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Shooting Stars on the Ground - The Genus Dodecatheon

by Len Lehman


The Essential Shade Plants

by Martha Oliver


You thought it was Hosta and impatiens, didn't you? In your shaded woodland garden, that's as far as many gardeners care to go. It does give you nice color in the summer, and something to look forward too. But there's a whole lot more out there, and the shade garden can be the most easy care of all gardens. So many of our lovely native spring-blooming plants are for the shade garden! The whole group of Trillium, Tiarella, and Phlox will offer prime color in April and May, and the new hybrids in Tiarella bloom over a longer period of time. Starting with the good foliage color of T. ‘Spring Bronze’ and ending with the late blooms of T. ‘Pink Brushes,’ tiarellas will add a good six weeks of blooms in the woodland.

Don’t neglect the spring bloomers from east Asia, though, since with a similar climate these plants are excellent among the trees. Epimedium and Primula both bring all the spring colors (pink, white, yellow) to the woodland. Plant these in soils with good humus content and mulch with leaf mold or rotted chips. Primula sieboldii is a good companion for epimedium, since both can thrive where summers are dry without extra water.

For interest through the summer, ferns are spectacular and the native gingers are wonderful companions. Choose Dryopteris intermedia or the splendid Polystichum acrostichoides for evergreen fronds, or use the East Asian Japanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum pictum (2004 Perennial Plant of the Year) and pair it with the silver and maroon foliage of the new Heuchera hybrids, such as H. ‘Silver Scrolls’, which will bloom with pink flowers in June and have lovely leaves all summer. The gingers to go for are the silvery-leaved types, both native and exotic, such as Asarum ‘Carolina Silver’ and A. ‘Velvet Queen,’ as well as the tiny A. ‘Eco Décor’ and A. ‘Greenbrier’ which are suitable for the rock garden too.

The fall shade garden is more difficult to populate with natives as most of the fall blooming essentials are from east Asia. Perhaps their fall weather is more conducive to blooming and setting seed? Tricyrtis, the toad lily, fills the autumn garden with the curious passiflora-type flowers in white and speckled purple. Hostas come into bloom now, as well as Cyclamens, those adorable pink and white shooting star type flowers. C. hederifolium blooms in the late fall, followed by the durable C. coum for winter. C. purpurascens can carry the summer months. The foliage is spectacular. One lovely October combo I admired very much this year was Hosta ‘Red October,’ Tricyrtis ‘Miyazake’ and Heuchera ‘Royal Velvet’ with shades of lavender flowers and leaves. I always look forward to the blooming of the Sternbergia lutea, the bright yellow crocus which are mentioned in the Bible as the “Lilies of the Field.” Once planted in a shady spot, they increase and multiply and return every year with larger clumps of the flowers. They usually bloom heavily in October. But of course my very favorite shade plants are the Heucheras which have come out of the breeding program here at the Primrose Path. These plants offer evergreen foliage, large flowers and a drought-tolerant habit which makes them easier to care for than many other perennials. They do need well-drained soils, so add plenty of sand or gravel to keep them from getting wet feet.

The early hybrids, such as H. ‘Quilters’ Joy’ and H. ‘Regina’ have smaller flowers, but excellent foliage; later hybrids have been selected for larger flowers, shorter scapes and a more graceful habit, and still retain the good leaves. A new form, H. ‘Purple Mountain Majesty’ had deep purple leaves and large white flowers; H. ‘Midnight Burgundy’ has the deepest purple leaves with pink flowers. These plants combine well with all the native and exotic perennials and are a year-round presence in the shade garden. Of course, you must rake the leaves off them (unless the wind blows them away) but other than that they are easy to care for and use in the garden.



