Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Lively in the Vase

In August, a vase of voluptuous flowering "cuts" from the garden may stay fresh for only days. In January, most choices are either dried-in-place or woody or evergreen. In a vase, they could last many weeks.


For New Year's Day, I put stems of giant pussy willow and southern magnolia in a large vase, then left them alone to cool their heels clear into mid-February. By yesterday, both were still lively. Much of the magnolia foliage was still green, and all of it was still in place as long as the stems weren't disturbed.


Salix chaenomeloides rooted wands 021417 640


Yes, the magnolia's huge, fragrant white flowers are spectacular, but so is its thick, glossy foliage. Indeed, the species' latin name might just as appropriately be Magnolia grandifolia as grandiflora: if the stems are kept in water, leaves of either of my cultivars—these are Bracken's Brown Beauty but Edith Bogue foliage lasts, too—hold their color as well as their shine almost indefinitely.


It's a help that we don't heat the public rooms of our 18th Century house to seventy-two degrees. In fact, we don't raise the thermostat above fifty. Only for parties—when there are also fires roaring in the first-floor fireplaces and wood stoves—are these rooms truly warm. For weeks in between, being plunged into a vase is like being in the cooler at the florist.


During the six weeks after New Year's, the stems of the giant pussy willow actually progressed. As giant as their pussies will eventually become—three inches isn't unusual—the catkins of Salix chaenomeloides are upstaged by the shiny mahogany-brown bud scales that protected them. Slowly but surely, the expanding pussies pushed those scales free, to clatter down to the sideboard or even the floor. 


But the real action was happening out of sight, underwater in the vase. Look at these profuse white roots!


Salix chaenomeloides wands roots 021417 640


Willow stems root with such enthusiasm partly because their growth is rich with chemicals that encourage it. Before these compounds were isolated, identified, synthesized, and marketed in powdered form as rooting hormone, willows stems were soaked in tubs of water that became infused with what was then known only as "willow rooting factor." When this water was used to irrigate cuttings of other species, their speed and vigor of rooting was often strikingly enhanced.


But even after six weeks of sitting in water along with the willow stems—which, presumably, were infusing the vasewater with willow rooting factor all the while—the magnolia stems still showed no signs of response. No surprise: in this book's profile of Magnolia grandiflora, the author reports that wood from mature magnolias (and mine are nearing twenty years old) is difficult to root even with a heavy dose of rooting hormone, and should best be attempted in June and July. No wonder stems cut for New Year's Day remained aloof.


By contrast, low light, chilly temperatures, steady moisture seem to have been ideal for the willow. I returned these profusely rooted stems to the vase until I can take them to the greenhouse, where I'll pot them for my land trust's annual May plant sale. No one needs a shrub of generic pussy willow, but no garden should be without giant pussy.



Here are many looks at Magnolia grandiflora 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' throughout the year—including the Dead of Winter bouquet, which I created in early March of 2015 during that season's historically brutal weather. Here's an introduction to M. grandiflora 'Edith Bogue'.


Here are three visits with Salix chaenomeloides, including the Dead of Winter bouquet it shared with stems of Cornus albaFagus grandifolia, Magnolia grandiflora, Rodgersia pinnata, Rhus typhina, Salix alba, and Verbena bonariensis.


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