Ruscus Crazy

We love the evergreen ruscus in garden, but realize they are a plant that will never be found at most mainstream garden centers. A genus of only 6 currently recognized species, native from Europe into Eurasia, these horticultural oddities are so odd that they once qualified to have their own plant family, Ruscaceae.

Now, with improved DNA testing, they were found to actually be members of the Asparagus family. Exactly where within the Asparagus family is still an ongoing debate. Within the last decade, they were grouped with Nolina and Dasylirion, which to those of us who work with live plants, made no sense. Most likely, they will wind up in their own section, but as distant cousins to better know genera like Rohdea and Liriope.

Ruscus are great evergreen plants for dry shade, in regions where they are winter hardy, which is usually Zone 7b and south. Ruscus are unique in that they don’t produce leaves, but instead have leaf like structures known as cladodes, from which the tiny flowers emerge. All ruscus species have both separate male and female plants, although there are four hermaphroditic (bi-sexual) cultivars of Ruscus aculeatus in commerce, which produce the lovely red fruit without a mate.

The most common ruscus species in cultivation is Ruscus aculeatus, which has a wide range from Western Europe through the Caucuses. A handful of named cultivars of Ruscus aculeatus can be found in the gardens. Below is a photo this month of Ruscus ‘Sparkler’ a self-fruiting form, whose 2′ tall height is mid-way between Ruscus ‘Elizabeth Lawrence’ and Ruscus ‘Wheeler’.

Ruscus aculeatus ‘Sparkler’

Ruscus hypophyllum is a species, which ranges from Spain to Northern Africa, that’s rarely cultivated in the US. Other than the very tender Ruscus streptophyllus, this has proven to the be the next most tender species. Prior to trying these new forms of Ruscus hypophyllum, which were planted in early 2020, we had only grown a single clone, which had consistently died in our Zone 7b winters. These new plants are seedlings, grown from an Alan Galloway seed collection in Majorca, Spain.

Ruscus hypophyllum

Ruscus hypoglossum, which hails from Italy to Turkey, is a similar sounding species that we were fortunate to study in the wilds of Slovenia a few years ago, where it grew in mountainous open forests.

Ruscus hypoglossum
Ruscus hypoglossum flowers

Ruscus x microglossum (below) is a natural hybrid between Ruscus hypophyllum and Ruscus hypoglossum…quite a tongue-full.

Ruscus x microglossum

Ruscus colchicus is a species we fell in love with during a trip to Hillier’s Arboretum in 2005. Hailing from NW Turkey to the Western Caucuses, Ruscus colchicus is possibly the most elegant garden species. We are fortunate to have three different clones growing at JLBG, which we hope to one day have enough to share.

Ruscus colchicus

Voted least likely to be found in an ex-situ plant collection is Ruscus hyrcanus, a species, whose native range is from the Crimea into Iran. In appearance it somewhat resembles a dwarf, horizontal-growing version of Ruscus aculeatus. We are thrilled to have been able to offer this little-cultivated species in the past through Plant Delights.

Ruscus hyrcanus

We hope you’ll take notice of these great evergreens during your next visit to JLBG.

Winter Magnolias

This winter has been an amazing one at JLBG for the mid-winter flowering, evergreen magnolias. Formerly known as Michelia, there are several species from warm temperature Asian climates, which flower in the mid-winter. The plant in the top photo is our oldest specimen of Magnolia platypetala, and below is Magnolia macclurei…both planted in 1999, and in full flower in January. Obviously, we will loose open flowers if winter night temperatures drop too far below freezing, but the remainder of the flower buds usually open shortly after temperatures warm.

Also, the bright gold shrub in the first image is the original plant of our introduction, Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’…the plant from which all plants in the world were propagated. To the lower right is the Mediterranean native, Phlomis fruticosa ‘Miss Grace’. All in all, a lovely winter garden combination.

Tender Mason’s Lily

Here is the reportedly tender Massonia depressa from South Africa in full flower in our crevice garden. I should add that this photo was taken 2 nights after we recorded 16 degrees F. I guess when the source of all worthwhile information, Wikipedia, says “When cultivated in a temperate environment, M. depressa does not tolerate freezing temperatures, so must be grown under glass in a cold greenhouse or similar.” we should take that as fake gardening news. Hmmm.

Massonia is a genus of bulbs in the Asparagus family, related to the more familiar genus scilla. Winter hardiness of this species is….well, still to be determined, but we’re good to at least Zone 8b so far.

