ONE OF the most beautiful flowers, somewhat neglected because it is simple and any fool can grow it, is the portulaca, P. grandiflora.
It is called sun rose, rock rose, rose moss and moss rose, and all those names annoy me a good bit, but there they are.
This annula comes from Brazeil or Chile, depending on which authority you like, and was introduced to gardens about 1827. It creeps modestly, and is six inches high, and throughout the warm season it is bravely studded with silky flowers the size of nickles or half-dollars, depending on variety and soil richness.
The trouble with it, if it is not churlish to find fault with so innocent and bright a creature, is that it opens only in the sunlight, and closes in the afternoon.
I think it has its own notions. Sometimes it is not open, though the sun is brilliant, and sometimes it is open though the sun is not shining. I have never quite satisfied maself in this business, except to notice that books are commonly wrong about it, since something more than merely sunshine causes its flowers to unfurl.
Years ago I noticed it growing in small boxes stuck in the window sills along a narrow and wretched street in some dismal town in the south of France. What a difference these small taffeta explosions made when they opened scarlet, magenta, lemon, primrose, white salmon and rose in the mornings.
It was also a great favorite in my own country along the Mississippi, and a great favorite of tenant farmers who grew it in washpans and other ingenious containers on the sagging wood porches of their shacks, commonly flanked with hounds who woke up occasionally to snap at bees.
I knew it first a half-century ago, where my Aunt Maire Tigg grew it in big stone troughs on her porch, overhung with elms, but it made no difference since the sun in those parts is so fierce that sun-loving flowers do well enough in the shade. It sowed itself every year, tending to the fine rich magenta that must be its basic color, though even after many generations there was a sprinkling of other colors.
This year I found myself possessed of some half-barrels of oak, in which whiskey had aged, and while mulling over the wonderful things that could be grown in them, the season was going right ahead. I filled them with very sandy soil, and a few lavender and rosemary plants, and sprinkled a few portulaca seeds about.
The portulaca, which does not care much for strong rich clay, goes mad for quite sandy loam.
It is wonderful on hot mornings to see them. About the time the tall lilies steam to death in the heat (or, it is dry, shrivel to paper) the portulaca hits its stide.
In one place I sowed some seeds of the white-leaf mullein, Verbascum bombyciferum (the name is irresistable), in pots and tubs, not because it needs such coddling, but because it gets too big if grown in heavy soil.
This mullein should be five or six feet, but when its stalks reached nine feet, and began leaning about, I thought it was over-doing its virtue and resolved to grow it in poorer and lighter soil.
Around the mulleins, which make basal rosettes of gray-white felt, I planted some more portulaca, and the effect has pleased me no end.
Nowadays you can get portulaca in named varieties, as indeed you used to be able to do in Victorian times, but ordinary seed packets from garden centers and hardware stores produce results as fine as any.
The blooms are usually double, but single-flowered sorts come up too, and as the great authority William Robinson used to say, it is hard to know which is more beautiful than another, you may be sure a dead heat is going on.
It is an ideal flower for big pots around swimming pools, or on balconies that bake all afternoon. There is only one common reason for failure: planting the seed too deep. Just scratch it in on the surface.
It is a mystery to me that people keep planting red geramums in beds, since I find the globs of color oppressive and boring. And yet they are more trouble, and boring. And yet they are more trouble, and certainly vastly which is not only more delicate but more brilliant and more varied.
Of course it does no good for a plant to be quite perfect it beauty, like the portulaca. Even if its colors are more gorgeous than geraniums, and even if it makes a better and far more reliable and consistent show, it still labors under the disadvantage of being elegant, and this rules it out for gardeners who require a flower to be gross.
It is a good bit handsomer, by the way, than tuberous begonias gardeners love to fail with (they abhor hot muggy summer and strong sun) and I like to think gardeners of wholesome and innocent and sensible natures will tunr, next April, to a pack of portulaca seed for a change, and experience the novel sensation that life can be beautiful and success easy.