by Len Lehman



    The genus IRIS was named for the Greek goddess largely because of the large showy flowers that come in all colors of the rainbow except true black and some even approach that. Most gardeners are familiar with Iris but most are familiar only with the tall German bearded, Siberians, Japanese and some of the bulbous iris. I wish to address a section of iris that include some of the most spectacular and yet some of the most useful rock garden iris that are sadly neglected. These are the Oncocyclus and Regelia iris - iris that are largely desert dwelling in nature and having a somewhat dubious reputation of being difficult to grow. Yet the very conditions that they exist under in the desert are those that make them so adaptable to rock garden conditions, particularly scree and tufa gardens. Certainly their spectacular bloom deems that one should at least try a few of the more common species and hybrids.     Oncocylus iris are so named because the enormous flowers (sometimes up to 8" in diameter) are somewhat rounded and the standards often form a globe. These are true desert iris requiring summer baking and cold dry winters. Regelia iris, often called hexopogon iris, are elongated globes or flat open flowers. Both these groups have been crossed with tall bearded varieties to produce what are called Aril bred or oncobred iris. This name refers to a creamy white appendage found on the seeds of both groups called an aril. This structure, rich in oils and protein aid in seed distribution since ants carry the seed back to their burrows and eat the aril - then tossing the remaining seed structure out with the garbage which often contains rich humus, and other organic material necessary for proper seed development. It is these aril breeds that offer the greatest possibility for rock gardeners.  

Some of the species and cultivars that rock gardeners should try are as follows:   Iris iberica subs. elegantissima is, as its name implies, one of the most elegant of this forms. Widely distributed in the Mideast, it is most successfully grown in sand beds. Growing about five inches tall, the flowers cap off in white and purple or purple. In addition, as with all oncocylclus iris, there is a dark spot or circle on the falls in the area of the beard. Some believe that this is the most beautiful of all iris.
    A completely different looking iris is Iris paradoxa - growing slightly larger at 15", this iris is white with blue veining and blue black falls with darker spot. A similar one in ducky maroon with smaller falls is Iris susiana. These two can be grown under similar conditions to those required by I.iberica.

    Now, on to the regalia iris.  These have more of a bulbous rhizome than the oncocyluc and can be grown on more normal conditions that rock gardens contain. One of the most readily available is Iris bucharica - often called the cornstalk iris since it produces a cornstalk like stem upon which several yellow-white or yellow flowers are produced. Some say that this species is too tall for pure rock gardens, but its natural habitat is rocky hillsides in Turkey through Tibet. Another iris that is just recently becoming available in bulb company offering is Iris cyanoglossa - which looks ever so much as a small version of a Bella Abzug hat. It is fortunate that the Dutch have been successful in propagating this delicate and beautiful species because its natural habitat was around Herzat, Afghanistan where the site of some of the most ferocious and desperate battles of the Afghan War took place. Some naturalists now believe that it may well be extinct in the wild as a result of this and it will be years before botanists can fully do an inventory to see if it still exists. A third somewhat easily obtainable regelia is Iris winogradowii. This true regelia dwarf is much more common in cultivation in England where it is prized and generally grown in bulb frames under pot culture.
    Now on to the Aril bred hybrids that contain remarkable forms and colors not normally found in the species. Also, since these have Tall German Bearded Iris in their heritage, they are more adaptable to a wide range of conditions. Still they need hot baking summers and dry winters or snow cover to survive. I know of one individual in Massachusetts who grows these plants in a bed of pure red-dog slag. They also need a good fertilizing in April and May when new growth occurs. Some of the newer hybrids that are readily obtainable are:

    "Omar's Gold" - a yellow standard, purple falls form with a black spot. Growing about 18", this one has been rock hardy in my garden.

    "Sheba's Jewel" - a pale pink-white with black spot. This is a new one for me and I have yet to see how successful it is under our Pennsylvania condition.

    "Pasha's Whiskers" - a dark purple - again a new one which has yet to prove its hardiness.

    "Lemon Lime" - a white standard/ yellow falled form with black spot. Outstanding.

    "Big Black Bumble Bee" - the name says it all.

