Saturday, September 18, 2010

Discover Hardy Gloxinia

Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859), German traveler and explorer once complained, "People often say that I'm curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy.  But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?"

Humboldt had been trained in biology, geology, chemistry, physics and history.  With knowledge and wanderlust, he followed his passion and traveled to South America to explore the continent.  Following his five-year journey, he published over the next twenty years a thirty volume account of his exploration, and introduced the world to wonders of that continent.  Charles Darwin considered him "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived."

Pierre Nicolas Le Chéron d'Incarville, following his passion, also introduced the world to exotic wonders.  Those, however, were of the Orient.  d'Incarville's first passion was to take Christianity to China.  As a Jesuit missionary, he was charged to convert the Qianlong Emperor.  The emperor was not interested, but they developed mutual respect based upon their common interest in plants.  While in China, d'Incarville wrote several works on China which were published in Europe, including a French-Chinese dictionary.  He also catalogued Chinese plants and sent back seeds unknown to Europe.

A genus of plants which he introduced to the West was given his name to honor his work:  Incarvillea (pronounced in-car-VIL-ee-uh).  The genus contains about 16 species, all native to central and eastern Asia.

Jean Marie Delavay (1834–1895) was another who was curious about many things at once.  A French missionary to China, he was also passionate about plants and exploration.  His missionary zeal worked both ways, for as he worked to introduce Chinese to Christ, he worked to introduce France to the plants of China.  He sent over 200,000 specimens to his homeland.  From them, over 1500 new species were discovered.

Several plants commemorate Father Delavay's work in their names.  One is Incarvillea delavayi (pronounced del-uh-VAY-ee), a species that honors two great plant explorers at once. 

I. delavayi, also known as hardy gloxinia, is a lovely selection for the garden.  With velvety, deciduous foliage, it grows to 24" tall and produces showy pink or white flowers.  The flowers appear in late spring to mid-summer.  They're fragrant, too, and great for cutting.  Plants self-sow readily from seed.  Many gardeners include hardy gloxinias in their butterfly gardens.  They are also suitable for container gardens, and can be grown indoors.

I. delavayi is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 6 to 10.  The site should be in full sun or partial shade.  Soil should be well-drained, with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  Incarvillea is drought-tolerant, so is often chosen for xeriscaping.  That said, however, Incarvillea flowers best when the soil is slightly moist.

As always, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office before planting.  They will send it to a lab for analysis and recommendations.  Expect to pay a nominal fee.  If you don't understand the report, ask the County Agent to interpret it for you.

Planting begins in spring.  Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  A good all-around practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of garden.  Repeat the application when growth appears, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Plant hardy gloxinia tubers about 3" to 5" deep.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole or trench.  If the tubers are separated, they may be planted horizontally.  Recommended plant spacing is 12" to 15" apart.  Water well, then let the soil become slightly dry before watering again.  The plants don't require much maintenance.

Unfortunately, hardy gloxinias are not planted widely enough.  When discovered, gardeners often try them out of curiosity.  But it is that desire to know and embrace that characterizes plant lovers.  So follow that desire to explore.  Try hardy gloxinias in your garden.

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