March is not leaving like a lamb. Lake Massawippi is still frozen solid, snow still covers the ground and today the wind is blowing fiercely. These unusually late winter conditions are discouraging, to say the least. But on the up side, they are giving me time to review some of the blogs I’ve written since I posted for the first time in January 2013.
Over six years, in hundreds of blogs, I’ve reviewed books and gardens, considered issues in garden design, looked at how art is used in gardens and chronicled the development of the garden at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. I’ve also profiled plants.
Those plant profiles are the ones I’ve been reading most happily — they remind me of the pleasures soon to come. One of the flowers I look for most eagerly in the spring is Jeffersonia diphylla. I wrote about the plant six years ago and my love for the plant hasn’t changed since. So, with some new photos and some revisions in the text, here is that blog post again.
My Favorite Plant: Jeffersonia diphylla
Gardeners in temperate climes may wonder why I love Jeffersonia diphylla. For them it grows easily, spreads nicely and offers a touch of light in a shaded border. A nice plant, but nothing special.
Jeffersonia doesn’t grow easily for me. I have to coddle it, and it is one of the few plants at Glen Villa that gets this care. As for spreading nicely, no such luck. My one plant grew for quite a few years before it produced a baby. I’m still waiting for more.
Nonetheless, Jeffersonia is my favourite plant. Not because it is carefree, but because it speaks of childhood and of Virginia, where I grew up. Jeffersonia is a true Virginia plant, named by the American botanist Benjamin Smith Barton after the many-talented Thomas Jefferson. It is a spring ephemeral, as fleeting as childhood itself, blooming so briefly that some years I miss the white flowers altogether.
It is also a plant whose character and appearance shift delightfully throughout the growing season.
Shortly after the ground thaws, which in Quebec can be as late as mid to late April, tiny tips of reddish-purple begin to peek up from the bed outside the kitchen door. These small tips are hard to see at first — they are almost the colour of the mulch that surrounds them. But soon pale vampire-like spears appear, desperately searching for sunlight instead of avoiding it, as any sensible vampire would do.
Leaves begin to develop. At first they are the colour of bloody wine — a Merlot perhaps? Prominent veins make them look soft and vulnerable.
Gradually, the short-lived flowers form. They open like cups held atop rigid stems. They are stately, elegant.
Jeffersonia is a typical spring ephemeral. In a good year, when the weather is cool, the flowers may last a week. More typically, they last three or four days.
If it rains, the petals drop quickly. Ditto if the wind blows. And heaven forbid it gets warm too quickly — the flowers simply disappear, as if they never were there. (I think you get the point: this ephemeral is really ephemeral.)
The second show begins as the leaves grow bigger and broader. They change colour to a soft blue-green, and as they do, the second part of the plant’s name becomes self-explanatory. Di-phylla: two leaves. Those twin lobes also explain the plant’s common name, twinleaf.
Jeffersonia is a chameleon, constantly changing — but never blending in. The tender, vulnerability of early spring becomes comedic in mid-summer when the seedpod starts to form.
Then the plant begins to smile. Rather smugly, I have to say. The seedpod is hinged, and when it opens, Jeffersonia’s full smile displays a mouthful of cinnamon-coloured seeds.
Then the plant spits the seeds out, one by one.
Approaching the finale, Jeffersonia turns yellow.
All good things end. Eventually, Jeffersonia goes spotty and starts to shrivel, like a wizened comedian who walks with a cane.
On a practical note: Jeffersonia grows best in rich woodland conditions: moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. It likes part shade and tolerates full shade. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, it is native from New York to Wisconsin, south to Alabama and Virginia. It grows to about 8 inches when in flower and continues to grow through the summer, eventually reaching about 18 inches.
All this tells me that Jeffersonia shouldn’t thrive outside my kitchen door. But it does. And I thank it for providing such a good show, year after year.