Are you a blue fan?

We love our Mediterranean blue fan palms…one of the coolest palms we can grow outdoors. We’re right on the edge of winter hardiness for Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, so the key is to grow it to a larger size before planting in the ground. We’ve lost a few that we planted too small, and when that planting coincided with a cold winter.

This is a photo taken this January of our oldest clump, now 17 years old. This is a very slow growing palm, so a good bit of patience is required when getting it established. When we do experience single digits F winter temperatures, all of the foliage is burned back, but it re-sprouts from the base in spring. Mediterranean blue fan palm hails from high elevations in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where it eventually makes a 15′ tall specimen. In our cold winter climate, we doubt it will ever top 4′ in height. It should be winter hardy from Zone 7b and warmer.

Agave frog

Since we’ve been growing agaves, one of the most fascinating things we’ve noticed is the incredible attraction of tree frogs and Carolina anoles to their leaf texture. There is hardly a day that goes by that we don’t spot one or the other, nestled on an agave leaf. Here is our most recent image of our native green tree frog, Hyla cinerea, basking in the sun on an Agave parryi hybrid. Ain’t nature grand!

Kaizuka! Bless you.

I first met Juniperus chinensis ‘Kaizuka’ on a mid 1970s student field trip to Florida with the late JC Raulston. As our caravan of University vans crossed from Georgia into Florida, these junipers suddenly appeared everywhere. Although, I was unfamiliar with this architecturally fascinating specimen, I was in love….despite it being common as the proverbial dirt in Florida landscapes. Everywhere from gas stations to the poorest home seemed to have at least one. Most locals know Juniperus ‘Kaizuka’ as either Juniperus ‘Torulosa’ or Hollywood Juniper…a common name it gained due to its ubiquitous presence around Los Angeles. It turns out that Juniperus ‘Kaizuka’ was an introduction from Japan’s Yokohama Nursery prior to 1920. Our oldest plants at JLBG are now 33 years old, and now measure 24′ tall x 16′ wide. The one pictured below is a new 5 year old planting in a new section of the garden. Forty-five years later and still in love!

Red China

The dwarf groundcover Sedum tetractinum ‘Little China’ is superb throughout the growing season, but we particularly love when cold weather arrives and the olive green foliage turns to bright red in the sun…what a superb winter show. Hardiness is Zone 4a-8b.

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.

Mangave zombies

One of many great attributes of mangaves, compared to one of their parents, agaves, is that they don’t die after flowering. Agaves are mostly monocarpic, which mean that they behave like bromeliads, where each rosette grows to maturity, then dies after flowering. Those species of agave which offset, live on after flowering, by means of un-flowered offsets. Those agave species which don’t offset are a one and done after they flower and reproduce by reseeding.

By incorporating manfreda genes to create xMangaves, the monocarpic trait disappears. After a mangave flowers, it dies to the ground, but like a good zombie, it soon pops back from the dead. Here is a current photo from the garden of two clumps of xMangave ‘Blue Mammoth’. The first, larger clump has not flowered, but should do so next year. The second clump with all the offsets, flowered in 2020, and re-grew to this point in 2021. Next year, the rosettes will continue to re-grow in size.

Selective Love

I’ve never been a huge fan of nandinas in the garden. I find the more typical forms very difficult to integrate from a design perspective, and I find the popular Nandina ‘Firepower’ to be near the top of the list of most grotesquely ugly plants used in American landscapes. Yes, it’s colorful, but the plant lacks any grace, and has the form of a pile of wet red Kleenex.

Of the older cultivars, I like Nandina ‘Harbor Dwarf’, with it’s low spreading form, but the paucity of fruit keeps most people from planting it. The only downside for us is that it spreads to cover a very large footprint, so can choke out other nearby plants. We continue to trial all of the new nandina introductions to see if anything strikes our fancy.

My favorite member of the genus, which I first met at the JC Raulston Arboretum back in the 1980s, is Nandina domestica ‘Filamentosa’. This cutleaf, slow-growing, non-fruiting selection from Japan is often marketed under the trade name San Gabriel. It adds a distinctly Japanese flavor to the landscape, which is why we planted a mass in our new Japanese garden. Here is a photo from this week with it’s lovely rosy winter color. Winter hardiness is Zone 6b-9a.

Unduly Undulate

Most plants have Latin name epithets (the 2nd word) that describes/commemorates either a place, person, or plant characteristic. In this case, the foliage of this Greek wooly mullein (Verbascum undulatum) is ridiculously wavy. Here it is looking great in our rock garden during the early winter. This will be our first full winter with it in the ground, so fingers crossed that it survives.

In celebration of the obscure

It’s hard to imagine a plant more obscure that the Southeast coastal native Houstonia procumbens. You may recognize the name houstonia as belonging to one of the many more common bluets. Instead, this is a creeping white-et. We’ve had this in our alpine rock garden for a couple of decades, but barely notice it until November, when the flowering picks up as other plants around it are going dormant. In the wild, Houstonia procumbens can be found in moist pine savannahs as well as nearby disturbed habitats. We’re unsure if this is showy enough for anyone to actually purchase.

Don’t Diss Disanthus

In full flower this fall is Disanthus cercidifolius. Ok, so full flower on a disanthus may not seem too exciting to the petunia and pansy crowd, but plant geeks find these flowers pretty darn cool. We’d nearly given up on growing this witch hazel relative after finding in our first few attempts that it has zero heat tolerance. It wasn’t until we obtained a plant from a Chinese population (Disanthus cercidifolius ssp. longipes) of the better known Japanese native, that we realized there is a form we can grow, and grow well. Not only does the Chinese form have heat tolerance, but it also thrives in full sun. The specific epithet “cercidifolius” means foliage like a cercis (redbud).