Orange Flowers Underrated

marigA widespread bias against orange prompts writers to resort to such euphemisms as flame, tangerine, and apricot. Yet there’s an inconsistency here. Marigolds are popular annuals, and marigolds serve up great gobs of orange. Sophisticates prefer Zinnia angustifolia, which is dainty of flower and leaf but still unabashedly orange. And which of us hasn’t admired butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in a green meadow, or California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) on a grassy hillside? It isn’t the color itself that offends but the way in which it is used.

Orange does need careful juxtaposing – thumbs down, from most of us, to orange with magenta. As a solitary blob among the pinks, crimsons, and lavenders that predominate in the gardener’s palette, orange is likely to strike a jarring note, but it intermingles pleasantly with a medley of colors of similar value or brilliance, especially if the flowers are of the same form – mixed zinnias, for instance, in bright pink, orange, scarlet, and yellow.

The complementary color of orange is blue, and the two combine in sometimes dazzling combinations: ‘Enchantment’ lilies, say, with sky-blue delphiniums. The blue gray or blue green of foliage is subtler. Try blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) with orange poppies or daylilies, or blue-leaved hostas with orange geums.

For orange to really lift the heart, put it with its analogous colors of scarlet and warm yellow, linked with chartreuse foliage. You might want to add “purple” foliage, or blue and violet flowers. A favorite combination of my own is in a partly shady corner enlivened in spring by a scarlet-flowered azalea rising over a carpet of golden creeping charlie (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) underplanted with an orange-flowered celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Cupreus’. Orange is a sunny color. Let it shine.

Lychnis xarkwrightii (USDA Zones 4-8; 12-18 in.) is a delectable summer concoction of bitter chocolate and tangerine to compete with such sunny yellows as Coreopsis ‘Sunray’ or to display against the light foxy brown of New Zealand sedge (Carex buchananii). ‘Vesuvius’ is the best form.

Cosmos colors can confuse. In the C. bipinnatus range, “red” means crimson; in C. sulphureus, “red” (as in ‘Sunny Orange-Red’, 12-15 in., shown here) means orange or scarlet. Sow seed under lights for an early start, then plant the seedlings out after the last frost. These tender annuals may self-sow in light or sandy soils.

In deep, sandy soil, butterfly weed (Agclepias tuberosa; Zones 3-9; 18-24 in.) is a perennial that defies drought. In autumn, gossamer seed parachutes from the torpedo-shaped pods that follow the orange flowers. The ‘Gay Butterflies’ strain yields an occasional scarlet or yellow form.

In frost-free regions, lion’s tail, or lion’s ear (Leonotis leonurus; Zones 9-10), grows five to six feet trill and bears its showy whorls of flowers from late summer into winter; elsewhere it may be grown as a three- to four-foot annual. Start the seeds indoors and set the young plants out, in full sun, after frost.

The large, nodding flowers of Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’ (Zones 7-8; 2 ft.) are among the showiest of the montbretias. Less hardy than the popular ‘Lucifer’ and more finicky about soil, which should be neither wet nor dry, it is well worth the effort to please.

mexiDrought-resistant Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is a half-hardy annual that thrives on heat, making it a good choice for desert gardens. The six-foot ordinary form of the species will need staking, but the four-foot selection ‘Torch’ might get by without it if the soil isn’t too rich.

Calendula officinalis (12-18 in.), a long-blooming cool-summer annual, got the name pot marigold from its use in flavoring soups. Petals sprinkled on rice pudding add an appetizing touch of color. Don’t confuse them with French and African marigolds (Tagetes spp.).

There is no sturdier lily than ‘Enchantment’ (an Asiatic type; Zones 4-8; 2-3 ft.), nor a brighter color. Where voles are a problem, surround it with gravel to discourage them, or grow it in sunken containers in sun or light shade. Sharp drainage is imperative for all lilies.

Dahlias with burgundy-colored foliage such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ have long been sought by connoisseurs. The compact ‘Ellen Houston’ (Zone 8/9; 2-2 1/4 ft.), with its glowing blend of purple foliage and orange flowers, is every bit as eye-catching. Lift and store the tubers for the winter in a cool, frost-free place.

