Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Window Shopping for the Home Garden

For the past two days, I've spent part of my lunch hour in the grassy alleys between the greenhouses of the University of Illinois Plant Sciences Laboratory in search of plants to photograph. The flowering trees and shrubs around campus have given way to blankets of green foliage, so it has been more of a challenge to find truly photogenic subjects. Two friends and fellow photographers clued me into the alleys between the greenhouses, where perennials are grown for use in horticultural science classes.

Not only did I find plenty of beautiful flowers and foliage to photograph, but I discovered three impressive  plants that I had never seen nor heard of before.

Allium christophii (Star of Persia) was planted in two of the raised beds between the greenhouses. This 12-24" flowering onion holds 4-5 inch flower clusters above basal foliage. Each five-petaled purple/lavender star flower appears to be shooting out from the upright stem. This Allium provides a strong architectural element and I can imagine the dried flower heads having aesthetic value as well. This is my first year growing an Allium of any sort in my home garden, so I'm not sure of their bulb longevity, but Allium christophii is hardy in Zones 3-8.

Geum triflorum (Prairie Smoke) is one of the more unique perennial flowers I've ever come across. The small (1/2-1"), bulbous, red flower buds are held on nodding stems about 12-18" above basal, ferny foliage. But the real show comes during seed formation, when the styles grow into the feathery wisps from which the common names "Prairie Smoke" or "Old Man's Whiskers" are derived. According to the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Geum triflorum prefers a dry, sunny location and is hardy in Zones 3-7.

Dictamnus albus 'Purpureus' (Giant Gas Plant) is the last of the three plants in the greenhouse alleys that particularly caught my eye. On looks alone, I knew I'd be adding this plant to my home garden. The strong, upright flower racemes resemble a pink delphinium, although the individual flowers themselves remind me of certain varieties of perennial geranium. Even with strong gusts of wind today, the woody stems stood firmly upright. I will admit to being intrigued by the common name of Giant Gas Plant, for there was nothing outwardly suggestive of this name in its appearance. Evidently, a strong, flammable oil vapor is produced on hot summer evenings by the spent flowers and seed pods. This vapor, if the night is still enough, can actually be ignited with a match.

While most of my lunchtime photo walks around campus focus on capturing the botanical beauty of campus, but every so often a trip turns into window shopping for my home garden. In the greenhouse alleys of the Plant Sciences Laboratory, I was most certainly a kid in a candy store. I'm unsure if any of these plants is available at local nurseries, but I'll be on the lookout for them with the hopes that they'll be a part of my spring garden in 2011.

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