Four long weeks!

Last year, we were thrilled when one of our cycads produced a female cone…a first for JLBG. We subsequently impregnated it with pollen supplied from the garden of one or our former volunteers, Mike Papay. Our plant produced a great seed crop (56 seed), which was recently planted.

As a point of reference, I should mention that cycads are dioecious…each plant is either male or female. The genus cycas is one of the oldest known surviving plant genera, having emerged between 250 and 350 million years ago, when it diverged from ginkgos. Cycas, having been around for a very long time, also have supercharged, swimming sperm…a trait not seen in modern plants.

This year, we welcomed our first male cycad to cone. The first photo was taken 1 month prior to the second photo, so it’s taken that long for this males’ cone to grow from a tiny bulge to be ready to spread its pollen (sperm). Since we don’t have any flowering females in the garden this year, we’re shipping off the pollen to a palm and cycad breeder in Georgia. This afternoon, we used the Lorena Bobbitt technique to sever its cone, which is now boxed (bottom image) and leaving town before the plant rights groups find out.

Upside down in Dry Shade

At our home, we have a very wide overhang which never sees any moisture, so we were looking for plants that would stay low, ideally evergreen, and would tolerate seriously dry shade. The answer was Echeveria ‘Topsy Turvy’. These patches of the Northern Mexican succulent, with blue-green foliage, have absolutely thrived here. While they probably wouldn’t be happy in deep shade, they love this high canopy with good light, but no sun. These were planted in 2018. We’d rate these as Zone 7b/8a if kept dry in winter.

Meet Hamabo

We expect most everyone has grown a hibiscus at one time or another, either tropical or hardy. How many of you have tried the Asian Hibiscus hamabo? This fascinating 8-10′ tall evergreen shrub has thrived in our trials since 2018, and is just now flowering at JLBG for the first time. We had always considered this species tropical, so we were thrilled to hear that it survived as a die back at the SFASU Arboretum in Texas after this springs’ arctic blast of -4F. Dr. Dave Creech at SFASU tells me that it remains evergreen down to 10 degrees F. Has anyone else had experience with growing this outdoors in a cold winter climate?

Is that really yew?

While folks from “up north” know yews (Taxus), they are far less likely to know its doppleganger, the false yew (Cephalotaxus). I’ve always considered the two fairly interchangable, so was fascinated when DNA showed they actually belong to different plant families, which aren’t really closely related…other than both being conifers. Taxus is now in its own family, Taxaceae, and Cephalotaxus now resides in its own family, Cephalotaxaceae. For most gardeners, the important thing to know is that deer will consume taxus, but not cephalotaxus.

Below are a few favorites from the JLBG gardens. Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is a much wider leaf plant than the better known Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’. Mature size of ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is 2′ tall x 14′ wide, so it functions as an evergreen ground cover in either light shade or sun.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Brooklyn Gardens’

Our oldest plant of Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’ is now 27 years old, and measures 3′ tall x 12′ wide. Here it is growing in fairly deep shade.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Golden Dragon’ is a much smaller selection with bright golden foliage. Our five year old plants are 2′ tall x 4′ wide. The gold color only shows with a bit of sun.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Golden Dragon’

Bruce and his conifers

We recently visited conifer collector Bruce Appeldoorn at his nursery in the tiny town of Bostic, west of Charlotte, NC. Not only are the gardens amazing, but Bruce has transitioned from his career in landscape design/installation, to an amazing dwarf conifer nursery. He now sits atop the throne, having what is almost certainly the top conifer nursery in the Southeast US. Most everything is propagated here from either cuttings or grafting. He is part of a small contingent of regional broom hunters, who seek out and graft dwarf witches broom mutations from area pine trees. You can find out more about how to visit or order here.

Aucuba show

We find aucubas an invaluable evergreen shrub for dry shade, and one of our favorites is looking rather nice this week. Aucuba japonica ‘Ogon-no-tsuki’ is also one of the slowest growers due to the large amount of gold in the leaf center. It is our hope to perhaps finally have enough to share in the next couple of years.

Aucuba japonica ‘Ogon-no-tsuki’

Need an Inspiration?

Sometimes we’re all in need of inspiration, and this spring, ours came from its namesake, Magnolia ‘Inspiration’. This stunning evergreen hybrid between Magnolia doltsopa and Magnolia laevifolia was developed by our old hosta friend, Barry Sligh of New Zealand, who sadly passed away in 2019. Our amazing seven-year old specimen is now 10′ tall x 10′ wide and as you can see if absolutely loaded with deliciously fragrant flowers. Pat McCracken of Garden Treasures Nursery tells me that he produced it for a while, but stopped because it grew too fast in containers. I agree with his assessment that it is the proverbial ugly duckling when young, but it sure makes a heckuva swan when it ages.

Magnolia ‘Inspiration’
Magnolia ‘Inspiration’

Six Shooter

We have long enjoyed the winter-flowering, evergreen Clematis armandii, but had no idea the variability that existed until we acquired this new form from China in 2012. Unlike the more commonly known Clematis armandii var. armandii, which has 4 petals per flower, the subspecies hefengensis from Southwest Hubei Province in China has six petals. We have given this exceptional clone the cultivar name Clematis ‘Six Shooter’. We haven’t started propagating this yet, but are thinking about doing so. Would anyone be interested?

Clematis armandii var. hefengensis ‘Six Shooter’

Winter Bridal Bouquet

Flowering this week is our selection of Magnolia floribunda ‘Bridal Bouquet’. When we visited Yunnan, China in 1996, we were able to return with three seed of Magnolia floribunda, a species which seemed completely absent from American horticulture. The resulting seedlings were planted into the garden, where two promptly died during the first winter. Thankfully, one survived and is still thriving today 25 years later.

Magnolia floribunda ‘Bridal Bouquet’ forms an upright, somewhat open evergreen that sometimes starts flowering as early as mid-January. This year, thanks to our consistent cold, it waited until early March to start its floral show. The flowers have a distinctive and fascinating fragrance that we find unique among our magnolia collection. We have shared cuttings with several woody plant nurseries and donated plants to a few rare plant auctions in the hopes of getting this more widely cultivated.

Magnolia floribunda ‘Bridal Bouquet’
Magnolia floribunda ‘Bridal Bouquet’

Winter Anise

Looking lovely this week is the winter flowering anise, Illicium anisatum. This clone is Illicium anisatum ‘Murasaki no Sato’, which has creamy-centered leaves and new purple growth that’s just scrumptious. The winter floral show is also truly spectacular! This is first cousin to the tender Chinese anise, Illicium verum, whose pods are used medicinally. Illicium anisatum, however, is best used only ornamentally, since it’s fruit are toxic when consumed.