Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Montbretia From Hell

I have a lot of montbretia in my garden. I wish I didn't.

This is actually a huge understatement, like saying there are a lot of mosquitoes in West Africa or a lot of landmines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For someone who seems to spend half her life battling montbretia, it hardly seems fair that I've still got so much of it, but there it is.

Montbretia, in case you don't know, is a pretty flower that grows from corms. The corms make baby corms, which make other corms and so on. If you plant a lot of montbretia corms, you get a whole forest of plants if it rains a lot.

The last people who lived here planted montbretia like it was going out of style. And it rains a lot in Scotland.

"Spray it with a herbicide," Sam the local busybody said when he caught me kneeling in my garden, swearing and digging up corms. "A little glycophosphate will do the trick."

Sam rides around town in a tractor offering to trim people's hedges for extortionate fees, but I suspect that he is a frustrated spy; his main purpose for doing this seems to be keeping track of what everybody is doing. When my husband and I were digging up ground elder in the back garden a few years back, Sam actually walked across the yard to see for himself what we were up to; the fact that we'd already told him cut no ice. His face fell when he saw that the hole contained nothing but stones and ground elder roots -- a hole as big as the one we were digging was big enough to hold one of us. I felt like we'd shattered his hopes.

"I'd prefer not to use herbicides," I mutter as my trowel bites into the earth and a few more embedded corms fly up. Sam's face lights up at this: I know he loves to hear my views on herbicides. It delights him to have me confirm yet again that I'm a latter-day hippie who resists herbicides and pesticides -- I've seen him scrutinizing my slightly wormy apple trees. Sam chugs off in his tractor to tell his cronies in town all about my scruffy apple trees and montbretia daftness, leaving me to my digging.

So far, I've dug all the montbretia corms out of three flower beds, but it flourishes in a dozen more. The worst one was supposed to be done by one of the other tenants here. For years, I've walked past it, wishing it were full of pretty flowers and shrubs instead of weeds, grass and montbretia. It used to have a riot of golden daffodils, scarlet tulips and purple and yellow crocuses in it, but the montbretia grows so vigorously that all of these have been choked out.

Montbretia is beautiful with its fiery orange flowers and lime green leaves, but ours is seriously in-your-face and it does not behave the way it is supposed to. This isn't me dramatizing the issue or being paranoid, it is the honest-to-God-truth.

"Cover the corms long enough and they'll rot," a friend suggested, and her advice is echoed by professional gardeners. Here is what one gardening site has to say about growing montbretia: Find a location where the soil drains well. If there are still water puddles 5-6 hours after a hard rain, scout out another site... Crocosmia will not survive in soils that are water logged.

This is not the case with my montbretia, which could probably grow in a salt marsh on the moon.

Our soil is heavy, with a load of clay in it. When it rains, the puddles are there for a whole day afterwards, but if any of our montbretia plants have rotted, I've seen no evidence. In fact, they seem to thrive in our clay. In that central patch, the flowers spring up endlessly, growing virtually on top of each other, verdantly green, unblemished and vigorous -- I only wish my chrysanthemums looked half as good, or my poor apple trees, for that matter.

We can't imagine gardening without montbretia, the same site enthuses. Can you? And no, I can't. But I'd sure like to.

I picture the things I could grow in that big central montbretia-infested patch, the only place in the garden where there are few trees roots to chop through and almost full sun. Roses! Tulips! Dahlias! Sweet peas!

And one day, I can bear it no longer. I go out to the overgrown montbretia patch with murder on my mind and I pull out every single one. I pile montbretia plants on top of each other until I have a mound five feet high. Sure, it's only a drop in the bucket -- from both sides of my garden, overgrown montbretia patches wink at me, cheekily defiant -- but never mind: this six-foot square will be montbretia-free if it's the last thing I do. I find daffodil, crocus, tulip and bluebell bulbs and carefully preserve them to plant again. The corms left by the uprooted montbretia plants are as thick as fleas on a stray dog and they go down at least three inches. I can barely get my trowel in the ground, they are packed in so densely, but I pull out as many as I can until in no time I have at least a kilogram. These go straight into the trash: I've learned my lesson about trying to compost them. I rake the soil smooth, scatter it with a top dressing of grit, then layer after layer of cardboard and leaf mold. Over this, I stretch a vast roll of polyethylene.

Finally, I wipe the dirt off my hands and stand back to savor the beauty of what I have done. If this doesn't rot them out, I don't know what will! I feel like cackling and throwing up my hands, but before I can, a neighbor walks past our house and pauses. "Oh," she sighs, her face crumpling as she stops to survey my beautiful montbretia-free bed. "What a shame! They were so pretty."



Tabitha said...

LOL!! My dad feels the same way about Morning Glories, but his wife loves them. He gets irritated because they take over everything (though they're not as invasive as Montbretia, it seems).

I guess one man's treasure is another man's trash. :)

debra said...

And for me, it is English ivy. Fifty some years ago, my English mother-in-law planted 4 wee sprigs. I have been pulling them for 21 years. And now they have been joined by dogbane, Virginia creeper and goose-necked loostrife.
And for what it's worth, I looked Montbretia up on google to see what it was. It appeared on a website for English country gardens. Good luck with that.

savannah said...

