Field Notes 19

Northeast BY ELLEN HORNIG / Oswego, New York. Zone 5

Pineapple (Lily) Surprise

LIVING IN THE HEART of the snow belt, with average annual snowfall around 10 feet and snow cover from November through mid-March, gives a gardener certain advantages. In addition to having bragging rights (who could be more miserable than we are?), we can indulge in “zonal denial,” to use a phrase coined by Portland, Oregon, plantsman Sean Hogan. Fourteen years of gardening here have convinced me that our USDA Zone 5a climate (lows of -15 to -20°F) is usually, under the snow, an easy Zone 6 or better for herbaceous plants. And if the snow cover fails… well, a dead plant just leaves space for something new.

Among my favorite zone-challenged bulbs are the high-altitude species of Eucomis, popularly known as pineapple lilies. Native at around 8,000 feet in the Drakens berg region of South Africa, these plants endure a fair amount of wet cold in the wild, and have the useful adaptation of emerging very late in the season, avoiding frost damage to new foliage. Their late emergence is balanced by late-summer or early-fall bloom, and foliage and seed heads that persist until the first killing frost. Although conventionally rated hardy to Zone 7, they’ve done well here for years. Even this past winter—the fourteenth coldest since 1922 and ninth snowiest since 1902 (using statistics from nearby Syracuse)—left them unscathed.

I currently grow three species in the garden: Eucomis bicolor, E. autumnalis, and E. montana; and am about to try some recently acquired and rare E. vandermerwei, which I know to be hardy in North Carolina. Two other virtually unobtainable alpine species, E. humilis and E. schijffii, have thus far eluded my grasp, but hope springs eternal.

Undoubtedly the most striking of the available eucomis is E. bicolor, with its large, leafcrowned inflorescences of purple-edged limegreen flowers, followed by fleshy, triangular, purple-spotted green seed pods. Plant pigmentation varies, and in the showiest specimens, both the substantial leaves and the flower stems are generously spotted with purple. A white-flowered selection, E. bicolor ‘Alba’, is also offered. This species looks marvelous in large groupings, but you’ll want to underplant it to fill the bare spaces that will be evident before it emerges in early summer. Try drifts of spring ephemerals, such as Corydalis solida, or our native Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); these will emerge, bloom, and retreat into dormancy before the eucomis leaves finish emerging.

Another handsome and vigorous grower is E. autumnalis, with semierect, sometimes ruffle-edged leaves, and typically pale green flowers on 20-inch stalks, topped with conspicuous leafy bracts. Quite a range of forms exist in the wild: a batch of seedlings I grew contained a couple of stunning purple-leaved, dusky-pink-flowered plants, Fortunately, this species is fairly easy to propagate from leaf cuttings, so particularly attractive individuals can be reproduced.

Each of these species will thrive in sun and moist but free-draining soil, multiplying by means of offsets after they reach maturity. If you have the poor luck to live in the North and outside the snow belt, eucotnis make fine pot plants; just keep them dry and cool (but above freezing) during dormancy. Or perhaps, with careful siting and a bit of luck, you too will be able to grow these oddly charming South Africans in your northern garden. H

Worth growing

Spoonleaf yucca Yucca filamentosa var. concava

This form of Yucca filamentosa is a real standout in the fall garden. Its broad, spatulate, frosty blue-green leaves are held rigidly up and out (no flopping), and are generously edged with curly pale marginal filaments. In autumn, the leaves develop reddish tints. In its native coastal South Carolina haunts, it grows in partial shade; in northern gardens, it prefers sun and loamy, well-drained soil. Hardy to USDA Zone 5. Sources, page 76.

To do in the wild

  • September is the time to admire the wild asters and, with permission, collect some for your garden. In upstate New York, the New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) carpets thousands of acres of abandoned farmland. As asters are shallow-rooted, a quick, hard tug will usually yield a rooted division if you’ve forgotten to bring your shovel.

  • Gather wild nuts. The tastiest northem nut, reminiscent of pecan but with a wilder tang, comes from the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). These fall in their tidy, usually four-part husks, from which they are easily freed when ripe. Much messier is the black walnut (Juglans nigra), whose husks need to be bashed and manually removed, and the resulting nuts rinsed of their potent indelible juices. Both nuts need to be dried in the shell for a few months before eating.

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