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Chasing Spring in Pennsylvania

The sensation of chasing spring in Pennsylvania in the US is further intensified by the fact that the spring season there is much shorter than in the UK - blink and you might have missed it. Plus seeing the plants of my native country is great but it’s like old comforts, flora of another country on the other hand especially their wild ones was a heady rush of exoticism fuelled by the fact that this might be one of the few chances I get to see them in this way. I was fortunate to have experienced a mild winter in my time there in 2018, but even then it felt like a never ending bleak dark grey and brown broken up only at times by heavy snow and a new appreciation of evergreens and conifers.

A cathedral of trees at Mt Cuba Center
Cathedral of trees at Mt. Cuba Center.

The deciduous woodlands are extraordinary there, dominated by tall tulip trees Liriondendron tulipfera, Acer and beech - Fagus grandiflora, but also a great variety of oaks, white ash and hickory species. Andrew Wyatt - a famous artist of that region depicts the bleakness of these scenes in his paintings, (although this is the case even in his paintings of warmer seasons). My American friend and amazing gardener Emma Senuik said to me that I had to experience one of these long, hard winters to really understand what it’s like when all of it was over; that sounded like the least tempting thing I wanted to do, but when spring finally broke I understood why, the testing of endurance, the profound relief of that deep thaw, it was worth it just for that sheer moment of contrast. The green that finally appeared on the tops of trees allowed me to breath.

Azalea collection at Winterthur with a carpet of spring flowers underneath
Azalea collection at Winterthur with a carpet of spring flowers underneath.

So the chase roughly started with Winterthur garden, where some of the best colonisation of plants I have ever seen occurs - they have a good 100 years of undisturbed settlement. Blue carpets of Scilla siberica and Chionodoxa luciliae, the yellow ethereal dangling flowers of Corylopsis set against this backdrop and perhaps glimpses of Adonis amurensis ‘Fukujukai’ patches - another treasured rarity in this part of the world. Then dense carpets of Trillium, Mertensia virginiana (Virginia bluebells of the borage family these could be their equivalent of our own dear ones), Anemone apennina (Italian windflower not commercially available in the US), Phlox, Phacelia bipinnatifida, almost every spring flower imaginable covers the entire floor underneath the feet of the Azalea collection - which themselves are a colourful mass of awe. This as well as the prehistoric valley opposite the March Bank filled to the brim with the shuttlecock fern Matteuccia struthiopteris and their old quarry filled with the candelabra Primula x bulleesiana hybrids a cross of P. bullyana and P. beesiana.

The impressive Quarry Garden at Winterthur with Primula x bulleesiana hybrids.

A valley of Matteuccia struthiopteris at Winterthur
A valley of Matteuccia struthiopteris at Winterthur.

Then in the nature reserves like Cheslen Preserve or The Laurels - a preservation of wild and old cultivated landscape it was Erythronium americanum, succeeded by bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis, mayapple Podophyllum peltatum and Arisaema triphyllum Jack-in-the pulpit. The mid layer of woods - the light yellows of witch hazel Hamamelis vernalis and Lindera benzoin, the shock red of Aesculus parviflora and white/ pink Cornus florida flowering, followed by their wonderfully simple single petalled Rhododendrons, even the invasive Wisteria with their purple trails all over the trees are beautiful.

Cornus florida at The Laurels Preserve.

Erythronium americanum.

Sanguinaria canadensis
Sanguinaria canadensis at Cheslen Preserve.

Late April/ early May is around the best time to catch the peak of spring ephemerals and one of the can’t be missed gardens for this is Mt Cuba Center - a botanical delight of native plants of the Eastern US particularly the Piedmont region underneath its ‘cathedral of trees’.

