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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is a fully open flower spike, which is abuzz with a large number of bees
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 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 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.
The inflorescense of Dasylirion gentryi is one of the most spectacular we’ve ever seen.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
An old clump we planted years ago in flower is quite remarkable.
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.
Flowering in the garden this week is the fascinating, but little-known Houstonia procumbens. This Southeastern US coastal native (South Carolina west to eastern Louisiana) is a spreading, winter flowering bluet. We collected cuttings in Clay County, Florida in 2003, and this patch has been thriving in our sunny alpine garden since then, forming a 1.5′ wide patch.
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.
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!
Looking great in the garden this week is Agave x pseudoferox ‘Green Goblet’. This 1996 introduction from the former Yucca Do Nursery is one they found in Mexico and brought back as a single pup. Our original plant flowered in 2011 after 11 years in the ground, so this specimen has re-grown from one of the remaining small pups. Since we’re now at 11 years since last flowering, we’re preparing for a new blessed event. Since we can usually tell by now if it’s expecting, which it is not, the odds are pretty good for a 2024 flowering. Plant Delights Nursery will be offering A. ‘Green Goblet’ for sale in 2023.
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.
One of our favorite palms for the garden is the US native Sabal minor var. louisiana. While it can’t outgrow the Himalayan Trachycarpus fortunei (windmill palm) for speed of developing a trunk, Louisiana palmetto is the most winter hardy of all trunking palms. One of the mysteries is that in the wild, the same population can have both above ground as well as subterranean trunks.
Our garden specimen in the photo below was planted from a 1 qt. pot in 2005. Eventually, Sabal minor var. louisiana will develop an above ground trunk, which on our specimen below is just beginning.
The background on Sabal minor var. louisiana is a botanical mystery. Some taxonomists consider it a valid species, while others consider it variety of the subterranean trunked Sabal minor. Others consider it to be an old hybrid of Sabal minor and either Sabal mexicana or Sabal palmetto. A similar hybrid, Sabal x brazoriensis from near Dallas, had its DNA analyzed several years ago, and was found to be an old hybrid of Sabal minor and a now extinct population of Sabal palmetto.
Sabal sp. ‘Tamaulipas’ from Northern Mexico is another mystery palm in need of some family history work. Thankfully, palm researcher and grad student, Ayress Grinage at Cornell has begun to look at these mystery sabal palms to figure out how they came to be. We, and others have sent material, and now await the results of the paternity test.
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 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 ‘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.
I’ve been very blessed on several UK visits to spend time at the amazing Ashwood Nursery of plantsman John Massey. One of the real treats of each visit is a chance to spend time in John’s private hepatica greenhouse. To say John is a bit obsessive about the genus is a grand understatement, so it should be no surprise that he has channeled all that knowledge into a new Hepatica book, that’s hot off the press.
We first learned of John’s obsession with the genus, when he joined us on a 2000 expedition through NC, SC, Alabama, and Tennessee to study the hepatica in the wild…along with our main goal of studying trillium. Below is an image from that expedition. Hepatica are also native to Asia.
Our copy of My World of Hepaticas arrived recently, and John’s book is a massive 296-page compendium of pretty much anything you’d want to know about hepaticas, compiled from John’s decades of work with the genus. John’s writing style is easily readable, coming across as if you’re having a relaxed conversation over dinner, and the incredible photos are an equal match to the text. Right now, you can only obtain a copy by ordering it from the Ashwood website.
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.
A couple of years ago, we made bi-generic crosses of the North American Manfreda maculosa and the naturally occurring hybrid Mexican tuberose, Polianthes x bundrantii ‘Mexican Firecracker’. These fascinating plants were still in full flower prior to our first hard freeze in the last few days. These are images of our top three clones, which we refer to as x Polifreda. Because we used the non-fragrant tuberose species, there is no noticeable aroma, but we opted for a much more diverse flower color range instead.
Hopefully, next year, we can use these to cross with agaves to create a new series of xHanseras. Pollen has been gathered and stored in the refrigerator in case bloom times don’t coincide next year.
Elliott’s aster (Symphyotrichum elliottii) is the absolute last of our asters to flower at JLBG. It doesn’t begin to flower until the first of November and withstands the mild frosts of October like they didn’t even happen. It is naturally found in tidal freshwater marshes and other moist open sites from the Virginia and Carolina coastal plain south to Florida and west to Louisiana. Though it hails from moist environments it thrives under general garden conditions if the soil isn’t allowed to become too droughty.