Kniphofia uvaria (Zones 5-9) is a classic torch lily. Cylindrical “red hot poker” inflorescences tip stout three- to four-foot stems rising out of grassy leaves. The less common K. rooperi (Zones 6-9) is similar in height and color but has interestingly egg-shaped inflorescences. Both bloom in early fall.

Small, glossy, hollylike leaves, blood-orange-colored flowers in spring, and blue-black berries in fall add up to a covetable barberry, but the Chilean origin of Berberis darwinii (Zones 7-10; 5-10 ft.) sounds the warning, “for moderate climates only.”

Viola ‘Jolly Joker’ (5 in.) mocks those who think that orange and violet clash; in fact, it could be used to tie together these usually warring colors in a “hot” border. Give this cheerful annual good moisture-retentive soil, and deadhead it often to keep the flowers going. It will, alas, peter out in the summer heat.

Compact Geum ‘Borisii’ (Zones 4-8; 1 ft.) appreciates good soil and afternoon shade where summers are hot; dry soil brings the risk of spider mites. It is lovely with the blue-green leaves of Hosta ‘Halcyon’, exciting with the yellow ones of H. ‘Gold Standard’.

Blue Flowers Are The Best

EVERYBODY LOVES BLUE. Blue skies, blue eyes (at least in Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries), candor, innocence, all such connotations. Blue flowers are in such demand, are such certain sellers, that the nurserypeople have to stretch the meaning of the word to its snapping point. More than half the flowers described in seed lists and plant catalogs as blue are some shade of mauve or purple. Truly blue flowers are few.

Yet many gardeners insist on having a blue border. Gertrude Jekyll, writing at the turn of the century, was a wise old bird and is worth quoting on this (from Colour in the Flower Garden):

It is a curious thing that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word. For instance, a blue garden, for beauty’s sake, may be hungering for a group of white Lilies, or for something of palest lemon-yellow, but it is not allowed to have it because it is called the blue garden, and there must be no flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed. Surely the business of the blue garden is to be beautiful as well as to be blue. My own idea is that it should be beautiful first, and then just as blue as may be consistent with its best possible beauty. Moreover, any experienced colourist knows that the blues will be more telling–more purely blue–by the juxtaposition of rightly placed complementary colour.

delpieMore than any other color blue needs contrast near to it, to prevent its looking dull. Since blue flowers are comparatively few, most gardeners cheat by including mauves–lavender, especially–and campanula blue (which is never pure) in their blue border. Miss Jekyll always kept these colors separate, and she was right. They do not help each other, being close in color, yet not the genuine article.

Delphiniums are the most obviously blue flowers, though they include many other delightful shades and these should not be forgotten. The contrast of a deep, cobalt-blue delphinium (hardy to USDA Zone 3) with the corymbs of bright, mustard-yellow Achillea filipendulina is too crude, however. Rather, site a blue delphinium near the pale, greeny yellow scabious flowers of Cephalaria alpina, which grows nearly six feet tall. In large flower arrangements, an ideal contrast in color and form is achieved with spikes of blue delphiniums and double pink peonies, such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’.

If you find the traditional delphinium rather too stiff and self-assertive, remember the lower-growing belladonna types (Zone 3), which have no dominant main spike but whose branches are equally important. They are good blenders, for instance with pink sidalceas, or with the pale yellow fluffs of Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum, whose blue leaves are especially appropriate companions. The ‘Connecticut Yankees’ seed strain belongs to the belladonna group and you can pick your favorites from the mixture. Unfortunately, on my heavy soil slugs invariably defeat me. I should try harder.

Salvias include most colors and there are pure blues among them, though you have to give up some hardiness in the deal. I can just about get away with S. uliginosa (Zone 7; we keep some spares under glass). In late summer and fall, this six-foot plant has short, pale blue spikes. Where hardy, it makes a colony by suckering. It is a lovely thing that combines well with pink or pale yellow dahlias or with red dahlias, come to that. But do contrast it with something, else it is wasted.

