Uncommonly Common

Juniperus communis is a common landscape juniper with a wide natural distribution…one of the widest of any woody plant in the entire world.

In the North American part of its range, it’s widespread throughout the Western US, and across the northern tier of the country all the way to Maine. East of the Mississippi River, however, it’s virtually not-existent south of the Great Lakes.

Patrick McMillan had been telling us about a population he rediscovered from an earlier Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) documentation of a single clone growing naturally in Aiken, South Carolina. Last week, we made the 4 hour drive to visit this ancient living fossil. Here is all that remains, growing in an amazing nature park, known as Hitchcock Woods, where it grows surrounded by a forest of Kalmia (mountain laurel).

We have this propagated and growing at JLBG, and hopefully in the future, when our plants get larger, we can share these amazing genetics with a wider audience.

Juniperus communis 'Hitchcock Woods'
Juniperus communis ‘Hitchcock Woods’

Dinner Jackets

This week, we fielded a call from our garden staff that there were large yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons) nests in several arborvitae near where they were working. Knowing how aggressive and toxic the stings of these native vespid wasps can be for humans, they had requested help in getting the nests eliminated.

When Patrick arrived to check out the problem, he noticed that instead of finding nests, the yellow jackets were actually feeding on the arborvitae. Since this species of arborvitae was currently in the midst of pollen and cone production, there also appears to be some type of resin being exuded at the same time, which is a delicacy for the yellow jackets.

We estimate there were between 100 and 200 yellow jackets per plant. Because they were busy feeding, they had no interest in us, despite our close up study of their behavior. Our entomologist, Bill Reynolds, who had observed this phenomenon before with vespid wasps and arborvitae, showed us that we could actually touch the yellow jackets without drawing their ire. This is certainly not the case if you’ve ever been anywhere near a yellow jacket nesting site.

The other interesting phenomenon is that despite being Eastern US natives, the yellow jackets were only interested in the Asian arborvitae species, Platycladus (Thuja) orientalis. Growing adjacent was the East Coast and West Coast arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis and Thuja plicata, but neither attracted a single insect. This is another nail in the coffin of that oft repeated myth that only native plants feed native pollinators. One of many lessons here, but it’s especially important not to spray first and ask questions later.

Wide view photo of Thuja orientalis 'Beverly Hills'
Thuja orientalis ‘Beverly Hills’
Up close photo of Thuja orientalis 'Beverly Hills' hosting a yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons)
Thuja orientalis ‘Beverly Hills’
Up close photo of Thuja orientalis 'Beverly Hills' hosting a yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons)
Thuja orientalis ‘Beverly Hills’

Gold Dragon

The false yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Gold Dragon’ is looking particularly lovely during the fall season here at JLBG. This is one of our six year old specimens. We find that half day sun seems to bring out the best color without foliar burn. Hardiness is Zone 6a-9b.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia Gold Dragon looking great during the fall
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Gold Dragon’

Red Velvet White Cedar

Chamaecyparis ‘Red Velvet’ is a juvenile-leaved selection of our native white cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, discovered and introduced by Florida’s Blue River Nursery. This recent introduction looks similar to the 1960s introduction, Chamaecyparis ‘Rubicon’, except that ‘Rubicon’ dies in the garden on a bad day, and on a good day looks like death would help it. Chamaecyparis ‘Red Velvet’, on the other hand, is a superb garden plant.

Chamaecyparis thyoides Red Velvet, Red Velvet White Cedar, a superb garden plant
Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Red Velvet’

So, why is this the case? Well, there are two distinct forms of this US coastal native wetland species, Chamaecyparis thyoides. Some botanists recognize the southern ecotypes as a separate species, while other make no distinction. We agree with those who recognize the southern plants as a subspecies,.Chamaecyparis thyoides ssp. henryae, which has a natural distribution centered in the Florida panhandle, and is dramatically easier to grow in the garden. Chamaecyparis thyoides ssp. thyoides, which ranges from Maine to Georgia, is much more difficult to grow in most garden conditions.

Because white cedar is native to cool fresh-water wetlands, very few cultivars perform fine in average to moist garden soils, while others fail miserably. What we need are more selections of the better adaptable Chamaecyparis thyoides ssp. henryae. The only named cultivars we know to exist is Chamaecyparis ‘Webb Gold’, and the afformentioned Chamaecyparis ‘Red Velvet’.

The cultivar ‘Red Velvet’ matures at 12-15′ in height. Our four year old plants have reached 6′ in height. In winter, the foliage color changes from green to a reddish purple, hence the name. Thanks to Georgia conifer guru, Tom Cox for spreading this amazing selection around to collectors and nurseries. Estimated winter hardiness is Zone 7a-9b, and probably much colder.