The plant has a lot to recommend it besides the time of flower. It forms stiff stems rising 5-6’ tall crowned with a dense pyramidal arrangement of inflorescences of pale pink with a hint bluish-purple ray flowers and bright yellow disk flowers. The lack of lanky branches allows this tall aster to display its flowers without flopping all over the rest of your garden in the manner typical of asters. It spreads via rhizomes, so you need to be sure to give it space to roam a bit. It provides a dramatic impact when planted at the back of borders. Though it spreads, it doesn’t roam far from the parent plant and can be easily kept in place by yearly thinning of the outer edges of the clumps.
The most outstanding feature of this beautiful aster to me is the number and diversity of pollinators it supports. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plant that attracted more. In addition to swarms of honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter, and solitary bees the flowers draw in numerous pollinating flies, halictids, moths and skippers. I love plants that extend the color season and though we all think about early spring, we really should also plant to extend our love affair with color into the leafless season and Elliott’s aster does this is a big way.
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.
Raise your hand if you grow the native October Flower? Polygonella polygama is a little-known, but absolutely amazing wildflower in the Buckwheat family, suited to well-drained, sunny gardens. Although completely non-descript through spring and summer, when people are buying plants, it bursts into flower in October, also when no one is buying plants. Below is our plant strutting it stuff in one of our full sun rock gardens in mid October. Polygonella polygama is native from Virginia southwest to Texas, along the coast. Winter hardiness should be at least Zone 7b and south.
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.
Mid-October is flowering time for the widespread (Canada south to Texas) native oblong aster, Aster oblongifolius (aka: Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). This amazing plant forms a large clump to 2′ tall x 8′ wide. This is the clone Aster ‘October Skies’, which is quite similar to the other widely grown clone, Aster ‘Fanny’. Average to dry soils in full sun is the key to success. Hardiness is Zone 4a-9b.
The shrubby North American native salvias including Salvia greggii and Salvia microphylla are spectacular plants in the fall garden. The same goes form the hybrids between the two species, known as Salvia x jamensis. Here is our clump of Salvia x jamensis ‘Blast’ looking absolutely stunning in late October. Flowering is heaviest in spring, slowing in summer, but again equaling it’s spring show in fall. Hardiness is Zone 7a-9b, and possibly a good bit colder.
The gigantic, winter hardy, North American native, cow tongue cactus, Opuntia lindheimeri ‘Linguiformis’ is looking wonderful in the fall garden. We planted our original plant back in 2000, but when reworking a bed, needed to move it about 4 years ago. We took a couple of pad cuttings which languished, laying bare root on a bench for nearly 2 years. Despite this abuse, this is the result two years after those cuttings finally went in the ground. We find this to be the largest of the Zone 7 winter hardy prickly pear cactus, maturing around 7′ tall x 12′ wide. Winter hardiness is at least Zone 7b-10b, and perhaps colder.
Our 2016 century plant hybrid is looking quite lovely in the garden this month. This plant, which we named Agave x victorifolia ‘Prince of Whales’, is a hybrid of the Whale’s tongue century plant, Agave ovatifolia (male parent), and the Queen Victoria century plant, Agave victoriae-reginae (female parent).
Since both parents are non-offsetting, this means that the offspring will grow to maturity, flower, then die. Consequently, in order to be able to propagate and share, we will have to drill out the central core of the plant to trick in to offset. While this ruins the appearance of the original, it’s the only way for this to ever be shared and preserved. This plant has been in the ground since 2018, so we expect to have another eight years (guessing) prior to flowering. Consequently, so we’ll probably gamble on waiting a few more years before performing surgery. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-10b.
You go straight through to the round of botanical superstars if you recognize this little-known southeast native (SC to Florida), Piriqueta caroliniana. This Patrick McMillan collection from coastal SC has thrived all summer in our full sun rock garden, flowering constantly, with new flowers opening every other day. This oddity is a member of the Turneraceae family, which comprises nine other equally obscure genera. We’ve yet to determine if this will actually make a good garden plant, but evaluation continues. Hardiness north of Zone 8a is unknown.
One of the stars of our late summer/early fall garden has been our selection of Chrysopsis mariana ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. We made this roadside collection of this East Coast native in 2020 in neighboring Orange County, NC, unsure of what we had collected, but loving the purple stems of this clone. This planting in our rock garden has produced an amazing 18″ tall x 2′ wide specimen that glows for months. Dry soils and at least half day sun are the keys to success. We’ll start propagating this showy, clumping native perennial in spring. Winter hardiness is Zone 4-8.
