Florida Sunshine in North Carolina

We thought we’d share a photo taken this week of the original plant of Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’ from our garden. All plants sold worldwide originated with cuttings taken from our specimen. The original plant has now been in the ground here for 22 years and measures 8′ tall x 8′ wide. The foliage becomes brightest in the cool temperatures of winter. Who says Southeast US native plants look ugly? Hardiness zones 6a to 9b.

Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’

A Lumpy Pancake

I was just admiring our specimen of the East Coast native, Thuja occidentalis ‘Concessarini’ today. I find this a fascinating plant in the garden, sadly never promoted by those who claim to extoll the virtues of native plants.

Our oldest specimen below is now 10 years old and measures 3′ tall x 6′ wide…quite a bit larger than it’s introducer claims it to be at 1′ tall x 2′ wide. If you dig deeper, you’ll see that the plant patent application shows they only measured a three year old plant, and have never bothered to update the mature size in their marketing or on their tags. It shows how little many plant introducers think of the end consumer, when they set them up for failure by promoting these fake mature sizes. Commercially, it is marketed under the fake trade name of Pancake arborvitae. That’s one seriously lumpy pancake.

This juvenile-foliage sport of Thuja ‘Linesville’ was discovered by nurseryman, Gabriel Cessarini. We think it’s pretty cool, just allow enough room in the garden. Winter hardiness is Zone 3a-8b.

Thuja occidentalis 'Concessarini' or Pancake arborvitae
Thuja occidentalis ‘Concessarini’

Green Bean Pole

We have been very impressed with the very narrow selection of our East Coast native arborviatae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Brobeck’s Tower’. This has been in the garden now for 4 years, and is 6′ in height and just over 1′ in width. This seedling selection was made by Sweeden’s Anders Brobeck, where the same plant takes 20 years to reach this height, due to a lack of summer heat.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Brobeck’s Tower’

Planting more Needles

Every year when we have a significantly cold winter, we are reminded of the wonder of the Southeastern native needle palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. This native of Northern Florida and nearby areas in the adjacent states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, is the most winter hardy palm in existence.

Established needle palm clumps have been documented to have survived -15 F to -20F. I still remember checking on the old specimen at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh after we dropped below 0F for two consecutive nights in January 1985 (-3 on Jan 20, and -9 on Jan 21). I was amazed I was to find the plant undamaged by the cold. Below is one of our many specimens in the garden after our 11 F freeze a few weeks ago.

Needle palm is generally considered to be a non-trunking palm, although with great age, it will develop a short trunk, that will eventually become decumbent. I’m fascinated why this and other native palms are never promoted by the native plant enthusiasts.

Image of Rhapidophyllum hystrix
Rhapidophyllum hystrix

So Long Sotols…In the Spirit of Plant Extinction

We’ve long been enamored with the Southwest native genus of slow-growing woody lilies belonging to the genus, Dasylirion. Since the early 1990s, we’ve been growing these, trialing as many species as we could obtain to see how well they adapted to our climate here in the colder, wetter Southeast.

Image of Dasylirion wheeleri in situ, Payson, Arizona
Dasylirion wheeleri in situ, Payson, Arizona

So, far, we have grown 16 of the 21 recognized species and succeeded with 12. We found four unable to survive our coldest winters, including Dasylirion durangensis, Dasylirion longissimum, Dasylirion lucidum, Dasylirion sereke.

The five species we have yet to try in the garden are Dasylirion graminifolium, Dasylirion longistylum, Dasylirion micropterum, Dasylirion palaciosii, and Dasylirion simplex. We have seed planted of both Dasylirion graminfolium and micropterum, so those will be next in line for our in ground trials. That leaves us still searching for seed of the final three.

Sotols, like agaves, are members of the Asparagus family. They are becoming wildly popular, but not because of gardeners. Instead, their popularity is driven by those who are driven by a need/desire to imbibe alcoholic spirits. First, there was Mescal, a Mexican drink made from one of a number of different agave species, depending on what grew in proximity to each village. Of the Mescals, the most popular is Tequilla, which is made from a single species, Agave tequiliana.

