Blind Plants and Big Black Ants

‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom’ — Anaïs Nin
Clematis hybrid (Clematis) flowering at last

At the twilight of the Disco Era, a young ant princess shed her gossamer wings after her nuptial flight, traded her aerial moment in the sun for a subterranean eternity, and never looked back. At the far end of our backyard, the spot where she disappeared into the earth is marked by an anthill a couple of feet wide that has prevailed for two-fifths of a century.

We always called the inhabitants big black ants. The workers are about a third of an inch long. Properly they are field ants, genus Formica.

They tend their herds of aphids to drink the honeydew that the smaller bugs exude. But they are omnivorous, balancing their diets with the protein of careless grasshoppers and caterpillars, and any other invertebrate meat that they encounter, dead or alive. When I am working in the garden and swat a deer fly, I drop it amongst the teeming social insects, which then make short work of it. Nobody can say that I do not take good care of my ants.

When a plant fails to flower it is termed “blind.” Within a three-foot radius of the ant mound half a dozen kinds of ornamentals have come up blind — occasionally, usually, or invariably.

Plant blindness can be cured. If you can solve the specific problems, your precious garden gems can fulfill their individual destinies.

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia sp.) and Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus sp.) in our backyard both skip years, sometimes several in succession. Both are South African grassland species whose progenitors grew 10 degrees latitude closer to the Equator. Because what their flowers look like is no longer a mystery to me, an off year does not matter. Diagnosis: insufficient sunlight.

A third émigré from semiarid South Africa is Belladonna Lily (Amaryllis belladonna), a softball-size bulb. Belladonna translates to beautiful lady. The foliage faithfully emerges every spring. Ah, but the flowers? Do not hold your breath.

This capricious lady shows up when she darn well pleases. And if she decides not to show up at all, well then, that is her prerogative. When your garden plays host to belladonna lilies, you have to think of their flowering as a gift, not as a given. The flowers make their infrequent aboveground appearance on their own schedule, sort of like periodic cicadas, only less predictably.

When they do come onstage it tends to be around Columbus Day, with two-foot stalks carrying half a dozen red, pink, or white blooms. The last sighting on our property was in 2014.

The native haunts of belladonna lily are characterized by mild rainy winters and baking dry-as-a-bone summers. Here on the East Coast it must be disorienting for a bulb from South Africa – wrong hemisphere, topsy-turvy climate. Actually the hemisphere part is immaterial – plants synchronize with the seasons; but regarding the amount and timing of the rains, the struggle is real. A proven bloom trigger is wildfire; but torching the garden for that sake seems extreme. Diagnosis: Insufficient heat, inimical rainfall pattern.

Wandering around amidst the lilyturf are wisps of an unknown clematis vine. The weedy yet beautiful virgins bower clematis, the fragrant kind that seems to materialize everywhere around Labor Day, is a not-unwelcome volunteer in places on our property; but this one is not that.

It has foliage thinner and more delicate, sort of felt-textured, paler. This clematis also is not particularly vigorous. Over the years it has insinuated itself here and there, so that there are now a dozen points where it roots.

But of course it never rang the bell. The elongating shoots would be all gung-ho in April; but by the first hot days of late spring the leaves would brown and dry out at the margins. And then . . . nothing.

Last spring the weather cooperated, remaining cool and cloudy. Three fat fuzzy buds formed. I was resigned to the inevitable, that earwigs or slugs would eat them before they could ever open; but no, my luck held. In the middle of May they unfurled to photogenic white saucers half a foot across. It was worth the wait. Diagnosis: Too hot and too dry.

These last few form a trifecta of some of the most recalcitrant plants in our East End garden. All of them went several decades blind.

Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) so far has channeled all its energies into vegetative increase. From one tiny start in 1996, it has invaded hundreds of square feet of territory, yet with nary a flower in over 20 years. It can climb like ivy, with aerial rootlets attaching it to vertical surfaces. One summer I was surprised to find it ascending the side of the outhouse to eye level.

In the past half decade, we have had some uncharacteristically bitter winters. Any adventurous runners leaving behind the safety of terra firma have paid the ultimate price in January.

My hypothesis is that Asiatic jasmine follows the model of English ivy (Hedera helix), which generally does not flower while it is creeping horizontally. In that species, flowering commences when the mature form is attained, which is a critical woody mass plus a substantial vertical presence.

Perhaps global warming will deliver a string of mild winters that leave the ambitious Asiatic jasmine ladders unharmed. Then on some magical future summer morning will open fragrant white flowers. Diagnosis: Immature wood, marginal cold hardiness, insufficient summer heat, vertical growth stymied, blind clone, other?

Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) has been in the ground for 36 years. It pushes up a rosette of leaves in September that vanishes in June. In 1982, at a garden center in Southampton, I was given a bulb by the pretty teenage counter girl. She became a grandmother during the ensuing third of a century, while the lily stayed in Peter Pan mode.

We use surf clam shells as naturalistic markers for perennials that go dormant at odd times, so that these are not disinterred because the bare spot looked like a prime invitation to pop in a new plant. Clamshell = do not disturb.

A couple of shells marked the madonna lily location. Through the years, subjected to weathering and clumsy footfalls, the clamshells shattered and began to disintegrate – serendipitously as it turned out. The calcium carbonate leaching from the clamshells provided alkaline pH, or at least raised it enough to give the lily a fighting chance.

In early March 2015, before the vernal equinox, the humble two-dimensional rosette of the previous third of a century erupted skyward. By June the stem was three feet high. On the summer solstice the individual blossoms opened, startlingly white. Before July they were over and out. That they were ephemeral was part of the beauty — like Brigadoon or Halley’s Comet.

Was this the new normal? Now that the madonna lily had learned how to bloom, would this be a reliable annual event? Nix.

Perhaps it will not flower again within my lifetime. If so, it can be transplanted to my gravesite. Then, instead of daisies, it will be my eternal fate to push up madonna lilies. Diagnosis: Unsuitably low soil pH – too acidic.

Hyacinth Squill (Scilla hyacinthoides), starting with a single bulb planted in 1984, has multiplied steadily to form a healthy patch. It sports late-spring wands two to three feet tall topped with blue flowers. Allegedly. Not one of the dozens of bulbs has ever once bloomed. (“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln. . . .”)

Loose fertile soil and plenty of water encourage vegetative growth. The bulbs have no incentive to produce bloom scapes, and will keep merrily offsetting as long as they can expand laterally. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense to take advantage of plentiful resources. Make hay while the sun shines.

The trick to inducing flowering is to constrain horizontal expansion, so that the only way is up. Stress will bring out their best. Theoretically.

For too long the hyacinth squills have commanded the sunniest spot in the backyard without paying their rent. This summer, the plan is to go to the bay beach to load a small bucket with stones and slipper shells. The bulbs will be confined to that medium, to try to force them to perform. Diagnosis: Soil too rich and too friable.

Horticultural underachievers take up valuable real estate. You want to help them to live up to their potential.

About those ants: What is the correlation between them and the blind plants? Coincidence. Proximity does not imply causality. k

Promising buds of Clematis hybrid (Clematis)
Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) first flowers after a third of a century.
October flower scape of Belladonna Lily (Amaryllis belladonna); blue flower in background is autumn crocus (Crocus sp.).