This pure white flower with the golden center, growing against today’s blue summer sky, is the rather amazing Matilija Poppy. It is native to the Matilija Wilderness in southern California, as well as other relatively dry areas in southern California and nearby Baja California.
Oddly enough, I first encountered it in a large vacant lot here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. This region is far wetter and often colder in winter than its home territory. It had been established in that lot for many long years, and had grown many new plants there from sending out rhizomes.
The surprising thing is not only that it grows vigorously well out of its native region, but also that the flowers are the size of saucers, and the example I have in my garden (the one shown here) is about eight feet high.
The catch, though, is that it is very difficult to grow from seed. The trick seems to be burning pine needles over them. That appears to imitate the wildfires that periodically and naturally sweep through its native habitat.
The much easier method of propagation is to use root (rhizome) cuttings, but it can be very touchy about being transplanted, so one must treat the cuttings and new plants with care at first. It is often available in nurseries — at least in the western coastal states, and buying it that way is easiest of all. Once established, it does very well.
In my region it tends to die back in cold winters, but sprouts energetically again in the spring.
The name Matilija (pronounced muh-TIL-i-hah), it is said, comes originally from that of Matâ’ilha, a Native American Chumash village. The scientific name of the plant — Romney coulteri — combines the “Romney” from the name of the Irish astronomer Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), with that of Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843), an Irish botanist who first came across the plant while collecting botanical specimens in in 1831-32.
I grew up on 92 acres of partly-forested, partly-open land in the country. I now live on a very small lot at the outer edge of — but still within — a city.
The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the entire front yard, which at that time consisted of summer-dried grass and weeds. It is not a large piece of ground, in fact I think of it as rather postage stamp sized.
I quickly discovered that the “soil” was incredibly thin, and that it was completely filled with what appeared to be river rock in all gradations. That is the aftermath of a flood at the end of the last Ice Age that left this part of the city filled with rocks washed down from places all the way between here and Montana. So gardening on those flood remains is like gardening on a pile of rocks with a tiny bit of poor soil between them. I could not put a shovel into the ground anywhere without hitting rocks. In addition, what there was of soil was apparently strewn with construction rubble from the construction of the building in which I live.
My choice was either to dig the yard out to a depth of two or three feet, have the removed soil and rocks hauled away, and fill it all in with fine and expensive new soil — or to just work with what was there. I was not prepared to do the former, so I decided to adapt my garden to the circumstances.
Having such rock and grit filled soil made it very porous, and in the hot days of summer, putting water on it was like pouring water through a sieve. To me that meant I should definitely include drought-resistant plants.
I did not want to give up some of my favorite flowers, however, so I was willing to give them a bit more of occasional watering — but I did not want to fill my proposed new garden with delicate plants. They had to be able to survive both heat and cold and a fluctuating level of moisture.
I also did not want the kind of garden that had only one or two or three varieties of flowers, with long waits between one and another blooming. I wanted lots of variety, and I wanted at least something to be in bloom from early spring to late autumn. That meant I had to choose flowers with different bloom times.
I also had to balance the reality of my very small space with my desire for a wide variety of plants. On the positive side, doing so would give me many different kinds of flowers. On the negative side, it meant that I would not have enough space to give each plant luxurious growing room.
My solution to all this was to use a gardening method I wryly call “Survival of the Fittest,” and because it had worked for me before in poor soil in a previous city residence, I was hopeful that it would work for me on my postage stamp rock pile.
The result of my method is a garden that looks like a cross between a traditional English Cottage Garden and a wildflower meadow. There are no wide spaces between plants, so one gets the impression of something that is both wild and natural, and very floriferous. The close planting also helps to keep the weeds down.
My garden is now always interesting because it is always changing — from day to day, month to month, and season to season, from spring to fall. When some flowers have ended their blooming time, others are beginning theirs.
To do this — to have things always in bloom — I visited plant nurseries many times during the growing season, because what they have in stock tends to change depending on the time of year. If one is careful to obtain plants that have different blooming times and to mix them together, the end result is just what I wanted — a garden with something always in bloom.
I soon discovered that my little garden had another result. People passing by would stop to tell me how much they enjoyed my garden. And not only people. A space that was formerly bleak and bare of life became filled with bumblebees and honeybees, ladybugs and other kinds of insects. And hummingbirds became daily visitors as well. I just watched one making his rounds of my plants this morning — and a lady passing by in a car stopped and shouted, “Your garden is amazing!”
Well, I am sure to some people who like strict order and things in rigid rows it is not amazing, because it has a “wild” look to it — and that I quite enjoy. It is the “wildflower meadow” side of it. I like to mix in simple and wild flowers like California poppies and Bachelor’s Buttons with more elaborate plants such as bearded iris and lilies. Each adds its own color and form and texture.