Baby Blue Ice

We have a fairly decent collection of conifers at JLBG, but one that has really caught our eye is Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Baby Blue Ice’. This charming dwarf was found in 1998 by Oregon nurseryman Larry Stanley as a sport of Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Baby Blue’. Our oldest plants are now four years old and are 3′ tall x 2′ wide. The naturally dense growth and conical shape give the impression that it’s been sheared, which is not the case.

Word on the street is that it should mature around 6′ tall, but with newly discovered plants like these, we take those size predictions with a large grain of salt. Undoubtedly, mature size in the Southeast US will be quite different than in the heat-deprived Pacific Northwest.

Chamaecyparis pisifera Baby Blue Ice
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Baby Blue Ice’

False Larch

We’ve long had an affinity for larches (probably due to a hangover from watching the Monty Python larch skit far too many times), but there aren’t many larches that will survive our hot, humid summers. We can, however, succeed with the false larch, which belongs to the monotypic genus, Pseudolarix. Both larix (larch) and pseuodlarix (false larch) are deciduous conifers, whose foliage turns golden yellow in fall prior to leaf fall.

Pseudolarix is known as an open, airy species, and having seen quite a few over the last 50 years, all were very similar. Imagine our surprise, when a new seedling we purchased in 2017 turned out to be incredibly dense and fast growing. The first photo is our oldest typical pseudolarix, now celebrating 29 years in the garden.

The new clone, which we’ve named Pseudolarix ‘Greensanity’, just 5 years in the garden, is pictured below that. We look forward to working with some woody plant nurseries to get this exceptional form grafted and into the trade.

Pseudolarix amabilis - typical false larch at JLBG
Pseudolarix amabilis – typical form at JLBG

Pseudolarix amabilis 'Greensanity'
Pseudolarix amabilis ‘Greensanity’

Eye See You

Ever since I saw my first dragon’s-eye pine over 40 years ago, I was smitten, and throughout the years have been fortunate to collect several different named cultivars with this unique trait where the new needles emerge bicolor white and green. Here is our young specimen of Pinus densiflorus ‘Burke’s Red Variegated’ looking lovely in the gardens this week. This selection of the Japanese red pine, originated as a seedling from Long Island’s Joe Burke, from the cultivar Pinus densiflorus ‘Occulis Draconis’. Hardiness is Zone 5-8.

Pinus densiflorus ‘Burke’s Red Variegated’

Phallic Cypress

People, especially male landscape architects love to use Italian Cypress in their garden designs. Few evergreen plants have the insanely narrow, upright, bean-pole shape, without benefit of pruning. We can now add a North American native counterpart to that short list, which will be welcomed since Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress) doesn’t thrive in our climate.

The photo below is Juniperus virginiana ‘Silver Spear’, a Mark Weathington selection of our native red cedar. Our original plant pictured below is now 8 years old and has never been sheared. Winter hardiness should be Zone 4-9.

Juniper-like False Cypress

We’ve long collected conifers of the genus Chamaecyparis (false cypress). We grow all six recognized species, but the one which is best represented in horticulture is Chamaecyparis obtusa (hinoki cypress). Selections from this species range from giant 100′ specimens to tiny dwarfs.

Our favorite has to be the the dwarf Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Juniperoides’…the juniper-like hinoki cypress. Introduced from the UK around 1920, this century old selection has yet to be surpassed. Below is our 23 year-old specimen this spring, which thrives in our un-irrigated rock garden, planted among agaves, having achieved the massive stature of 2.5’ tall. This is certainly not where we usually recommend planting hinoki cypress, since many cultivars don’t thrive in western sun, especially without any sign of irrigation. This plant, however, continues to amaze us without any browning typically seen with chamaecyparis grown in the combination of sun and bone dry soil.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Juniperoides’

Colors and Textures

Here’s a recent image from JLBG, giving an idea of what’s possible when being thoughtful of textures and colors when planting. Plants include Iris x hollandica ‘Red Ember’, Heuchera ‘Silver Scrolls’, Carex ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, Thelypteris kunthii, and Juniperus chinensis ‘Parsonii’.

Intermingling in the Garden

We love intermingling plants, often planting more than one type in the same space, where their growth habits allow them to comfortably co-exist. Here is a three year-old planting where we used ‘Gold Queen’ Hyacinth among a patch of our North American native groundcover juniper, Juniperus horizontalis ‘Bar Harbor’. Despite what many folks seem to think, there are no laws that plants in the garden can’t touch each other, so how about some more hand-holding in the garden.

Burned baby, burned

With our recent 16 degree F winter temperatures, all of the cycas plants (sago palms) in the garden now have fried foliage. This foliage will not recover, but damage like this is fully expected in our climate, and not something that will damage the plants. Be sure to not remove the old damaged foliage this early, however, since cycads are programmed to shoot out new foliage 10-14 days after the old foliage is removed, and this is much too early for new foliage, with more cold weather likely on the way.

