Human Flower Project

The Pachysandra Chorus

Bundle up, and open up. No time like now to get out and relish the December garden.


Green stars: Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae and Pachysandra terminalis

Photo: Allen Bush

By Allen Bush

I love Thanksgiving and don’t like to see it veer into the shopping season before leftovers are gone.  Days become shorter (but they do drag on) in December.  Blessedly after Christmas, there will be no more grit your teeth trips to the mall. But face it, until the solstice (let’s be honest and say: April) it’s slim pickings for good cheer.  Wet, cold and gray arrived a few weeks ago. There is always Handel’s Messiah.

It could be worse than drizzly and 40 F (5 C).  Winter months in Kentucky feature a long-playing version, with puny snowfalls, interrupted by crippling ice storms. This proves my point:  It could be worse.  Ice storms take-out power lines and the furnace. The fantasy of a warm hearth and visions of chestnuts roasting on an open fire… without a working furnace, it’s holiday hokum. Every morning I walk from the front door to the street to pick-up the newspapers or get in the car; and the oak leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia is the one ornament I look for. The faded, dry brown blooms, and the lingering red foliage, come face to face with self-pity.

imageDanae racemosa—Poet’s laurel

Photo: Allen Bush

I read Life, Keith Richard’s memoir, and was brought to my senses. (The habitually ripped Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, looks a mess, but has somehow kept his wits about him. Richards’s constitution, recollection and curiosity are astounding.) The musician Tom Waits, a friend of Richards, and an occasional musical collaborator, said, “I think nowadays there seems to be a deficit of wonder. And Keith seems to wonder about this stuff. He will stop and hold his guitar up and just stare at it for a while. Just be rather mystified by it. Like all the great things in the world, women, and religion and the sky…you wonder about it and you don’t stop wondering about it.”

In the last few weeks, instead of focusing feebly on putting one foot in front of the other, eyes never straying far from the sidewalk below, I’ve made a point to look around. Buck up old boy!  Ingore the rumpled brown leaves of gingers Hedychiums.  Don’t expect Whipple’s cactus Opuntia whipplei to look as cheerful—as it certainly would be—if it were wintering in Arizona.

imageCyclamen coum ‘Silver Leaf’ (true to its name)

Photo: Allen Bush

Temperatures dipped to 13 F (-11 C) but there’s still plenty of color in the garden. I’ve got to bundle-up to find my holiday spirit. I walked out the front door and looked toward Rosella’s house next door, and there were two deciduous hollies, Ilex verticillata loaded with bright red berries. I’m going to cut a few for indoor arrangements before the birds have their holiday feast.  (Oops, I waited three days and the robins picked them clean.) These deciduous hollies require a male pollinator (I keep one stud in the stable, suitably named ‘Apollo’.)  The fruiting females looked unassuming until now. I appreciate any plant that can be soothing, especially in December, and ask for so little in return. I don’t get the same vibe from teenage mall clerks. These – the hollies, not the teenagers—aren’t difficult to grow. Ilex verticillata only wants some moisture during the growing season.  They grow in swamps and wet woods in Kentucky.

Cyclamen coum ‘Silver Leaf’ looks undaunted; so does the poet’s laurel, Danae racemosa an evergreen shrub, from the Caucasus.  Neither is a gimme.  But the Cyclamen has been hardy for 10 years and I’m keeping my fingers crossed on the Danae.  Jelitto offers the ‘Silverleaf’ seed strain and I got the Danae from Scott McMahan at his wonderful Georgia nursery last May.  It’s cold hardy in Zone 7, but we’re a zone colder in Kentucky. I’ve tucked it next to the house for a little extra protection.  Around the corner, I think of Kurt Bluemel  every time I walk past the lower growing bamboo Sasa veitchii. He gave me my first start, and it would devour the back garden if I didn’t keep it in check. But it shines in winter: first frost burns its leaf edges to perfection.

imageArum italicum ‘Pictum,’ a passalong (Klein to Spaulding to Bush to Cooper) thriving in early December

Photo: Allen Bush

I just noticed Rose has pilfered some of my Arums. I don’t mind. I had plenty in the back. And her newly planted bulbs out front will look good in a few years with her spotted Lenten Roses, Helleborus orientalis, hybrids from Jelitto. The hellebores flower in March. I got the Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ bulbs from my friend Pam Spaulding who got them from Theodore Klein. The beautiful Yew Dell Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky, was Mr. Klein’s, happy planting ground. He was a legendary Kentucky nurseryman, plant collector and grandfather to my sister-in-law, Holly Cooper.


The native Allegheny spurge Pachysandra procumbens is supposed to grow naturally around Louisville. I’ve never seen any in the wild but have grown it at home and like the silver mottling on the winter leaves. But I’ve got a soft spot for the kindred Japanese Pachysandra terminalis. My mother was the queen of Pachysandra propagators.  She probably could have mastered the Allegheny spurge that was trickier to root. She stuck cuttings of Pachysandra terminalis in every shady spot in her home garden. There was no sense paying good money for something she could easily do herself.