Ichang Winter

Another of the mid-winter flowering species of wild ginger is the Chinese Asarum ichangense. Here is a green leaf form of this easy-to-grow wild ginger in late January from the top. If you push aside the leaves, you’ll see the amazing floral show, hidden beneath. Winter hardiness in Zone 6b-8b, and possibly colder.

Asarum ichangense foliage
Asarum ichangense flowers

Mid-Winter Grotto

Here’s a mid-winter shot of our front grotto, showing what that section looks like during the most trying time of year. We try to emphasize to those building new gardens to treat gardens just like rooms of your home. Each should have a floor, ceiling, walls, furniture both large and small, and decorations. In the garden, we also try to emphasize year round interest, which in our area includes a good selection of evergreens. Our Winter Open Nursery and Garden Days coming up in a few weeks is a great time to get ideas and inspiration for your own garden. Below is a “before” picture of the same area.

JLBG grotto garden 2022

Below is the same shot when this section was begun in 1988.

JLBG grotto garden 1988

A Characias Cracker

For years, we struggled to grow the Mediterranean/Balkan native spurge, Euphorbia characias…until we discovered its secrets. First, it isn’t a long lived plant to begin with…in most cases 3-5 years is it, so you’ll need to plant it where it’s likely to reseed. That would be well-drained slopes that are either mulched or covered with gravel.

Secondly, after it flowers in spring with its stunning show of yellow flowers, remove most of the flower stalks as soon as flowering has finished, except those needed to produce new seedlings (the flowers are also great to use in floral arrangements). If not, the seed stalks use up energy causing the plant to decline much faster. We’ve now allowed this to seed throughout the slopes in front of our house, and here is the result…a smattering of 3′ tall x 3′ wide clumps, photo taken mid-winter.

Although this section of the garden, planted in compost-amended sandy loam is irrigated, we typically don’t recommend irrigation for this spurge without excellent drainage. You’ll also read on-line that Euphorbia characias doesn’t like hot, humid summers…another example of fake gardening news that just keeps getting repeated without any concern for the facts.

We’ve also found Euphorbia characias to grow well in part sun under large trees, which keeps the soil dry. The plants will never be as dense as they are in full sun, but they survive and flowers. There is really not anything else that gives you this evergreen blue color and form in the winter garden.

Winter Sunburst

Pittosporum tobira ‘Kansai Sunburst’ is looking lovely in the mid-winter garden. This Japanese selection emerges with brightly cream-edged leaves which age to green. This selection came to the US, via the former Asiatica Nursery, which brought so many wonderful Japanese selections to American gardeners.

This native of China, Japan, and Korea should mature around 10′ in height. Pittosporum tobira is prized for its spring-produced, intensely-fragrant small white flowers that smell like orange blossoms. We’ve had our plants in the ground since 2007, so they’ve passed the survival test of two winters with low temperatures in the single digits F. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Bye Bye Borinda

We love busting horticultural myths, and here’s our latest. Borinda fungosa is another of the wonderful clumping bamboos from China, which, according to bamboo authorities, will not tolerate either our winter temperatures or our summer heat and humidity. Well, darn!

Excuse us for sharing this photo from late January, but here is our 2010 planting of a seed grown plant, and of course, it’s easy to see how poorly it’s growing. That said, we know that it will die to the ground at single digits F, and then re-sprout the following spring. The lesson…don’t believe everything you hear or read.

High on Loquats

We truly love loquats…both to grow and consume. I first met Eriobotrya japonica in 1976 on a walk around the NC State campus with the late Dr. JC Raulston. I was amazed to see a mature 30’+ specimen growing against one of the campus buildings. I was determined to grow one of our own, so in the mid 1990s, we planted our first specimen here at JLBG.

Loquats, a Chinese native member of the rose family, makes a lovely small tree with large, evergreen foliage that resembles a corrugated Magnolia grandiflora. Another exceptional feature is the fragrant white flowers that start to open around Christmas. These are followed by delicious orange fruit in early spring, when winter temperatures don’t drop below the mid-teens F. Loquat foliage is also brewed as a tea, in addition to its numerous medicinal benefits. We have always found loquats to be much more winter hardy than most of the literature indicates. Our oldest specimen planted in 1997, has never experienced any winter damage. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

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.

Perfume of the Princess

Quite a few really smart horticulturists told us we didn’t have a chance of succeeding with Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’ in our climate. We’ll, we’re almost 2 years in the ground with this New Zealand hybrid of Daphne bholua x Daphne odora. It’s already full of flowers, where it’s thriving in our crevice garden. In the sense of full disclosure, we’ve never been able to keep the Daphne bholua parent alive. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer to at least Zone 8b.

