Virginia is for Plant Lovers

I’m just back from a recent plant trip to coastal Virginia and wanted to share some trip highlights and photos. Mark Weathington of the JC Raulston Arboretum and I headed north for a quick 2 day jaunt to the Norfolk area of Virginia.

Our first stop was the garden of long time garden friend, Pam Harper. For decades, Pam was probably the most prolific and knowledgeable garden writer in the country, in addition to having what was once the largest horticultural slide library.

At 92, and despite suffering from debilitating eyesight issues, Pam still gardens, including planting and pushing carts of mulch around the garden. It was such a joy to once again walk her amazing garden, listening to the both the historical details and performance of each plant we passed.

Pam was donating the remainder (20,000) of her slide collection, which previously numbered over 100,000 images, to the JC Raulston Arboretum. There, they will be digitized for public availability.

Pam Harper, prolific garden writer
Pam Harper in her home office

Her 45 year-old Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ was the largest either of us had ever seen.

A 45 year-old specimen of Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide' in the home garden of garden writer, Pam Harper.
Camellia ‘Yuletide’

We both also fell in love with Camellia x vernalis ‘Meiko Tanaka’…a plant we’d never encountered in flower, but seems to have good commercial availability.

Camellia x vernalis 'Meiko Tanaka' in flower
Camellia x vernalis ‘Meiko Tanaka’

The gold barked Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’ was also showing off its stunning winter color.

Acer palmatum 'Bihou' showing off its winter color.
Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’

Pam’s garden has always yielded some of the most amazing Arum italicum seedlings I’ve ever seen. We are already growing two of her selections in hopes of future introduction, but we found a few more that we couldn’t resist.

Arum italicum seedlings
Arum italicum seedling

Our next stop was the Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum at the Hampton Roads Experiment Station. It had been many years since either of us had visited.

Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum
Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum

What we found was an amazing plant collection that has been mostly abandoned, except for some minimal mowing maintenance. In most cases the labeling was somewhat intact, although some required Easter egg-like hunts, and others were simply nowhere to be found.

A mostly abandoned plant collection at Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum

The late Virginia Tech researcher, Bonnie Appleton had worked to get homeowners to plant shorter maturing trees under power lines. To make her demonstration more authentic, she had faux power lines installed, which you can make out among the branches. It was interesting to see that virtually all of the plants she promoted as dwarf, had all grown well into the power lines. Mark recalled conversations with her decades earlier explaining that her choices weren’t really very sound.

Dwarf is a relative term...
Tree – Power line demonstration at Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum

There were a number of amazing older specimens including one of the largest Quercus polymorpha (Mexican Oak) that we’d ever seen in cultivation. This 75′ tall specimen dated to 1989, was originally gifted to them by the late JC Raulston, from a Yucca Do Nursery wild collection.

A large specimen of Quercus polymorpha (Mexican Oak)
Quercus polymorpha

The old specimens of Ilex buergeri were absolutely stunning. This is a beautifully-textured, spineless broadleaf evergreen that’s virtually unknown in the commercial trade.

Ilex buergeri
Ilex buergeri

Another spineless holly, Ilex pedunculosa (long-stalk holly), is known for being difficult to grow in our hot, humid climate. Their specimen, however, looked absolutely superb.

A superb example of Ilex pedunculosa
Ilex pedunculosa
Red berries of Ilex pedunculosa
Ilex pedunculosa

We caught Fatsia japonica in full flower…always a great nectar source for honeybees in the winter months.

Fatsia japonica, a great source of nectar for bees
Fatsia japonica

A highlight for me was catching the amazing stinkhorn fungus, Clathrus columnatus in full splendor…both visually and odoriferously.

Clathrus columnatus, the stinkhorn fungus
Clathrus columnatus

Leaving the Hampton Roads station, we headed to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, where Mark worked before he came to the JCRA. Much of their efforts in the fall and winter are put toward their massive winter lights festival.

Christmas Lights at Norfolk Botanical Garden
Christmas Lights at Norfolk Botanical Garden

Norfolk Botanical Garden is home to an extensive and renown camellia collection, so we spent a good bit of time roaming the woodland garden where they grow. We were particularly interested in their Camellia species collection, several of which had questionable labeling. Here is one that was correct, Camellia gaudichaudii.

Camellia gaudichaudii in bloom
Camellia gaudichaudii

We spent a good bit of time studying a holly, labeled Ilex purpurea (syn. chinensis). The plant was amazing, but looks nothing like that species. Hopefully, a holly expert will be able to help us identify it from our photos.

 Ilex purpurea, not really
Ilex purpurea – not
These are berries but not from Ilex purpurea
Ilex purpurea – not

This was my first time seeing the self-fertile idesia, Idesia polycarpa ‘Kentucky Fry’. I can’t imagine why this amazing, easy-to-grow plant isn’t more widely planted. I can think of few trees with more winter interest.

Idesia polycarpa 'Kentucky Fry'
Idesia polycarpa ‘Kentucky Fry’
Idesia polycarpa 'Kentucky Fry'
Idesia polycarpa ‘Kentucky Fry’

The shrub/small tree that blew us away from several hundred feet was a specimen of Arbutus unedo ‘Oktoberfest’. We’ve grown Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ for decades at JLBG, but have never seen anything as stunning as this clone.

Arbutus unedo 'Oktoberfest'
Arbutus unedo ‘Oktoberfest’
Arbutus unedo 'Oktoberfest'
Arbutus unedo ‘Oktoberfest’

While we’re talking about plants with red fruit, I was fascinated with their specimen of Cotoneaster lacteus. I had mistakenly assumed that most cotoneasters fail in our hot, humid summers, but obviously, I’ve never tried this species, which is typically rated as hardy only to Zone 8a. I think we need to trial this at JLBG.

Cotoneaster lacteus
Cotoneaster lacteus

Finally, I was particularly fascinated with a Quercus nigra (water oak), that formerly had a planter built around it’s base. As you can imagine, the tree roots made short work of the planter, but once the planter boards were removed, the resulting tree root sculpture is simply exquisite.

Quercus nigra (water oak) roots where planter was removed.
Quercus nigra former planter

I hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of our recent trip.

Flaming Buckeye

We saw this amazingly colored buckeye (Aesculus pavia) on a recent visit to the NC Arboretum in Asheville. I’ve seen countless individuals of this species, both in the wild and in gardens and have never seen a color like this. We have encouraged them to get this grafted and introduced.