Reveling with Ravenel

I’d grown quite a few eryngiums…49 different ones, in fact, before Patrick shared Eryngium ravenelii with us in 2015. Who knew we were missing one of the best eryngiums in the entire genus! Today, Eryngium ravenelii holds several places of honor in our garden, where we can watch the myriad of pollinators who regularly stop by for a nectar snack during flowering season (mid-August to late September).

Eryngium ravenelii was named for American botanist, Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887). In the wild, Eryngium ravenelii grows in standing water in flooded ditches, alongside sarracenias (see bottom photo). We’ve now seen them in the wild in both North Florida and South Carolina, where they grow in calcareous-formed soils. In the garden, they thrive in an array of slightly acidic soils as long as the soil is reasonably moist.

Eryngium ravenelii
Eryngium ravenelii
Eryngium ravenelii

Goodbye Champ!

We were saddened this past week to hear of the passing of our friend, Dr. Larry Mellichamp, age 73, after a three year battle with bile duct cancer. I first met Larry in the late 1970s, when he spoke to our Horticulture Club at NC State. Over the next 45 years, we interacted regularly, mostly during his visits to JLBG.

Knowing that Larry was in the battle of his life, we visited him at his wonderful Charlotte home garden last year (photo below). Even while he was ill, his wit remained razor sharp, and his humor as dry as the Sahara desert.

Not only did Larry teach for 38 years (1976-2014) at UNC-Charlotte, but he also managed the 10-acre UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden, which he turned into a must-see horticultural destination. Larry was a huge advocate of interesting plants, especially US natives. He was constantly dropping off new plants for us to propagate and share with a wider audience.

Larry was best known worldwide for his work with carnivorous plants, particularly with the genus Sarracenia. His “little bug” series, (Sarracenia ‘Lady Bug’, ‘June Bug’, ‘Love Bug’, and ‘Red Bug’, released in 2004, was the first widely marketed collection of pitcher plants, from his breeding work with the late Rob Gardener. In 2021, Larry was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Carnivorous Plant Society…one of many such awards Larry received.

Larry’s home sarracenia collection
Sarracenia ‘Red Bug’

Larry was also a prolific writer. His books include: Practical Botany (1983), The Winter Garden with Peter Loewer (1997), Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region with Wells/Case (1999), Bizarre Botanicals with Paula Gross (2010), Native Plants of the Southeast (2014), and The Southeast Native Plant Primer with Paula Gross (2020).

Larry and I connected on many levels, but we were both strong advocates for making rare native plants available for propagation and commercialization…something that is sadly the exception in the current world of botany. We hope others in the native plant community pick up the torch.

Larry is survived by his wife of 48 years, Audrey, his daughter, Suzanne, and a host of plants he spread throughout the world. Life well lived, my friend.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Foundation of the Carolinas for the “Mellichamp
Garden Staff Enrichment Fund”, 220 North Tryon Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. For bank transfer instructions contact donorrelations@fftc.org or 704-973-4529. All are invited to share memories and photos of Larry at https://link.inmemori.com/mDPxXH . A public memorial service will be planned for October at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Look for an announcement on their website.

Water Spider Orchid

One of the little-known of the native orchids is flowering now at JLBG. Habenaria repens, aka: water spider orchid, is the most widespread (NC to Texas) of the five native habenaria species. This charmer has been at home in one of our bogs for several years and has proven quite easy to grow. Hardiness is probably Zone 7b-10a, at least.

Habenaria repens

Kennedy’s Sabatia

Our clump of the native, Sabatia kennedyana just finished another amazing floral show. This fabulous, but easy-to-grow perennial has a truly odd native distribution on the coastal border of North and South Carolina, on the coastal border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in Nova Scotia! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an odd, disjunct range. Sabatia kennedyana is best suited for a sunny, slightly acidic bog, but regular garden soil will work fine, if it’s kept moist. I have no idea why this isn’t grown in every garden that has the correct conditions. Winter Hardiness is Zone 6-8, at least.

