Great new plants for the garden do sometimes just happen. They can occur as a spontaneous sport from an existing planting, as a seed selection that has much better garden traits, but many of our most useful and ecologically important plants in the garden have their start in exploration. I was thinking about this today as I observed the tightly-clumping overwintering rosettes of one of our newest introductions to the JLBG—Oenothera riparia, Riverbank Sundrop.
Sundrops hold a special place in my heart. My grandmother loved them and had large swathes of the old pass along yellow standard Oenothera fruticosa/tetragona in her extensive garden. Every June they would burst into flower for a brief week or so, bringing a brilliant light and foil to her many glorious iris. As I mature, I have come to value plants with connections to our being but also the value of similar plants that can provide the same nostalgia while giving us much more in the landscape.
A plant known as Riverbank sundrops may be a perfect example of a great garden plant that is native to the Southeast and provides more of what gardeners love, while also providing the native insects and other wildlife an abundant resource.
Oenothera riparia was described by Thomas Nuttall in 1818 from plants collected along the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, NC. Nuttall provided a very full description of the plant (for the time) though he presumed it to be a biennial—it is in fact a long-lived perennial. J.K. Small recognized the species in a segregate genus as Knieffia riparia in his 1903 Flora of the Southeastern US. In 1937, Munz reduced the species to varietal status as Oenothera tetragona ssp. glauca var. riparia, and after this it was essentially lost to the minds of taxonomists and plant enthusiasts being considered merely part of the immense variability of Oenothera fruticosa by Radford, Ahles and Bell (1968).
In the mid 1990’s while working in the tidal freshwater swamps and marshes of South Carolina, Richard Porcher and I encountered this species growing at the bases of Bald Cypress trees, on stumps, and on floating logs just above the high-water tidal line on the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, and Edisto Rivers. My frustration with its identification led me to the name Oenothera riparia and its recognition as a completely and consistently distinct taxon—which is very unusual in a genus known for its morphological variability and messy taxonomy.
This plant is smooth (lacking hairs) throughout with thick textured dark-green leaves and a very bushy habit—it does not produce long stolons or rhizomes, so it forms a dense clump. The stems generally range from a foot to nearly 3 feet in height and the thick stems become semi-woody, providing a stiffly upright growth form. Rather than a single burst of flowers this species produces masses of flowers over the entire summer (June-late August) with sporadic flowering later in the season.
Imagine, here we could have a sundrop that won’t spread like wildfire, doesn’t flop, and flowers for month after month! Sounds like everything you would want in a plant. There is only one problem, it hasn’t been cultivated. This is where the adventure continues and as we embark on this adventure, I would like to take you along for the ride. There is so much that goes into identifying a potentially great garden plant, evaluating it, and bringing it to the trade.
Our initial collections were made this August (2022) when Zac Hill, my wife Waynna, and I were traveling through the SC coastal plain. We made the stop at the Edisto River in Colleton County where I had seen the plant many years before and just like I remembered, there they were, full of seed and with some flowers still present. The only problem is that they were growing far out in the water along the bases of trees! The Edisto is a blackwater river with a large tidal amplitude at this location and it was full on high tide. If you’re a field botanist you forget entirely about the things that concern other more rational folks, like the multitude of large Alligators, and make for the plants. I found some low branches on a neighboring willow tree that kept my feet in only a couple feet of water, and balancing on the branch, in the water, made my way all the way to the edge of the river where a fabulous floating log provided an abundance of seeds and two small plants from a large cluster of individuals. The only casualty was my prescription glasses which promptly fell from my head into the depths of a rapidly moving Edisto River (my wife will not easily let me forget the cost of this single collection). The first step in the process of bringing a new plant into production is done.
Our two small divisions were placed directly into the sun garden at JLBG and the seed was sown. For this plant to be successful in a garden it must be able to not just survive but thrive in a common garden condition far away from its very narrow niche at the very upper edge of the water along the Edisto. You might think this would be unlikely, but other incredible garden plants are entirely found in wetland communities and thrive under very different conditions in the garden. A good example of this is found in another of our introductions, Eryngium ravenelii ‘Charleston Blues’, which comes from high pH wetlands not too far away from the Edisto River.
Will it be hardy here? Will it survive under normal garden conditions? Will it maintain its distinctive and garden-worthy features? Well at least part of this can be answered already. Our tiny divisions are now large overwintering basal rosettes. The plants have not thought about running away from their tight cluster, and they grew very well during their first autumn in soil that was not kept overly moist.
The real test lies ahead. What will the plants nature be under cultivation? Will it be as good as I think it could be? Will it be better? One can only hope, put in the labor, and follow along to find out the end of this story for Oenothera riparia. It could provide all of us with a stately and handsome bit of nostalgia with far greater design and utilitarian use for humans and our native biota. What’s more, there are other seemingly great garden-worthy Oenothera out there—not in far-flung locations but right here in the Carolinas. Have you ever heard of Oenothera tetragona var. fraseri? If not, look for us to tell you more about that in the years to come, there’s a fantastic form with huge flowers in the Blue Ridge escarpment of South Carolina!
Patrick D. McMIllan, PhD