Not a Rose and by Another Name

For some reason I don’t like the shrub that we call the “rose of Sharon.” It is planted widely because it flowers now, when most other flowering shrubs are finished blooming, and it is also quite hardy and requires little care. It also flowers abundantly for several weeks. When you look more closely at a bush in bloom you can easily spot the numerous buds in various stages of opening.

Hibiscus blossom (Photo: Eric Kounce)
Hibiscus blossom (Photo: Eric Kounce)

There is something dumpy and middle-aged looking about a rose of Sharon shrub. The leaves are coarsely toothed and their surfaces are often disfigured by infestations. The bark is gray and rumpled looking. The flowers have papery petals that are ridged like a crinoline dressed. The sexual organs of the plant are prominent, protruding well beyond the rim of the tubular corolla with the stamens protruding along the final eighth of the organ and the pistils clustered at the distal end.

Having declared my mild dislike of the plant, I would say that this means I wouldn’t plant one in my yard. However, as I find myself moving into a house with a seven-foot specimen in the side yard, my first impulse was to help it recover some dignity. It seems to have been simply let to grow without any pruning to speak of. This is, of course, fine if what want is a shrub that is there to fill some space and brighten up your side yard in mid summer.

Usual full habit of rose of Sharon
Usual full habit of rose of Sharon

But the very bushiness of this specimen gives it a sort of dowager appearance that I think a few carefully selected limb removals might improve. I would like to give the bush some shape. This is to some extent aesthetic, but also is a practical matter: it is right in front of you went you open the gate to get into the back yard. It has gotten large enough so that you essentially make a trip around the shrub to get into yard. I find this irritating.

After consulting some sites online I found that they advise you to prune a rose of Sharon in the late winter or early spring because it flowers on the current year’s growth, so you want to get to it before it starts growing. But because this is a shaping operation and not an attempt to get more flowers out of it, I think I will have at it sometime in August.

We had one on our property when I was growing up and it was in full sun, which is what all references say they prefer. In fact, they are prone to disease if they are grown in too shaded a location. My childhood rose of Sharon was multi-trunks and its stems grew almost straight up, radiating slightly with height, giving the overall appearance a stiff vase like appearance.

The one in my new yard is not in full sun and has a more compact appearance and the stems are more meandering and gnarled. I confess that I prefer it to the more usual habit. I may get to like this particular specimen, which is one of the white flowered variety with a red band at the proximal end of each petal, making a red ring at the base of the corolla.

This would appear to be the wild type, which originally comes from Korea and China, in spite of the name Linnaeus gave it: Hibiscus syriaca. Many cultivars exist, most of them in shades of red, pink, and purple, but some pure white.

Pancratium maritimum, a candidate for the Biblical "rose of Sharon" (Photo: Zvika-Eigenes Werk)
Pancratium maritimum, a candidate for the Biblical “rose of Sharon” (Photo: Zvika-Eigenes Werk)

Botanically, it is unrelated to the Rose of Sharon of the Bible, which has not been identified with certainty, but was apparently some sort of crocus, tulip or lily (something that came up from a bulb) and grew on the Plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

H. syriaca is only called rose of Sharon in the United States. In the United Kingdom it is referred to as the rose mallow. It is all very vague as to why Jesus is identified with the rose of Sharon mentioned in the Song of Solomon. The reference in the song is to a bride and Jesus is often referred to as the bridegroom of the Church.

How H. syriaca, came to connected to this particular rose is unknown. That a hibiscus would be called a rose is less odd. Any attractive flower is often called a rose, as for some reason they are regarded as the perfect flower.


The Winter Bloomer

If you live down south, the camellias flower through the winter. The American Camellia Society has nine acres of plantings at Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley, Georgia (south of Macon). The society was founded in 1945 and is “dedicated to fostering appreciation for and knowledge of plants of the genus Camellia.” The genus is a member of the family Theaceae, which rather gives away the inclusion of the plant from which we make tea, Camellia sinensis. But more people likely know the genus as a source of thousands of cultivars grown as ornamental plants.

