Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What's Blooming?

Here's what's blooming in my garden.

Galanthus nivalis

Iris reticulata

Witch hazel
Hamamelis x intermedia
Arnold Promise

Tell me what's blooming in your garden.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I stopped in at the New York Botanical Garden's orchid show recently and I'm still having orchidelirium. You can read about the did-you-ever-see-a-dream-blooming display in my Newsday column on Sunday, but the show featured everything from blue vandas to yellow cymbidiums and, well, thousands of blooms in all.

And they all seem at home amid the tropical environs of the great glass palace known as the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. I don't know if I have a favorite but the one that fascinated me most during my visit was the Darwin's Star orchid.

The orchid itself would be a star by any name but the flower's connection to the man it's named for -- Charles Darwin, of course -- is an added attraction.

The star-shaped bloom is a pure white stunner with 11-inch nectar spurs. Very dramatic-looking, as you can see. When Darwin first studied the flower, he hypothesized that there had to be a moth equipped with a pip of a proboscis -- at least one long enough to get at the pollen and help keep the species, Angraecum sesquipedale -- going.

He got a lot of flak and ridicule but the originator of the origin of species was used to that. And 40 years later, the very insect -- an exotic and nocturnal hawkmoth with a nose for noodling -- was indeed discovered.

If there's a moral to the story, it may just be -- Don't mess with Charles Darwin.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Scenes from the Flower Show

At 8 in the morning, the floor of the Philadelphia Flower Show is virtually empty. You could get close enough to actually read plant labels. You could take a picture without getting a stranger’s head or elbow in the shot. You could make out the clover design of the knot garden fashioned from flowers and colored glass in one of the main displays. You could stick your nose into a Dawn viburnum and inhale spring on a frigid day when snow swirled along the city streets.

It’s one of the perks of being a garden writer – you get to sneak in before the crowds arrive. That’s what I did on my last day at the show. Here’s some of what I saw:

**A tall woman in a red sweatshirt named Arlene Flick watering pots of Stephanotis floribunda and Coprosma – just two of the hundreds of plants on display in an area nicknamed the Hort-court.

This is the section where perfectly groomed potted specimens are judged throughout the show – where 50-year-old clivias are in killer bloom, where azaleas clipped into pink clouds are photographed by amazed and amused tourists, where hairy cacti no bigger than your thumb and weirdly gnarled euphorbias sport blue ribbons that reaffirm the truth behind the old adage that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

“I’m just watering, not feeding,” Arlene said when I asked what was in the 9-gallon tank she was wheeling around. Arlene is a volunteer with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which produces the show, and a member of a four-person crew that comes in at 6 a.m. three times during the week-long run.
“It used to be that people would water their own exhibits,” the retired horticulturist from Delaware County said. “But strangely, plants would get knocked down, flowers would be picked, all manner of things would happen. Twenty years ago someone asked me if I’d mind watering. I said, ‘Sure.’ I say ‘sure’ every year.” I just like watering.”

**The living wall and arch at the show entrance.

An impressive tapestry of color and texture fashioned from blue lobelia, pink cascading diascia, creeping dichondra, an epiphytic cactus known as Rhipsalis and a very cool succulent called Echeveria Topsy Turvy with grayish silver rosettes. All of it forced into bloom and placed in the wall by John Story and Diane Weiner of Meadowbrook Farm.

**Gairdin an Oir – a garden of gold by Stoney Bank Nurseries shining with yellow roses, coreopsis, rudbeckias, Echinacea Sunrise, heucheras, gold-leaved hostas, and Spirea Gold Flame – not to mention junipers with names like Gold Star and Old Gold, and golden dawn redwood Gold Rush. It was enough to make you believe there was a pot of gold in the garden.

**Michael Petrie of J. Franklin Styer Nurseries hanging out with his dinosaurs before hoards of Homo sapiens rushed his best-of-show landscape.

“They were in Jurassic Park,” he said of the full-sized cast creatures lurking amid the greenery around a pond made even more mysterious with ultrasonic foggers.

Actually, the dinosaurs were created by Don Lessem – AKA “Dino” Don – and were used in promotional tours for the 1993 movie. They’ve been standing around his yard in Media, Pennsylvania ever since. Michael stopped by to visit one day and was inspired to put the creatures in the flower show spotlight.

“We created the garden around the dinosaurs,” he said. “There are 350 pots of Phormium alone in the exhibit. We used a gingko tree because they were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The exhibits are always a work in progress and I’m never really sure how it’s all going to turn out. It usually works.”

Which is something of an understatement since Michael has won best-in-show six times in the past 11 years. This year his exhibit also was honored for “excellence in use of forced plants” and as “most distinctive in show.”

He’s already thinking about next year when the show theme will be Jazz It Up. “I have a concept,” he said. “It will be minimalist and contemporary – and it will involve only three plants and four colors.”

