lovely this year. Their flowers will persist all but a very hard frost, but many of my remaining annual flowers will call it a season after the first frost. I have two flowers growing in the garden that are just setting flowers ready to bloom. One is some cultivar of Chrysanthemum that I don't know the name. I took a rooted cutting of it from my father's childhood home in New Hampshire in 2002 while visiting to lay my mother's ashes in the ground. My Aunt Ruth said they'd been growing by the house for a very long time and bloomed very late. They do indeed bloom late, with very dark red petals. I love all the hardy mums available in the late summer and early fall at the stores, I'm particularly partial to yellow pompons, but I've never been successful in over-wintering them. The rooted cutting I haphazardly stuck in the ground has increased mightily and provides new plant material to stick into bare places around the garden in the Spring. It seems to tolerate neglect and competition. Not a great plant, especially in comparisons with its coddled cousins sold at the stores, but the late blooms are always appreciated.

Hardy Mums are always listed as hardy in Zone 5 and often Zone 4. Maybe it's the hard clay soil that does them in here, or the fact that I don't mulch them. Better gardeners than me don't seem to be able to get fall planted mums to over winter here. The secret is to select the right cultivar and grow them out in the spring for autumn flowering. This page at the University of Minnesota's Web site has a list of hardy cultivars. Finding them in the spring isn't easy, I've rarely seen them in stores. They can be ordered by catalog, but I've not bothered to do so. I did try growing them from seed one year. The plants never grew to much size and didn't over-winter. It's worth trying again; neglecting plants takes it toll and it's remarkable what a difference a little loving kindness at approximately the right time will do.

Mentioning seed of course opens up the question of the species name. Chrysanthemums are one of the oldest plants in cultivation and there are over a hundred species. The number of cultivars of hardy mums are too many to mention, in a wide range of flower colors and habit. Perennial expert Allan Armitage says the fall-blooming mums are complex hybrids with C. indicum and C. morifolium parents to thousands of cultivars available today. So Thompson and Morgan offers F1 Hybrid 'Charm Early Fashion' under Chrysanthemum indicum. These are the so-called Cushion Mums which grow less than 20 inches tall and are a round "cushion" of bloom. T&M also offers a F1 Hybrid x koreanum 'Fanfare Improved'. These are probably derrived from hybrids developed by American breeder Alexander Cummings in the late 1930's involving crosses with C. coreanum (koreanum). These are the Decoratives, taller than Cushions and not quite so globular in form.

Among plant taxonomists are lumpers and splitters. It's worth knowing that a genus called Leucanthemum of about 70 flowering plants was split from the genus Chrysanthemum. Several of these, especially the popular Shasta Daisy and shungiku or garland chrysanthemum are still often called and listed Chrysanthemum. One of the pleasures for me in my trusty Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture and Garden Attributes is that Armitage isn't pompous about plant names. He tends towards being a lumper not a splitter too, mostly I suspect because plant catalogs also stick to older classifications for the most part. I have the older edition of the book, but I notice that one review of the new edition takes a star off for misspellings. Anyhow, if you're looking for hardy mums from seed they aren't Lucanthemum or various annual Chrysanthemums. The most dependable way to get hardy mums which will over winter in your garden, at least around Western Pennsylvania, is to plant a rooted cutting from someone who actually has a hardy cultivar growing in their garden in the Spring.

There is one Chrysanthemum species very worthwhile planted from seed, and actually it makes three plants starting to bloom now. That's Chrysanthemum parthenium or Feverfew. The Wikipedia article lists it as Tanacetum parthenium, which is almost certainly correct. It's almost always listed in seed catalogs as Chrysanthemum parthenium and apparently another synonym is Pyrethrum parthenium. All the different names just go to show that even the experts have a hard time soritng all the daisies out. I enjoy Feverfew most in the late Spring, but the plant really blooms through the summer. In fact blooming itself out. Some plants bloom from new growth in the fall. There are two forms a tight double flowered form and the single form. I grow the single form in the main and it seems more likely than the double to put out fall bloom. They are quite useful picked flowers for late bouquets and a venerable herb. They are somewhat short-lived perennials, but self seed nicely around the garden. Many gardeners encourage this by saving the fine seed and broadcasting the seed throughout their beds in the very early spring.

The other flower which is about to bloom is a late blooming perennial sunflower Helianthus maximiliani commonly called Maximilian Sunflower. It's a native American prairie plant. According to the USGS:
This sunflower was discovered by the wealthy German nobleman-scientist Prinz Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied who, accompanied by the talented Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, in 1832-1834 collected invaluable biological and anthropological material along the Upper Missouri River.
It grows so tall and blooms so late that for many years I wasn't sure of its use in the garden. I gave a few young plants to mys sister who lives in South Carolina. Apparently those plants have formed a nice colony, and they begin blooming about a month in advance of mine. She always mentions them to me, and that appreciation made me appreciate the Maxmillian Sunflower more. Now I want to spread it about more generously in the garden. The foliage is nice in the back of a border, and the bloom is prolific.

Another nice thing about the Maxmillian Sunflower is it's a late source of food for birds. I don't feed the birds in feeders, but I do plant for them and never mind the untidiness of brown stalks in the winter. There is a disheveled charm to the autumn garden. I wish the cold would stay at bay. Ah well, the seasons change and autumn begets winter.