The rich blue S. guaranitica ‘Blue Enigma’ (Zone 8; 5 ft.) is also excellent at the same season, and of proudly upright habit, with plenty of rich green foliage. I think it is exciting with orange Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’ (6 ft.), which is an annual akin to zinnias.

The gentian sage, S. patens (Zone 8; 18 in.), an old favorite, is pure, rich, deep blue, with ‘Cambridge Blue’ its pale counterpart. You can either overwinter their tubers in damp soil in a frost-free shed or raise them from seed to flower all in the same season. My only objection to this salvia is that each spike seldom has more than two blooms in flower at a time. The plant becomes a bit stringy as the season advances and benefits from being clipped over at midseason.

The borage family has many blue-flowered members, though a high proportion of these are adulterated with mauve, as you will discover when trying to photograph forget-me-nots (Myosotis spp.). The result is always muddy. But they are a springtime theme, and I have forget-me-nots colonized through all my mixed borders. Myosotis scorpioides (Zone 5) is another good species to take over. It flowers a month later than ordinary forget-me-not and each flower has a yellow eye. I remember seeing wonderful colonies in the late Helen Stoddard’s Massachusetts garden.

cynoThe bluest of all this borage group is the dazzling Cynoglossum amabile (r18 in.), which is grown from seed and can either be treated as an annual or, my preferred method, as an autumn-sown biennial to flower in May (but its hardiness can seldom be trusted). I like to grow the cynoglossum alongside Leymus arenarius, the blue lyme grass–a ferocious spreader, but so beautiful. (Many grasses–especially all those called glaucous, which means blue-harmonize with blue flowers.) We lift the grass every year, to restore order, but it takes an hour or so to trace and remove all its underground suckers.

Another borage relative that must not be omitted is the clump-forming Omphalodes cappadocica (Zone 6; 9 in.) in an intense blue cultivar such as ‘Cherry Ingram’, or the, alternately blue and white ‘Starry Eyes’. These flower for a long time in spring and, being tolerant of quite deep shade, I like to see them beneath red camellias, whose fallen blooms still retain their color and make a carpet around the blue.

Fancy getting this far without mention of gentians. In spring, Gentiana verna (Zone 5; 3 in.) is so incredibly intense and pure that you feel there must be a catch somewhere. There is. Unless we are devotees, few of us can keep it for longer than two or three years. The trumpet-flowered G. acaulis (Zone 5; 6 in.) is far easier and readily makes mats of foliage, but is shy in some gardens. I like it as a path edging with double red daisies (Bellis perennis) of the quilled, pomponette type.

In summer if the climate is not too hot, we are on much safer ground with the willow gentian, G. asclepiadea (Zone 5; 2 ft.), with a graceful, arching habit and a double rank of blue, tubular flowers. This likes woodland conditions and would look good with a glaucous-leaved hosta. It self-sows freely in some gardens but needs enlivening somehow, and I fancy that orange or red crocosmias, the small-flowered C. pottsii, for instance, might do the trick. You try it and let me know; I can’t fit in everything into my garden I should like to.

Preserve Fresh Cut Flowers Easily

Make summer flowers last. Our guide to easy drying methods.

The Basics

* When you dry flowers is key; cut garden blossoms at their color peak, in the midday sun. If you’re not preserving them immediately, place in a vase of cool water, in a dark location. Before drying, remove leaves.

* When sending florist or garden flowers to be freeze-dried, enjoy them for 2 to 3 days, then ship overnight. (You don’t want to dry tightly closed buds, or blooms past their prime.) Wrap stems in damp paper towels, put bouquet in a plastic bag, and mail in a well-cushioned box. (To reach Shanel’s Spring, in Campbell, CA, which preserved the bouquets for this story, call 408-378-8096.)

* Once they’re dried, keep arrangements out of sun, and avoid heat and extreme temperature changes. (Ultraviolet rays can fade blooms, and humidity makes them powdery.) To dust, use a blow-dryer on a low/cool setting.