I'll see you there.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sprites at the Show

Sure, and I almost convinced myself the wee people were about at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Their laundry was drying on a clothesline. Their blue and red front doors and their windows were wide open, the lights inside twinkling like Lilliputian lanterns. Tiny milk bottles stood near the stoops and flower pots brimming with blooms nestled in carpets of moss. Their little houses were fashioned from twigs and bark and moss and carved into tree trunks or fallen logs. One storybook cottage with lace curtains teetered like something out of Lemony Snicket, another resembled a wooden teapot.

Welcome to The Ealain Wood – the enchanted place sprites and nymphs and faeries call home. Where the forest floor glistens with Irish-bred daffodils and dappled “sunlight” kisses rhododendrons and ferns and lindens and smoke trees. Where massive faux trees made of muslin reach to the rafters and if you’re lucky you’ll hear the sound of a harp or a flute and perhaps the whisper of gossamer wings as the magical creatures flit about so quickly that they’re imperceptible to mere humans.

I tried to capture them on camera, but all I got were these shots of their homes.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jurassic Isle

What with the theme of this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show being called “Legends of Ireland,” it makes sense that the best-of-show award went to an exhibit that featured full-sized but ersatz dinosaurs. Not.

Or maybe it wasn’t that far-fetched at all. Dinosaurs roamed everywhere else in the primordial past so they must have made Ireland their stomping grounds, too, before the meteor hit. And when I tunneled through the crowd to get close to the winning landscape – called Plant-O-Saurus and created by Michael Petrie of the J. Franklin Styer Nurseries – the award seemed even more reasonable.

The exhibit was typical of the Concordville, Pennsylvania firm’s reputation for imagination – I still remember the brightly painted giant truck tires that were focal points in its display at the first Philly show I attended almost a decade ago. And it was certainly in keeping with the spirit of the Emerald Isle – replete with mist rising from a mysterious woodland bog shaded by dark evergreens and surrounded by Irish moss. Reality is often perception and even the monkey puzzle trees and the towering King Tut papyrus and the giant banana trees seemed at home.

The foliage and flowers might have charmed even the most unruly triceratops and T-rex. Like the Acanthus spinosus, commonly known as spiny bear’s breeches (photo at left), and the Crytomeria japonica Cristata with otherworldly foliage (at right).

I loved the drifts of green and white Alocasia Polly and Phormium Maori Sunrise punctuated by orange rhododendrons and bromeliads as well as
white hellebores and the exotic purple flowers and
red stems of Aechmea Del Mar (at right). The huge leaves of Gunnera unfurled along the misty banks, where lights brightened and dimmed at intervals to reveal the lost world.

Whether these plant combinations made any kind of botanical sense didn’t seem to matter. It was magic.

What could be more Irish?

A Rare Treat

“Are you Jacques?” I asked.

“Yes,” the tall man standing near the Jacques Amand exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show answered.

Actually, as he explained later, he’s John Jacques Amand. There was just something about the way he was looking at the tapestry of bulbs that singled him out from the rest of the on-lookers. It was almost affectionate. And I liked his British accent. So I plunged right in and asked him how he got into the bulb business.

“My father was in bulbs,” he said. “I was dragged up in it.” But he was laughing. He could afford to. Jacques Amand of Westport, Connecticut and the United Kingdom is famous for rare and beautiful bulbs. Like the almost architecturally structured plants with fat sturdy stalks and white-striped leaves with curled edges that towered over minitature daffodils and yellow crocuses on the other side of the exhibit.

“Ah, the Drancunculus vulgaris,” he said. “Before long, it’s big red flowers will unfurl.” The dramatic Drancunculus, pictured at left, were just one of hundreds of knockout varieties of bulbs in the exhibit – everything from John’s personal favorite – Erythronium Pagoda, also known as dog's tooth violet, with yellow flowers that look like, well, a pagoda to wonderfully scented hyacinths and yellow muscari.

Not to mention species tulips (Tulipa ancilla is pictured here with spiky Rip Van Winkle daffodils) and lilies to die for. Just look at this shot of Triumphator.

The selection of Arisaema on display was both different and delightful. “They’re fascinating plants – some are only two inches tall, some like tortuosum get to be six feet,” he said.

The one in front of me was well on its way -- with a purple-edged olive green spathe and mottled snakeskin-like stems. The forcing process for these Jack-in-the-pulpit cousins and all the other bulbs in the exhibit began in England last fall, then the bulbs were shipped to the U.S. for planting in mid-December. And now they’re in the spotlight in a convention center in Philadelphia.

Clearly, there’s more to say about the extravaganza blooming this week at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The theme is “Legends of Ireland.” It’s enough to make Irish eyes smile – and mine too. Sure and I’ll be telling you more.