Domestic gardens like Dr. John T. Lonsdale’s garden Edgewood really got me going too. British, he was a former microbiologist who came to the States with his family about 25 years ago. Prior to coming to the US he was already an active member of the Alpine Garden Society in the UK with a particular love for Cyclamen. John is very knowledgeable and a well respected plantsman and is one of these who blur the lines between the amateur and professional. ‘I do this as a hobby’ he is often heard to say and casually runs a small nursery from his garden too and runs everything with the same precision as I had imagined he would have done as a microbiologist. Coming to a new country he had to get use to a whole new climate and terrain, the plants he was so familiar with does not necessarily do well here, so in a sense he had to learn all over again what would work and not work in a whole new setting and context. But this seems to have become a part of John’s excitement to keep experimenting.

Edgewood - John Lonsdale's garden with Cercis canadensis and different cultivars.

John is no longer just an ‘amateur hobbyist’ he has cleverly found a way of extending and doing what he loves and being paid for it - he is the Research Specialist at Longwood Gardens and is responsible for the trialling of new plants and seeing what would make good breeders for certain desired characteristics. He has been gardening Edgewood since 1995, his driveway before the gates to his house is lined with hardy mainly species Peonies and Hellebores that he has given away by the hundreds because they have almost become a weed. The garden is not very big —1.5 acres and one of its distinctive features is that it consists mainly of an incredibly steep bank filled from top to bottom with rarities and gems - a mixture of natives and related brethen from around the world all carefully selected.

Prosartes masculatum
Prosartes masculatum, one of countless many unusual plants at John T. Londale's garden.

Even the plants that I knew, there were interesting variants and cultivars of that I had never seen before. Ranging from Anemonella, Podophyllum, Epidmedium, Saruma henryi, Claytonia caroliniana, a rare bright orange C. virginica (they are usually white with thin pink stripes or magenta), Prosartes masculatum, Trillium, Corydalis, Erythronium, another area where Pulsatilla specifically featured, the new construction of a bog garden and much much more. He grows every species of Cyclamen bar one - Cyclamen somalense (there are about 23 species), which is fair enough considering the latter’s hard to access locale in the high altitudes of Al Miskat mountains in Northeast Somalia and with only about three in cultivation in the world. He had wild collected a lot of the seeds and had grown them on himself. I felt like a layman in a connoisseur’s banquet of exquisite flavours.

Pulsatilla at John Lonsdale garden.

On the slope it was the first time that I got to appreciate looking up and under the legs of certains plants that I am usually use to looking down on as ground cover and having their flowers dangle down above me for a change or at eye level where I could see them better like Solomon’s Seal (the native one here is Polygonatum biflorum) and Uvallaria grandiflora. Of course all this grows quite differently here, they do not have the same slug problems as we do because the winters are too cold for them and it is not as wet, so Trillium and Hosta can grow happily unscathed. In England seeing the odd straggly pathetic American Trillium grown and half eaten. I had often wondered whether it was worth the seemingly loads of effort. But in their homeland environment they grow effortlessly. Even the trees grow differently pushing higher and taller quicker; I had always thought Cornus florida was not so hardy and that is why we don’t grow them in the UK, but turned out that it was quite the contrary, it was that we were missing the really hot heat that helps their wood ripen and fortify them against the really cold winters.

Phlox divericata at Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

The pièce de résistance of the spring climax for me was going to see wildflower preserve Shenk's Ferry. Every year gardeners and wildflower lovers make a pilgrimage to this site. Seeing these type of flowers in the garden is one thing, but seeing it colonise so well in the wild is phenomenal.

Trilliums literally fills banks and banks at Shenk's Ferry.
Some of the treats of the feast on display are Hepatica acutiloba, Aquilegia candensis, Mitella diphylla, Anemonella thalictroides, Trillium grandiflorum and T. flexipes, Dicentra cucullaria and D. canadensis, Saxifraga virginiensis, Viola bicolor/ Viola blanda (white ones), V. pubescens var. scabriuscula and V. eriocarpa (yellow ones), Phlox divericata, Hydrophyllum virginianum, Asarum canadense, and Packera aurea.

Seeing Aquilegia canadensis growing like this on rocks at Shenk's Ferry reminded me why it is important to see plants in the wild. Having only seen it in a garden context I did not imagine that they could grow like this and could well be in a rock garden as well as a border.


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