A Major Minus

Asarum minus ‘Cupid’ is one of our heavily silver patterned selections of our native wild ginger. When cold weather arrives, the evergreen leaves take on a lovely purple cast. This is an excellent clonal selection we made in 1994 from a construction site, and one we hope to offer in the future though Plant Delights Nursery.

Laosy Mytilaria

Okay…everyone raise your hand if you’ve grown Mytilaria laosensis. This odd monotypic genus, native from Southern China to Laos, is first cousin to the also virtually unknown genus Exbucklandia, both in the Witch Hazel family, Hamamelidaceae . Since we’ve had our Exbucklandia in the ground since 1997, we though it was worth trying its cousin.

Our Mytilaria is Dan Hinkley’s collection from Huanan…probably the first accession in the country. Dan has actually never put one in the ground and told me that it would certainly die when we hit 27F. Well, we’ve dropped to 25 so far, and it still looks great, so we’ve already pushed the envelope. We truly have no idea what temperatures it will take, but that’s why we trial plants. As the late JC Raulston used to say, “Unless you’re killing plants, you’re not growing as a gardener.”

Cantab-ulous

In full flower now at JLBG is Mahonia x lindsayae ‘Cantab’, a hybrid of Mahonia japonica and the virtually unknown Mahonia siamensis. The intensely sweet fragrance is truly intoxicating…the strongest in the genus Mahonia. Sadly, you’ll rarely find this available for sale, since it’s somewhat gangly form doesn’t curry favor with most nursery growers. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Tama Love

Camellia japonica ‘Tama no Ura’ has been fabulous this winter, both when the flowers are attached as well as when they just fall to the ground below. This amazing plant was actually discovered in the wilds of China, so no breeding was involved in its creation. It was subsequently introduced to horticulture in 1947 by the Nuccio family of California, who have since worked to create a series of similar flowered selections using these same genetics…all superb.

Lithophytes, epiphytes, tigers, and bears…oh my

Just out in the garden in early January and wanted to share photos of a few of our favorite evergreen ferns that would rather not be growing in the ground. In our garden, these are all growing within a few feet of each other.

Each of these ferns are epiphytes, which grow attached to a tree, or lithophytes, which grow attached to a rock. None of these ferns actually need soil to grow, since they get their food and water from the atmosphere and accumulated organic debris. Epiphytes, however, don’t get nutrients from their host plant…only physical support.

All epiphytic ferns thrive in hanging baskets, especially the spaghnum-lined type, since this most closely mimics their natural preferences. In our case, we are a bit colder than their native haunts, so for us, we force these ferns to reside in the ground since that gives them a bit more protection during severe winter temperatures. The key for epiphytes to survive in the ground is to have very loose, organic soils and always plant them on a steep slope.

Neolepisorus fortunei ‘Green Ribbons’ is our 2017 introduction of a Chinese native epiphytic fern.

Neolepisorus fortunei ‘Green Ribbons’

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Hiryu’ is also an epiphytic fern, native to Japan.

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Hiryu’

Lastly is Polypodium vulgare ‘Ulleung Island’. Instead of being an epiphyte, this evergreen fern is a lithophyte. Lithophytes are classified as either epilithic (growing across the rock surface) or endolithic (growing in cracks or crevices). Since we found this in the wild, growing across the surface of a giant rock, this fern is an epilithic lithophyte…say that three times fast. This is our 1997 collection from an island, far off the coast of South Korea.

We hope you’ll explore these unique ferns in your garden.

Polypodium vulgare ‘Ulleung Island’

Garden hookups

We always love it when unexpected garden hookups yield unexpected results, and such was the case recently when, under the cover of darkness, two of our holly ferns took a liking to each other. The result of this conjugal interlude is our first hybrid of Cyrtomium fortunei x Cyrtomium falcatum, that we’ve named Cyrtomium x fortatum Spornication. The habit of the hybrid is intermediate between both parents. Now, we’ve just got to figure out how to get it propagated in order to share.

Cyrtomium x fortatum Spornication

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!

Christmas Rose

Helleborus niger ‘Jesko’, aka: Christmas rose, has been looking fabulous in the woodland garden since late December. We find light, open shade results in the best flowering.

Following right behind Helleborus niger in our garden is Helleborus x ballardiae ‘Cinnamon Snow’…a hybrid with Helleborus niger. This is a photo from New Year’s day.