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.
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.
Our planting of Glandulicactus wrightii is looking quite lovely as we head into fall. Sadly, few folks take time to closely examine the fascinating and intricate arrangements of cactus spines. Glandulicactus wrightii, which is native to Texas and adjacent Mexico has amazingly long, hooked spines that resemble cat whiskers. Long term winter hardiness is hopeful here in Zone 7b, since the seed from which this was grown came from a population at 5,000′ elevation on the New Mexico/Texas border.
How many folks are growing Hypericum hypericoides (St. Andrew’s cross)? The name translates to hypericum that looks like a hypericum….duuuh. We love this native shrub which hails from New Jersey southwest to Texas. St. Andrew’s cross typically matures at 2.5′ tall x 5′ wide and adorned from May through September with small, light yellow flowers, which form an “x”, hence the common name.
In the wild, Hypericum hypericoides is usually found in slightly acidic to slightly alkaline sandy soils, often in pine savannas, but in cultivation, they seem quite adaptable to an array of garden conditions from sun to part sun. In form, it resembles a Helleri holly with yellow flowers. The photo below is a 2 1/2. year old plant at JLBG. Winter hardiness should be Zone 6a-8b at least.
Few plants I’ve ever grown enchant me like Forestiera angustifolia ‘Woodlanders Weeping’. This incredible weeping selection of the Texas native is typically known as a scraggly upright bush that grows in dry alkaline soils. This special form was discovered in Calhoun County, Texas in 1992 by our friend Bob McCartney and the late Texas plantsman, Lynn Lowrey. In 1996, Bob, Lynn, and Patrick McMillan returned to the site for cuttings. It was subsequently propagated and introduced by Woodlanders Nursery. Surprisingly, it also thrives in moist acidic soils, and seemingly has no garden conditions where it doesn’t thrive.
We actually enjoy the incredible structure of the deciduous bare stems more in the winter time without the tiny deciduous foliage. The photo above was just taken at JLBG in late September. Mature size is 6′ tall x 25′ wide, so be sure you have a large enough space. I would think this is a plant that would be embraced by every native plant nursery, unless they have one of those bizarre hang-ups that man-made state political borders matter. Winter hardiness is unknown, but at least Zone 7b-9b.
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.
Raise your hand if you grow the woodland perennial, Collinsonia? These mostly fall-flowering, clumping perennials in the mint family (Lamiaceae) are wonderful elements for the woodland garden at a time when little else is flowering. Named by Linnaeus to honor English botanist Peter Collinson (1694–1768), the genus Collinsonia contains 11 species of which 4 are native to North America. Five species are native to China, 1 to Taiwan, and 1 to Japan. Pictured below in flower this week is Collinsonia punctata, which hails from South Carolina west to Louisiana. Winter hardiness is unknown, but we guess Zone 7a-9b, at least.
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.
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.
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.
Looking good in the garden now is Callicarpa americana ‘Welch’s Pink’, discovered by former PDN’er Matt Welch in East Texas. This is pink fruited form of our native American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. The fruit are an important fall food source for many species of birds.
We are pleased to announce that Dr. Patrick McMillan’s new book, A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, has been published. While Patrick taught at Clemson, he was approached to update The Guide to Wildflowers of South Carolina (Porcher), first published in 2002.
After studying over 200,000 herbarium sheets (dead, smashed plants), and making countless trips into the field to photograph and study the plants in habitat, the updated book, A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina has been born. This amazing 613-page book is a dramatic update from 2002 version, complete with more images, completely revised distribution maps, and an additional 200+ plant species.
I have known Patrick for over 30 years, and we are so blessed to have him as our JLBG Director of Horticulture and Gardens. We are the beneficiary of his encyclopedic plant knowledge every day, but now everyone can benefit from that same knowledge through this amazing new book.
His new book, which has an official publication date of next month, is available through your favorite on-line bookseller. Whether you live/travel, or botanize in NC, SC, or any of the Southeastern states, you will find this book invaluable.
I’d grown quite a few eryngiums…49 different ones, in fact, before Patrick shared Eryngium ravenelii with us in 2015. Who knew we were missing one of the best eryngiums in the entire genus! Today, Eryngium ravenelii holds several places of honor in our garden, where we can watch the myriad of pollinators who regularly stop by for a nectar snack during flowering season (mid-August to late September).
Eryngium ravenelii was named for American botanist, Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887). In the wild, Eryngium ravenelii grows in standing water in flooded ditches, alongside sarracenias (see bottom photo). We’ve now seen them in the wild in both North Florida and South Carolina, where they grow in calcareous-formed soils. In the garden, they thrive in an array of slightly acidic soils as long as the soil is reasonably moist.