Which Technique Works Best?

The  Chemistry Department tried out 4 popular drying procedures, testing each separately on a dozen red roses, an orchid corsage, and a mixed bouquet, which included larkspur, statice, baby’s breath, lemon leaves, and fern. Here, how-tos and results:

Air-drying involves a few steps. First, divide flowers into bunches. Remove leaves, and tie stems with twine, wire, or rubber bands. Hang bunches upside down in a warm, dry, dark area such as a closet, pantry, or attic.

Pros: It’s easy and free–who doesn’t have rubber bands?

Cons: The roses darkened a lot, and although they and the mixed bouquet dried within a week, the orchids took 24 days and were shriveled; their fresh yellow tint had faded to dreary brown.

Silica gel looks like white sand and is sold in garden centers. (We paid $9.25 for 1 1/2 pounds; it takes 3 pounds to dry 12 roses, but it can be reused.) Cover bottom of airtight container, such as a plastic sweater box, with a 1-inch layer of gel. Cut stems, put flowers on gel, and cover with more crystals. Tape lid.

Flowers are dry when petals feel papery. Check after 5 days, then every 2. Once they’re dry, carefully lift out blooms with a slotted spoon. If any crystals cling, remove with a blow-dryer set on low/cool, or a fine artist’s brush (brush gently).

Pros: This is the quickest method; samples dried in 5 to 7 days and were close to original color, roses darkened, but not as much as when air-dried.

Cons: The process is so swift, flowers can become brittle.

Cornmeal and borax are 2 household basics (borax is a laundry powder). Each costs about $1 per pound. Combine equal pares of them and place in an airtight container as above, covering flowers. Check every 3 days (petals feel papery when dry). Once they’re dry, gently remove powder from blossoms.

Pros: These looked better than air-dried flowers, though not as good as those treated with silica gel or freeze-dried. But because this method is slow (about 5 weeks for roses), the flowers are less fragile than those preserved more quickly.

Cons: Some foliage changed color-greenery browned slightly at the edges, and white orchids turned beige.

Freeze-drying calls for shipping flowers to a company that specializes in this service. Once flowers are open, they’re sprayed with a starch that sets the colors. Then they’re placed in a chamber at -10 [degrees] F. for 10 hours, until they’re frozen solid. Next, the air is pumped out of the chamber, and blooms are slowly brought back to room temperature over a 2–week period.

Pros: This is your best bet for flowers you want to cherish for awhile. They look most true to life and last longest (up to a couple of years). The shape doesn’t change, and we saw no wilting or shrinkage.

Cons: It’s expensive (about $5 per rose, plus shipping) and slow (3 to 8 weeks). Also, bouquets are very delicate and may be damaged en route.

Delphiniums Are A Finicky, But Beautiful Flower

Where Delphiniums are concerned, good taste flies out the window,” essayist and devoted gardener Eleanor Perenyi conceded in 1981 in Green Thoughts (Vintage Books; $12, paperback). Flaunting “all the sapphires and azures of a Chartres window,” the flower-packed spires of the giant hybrids sometimes reach seven feet. Unfortunately, these rulers of the delphinium race, as Mrs. Perenyi calls them, are lately frowned upon by those who see no place for such gaudy showmanship in today’s more “natural” landscapes. Surely the plants’ outrageous colors (including newly available pinks, reds, and yellows, in addition to every shade of electric blue, lavender, and mauve), annoying behavior (a single rainstorm is all that is needed to destroy any unstaked spires), and disease susceptibility have no place in pesticide-free gardens dominated by native plant species and other, less-histrionic bloomers.

Satisfying an Irresistible Urge

delp2Yet, like a too-rich dessert, many gardeners still crave these showy perennials, hardy in Zones 4-8. Interplanted with shrub roses (which can help support the brittle spires) and pure-white candy lilies (like delphiniums, they bloom in late spring or early summer), perennial as well as annual delphiniums satisfy deep longings. For starters, few other flowers offer a more brilliant – or fascinating – range of blues. And when massed in the back of a border in groups of three or five, still fewer plants convey the charm of a traditional cottage-style garden more eloquently.