Too Straight and Narrow

It’s always interesting when we introduce a plant we think is an incredible addition to the garden, but virtually no one purchases it. Thank goodness, it doesn’t happen too often, but I’m reminded of one such case every day when I get home and admire our row of Agave x striateosa ‘Straight and Narrow’. This 2015 introduction was the first ever hybrid introduction of Agave bracteosa and Agave striata…both non-spiny century plants.

We couldn’t stand to throw out all the plants that didn’t sell, so we planted a row under a wide overhang along our home, where they never see any water, and are in shade for more than half the day. Here is one of those plants five years later, providing a texture and form that you simply can’t find with any other plants that tolerates those conditions.

We have a second seedling from the same cross, which we’ve never been able to share, but which flowered in 2015. Despite our best attempts, we were not able to get any seed set. Now, we await the first flowering of this clone in the hopes it is more fertile, so we can create some more unusual hybrids. Unlike most century plants, Agave striata is not monocarpic (doesn’t die after flowering), so we expect this hybrid to also live on in perpetuity after flowering. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-10, at least.

Agave x striateosa ‘Straight and Narrow’

Shishi

Rohdea japonica ‘Shishi’ is looking lovely in the woodland garden. Rohdea ‘Shishi’ is a dwarf Japanese selection of the evergreen sacred lily with leaves that curl downward creating an unusual bird nest like appearance. Winter hardiness is Zone 6b-8b.

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

MacClure’s Bamboo

Borinda macclureana is another superb clumping bamboo that has never received the good PR afforded other more popular species. Collected in Tibet at nearly 11,000′ elevation, it really has no business growing in the hot, humid southeastern climate, but that’s why we trial plants. Although Borinda macclureana can reach 25′ in its native haunts, our 15 year old specimen has only reached 8′ tall x 8′ wide.

Soapy Gentian

It’s hard to imagine a better plant in the fall/winter garden than the southeast native woodland perennial, Gentiana saponaria. Looking quite amazing in our garden throughout December is Zac’s collection from Rockford, Georgia. We hope you’re growing this amazing plant in your garden. Hardiness is Zone 6b-8b, at least.

Flowering Tractor Seat

We recently had someone inquire if we grew tractor seat plant, a common name I had not heard prior. After a brief pause, I figured few plants, other than our 2000 introduction, could possibly fit that name. Sure enough, a quick web search confirmed that Farfugium japoncium var. giganetum ‘Marco’ is indeed their target. While wandering through the garden this weekend, I found one clump still in flower, that somehow avoided damage from several nights at 27 degrees F.

To our knowledge, this giant form of Farfgium japonicum, native Japan’s southernmost Ryukyu Islands, was first brought to the US by plantsman Marco Stufano, who rationed out one plant per year for a NY Rare Plant Auction. When Marco was ready to retire from Wave Hill, he finally shared a piece with us, so we could get it mass propagated, hence we named the clone in his honor. To our knowledge, all tractor seat plants sold in the US came from Marco’s original plant.

Green Giant in fruit

This is the best fruit set we’ve ever seen on the Chinese Disporum longistylum ‘Green Giant’. We love this semi-evergreen Solomon’s Seal, that was collected and introduced years earlier by our friend, plant explorer Dan Hinkley. On the West Coast, this reaches 7′ tall, but here in the hot, humid southeast, we’ve never had ours exceed 3′ tall. Nevertheless, we’ll enjoy our great crop of cobalt blue fruit this winter.

Disporum longistylum ‘Green Giant’

Lewis’s Ginger

One of several rare wild gingers we grow is Asarum lewisii, which has a small native range limited to central NC and adjacent Virginia. In the wild, the evergreen Asarum lewisii is quite unique in only producing a single leaf every few inches to over 1′ apart when growing in leaf duff. In the garden, however, leaves are much more dense as you can see in the photo from the JLBG gardens this week. It’s ashamed it doesn’t sell better when we offer it through Plant Delights.

Mr. Butterfield’s Fern

We love the evergreen holly fern in all it’s species and forms. Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Butterfieldii’ is looking absolutely stupendous in the garden this month. This easy to grow shade lover glistens all winter with its glossy foliage with fancy serrated edges. Hardiness is Zone 7a-8b.

Meet Ctenitis

We love the tardily deciduous Ctenitis subglandulosa ‘Hoshizaki’, which remains looking great in the garden as we pass the winter solstice. This truly elegant fern came to us from fern guru, Judith Jones, who got it from California fern guru, Barbara Jo Hoshizaki. The airy texture and ease of growth make this a fern we wouldn’t garden without. Sadly, we offered this Asian native (Bhutan through China) once through Plant Delights and very few people purchased one, so we had to discard the remaining crop…ouch! So very sorry you missed a true gem. Hardiness is Zone 7a-8b (guessing).

