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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Searching for Spring

  • trout lily

    trout lily

  • Helleborus orientalis

    Helleborus orientalis

  • trout lily
  • Helleborus orientalis

I went to New Jersey, the Garden State, to search for spring and found it at the Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills. My brother Tony and his wife, Joan, took us to the 29-acre garden that was originally part of Buck’s estate. In the 1930s, Buck began working with Zenon Schreiber, a well-known landscape architect, to create a naturalistic garden that incorporated the various rock outcroppings, the sinuous Moggy Brook and two ponds.

I was searching for spring, but she was elusive, even in the Buck Garden, which is, to a large extent, a spring garden. Trees were barely leafing out, it was too early for the groves and allees of azalea and rhododendron that would be spectacular by the end of May, and even the large patches of primroses were not blooming. What we did find were certain rocky areas in bloom that seemed to encourage us and remind us that spring was finally on her way.

The stone outcroppings vary in size and height, creating different microclimates. My sister-in-law Joan and I spent a lot of time that day talking about and marveling at the power of microclimates. For example, the primroses in the large boggy sections of the garden were almost entirely without bloom because this garden has also been having a very cool spring. And yet, nestled against the Big Rock stone cliff, primroses were blooming happily in the sun.

Growing among the soil pockets were a number of colorful spring bloomers from the delicate red and yellow native columbine, brilliant basket-of-gold, petite iris reticulata, epimediums, barren strawberry, trillium, bluets, familiar creeping phlox, bleeding hearts and small narcissus like Jack Snipe.

It does not take long for most of us to identify the microclimates in our own gardens and learn to take advantage of those spots where a plant will be protected from the wind, or where stone might act as a heat collector as well as a wind barrier. In those protected spots, we can grow plants that are marginally hardy in our zone or get earlier bloom.

There were various plantings of pink or white Helleborus orientalis or Lenten rose. I first became familiar with these lush early bloomers on the Bridge of Flowers. Last year, when I attended the opening of the newly redesigned Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Michael Van Valkenburg promised that this spring the garden would be “crazy with hellebores,” which had been planted, along with ferns and shiny European ginger, under the new young trees.

One of the pleasures of visiting the Buck garden is the ability to see close up woodland plants that you don’t often find in cultivated gardens. There were trilliums, red and white, just coming into bloom, guinea hen fritillarias and sunny marsh marigolds that shone in a boggy spot.

Another sunny plant that stopped us was a clump of yellow flowers with sharply recurved petals and mottled leaves. I couldn’t remember their scientific name (Erythronium americanum) but thought they were trout lilies. I pointed out the mottled leaves to Tony and Joan, explaining that they could be said to resemble the markings on brown trout. I thought they were also known as dogtooth violets even though they are not violets and do not resemble dog’s teeth in any way. Of course, later we had to do some research and I was correct as far as I went. We learned the dog’s tooth refers to the little corm from which it grows.

Later in the day, at another garden, we saw a similar clump of flowers I thought were trout lilies again, but the petals were not curved back. We looked all over for a label, but only found one that said Bletilla striata. More research. These were trout lilies, but we learned it takes strong sun to make the petals curve back. Bletilla striata is a small purple ground orchid. No purple flowers of any kind were in sight, which just goes to show you have to be careful when looking at plant labels. The plant they refer to may not yet be blooming, or the label may have been moved, but not with any accuracy.

While doing this trout lily research, I also learned that every part of the plant is edible. One warning: I can’t imagine anyone would actually manage to eat a large number, but in large amounts trout lilies act as an emetic. However, a few blossoms to brighten up a salad will not hurt.

Most of us will never have enough trout lilies to take up roasting and eating the little corms. They are very slow growing. It takes seven years for a plant to mature, bloom and begin to reproduce. Mostly they increase by runners, not by seed. If you find a colony in a damp humusy woodland, it is likely to be quite old. I prefer to just admire them because they are so lovely.

New Jersey has quite a number of public gardens that are a part of the park system. After we left the Buck Garden and refreshed ourselves with a hearty lunch, we went on to Willowwood Arboretum, New Jersey’s largest (130 acres) and longest continually operating arboretum. You will hear more about the gardens there, as well as the trees, in the future.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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