Low Country Treasure Hunt

Last week, Patrick, Zac, and I spent a couple of day botanizing in the low country…i.e. Coastal South Carolina. In between swatting away the incredible troupe of mosquitos which chose to join us, we were able to capture a few images to share below.

The ancient lime sinks are fascinating. Here, old sinkholes due to subsurface limestone rock breakdown have collapsed, forming natural depressions, creating a habitat for our native pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and other fascinating wetland species…like alligators. Yes, we did see several, but they were too fast for our camera.

Taxodium ascendens
Taxodium ascendens

The high water marks are visible on the buttressed trunks of bald cypress.

Taxodium ascendens

Much of the region is, or was, a pine/grass habitat. The pines could either be longleaf (Pinus palustris) or slash pine (Pinus serotina) .The dominant grass is known as wiregrass, aka: Aristida beyrechiana.

Pine/Wiregrass habitat

On the dry sand ridges, we saw these piles of fresh sand adjacent to a nearby tunnel entrance. These are homes to the rare gopher tortoise, which live in the region. Patrick tells me these tortoises will use the same underground lair, which may stretch 40′ long and 10′ deep, for up to 60 years.

Gopher tortoise mound/tunnel

Gopher tortoises only emerge from their tunnels when temperatures are between 80 and 90 degree F. Sure enough, we were able to wait and get some images of these amazing creatures.

Gopher tortoise

Another surprise spotting was a bright orange mutant katydid. Our entomologist Bill Reynolds tells me these are crazy rare, and worth well north of $1000 to collectors. Who knew?

Orange katydid

Yes, we also saw some cool plants. Asclepias obovata is a little-known milkweed that’s quite rare in South Carolina, so it was great to catch it in flower.

At another site nearby, we caught some late flowering plants of Asclepias tuberosa var. rolfsii.

Asclepias tuberosa var. rolfsii

We visited several patches of amazing pitcher plants, one site with a tremendous variation of Sarracenia flava, which is typically solid yellow. Other sties had three species growing side by side including Sarracenia minor, Sarracenia rubra, and Sarracenia flava. It’s great that such natural area still exist, although they are always in danger from those who sadly dig plants from the wild for sale.

Sarracenia flava in situ
Sarracenia flava clump – typical yellow pitchers
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava with a particularly large hood
Sarracneia flava with brown hood and nice veining
Sarracenia flava red neck form
Sarracenia minor
Sarracenia rubra

A plant often seen near the pitcher plants is the native orchid, Plantanthera ciliaris.

Plantanthera ciliaris orchid

We were thrilled to find a couple of large patches of the scrub palm, Serenoa repens, from one of the coldest natural populations, which happened to be in full seed. Clonal patches like this are incredibly slow-growing. Researchers in Florida found that such clonal patches are often between 5,000 and 10,000 years old.

Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens seed

It was great to see large drifts of one of our finest native ferns, Thelypteris kunthii, aka: maiden fern. This superb deciduous fern thrives in both sun and shade, tolerating everything from wet to average soil conditions.

Thelypteris kunthii

A lovely surprise was stumbling on a population of Hamamelis henryi. This coastal species is often listed as a variety of Hamamelis virginiana, but we think it’s probably deserving of species status. Several of the clones we found had lovely dusty blue foliage.

Hamamelis henryi

One of the most amazing shrubs was the hawthorn, Crategus munda var. pexa. These ancient specimens topped out at 4-5′ tall, and looked like ancient bonsai specimens.

Crategus munda var. pexa

I’ve long had a penchant for finding gold leaf sweet gums, and this trip added another one to the list. When many woody plants are cut to the ground, they are much more likely to produce mutations as they re-sprout. In my experience, the genus Liquidambar must be the most prone to such mutations.

Liquidambar styraciflua gold sport

The fall-flowering Georgia savory, Clinopodium georgianum was in full flower. We’ve grown and offered this for decades, but it was fascinating to see the flower color variation in the wild.

Clinopodium georgianum

At one stop, we found five different liatris species, including the little-known Liatris elegans.

Liatris elegans

The native vining legume, Centrosema virginiana, aka: butterfly pea, was in full flower and looking lovely…first cousin to the better known genus, Clitoria.

Centrosema virginiana

I’m not a fan of most smilax species, but I was quite smitten by the non-running dwarf Smilax pumila, which grew in the shade like an Asarum (wild ginger). While some clones had green leaves, others had patterns every bit as good as the best Asarum.

Smilax pumila

On the ride home, we kept ourselves amused unscientifically researching the fastest speed at which leaf-footed bugs could hold onto a car window while copulating. Since our test speed topped out at 65mph, we aren’t sure what it was take to pry these loose, but perhaps someone should research how they are able to hold on so tight, as I’m sure it has numerous industrial applications.

