The Grape Savant

I recently had the opportunity to visit the grape breeding trial garden of grape savant, Jeff Bloodworth of Orange County, NC. I didn’t realize it until my visit that Jeff, now 73, and I were in the Horticulture Department at NC State together from the mid to late 1970s. While I was starting on my undergraduate work, he was working on a Masters and later a Doctorate. After school, Jeff went on to become a Research technician with NC State grape breeder Dr. Bill Nesbitt, until he unexpectedly passed away in 1983 at the age of 51.

Departmental leaders decided to do away with the grape breeding program due to a lack of commercial interest in NC, so Jeff saw an opportunity. Scrambling quickly, he found and purchased 12 acres in rural Orange County, where all the NCSU research genetics found a new home. Jeff, and his wife, Peggy, still live on the same property today.

Jeff Bloodworth, grape breeder

I’ve grown and studied muscadine grapes for almost 40 years, but Jeff’s little finger has far more knowledge than I dreamed existed. To say Jeff is obsessive about his work with grapes is a grand understatement.

Bloodworth trial vineyards

We were joined by video producers Bill Hayes and Erin Upson of Carboro’s Thunder Mountain Media, who are working on a video project to help tell Jeff’s amazing story.

Jeff with Video Producers Bill Hayes, Erin Upson

Until 2013, Jeff had never introduced a single new grape. Part of the reason is that his breeding goals were regarded as impossible “pie in the sky” ideas. Jeff was trying to cross seedless bunch grapes (pictured below), which grow well in California, but sulk in our summers, with the Southeast US native muscadine grapes.

California bunch grapes in NC

After 10 years of no success, he finally was able to secure a viable offspring, and so was off to the races. Despite this eventual breakthrough, Jeff struggled to get any commercial or academic entities interested in his creations.

That was until plantsman and Gardens Alive owner, Niles Kinerk and his team, heard about Jeff’s work, and soon after, hired Jeff as an employee, providing some welcome financial support. Below are Jeff and Peggy Bloodworth with Mark Wessel, Gardens Alive Director of Horticultural Research.

Jeff and Peggy Bloodworth, Mark Wessel

Jeff’s first introduction through Gardens Alive, in 2013, was the light purple Vitis ‘Razmatazz’. This small-sized grape was the first seedless muscadine hybrid on the market. Although the fruit size is small by conventional standards, it is long producing as well as deliciously sweet. This was followed a few years later by Vitis ‘Oh My’, a bronze fleshed, larger seedless muscadine hybrid.

My trip last week was to join the Gardens Alive team as they sampled the new hybrids and made their final selections for future introduction. I was particularly excited by one of Jeff’s hybrids with 1″ seedless bronze grapes, but Jeff explained by slicing the grape in half and examining the ovary, that this was a female grape, which would need a male pollinator. Most commercial muscadine varieties are “perfect”, with both male and female flowers on the same plant. The size of Jeff’s seedless grapes continue to increase, and the variance of sweet flavors are astounding, so the future of grapes in the Southeast US is very exciting.

Nearby Jeff’s farm, investors have purchased much of the regional farmland with the goal of large scale production, including hundred of acres of Jeff’s grapes. We salute Jeff’s brilliance and persistence in this amazing endeavor!

To Cercis with Love

A couple of our favorite native redbud selections looking exceptional after flowering today…Cercis canadensis ‘Flame Thrower’ and ‘Golden Falls’…both from the breeding work of NCSU plant breeder, Dennis Werner.

Cercis canadensis ‘Flame Thrower’
Cercis canadensis ‘Golden Falls’

Calling all Plant Nerds

Just over a month remains before the 2022 Southeastern Plant Symposium kicks off in Raleigh at the Sheraton Hotel, downtown. This joint venture between JLBG/Plant Delights and the JC Raulston Arboretum brings together the top horticultural speakers from around the world to regale attendees with tales of their favorite new plants. Each symposium rotates a focus on either on woody plants, perennials, or geophytes. The 2022 symposium is perennials focused.

The dates are Friday, June 10 and Saturday June 11. Both the JC Raulston Arboretum and Juniper Level Botanic Garden/Plant Delights will be open for visitors on the Thursday prior and the Sunday morning after the symposium.

A few of the amazing speakers include:

Leftherios Dariotis – If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard the nickname “Greek Freak” applied to NBA star, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Well, Leftherios (aka: Liberto Dario) is to horticulture, what Giannis is to basketball…a true superstar. Leftherios will travel from his home in Greece to dazzle you with an array of little-known plants that thrive in hot, dry climates.

Eleftherios Dariotis

Dan Hinkley, founder of Heronswood and Windcliff, plant explorer extraordinaire, and recipient of the world’s top horticultural honors, will join us to share his latest botanical adventures and plants that have potential for our hot, humid climate. Dan bring a new perspective from having experienced 117 degrees F. in his Washington garden in 2021.

Dan Hinkley

Patrick McMillan is a NC native, who spent two decades as a professor at Clemson. While there, he hosted the Emmy Award winning PBS show, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, as well as directing the SC Botanical Garden. After a 1.5 year stint as Director of Heronswood, he has returned to his roots in NC, and joined the staff of JLBG. Patrick is widely recognized for his incredible botanical knowledge. His new book, Wildflowers of South Carolina will hit bookshelves soon.

Patrick McMillan

Peter Zale is the Associate Director of Conservation, Plant Breeding and Collections at Pennsylvannia’s Longwood Gardens. Peter specializes in a number of plant groups that include hardy orchids and phlox. You can’t help but be amazed at Peter’s conservation and breeding work as well as his extensive knowledge of the natural world.