At the very end of the season, when the frost has come and plants have withered, I cut the dead stalks in pieces that I let fall in the garden, to decay and provide much-needed organic matter to gradually improve the terrible soil. And I try not to to overwater, so that plants will send their roots deep and make use of what moisture they can find. Water in this city is expensive, not free for the taking as it was when I was a boy living on country land with a spring bubbling out of the ground.
So that is my simple gardening method. I enjoy the comments of people passing by, and the opportunity to meet and chat with them, and it is gratifying to watch the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds. Sitting on my little porch with a book in my hands, I can look up at my little garden from time to time and feel a part of Nature again, even living in a city.
Having such a garden and observing its continual changes is like having a natural clock that tells the time of season by the comings and goings of different kinds of blossoms. It reminds me by its transformations that all things are transient, so we humans must appreciate and enjoy them while they are here — whether flowers or people.
There was frost on the rooftops this morning, which is typical here for early spring, when the air is pulled back and forth between the lingering cold of winter and the increasing warmth of progressing spring. It is time to begin planting seeds indoors, to later move into the garden when the arc of the sun is higher in the sky and the earth becomes warm enough for the young seedlings.
Today I planted some Russian hollyhock seeds (Alcea rugosa/Alcea taurica/Alcea novopokroskiy). They are said to be from the Crimean and Caucasus regions, and they do quite well in my area (zone 8b, which has an average extreme winter temperature of 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit/9.4-6.7 Centigrade). I grew them years ago, but lost them when I moved from a place with a garden space to one without — and I really felt the change. Now that I am happily gardening again, I want them back.
Russian hollyhocks do not grow as tall as some hollyhocks and hybrids, usually between about three to five feet. The flowers are a cheery light yellow, and also — unlike the hollyhocks one commonly finds in plant nurseries (Alcea rosea)– they are perennial, coming back faithfully each year.
And — this is very important — Russian hollyhocks are free of the fungal “rust” disease (Phragmidium) that plagues the Alcea rosea hollyhocks — those with which most people are familiar.
For those wanting hollyhocks that are free of rust but offer more in color variety than Russian hollyhocks, there is fortunately another kind that is easy to grow and has a bright range of colors — the Fig-leaved/Figleaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), said to have originated in Siberia. Its leaves are shaped rather like those of a fig, with toothed edges instead of the more rounded leaves of Alcea rosea. And — oh joy! — it is rust-resistant. Sometimes called the “Antwerp” hollyhock, you may find seeds of it also under the name “Happy Lights.”
Hollyhocks are one of the old traditional garden flowers, and their blooming spires offer a strong and welcome height variation in gardens afflicted with that “flat” look — with all plants on the same level.
And speaking of the “flat” look, you have perhaps noticed — as I have — that taller perennials seem to be disappearing from the selections of plants in many nurseries. The reason, of course, is that it is easier for growers to pack more plants into less space if they are quite short. And so increasingly it is becoming harder and harder to find varieties of plants that are not “dwarf” varieties. This benefits the commercial growers, not the home garden. And you may also have noticed a decline in the range of flower seeds offered in nurseries and plant shops. Some things that were once quite common have now become a challenge to find. Following the pattern of modern society, there seems to be an effort to limit and standardize the variety of seeds available. And perhaps you have also noticed that seeds are much more expensive than they were just a few years ago.
The rising cost of seeds and the difficulty of finding some kinds of flowers in seed form is a good reason for saving the seeds from your own garden each year, rather than assuming you will be able to replace them from garden shops the next growing season. You may be disappointed.
But back to hollyhocks. If you like the “old-fashioned” look to a garden, there is nothing that achieves it quite as well as adding a few hollyhocks. Now you know that you can grow them without fearing rust, if you select the right kinds, and it is easy to save the seed of your favorites (and hollyhocks produce prolific seeds at the end of their growing season).
This year I am also planting a kind new to me — the Turkish hollyhock (Alcea pallida). It grows from Greece and Turkey into the Balkans. From the photos, it appears to be a very pale rose color, with a more “wild” look to it. I don’t have great expectations of it, but one never knows until a plant flowers in one’s own garden.
Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:
I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED
I hoed and trenched and weeded, And took the flowers to fair: I brought them home unheeded; The hue was not the wear.
The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil). The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell. An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments. But his efforts to sell his flowers failed. People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear. So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.
So up and down I sow them For lads like me to find, When I shall lie below them, A dead man out of mind.
Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside. Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.
Some seed the birds devour, And some the season mars, But here and there will flower The solitary stars,
Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds. And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season. But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”
And fields will yearly bear them As light-leaved spring comes on, And luckless lads will wear them When I am dead and gone.
Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears. And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat, when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.
Now we can understand this poem on two levels. First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.
The second level is that of the writer himself. He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him. They just don’t “get” what he creates. Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.
As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad. And Housman was right. Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.
Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible. He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas. It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.