    Mankind, it is said, needs to have explanations for everything. This is, in part, a desire to bring order out of confusion and to help to bring harmony. Take for example mythological and religious explanations that developed to explain rainbows before scientific findings that raindrops acted like prisms thereby creating the marvelous bow of color. In Norse mythology, a rather dark and pessimistic mythology, the rainbow is the rainbow bridge that connects earth to Valhalla and by which Norse gods regularly rode to visit earth and return. The rainbow was formed from the goddess Helga's tears shed on the death of the god Baldor due to a trick by the semi-evil god Loki.  In this dark mythology, the rainbow bridge is shattered when Valhalla burns in Goterdamerung - the end of time. In Greek/Roman mythology the rainbow was an actual person in the form of Iris - the daughter of the minor sea god, Thaumos and Electra, the goddess of dawn.  She was a messenger of the gods helping to bring dreams and messages to humans from the gods. Of coarse, in Christianity, the rainbow is the symbol of God's promise to never again destroy the earth by flood. So what has this to do with plants?  " Ester the Queen" - one of the oldest aril breeds - it is uniquely greenish and black with black spot."   "Ninevah" - again an old timer - russet and maroon    Oncocylcus and Regelia iris and their aril bred kin certainly require more care than most plants but the reward in bloom is spectacular - well worth the effort. The jewels of the desert are truly gems of the rock garden. Sources: Seed of many of these are found in rock garden society seed lists particularly the British and Scottish groups. The Airl Society International is well worth membership in that it has an annual auction/sale of species and hybrids at remarkable bargains. Aril Society International, 10913 N. Sunshine Drive, Littleton, CO 80125

Adamgrove iris and Daylilies 31642 Wieneke Branch Rd., California, MO 65018 offers many aril breeds including Omar’s Gold and Omar's Tent.Van Bourgundian, Inc., Babylon NY, often carries Ester the Queen, Ninevah and Iris susiana.

McClure and Zimmerman, Randolf, WI, has carried Iris cyanoglossa in their
fall catalog as does John Scheepers Inc, Bantam CT

References:  Stebbings, Geoff. THE GARDENER'S GUIDE TO GROWING IRISES.

Timber Press. Portland, Or. 2001 (Paperback Edition). Probably the best guide for culture of Arils and Aril breeds of a general type - easy to follow and easy to do. Also lists good species and varieties for the beginner.



I am always interested in names of plants and why they are given such monikers. Generally, if you want to know the name and the reason for the name, you have to go back to Linneaus and the binomial nomenclature system that he established. Linneaus was a Swedish doctor who is considered the father of  taxonomy of organisms, particularly plants. He must have been a randy old man for he scandalized Swedish society when he published his binomial taxonomic lists. Plants were classified on the basis of flower structure and he often put in such statements as "stamen (man) in bed with 5 pistils (women)" referring to an arrangement of one stamen surrounded by pistils. He also was touchy naming beautiful flowers for his friends (Dahlia, Fuchia) and noxious weeds for his enemies. But most often, he simply named the plants in Latin after some characteristic of the plant.

Such is the case with Fritillaria, the Latin word for dicebox, a reference to the checkerboard markings found on many species and specifically Fritillaria meleagris, the common Checkerboard Lily or Guinea Hen Flower which is native to England and was probably the type species for the genera and which Linneaus named. Fritillaries are a large group of bulbs of about 172 species and ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  Mostly they are found in rather dry areas and the Grecian Isles harbor many unique species, some often restricted to on small isle.  Others are far ranging such as the so called Black Lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) which is found in Japan, Manchuria, Kamchatka Pennisula and across the Bering Straits in Alaska. Some people consider this to be the blackest of all flowers. The color range is almost entire and you can find fritillaries of white, yellow, red, green, brown, purple, pink. Perhaps the only color not present is blue. They also range in size from giants, the familiar Crown Imperial - Fritillaria imperialis - to dainty dwarfs suitable for rock gardens such as Fritllaria pudica. Despite their obvious charm of flowers, Fritillaria have the bad reputation of "here today - gone tomorrow". Even Reginald Farrer gave them bad and short shrift. In her book Adventure With Hardy Bulbs, Louise Beebe Wilder reports that Farrer, in his classic book The English Rock Garden say that "Many of the race are very miffy or mimpish or both, and the family all around has a bad character”. Despite the bad press, certain frits are and have always been staples of a spring garden and deserve better attention by rock gardeners.

