A Melting Pot of Carex

We’ve published blogs about a number of carex from our rather large collection (108 species) several times this year, but here are a few more that look great here in early December. We have been fortunate to be able to collect members of this amazing genus from around the world, all of which now reside happily here at JLBG. As you can imagine, the majority of our collections are US native species, but just like with Homo sapiens, we value diversity and consequently don’t profile or discriminate based on ethnicity or origin.

The first is the US native Carex austrolucorum. This is Jeremy’s collection, named Carex ‘Tennessee Mop Top’.,

Carex austrolucorum 'Tennessee Mop Top'
Carex austrolucorum ‘Tennessee Mop Top’

Carex gentilis ‘Yushan’ is our collection from Taiwan, and the only fall-flowering carex we know. Duke Gardens has made stunning use of this in their magnificent Asian garden expansion.

Carex gentilis 'Yushan'
Carex gentilis ‘Yushan’

Carex ‘Silk Tassel’ is a stunning selection of the Japanese Carex morrowii var. temnolepis, brought to the US back in the 1970s by plantsman Barry Yinger. We still view this as one of the finest carex we’ve ever grown. While it grows great in shade, it truly excels in full sun, where its narrow variegated leaves appear silver.

Carex morrowii var. temnolepis 'Silk Tassel'
Carex morrowii var. temnolepis ‘Silk Tassel’

Getting Pinked

Now that fall has arrived, we’re all enjoying peak plume season for many of our favorite ornamental grasses. Unfortunately, there are a few significant mix-ups in the trade. The top photo is our native Eragrostis spectabilis, known as purple love grass. I’ve long admired this beautiful, but short-lived native, but have declined to offer it because of its propensity to seed around much too vigorously in the garden. In prairie restorations or less-tended gardens, it can be a spectacular addition. Hardiness is Zone 5-9.

Eragrostis spectabilis
Eragrostis spectabilis

Because most nurserymen aren’t plant taxonomists, you can perform a Google images search and find several on-line vendors who pretend to offer Eragrostis spectabilis, but show photos of the grass below, known as Muhlenbergia capillaris. Who knows which of the two they are actually selling.

If that’s not confusing enough, the plant below is known in the trade as Muhlenbergia capillaris or Gulf Coast muhly grass/pink muhly grass. The only problem is that this is actually a different muhlenbergia species. All of us have taken this name for granted, but as our Director or Horticulture/Gardens, Patrick McMillan taught us, all commercial plants labeled as such are actually Muhlenbergia sericea. We are updating our records and this name change will be implemented in the near future.

The misidentification originated with a Florida taxonomist, who mistakenly lumped three muhlenbergias together…a problem that can occur when you only study dead/smashed plants in a plant herbarium. As it turns out, the two plants, Muhlenbergia capillaris and Muhlenbergia sericea (also formerly known as Muhlenbergia filipes) are nothing alike.

Muhlenbergia sericea, frequently sold as M. capillaris
Muhlenbergia sericea (sold as M. capillaris)

The true Muhlenbergia capillaris is a rather homely plant that few folks would want in their garden. Muhlenbergia sericea, on the other hand, is a stunning ornamental plant, commonly known as sweet grass, and used for making those amazing hand-woven baskets that you find for sale in towns like Charleston, SC.

Such nomenclatural faux pas take decades, at least, for nurseries to get the names corrected since the public knows and purchases plants under the wrong name. This problem is far too common. The shrub, Ternstroemeria gymnanthera, was originally mistakenly identified as Cleyera japonica, and that mistake still persists over five decades later. Most gardeners despise name changes, often not realizing that many instances like these aren’t changes, but instead corrections of an earlier identification mistake.

You can learn more details about the mix up by reading Patrick’s article about pink muhly grass.

Opening up a Mis-can-thus of worms

Flowering this week at JLBG is the amazing Miscanthus transmorrisonensis. Many gardeners, who blindly believe everything they read/hear think the genus miscanthus is the horticultural version of the devil itself. Like everything in life, it’s all about those pesky details, which so many people simply don’t want to be bothered with.

Most miscanthus in the horticultural trade are selections of the species Miscanthus sinensis. Some selections of that species reseed badly and should be avoided in gardens. Others are sterile or nearly so, and unquestionably still deserve a place in American landscapes.

If we make good/bad evaluations at the species level, what would happen if visitors to the earth had their first encounter with a Homo sapiens that was a less than ideal representative of the species at large. They could easily assume that the entire species was a problem and should be eliminated. It’s fascinating that such species based prejudices are acceptable with ornamental plants, but not with people.

Then there are species, which have proven themselves to be complete without seed in our climate, such as Miscanthus transmorrisonensis. All plants in cultivation all appear to be derived from a 1979 Ferris Miller (Chollipo Arboretum)/ Paul Meyer (Morris Arboretum) collection at 9,500′ elevation on Taiwan’s Mt. Daxue. We have grown this for 30 years in rather good conditions, and have yet to see a single seedling. The beauty of this species is that it flowers continuously from summer into fall. I guess it’s too much to ask for environmental fundamentalists to actually pay attention to facts.

A large clump of Miscanthus transmorrisonensis
Miscanthus transmorrisonensis

Bushy Muhly

I fell in love with the Arizona/Mexico native ornamental grass, Muhlenbergia dumosa when the the late JC Raulston first brought it back from Yucca Do Nursery in 1992. This odd member of the genus muhlenbergia resembles a clumping bamboo unlike other members of the genus. For those non-connoisseurs of Latin, dumosa means “bushy”.

JC touted this Yucca Do collection from Northern Mexico as the most amazing ornamental grass he had ever encountered. JC distributed it to nurserymen, who introduced it into the trade, only to find out that it wasn’t winter hardy in most of North Carolina.

On a visit to the South Carolina Botanical Garden last year, we were shocked to see Muhlenbergia dumosa growing happily in their desert garden. It turned out that they were growing a new clone, collected from a higher elevation in Arizona, that had proved reliable in their Zone 7b climate. We were gifted a start of Mulhlenbergia dumosa ‘Patagonia’, which now resides in a couple of locations at JLBG. We’re very excited, and now look forward to having a cold winter to fully test its winter hardiness.

It’s a grass, don’t panic…umm

Late summer and fall are a great time to enjoy the plumes of our US native ornamental grass, Panicum virgatum. Here are two photos from the garden this week. The first is one of my favorites, the giant Panicum ‘Cloud 9’…an introduction from Maryland’s defunct Bluemount Nursery. Below this is a new dwarf, blue-foliage introduction for 2022, from Walters Gardens, Panicum ‘Niagara Falls’. It has proven exceptional in our trials and will appear in the January Plant Delights Nursery catalog.

Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud 9’
Panicum virgatum ‘Niagara Falls’