Information you can trust

With over 60% of retail plants now purchased at the box stores, we wonder if most consumers know you can’t trust much if anything you read on a label at a mass marketer. Our most recent example is this tag on an Illicium parviflorum at our local Lowes. I particularly love the common name, Japanese Anise. Unfortunately, Illicium parviflorum is native only to Florida…quite a few miles from Japan.

The tag mentions full sun, which Illicium parviflorum certainly tolerates, but in the wild, it grows naturally in moist woodlands.

Then, there is the note about cool temperatures and warm soil promotes root growth. Well, warm soil does promote root growth for some plants, but not for all. Wouldn’t the soil have been warmer in mid-summer than now? Just wondering…

And, if that wasn’t enough, our staff taxonomist, Zac Hill spotted this tag for our native bald cypress, Taxodium distichum at a different Lowes store. The problem is that the plant is actually a Chinese Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia instead of a Taxodium. I wonder if they thought…”what the hell, those dumb consumers will never know the difference.”. After all, it’s just another little green lie. As Anita likes to say, ‘The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.”

Sex for the Centuries

Since we are limited in the number of hardy century plant species, our only option for more agave diversity in the garden is to create it by crossing existing hardy species together. Here are a few of our recent successes.

Agave x amourifolia is a Plant Delights/JLBG creation from a cross we made in 2016 that combined the genes of three century plants, Agave ovatifolia, Agave lophantha, and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Logan Calhoun’. Our size estimates were that the offspring would mature at 3′ tall x 5′ wide. Here is one of our garden specimens photographed this week, which has already reached 2′ tall x 3′ wide.

Agave x amourifolia

Below is Agave x ovox, a 2017 cross of the two giants, Agave ovatifolia and Agave x pseudoferox ‘Bellville’. We expect this to get huge…perhaps 5′ tall x 10′ wide.

Agave x ovox ‘Large Ox’

Below is Agave x protifolia is a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave x protamericana x Agave ovatifolia. We also expect this to get quite massive.

Agave x protifolia

Below is Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’, a 2016 Mike Papay cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave flexispina. We would have expected this to be a mature size, but it’s achieved this in only 5 years, so we think we’re seeing some serious hybrid vigor.

Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’

Below is Agave x ocareginae, our 2016 cross of Agave ovatifolia x Agave victoriae-reginae. Most likely, this elegant small grower will never offset.

Agave x ocareginae

Below is Agave x schuphantha, a 2015 Mike Papay cross involving three century plant species, Agave schidigera, Agave lophantha, and Agave lechuguilla. It’s formed a beautiful, symmentrical rosette, which should be getting close to mature size.

Agave x schuphantha ‘Wheel of Fortune’

The Case of The Beautiful Imposter

This is one of the rare summers we actually got flowers on Amaryllis belladonna in the gardens at JLBG. The only problem is that they aren’t really Amaryllis belladonna. This poor South African native has suffered a series of nomenclatural mix ups over the last 250 years, that sadly continues today.

First was the battle over which plant really belongs to the genus name, amaryllis. The mix-up started with the grandfather of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, when he published the genus name Amaryllis in 1753. In his initial publication, Linnaeus applied the name amaryllis to a group of plants, which later turned out to include at least five different genera; amaryllis, nerine, zephyranthes, sprekelia, and sternbergia. A few years later in 1819, botanist William Herbert and others tried to clean up the mess using Linnaeus’s notes, and in doing so, assigned the genus name amaryllis to the solitary South African species, Amaryllis belladonna, which had been in Western cultivation since 1633.

Fast forward 119 years to 1938, when taxonomist Cornelius Uphof upset the proverbial apple cart when he published a paper in which he declared that the assignment of the name amaryllis for the South Aftrican plant was against Linnaeus’s wishes, since it was clear to Uphof that Linnaeus intended the genus Amaryllis to be applied to the American genus, Hippeastrum. Uphof’s paper renamed the American genus Hippeastrum to Amaryllis and the South African Amaryllis belladonna became Callicore rosea. This caused quite a taxonomic uproar which would continue for another 50 years.

The following year, 1939, taxonomist Joseph Sealy dug deeper into the original amaryllis name mix-up, and found it impossible to determine which plant Linnaeus intended to bestow with the genus name, Amaryllis, since most of Linnaeus’s original description referenced the South African plant, and only one small part referenced the American plant. Consequently, Sealy left the name amaryllis to apply to the solitary Amaryllis belladonna, and not to the much larger genus Hippeastrum.

