Laosy Mytilaria

Okay…everyone raise your hand if you’ve grown Mytilaria laosensis. This odd monotypic genus, native from Southern China to Laos, is first cousin to the also virtually unknown genus Exbucklandia, both in the Witch Hazel family, Hamamelidaceae . Since we’ve had our Exbucklandia in the ground since 1997, we though it was worth trying its cousin.

Our Mytilaria is Dan Hinkley’s collection from Huanan…probably the first accession in the country. Dan has actually never put one in the ground and told me that it would certainly die when we hit 27F. Well, we’ve dropped to 25 so far, and it still looks great, so we’ve already pushed the envelope. We truly have no idea what temperatures it will take, but that’s why we trial plants. As the late JC Raulston used to say, “Unless you’re killing plants, you’re not growing as a gardener.”

Meet Urophysa

Unless you’re a serious plant nerd, you’ve probably never heard of the plant genus, Urophysa. This small genus of only two species in the clematis family (Ranunculaceae) is only found growing in Karst cliff crevices in a few limited provinces of South Central China. In other words, they are quite rare. Urophysa henryi was originally named Isopyrum henryi, when it was thought to be a brother of our native Isopyrum biternatum. Urophysa is now considered most closely related to the famed half-columbine, Semiaquilegia adoxoides.

While the Chinese people mostly use Urophysa henryi as a medicinal treatment for bruises, etc., we prefer it as a winter-flowering gem in the rock garden. Here are our plants, which began flowering in our rock garden, just as we turned the page on the new year, 2022.

A New Ironwood earns its mettle

It’s far more common for new perennials to be discovered than new trees…it’s a size thing. Botanists were excited in 1960, when Chinese professor H.T. Chang published a new small tree that he thought to be a witch hazel, named Hamamelis subaequalis. The original Jiangsu Province collection actually dated to 1935, but it took 25 years to be published based on a herbarium specimen of the fruit.

The new hazel hadn’t been seen alive since 1935, and was assumed extinct, when it was rediscovered in 1988 by a team from the Jiangsu Institute of Botany. After studying live flowering specimens for three years, it became obvious that It wasn’t a witch hazel at all, and a new genus, Shaniodendron was published for the plant. Here, it remained, until 1997, when DNA analysis revealed that Shaniodendron was actually a second species in the formerly monotypic genus Parrotia….only living some 3,500 miles from its nearest relative. Its sibling is the famed Iranian Ironwood (Parrotia persica).

Currently, there are only five known populations in China, so it is quite rare in the wild. The largest plants seen in the wild were 30′ tall, but Parrotia subaequalis should grow slightly taller in cultivation. The photo below is our 13 year old specimen. Most plants of Parrotia subaequalis in the US, including our specimen pictured below, trace back to famed Japanese plant collector of Chinese plants, Mikinori Ogisu. Fortunately, Parrotia subaequalis is quite easy to root from cuttings, so we hope its not long before this amazing plant becomes much more widespread in commerce. In trials so far, it came through -25 degrees F with only slight tip damage, so it looks like a solid Zone 5-8 plant.

Georgia Savory

Flowering this week is the amazing Southeast native subshrub, Clinopodium georgianum. The leaves have a wonderful fragrance of strong peppermint, and the flower show isn’t bad either. This is Zac/Jeremy’s collection from Henry County, Alabama.

Clinopodium georgianum

A carpenter bee working nearby stopped in for a floral snack.

Tarahumara Oak

One of our prize plants in the garden is the Tarahumara Oak, Quercus tarahumara. This truly odd oak is native to Northern Mexico, where it resides in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain range in the Mexican states of ChihuahuaSonoraDurango, and Sinaloa.

In cultivation, Quercus tarahumara is extremely rare and of high conservation value. It seems that there are only a few plants existing in cultivation, although a few others in collections turned out to be hybrids. So far, temperatures in the upper single digits haven’t posed a winter hardiness problem.

Quercus tarahumara is named after the Tarahumara Indians, who live in the botanically rich region, popularly known as Copper Canyon.

Quercus tarahumara

The foliage is ridiculously thick and feels like hard plastic. Turned upside down, the leaves function quite well as a drinking cup or small sink.

Quercus tarahumara

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

Celebrating Ferners

One of the fabulous ferns in our garden during the summer months is the sun-tolerant Dennstaedtia hirsuta ‘Sohuksan’. This fabulous specimen came to the US from a 1985 collection from Sohuksan Island, South Korea, where it was discovered by a team of intrepid plant explorers that included horticultural legends as Barry Yinger, the late Ted Dudley, the late J.C. Raulston, the late Peter Wharton, Young-june Chang and Kun-so Kim. The group had left the mainland for the several day ferry ride to this remote island, landing just ahead of a typhoon, which resulted in severe injuries disembarking from the ferry. After riding out the typhoon in minimal shelters, they awoke to a treasure trove of amazing plants. We are so glad to keep the memory of this amazing trip alive in gardens with some of their great plant introductions.

Alan’s Laosy Giant

The late plantsman Alan Galloway was a prolific plant collector in Southeastern Asia, and one of the plants that has surprised us with its winter hardiness is the giant evergreen Solomon’s Seal, Disporopsis longifolia. In the wild, Alan and I encountered this throughout Thailand and Vietnam, but our tallest clone is one which Alan collected in Laos, and we christened Disporopsis longifolia ‘Alan’s Laosy Giant’. Our clump, which has been in the garden since 2007 has topped 5′ in height and is in full flower this week. Sadly, it has yet to produce a single offset.

Gold Farkle

One of our treasured finds from a recent botanizing trip in East Texas with plantsmen Adam Black and Wade Roitsch (Yucca Do), was a gold-foliaged Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry). The parent plant was 30-40′ tall, but there were plenty of root suckers from a recent road grading. This could turn out to be a wonderfully exciting new native edimental.

Rude Croatian

One of the gems from our 2012 botanizing trip to the Balkans, was a growable selection of Paris quadrifolia. For those who haven’t mastered Latin, quadrifolia means 4-leaves. All cultivated forms of this widespread European trillium relative had failed to thrive in our hot humid summers. Our collection from the Croatian town of Rude (I’m not making this up), has thrived, forming a lovely patch and even flowering. Hopefully, one day in the future, we’ll have enough to share.