Low Country Treasure Hunt

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.

Taxodium ascendens
Taxodium ascendens

The high water marks are visible on the buttressed trunks of bald cypress.

Taxodium ascendens

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.

Pine/Wiregrass habitat

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 tortoise mound/tunnel

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.

Gopher tortoise

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?

Orange katydid

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.

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.

Sarracenia flava in situ
Sarracenia flava clump – typical yellow pitchers
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava with a particularly large hood
Sarracneia flava with brown hood and nice veining
Sarracenia flava red neck form
Sarracenia minor
Sarracenia rubra

A plant often seen near the pitcher plants is the native orchid, Plantanthera ciliaris.

Plantanthera ciliaris orchid

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.

Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens seed

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.

Thelypteris kunthii

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.

Hamamelis henryi

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.

Crategus munda var. pexa

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.

Liquidambar styraciflua gold sport

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.

Clinopodium georgianum

At one stop, we found five different liatris species, including the little-known Liatris elegans.

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.

Centrosema virginiana

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.

Smilax pumila

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.

Leaf-footed bugs

Goodbye Champ!

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’s home sarracenia collection
Sarracenia ‘Red Bug’

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 donorrelations@fftc.org 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.

A rosea by any other name would look as sweet.

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.

It’s a Good Year – A

We recently ran across this clump of the summer-flowering native (Canada south to Florida) orchid, Goodyera pubescens growing in a site near JLBG. Like a century plant, the flowering rosette dies after flowering, but new side shoots are produced for future generations. Work is being done to produce this in tissue culture so it can be made more widely available from nursery propagated stock. Sadly, most plants sold today are wild collected.

Of the 100 species of Goodyera orchid, only 4 are US natives.

Humility in the Garden

This spring, Plant Delights introduced Zac Hill’s 2013 discovery of a new ruellia which he found in central Alabama. What we theorized might be a natural hybrid turned out to be a brand new species, as we were informed by botanists working on getting the plant published. We hope all native plant enthusiasts purchased this to both enjoy in their garden and for ex-situ (off site) conservation value. These are in full flower during the summer. Hardiness is unknown at this point, but we know it’s fine from Zone 7b – 8b, and most likely much further north.

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.

Gold Anole

Carolina anoles are our most prolific garden pet, occurring by the thousands in our garden. It’s rare that a garden photography session doesn’t include several anole shots.

Carolina anoles are the only North American lizard with the ability to change color…usually ranging from green through brown. Despite being studied for years, researchers still have no idea what causes anoles to change color. Researchers know that their skin color has absolutely nothing to do with the material they are sitting on. The next best theory that anoles change color to regulate temperature has also been disproven.

Current research seems to link color change to stress, be that from entering the territory of another anole or relating to a pending sexual encounter. The natural world has so many secrets that we still don’t understand…ain’t mother nature grand!

Crazy calyces

Working in the garden recently and stumbled on these flower calyces (the things that protect a developing flower bud) from a nearby Japanese persimmon. Nature creates the most amazing art if we just slow down enough to notice.

Stanley Lives

It only took us five attempts to figure out how to successfully grow the North American native, Stanleya pinnata. For those who haven’t met Stanleya pinnata, it’s a native woody perennial from the Westernmost States (North Dakota west to Southern California), so it really doesn’t find the rainy southeastern US to its liking. After several siting failures (learning experiences), we have finally found a location where it is thriving, a dry sloped berm in partial shade.

Stanleya was named after Lord Earl Smith-Stanley, The English 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851) , who was quite a naturalist and president of the Linnean Society. This Lord Stanley wasn’t the only member of the Stanley family to have important items named in his honor. The NHL Ice Hockey trophy, the Stanly Cup, is named after his relative Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley (1841-1908), who was the son of Lord Edward Smith-Stanley, The 14th Earl of Derby, so it’s all in the family…Lord have mercy.

Nice job, Les

I hope everyone with a sun garden has grown the amazing Amsonia hubrichtii. It’s certainly looking fine in the garden as this recent image from JLBG will attest. Few people realize it was name after the late American naturalist, Leslie Hubricht. Before Hubricht died in 2005 at age 97, he had published 108 new species of mollusks (snails). His world class collection of over 500,000 specimens is now housed in the Chicago Field Museum.

After an early life stent as a research associate at the Missouri Botanic Garden, Hubricht went on to spend the majority of his career as a repairman for adding machines, and later computers. During his career, he moved constantly, living in 22 different cities. His single-minded focus was studying nature…in particular, mollusks. In his spare time, he published 151 scientific papers. This would be almost unheard of for a researcher who had the backing of a major formal botanical institution, of which Hubricht had none.

Additionally, 25 new species of animals wered name after him, along with one lichen, and two species of plants…most notably the amsonia. Hubricht did all this despite a formal education that only included a single semester of high school. We salute the amazing Leslie Hubricht.

An Exciting New Expedition

Please join me in welcoming our newest JLBG team member, Dr. Patrick McMillan. I’ve known Patrick for 30 years, going back to his days as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and long before he became a legend in the plant world.

We’ve followed his amazing journey, most recently as Director of Heronswood Gardens in Washington. Prior to that, he was Director of the SC Botanical Garden and Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson since 2000. Patrick was the Emmy Award winning host of the renown PBS series, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan. Patrick is a highly-respected botanist/naturalist, who has won far too many awards to mention, but we’ll let Patrick tell you a bit more about himself and why he decided to partner with JLBG.

My first experience with Juniper Level and Tony was sitting at the kitchen table in 1991, the inaugural year of Plant Delights Nursery, talking about Asarum and star-struck by Tony’s knowledge and passion that has continued to grow into one of the world’s premier gardens and nurseries. In those days I dreamed of the opportunity to work alongside such talented horticulturalists and intrepid explorers.

My love of plants and all things slithering, creeping, crawling, and flying came at a very early age. I can’t remember a time when my life wasn’t centered on them. Fast forward 31 years and I found myself sitting at the same table reminiscing about the past, marveling at how far JLBG has grown, and stirring excitement for the future. I am so enthusiastic about joining the staff at JLBG, learning from the lifetimes of incredible knowledge and skill that is assembled among the employees and sharing my own experience, passion, and knowledge to bolster the mission and the horticultural and conservation accomplishments of this magical place.

I’m probably best described as a plant nerd. I have never met a plant I didn’t love. Every plant has a story and each is connected to our lives and the lives of the biodiversity upon which we all depend. Much of my horticultural experience and focus in South Carolina and at Heronswood Garden in Kingston, Washington has been focused on generating and supporting insect, bird and other wildlife diversity in the home landscape.

My philosophy of natural community gardening and the generation of life is a fairly simple one based on filling every space with life – diversity generates diversity. My exploration of the plant world has taken me from pole to pole and over every continent except Australia. I was trained as a sedge taxonomist but my interests include anything with cells. I’ve described new species ranging from ragweeds to sedges and begonia.

I also believe strongly that our greatest gift is sharing knowledge and I have worked as a lifelong educator. You may also have seen me on your local PBS station, where for 15 years I wrote, hosted, and produced the series “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan” – distributed by American Public Television. Conservation, preservation and generation of life is at the core of my life’s mission and I can imagine no better place to be nested within than JLBG. I hope to meet you soon and share some hearty plant nerd conversation.