A Breed Apart

Plant breeding is a wonderful hobby that attracts an array of hobbyists, as well a plant professionals. Many plants, such as hemerocallis, hosta, hibiscus, and iris, are so easy that they attract the majority of hobbyist breeders. Professionals and the craziest of the breeders occasionally focus on more difficult plants that few others are willing to try. This includes plants where the pollen exchange is complicated either by timing, incompatibility, or other constraints. Such is the case with century plants (agave).

Peak flowering season for 2023 is drawing to a close at JLBG, while one new agave is just in mid-spike. We only had 13 different agaves flower this year, compared to 18 last year. Fortunately, we are able to save and store pollen in the refrigerator, where it will remain viable for at least 5 years.

Below are a few images of Steve Guptill of our garden staff, as he made crosses last week. At the bottom of the first image is our volunteer agave specialist, Vince Schneider, who is training Steve to make the crosses.

With agaves, the process involves waiting for the stigma to become sticky–a sign that it’s receptive to the pollen. Pollen is then gathered from our prospective father and then hauled up the 21′ ladder to the waiting stigmas. Not only are you high in the air, but you’re working around hundreds of bees that are busy gathering copious amounts of nectar.

Assuming we get seed set, they should be ripe by late September/early October.

Steve and Vince

Both spiking agaves in the photo below are our selected hybrids from previous years breeding.

Hardy Boyz

So often we think we know all about a plant, when we’ve only grown a single clone, and we all know what happens when we assume! A good example is the Southwest US native Agave parryi ssp. truncata, which is now grown around the world. 99.9% if the plants in commerce are a single clone, know as the Huntington form. Unfortunately, this clone is not reliably winter hardy north of Zone 8b.

Many years ago, we received a new clone via the late nurseryman, George Hull. Having survived for us without damage since 2010, including two winters of single digit F temperatures, we have christened this Agave parryi ssp. truncata ‘Hardy Boyz’. Below is a photo taken last week. It’s been very slow to offset, but we feel this an exceptional clone worthy of propagation and distribution. Stay tuned.

Agave parryi ssp. truncata ‘Hardy Boyz’

Excelsior…Fit for a King

Here’s a new photo of Agave parryi ssp. huachucensis ‘Excelsior’ from our garden this week. We typically don’t have many variegated century plants that will survive our winters, but this is one of the exceptions. This superb clone was first introduced in 1967 from a small California nursery by the same name. Protection from excess winter moisture and exceptional drainage is always the key in cold, wet winter climates. This particular planting is under a roof overhang. Hardiness zone 7b to 9b.

Agave parryi ‘Excelsior’

I bee Sleeping

As fall temperatures drop, it’s not unusual to find our native bees asleep in some of the most interesting places. We caught this carpenter bee fast asleep on the job this week, clinging tightly to the spines of an Agave parryi.

Agave frog

Since we’ve been growing agaves, one of the most fascinating things we’ve noticed is the incredible attraction of tree frogs and Carolina anoles to their leaf texture. There is hardly a day that goes by that we don’t spot one or the other, nestled on an agave leaf. Here is our most recent image of our native green tree frog, Hyla cinerea, basking in the sun on an Agave parryi hybrid. Ain’t nature grand!

Tree frog chillaxin' on an Agave parryi hybrid
Tree frogs love agaves!

The Flowery Gates of JLBG

We’ve been working on upgrading many of the temporary gates throughout the garden, our first few, which went in this year are all designed by NC sculptor Jim Gallucci, from photos we took in the JLBG Gardens. We all need more art in our gardens…Enjoy!

Sarracenia leucophylla gate
Dryopteris fern gate
Hosta gate
Iris ensata gate
Agave parryi gate