Here are some which I have tried following new thinking and new advice from such notables as Martin Rix and Brian Mathews. Obviously, Fritillaria meleagtis tops my list as being reliable, hardy and, if given some summer drying, prolific. This dainty English native has been one of the oldest cultivated flowers in British culture and now has several selected forms and color changes. I particularly like the alba (white) form. These I plant in an elevated bed with mixed ash, gravel and soil under a Birch Tree. Some authorities recommend this as the tree roots tend to soak up moisture in summer giving them the dryness they so desire. The checkerboard flowers appear in late spring at the same time as Trout Lilies and late Daffodils. One species that has enjoyed a remarkable success after being offered in the late 1970's is Fritllaria michailovski, a nodding bell of purple red with a distinctive yellow edge. Growing about 4 to 6 inches tall. This requires similar conditions to the guinea hen flower and can be readily obtained, even at most garden centers and even such places as KMart and Home Depot.

Similar to Fritllaria michailovski but growing taller and with a green edge, and a more brown color is Fritillaria uva-vulpis. I have not personally grown this yet but notice that it is available from many bulb specialists. It too is listed as having the same cultural requirements as Fritllaria michailovski. Probably one of the best yellows is Fritillaria pudica, often called Johnny Jump Ups. This West Coast native can be grown in pots or in gritty or sandy soils. Drying out in summer is crucial to the survival of this form. Many selected forms with larger flowers or different shades of yellow are available and some have even made it to must grow lists that frequently appear in horticulture magazines.

One final one to consider is the already mentioned Black Lily, Fritillaria camschatcensis. This species can be grown with more water than others and is typically found in moist meadows, tundra muskegs and other similar grassy habitats. Most frits are best planted in the fall of the year since their life cycle dictates that in fall they begin to set new roots and prepare for new growth in the spring. Frits are a real delight and should be grown by all good gardeners. Try some because, despite their bad press and stinking flowers, they have an elegance all of their own and truthfully fill a nook in the garden not offered by other plants. Fritillaries Garden Gate magazine in Issue # 47, Oct. 2002 on Page 8-13 list several common species and gives nice lists of good companion plants.  The Gardeners Guide to Growing Fritillaries by Kevin Pratt and Michael Jefferson Brown published by Timber Press in 1997 is probably the most readable and complete book on fritillarias.  Growing Bulbs by Martin Rix published by Timber Press in 1983 is a detailed account of growing all bulb species and lists bulbs by geographic region and by climate needs.  The Smaller Bulbs by Brian Mathew published in 1987 by Ancho Brendon, Ltd. London is the best reference for small bulbs.  Adventures with Hardy Bulbs by Louise Beebe Wilder published by Collier Books in 1936 is an American Classic, detailed and pulls no punches, is excellent reading for both background and culture. • Some sources, and by no means complete:

1.  John Scheepeers Inc., 23 Tulip Drive, PO Box 638, Bantam, CT 06750,
lists 4 species.

2.  Van Engelen Inc., same as Scheepeers and wholesale lists 12 species and forms.

3.  McClure and Zimmerman, PO Box 368, Friesland, WI 53935-0638, lists 18 species and forms and a source for camschatcensis.

4.  Dutch Gardens, 144 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT  05401, lists 4 species.

5.  Brent and Becky's Bulbs, Gloucester, VA, lists 14 species and forms.


Shooting Stars on the Ground - The Genus Dodecatheon

    In my college days, largely as a result of a recommendation from my college advisor to get experience that would look good on a resume, I served
as a nature counselor at a camp for underprivileged children.  My responsibilities were largely to take students on nature hikes and be responsible for nature activities at the camp.  One of my fondest jobs was to teach students astronomy at evening campfires and overnighters using tents.  Campers, many of whom were from downtown areas and, because of lights, could rarely see the stars around their homes, were awed at the brilliance and makeup of a dark summer sky with the vivid Milky Way.  The stories of how each of the constellations got their names also helped keep their attention and wonder. 