Camellia japonica, Pink Perfection variety
Camellia japonica, Pink Perfection variety

In the United States the camellia is most popular in the South because most varieties are only hardy north to USDA Zone 7, which extends north into Virginia, although a few can tolerate Zone 6 (southern Pennsylvania). They can be planted as far south as Zone 10. Most cultivated varieties come from the wild species C. japonica and C. sasanqua, but others, like C. reticulata and C. higo, have also been used as starting points.

There are perhaps 250 wild species in a range extending from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia. But camellias are so strongly associated with the American South that it is the state flower of Alabama. They were, however, brought to this country in 1797 and grown in greenhouses in New England.

As an ornamental shrub it is apparently relatively easy to grow. Most varieties are between 6 and 15 tall with either a rounded or pyramidal shape (or resembling a small tree). The evergreen leaves are usually a glossy, making the plant attractive even without blossoms on it. The flowers look like roses, and like roses the wild types have a single ring of petals, but the cultivated types are often doubled. Many species and varieties have prominent yellow stamens.

Yellow camellia
Yellow camellia

The color of most varieties—again like roses—ranges from white through a spectrum of pinks into red. Yellow-flowered camellias grow in south China and Vietnam and this color has been added to some cultivars. Some varieties have “variegated” petals, meaning they are streaked with more than one color.

The plants grow about a foot every year, which is regarded as slow-growing. For this reason, many of them are potted.

The cultivars derived from C. japonica bloom in the winter and the early spring, while those derived from C. sasanqua flower in the fall. The sasanqua varieties—which have darker leaves and smaller blooms—are hardier and tolerate drought and full sun more than the japonica varieties. Gardeners like to plant shrubs derived from both species in order to get a long period of bloom in their gardens. All camellias like well-drained, acidic (pH 6.0 to 6.5) soils.

<span styThey are shallow rooted, so although they prefer dappled light and can be planted under trees, they shouldn’t be placed under shallow-rooted trees like maples and birches

Camellia sasanqua hedge
Camellia sasanqua hedge

They don’t need a lot of pruning. C. japonica varieties should be pruned after they bloom in the spring, and C. sasanqua need to be pruned very early in the spring before the flower buds form. Removing some of the buds will encourage the remaining ones to produce larger, showier flowers.

C. japonica cultivars are most often used as specimen plants, while C. sasanqua varieties can be turned into hedges or topiaries and espaliated. The sasanqua types can tolerate pruning from a young age, but other varieties should be allowed to reach the height and shape that is desired or maturity (which ever comes first) before being pruned.

Very few diseases affect camellias, but they are host plants to many plant pathogens, so they are often grown separated from other species in nurseries.

When the flowers finish blooming, the calyx (the ring of sepals) falls with the corolla (petals), which is unusual. The Chinese have decided that the corolla symbolizes the spirit of a woman and the calyx that of a man (protecting the petals by surrounding them at the base). The fact that they fall together is considered a symbol of undying love.

The Winter Berry

My brother and sister are both active in local campaigns to restore the creek watersheds of suburban Maryland. Consequently my brother knows the landscape and the forest communities along those creeks pretty well. There are a number of parks along these waterways, and walkways wind through most of them. 

Ilex opaca
Ilex opaca

I was in Silver Spring for Easter earlier this year and when my brother took me for a walk he pointed out to me all the American holly. Ilex opaca is an evergreen shrub with leaves and red berries that very much resemble those of the European holly (Ilex aquifolium), but the leaves are less deeply green and not quite as shiny.

Apparently when the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod (before the whole Plymouth Rock thing) they were delighted to see the familiar holly growing. This is the very northern limit of its range in the eastern United States and it grows only in isolated pockets through coastal Connecticut and Massachusetts. It becomes progressively more abundant southward in its range, until by the time you are walking around in suburban Maryland you are never quite out of sight of a holly shrub.

There probably should be a name for the phenomenon of seeing a plant that is familiar as a decoration or a food growing out in the landscape for the first time. You have this sort of ‘aha’ moment where you make the connection between the abstracted object and the fact that it is a living organic thing with it’s “own life” somewhere, so to speak. I felt that way upon seeing bananas growing in the Bahamas at age 12. At age 23, on my only visit to Hawaii I drove past fields of pineapples. I think I was out in the woods in Denmark the first time I saw mistletoe growing on a tree. It was a little less thrilling to see eucalyptus growing in California, because it is an invasive exotic there.