We like to remove the old foliage starting in mid-April, when it should be safe. As you can see in the second photo, the central crown is still in great shape, undamaged by the cold temperatures. We think the central crown is one of the most fascinating parts of a cycad, which shows its’ ancient lineage.

A Little Diamond

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Little Diamond’ is one of our favorite dwarf Japanese cedar selections, this one from Holland Konjin Nursery prior to 1990. This specimen at JLBG is five years old and measures 2′ tall x 3′ wide. At maturity, we have seen these reach 4′ tall x 8′ wide.

Where firs fear to tread

Here’s a photo we took during our recent snow event of the amazing Abies bornmuelleriana (Turkish Fir). Not bad for out hot, humid, Zone 7b climate! It’s hard to imagine that there are beds of agaves growing nearby.This specimen is now 24 years old. Winter hardiness is Zone 5a-8b.

Kaizuka! Bless you.

I first met Juniperus chinensis ‘Kaizuka’ on a mid 1970s student field trip to Florida with the late JC Raulston. As our caravan of University vans crossed from Georgia into Florida, these junipers suddenly appeared everywhere. Although, I was unfamiliar with this architecturally fascinating specimen, I was in love….despite it being common as the proverbial dirt in Florida landscapes. Everywhere from gas stations to the poorest home seemed to have at least one. Most locals know Juniperus ‘Kaizuka’ as either Juniperus ‘Torulosa’ or Hollywood Juniper…a common name it gained due to its ubiquitous presence around Los Angeles. It turns out that Juniperus ‘Kaizuka’ was an introduction from Japan’s Yokohama Nursery prior to 1920. Our oldest plants at JLBG are now 33 years old, and now measure 24′ tall x 16′ wide. The one pictured below is a new 5 year old planting in a new section of the garden. Forty-five years later and still in love!

Proud to be a Siberian

We don’t have many Siberian plants which thrive in the southeast US, so we get pretty excited when we find one that does. I was introduced to Microbiota decussata by the late JC Raulston, back in the mid 1970s, and actually still have one of my original plants that’s still alive. Many years later, a much improved form came to market under the name Microbiota decussata ‘Prides’.

Microbiota is a monotypic genus of conifer that has a textural appearance somewhere between a Juniper and a Selaginella.  In the wild, Microbiota can only be found in one small region of the Sikhote-Alin mountains, which is about 500 miles north of Vladovostok, Russia, where it occurs between 6,500′ and 7,000′ elevation.

Although Microbiota was officially discovered in 1921, and published in 1923, the Russian government, long-known for its secrecy, kept it completely under wraps until the early 1970s.

Unlike most junipers, which need sun to thrive, microbiota prefers shade to only part sun. Consequently, it you like this texture and don’t have full sun, this is the plant for you. For us, it matures at 18″ tall x 6′ wide.

Golconda

I remember first meeting the golden foliaged Leyland cypress back in the early 1980s at the JC Raulston Arboretum, and falling in love. Despite eventually removing almost all of our other cultivars of Leyland cypress from the garden due to size issues, we still treasure this gem. For us, x Cuprocyparis leylandii ‘Golconda’, which was discovered in the UK in 1972 as a branch sport, has been a wonderfully slow grower in our climate….4′ tall in 25 years. We understand it grows much faster in climates with cool summer nights, but we’re thrilled ours is slow enough to stay garden-sized.

Cycad-o-Rama

We are just loving our hardy hybrid cycads in the garden this time of year, and here are two we photographed this week. The first is Cycas x bifungensis (bifida x taitungensis), and the second is Cycas x panziholuta (panzhihuanensis x revoluta). We have found that hybrids between hardy species are even more winter hardy than the species themselves. Hardiness for both is probably Zone 7b and south.

Cycas x bifungensis
Cycas x panziholuta

The Monkey’s Puzzle

Back in 2010, Plant Delights made a limited offering of a hybrid monkey puzzle tree…a cross of Araucaria araucana x angustifolia, which we hoped would have the hardiness of A. araucana and the moisture tolerance of A. angustifolia. Well, a decade later, here is the result…exactly what we’ve hoped for. Our tree is now about 45′ tall.

Sadly, no seed has ever been available again, but our tree is finally coning, as is its sister, growing at the JC Raulston Arboretum. Fingers crossed that we get seed set and can off this gem again.

Four long weeks!

Last year, we were thrilled when one of our cycads produced a female cone…a first for JLBG. We subsequently impregnated it with pollen supplied from the garden of one or our former volunteers, Mike Papay. Our plant produced a great seed crop (56 seed), which was recently planted.

As a point of reference, I should mention that cycads are dioecious…each plant is either male or female. The genus cycas is one of the oldest known surviving plant genera, having emerged between 250 and 350 million years ago, when it diverged from ginkgos. Cycas, having been around for a very long time, also have supercharged, swimming sperm…a trait not seen in modern plants.