However, one of the best parts was to have a campfire and story session in early to late August when the Perseid Meteor Showers occurred.  In these shooting star events, as many as 10 meteors per minute can be seen and this lights the heavens as no one can adequately describe.  To see the arching lights as meteors enter our atmosphere and burn up is rather wondrous and awe inspiring.  I still try to see this annual event when possible but more and more light pollution in city areas makes this more difficult every year and the only way to fully enjoy them is to be off in the outback where few street lights, housing developments and malls destroy the effect of a starry sky. However, one may, in a sense, enjoy a more ground like meteor shower by growing members of the genus Dodecatheon.  These members of the Primrose family are 100% red, white and blue Americans found only in the North American continent.  The name derives from a name given by Pliny the Elder to a plant (probably a primrose) that was supposedly under the protection of the 12 Greek/Roman gods.  Hence the Dodecatheon, from the Greek dodekas - 12 and theos - god. It is said that the name was given in reference to the arrangement of the stamens around the pistil. 

These ephemeral spring plants look like shooting stars in that the petals and sepals recurve to reveal a pointed stigma and pistils - ever so like an arching falling star.  Most of these plants have leathery succulent leaves and tend to require the same general conditions as primroses.  Their one weakness seems to be that all tend to be short lived and must be periodically renewed. 

 George Schmid, in his marvelous tome, An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials, makes comment that they were much admired as a temporary wonder since they are a spring empheral.  He says that they are best adapted to meadows and grassy prairies and that they require a slightly alkaline soil between 6 and 7.5.  He also states emphatically that they should not be placed near evergreen trees as they do not tolerate high acidity.  He also gives warning that their loveliness is fleeting and do not provide lasting displays of foliage either.  Most of the species have flowers in rose, pink, lavender and carmine with few species having white forms. Some of the more commonly available species either from commercial growers or seed exchanges are: Dodecatheon media - our common Eastern shooting star typically found in most areas of oak wood and a rather easy one to start with. Dodecatheon jeffreyi - a taller species with much larger and robust leaves and crimson flowers.Dodecatheon pulchellum - supposedly the most desirable of the group and one with a selected named variety called “Red Wings”.  Ingwersen says that this is one of “exceptional beauty”.

Dodecatheon uniflorum - dubiously in cultivation but also said to be most desirable - a 2” pygmy with rose flowers.

I have only tried Dodecatheon media with mixed success.  Of 15 seeds that were in the envelope, 7 germinated.  William Cullima, propagation manager for the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, in his book on wildflower propagation, suggests that the seeds are moderately difficult to work with largely because the seedlings often go into summer dormancy shortly after germinating.  He suggests that light fertilizing and constant moisture can reduce this and, if you can get the plant to grow beyond going dormant that this produces a healthier plant.  He also suggests planting shooting stars beside large boulders so that when they go dormant, one can remember where they are and also for esthetic design.

Dodecatheons are a group of recently evolved plants, probably developing from species of primroses in the Parryi section during the last glacial period. Their graceful flowers make it no wonder that the National Rock Garden Society chose it to represent an alpine plant on their insignia.  The shape of the flowers and the fleeting growth are every so like the meteors and shooting
stars of a meteor shower.


Ingwesen, Will.  A manual of Alpine Plants.  1978.  Dunnsprint, Ltd. Edinburgh, Scotland.

Schmid, George.  An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials.  2002.  Timber Press. Portland, Oregon.


Collectors Nursery, 16804 NE 102nd St., Battle Ground, WA 98604 - offers 4 species including white form of D. media.

Roslyn Nursery, 211 Burrs Lane, Dix Hills, NY  11746 - offers D. Media.
Van Bourgundian, Babylon, NY - irregularly offers D. pulchellum “Red Wings”.