Ilex aquifolium
Ilex aquifolium

We had two large holly trees in our yard in Beacon. They were probably I. aquifolium or some cultivar thereof. Those two tree taught me the meaning of “dioecious,” literally “two houses.” It indicates a species in which the male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The females flowers are fertilized and produce fruit, so in the holly those classic red berries are only found on the female shrubs or trees. At Spy Hill one of our hollies was male and the other female. They had been planted about 10 or 15 feet from each other, a bit like the “husband and wife” trees that 19th century settlers in the Midwest once planted at each corner of their new homes.

Although I. opaca is not found in the northern United States I. verticillata is quite common. I was introduced to the “winterberry” while I was working at the Wetland Mapping Unit in the forestry department at UMass, Amherst.

This deciduous shrub is a wetland indicator according to the U.S. Fish and Wildife criteria. Interestingly it is not a “wetland obligate,” which would me that it required “wet feet.” Rather it seems to thrive in marginal habitats where other shrubs have a difficult time. Consequently it is found in both wetlands and in dry, sandy areas.

Ilex verticillata as a landscape plant.
Ilex verticillata as a landscape plant.

I. verticillata is also a popular landscaping shrub because of the densely packed red berries that cluster along the many stems that characterize its growth habit. When the leaves fall off in the autumn you are left with sprays of color to break up the monotony of your winter garden. It is popular enough so that several cultivars have been produced.

I. aquifolium is the only non-coniferous evergreen in Europe. That may be one reason why it was significant to the pagan tribal people. According to some dodgy sources of Celtic mythology, the “Holly King” and the “Oak King” were twins. There relatively power alternated through the seasons. When the oak leaves fell in the autumn the hollies would suddenly be a much more prominent presence on the landscape. And then when the spring arrived the holly would gradually be eclipsed.

This was, indeed, why I noticed the American holly in Maryland. I visited in April, before the deciduous trees had leafed out. The hollies are understory trees at best and usually shrubs 6 or 8 feet tall. Most of their berries had been eaten over the winter by birds, but their dense, green foliage stood out against the bare trunks of the oaks, basswoods, and tulip trees of the Maryland riverine forests. If I had taken a walk two months later through the same creek valley, I might never have noticed them.

The Old Roadside Elegance

Hemerocallis fulva is the botanical name given to it by Carolus Linnaeus himself. It was already a common European garden perennial in his day, the 18th century. It was even already well established in colonial North America at the time. It was brought over by the earliest settlers because it could survive the journey by sea and wagon cart to a new location, and once planted it grew with little care, and spread quickly. I am talking about the daylily, the orange variety that grows along roadsides all over North America. Anyone can be forgiven for thinking that it is a native plant.

Hemerocallis fulva on North Cayuga Street, Ithaca

I associate H. fulva with New Hampshire. In childhood I saw the naturalized ones growing along the roadsides there, but did not see them in the 1960s on the north shore of Long Island. In hindsight I suspect that the old-fashioned H. fulva had long since been replaced by more recent cultivars everywhere on Long Island. But in New Hampshire the old species, or something close to it, spread out of perennial beds and along the ditches hundreds of years ago.

H. fulva is an upland species native to the Caucasus through the Himalaya to China and Korea. They were widely known in Asian cultures as both edible and medicinal. In 1576 de Lobel published in the Plantarum seu Stirpium Historia a picture of the yellow daylily, H. lilioasphodelus, under the name of Lilioasphodelus luteus liliflorus; in addition he also described H. fulva for the first time under the name Lirioasphodelus phoeniceus, and the first picture of H. fulva was presented.

Hemerocallis fulva at the Cayuga Nature Center

Until the 19th century only wild types were cultivated, but by the end of the century four cultivars had been produced from H. lilioasphodelus. It was not until A.B. Stout of the New York Botanical Garden turned his attention to the daylilies that H. fulva received attention.

In my own opinion it was all downhill from there. While Hemerocallis cultivars are wildly popular, I have never seen one that I found attractive. Many different color flowers have been developed, as well as doubled varieties, varieties with ruffled or ribbed petals. They are almost all incredibly gaudy.

