Saturday, September 24, 2011


"Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow"  by Camille Pissarro,
at Chicago's Art Institute
            Sorry for the long hiatus. Tim and I spent six days in Chicago recently, reveling in the Art Institute’s magnificent European Impressionists collection, the beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, the city’s eclectic architecture, superlative Greek omelets, Millennium Park’s sculpture and plantings, vast Lake Michigan, all those friendly Midwesterners.

Sally and me
I also got to meet one of my best friends ever, Sally Benson, face-to-face. Sally’s editor of American Nurseryman magazine and the first person ever to pay me hard cash for writing something. For once, the actual event exceeded the anticipation. It’s entirely possible that we’re actually twins who were separated at birth, as coincidences multiplied over years of an impeccably grammatically correct email relationship, a feeling that talkingtalkingtalking for 17 hours over two days did nothing to dispel. Sally, you’re the best.

Caryopteris x clandonensis
'Dark Knight'
I had meant to publish a post from the Windy City about our jaunt to Glencoe, but the United States of Greed does not make it easy—or cheap—for itinerants to access the Internet. As always, things work out as they’re supposed to, because I was so busy yakking with Sally that only the vaguest of impressions of the Botanic Garden survive. It was huge (380 acres) and in full fall glory on a perfect Midwestern September day. The glorious shrub Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Dark Knight’ (blue mist spirea, blue beard), with blue-blue flowers displayed to perfection against dark green foliage, snagged my attention: Sally and I marveled that breeders work so hard to produce cultivars with lackluster variegation, gold-I-think-not foliage and washed-out-looking blooms.

I do remember saying “That plant doesn’t go in North Carolina” about 600 times.

Millennium Park sculpture
Paid more attention at Millennium Park (Sally had gone back to work). The giant chrome bicycle-helmet sculpture on the main plaza really draws your eye. I experienced a flash of inspiration and asked Tim to take a picture of our reflection as he took a picture of the shiny glob. Unfortunately, hundreds of other tourists were simultaneously struck by the same “original” thought. Anyway, the curved surface made my rear look big. (Like that’s hard to do. Ha.)

Formal planting at Millennium Park
On a horticultural note, the planting designers and maintenance crews of both Millennium and Grant Parks really know their stuff. Tim and I came away with several stolen ideas for future projects. One of my favorites is the use of rainbow-colored painted 1x10” boards as access walkways in and behind beds—what a great way to give a space winter interest!

 Gentiana andrewsii
with bumblebee butt
(click on picture and look for black blob)
Millennium Park’s prairie garden introduced me to an absolutely stunning little miracle of nature, the native bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). The flowers expand but never open, whence the common name. Enchanted (regular readers know what a sucker I am for blue blooms), we watched a bumblebee wriggle herself head-first into the bottle, completely disappearing. She shimmied back out a few seconds later, her saddlebags filled with pollen, only to move on the next flower for a repeat performance. Tim caught her descent in the photo here. (I am reminded again of how difficult it is for a camera to capture blues truly.)

Completely disregarding a cardinal rule of public-garden etiquette, I filched a faded bloom in hopes of getting viable seed. (Don't try this on your own, kids.)

A cluster of bottle gentian flowers
Alas, research revealed Gentiana andrewsii requires the cool nights of USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7 to flourish, something Zone 8/9 SENC can’t provide. This revelation came as no surprise, really: gentians in general don’t go here (and that makes 601). Further digging yielded a species—G. saponaria, or soapwort gentian—allegedly tolerant of Zone 8 conditions. I prepared to roll out an Internet search for plants when I remembered that coastal Oregon is also considered Zone 8. I can’t think of many places with a climate as dissimilar to Oak Island’s as, say, Eugene. It’s illustrative of the inherent limitations of hardiness zone maps.

The prairie garden featured many familiar plants, including various Salvia species, Echinacea (coneflower), Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), Eryngium bourgatii (Mediterranean sea holly), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake master, so called because it is believed to treat snakebites and/or keep snakes out of the garden; both claims are erroneous), Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root), Cimicifuga racemosa (snakeroot or cohosh), and numerous grasses, including the graceful Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass). The whole space buzzed and whirred with bees and birds, like the goldfinch feasting on coneflower seedheads pictured below.

Echinacea seedheads and goldfinch
Alas, we country mice remembered—too late—that four days is enough city-time for us. Trudging miles of concrete sidewalks hemmed in by tall buildings and crowds of people, high ambient energy levels and incessant hum and rumble lose a lot of their charm after the first 72 hours or so. In fact, they lost all their charm, leaving us to wonder why we thought a little change of scene would be so much fun in the first place. Despite frequent and liberal dousings with hand sanitizer, by Day 5 I could no longer deny that I’d caught a cold, my first in years. We spent most of Day 6 huddled in O’Hare, snuffling and counting minutes until our 8:25 pm flight.

Yes, it’s true. Tim and I are Official Old Farts (OOFs).     

Anyway. We’re home now. The fine layer of cat litter riming every flat surface has been shoveled out, the kitchen table cleared of last week’s mail and newspapers, the laundry mountain conquered, the soporific effects of NyQuil and Benadryl (almost) worn off. Once this opus is posted, I’m headed down the hall for a nap. Another day or two and I’ll feel like getting back to work. Whoever said “East, West, / Home’s best” sure knew what he was talking about.

Thanks for dropping by.

                                                            Your OOFy correspondent,