Leaf-footed bugs

Little Big Man

Most highly prized rock garden plants originated somewhere other than the Southeast US. One notable exception is Bigelowia nuttallii, or if you prefer common names, Nuttall’s rayless goldenrod. This fascinating plant resembles a whisk broom that just swept up a spilled bottle of mustard.

Named after English botanist/zoologist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who lived in the US from 1808 until 1841, this fascinating plant, grown by rock gardeners worldwide, is native in only a few locations from Georgia west to Texas.

Bigelowii nuttallii makes a tight evergreen clump of needle-thin leaves, topped from mid-summer until fall with 1′ tall sprays of frothy yellow flowers…yes, those are actually flowers, but without the typical showy “rays”. Full sun for at least half a day, and good drainage are the key to success with this very easy native perennial. Hardiness is Zone 5a-9b.

More Amorphas

The genus amorpha is a woody cousin to the better know genus baptisia in the Fabaceae (pea) family. Amorpha was named a genus by Linnaeus (perhaps you’ve heard of him) because the flowers only have a single petal, compared to 5, which is the norm in the rest of the family. Virtually all amorphas have many uses, from dyes to treating an array of medical conditions. There is an amorpha native in every one of the Continental United States…how many do you grow?

Our longstanding favorite member of the genus is the Midwest native Amorpha canescens, which makes a stunning, compact deciduous shrub, adorned in late spring with amazing, pollinator friendly flower spikes.

Amorpha canescens
Amoropha canescens

While we had our back turned, one of our Amorpha canescens got jiggy with a nearby Amorpha fruticosa, and the baby below, discovered by our staff, has now been adopted by us, and named Amorpha x frutescens. We actually might have some of these show up in the spring Plant Delights catalog.

Amorpha x frutescens (fruticosa x canescens)

Another amazing Southeast US (NC to FL) native species we like is Amorpha herbacea. Although it is rarely available, we think this has exceptional garden value and will most like show up in the Plant Delights catalog in the coming years.

Amorpha herbacea

Acacias don’t grow here

If you get your gardening information on-line, where everything written is a fact, you’ll know for sure that acacias aren’t growable in Zone 7b, Raleigh, NC. If that includes you, don’t look at the photo below of Acacia greggii ‘Mule Mountain’ in flower at JLBG. Acacia greggii is a native from Texas west to California. Our seven year-old specimen is from Patrick McMillan’s collection in Cochise County, Arizona.

To be nomenclaturally correct, most of the US Acacias have now been moved into the genus Senegalia, so even though the American species aren’t from anywhere near Senegal, this is now known as Senegalia greggii.

Of course, it you also read the hogwash on-line about native pollinators needed and preferring plants they evolved with, then you’ll also have to ignore the masses of native bees that cause the entire plant to buzz while they’re feeding. It’s good we don’t let our plants and insects read books or the Internet.

Oldham’s Azalea

Few gardeners have probably grown the Taiwanese Rhododendron oldhamii, but this little-known species has become one of the most important azaleas in American horticulture. Here it is flowering in our garden in late spring. Then will be followed by a late summer/fall rebloom.

Rhododendron oldhamii was named for British plant explorer Richard Oldham (1837-1864). Here’s a fascinating summary of Oldham’s life/work. Despite dying at the young age of 27, Oldham made significant contributions to botany, including the rhododendron (azalea) named in his honor.

In the early 1980s, Louisiana nurseryman, Buddy Lee decided to see if the fall reblooming trait of Rhododendron oldhamii would transfer to its offspring. Indeed they did, and because of Richard Oldham his namesake azalea, and Buddy’s imagination, we now have an entire series of reblooming azaleas, known as the Encore azaleas.

Ocoee Leatherflower

Clematis vinacea is a recently described species of non-vining clematis, published in 2013 by plantsman Aaron Floden. In the wild, it grows in a small region on the border of Eastern Tennessee/Northern Georgia. Closely allied to Clematis viorna/Clematis crispa, Clematis vinacea is a compact, non-climbing species. For us, it makes a sprawling mound to 18″ tall x 4′ wide that flowers from May through summer. In habitat, Clematis vinacea prefers a dry, alkaline site, but it has shown good adaptability to slightly acidic soils in our trials.

Clematis vinacea

Calling all Plant Nerds

Just over a month remains before the 2022 Southeastern Plant Symposium kicks off in Raleigh at the Sheraton Hotel, downtown. This joint venture between JLBG/Plant Delights and the JC Raulston Arboretum brings together the top horticultural speakers from around the world to regale attendees with tales of their favorite new plants. Each symposium rotates a focus on either on woody plants, perennials, or geophytes. The 2022 symposium is perennials focused.