Rose planted a big bed of Pachysandra terminalis ‘Green Sheen’ in the front of the house and added a half-dozen Corylopsis spicata three years ago as accents. These deciduous spike winterhazels are beginning to fill-out nicely now.  I love the long arching stems, and the fragrant yellow blooms are dazzling in April. The shrubs get a little big for the space, but cutting them back after they flower keeps them from growing too large. Rose has also planted wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae among the Pachysandra.  I like the different textures and shades of green. This Euphorbia can handle dry shade, too. I should share some plants of Rohdea japonica ‘Galle’ with Rose (Maybe she’s grabbed some already?). Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae will romp around by underground stolons but the long-lived sacred lily Rohdea japonica slowly forms thick clumps. Clusters of red winterberries sit hidden within the thick, leathery, strap-shaped leaves. (Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could find a form with taller stalks so that you needn’t go poking around to find the red fruit?) Rohdea ‘Galle’ has narrower leaves than many of the other named cultivars. There are some ugly, variegated cultivars that I won’t bother with, but there is a yellow-fruited form I’d love to get my hands on.

It would make the perfect gift for Christmas,…anyone?

imageSasa veitchii—a gift from Kurt Bluemel that keeps giving

Photo: Allen Bush

I’ve been puzzled why the low-growing evergreen shrub Sarcoccca hookeriana var. humilis isn’t more widely planted. (The botanic name does sound like a modest brothel overrun by a deadly bacterium.) The Himalayan sweetbox has slender lance-shaped leaves and spreads non-aggressively.  It grows 16” (40 cm) tall but it’s the deliciously scented blooms that turn your head.  The source of the sweet February fragrance mystifies me; the blooms are barely noticeable. I think it must be coming from a witch hazel, but they don’t compare. There were clusters of small black fruit on the sweet box for the first time this fall. It is supposed to be self-sterile, but something happened. (Hermaphroditic high jinks?) I picked a handful of seed and planted them in the back garden to see what comes-up.

It snowed nearly two inches on December 4th and 5th – a genuine weather event around here. Kids went sledding down Barringer Hill in Cherokee Park, and grown-ups didn’t make panic runs to the liquor store.  Roads were clear. A durable, long-lived clump of the ornamental Asparagus officinalis var. pseudoscaber ‘Spitzenschleir’ had handsome yellow foliage until a few days before. Suddenly, with the snow, it was transformed into a three-foot-tall igloo, a wonderful contrast with the austere Yucca glauca.

imageAfter December’s first snowfall, Louisville, KY

Photo: Allen Bush

After a few bracing garden walks, I started thinking about a December past. I was scruffy, scrawny and twenty-four, standing at a bus stop on a Saturday evening in Chester, England in 1975.  I struck-up a conversation with an elegant man dressed in a Homburg hat and a Chesterfield coat. He talked about rugby and Wales. I knew little about either. I was headed to Wales and learned rugby was the national sport. I told him about Kentucky. He knew about Harlan Sanders and fried chicken. We both had something to teach the other.

There was time. The bus was delayed for two hours. Before long Professor Seaborne Davies, who was named after his father who was born on the sea, invited me to the home he shared with his sister in Pwllheli in northern Wales. (Pwllheli: I could never pronounce this village name after considerable drilling from Davies. It seemed in desperate need of a few vowels.) Davies succeeded David Lloyd- George as Member of Parliament from Caernarvon Boroughs in 1945.  Lloyd George had previously been the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916 - 1922. Davies didn’t last long in politics (his four-month tenure was one of the shortest of any M.P. in the 20th century), but he had a long, successful career as law professor.

That evening Seaborne and his sister took me to the village church performance of Handel’s Messiah – the full-blown three-hour oratorio—sung in Welsh. I knew right away I was somewhere strange, surprising and overwhelmingly beautiful. I found magic one December evening in Pwllheli, and the only word I understood was Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/19 at 09:52 PM


Allen: I did not participate in the Dec. Garden Bloggers Bloom Day because I did not see any flowers in my neighborhood.  Well, thank you for this essay.  I am walking around with a “blooming” new perspective—looking for berries, leaf color and texture, and more.

Posted by Georgia on 12/23 at 09:37 AM

I agree that Himalyan Sweetbox should be planted more often. I’ve been tying to locate the plant for a couple of years with no success. I know my locals won’t have it but I’ve not had much luck on the internet either. Any suggestions as to where I could procure myself a plant?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/31 at 07:12 PM

Georgia, it was 68 F (20 C)  here in Louisville on New Year’s Eve. What a difference from a week ago. It Felt like spring for a day.

Elizabeth, here are a few good sources. Kurt Bluemel, Plant Delights or Forest Farm list the Himalayan Sweetbox. You can find them on the internet.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/01 at 10:55 AM
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