The naturalized H. fulva, or tawny daylily, has a simpicity and elegance that is unmatched. The leaves are long – easily 18 inches in many cases – and lanceolate, arcing up from the crown just below the grounds surface and then drooping downward. The scapes – the flower stems – rise from the crown up to 4 feet, but usually around 3 feet high and are a slightly lighter green than the leaves. The scapes invariable bend slightly under their own weight, always toward the greatest light and are multiply branched. In the slightest breeze they quiver. A passing car will send a ripple of motion down a long roadside stand, leaving the flowers bobbing gently; they are hardly ever perfectly still.

Full flower, unopened buds, and spent blossoms

True to their name (hemero “day” and callis “beauty”) individual blossom last only one day. One of the poignant charms of a large healthy clump is to see the flowers in full bloom, the unopened tubular buds show varying amounts of orange blush, and the withered yellow to brown spent flowers … all side by side. You feel that you are looking at human life itself, it’s early unfufilled promise, its beautiful but often brief realization of that promise, and its inevitable passing.

The plants spread vegetatively and develop extensive, dense clumps quite rapidly. A large clump sends up dozens of multi-branched scapes, so that it can continue blooming for several weeks, although from day to day it is never the same flowers. It is possible that subconsciously we can detect the daily evolution of the relative positions of the flowers as different flowers burst into full bloom, making it hold our interest day after day for reasons we can’t quite put our finger on.

Beauty That Inspires Myth

There is a lotus pond at Littletree Orchards in Newfield, New York, which is surprising because it is a hill town in the temperate latitudes, and the sacred lotus is native to southeast Asia and Australia. Apparently there is a microclimate that allows this tropical to subtropical plant to make it from year to year. (The banner photo of this blog was taken there.)

The sacred lotus

Nelumbo nucifera is an emergent aquatic plant; it is rooted in the mud below standing water, but its leaves and flowers are borne up above the water’s surface, sometimes several feet above, on tough fibrous stems. Asian cultures found metaphorical resonance in the fact that it is easy to bend a lotus stem, but very difficult to break it. The flowers at Littletree are a luminous white tinged heavily with pink. The blossoms of lotus can vary in color from white through shades of pink and into creamy yellow. They can be 8 to 12 inches across with curved satiny petals.

When the petals fall away after fertilization an architecturally complex seed pod is revealed. The structure is a fluted, inverted cone surmounted by a flat plate dotted with large circular holes. While the flower of a lotus superficially resembles a water lily, there are several differences. The lily, for example, has no equivalent to the ligneous seed pod of the lotus. In addition, water lilies either float on the water’s surface (Nymphaea) or are held a few inches above it (Nuphar). Lily leaves float on the water surface (“lily pads”) and are not held above as lotus leaves are.

Nelumbo lutea seed pod

There is a North American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), which is native to the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. The flower is smaller than the Asian species and more delicate. Like the Asian species all parts of the plant are edible, so tribal people extended its range northward during the pre-Columbian period.

The lotus is prominent in Asian religions. Much symbolic meaning is imputed to the lotus based on its growth habit.  The differences between lotus and water lilies were noted; the way the lotus leaves and flowers are held so regally above the water. “In Buddhism, lotus flowers mean purity of speech, mind and body rising above the waters of desire and attachment.” Buddhism holds that there are five different colored lotus flowers, pink, blue, red, white and purple, with red being an overstatement of their natural variation and the purple and blue referring to the Egyptian lotus (Nelumbo caerulea), which spread across south Asia from the Nile to Thailand in early historical times.

The white lotus “symbolizes Bodhi, the state of total mental purity and spiritual perfection, and the pacification of our nature.” The red lotus “symbolizes the original nature of the heart (hrdaya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion, activity and all the qualities of the heart.” The pink lotus “is the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity, sometimes confused with the white lotus it is the lotus of the historical Buddha.”

The lotus as an emergent plant.

The blue lotus “is the symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, of intelligence and wisdom, of knowledge. It is always represented as a partially opened bud, and (unlike the red lotus) its centre is never seen.” Some references do not even mention the purple lotus. “This is the mystic lotus, represented only in images belonging to a few esoteric sects. The flowers may be in full bloom and reveal their heart, or in a bud.”