The dates are Friday, June 10 and Saturday June 11. Both the JC Raulston Arboretum and Juniper Level Botanic Garden/Plant Delights will be open for visitors on the Thursday prior and the Sunday morning after the symposium.

A few of the amazing speakers include:

Leftherios Dariotis – If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard the nickname “Greek Freak” applied to NBA star, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Well, Leftherios (aka: Liberto Dario) is to horticulture, what Giannis is to basketball…a true superstar. Leftherios will travel from his home in Greece to dazzle you with an array of little-known plants that thrive in hot, dry climates.

Eleftherios Dariotis

Dan Hinkley, founder of Heronswood and Windcliff, plant explorer extraordinaire, and recipient of the world’s top horticultural honors, will join us to share his latest botanical adventures and plants that have potential for our hot, humid climate. Dan bring a new perspective from having experienced 117 degrees F. in his Washington garden in 2021.

Dan Hinkley

Patrick McMillan is a NC native, who spent two decades as a professor at Clemson. While there, he hosted the Emmy Award winning PBS show, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, as well as directing the SC Botanical Garden. After a 1.5 year stint as Director of Heronswood, he has returned to his roots in NC, and joined the staff of JLBG. Patrick is widely recognized for his incredible botanical knowledge. His new book, Wildflowers of South Carolina will hit bookshelves soon.

Patrick McMillan

Peter Zale is the Associate Director of Conservation, Plant Breeding and Collections at Pennsylvannia’s Longwood Gardens. Peter specializes in a number of plant groups that include hardy orchids and phlox. You can’t help but be amazed at Peter’s conservation and breeding work as well as his extensive knowledge of the natural world.

Peter Zale

Plantsman Adam Black is known worldwide for his botanical exploits, primarily focused on the state of Texas. Adam has spent years traversing every corner of Texas, both re-discovering long lost plants and finding new ones. Adam’s horticultural background gives him a unique take on which Texas native plants will have great garden value for gardeners in the southeast. Adam has recently moved to NC to take a job as an Assistant Curator at the Bartlett Arboretum. We guarantee you’ll meet more new plants than you ever thought possible.

Adam Black (l)

Kelly Norris is a true renaissance horticulturist. Growing up in a Midwest iris nursery propelled Kelly into the public horticultural arena. After a stint beefing up the collections at the Des Moines Botanic Garden, Kelly now splits his time between landscape design, writing, and extolling the virtues of new plants on QVC. Kelly is one of the new wave of great thinkers in our industry who understands the need for the fields of botany and horticulture to collaborate.

Kelly Norris

On Saturday, the pace picks up even more, with shorter, but intensively focused talks. The list of Saturday presenters include Mark Weathington, Director of the JC Raulston Arboretum will speak on his favorite new perennials. Ian Caton, founder of Wood Thrush Natives in Virginia will speak on Underused and Little-known Appalachian Natives. Hayes Jackson, Alabama Extension Agent and Director of The Longleaf Botanical Garden in Alabama will speak on Creating a Tropical Garden Feel in a Temperate Climate.

We are pleased to welcome Richard Hawke, Manager of the Perennial Trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Richard’s detailed cultivar evaluations are prized by gardeners throughout the country. Shannon Currey, Marketing Manager for Hoffman’s Nursery, will share her passion for sedges, while Adrienne Roethling, Director of the Paul Ciener Botanical Garden will discuss her favorite vines. Yours’ truly, Tony Avent, will share more than you ever thought possible about the genus Baptisia.

Did I mention the symposium includes the now world-famous rare plant auction, which has garnered International attention? The auction and symposium will be available both on-line and remote.

We are pleased to welcome Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs as a presenting sponsor for 2022. Additionally, Ball Seed is offering 10 student scholarships to attend the symposium. You can find out more about these and apply here.

Mark and I truly hope you will join us for this incredible perennials-focused symposium, back in person for the first time in three years. The Symposium is an important fundraiser for both the JC Raulston Arboretum as well as the Juniper Level Botanic Garden Endowment. Here is the link to register for the Symposium. We’ll see you in June!

Hail to Halesia

Flowering in our parking lot now is the beautiful Halesia diptera var. magniflora, better known as big-flowered two-wing Silverbell. Native from Georgia across to Texas, this beautiful small tree can be found in low moist woodlands. That said, it thrives in average to dry garden conditions.

The variety “magniflora’ is distinguished from the more northern Halesia diptera var. diptera in that the gulf coast form has much larger flowers. This is our collection from Wilcox County, Alabama, where the foliage is much wider than what is typically seen in this taxa. Plants mature at around 20′ in height. Hardiness is Zone 5-8.

