The difference that fresh makes
It's probably not a huge surprise that I am enamored of flowers. I'd be lying if I said that I love all flowers equally. I'm not trying to knock anyone's appreciation of flowers and it bears saying that nothing beats flowers that you harvest from your own garden or that come from a local flower farmer. Most flowers that are available for purchase (to consumers or florists) have been harvested at the best stage for longevity in shipping and transport. This is a careful science and often involves some fairly advanced chemistry. A huge number of these flowers are grown in countries where labor costs are extremely low (a real mixed bag for the foreign employees - nice to have a job but not so nice that so much of the profit from the industry goes to others) and environmental safety standards are also extremely low. They can use chemicals on the flowers they wouldn't be able to use here. Sometimes these flowers are given an extra fumigation to prevent insects from hitching a free ride along with the stems. The entire picture is kind of impressive from an efficiency and operational standpoint!
It's not what I'm looking for in a flower at all. When I grow flowers I take great care with each seedling or bulb. I don't harvest flowers at the first opportunity because I enjoy how the flower matures. When I cut flowers to arrange for myself, I like flowers at their most full expression. When harvested early, they never achieve this size or openness. Something that I've observed over the years is that many of the flowers I grow actually sparkle in the sun. A florist friend told me this is a result of the petals being fully hydrated. Flowers are meant to shimmer! I've never seen this on a flower at a store. There is a range of color that petals can't approach when they've been harvested at the first opportunity, held in cold storage for weeks (the case for tulips, narcissus, and peonies), and transported through a variety of means before being available for purchase. Sure, you can recut the stems and help freshen them up but it doesn't rejuvenate them to the same point a freshly cut mature bloom gets. The picture above isn't the best from a photography perspective but it shows the sparkle of the tulip petals that I'm talking about. No filter! The glow of the petals is honestly how they look.
As I've grown in my flower farming, I've also grown to appreciate the entire life cycle of the flowers. I'm not yet to the stage where I harvest seeds (except accidentally in the case of things like Orlaya, celosia, cerinthe, and a few other self sowing wonders) but I have no doubt I'd be doing that if I had more space. My favorite way to enjoy flowers these days is in the garden. Cutting them for arrangements is a pleasure too but different than watching them interact with the wind and the bees and the sunlight. That's part of why I am a very vocal advocate of growing your own. Not everyone can do that, and I believe it's better to have any flowers than none at all. If you are able to grow your own Just Do It! If you aren't, the next best thing is to support your most local flower farmer. You will get the freshest blooms and they will enjoy your support.
Given that my last post was a little bit of a rant against the idea that fresh flowers ought to last forever, I thought it was appropriate to explain some strategies to get your beautiful ephemeral flowers to last as long as they can. Key ideas: water, location, and choosing the right stems.
One of the issues that consumers have with fresh flowers is that of longevity. Everyone wants their flowers to last a long time. I get it. When you spend a pretty penny on something beautiful you want it to be around for a while. Something you may not know is that there is a trade-off when you choose for longevity (sometimes several trade-offs). Most flowers are cut before they are fully mature so the buyer gets to witness the unfolding of the bloom as part of the experience (and get longer vase life in the process). If you let a flower mature in the ground or cut it only after it's fully open, it usually grows substantially larger than that same bloom cut three days prior. So one trade-off for vase life is size.
Size doesn't matter, you say? Well, another trade-off for vase-life is fragrance. At least in roses this is an issue. Modern roses (especially the "florist roses") have been bred for longer vase life at the expense of fragrance.
When I make an arrangement I try and include some big fully open WOW flowers (that will fade first) as well as a few that will slowly open in the vase. As the first flowers fade, I would hope the recipient of the flowers will pull those to let the newly unfolding flowers take center stage. The arrangements are meant to evolve and grow. It's my way of bringing the beauty and ephemerality of the growing season and the life of the flower into focus. When we tune in to the cycles of nature (which not only include, but absolutely depend on, cycles of decay) we need to make room for the whole picture. Flowers are ephemeral. That's part of their beauty. It's also part of ours. When we embrace all the cycles (and not just the young and sparkly bits) we get a more full experience of being alive.
The above photos show tulips at the stage they *should* be cut (for longevity). The right shows the same varieties fully open. I love them both!
So many Hellebores to love!