The battle was far from over, and in fact, it turned into a war, led by American taxonomist Dr. Hamilton Traub, who from 1949 until his death in 1983, was defiant that the genus name amaryllis should instead apply to the American hippeastrums. Finally, in 1987, after Traub’s death, the International Botanical Congress confirmed the assignment of the name amaryllis to the South African species. Despite this resolution to 250 years of wrangling, most gardeners still refer to the plants that they grow widely in homes and gardens for their large flowers as amaryllis and not the proper name, hippeastrum.

One would hope that the 1987 decision would be the end of the mess, but not so fast…there was yet another taxonomic snafu. Amaryllis belladonna is a plant which is widely grown throughout California, where it thrives and flowers annually. But, is it really Amaryllis belladonna? While it’s certainly not a hippeastrum, the answer is no. To solve this mix-up, let’s step back a few years, to 1841, when Australian plantsman John Bidwill, first crossed Amaryllis belladonna with another African relative, brunsvigia, creating a bi-generic hybrid that would become known as x Amargyia parkeri. Because x Amargyia parkeri had more flowers, a more radial flower head, and better vigor, it gradually replaced true Amaryllis belladonna in cultivation, especially in California. I chatted with Californian Bill Welch (Bill the Bulb Baron), the largest grower/breeder of Amaryllis belladonna, prior to his untimely death in 2019. Bill admitted that everything he grew and sold as Amaryllis belladonna was actually the hybrid x Amargyia parkeri. Nurserymen have a bad habit of using incorrect names, because they realize that names which are familiar to customers always sell better.

If that’s not confusing enough, we should add that about half of the people who grow Lycoris x squamigera, a Zone 4 hardy bulb, also have their plants also labeled as Amaryllis belladonna, which is only winter hardy from Zone 8 south. We can thank several large mail order bulb catalogs who have no interest in either correct nomenclature or correct photography for that fiasco.

To quote the late Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

So, do you see why plant taxonomist generally have little hair remaining?

Got Cicads? We’ve got Cicada Killers

I noticed this odd soil formation in the garden this week and checked with our staff entomologist Bill Reynolds, who identified this as the nest of a Cicada Killer Wasp. These large, yellow banded wasps which we see around the garden, capture and paralyze cicadas, then bring them back to their in-ground lairs. The wasps drag the stunned cicadas into the mound and proceed to lay eggs in their paralyzed bodies. The eggs, then hatch and use the cicadas for food, eating the non-vital body parts first, so their food source remains alive as long as possible. When the hole is full of cicada bodies (generally less than a dozen), the wasps seal up the entrance, leaving no trace of what’s going on underneath. Sounds like a real-life zombie storyline.

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.

Visiting Kentucky in Texas

It was a real thrill last week to visit a population of Cypripedium kentuckiense (Kentucky Ladyslipper Orchid) in Texas with native plant guru, Adam Black. Adam has made numerous trips to this and other nearby sites, carefully pollinating the orchids to ensure seed set and enhance reproduction. While we’ve offered this species as seed-grown plants (8 years from seed to flower) for years, this was my first chance to actually study them in the wild. Cypripedium kentuckiense is one of the easiest ladyslipper orchids to cultivate, thriving in a wide variety of woodland conditions. Here, they were growing just above a seasonally flooded stream in very sandy soils.

Let’s talk cells

If you’re a gardener, especially one who likes to stay in touch, there are few things more annoying than those hard-sided cell phone cases that come standard when you buy a new cell phone. I constantly found those hard plastic swivel belt clips beyond aggravating, when bending down working in the garden. I lost track of how many time the clip and my belt separated, tossing my cell phone into everything from ponds to spiny cactus.

Searching on-line, I discovered these amazing soft side cell phone cases with dual belt straps, that turned out to be a godsend for a gardener. I’m now on my third, with each one lasting several years before I simply wore out the threads. So if you’ve cursed your current hard-sided case every time it leaps from your belt, give these a try. There are many brands out there, but our favorite is a Zeato Tactical brand.

Sweet as Snow Cream

One of our most popular introductions is Edgeworthia ‘Snow Cream’…a plant we first selected back in 1995…long before more than a handful of gardeners had even heard of the Chinese native genus.

The late JC Raulston grew a plant, known then as Edgeworthia papyrifera, just outside of the arboretum lath house back in the early 1990s, when I was Curator of the Shade House. It was a fascinating plant that I remember watching each winter as the tight white buds burst into yellow flowers. There was little detectable floral fragrance, the plant never exceeded 3.5′ in height, and it suffered mightily in cold NC winters. I was still entranced by the plant and propagated several and planted them around the NC State Fairgrounds, where I worked full time.

