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Why I Love Summertime at Longwood Gardens

August 18, 2009

Summertime is a wonderful time at Longwood.... if fact some of my favorite plants bloom during this season. So, for everyone who  is at the beach getting that last swim in before school starts back, or for those who've been in the mountains trying to escape the little heat and humidity we've seen this season, and for I'm sure most of you who are just at home enjoying the air conditioning while watching recorded episodes of Dancing with the Stars, let me encourage you to get UP, get OUT and get to LONGWOOD GARDENS!  We have some amazing things in bloom right now that you won't see any other time of the year.  So many times I hear people say "Oh, I was at Longwood last year." or "I'll be there at Christmas."  Those people are missing some of the world's most beautiful flowers right now.  Longwood should have a big sign that reads "We're in bloom NOW!"  Allow me to share a few of my favorites from this summer. 

Curcuma alimatifolia Curcuma alimatifolia.

In the Orangery we've showcased Curcuma alismatifolia on the center walk.  Immediately upon entry into the Conservatory you'll be greeted by the brightly colored bracts of this southeast Asian native.  The actual flowers are tucked deep inside and are small and white.  This ginger relative makes a long-lasting cut flower where, in its native habitat,  there are  fields of this glorious plant in bloom!  The plant grows from tiny rhizomes that we purchase each spring.  We grow the tiny plantlets in our warmest greenhouse so they flower beginning in July to coincide with the naturally warm temperatures of the Conservatory.  We've not yet discovered how to successfully overwinter the plants in our greenhouses and I welcome any comments of those who have had some success! 

Duranta 'Geisha Girl' Duranta 'Geisha Girl'.

Also in the Orangery on the southwest walkway we have trained standards of Duranta erecta 'Geisha Girl' .

This native of Central and South America is a relative of verbena!  The common name of golden dewdrop is misleading since you'll never see the yellow fruits that can be produced in great profusion when it is grown outdoors.  What you will see is an abundance of purple flowers with a delightful picotee edge.  They love the heat and will flower all summer.  Be on the lookout for other cultivars with solid gold foliage as well as those with attractive striping.  Their leaves provide additional interest even when the flowers aren't present. If you're still in the Orangery and look toward the Indoor Children's Garden you might notice a glorious pink blossom that graces another tropical plant.  This member of the acanthus family comes to us from southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina  and is commonly called the Brazilian plume or Justicia carnea.

Justicia carnea Justicia carnea.

Our plants are trained  for almost a full year to be as compact as you see them.  In their native habitat they grow as understory plants enjoying the high shade that comes from towering trees in the rainforest.  In your garden this plant may reach as high as four feet while you enjoy blossoms periodically throughout the warm summer months.  A new cultivar I just discovered at Logees Greenhouse in Danielson, Connecticut is called Justicia 'Radiant'.  It boasts darker foliage with almost a bronze cast and much deeper pink flowers.  No matter which plant you choose there is no doubt that people will stop in their tracks to get a closer look at this unique addition to the summertime garden! Everyone should stop in Longwood's Orchid House at least once when visiting, and this time of year is even more spectacular than others!  

Prosthechea radiata 'Tiltons' Prosthechea radiata 'Tiltons'.

The fragrance of Prosthechea radiata 'Tiltons' is like that of nutmeg.  It's always entertaining for me to observe guests enter the space and begin looking for the fragrance that is so apparent.  It's hard to comprehend that such a small off-white flower could pack such a punch!  This genus of orchids is part of the Epidendrum alliance and can be found growing outdoors in Florida through Mexico and into Central America.  They are an easy to grow group of epiphytic orchids requiring bright light and warm temperatures.  The pseudobulbs at the base of each plant help to store water during periods of infrequent rainfall.  I can think of few plants that have such a delightful scent this time of year.  

Disa uniflora Disa uniflora.

Also in the orchid display is a unique plant to Longwood that came to us almost 40 years ago from our first director. Disa uniflora is a South African native whose seeds first arrived to Longwood when Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens opened in Cape Town, South Africa.  This plant requires very cool temperatures all year that never climb above 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  At Longwood Gardens we have to grow it in an air-conditioned greenhouse to meet the cultural needs.  It needs constant moisture so we water the sphagnum moss almost daily.  Each plant you see is grown from tiny seeds and we'll get slight variation of color with every bloom season.  The typical (and I feel most beautiful) color is a deep reddish orange.  The flower in the image is exhibiting a flush of yellow, but you'll see some with pinks in them as well.  Look around and see if we have any on display this summer because they won't be flowering any other time of year! One last orchid to look for is Habenaria rhodocheila

Habenaria rhodochelia Habenaria rhodochelia.

The delicate orange (or pink) blossoms emerge from grassy foliage beginning sometime in late June or early July.  It's an Asian native growing outdoors in southern China, Malaysia all the way to the Philippines. What makes it really special is that it goes completely dormant in the winter!  It's not a very popular plant for many home orchid growers since there is nothing to look at for almost half the year, but when it flowers you'll ask how you lived without one for so long! Lastly we'll look into the Mediterranean Garden for a few summertime blossoms that will inspire you to increase your plant collections.  The first plant which grows up the stainless steel columns is an interesting vine called Gloriosa superba. 

Gloriosa superba Gloriosa superba.

This African native is the national flower of Zimbabwe and has a most unique flower. Look closely at the six reflexed petals and see how they twist and curl.  Notice the style at the base of the ovary--how it's almost horizontal in its positioning....very unique!  If you allowed the seeds to ripen you might have to wait six to nine months for them to break dormancy.  This is certainly not a plant for the impatient gardener!  Longwood's vines gracefully climb up the arches each summer (notice the leaf tip tendrils) to produce a delightful show at eye level before quietly retreating back to the ground for a restful winter.  The horizontal rhizomes are white in color and are easily lifted for the winter in areas where the plant is not hardy outdoors. The last plant we'll explore in the Mediterranean Garden today is Eucomis comosa'Oakhurst'.

Eucomis comosa Eucomis comosa.

I especially like this cultivar because it has very dark purple  new growth which slowly fades to a shade of olive green.  The flowers are very soft pink indoors, but in your outdoor garden the color can be expected to be much more intense.  A native species of South Africa this cultivar was discovered in a San Diego nursery sporting very dark strap-like foliage.  It gets slightly larger than a previously released selection called 'Sparkling Burgundy'.  Either one will provide dramatic contrasts of color, shape and form in your garden!  When growing them outdoors, provide well drained soil and adequate moisture.  Full sun will bring out the most intense colors.  You can overwinter these bulbs in an unheated garage with minimal moisture throughout the dormant period. I hope you've enjoyed a few of MY summertime favorites in the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens and I invite you to join me as we continue to enjoy warm and dry weather within the four acres of the Conservatory complex! What are your summertime favorites?