Now, Sotol alcohol has joined the ranks of the “hot new spirits”. Made from agave’s cousin, plants of the genus Dasylirion, Sotol is rapidly becoming the new “flavor of the month”. Sotol alcohol certainly isn’t new, and if you regularly travel south of “the wall” you probably already know that Sotol is the state drink of Mexican states Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango.

Not so long ago, Sotol alcohol had a history that somewhat parallels moonshine in the Southeast US. For years, Sotol alcohol was illegal and subject to government raids, during which master sotoleros were punished or imprisoned. During the US prohibition of the 1920s, Sotol sales in the US skyrocketed, but soon after its repeal, Sotol sales plummeted back into obscurity. Now, with not only social acceptance, but a wide wide embrace of virtually anything that can be used to produce alcohol, Sotol has been mainstreamed with the assistance of the Mexican government and willing marketers.

Most agaves for Tequila production are now commercially grown in massive farms, and most plants are now produced from tissue culture for a more consistent yield and to take pressure off wild popuations. Even under ideal farming conditions, it take 5-7 years to get an agave large enough to harvest for tequilla production. With dasylirions, the same process takes at least 12-15 years according to Sotol marketers. Based on our 30 years of work with the genus, I’d say the time involved is more likely 24-30 years, even in a high rainfall climate like ours.

I’m not aware of many farm operations that can afford to grow a plant for that long before expecting a return on investment. This means that poaching of plants from the wild is very likely to increase. With such a low rate of return, i.e. 1 pint of liquor for each plant harvested, I can’t see the plants coming out on the good end of this industry. While making alcohol from dasylirions isn’t new, it’s been done on a very limited scale in Mexico, prior to word spreading around the world via social media.

Reportedly Sotol spirits taste quite different based on the species used, and whether it’s from an exceptionally dry region or an area with better rainfall. Sotol conniseurs describe the tastes as being a bit like menthol or pine/mushrooms if the plants are grown well hydrated, while those from drier regions taste more like leather. To quote Dave Barry, “I’m not making this up!” And this sounds appealing to who???

Supposedly, the spirit producers are cutting off the wild dasylirions and leaving the bases to resprout, but I’ve got my doubts about how well that works. Assuming the cut dasylirion does resprout, there will be a decade of lost seed production, so plant populations in the wild are almost certain to decline. I’m left to wonder if we really are so desperate for a new taste in alcohol that we are willing to sacrifice another genus of plants in the process.

In celebration of these amazing plants, here are photos of those we have grown in our ex-situ conservation gardens at JLBG.

Dasylirion acrotrichum, named in 1843, is native to Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert. Of the seven plants we planted, only one survived, which is now over 20 years old. This widespread sotol, which occurs on igneous soils, has been split by various authors into several subspecies. Undoubtedly, winter hardiness varies based on the seed procurement location. At maturity, the trunks can reach 5′ tall.

Image of Dasylirion acrotrichum
Dasylirion acrotrichum

Dasylirion berlandieri, named after French/Mexican naturalist, Jean-Louis Berlandier (1803-1851), was first published in 1879. Native to steep rocky hillsides in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in Northeastern Mexico, it’s one of the largest species in the genus in width, but with a trunk that never exceeds 1′ in height. Below is our plant in bud. Unlike agaves, dasylirion rosettes do not die after flowering.

Dasylirion berlandieri

Below is a fully open flower spike, which is abuzz with a large number of bees

Dasylirion berlandieri in full flower

Dasylirion cedrosanum, first documented in 1911, hails from 3,000′ – 6,000′ elevation on rocky, gypsum-laced hillsides in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. They are restricted to the Mexican states of Chihuhua, Coahuilla, and Durango. At maturity, they produce a 3′ tall trunk.

Dasylirion cedrosanum

Dasylirion durangensis is another species first described in 1911, which hails from the dry alkaline/limestone-gypsum deserts of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas. In parts of its range, it interbreeds with Dasylirion wheeleri. We flowered this prior to losing it during a particularly cold winter. Below is our Obit photo.

