The Accidental Green Meatball

Recently PDN staffer Chris Hardison, who heads up our marketing team, noticed an odd green meatball in a local shopping center parking lot. Upon closer examination, he found it to be a specimen of our native willow oak, Quercus phellos.

It’s obvious that the low-end mow and blow crew who take care of the plants in the parking lot assumed it to be another plant, like the hollies nearby, that needed to be butchered into the most unnatural shape possible…a green meatball.

We were curious if the oak was a natural dwarf, or was damaged when it was young, and was simply trying to resprout, when it caught the eye of the crew of horticultural butchers. It does have three smaller trunks than its nearby same age siblings, which seem to indicate damage during its youth.

To confirm this theory, we have taken cuttings and if we can get them to root, we’ll plant them out at JLBG and see if it maintains the dwarf form, which could actually be a fascinating option for homeowners. The second image below shows the green meatball oak in front of it’s sibling, planted the same time.

We love horticultural mysteries.

Quercus phellos green meatball form
Quercus phellos green meatball in front of its more typical sibling

Mama…where do fern babies come from?

If you’re a nursery, and you’d like to offer ferns, the plants at your disposal are somewhat limited. A large majority of ferns sold in America are still sadly dug from the wild. When you see a catalog listing primarily these ferns together…usually an very inexpensive prices, you can be pretty much assured they were dug from the wild: Osmunda regalis (royal fern), Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon Fern), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern), Matteuccia Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich fern), Adiantum pedatum (Maidenhair fern), Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), and Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive Fern). These ferns are often sold bareroot, to save the nursery the expense of having to pot the collected plants, many of which are so large, they won’t fit in small containers.

The other majority of ferns in the market are produced by tissue culture, either by a couple of labs in Florida, one in Texas, and one in Holland. Without the amazing work of these labs, the fern selections available to homeowners would be limited to the wild collections. Even with their amazing work, these labs must focus on well-known ferns that sell in very large numbers.

While we make use of the lab offerings, we also made a commitment over 30 years ago to grow many of our own ferns from spores. Outside of a few small fern specialists, there are few nurseries who grow their own ferns from spores, since this is the most costly and time consuming option. The reason we do this is so that we can offer fern species and selected forms that are otherwise unavailable.

Below is a quick summary of how the process works. Fern spores (fern equivalents of seed) are collected through the summer, and are dried in paper envelopes until they separate from the foliage. They are then sown in pots with potting soil that is sterilized here, and then sealed in ziploc bags. The spore takes from 1 month to 6 months to germinate. Once the spores germinate, they are ready to have sex…a process that is reversed from more modern evolved flowering plants.

To assist the ferns have sex, we gently add water to the newly germinated sporelings, since ferns (other than desert ferns) only have sex while they are swimming. The water is swirled around to mimic the feel of a whirlpool, then the bags are then resealed, and put in the dark where they are subjected to a near constant montage of Barry White music.

Within a few weeks, tiny fern fronds begin to emerge. At this point, the ziploc bags are opened to allow the humidity to equalize with the ambient air. After another couple of weeks the pots are removed from the ziploc bags. If the spore were viable and cleaned well without contamination, and if germination was good, there will be up to several hundred plants per pot.

After a few weeks, the sporelings are transplanted into a cell pack flat. Here they grow out for another few months until they are ready to be planted into our 1 qt. pots, in which they will be sold. In all, it’s about an 18 month process, and a good bit of labor. We’re really quite passionate about our fern collection at JLBG, which the visiting British Fern Society declared one of the largest/most diverse in the world. We hope you find the results worthwhile.

Richer for Ritchie

I was scanning some older slides recently, and came across this image of the late Ritchie Bell from 1968. Dr. Bell was director of the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill for 25 years, from 1961 to 1986. Here he is in 1968, posing by a sign for the first nature trail opened at NCBG, just a couple of years earlier.

Ritchie is not just known for his work at the garden, but for his many books, most notably, his contributions to the revered, 1964 Manual of the Vascular Flora of North Carolina, with Al Radford and Harry Ahles. We’ve never forgot Ritchie’s motto of “Conservation through Propagation”…something that’s even more important today in the face of a changing climate. Ritchie passed away in 2013 and the age of 92, but his powerful legacy endures.. He was a good friend and an incredible inspiration.

Ritchie had just made a previous presentation to the Men’s Garden Club of America regional meeting in Reidsville about the new NCBG trail system. Below is an image from that 1968 meeting with MGC Regional President, Sam Fairchild (r) of Reidsville, NC. Most people don’t remember Ritchie prior to growing his trademark beard.

Worth the Wait

One of my OCD exercises is keeping a list of desiderata plants for the garden, which I’ve either seen or heard about, and want to try. At this point, the list is closing in on a ridiculous 3,000 items. Some desiderata we find in less than a year, while others may grace the list for decades. One plant that had been on my list for about 20 years was Asphodelus acaulis…a fascinating stalkless species of asphodelus (most have tall stalks) from Northern Africa. Try as I might, I had been unsuccessful in tracking this down from any of my usual rock garden plant sources. It wasn’t until a 2018 plant shopping trip to the UK, that I finally found my grail plant in Bob Brown’s amazing Cotswold Garden Flowers. Now, going into its’ third season, it has settled in admirably, starting in late winter with its months long floral display of cupped light pink flowers nestled in the rain-lily like glossy green foliage. It is our hope to one day share this more widely…once we figure out the best propagation method.