This year, we welcomed our first male cycad to cone. The first photo was taken 1 month prior to the second photo, so it’s taken that long for this males’ cone to grow from a tiny bulge to be ready to spread its pollen (sperm). Since we don’t have any flowering females in the garden this year, we’re shipping off the pollen to a palm and cycad breeder in Georgia. This afternoon, we used the Lorena Bobbitt technique to sever its cone, which is now boxed (bottom image) and leaving town before the plant rights groups find out.

Is that really yew?

While folks from “up north” know yews (Taxus), they are far less likely to know its doppleganger, the false yew (Cephalotaxus). I’ve always considered the two fairly interchangable, so was fascinated when DNA showed they actually belong to different plant families, which aren’t really closely related…other than both being conifers. Taxus is now in its own family, Taxaceae, and Cephalotaxus now resides in its own family, Cephalotaxaceae. For most gardeners, the important thing to know is that deer will consume taxus, but not cephalotaxus.

Below are a few favorites from the JLBG gardens. Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is a much wider leaf plant than the better known Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’. Mature size of ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is 2′ tall x 14′ wide, so it functions as an evergreen ground cover in either light shade or sun.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Brooklyn Gardens’

Our oldest plant of Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’ is now 27 years old, and measures 3′ tall x 12′ wide. Here it is growing in fairly deep shade.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Golden Dragon’ is a much smaller selection with bright golden foliage. Our five year old plants are 2′ tall x 4′ wide. The gold color only shows with a bit of sun.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Golden Dragon’

Bruce and his conifers

We recently visited conifer collector Bruce Appeldoorn at his nursery in the tiny town of Bostic, west of Charlotte, NC. Not only are the gardens amazing, but Bruce has transitioned from his career in landscape design/installation, to an amazing dwarf conifer nursery. He now sits atop the throne, having what is almost certainly the top conifer nursery in the Southeast US. Most everything is propagated here from either cuttings or grafting. He is part of a small contingent of regional broom hunters, who seek out and graft dwarf witches broom mutations from area pine trees. You can find out more about how to visit or order here.

Blue Ice is Hot

One of our favorite blue-foliage conifers that thrives in the southeast heat and humidity is Cupressus arizonica var. glabra ‘Blue Ice’. This is a four year old planting of the Arizona native that’s already made a nice size specimen. Cupressus ‘Blue Ice’ is great to use for Christmas arrangements, due to it’s color, foliage fragrance, and ability to hold up very well after being cut.

Gardening for winter

Here are a couple of images of the gardens at JLBG to show how we garden for the winter months. By selecting and designing your garden for the winter season, it will automatically look great during the other three seasons.

Plants featured include hellebores, rohdea, ophiopogon (mondo grass), sabal palm, Illicium ‘Florida Sunshine’, and a number of conifers.
Here’s one of our woodland streams featuring Aucuba ‘Limbata’, carex, and rohdea. With proper plant selection, the garden in winter doesn’t have to be a lifeless canvas of mulch.

Friday Morning Podcast

Here are some decorative seed pods from the garden this week.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Plant Labels

We just snapped this photo of Lemon Thread Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Lemon Thread’) in the gardens here at Juniper Level, and wanted to share since it illustrates our constant rants about trusting nurseries, plant tags, and websites to give accurate mature sizes. For a woody plant, our typical advice is to triple any size you are given. So, we wanted to see how that advice would work with the plant below.

Lemon Thread cypress was discovered in the mid 1980s as a sport at Oregon’s Mitsch Nurseries, so it’s a relative newcomer as plants go. Our 20 year old specimen is planted in compost-amended sandy loam without any chemical fertilizers ever. We should also add that we don’t believe in shearing plants, which we find a waste of energy as well as a middle finger to natures’s beauty. Our specimen now measures 25′ tall x 15′ wide.

We then searched the web for Lemon Thread Cypress and recorded the sizes from the top 30 sites that came up in Google…see notes below the photo.  Sizes we found range from 2-5′ tall x 2-3′ wide with only one site giving a height greater than 10′.

Is it any wonder that people install plants in the wrong place!  So, why does this happen? Many reasons:

  • Vendors lie to sell more plants…sad, but true.
  • Vendors almost never update inaccurate information once it’s in their system.
  • Few vendors/garden writers bother to visit a public garden and actually measure the plant. It’s much easier to copy someone else’s mistake.
  • Most plants which are measured, are measured either in containers, or from heavily pruned garden specimens.
  • Plants grow differently in different climates.  Very true!
  • It takes too much time to be accurate, but don’t we really owe that to our customers?

2-5′ 2-3′
3′ 4′
3-5′ 2-4′
4′ 3′
5′ 4′
5′ 5′
5′ 4′
5-12′ 7-8′
5-6′ 6-8′
6-8′ 3-4′
12′