Dasylirion durangensis

Dasylirion gentry was only published as a species in 1998. It has a very limited range between 3,500′ – 4,000′ in Sonora, Mexico, where it grows on rocky slopes in openings of pine/oak woodlands.

Dasylirion gentryi

The inflorescense of Dasylirion gentryi is one of the most spectacular we’ve ever seen.

Dasylirion gentryi bloom spike

Dasylirion glaucophyllum is a species whose discovery dates back to 1858. It can be found naturally, only in Sonora, Mexico, growing on rocky hillsides at elevations to almost 8,000′. At maturity, trunks measure up to 6′ in height.

Dasylirion glaucophyllum

Dasylirion leiophyllum, published in 1911, only grows north of Mexican border in Texas and New Mexico. Based on where it grows, it should be one of the most winter hardy sotol species. The first photo is at JLBG, and the second in situ at 5,400′ elevation. The second image is from the late plantsman, David Salman, of a Zone 5 population he discovered and shared seed with us just prior to his untimely death. Plant Delights is currently offering this as Dasylirion leiophyllum ‘Chaves’.

Dasylirion leiophyllum – in winter at JLBG
Dasylirion leiophyllum ‘Chaves’ in situ at 5,400′ elevation

Dasylirion miquihuanense, only described in 1998, hails from Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in Northeastern Mexico. Also occurring on rocky slopes, this sotol is one of the tallest species, producing massive 8′ tall trunks. We have succeeded long term with only 2 of 8 specimens we planted.

Dasylirion miquihuanense

Dasylirion parryanum, published in that banner year of 1911, hails from up to 8,000′ elevation in the San Luis Potosi State in Northern Mexico, where it produces 3′ tall trunks.

Dasylirion parryanum

Dasylirion quadrangulatum (1879) hails from the Southern (warmer) end of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. It is much too tender for us to grow in the open here in Zone 7b, but we’ve kept it alive for a couple of decades by siting it in a microclimate adjacent to a brick wall house foundation. It is one of only two species lacking leaf spines. With great age, it produces trunks to 9′ in height.

Dasylirion quadrangulatum

Dasylirion serratifolium, first described in 1838, is from Oaxaca, Mexico, where is grows on rocky, alkaline hillsides to 6,600′ elevation. The location and elevation means it really shouldn’t survive our winter. That said, our only remaining specimen below is now 20 years old, but is still far from reaching the 6′ tall trunk height it does in the wild.

Dasylirion serratifolium

Dasylirion texanum (1850) is another very winter hardy species, found on rocky slopes, ranging from Central Texas into the mountains of Northern Mexico. It is one of the shortest species, with a trunk that doesn’t exceed 1′ tall.

Dasylirion texanum

Dasylirion wheeleri, first documented in 1878, ranges from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico south into the mountains of Northern Mexico. It matures at 6′ tall, and in situ, can be found in both grasslands as well as openings in pine/oak forests. It is another of the most cold hardy species.

Dasylirion wheeleri

An old clump we planted years ago in flower is quite remarkable.

Dasylirion wheeleri in flower

We hope you’ll limit your consumption of Sotol as a drink and instead join us in becoming an ex-situ conservation garden for this amazing genus of plants.

Splendid Splendida

Our oldest clump of the North American native Agave lophantha ‘Splendida’ is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary in the garden at JLBG. What started as a single pup, now has an extended family. Please join us in sending birthday wishes to this great century plant selection.

10 year-old clump of Agave lophantha 'Splendida' growing in our zone 7b garden.

Excelsior…Fit for a King

Here’s a new photo of Agave parryi ssp. huachucensis ‘Excelsior’ from our garden this week. We typically don’t have many variegated century plants that will survive our winters, but this is one of the exceptions. This superb clone was first introduced in 1967 from a small California nursery by the same name. Protection from excess winter moisture and exceptional drainage is always the key in cold, wet winter climates. This particular planting is under a roof overhang. Hardiness zone 7b to 9b.