Fortunately, today’s savvy gardeners are learning to cope with the shortcomings of their favorite horticultural prima donnas. Success is always a possibility, they insist, as they gamely confront the Six Most Common Delphinium Dilemmas:

1 Delphiniums are too tall. Some hybrids, bred originally for competition, tower over today’s smaller gardens, dominating mixed borders of ornamentals of more modest stature. Indeed, “modern monarchs” is how gardeners in the 1930s and ’40s referred to these genetic triumphs (generally hybrids of the species Delphinium elatum), Graham Rice reveals in Hardy Perennials (Timber Press; $27.95 hardbound, $17.95 paper; for a copy call 800-373-5680). But delphiniums of the Pacific Coast and Blackmore & Langdon strains (among the tallest available to American gardeners) are not the only types available. Gentian-blue D. grandiflorum ‘Blue Mirror’ reaches just two feet and blooms all summer long. The dwarf Magic Fountains strain, available in dark blue, sky blue, lilac, white, and bicolors, grows to 28 inches. With blossoms of light blue, lavender, or white, the Connecticut Yankee strain, developed by the photographer Edward Steichen, tops out at 30 inches. All add breathtaking grace to the middle of borders and beds.

2 The plants are too expensive. Members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), delphiniums perform best in temperate climates – like the Pacific Northwest and England. Gardeners in regions plagued by extremes of heat and cold as well as by high humidity and the freeze-thaw cycle that causes plants to heave right out of the ground frequently lose plants to the weather. Rather than spending $7 to $10 a pot, thrifty gardeners grow their own plants from seed and treat their delphiniums as biennials. Seed sown indoors in March is transplanted to peat pots in May; young plants moved outdoors during the summer will bloom sparsely toward season’s end. The following spring, however, a glorious show awaits. In this fashion, for the cost of a packet of seeds, many delphiniums are planted instead of the customary three or five. Even if just half the young plants make it through winter, a good crop is almost certainly guaranteed for the following year.

3 Delphiniums raised from seed take too long to bloom. For near-instant gratification, try annual delphiniums, commonly called larkspur (so named for the blossoms’ resemblance to a bard’s foot). The seed of D. ajacis (a k a Consolida ambigua) sown directly in the ground after all danger of frost has passed will bloom profusely come summer (the plants’ fernlike foliage provides a handsome contrast with other colorful annuals). Or, in the north, seed may be sown after autumn’s first frost and allowed to go dormant in anticipation of a radiant spring display. Southerners can sow seed in late summer for bloom early the following spring.

4 Pests and diseases plague delphiniums. Avoid root rot by mulching just to the plant’s drip line – never near the crown (where stem and base meet). To deter slugs, top-dress with ashes, or spread a wet newspaper near the plants each evening and remove the slimy beasts the following morning. To limit disease-inducing humidity, make sure plants have plenty of elbow room. Soil should be rich and friable (amend with sand, if necessary), never caked with clay. A cup of powdered lime added to the planting hole and an annual topdressing with another cup will also help these alkaline-loving plants stay happy. As an extra precaution against disease, consider moving your delphinium plants to a fresh site every three seasons.

5 Delphiniums are too much work for a scant three weeks of late-spring bloom. In fact, plants will bloom two and even three times if dead-headed correctly. Cut down spent flower stalks, allowing leaves to remain. When foliage has yellowed, remove it as well; you will notice new shoots at the base of the plant. Soon you will have your second bloom.