The physical grace and size of the lotus, and that it appears to be almost suspended above the water, inspired the spiritual meaning given to the flowers. This combination of beauty and symbolic weight makes the plant a popular one to cultivate.  It can be grown from seed or from the rhizomes that allow it to spread invasively once it is established.
Famously lotus seeds are viable for a very long time if they are kept in a cool dry place (which only adds to the mystical reputation). Seeds over a thousand years old have been found in Chinese tombs and been made to germinate.

The procedure associated with getting the seeds to grow are specific but not particularly onerous. One interesting aspect of the process is the necessity for abrading both ends of the seeds in order to break through the tough outer hull and allow water into the germ. Once treated the seeds are placed in a glass of water, and the fluid should be replaced daily (it will become cloudy). They should begin to grow in less than a week.

Once the seed has started to grow it can be treated in a couple of different ways, depending on whether or not  you have a water garden. The seedlings can be transferred to large pots filled with “gardening media.” These pots should not have holes in them; to say that this plant likes wet feet is an understatement.

But the proper place for a lotus is in a pond. After they are planted in pots or tubs these can be sunk into the water body. Unlike water lilies, lotus roots do not like to be very far below the water’s surface, only about 6 inches.

They will die back completely in the fall and may take some time to begin growing again in the spring (again with the mystery), but has the Newfield lotus pond shows, the Asian lotuses can be grown in temperate climates.

Those Ivied Walls

Just a little Gothic: Princeton

The “Ivy League” was originally a sports arrangement, existing unofficially in the 19th century, getting its name in the 1930s and finally coming into formal existence in 1954. The seven of the eight schools included – Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Brown, Yale , Columbia, Princeton, and Cornell universities – were founded during the Colonial period (Cornell as founded immediately after the American Civil War). Their campuses were indeed distinguished by buildings covered with ivy. There were even annual ceremonies during the 19th century during which ivy was planted next to the walls of academic buildings.

Although the Ivy League is technically a sports agreement, because it was made among the oldest, most prestigious schools in the country the term ‘Ivy League’ has always connoted social elitism and a high standard of academic excellence. At various times Fordham, Georgetown, Rutgers, Syracuse, the University of Pittsburgh, and even the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and the naval academy (Annapolis) were grouped with what are now considered the canonical eight.

Apparently if a building was covered with ivy, it meant that it had been there for some time and that implies continuity, stability and, by virtue of these characteristics, quality. Perhaps letting ivy grow all over your infrastructure also suggested a certain indifference to worldly concerns.

Hedera helix, English ivy

The “real” ivies, the genus Hedera, are members of the ginseng family, Araliaceae, and they are widespread in Europe, Asia and the “Macaronesia” islands off the coast of Europe and North Africa. Hedera species are evergreen and will grow up any vertical surface was extending aerial roots that attach to the surface. Stone surfaces are actually slowly torn apart by the ivy and it isn’t really a very good maintenance plan to allow Hedera to grow on built structures.

Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Boston ivy

Landscape designers very much discourage the use of Hedera, and instead advocate planting of Parthenocissus species if one desires greenery on a wall, pergola, or arch. P. tricuspidata or Boston ivy is deciduous and attaches to surfaces with small circular pads at the end of tendrils. The pads are glued to the surface by calcium carbonate secreted by the plant. While this makes white deposits across the surface of the building stone or brick, it doesn’t not disintegrate it.

Although called Boston ivy for its ubiquity in that city P. tricuspidata is native to eastern Asia and is not a true ivy, but instead is related to grapes. Its leaves somewhat resemble those attached to grape vines, but they are three-lobed rather than five-lobed. Hedera helix (often called English ivy) has five leaflets on young shots, but has smooth, almost leathery five pointed leaves arranged alternately on mature stems.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper

The native Parthenocissus quinquefolia or Virginia creeper has five leaflets and is sometimes confused with poison ivy, which has three. The leaves of both vines turn a brilliant red in the fall before they drop. Like P. tricuspidata Virginia creeper attaches to surfaces with adhesive discs and doesn’t damage structures. Both vines, however, grow rapidly and may become too heavy to be supported by some trellises. Maintenance experts recommend killing the vines by cutting them off at the base. The carbonate on the discs will dissolve after the plant dies, making it easier to remove and preventing damage to the supporting surface.