Agave parryi ‘Excelsior’

Golden Limo

Looking wonderful in the fall garden is the evergreen Choisya ‘Limo’, known commercially as Goldfingers choisya. This gold-leaved selection is from a cross of two Southwest US native shrubs, Choisya arizonica and Choisya ternata, subsequently referred to as Choisya x dewitteana. The genus Choisya is named to honor the late Swiss botanist/philosophy professor Jacques Denis Choisy (1799-1859) This gold-foliaged selection from the UK’s Peter Moore forms a 3′ tall shrub in 5 years.

The fragrant white clusters of axillary flowers adorn the plant starting in April (NC). We have our specimen planted in a full sun rock garden, where it thrives in very well-drained soils. Hardiness is Zone 6a-9b.

Image of the evergreen Choisya x dewitteana 'Limo'
Choisya x dewitteana ‘Limo’

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’

Wooly-lipped Ferner

Looking great this week are most of the desert ferns, especially the wonderful Cheilanthes tomentosa. So many folks still don’t realize that an entire group of ferns grow naturally in desert conditions, often alongside cactus. This fern favorite has a shockingly large and unusual distribution, from Arizona east to Virginia. We’re fascinated why this evergreen fern known as Wooly lip fern, isn’t more widely grown. Hardiness is Zone 6a-8b, at least.

Cheilanthes tomentosa thriving in our rock garden
Cheilanthes tomentosa

Willow the Wisp

Carex ‘Willow the Wisp’ is one of Zac Hill’s amazing collections from nearby Willow Springs, NC. This is a widespread native, naturally ranging from Michigan south to Florida and west to Texas. We love the appearance of a head of green hair…minus the head. In the wild, this selection of Carex leptalea var. harperi thrives in wet mucky swamps, like the story of Will-o’-the Wisp. We planted this in similar conditions in a seep at JLBG, where it has made this stunning specimen. Any plant that looks this good in October is undoubtedly destined for a future catalog.

Carex Willow the Wisp
Carex leptalea var. haperi ‘Willow the Wisp’

Glorious Gloriosa

Our 2008 introduction of a selection of our native Yucca x gloriosa ‘Lone Star’ has been absolutely splendid in the garden as the fall season begins. Yucca x gloriosa is a natural hybrid of Yucca aloifolia and Yucca filamentosa. We absolutely love that these flower spikes appear at a time when most other plants are past their seasonal prime. Winter hardiness is Zone 7a-9b.

Yucca x gloriosa Lone Star in bloom
Yucca x gloriosa ‘Lone Star’

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.

Bermuda Run

Adiantum capillus-veneris ‘Bermuda Run’ is looking exceptional in the garden this fall. Actually, it looks exceptional most of the year for us. Until the temperatures drop below 12 degrees F, this amazing fern remains evergreen. This fern has a huge native range, being found on every continent except Antarctica.

Adiantum capillus-veneris, along with a couple of pteris fern species are often found growing in mortar cracks in many of the Southeast coastal cities and adjacent tropical islands. It is thought that some of these populations may have been spread along the early trade routes. This particularly dense form is our collection from the mortar walls on Bermuda. The same species is native to North Carolina, but only in a solitary population. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-10b.

Adiantum capillus-veneris Bermuda Run
Adiantum capillus-veneris ‘Bermuda Run’

A Sage Old Texan

Blooming recently at JLBG is Patrick’s compact, silver-leaf collection of Leucophyllum frutescens from Uvalde, Texas. Leucophyllum frutescens is an evergreen, dryland shrub to 5′ tall, which bursts into an amazing show of flowers after summer rains. We’ve long-loved leucophyllums, but had failed in several attempts to grow them…0 for 7 prior to this attempt with his collection. Our plants have been in the ground for just over a year, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for long-term success. They key to success is very good drainage in both summer and winter.