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.
The high water marks are visible on the buttressed trunks of bald cypress.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
A plant often seen near the pitcher plants is the native orchid, Plantanthera ciliaris.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At one stop, we found five different liatris species, including the little-known 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.
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.
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.
We were saddened this past week to hear of the passing of our friend, Dr. Larry Mellichamp, age 73, after a three year battle with bile duct cancer. I first met Larry in the late 1970s, when he spoke to our Horticulture Club at NC State. Over the next 45 years, we interacted regularly, mostly during his visits to JLBG.
Knowing that Larry was in the battle of his life, we visited him at his wonderful Charlotte home garden last year (photo below). Even while he was ill, his wit remained razor sharp, and his humor as dry as the Sahara desert.
Not only did Larry teach for 38 years (1976-2014) at UNC-Charlotte, but he also managed the 10-acre UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden, which he turned into a must-see horticultural destination. Larry was a huge advocate of interesting plants, especially US natives. He was constantly dropping off new plants for us to propagate and share with a wider audience.
Larry was best known worldwide for his work with carnivorous plants, particularly with the genus Sarracenia. His “little bug” series, (Sarracenia ‘Lady Bug’, ‘June Bug’, ‘Love Bug’, and ‘Red Bug’, released in 2004, was the first widely marketed collection of pitcher plants, from his breeding work with the late Rob Gardener. In 2021, Larry was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Carnivorous Plant Society…one of many such awards Larry received.
Larry was also a prolific writer. His books include: Practical Botany (1983), The Winter Garden with Peter Loewer (1997), Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region with Wells/Case (1999), Bizarre Botanicals with Paula Gross (2010), Native Plants of the Southeast (2014), and The Southeast Native Plant Primer with Paula Gross (2020).
Larry and I connected on many levels, but we were both strong advocates for making rare native plants available for propagation and commercialization…something that is sadly the exception in the current world of botany. We hope others in the native plant community pick up the torch.
Larry is survived by his wife of 48 years, Audrey, his daughter, Suzanne, and a host of plants he spread throughout the world. Life well lived, my friend.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Foundation of the Carolinas for the “Mellichamp Garden Staff Enrichment Fund”, 220 North Tryon Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. For bank transfer instructions contact email@example.com or 704-973-4529. All are invited to share memories and photos of Larry at https://link.inmemori.com/mDPxXH . A public memorial service will be planned for October at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Look for an announcement on their website.
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.
We think Juliet would agree that Cuthbertia rosea is one sweet perennial. Looking great now is the southeast native (Maryland south to Florida) spiderwort, Cuthbertia rosea, which for us, begins its flowering season in spring, and continues sporadically through the summer months. Native primarily to dry sand, this easy-to-grow perennial has exceptional drought tolerance. Like all spiderworts, the flowers open in the morning and close each evening.
This poor plant has long suffered from an identity crises due to dueling taxonomists. This poor plant is also known as Callisia rosea, Tradescantia rosea, Phyodina rosea, and finally Tripograndra rosea. Despite the naming conundrum, it’s surprising that more people don’t grow this amazing plant.
One of the little-known of the native orchids is flowering now at JLBG. Habenaria repens, aka: water spider orchid, is the most widespread (NC to Texas) of the five native habenaria species. This charmer has been at home in one of our bogs for several years and has proven quite easy to grow. Hardiness is probably Zone 7b-10a, at least.
We love the miniature silver mats of Antennaria parviflora (little-leaf pussytoes). This little-known North American native (Canada south to Arizona) forms a tiny, 1″ tall groundcover that’s hard to the touch. In spring, the patch is topped with short fuzzy spikes of brush-like white flowers. The plant below, which measures 1′ in width, is only 18 months old from seed, and is growing in our rock garden in a well-drained mix of 50% Permatill. Hardiness is Zone 4b-7b.
As gardeners around the country are encouraged to plant more asclepias to encourage monarch butterflies, many folks are finding out that not all species of asclepias make good garden plants. As a genus, asclepias consists of running and clump forming species. There are number of horribly weedy garden plants like Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias syriaca, and Asclepias fasicularis. These plants are fine in a prairie garden, but are disastrous in more controlled home gardens.
One of our favorite clumping species is the easy-to-grow, Arizona-native Asclepias angustifolia ‘Sonoita’. This superb species was shared by plantsman Patrick McMillan. It has proven to be an amazing garden specimen, thriving for years, despite our heat and humidity. Did I mention it flowers from spring through summer?