Sabatia kennedyana

Habitat Creation

In case you missed this section of the garden during spring open house, this is where we created a small vignette that comprises both bog and desert conditions in the same space. The low central area was created for pitcher plants and other bog lovers, while the higher areas to each side, are home to dryland loving plants like agaves and bearded iris. We hope to show how dramatically diverse habits can be created in a very small space. The wet space is created by installing a seep, which is nothing more than a continually dripping water line.

Lack no Colon

I love odd plants, and the southeast native Lachnocaulon (pronounced lack no colon) is about as odd as they come. This bog native, often found growing with pitcher plants, forms a mound that looks like a giant pin cushion. Here is a plant of Lachnocaulon anceps (NC west to Texas) in full flower this week at JLBG. Yes, those white round balls are the flowers.

Those tricky plant names

Looking good in the garden this week is the amazing fern, Dryopteris x australis. This rare fern is a US native…despite the confusing name, hailing from only a few scattered locations from Virginia west to Arkansas. In reality, the name “australis” means from the south. This splendid specimen grows in both sun and shade, and tolerates both wet and dry soils. Hardiness is Zone 5a-9b.

A Pitcher of Flowers

Here is a small sampling of the amazing array of flowers that are in the garden currently (late April/early May) on our pitcher plants. The genus Sarracenia is native to North America and hails from Canada south to Florida, where they are found in seasonally damp bogs. In the garden or in containers, they are incredibly easy to grow as long as they have moist toes (roots), and dry ankles (base where the crown meets the roots). Winter hardiness varies based on the species, but most are hardy from zone 5a to 9b.

Sarracenia JLBG-14 (rubra x alata)
Sarracenia JLBG18-06 (harperi ex)
Sarracenia JLBG19-031
Sarracenia Leah Wilkerson
Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Unstained Glass’
Sarracenia ‘Pretty in Pink’
Sarracenia ‘Redman’
Sarracenia ‘Spade’
Sarracenia x catesbyi ‘Sea Creature’

Purple leggings

Iris ‘Gerald Darby’ is one of those iris that doesn’t even need to flower to be garden worthy. Here it is in our garden this week, emerging with its’ purple leggings. This gem is a North American native hybrid of Iris versicolor and Iris virginica, known as Iris x robusta. This introduction of Iris breeder Gerald Darby was actually named for him after his death by another iris breeder R.H. Coe of England. Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’ is equally at home growing in standing water as it is in typical garden soil. Hardiness is Zone 4a-9b.

Atamasca or Atamasco?

Ever since I was a small kid, I’ve observed Zephyranthes atamasco (atamasco lily) in the wild, where they grow in swampy wooded lowlands. Atamasco lily is also one of many great nomenclatural muddles with regard to it’s correct spelling. When it was first named by Linneaus, back in 1753, it was assigned to genus amaryllis, so the specific epithet was spelled “atamasca”.

In his later work, Linneaus changed the spelling to “atamasco”, which corresponded to the Native American name for the bulb. It remained spelled with an “o” even after it was moved into the genus Zephyranthes in 1821. The problem is that, according to International Nomenclatural rules, the original spelling must take precedent. So, Zephyranthes atamasca is correct. Except…there is an exemption for name conservation, when correcting the name will cause confusion or economic harm. There is currently a well-supported move underfoot to conserve the long-used spelling “atamasco”. And you thought nomenclature was boring!

I’ve long marveled at the diversity within the species, and as an adult have been fortunate to be able to collect offset bulbs from some of the special forms I’ve found.

The top image is a very compact form that we’ve named Zephyranthes ”Milk Goblet’. Below that is one of our larger flowered forms from Alabama that we named Zephyranthes ‘Hugo’. Hugo has 5″ wide flowers in a species where 2.5-3″ wide is typical. Both of these are in full flower now at JLBG.

Zephyranthes atamasco ‘Hugo’

Drinks anyone?

Couldn’t resist this photo of a couple of carpenter bees looking for a drink after a hard day of work, and happened on this enticing stray pitcher full of water. Oh, if they only knew…

My Summer Vacation trip to Lambou Field, Florida

Back in the early 2000s, I printed out every exchange from the International Bulb Society email list that discussed the bulb genus, hymenocallis (spider lilies). Most conversations originated with Victor Lambou, who was obviously an authority on the genus. It’s now been years since the Bulb Society went defunct and I had lost track of Vic and his work. I, and others assumed that Victor had passed away and his plant collection had vanished, as is usually the case with keen specialty plant collectors, whose families don’t share the same passion or have an appreciation of the importance of their collections.