There are many different species and cultivars of hellebores. It gets really confusing trying to make sense of it all! Helleborus orientalis (which may actually all be hybrids and more accurately referred to as H. hybridus) is fairly common in local nurseries. These are the ones that the term Lenten rose describes. They traditionally had downward facing flowers. These can grow well in containers providing the soil has excellent drainage and the container provides a good amount of root space (at least 18" deep). Several of the H x hybridus lines have outward facing flowers that many prefer. Plants from the Helleborus Gold Collection (HGC) Ice N' Roses series (coming in white, pinks, picotee and a variety of shades of deep red) have been bred for outward facing flowers. This is a series bred in Germany by Josef Heuger. The Frostkiss series also have outward facing flowers and many have beautiful variegated leaves. They have girl names: Frostkiss Penny's Pink, Frostkiss Anna's Red, Glenda's Gloss, Pippa's Purple, etc.
If outward facing flowers aren't a priority for you (I LOVE the beautiful colors of the back petals on the nodding heads of hellebores), the winter jewels series bred by the NorthWest Garden Nursery in Portland have a huge variety of colors.
Another lovely series of hellebore that doesn't have outward facing flowers are the Honeymoon and Wedding Party series from a hybridizer at Walter's Gardens. The Honeymoon series has a single row of petals and the wedding party series are doubles. I've found that the singles do better in my warm climate garden.
One down side to some of the hybrid plants is that they are sterile so you won't get little hellebore seedlings growing around them.
I've had good luck growing 'Ivory Prince" which has creamy flowers that age to chartreuse with pink streaks (stunning!) which has different parentage, it's Helleborus x nigersmithii (which I believe suggests H. orientalis/hybridus and nigersmithii as parents. It is sterile.
Helleborus argutifolius is the Corsican hellebore. I was excited to try this Mediterranean species, hoping it would do well in our mediterranean climate. Happily, it does! This hellebore is quite different in appearance from the previously mentioned varieties. It has a tall stem with cauline leaves (emerging from a tall stem) where most hellebores have basal leaves that all come out from one growing point just above the ground. These have soft green flowers. Much more subtle than many of the hellebores but beautiful in their own right.
This is only a few of the species available. If you live in a cooler climate and would like to know more, I HIGHLY recommend Pine Knot Nursery site for plants, information and for resources.
Digging Dog Nursery and Bluestone Perennials are great sources for plants.
Hell to the YES for Hellebores :)
To say that I LOVE Hellebores would be an understatement. These flowers are stunners. To be honest, I think part of my reason for loving them so much is that I was told I couldn't grow them. I love those sorts of challenges :) Because I'm so crazy for them I have tried them in many different places in my yard. I was surprised that they seemed to prefer a lot more sun than I would have guessed from the research I'd done. In my yard their sweet spot is in the shade of rose bushes or other East facing beds that have sun in the morning and afternoon shade. These guys take either patience of money (and honestly a bit of both). If you can swing it, buy the biggest plants you can find. (If that's not a problem for you, you should hire me to consult for your flower garden!😉) Hellebores are slow growers and take a couple years of growing before they start producing an abundance of stems. They are drought tolerant but not very heat tolerant. Avoid overwatering and make sure they have shade in the summer. If you grow hellebores you may be tempted to cut the flowers for arrangements. There are lots of complicated processes I've seen for getting them to last when they are young and at their (imho) most beautiful. What I do instead is enjoy them in the garden that way and wait until they have dropped their stamens and other reproductive bits (like the flower above) and then they last for weeks. The dark colors will retain their color when they dry. Hellebores have a long history (like many in their family, the Ranunculaceae) as medicine/poison so don't eat them! They are the first to blooms of the new year and they are well worth adding to your garden.
My favorite flowers?
Why does this question make the song "These are a few of my favorite things" from the Sound of Music start playing in my head? So, what ARE my favorite flowers? The truth is, my favorite is probably whatever took my breath away that day. It changes frequently, however, there are some that I look forward to growing each season because they rate well in the following: 1) they are beautiful 2) they are easy to grow (this may be relative) and 3) they are cut and come again, this is an important characteristic and one I will explain in more detail below. With the list below you could have almost a year of easy blooming flowers!