(debra sent me)

i had to look up montbretia to find out what was plaguing your garden, sugar! they're called coppertips or falling stars here in the states. since i'm blessed with a brown thumb (which pleases my bi-weekly gardener no end) i can only echo a "good luck!" xoxoxo

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know what montbretia is but I almost always prefer wild plants to domesticated ones. I might pull the flowers from a bed and leave the weeds.

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- I've tried so hard to grow morning glories here, but they rot in the ground. It's so sad: in Japan, they grew like weeds and were so beautiful.

Maybe your Dad would trade some of his morning glories for a kilogram of montbretia corms? Win-win!

Debra -- I'm always tearing ivy off my walls too. A friend was silly enough to plant it on her balcony and it took out five of her wrought iron banisters, eating away the bases.

Wish I could get Virginia creeper to grow, though -- I think it's gorgeous.

Savannah -- Thank you for visiting!

Falling stars is a pretty name, but it suggests something fleeting and sought-after, not an invasive in-your-face plant with ambitions of world dominance.

Charles -- Give those flowers to me and take my dandelions, montbretia, and ground elder! But leave my foxgloves, bluebells and Scotch moss. I can't get enough of them.

Carole said...

I did not know what montbretia looked like so I had to google them. It took me to several nursery sites. And guess what? They were all out of stock! You should market them in the states I guess. Maybe you could make a bundle.

Great post.

Vijaya said...

I had to look up your hellish plant. What a lovely. I do love wild plants, but I know how they can take over ... my husband is very, very picky about whatever wild things I transplant in our garden (he dug out the horsetail and scotchbroom and foxglove that I thought were so pretty). But that's okay. I have bamboo! And we have bamboo projects in various states in the garden and in the house. Hee hee ...

Robert the Skeptic said...

One of the reliefs of our moving to a new house is abandoning my Japanese Garden. People gasp when I say this, but as beautiful as it is/was, it was a LOT of work to make it look that way.

The good plants are tough to grow, but the weeds thrive under the worst conditions. Plants spread that I don't want to spread and choke out the ones I want. A few times invasions of unwanted plants have caused me to bring out the herbicide... it takes two years minimum for it to look the same.

People have asked me if I am going to put a Japanese Garden in the new home. No! That was a phase in my life and I will simply enjoy the photographs from here on out.

Pictures of my former Japanese garden.

Eryl said...

I have a similar problem with creeping buttercup this year. I had't noticed it before but suddenly it is everywhere.

angryparsnip said...

As someone who and can no longer do the gardening anymore...my advice is...
hire someone with a roto-tiller sp ? or rent one to dig up the the offending plant and then you toss them away and spend your more valuable/fun time with the planning, and planting of your garden.
Someone commented about bamboo... the creeping kind should be banned in California. One friends neighbor planted some and he was almost lynched !

Good Luck...
cheers, parsnip

Angela Ackerman said...

I planted a flower 5 years ago that looked pretty but did the same thing (I can't remember what it's called). I let it bloom one year only and then ripped it all out after i saw how evasive it was. I'm still ripping it out.

But each year, there's a little less. I'm winning!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

AnneB said...

I had to look it up, too! But folks here say the same about Virginia creeper. Our home was covered with it on one side when we moved in; squirrels were nesting there. We pulled it all off and now all that's left is the bit that migrated to the neighbor's and provides a lovely backdrop for whatever I'm growing along the driveway. Whoever owns the house at the time pulls it off every few years to paint or re-do the roof and eaves troughs, and three years later, you'd never know it had been disturbed. So.... be careful for what you wish for!

2to4aday said...

I love your writing! You make me hate montbretia, and I don't even know what it is. You could write about tree moss or foot fungus or rolled oats--and I would still think it's interesting. I. Love. Your. Writing!!!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I know why people want to buy montbretia: it is easy to grow and stunningly beautiful, plus the leaves stay green from earliest spring right up to winter. If the last people living here hadn't tossed the corms around so indiscriminately, I'd love it. But in our garden, it's everywhere, choking out everything else. Wish I could send those people who want it some of my corms!!

Vijaya -- I love bamboo, but once it takes over, it's a real headache to clear out. I had big pots of bamboo before we moved, but they all died. I'm biding my time before I can go dig some more from a friend's grove. Wish you lived nearby!

I love foxgloves, but they tend to go hog wild here too and quickly fill up paths, so I can see why your husband tears them out. We had them growing ON our stairs when we got back. The seeds fit into the tiniest cracks.

Robert -- Those photographs are incredible! And I now know that you are called 'Bob'.

Our neighbors back in Japan had a traditional Japanese garden and they were always working in it and spraying something. I felt bad because of our dandelions, which I never sprayed. (Dandelions don't do a Japanese garden any favors and neither do cats.) It is funny how Japanese gardens look so effortless when they are incredibly labor intensive. I don't blame you in the least for wanting to take a break. How about an acer in a massive container, set in a square meter of combed gravel? That's what I'm always fantasizing about.