Hedera gone wild in Maryland

All three of these vines produce berries that are consumed by birds, and this is their primary means of distribution. Hedera actually flowers very late in the autumn and into early winter. The small five-petaled flowers are borne at the end of stiff pedicels that radiate out in all directions from a central stem. The berries are greenish-black and poisonous to humans. Parthenocissus flowers are greenish, small and borne in clusters. Unlike Hedera, it flowers in the spring. The berries are small and bluish, betraying the genus’s relation to grapes.

Hedera is considered an invasive species where it grows in the United States. It is actually banned from the state of Oregon. Because it grows rapidly and is an evergreen, it tends to shade out all other plants, creating ‘ivy barrens.’ Even so, landscapers looking for a low-maintenance ground cover may plant it to fill a space and cut down on their weeding.

Only Hares Can Hear Them

Fairy thimbles; harebell at far right

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) got this vernacular name from the folk belief that the flowers actually rang like bells to warn hares against approaching predators. Other names suggest a connection to magic: witch’s thimble or fairies’ thimbles, fairy bells or devil’s bells. The association with the “Good Folk” means that harebells were rarely used for herbal medicine because disturbing the plant in any way could offend the fairies.

The old vernacular names for Campanula (probably) represent actual pre-Christian pagan beliefs, but interestingly at least one source refers to the Victorians’ belief that fairies slept in the bells. The Victorian return to pagan beliefs came in the wake of the Romantic revival of the early 19th century that also expressed itself in the emergence and popularity of Pre-Raphaelite painting with its frequent depiction of Classical mythological figures and Arthurian personages, who while nominally Christian, seemed to live a world full of pagan hangovers like Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.

“Bluebells of Scotland”

In Scotland it is called the “bluebell” and the plant is closely associated with the clan MacDonald, which even uses it to make a dye for one of the colors of its tartan.

There are so many species introduced to North America from Europe that it is almost surprising to run across a Holarctic species like C. rotundifolia; it occurs naturally in both the eastern and western portions of the northern hemisphere. Although plants introduced to North America by early colonists sometimes worked their way into tribal lore, the harebell has a place there because is was already present when the first North Americans walked over the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The Haida, a tribe of the Pacific Northwest, call the harebell “the blue rain flower,” telling their children that picking it would make it rain. Given that the Haida’s homeland (the Haida Gwaii) is the site of a temperate rainforest, there seems to have been a lot of flower picking going on. A similar effect was attributed to the Haida’s “red rain flower,” more widely known as the columbine (Aquilegia formosa).

The Dine (Navajo) have no fear of the fairy folk but, as any reader of Tony Hillerman novels knows, they are afraid of witches and suspect their presence whenever things go awry in an inexplicable way. According to Alchemy Works (, the Dine picked the plant and rubbed it on their bodies to ward off witchcraft. Interestingly the Dine also believe in shape-shifting, which is also a part of the pagan tradition of the British Isles, where the sap of harebells was used by witches to turn themselves into hares.

Harebells are also called “round-leaved bellflower,” which at first glance is an odd name. The plant often grows in meadows, so usually only the top two-thirds of it is visible. These leaves are narrow, almost needle-like, on this part of the plant. It is only the basal leaves that are bluntly toothed and rounded, resembling miniature colts-foot leaves.

The flowers begin to appear in June and the blooms continue through September. They are more conate when they first open, the teeth at the end of the fused petals pointing straight out. As the flower ages the tips of the teeth curve outward and backward.

The invasive bellflower

This is an adaptable plant, growing in a variety of habitats over a wide geographical range. But in suburban or more disturbed settings the European or rampion bellflower (C. rampuncoloides) is likely to be found instead. The flowers are a similar color, but the teeth are longer and narrower. The leaves are broader than the needles of rotundifolia and are more clearly arranged in a helix going up the stem. The flowers wind up the stem as well and are mounted closer to it than those of the native Campanula. Rampion bellflower is apparently thought of as invasive and is difficult to eradicate because it has an 18-inch long taproot.