Narcissus is just a fancy word for what is actually a daffodil. I find it useful as it helps to distinguish these beauties from the flowers most people have seen before at the grocery store. These specialty daffodils have been bred for wild petal counts, soft pastel colors, and soft fragrance. Some of the reasons I love them? They are EASY to grow! If you have a viable bulb you WILL get a beautiful flower - even in areas with critters. Deer don't eat the stems and gophers won't eat the roots. There are two groups of narcissus that are worth understanding. Tazetta narcissus have multiple smallish flowers on a single stem. These must have evolved in warmer areas because they will naturalize in Southern California. What this means is that if you let the foliage brown before cutting it off, you will get future flowers every year. Sweet! There are some lovely flowers in this group. I like the Erlicheer variety. However, the flowers above are not tazetta group narcissus (for more information about the different types, check out this website). They are the ones that really capture my heart. Sadly, these will not come back to flower in subsequent years. They will grow leaves but won't flower again. I don't feel right composting perfectly viable bulbs so I usually offer up my spent bulbs to farming friends in cold climates. This past year I held on to some bulbs and refrigerated them with my tulips. I will report back on how they do this spring.
What's blooming over the holidays?
This time of year is called "dearth" by beekeepers because of the lack of blooms to feed the bees. Fortunately, in Southern California, this isn't such an issue. In my garden there are chrysanthemums (on 3" stems - the leftovers of the fall cut flowers), camellias, stock, roses, snapdragons, and a variety of other flowers. Not as many as there will be in February when days are longer but enough to keep the bees happy. It's also a time where future flowers are forming in the bodies of bearded irises, rice flower, and many spring blooming geophytic plants (those that survive as starchy underground storage stems to bloom at the very start of spring). If pollination and pollinators are important to you, find some plants that bloom during these short days. Dearth means short days but it doesn't have to mean an absence of flowers!
The odd timing of plants
Flower timing in Southern California is weird. Right now it's cold and "winter" for Southern California and I'm started seedlings like crazy while the rest of the country is hunkered down browsing seed catalogs. We have two distinct seasons here that don't exist in other places. Many of their early spring plants are our winter bloomers (makes me think of flannel underpants). IF you read many websites, books, or social media you see mention of starting things 6 weeks or 4 weeks or 2 weeks before the last frost date. What is this magical frost gate through which so many exciting things happen? Just kidding! I grew up in Minnesota so I'm just kidding about not knowing about frost but So Cal natives might not have such a relationship with freezing temperatures. We don't have a real frost in Pasadena. I might get a little frost lick in one specific part of my yard that will kill nasturtium sprouts on a really cold night but for the most part nothing freezes. That opens up a whole world of growing possibilities! It also means we can play a long game with cool loving flowers like ranunculus. Sadly, not going to have much luck with peonies as they do best with real chill. I found it quite challenging to translate all this talk of frost to my growing climate here in Pasadena. Because I like that sort of challenge I went deep into research and scouring social media groups of flower farmers and came up with a strategy that so far has worked well. I don't actually follow my own strategy because life gets in the way but every year I' a little less behind on my schedule. Progress! It is WEIRD to be starting cool loving plants in September when it's 100 degrees out. Sometimes it the weather makes it impossible. Often, the plants are fine if you shade them a bit and put them in the coolest spot you have. Before you know it it's cold again and then you are taking advantage of the short lived winter to give your cool flowers the best start. During December and January we dip below 10 hours of daily sunlight and that will also stall things a bit but don't despair! In February and March everything is going to POP and you will have more blooms than you know what to do with! Then we bump into the other "season" which is HEAT. By March and April while you are overwhelmed with cool flowers it's time to think about your heat lovers. In order to help everyone else with this quirky scheduling I made a planner with month by month "to-do" lists. If that's something you might find useful, it's available on my website.
I finally figured out a good use of the flowers I've been drying! I made them in to holiday ornaments and I'm delighted with how they turned out. What I love about these flowers is that what didn't sell as a fresh stem, gets a second chance at being admired. Another nice aspect is that stem length doesn't matter. Some cuts, like bunny tails grass, are notorious for having short stems that make them less desirable for florists but fine for adding decorative texture to an ornament. Gomphrena is amazing at how it keeps its color once dried. I've grown the white (dried to more of a cream color) and a bunch of the colors. Orange and purple are not usually something I use as fresh stems because the colors are so bold but in dried form they add a perfect POP of color! Hydrangea blooms are extremely delicate but worked really well for the ornaments. I used a small branch in some or single flowers in others. The most perfect flower was strawflower. It looks dried even when fresh with its' papery petals. I've grown a variety of colors in the past and I'm really glad I had so many choices for making ornaments. The purple red looks almost black. These were really fun to make and I love that I got to use blooms that I grew. I don't know where else you would find organic dried flowers unless you grew them yourself! I've got them for sale on my website if you'd like some.
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