Halesia diptera var. magniflora ‘Pine Apple’

Procurrent Groundcover

Flowering for the last few weeks is the late winter-flowering groundcover, Arabis procurrens. This Balkan native is a rather amazing evergreen groundcover in the cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. For those who never took Latin in school, procurrens = spreading. We grow this in a fairly dry spot in the garden where it gets 2-3 hours of sun each morning. Winter hardiness is Zone 3-8.

An Exciting New Expedition

Please join me in welcoming our newest JLBG team member, Dr. Patrick McMillan. I’ve known Patrick for 30 years, going back to his days as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and long before he became a legend in the plant world.

We’ve followed his amazing journey, most recently as Director of Heronswood Gardens in Washington. Prior to that, he was Director of the SC Botanical Garden and Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson since 2000. Patrick was the Emmy Award winning host of the renown PBS series, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan. Patrick is a highly-respected botanist/naturalist, who has won far too many awards to mention, but we’ll let Patrick tell you a bit more about himself and why he decided to partner with JLBG.

My first experience with Juniper Level and Tony was sitting at the kitchen table in 1991, the inaugural year of Plant Delights Nursery, talking about Asarum and star-struck by Tony’s knowledge and passion that has continued to grow into one of the world’s premier gardens and nurseries. In those days I dreamed of the opportunity to work alongside such talented horticulturalists and intrepid explorers.

My love of plants and all things slithering, creeping, crawling, and flying came at a very early age. I can’t remember a time when my life wasn’t centered on them. Fast forward 31 years and I found myself sitting at the same table reminiscing about the past, marveling at how far JLBG has grown, and stirring excitement for the future. I am so enthusiastic about joining the staff at JLBG, learning from the lifetimes of incredible knowledge and skill that is assembled among the employees and sharing my own experience, passion, and knowledge to bolster the mission and the horticultural and conservation accomplishments of this magical place.

I’m probably best described as a plant nerd. I have never met a plant I didn’t love. Every plant has a story and each is connected to our lives and the lives of the biodiversity upon which we all depend. Much of my horticultural experience and focus in South Carolina and at Heronswood Garden in Kingston, Washington has been focused on generating and supporting insect, bird and other wildlife diversity in the home landscape.

My philosophy of natural community gardening and the generation of life is a fairly simple one based on filling every space with life – diversity generates diversity. My exploration of the plant world has taken me from pole to pole and over every continent except Australia. I was trained as a sedge taxonomist but my interests include anything with cells. I’ve described new species ranging from ragweeds to sedges and begonia.

I also believe strongly that our greatest gift is sharing knowledge and I have worked as a lifelong educator. You may also have seen me on your local PBS station, where for 15 years I wrote, hosted, and produced the series “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan” – distributed by American Public Television. Conservation, preservation and generation of life is at the core of my life’s mission and I can imagine no better place to be nested within than JLBG. I hope to meet you soon and share some hearty plant nerd conversation.

Dainty Dirca

Few people know the fascinating native shrub, Dirca palustris. It’s little wonder it gets overshadowed by showier members of its family, Thymelaeaceae, which includes the likes of Daphne and Edgeworthia. Our 6′ tall plant is flowering alongside a large edgeworthia, and rarely gets noticed by visitors.

Dirca palustris, the plant, is actually widespread across Eastern North America, with a range from Canada to Florida, where it thrives in slightly moist, acidic soils. It’s often known as leatherwood, due to its thick, but very pliable branches, which have been used by Native Americans for making rope as well as baskets.

There are three other less poorly known dirca species…if that’s possible. We grow the rare Dirca decipiens from Kansas/Arkansas, but have not yet tried D. occidentalis from California, or D. mexicana from Mexico.

The genus takes its name from the Dirce in Greek Mythology, who bit the big one while tied to the horns of a bull….a truly sordid story. The specific epithet “palustris”, lacks the fascinating story of the genus, but only means that the plant naturally lives in very wet sites. Winter hardiness is Zone 3-9.

Raising Rabieas

We have long loved small crevice-sized succulents, but have also killed far more than our share, due mostly to our wet, cold winters. The newest star in our trials is the South African, Rabiea albipuncta, a first cousin to the better known, Delosperma. We should mention, that new DNA research has actually suggested a name change to Nananthus vittatus would be more correct, so we’ll be re-tagging shortly.

This gift from Denver Botanic Garden plantsman extraordinaire, Panayoti Kelaidis, has thrived in the gardens since 2018. We actually tried this back in 2004, but our site simply didn’t drain well enough in winter. This image was taken here at JLBG on February 2 this year, which shows how insanely tolerant the flowers are of cold weather. We hope to make this available next year through Plant Delights Nursery. This gem forms a substantial caudex, and as such is highly prized by bonsai enthusiasts.

Rabiea albipuncta

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.

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?