Peter Zale

Plantsman Adam Black is known worldwide for his botanical exploits, primarily focused on the state of Texas. Adam has spent years traversing every corner of Texas, both re-discovering long lost plants and finding new ones. Adam’s horticultural background gives him a unique take on which Texas native plants will have great garden value for gardeners in the southeast. Adam has recently moved to NC to take a job as an Assistant Curator at the Bartlett Arboretum. We guarantee you’ll meet more new plants than you ever thought possible.

Adam Black (l)

Kelly Norris is a true renaissance horticulturist. Growing up in a Midwest iris nursery propelled Kelly into the public horticultural arena. After a stint beefing up the collections at the Des Moines Botanic Garden, Kelly now splits his time between landscape design, writing, and extolling the virtues of new plants on QVC. Kelly is one of the new wave of great thinkers in our industry who understands the need for the fields of botany and horticulture to collaborate.

Kelly Norris

On Saturday, the pace picks up even more, with shorter, but intensively focused talks. The list of Saturday presenters include Mark Weathington, Director of the JC Raulston Arboretum will speak on his favorite new perennials. Ian Caton, founder of Wood Thrush Natives in Virginia will speak on Underused and Little-known Appalachian Natives. Hayes Jackson, Alabama Extension Agent and Director of The Longleaf Botanical Garden in Alabama will speak on Creating a Tropical Garden Feel in a Temperate Climate.

We are pleased to welcome Richard Hawke, Manager of the Perennial Trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Richard’s detailed cultivar evaluations are prized by gardeners throughout the country. Shannon Currey, Marketing Manager for Hoffman’s Nursery, will share her passion for sedges, while Adrienne Roethling, Director of the Paul Ciener Botanical Garden will discuss her favorite vines. Yours’ truly, Tony Avent, will share more than you ever thought possible about the genus Baptisia.

Did I mention the symposium includes the now world-famous rare plant auction, which has garnered International attention? The auction and symposium will be available both on-line and remote.

We are pleased to welcome Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs as a presenting sponsor for 2022. Additionally, Ball Seed is offering 10 student scholarships to attend the symposium. You can find out more about these and apply here.

Mark and I truly hope you will join us for this incredible perennials-focused symposium, back in person for the first time in three years. The Symposium is an important fundraiser for both the JC Raulston Arboretum as well as the Juniper Level Botanic Garden Endowment. Here is the link to register for the Symposium. We’ll see you in June!

The House of Plant Science

We recently attended the dedication the new Plant Science Building at NC State. This $160 million dollar facility will house high level plant research where interdisciplinary researchers will work together to solve high level plant concerns. I can only imagine being a student and being able to work in such an amazing facility. The top floor is a high-tech greenhouse.

Happy Weeper

Prunus ‘Pink Cascades’ is a recent introduction from NC State’s Tom Ranney. This strict weeper can be staked to any desired height, then allowed to trail from there. Here are our stunning two year-old plants this March, grafted at 4′ tall. The plants have already reached 11′ in width on the way to 20′ – 30′ wide.

NC State/JLBG Day of Giving

Wednesday, March 23, 2022 is the NC State University Day of Giving…a time for those who want to support activities at NC State. In our case, that means the endowment we are building to preserve Juniper Level Botanic Gardens. If you care about ensuring the gardens remain intact for future generations, please consider making a contribution to the endowment. You can do so at this link to the University Endowment Fund for JLBG.

For those who are relatively new to the gardens, here is a link to a historical timeline of the JLBG garden development.

You can find out more about the mission and future of the gardens here

Open House Visitors

We truly love having garden visitors! We recently wrapped up our winter Open Nursery and Garden days, and will open in again in spring in late April/early May. It’s great to see folks get ideas both about plants they would like to try as well as garden design ideas. Because of exceptionally good weather most days this winter, the crowds were record-setting.

Open house is also like a giant horticultural family reunion. It’s actually surprising when folks don’t run into their gardening friends in the garden. We love seeing old friends, while meeting new ones. Below is George McLellan, a long time friend and avid plantsman from Virginia and member of the mid-Atlantic Rhododendron Society. On the left is Barbara Bullock, who recently retired from the US National Arboretum after 29 years of curating the garden’s azalea collection…here for her first visit.

Geroge McLellan (c), and Barbara Bullock (l)

The prize for the traveling the farthest distance this year goes to hosta nurseryman, Marco Fransen of Holland. I had the pleasure of visiting Marco’s nursery several years ago, so it was lovely to have the chance to chat. It was interesting to learn that Marco’s main customer base for new hosta introductions is both Russia and Ukraine. It would be safe to conclude that the current conflict in that region won’t be good for business, but our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone effected.

Marco Fransen

Keeping up the Spirit

In 2009, we first planted the Tom Ranney (NC State) introduction of Hydrangea ‘Spirit’..his creation of a pink-flowered selection of the usually white-flowered NC native Hydrangea arborescens. Here it is today, twelve years later and still looking superb in the gardens at JLBG. Over $1 million dollars from the sale of this plant has been donated to breast cancer research. What a lovely plant and lovely story!

Redbud Lite

Here are two of our favorite new redbuds growing at JLBG…both from the NC State breeding program of Dr. Dennis Werner. The first is Cercis canadensis ‘Flame Thrower’, which boasts pumpkin colored leaves that emerge gold. The second is Cercis canadensis ‘Golden Falls’, a fabulous pendulous form, whose leaves remain gold all summer.

Cercis canadensis ‘Flame Thrower’
Cercis canadensis ‘Golden Falls’