As I start the planting plan for my new Chinese-themed garden at our home, I have been using the Missouri Botanical Garden Flora of China, free and online at efloras.org. This technical compendium is a handy resource for identifying plants that I have seen in gardens and might want to use here. The Flora of China project, co-edited by my husband and spanning 25 years of international cooperation, is almost complete, and has given me the chance to know and love the gardens and plants of this amazing country.
The Chinese do not garden in the same way we do, with our colorful, deep English-flowering herbaceous borders. Most traditional Chinese gardens are stone-based, with form and line more important than color, and predominantly green plants taking second place to the stones. But there are several groups of perennials that rose to splendor in China and occupy special places in its culture, art and history. Most regal of these are the peony and chrysanthemum, both known in a rainbow of color and form. The Shanghai Art Museum has an excellent collection of ancient ink-brushed scrolls illustrating the grace and elegance of these two stunning flowers. Also traditional in art and design are the true lilies, daylilies and irises. The native, wild species of these genera in China have been used through the years as source material for the garden strains derived from them. We rarely see these plants grown in China outside of the collections held in botanical gardens, but their descendants are very popular in our own gardens.
China is home to 11 of the 15 species of daylilies known worldwide, with four of them found only in China. Most species of daylilies are unscented day-bloomers, opening in the morning and closing at dusk. Three of the Chinese species (Hemerocallis citrina, H.minor and H.lilioasphodelus) wait until almost evening to bloom and offer subtly fragrant flowers that are visited by moths.
Today, mass plantings of daylily cultivars are often grown in medians and cloverleaf spaces of the highway system in China, but most homegrown daylilies are maintained for food production and not their ornamental value. Daylily roots are edible, but they are not one of my favorites— they are bland and watery! The best part of the daylily to eat is the flower. Unopened buds may be added to a stir-fry dish or dried, spent blossoms added to thicken hot-and-sour soup. These might take a little getting used to as they can become mucilaginous, something like okra, and not a texture that many American palates crave.
Waterways and lakes in Chinese gardens are traditionally lined with thick clumps of iris. These beautiful plants are often illustrated in Chinese (and Japanese) painting and pottery. Some 58 species of Iris (out of 225 worldwide) are found in China, and 21 of them occur nowhere else. The fringed iris, I. japonica, is widely cultivated. All parts of iris plants, wild and cultivated, are poisonous. Perhaps that is why deer leave them alone!
In my own garden, we grow mostly dwarf or miniature irises. They hold well to the slope and withstand the strong winds that our hilltop site occasionally experiences. The irises came early this year and will be long past by the time you read this, but it is a great time to establish new plantings in your own garden.
The peony genus is complex, but a contemporary treatment of the wild Chinese species is presented in the Flora of China. More than a dozen peony species are found in China and include both herbaceous types that die to the ground and woody-stemmed tree peonies with upright habit and huge crepe-paper flowers. Peonies to purchase may run on the expensive side, but they are durable and hardy, and for their elegance, totally worth it. The herbaceous one may also be lifted and divided to spread or share among friends, or they may be left happily alone, undisturbed, in the same spot for 50 years. The only problem with peonies is that the flowering season is too short!
One of my favorite Chinese perennials that grows well in St. Louis is the toad lily, Tricyrtis. Many lovely specimens may be seen in the Kemper Center for Home Gardening and by the English Woodland Garden path. A newly discovered species from Taiwan has been named T. ravenii in honor of my husband’s work there and in mainland China. Unfortunately for me, this one—with its beautiful speckled purple and blue flowers—is more tropical and will not likely overwinter in our gardens. I am going to give it a try anyway, just for fun.
Upcoming Shows and Sales
Daylilies are great, easy-to-grow, sun-loving perennials. The West County Daylily Club Sale will be held in the Beaumont Room at the Missouri Botanical Garden. New cultivars, as well as many old favorites from the area’s top growers, will be for sale. Members of the Club will be there to give advice on daylily culture and share information about their organization. April 28, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., westcountydaylilyclub.com.
The very next day, in the same room, the annual Greater St. Louis Iris Society Show will be held. With a wide range of old and new cultivars on display, local growers and hobbyists will be available with information on buying and growing irises for your home garden. April 29, noon to 5 p.m., stlouisirises.com.
This 10th annual plant sale at the Garden is sponsored by the St. Louis Herb Society and the Garden Gate Shop. Special features this year include herbs for Chinese cuisine, along with other Asian favorites. The sale has become quite large, with more than 13,000 plants in some 100 varieties available for purchase. April 26, noon to 5 p.m. and April 27-28, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., stlouisherbsociety.com.
Wonderful Wild Things
Put on your walking shoes and line the back of the car with a canvas for Shaw Nature Reserve’s Spring Wildflower Sale. I have yet to visit this annual wildflower bonanza without filling my trunk with flats of native plants. You also will find the best experts on hand to help you select appropriate species for your specific garden sites. This sale offers the largest selection of native plants anywhere in the metro St. Louis region. Hundreds of showy and hardy sun- and shade-loving plants will be available. May 12, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., shawnature.org/nativeland/plantsale.aspx.
Patricia Raven, Ph.D., has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.