Leucophyllum frutescens flowering
Leucophyllum frutescens blooming

Bald Head, but Sexually Active

If you’ve lived in the deep south…the land of palmetto palm trees, you know that they typically don’t flower until they have at least 5 feet of trunk. Of course, flowering can be sped up by a combination of precocious genes and good growing conditions. Those who have studied Sabal palmetto in the wild have noted that the earliest populations to flower are those from the most northern, naturally-occurring population on North Carolina’s Bald Head Island.

Well, sure enough, our oldest specimen of Sabal palmetto ‘Bald Head’, planted in 1999 finally decided to produce flower this summer, and will hopefully seed. We’ve only had enough plants of this cold hardy form to offer through Plant Delights three times in 36 years. Fingers crossed, we’ll be able to make it available more regularly now. Hardiness Zone 7b and warmer.

Sabal palmetto 'Bald Head'
Sabal palmetto ‘Bald Head’

A Golden Native

Here’s a photo this week of one of our favorite North American native plants, Juniperus horizontalis ‘Copper Harbor’. This would certainly add significant year round color interest to any native plant garden. In our trials, this is far and away the best of the golden Juniperus horizontalis cultivars. We offered this selection for a couple of years, but there seemed to be little interest.

Juniperus horizontalis 'Copper Harbor'
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Copper Harbor’

Christmas in June

While doing some local botanizing recently, we ran across this fascinating form of our native Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides. Not only was it more compact than any others in the area, with more “orderly” fronds, but it also showed none of the typical terminal spore production that would be expected this time of year. Since this was from a future development site, the plant was rescued, and is now at JLBG under evaluation. The second photo is more typical plant for the species for comparison, growing at JLBG.

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.

The Look of Love

If you’re able to visit during this years spring open house, it will be hard to miss the look of love in the air. We have a record 20 century plants in spike in the garden…a number far surpassing any flowering record we’ve set previously.

Agaves are a genus of mostly monocarpic plants…they live their entire lives to flower once, then after experiencing a giant-sized orgasm, they fall over dead. In the wild, many species take up to 100 years to flower, which is why the name century plant stuck as a common name. In our more rainy climate, our century plants typically flower in 12-15 years. Several of our current crop are actually less than a decade old, but their enormous size has already been achieved, so they’re ready to reproduce.

Some species of agaves offset, and in this case, only then central rosette dies, and the offsets continue as is the case with bromeliads. Those agave species which never offset are one-and-dones, but hopefully will leave behind a plethora of seed for the next generation. From the start of the spikes to full flower is usually about 8 weeks. Below are a few of our babies in spike.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’
Agave x ovatispina ‘Blue Arrows’
Agave lophantha JLBG-01
Agave x loferox JLBG-014
Agave x pseudoferox JLBG-176

All spruced up and nowhere to grow.

Picea rubens (red spruce) is one of only 8 US native spruce species, and the only one whose natural ranges includes North Carolina. The entire range of red spruce starts in Nova Scotia and continues south to high elevations in the NC mountains. Genetic testing indicates that our red spruce evolved due to climate change during the Pleistocene (12,000 years to 2.5 million years ago), when it split off from Picea mariana (black spruce). Black spruce is now the only other nearby spruce, which currently resides from New Jersey north with a small population in Northern Kentucky.

Surprisingly, red spruce is virtually absent from piedmont gardens, probably due to the common wisdom that it doesn’t tolerated heat and humidity. As long as it’s given adequate amounts of Calcium (we aim for a pH of 6.5), it grows beautifully. Here is our 26 year old specimen, that didn’t get the memo that it’s shouldn’t grow here. Hardiness is Zone 3a-8a.

Red spruce wood is used to make high quality wood instruments like violins and acoustic guitars, but to avoid cutting down your lovely specimen, we recommend you stick with products that can be made from the foliage, like the infamous Red Spruce Beer.

A Major Minus

Asarum minus ‘Cupid’ is one of our heavily silver patterned selections of our native wild ginger. When cold weather arrives, the evergreen leaves take on a lovely purple cast. This is an excellent clonal selection we made in 1994 from a construction site, and one we hope to offer in the future though Plant Delights Nursery.