Eryl -- Oh don't get me started on creeping buttercup -- we are creeping buttercup central here too, and there is nothing I can do about it. You could go insane trying to dig up all the runners and growing points.

(Want any montbretia corms? Seriously? If you plant them in containers you can control them, and they are truly beautiful and make great cut flowers.)

AP -- Believe me, I've been tempted to roto-till. But I want my earthworms, and roto-tillers eat them up along with all the other good things in the soil I want to encourage. And besides, I suspect I actually like doing things the hard way. Then I get to whine about it and have my exercise too.

Angela -- Now I'm wondering what you might have planted...What did it look like? I'll bet I've planted it too at some point, especially if it happened to be cheap and easy to grow, two selling points I'm a sucker for. I've made dozens of stupid mistakes in my garden, planting things that quickly take over or failing to recognize obnoxious weeds before they've spread like wildfire. In a way, it's all part of the fun of gardening.

AnneB -- I have an ugly wall that I've been trying to coax Virginia creeper to grow along for the past five years. You ought to see how I coddle and encourage it -- and to how little avail. In the same way, a friend of mind sadly commented that she couldn't get montbretia to grow in her garden and she wished she had my green thumb with it. Sigh...

2to4 -- You have absolutely made my day with that comment, which I received along with a depressing rejection for a short story in my inbox. So thank you very much for those kind words, and don't be surprised when I next write about athlete's foot and rolled oats. :o)

Falak said...

You just made me thank my stars for not having a garden. :)

Marcia said...

I was reading the whole post waiting for you to say what color montbretia is. If it were blue, pink or purple, even white, all would be forgiven. But orange, gold or yellow? I'd be digging it up too. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- But think of all the exercise you could be getting! And the joy of getting dirt in your fingernails. :o)

Marcia -- In so many ways, montbretia is a wonderful plant. You can grow it in bad soil, in almost total shade, and it is hard to kill. It's a gorgeous, fiery orange or red, and it's beautiful as a cut flower, plus the spear-like leaves are green almost all year round. Unfortunately, it's just too much of a good thing.

Stella said...

I feel the same way about the phragmites that invade my backyard. I've been battling with them for 15 years now and tried everything from hacking them our with the hoe to pouring hot water over them. They're a kind of grass with an extensive root system. I've stopped short at herbicides, too, but have been considering them.

Pat said...

Fortunately my natural monbretia knows how to behave but like an idiot I planted a special bright red one - it has a name like the devil - and now completely dominates the kitchen bed with enormously long leaves falling over the path. Silly me!
I ought to have learned my lesson with the grape hyacinths.

Mary Witzl said...

Stella -- I've never heard of phragmites, but I acquired a selection of wild grasses which I thought were pretty and I now think are a huge headache, as they poke up everywhere. So thanks for the heads up -- if anybody offers me any phragmites, I'll turn them down.

Pat -- Lucifer, right? I've got some of that, but it isn't quite as invasive as the ordinary stuff because it's only in one place.

And thanks for telling me about grape hyacinth (Musukari, right?), which I remember we had a lot of in Japan. I love it, but I'll be careful when I plant my bulbs! I think I'll confine it to pots.

Teagan said...

Oh dear, found your blog by googling "buy montbretia" - I know that anyone who has it has a lot of it but we have none and I don't know anyone with any. Perhaps I'll stick with Lucifer. Garden centres should definitely add health warnings to the plant labels. We moved recently to a house with a huge garden including a stream and lots of big trees... our 'weeds' are brambles, elder, hawthorn, hazel & ash saplings, nettles, thistles and bindweed.
Ah well, it's almost two years since this blog post so maybe you've managed to get rid of yours by now...

MaryWitzl said...

Hello Teagan. No, we haven't gotten rid of our Montbretia and I suspect we never will. Also, your weeds are our weeds (except for the bindweed). Stick to the Lucifer, or grow your Montbretia in containers!

Anonymous said...

You say you have 'learned your lesson' about composting them. What happened (as though I couldn't guess)? This question comes from someone who has just put 40-50 corms in to his compost. Should I move house?

Mary Witzl said...

No, Anonymous, you don't have to move. But wherever you put that compost, you will absolutely have Montbretia. Are you up to it?

David Castell said...

Thanks for telling me what I already feared! Do I have to sift through the compost with a fine toothcomb, or is there not SOME chemical that will rot the corms? Lime maybe ... ? I can't believe I do something so stupid!

Mary Witzl said...

I did the same thing myself: the corms have so much topsoil sticking to them that I couldn't bear wasting it. Maybe if you dump the compost in one place, you can sort through the worst parts.

For what it's worth, one of my friends has been trying to grow Montbretia for ages and cannot. And it's a very pretty cut flower which will last for a long time. It's not like dockweed, say, which is just plain ugly.

Pippam said...

I only typed 'Montbretia' into Google to check that I had just split up the corms properly but now I am hooked on your witty blog.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Pippam.

I feel bad for lovers of Montbretia--I'm obviously biased in the extreme. But if you could see my garden you'd know how I got this way. Plant those corms sparingly!