6 Delphiniums require too much sun. Consider planting another Ranunculaceae family member, instead: Aconitum napellus, commonly called monkshood, bears delphinium-like stalks of deep-violet, helmet-shaped blossoms even in the shade. A popular flower in Europe since medieval times, monkshood is sometimes called wolfsbane, owing to the ancient practice of poisoning wolves with the plant’s extracts. Its sinister reputation aside, monkshood remains a valuable plant for the shade garden. Reaching four feet in height, flowers bloom three weeks or longer and seldom, if ever, require staking. Cultivars worth investigating include the violet-blue ‘Spark’s Variety’ and the blue-and-white ‘Bicolor’. As Rob Proctor points out in Perennials: Enduring Classics for the American Garden (HarperCollins; $29.95), cut flowers boast a long vase life but are not recommended for use as dinner-table decorations.

The Web Changed Flower Delivery Forever

“I still wonder if the flowers were wet because the stems were damp or my palms were so sweaty,” said Jim McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers. “But from then on, I knew flowers would be an important part of my life.” Mr. McCann was referring to his first date with Margarite, and the relatively circuitous route he took to becoming the first name in flowers in the on-line world.

1800Mr. McCann, who was keynoting at last week’s Internet Commerce Show in New York, is certainly not your typical E-commerce guru. The Irish-Catholic New Yorker grew up painting walls alongside his four brothers and their father–who ran a contracting business in Queens (a borough of New York)–before graduating to bartending (“I was pretty successful at that”). A move from socializing at work to social work seemed a natural one, so, for more than 14 years, he ran a group home, St. John’s Home for teenage boys, in Rockaway, Long Island.

The move into flowers was a natural one, too, also involving “social connections with people.” To satisfy the strange requests his kids were making, “things like a roof over their head, something to eat and clothes once in a while,” Mr. McCann decided to supplement his meager non-profit income with revenues from a small flower shop he purchased. Bit by bit, he extended his floral empire, buying up 14 shops all over the metropolitan area before, albeit reluctantly, giving up his altruistic work and moving full-time into flowers.

Mr. McCann’s first wise move was branding the company. In 1987, he bought up the original 1-800-Flowers name from a Texas-based business that lasted a mere two months before it declared bankruptcy. His second was embracing technology which, 12 years ago, was new–toll-free telephone shopping.

In those early years, in the midst of a “tremendous round of success,” a good run of luck helped, too. AT&T’s televised profile of the company, in a commercial it repeatedly aired to eight million Olympics-watching viewers, didn’t hurt. Nor did most of CNN’s advertisers pulling the plug on ads during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, considering it distasteful to sandwich commercials between live war coverage. The free airtime CNN offered 1-800-Flowers in early 1992 vastly improved the company’s mindshare.

But, ultimately, the Internet catapulted the company ahead. This time around, the new technology was the Web, and, in 1992, 1-800 Flowers was one of a few companies selling on-line. Since the company had already established a strong brand in the toll-free retail space, on-line flower shopping caught on relatively quickly. Two years ago, 1-800-Flowers had the highest-volume Web site in the E-commerce world. Today, the company boasts $40 million in on-line sales–more than 10 percent of its yearly sales of $300 million–via America Online, the Microsoft Network and the Word Wide Web. With a 40 percent compounded annual growth rate for the last three years, it is one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.

But Mr. McCann doesn’t attribute the company’s success to on-line shopping alone. Rather, he views the four-prong approach 1-800-Flowers uses–telephone sales, Internet storefronts, catalog purchasing and retail shops–as the secret to its success, along with a well-established brand and a high commitment to customer service.

Today, customers can buy over the phone, switch to on-line purchases and may even drop by a neighborhood distributor to grab a bunch on the way home. On-line in-house services like Bloomlink offer virtual floral classes, and its Floraversity is a training program for distributors. The company recently instituted creative services, such as pre-purchased flowers for birthdays and Mother’s Day, and electronic reminders that special days are weeks away. Tomorrow: overseas markets.

Does Mr. McCann think the impersonalization of electronic communication will erode personal touches like flowers? Hardly. Computerized, streamlined transportation and logistics are enabling the year-round availability of Dutch lilies, Asian orchids and African carnations, with savings from improved efficiencies allowing 1-800-Flowers to offer exotic alternatives at the same price as it did in 1989. In today’s fast-paced, transient world, Mr. McCann says, unexpected surprises like bouquets count more than ever.