Lovettsville, VA

24 July 2023

Dear Scott,

I wonder if I should technically write ‘Lovettsville’ at the top of this letter, as I am sitting in the passenger seat of a freshly washed Toyota Camry that is winging its way through some pretty decent roadside wildflower displays to Niagara Falls and the Perennial Plant Association symposium in Ontario. It’s a shame you won’t be there. An expired passport seems an unlikely excuse for a man who might need to flee the country at any time.


Willburn, Marianne Bowly.  Ready at a moment’s notice.

Michael is at the helm of this Camry ship (daughter Emma in back), and thus he is in charge of the stereo. This means that I have already had to endure a Great Courses lecture on the not-at-all-terrifying ways that AI will make our lives even better than the device-addled existences they currently are. 

At the moment I am trapped in an overview of philosophical quandaries as illustrated by modern SciFi movie plots. Full marks for originality — and I promise I tried to pay attention for the first twenty minutes — but I mentally tapped out when the lecturer began the Captain Kirk impressions.

However, as I am thankful to share the driving, I have smothered my urges towards bloody mutiny and instead pulled out my laptop and ear buds.  And there are always the wildflowers.  So many umbellifers in the fields right now, both yellow and white.  

I have a soft spot for almost all members of the family Apiaceae and was pleased to hear that Richard Hawke and the Chicago Botanic Gardens Plant Evaluation team are currently underway on a trial of 20 or so taxa. So is RHS Wisley, though it was hidden in a back corner of the new trial garden when I last visited in May.  Probably because it looked the way you would expect a bed made of nothing but umbellifers to look, and a back corner was the best place for it. 


Not the most beautiful of trial subjects, but such a useful trial. (RHS Wisley, UK)

That’s the thing about umbellifers.  So many are froth, like Anthriscus sylvestris. Soft, gentle fairy dressings to drape and pop and create echoes throughout the garden.  Some are muscular giants that scream for attention – like Ferula communis.  Some are in-between, like Ammi visnaga or Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpurea’. But when they go over – fairy or giant – it’s not pretty.  Much like that daffodil B-grade death scene you inexplicably managed to devote 680 words to back in April.   Still, there’s nothing like a good umbellifer to attract pollinators. 

Frothy cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) in May at Balmoral Cottage in the UK. I’d show you a photo of froth here, but it would just be me frothing at the mouth as it’s been so dry.

Re: your last letter.  I regret to inform you that your future in the Influensphere is far from assured. Perhaps you could work with a belly shirt in your next photo shot, or failing that, find a minor celebrity to pose with.  I’ll see what my schedule looks like when I come out for the Plant Trials Day at the end of August.  In the interim, don’t quit your day job.  Literally. I’m really looking forward to the speaker line-up you’ve put together.

Speaking of speakers, that’s another thing you’ll miss in Niagara. I mean, besides the views. And the catching up with old friends.

Nevermind. You have your pool.

Meanwhile, the garden. Mid-season in a dry summer and it’s no surprise that we’re all grumbling.  No sooner had I decided to write something up about the curious ambivalence I had been feeling towards new designs and planting schemes, than Lorene, and then Ben, beat me to the punch.  Turns out it’s not odd at all, it’s just…July.  And August.  I know you can relate too.

Some parts of the garden are in a holding pattern, waiting for me to pay attention; and though I’m happy that the planting is dense enough to keep the weeds at bay, holding patterns always bore me, particularly when it gets hot and everything looks tired and accusatory.

Dusk and the hour leading up to dusk is the best time to be out there, but that’s not enough time to get much done (at least visibly) unless you cheat a little bit by attacking something big. Last night I pulled out some Tetrapanax papyrifera suckers to loosen up some space at the end of the serpentine bed and it took so little time, and made such a big difference to surrounding plants, that I was glad I’d foregone the weeding of crabgrass seedlings in the gravel which would have had the completely opposite effect: enormous effort for little return.

That’s a fabulous foliage plant – I wonder if you grow it?  Possibly not hardy for you, it is only just root hardy for me in 6b. But I’d try it with a good blanket of mulch if you haven’t already.


A young Tetrapanax papyrifera’Rex’



And in the youngest area of the serpentine bed, top right.

In Rehoboth Beach, DE DCTropics blogger and breeder John Boggan had it flower last year as his stems did not sustain too much dieback and they had time to bloom.  The flowers were so good I vowed to wrap my stems in autumn just to experience the thing for myself. I broke that promise, and many others, last fall, but who knows what this October will bring.

I grow the cultivars ‘Rex’ and ‘Steroidal Giant’ and consider those massive palmate leaves a foliage lifesaver in the early summer garden – particularly when one drops the ball getting the real tropicals started early. (Guilty!)   ‘Rex’ can grow 6-10’ tall – ‘Steroidal Giant’ much higher. Suckers are numerous, but very easily pulled – can’t say that about the seedlings of Chasmanthium.  In fact, the only major issue I have after ten years of growing it is the need to mask up when working with it, as the stems and leaves are covered in a fine downy fuzz, easily dislodged and even more easily inhaled.

I can usually hold my breath and pull out a little sucker, but that won’t work when I’m cutting larger stems.  In one of those “you couldn’t make this up” moments a few years ago John Boggan had his leg impaled by an old woody stem when he stumbled and fell on it, which necessitated a trip to the ER; but he does admit it was user error. If you’re cutting the stems, always cut back to the soil line.

Both cultivars were pass-alongs from gardening friends – but the suckers are quick to exit this life and are not a sure thing once pulled and gifted. Baby this one if you get it.  It would look primeval tucked into the back of a display at the zoo.

Speaking of which, congratulations on the award.  Just when I thought your head was beginning to shrink from all the attention you received at CAST.  Actually, it’s probably best you won’t be in Niagara.

Well, that’s enough for now. I’ll tidy this up later and see if I can add some envy-inducing photos of all the fun your friends and I will no doubt have over the next four days. Michael and Emma are planning to tourist the hell out of the place. 



P.S.  The blue spruce are getting progressively healthier as we head north – fascinating.  Cooler days? Cooler nights? Cooler people? 

Jon Peter

What Jon Peter of Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario thinks of you not showing up to PPA.


Mary Vaanenen

What Mary Vaananen of Jelitto Seeds thinks of you not getting your passport renewed.


What writer Tony Spencer, Laura Fernald-Ekasetya and Gerrit Lommerse of Future Plants and Chris Fehlhaber of Chanticleer think of you not keeping your promise to attend. Oh no wait. We weren’t thinking about you at all.

niagara meal

Ditto. Andrew Bunting,of Philadelphia Hort Soc, Brent Horvath & Lisa Hilgenberg of Intrinsic Perennial Garden, and Chris at Chanticleer.  There really wasn’t room at the table anyway.

This one has got to hurt. The presence of fellow Cinnci Zoo man Paul Koloszar and Newfields’ Irvin Etienne means that forgetting to get your passport renewed isn’t a Midwestern thing. 

One last zinger. The view from our room. Those are American fireworks that got their paperwork in order so they could cross the border.



I lied. One more.

niagara botanizing

Well, two. Got to hand it to the toughest rose around, hanging out on a sheer cliff – R. rugosa. There with a bit of umbellifer froth in the form of Queen Anne’s Lace.  That plant gets everywhere.