Our clump of the native, Sabatia kennedyana just finished another amazing floral show. This fabulous, but easy-to-grow perennial has a truly odd native distribution on the coastal border of North and South Carolina, on the coastal border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in Nova Scotia! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an odd, disjunct range. Sabatia kennedyana is best suited for a sunny, slightly acidic bog, but regular garden soil will work fine, if it’s kept moist. I have no idea why this isn’t grown in every garden that has the correct conditions. Winter Hardiness is Zone 6-8, at least.
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.
Just back from the Perennial Plant Association meeting in Lancaster, PA, held in person for the first time in three years. It was like a family reunion after such a long period of no contact, except via Zoom. Over 450 people from around the world showed up for the first year back.
The Perennial Plant Association is a professional organization for people involved in production, sales, trials, research, landscaping, or growing perennials. The annual meetings consist of a week of talks, tours, and a trade show. There are plenty of tour options, so attendees can select whether they are more interested in landscape design, retail, or production.
Aris Greenleaf is a large liner producer, who also has a trial garden. Sadly, non of the trial plants here had been planted more than a few months.
Cavano’s Nursery in nearby Maryland, was one of several top notch perennial growers we visited.
North Creek Nursery, a leading producer of native plant liners in PA, hosted the group for an amazing dinner
Owner Ed Snodgrass welcomed the group to his Emory Knoll Farms, an “off the grid” nursery that only produces plants for green roofs. 100% of their power is produced by solar panels on site.
For those unfamiliar with green roofs, shingles are replaced with plants, which help insulate the structure, while also reducing runoff.
What interested many on this tour, was their use of an outdoor version of a Stanley Steamer, for weed control. The manufacturer, Weedtechnics is out of Australia, but has a few US distributors.
Steam is applied too kill weeds as you would clean a carpet. The steam only penetrates the ground to 5 mm, but that’s enough to kill both the weed and weed seed, without bothering nearby plants. This is certainly a technology many of us on the tour will be investigating.
We visited the amazing Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, a place I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times over the last 30 years. The gardens have undergrown a dramatic facelift that made a great garden even better. It was great to catch the native Zigadenus glaberrimus in full flower by the lower pond.
The amazing Chanticleer Gardens and Longwood Gardens both hosted the group for two incredible dinners and a chance to stroll the grounds. At Chanticleer, we caught the water lotus (Nelumbo) in full flower, looking eerily like something from the Little Shop of Horrors.
Of course, we are all there to see the latest and greatest in new plants, and these gatherings never fail to show us something new we need to try. Below are the latest from the world of echinacea breeding.
Of course, in addition to the plants, these meetings are also about the people and the networking that these meetings afford. It was great to see two former JLBG’ers in attendance, Adrienne and Jon Roethling. Adrienne is now the Director of the Paul Ciener Garden in NC, and Jon heads up the grounds at Reynolda House and Gardens.
It was a lovely surprise to run into an old friend, plantsman Barry Yinger, who was in town, taking a break from his Sanseveria conservation work in Tanzania to visit his sister, and happened to be staying next door to the convention.
It’s always great to catch up with old friends, Nanci Allen (long time PPA director), and Allan Armitage (retired UGA professor). You never know who you’ll run into at these meetings. If you work in the field, check out the PPA, and perhaps we’ll see you at a future symposium.
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.
Tired of trying to grow the conventional baby’s breath, that’s a prize perennial in the colder zones? We were, and had been looking for a substitute for years, when in 2000, one of our former staffers introduced us to the widespread native, Euphorbia corollata. Although it doesn’t look like much in deep shade where it’s often found in the wild, it explodes when given a bit of sun. Here are a couple of photos as it’s flowering season starts in mid-July.
Euphorbia corollata looks seriously gangly in a pot, so we’re confident you’ll never see this on the shelves of the box stores. Average moisture to very dry suites it fine. Although not a clumper, it’s spread it’s far from a thug, and is easy to remove it it happens to move too far. For a plant that’s native to every state East of the Mississippi (except Florida), and almost every single county, it’s shocking that every gardener isn’t growing this gem. Hardiness is Zone 3a-9b.
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.
Even the garden insects aren’t enjoying our extended heat wave. We caught this grasshopper hiding inside the flower of the threatened Texas endemic, Hibiscus dasycalyx last week, in search of some shade. So far, we’re experiencing the 3rd hottest summer on record in the Raleigh area.