Winter flowering Strawberry Tree

There aren’t a large number of trees that flower in winter in temperate climates, but one we can’t imagine gardening without is Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’. This amazing Mediterranean native has thrived for us since the late 1980s.

Arbutus is a member of the  Ericaceae family, which is why the flower so closely resemble those of its cousin, Pieris.

The clusters of red fruit that ripen in late winter after months of flowering resembles miniature strawberries, hence the common name of strawberry tree. The shaggy cinnamon bark is also another striking ornamental feature. Our 30 year old specimen has reached 12′ tall x 12′ wide. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’
Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’
Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ bark

Honey, I shrunk the River Birch

I remember falling in love with the dwarf river birch, Betula nigra ‘Little King’, back around 1990 when it was first planted at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, NC. This amazing compact selection originated in the late 1970s at King Nursery in Oswego, Illinois, and starting in 1991, was adopted and formally marketed through the Chicagoland Grows plant introduction program.

After 20 years, the original plant in Illinois was only 10′ tall, but the 30 year old specimen at the JC Raulston Arboretum has now reached 30′ tall x 30′ wide So, while it is much slower growing, it’s not exactly a true dwarf. Most estimates conclude that Betula ‘Little King’ will grow about 1/3 to 1/4 the speed and size of the typical species, making it a much better choice around most smaller homes. That said, we love the compact, dense habit and have recently planted this specimen around our home on the JLBG property. Hardiness is Zone 4-9.

A New Ironwood earns its mettle

It’s far more common for new perennials to be discovered than new trees…it’s a size thing. Botanists were excited in 1960, when Chinese professor H.T. Chang published a new small tree that he thought to be a witch hazel, named Hamamelis subaequalis. The original Jiangsu Province collection actually dated to 1935, but it took 25 years to be published based on a herbarium specimen of the fruit.

The new hazel hadn’t been seen alive since 1935, and was assumed extinct, when it was rediscovered in 1988 by a team from the Jiangsu Institute of Botany. After studying live flowering specimens for three years, it became obvious that It wasn’t a witch hazel at all, and a new genus, Shaniodendron was published for the plant. Here, it remained, until 1997, when DNA analysis revealed that Shaniodendron was actually a second species in the formerly monotypic genus Parrotia….only living some 3,500 miles from its nearest relative. Its sibling is the famed Iranian Ironwood (Parrotia persica).

Currently, there are only five known populations in China, so it is quite rare in the wild. The largest plants seen in the wild were 30′ tall, but Parrotia subaequalis should grow slightly taller in cultivation. The photo below is our 13 year old specimen. Most plants of Parrotia subaequalis in the US, including our specimen pictured below, trace back to famed Japanese plant collector of Chinese plants, Mikinori Ogisu. Fortunately, Parrotia subaequalis is quite easy to root from cuttings, so we hope its not long before this amazing plant becomes much more widespread in commerce. In trials so far, it came through -25 degrees F with only slight tip damage, so it looks like a solid Zone 5-8 plant.

Tarahumara Oak

One of our prize plants in the garden is the Tarahumara Oak, Quercus tarahumara. This truly odd oak is native to Northern Mexico, where it resides in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain range in the Mexican states of ChihuahuaSonoraDurango, and Sinaloa.

In cultivation, Quercus tarahumara is extremely rare and of high conservation value. It seems that there are only a few plants existing in cultivation, although a few others in collections turned out to be hybrids. So far, temperatures in the upper single digits haven’t posed a winter hardiness problem.

Quercus tarahumara is named after the Tarahumara Indians, who live in the botanically rich region, popularly known as Copper Canyon.

Quercus tarahumara

The foliage is ridiculously thick and feels like hard plastic. Turned upside down, the leaves function quite well as a drinking cup or small sink.

Quercus tarahumara

Fresh Olive Oil…anyone?

For the first time in years, our olive (Olea europea ‘Arbeqina’) here at JLBG is loaded with fruit. It’s been a while since we’ve had a crop, not because of cold, but because a f..xy!!!zz? beaver cut our tree completely to the ground several years ago. We offered this through Plant Delights for many years, so we hope others have been equally successful at producing an olive crop.

Flame Thrower

Cercis ‘Flame Thrower’, a JC Raulston Arboretum release from NC State woody plant breeder, Dr. Dennis Werner, was just awarded the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Plant of the Year for 2021. In Europe, Cercis ‘Flame Thrower’ is marketed as Eternal Flame. Here is our plant at JLBG this summer. Congratulations to Denny and the Arboretum for this huge honor!

Swamp Titi

Flowering at JLBG this month is one of our favorite small trees, Cyrilla racemiflora…aka: swamp titi. Cyrilla racemiflora was a favorite tree of the late J.C. Raulston, who was constantly extolling its virtues to anyone who would listen. Swamp titi has a native range from coastal Delaware south and west to East Texas. The flowers, which have just recently started here are a favorite of the native bumblebees. Mature size is usually 10-12′ in height, and the contorted nature of the trunks usually produce a plant that is slightly wider than it is tall. Despite its southern origins in swamps, Cyrilla is well adapted to regular garden soils as far north as Zone 5. As far as the common name, we have no idea where “titi” originated. We’ve read theories that it may have been a corruption of TyTy, Georgia, or have some relation to Florida’s Titi Creek, but those are all unconfirmed.

Flaming Buckeye

We saw this amazingly colored buckeye (Aesculus pavia) on a recent visit to the NC Arboretum in Asheville. I’ve seen countless individuals of this species, both in the wild and in gardens and have never seen a color like this. We have encouraged them to get this grafted and introduced.

Light in the Dark

One of our favorite new small trees is Styrax japonicus ‘Evening Light’…here it is in the JLBG gardens this week. The incredible black foliage serves as a lovely foil for the masses of pure white flowers. This fascinating introduction, was discovered in 2001 as a dark leaf seedling by Dutch nurseryman, Henny Kolster, and has more than lived up to the marketing hype.