I was on the road visiting nurseries in late March, when I received a phone call that could best be described as horticulturally shocking. A friend from the American Iris Society was calling to share that they had been contacted to gauge their interest in the iris collection of a Florida plantsman, Victor Lambou, who was in declining health. “Had I ever heard of Vic”, they asked. That call set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a massive plant rescue this September.

Victor Lambou, 92, of Tallahassee, Florida (no relation to Curly Lambeau of the better-known Lambeau Field) is a well-known, retired Environmental Aquatic Biologist, who had a career with the EPA as a fish specialist. In his latter years, Victor became interested in native aquatic plants, primarily in the genus Iris and Hymenocallis. His career travels through swamps and bogs allowed him to locate and rescue several rare and significant plant species, as well as numerous variants within those species. His work in cultivating and later breeding these plants resulted in a botanically significant world class collection that is quite worthy of preservation.

Due to his advanced age, Victor had been unable to maintain his collection since 2017, and is now living in an assisted living facility. In August, after five months of working through the court system, the Florida Court system, with the approval of the trustee and Victor, granted us ownership of his entire plant collection.

The next step was a one-day scouting trip in late August to access what actually remained, the condition of the plants, and if a rescue was feasible. Not only were the plants still in great shape, but the project was much larger than I could possibly have imagined. The highlight, of course, was a chance to finally meet Victor in person and chat about his collection.

Victor’s plant collection consisted of approximately 2000 tubs of plants. Our visual rough estimate put the plant count to be between 30-40,000. Because of the aquatic nature of Victor’s plant collection, all plants were all grown in sealed-bottom tubs of mud, each weighing 60-100 lbs. Plants were meticulously arranged by block, row, and then position within the row. Victor’s last plant inventory in 2017, showed 617 unique plant taxa (taxa = genetically distinct individual). Were it not for Victor’s containerized system of growing plants aquatically, it’s doubtful that anything would have survived four years of neglect.

Lambou field plant collection
Lambou Field Plant Collections
Tubs of hymenocallis

Victor’s list included 407 taxa of hymenocallis, 138 taxa of iris, and 44 taxa of crinum, and a few assorted other plant genera.  To put Victor’s hymenocallis collection in perspective, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which maintains the world’s only global database of living plant collections in botanic gardens, only lists 118 hymenocallis taxa preserved in collections worldwide.  In other words, Victor had almost 3.4 times the worlds entire collection of hymenocallis is his backyard.

The Rescue

My initial assessment was followed by a full-fledged rescue in early September. JLBG staff members Amanda Wilkins (garden curator), and Zac Hill (plant records/taxonomist), and JC Raulston Arboretum director, Mark Weathington joined me for the 9 hour drive to Tallahassee, stopping briefly to pick up a 15′ U-Haul once we arrived in Florida.

We also extended invitations to 25 gardens/plant collectors. Of that group, 10 were able to participate. The botanical gardens/staff who participated and will be housing plants from Victor’s collections include:

Hayes Jackson   Longleaf Botanical Garden, AL

Pat Lynch              Bok Tower Gardens, FL

Mark Weathington          JC Raulston Arboretum, NC

Andy Cabe           Riverbanks Botanical Garden, SC

Todd Lasseigne Bellingrath Gardens, AL

Once we began the site rescue, we discovered that approximately 10% of the collections were no longer alive, leaving approximately 555 living taxa. Our rescue efforts were not focused on named cultivars of plant species that were already established in commerce (approximately 93 taxa), or un-identified taxa (approximately 24 taxa), or open pollinated seedlings (approximately 10 taxa). Consequently, rescue efforts were aimed at the 428 most important taxa.

Lambou field growing area

None of the tubs were labeled, but thankfully Victor had extensive bed maps, which the trustee made available. Without these, the plant collection would be botanically worthless. Two full days were spent extracting plants from the muddy tubs. We tried an array of extraction methods, but finally found it best to employ the back-breaking task of upturning each container and sift through the muck to extract the plants.