An interesting back story is that a population of Edgeworthia papyrifera was discovered along Wolf Creek in Rabun County, Georgia back in 1971. Author Wilbur Duncan and other native plant researchers were shocked and puzzled to find this new plant growing in the wild until it was later determined to be escapees, probably circuitously from an earlier 1903 introduction by the USDA..

In June 1995, I was visiting plantsman Roger Gossler at his family nursery, Gossler Farms, in Oregon. Roger had just received a shipment of edgeworthia from Piroche Plants in Canada. Since I had tried in vain to track down Edgeworthia chrysantha, I was thrilled at my luck in finally finding it. Going through their batch of seed-grown plants, I chose one that had the largest foliage and best form, which we eventually named E. ‘Snow Cream’.

Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’ – 1

For those who don’t know the Piroche Plants story, let me share. Back in the early 1990s, Canadian nurseryman/plantsman, Pierre Piroche was able to do what no one else had been able to manage and import quite a large number of very rare, commercially unobtainable plants, both woody and perennial from China. The story goes that Piroche first established a nursery in Bhutan that was able to import plants directly from China and then ship them on to Canada. Keen plant collectors around the country scooped up these gems until the Chinese import program sadly ended a couple of years later. Without his work, who knows if and when these superb forms of Edgeworthia chrysantha would have reached the US. A plantsman’s salute is in order for Pierre Piroche.

Edgeworthia taxonomy continues to be a moving target. The long known name Edgeworthia papyrifera was shot down when DNA studies showed that it was simply the diploid form of the triploid, and earlier published Edgeworthia chrysantha. Later, researchers dug up the yet earlier published name, Edgeworthia tomentosa (formerly Magnolia tomentosa)…a name which other researchers noted, is invalid since it was not correctly published.

Some folks have tried the orange flowered edgeworthia (‘Akebono’) that shows up in the market from time to time. Sadly, it’s the non-fragrant diploid form that has very little winter hardiness. We gave up on this in the mid-1990s after killing it our prerequisite three times. I am excited to share that a new orange-flowered form of the hardy fragrant form is finally poised to hit the market in the next few years.

Below are a few shots of Edgeworthia ‘Snow Cream’ at JLBG this week in it’s full blaze of glory. The daphne-like fragrance is akin to walking by a department store fragrance counter. Because of our consistently cool winter, flowering this year is about 2-3 weeks behind normal. We have found that edgeworthia grows equally as well in light shade or part sun…as long as the soil is well drained. Mature size seems to be in the 7-8′ range. To quote the late Paul Harvery…”Now you know the rest of the story.”

Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’ – 2
Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’ – 3
Edgeworthia chrysantha – new orange selection…top secret

What happened in Glandorf, thankfully didn’t stay in Glandorf

One of several breakthroughs in lenten rose breeding has been the development of the Helleborus x glandorfensis hybrids by the breeders at Germany’s Heuger hellebores. In the town of Glandorf, near the border with Netherlands, these amazing crosses of Helleborus x hybridus with Helleborus x ericsmithii (niger x lividus x argutifolius) were developed. While there are several H. x glandorfensis clones entering the market now, the first two were H. ‘Ice n Roses Red’ and ‘Ice n Roses White’, which you can see below. The special traits of the series are large, outfacing flowers, sterility, and extremely dark black-green foliage. We look forward to bring more of these excellent hybrids to markets as our trials dictate.

Helleborus x glandorfensis ‘Ice n Roses Red’ – our 4 year old clump
Helleborus x glandorfensis ‘Ice n Roses White’ – our 2 year old clump

Icebergs are breaking off, but Iburgs are breaking bad

Another recent dramatic improvement in hybrid lenten roses started at the small mom/pop nursery in England, RD plants. Here, Rodney David and Lynda Windsor created the first known hybrids of Hellleborus x ballardiae (niger x lividus) and Helleborus x hybridus. These revolutionary hybrids, previously thought impossible, are now known as Helleborus x iburgensis. They combine stunningly beautiful marbled foliage (from the H. lividus parent), with outfacing flowers (due to both H. lividus and H. niger), with a wide range of flower colors (due to Helleborus x hybridus). Because of the wide range of species used to create these gems, they have been effectively neutered so that no seedlings will be occurring in your garden. Below are a few from our gardens this winter.

Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Bayli’s Blush’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Charmer’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Cheryl’s Shine’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Dana’s Dulcet’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Dorothy’s Dawn’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Glenda’s Gloss’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Molly’s White’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Penny’s Pink’
Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Pippa’s Purple’