Small quantities of some varieties were labeled and stored in Ziploc bags, while larger quantities were stored in community pots.

Not only were the plants interesting, but Victor also had one of the larger collections of Lubber grasshoppers that I’ve ever encountered. These voracious critters seem to love the plants as much as we did. Of course, these protein filled insects reduced the need for frequent snack breaks. I’d always heard the slogan that Virginia is For Lovers, but little did I know that Florida is for Lubbers.

Eastern Lubber grasshopper.

Lambou field, plant extraction area

The rescue became slower and more challenging, when unbeknownst to us, Tropical Storm Mindy had formed virtually on top of us, during our second day of rescue. Consequently, there wasn’t a dry eye…or anything else in the place when we finished and loaded the U-Haul for the return trip.

Remaining tubs after extraction
Just pure muck.
Rescued plants ready to load for the return trip
A drenched Mark Weathington loading the last few items on the U-Haul.

Rescue team/plant relocations

The next phase of the rescue operation is scheduled for Sept 20, 2021. This will involve the Louisiana Iris Society Historical Preservation Group. This subgroup of the American Iris Society has species conservation stewards who will each house a replicated collection of Victor’s iris.  Of the 138 Iris taxa in Victor’s collection, there are 24 different taxa of the southeast native Iris hexagona. Currently, the Iris Preservation Network only has 6 taxa, so these are extremely valuable for conservation purposes. Juniper Level Botanic Garden also has a duplicate collection of Victor’s iris.

Summary

When the final phase of the rescue is complete, Victor’s plants will have been distributed to 9 botanical gardens and 5 private collectors gardens.  We have instructed these gardens to share with other gardens in appropriate climatic zones, so we feel confident that Victor’s collections will continue to be shared and conserved even more widely.

JLBG spent 392 labor hours on the rescue, including 76 hours on site at Victor’s garden. Our team from Juniper Level Botanic Garden was able to rescue 291 taxa. Taxa that were too tender to live outdoors in our Zone 7b, were sent to gardens in warmer climates. The total number of plants rescued and now housed at JLBG is 5000 plants. This does not include the additional collections which are housed at our sister institution, the JC Raulston Arboretum.

We were able to rescue 19 hymenocallis that Victor has selected and named, along with 3 of his named/selected Iris. Victor’s collection consisted of over 123 of his hymenocallis hybrids which are still in need of evaluation. These were rescued and have been planted in our research area here at JLBG. Any of these that prove to be distinct and exceptional will be propagated and introduced to the horticultural world, via our nursery division, Plant Delights Nursery.

Hymenocallis palmeri x rotata hybrid (V. Lambou)

Before the Lambou rescue, JLBG already grew 42 taxa of hymenocallis, which number has now swelled to 263, making it almost certainly the most extensive collection of hymenocallis taxa in the world.

We hope that this will be a model for the future for Botanical Gardens to collaborate to preserve these vitally important ex-situ private plant collections.

Lambou plant collection at JLBG

Too buzzed to fly?

Hmmm… We love sarracenias…such great garden entertainment and without going on-line!

Macbridea

Raise your hand if you’ve grown macbridea in the garden. Raise your hand if you’ve even heard of macbridea. This cute North American native (NC, SC, GA) bog mint has really impressed us in the garden. Flowering started in the last few weeks, and shows no sign of abating. We’re always cautious with mint relatives, but so far, this one has been very well behaved.

Are those backyard insects driving you crazy!!

picture of Bug Bat Pitcher Plant in the garden bog

Bog Garden with Sarracenia ‘Bug Bat’

picture of Sarracenia 'Bug Bat' for sale at Plant Delights Nursery

Sarracenia ‘Bug Bat’ in our sales house

Combat  those pesky backyard pests with your very own Bug Bat. These North American natives are at home in a moist bog areas and prey on ants, flies, wasps, beetles, slugs and snails.

Even if you don’t have a bog or moist garden area, you can still enjoy growing pitcher plants on your deck, patio, or balcony…and they make a great conversation piece for friends and kids. Simply plant your pitcher plant in pure peat moss in your favorite patio container, set in a saucer to hold water and maintain even moisture. Find out more about the culture of pitcher plants and shop our other Sarracenia for sale.