Stingray in the Garden

One of our favorite winter hardy (Zone 7b) century plants is the non-spiny Agave bracteosa ‘Stingray’. Here is one of our garden specimens this week, which has been thriving in the ground since 2016. Unlike most agaves, which prefer full sun, Agave bracteosa is better in part sun (full sun for only a few hours during the day). Agave bracteosa ‘Stingray’ is also a fairly slow grower that only produces a few offsets. A mature rosette will top out around 15-18″ tall x 2′ wide. We love the unique texture, which differs from all other agaves.

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!

Hanoi Honey

The cast iron plant, Aspidistra tonkinensis ‘Hanoi Honey’ has been looking quite stunning recently during its December flowering period. Unlike many cast iron plant that have reddish cinnamon flowers, this dazzler has large bright white flowers that are impossible to miss. Where it isn’t winter hardy, cast iron plants make fabulous, easy-to-grow house plants.

Aspidistra tonkinensis ‘Hanoi Honey’

Grapefruit time in the garden

We love December, since that’s when the grapefruits start to rain down from our xCitroncitrus ‘Dustan’ tree at JLBG. Few people who come to the garden actually look up enough to notice this fascinating plant. xCitroncitrus ‘Dunstan’ is a bigeneric hybrid between the hardy trifoliate orange, Poncirus trifoliata and a grapefruit. The result is a winter hardy fruit that’s pretty darn close in size, taste, and appearance to a grapefruit. To be technically correct, the fruit is known as a Citrumelo. Whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty darn cool to be harvesting hardy citrus here in Zone 7b. Last year, we harvested over 3 dozen fruit off our single tree.

Hot Legs

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ is looking so hot this winter with its amazingly striped canes. This clumping bamboo is usually grown as a die-back perennial here in Zone 7b, since it goes to the ground when temperatures drop below 10 degrees F. Because we’ve had three mild winters, we are once again able to enjoy the amazing striping of the canes. I did get a chuckle last year, when I saw Bambusa multiplex show up on an invasive species list for North Carolina. As I explained in my letter to the group, Bambusa multiplex is first and foremost, a clumping species. Secondly, all truly invasive species (which invade functioning natural ecosystems, displacing natives and causing economic harm once population equilibrium has been reached) must be able to spread by seed, and bamboo clones only flower once in 100 years, and then die. It’s these emotionally driven lists, without any basis in facts or real science, that makes so many of the invasive lists a farce, and sadly untrustworthy.

Only the Green Shadow Knows

Here’s one of our favorite hollies, looking great in the garden this week. Ilex integra ‘Green Shadow’ is a variegated (creamy-edged leaves) form of the Mochi holly. This amazing columnar holly, that hails from oceanside mountain slopes in Japan, Korea, Southern China, and Taiwan, reaches 20′ tall x 7′ wide, which is the case with our 16 year old specimen. Although Ilex integra ‘Green Shadow’ will grow in both sun and shade, full to half day sun results in the most dense foliage. This is female clone, but we never see more than a dozen berries, so we assume it needs a male nearby to fruit better. For a narrow evergreen screening plant, it’s hard to beat. Hardiness is Zone 6b-9b.

Slim and Trim

Anyone who has visited JLBG, knows we are huge fans of the Japanese sacred lily, Rohdea japonica. While the variegated forms are certainly showy, we also love the solid green varieties, especially the narrower leaf forms, so here are a few of our favorites. The top is Rohdea japonica ‘Fukuju Kan’, followed by Rohdea ‘Feelin’ Groovy’, and finally Rohdea ‘Line Dance’. All photos were taken in our gardens this week. For us, these amazing evergreen plants remain looking great all winter and the orange-red winter fruit are a bonus. In the garden, they function like evergreen hostas. The first two are what is known as dragon-ridge (crested) varieties. Hardiness is Zone 6b-9b.

Rohdea japonica ‘Fukuju Kan’
Rohdea japonica ‘Feelin’ Groovy’
Rohdea japonica ‘Line Dance’

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.

Mama Mia…that’s a lotta ferns

We love fall and winter, when Woodwardia orientalis ‘Mama Mia’ starts producing baby ferns on the old foliage. Mama Mia can be propagated from the plantlets, but in our cold winter climate, the babies rarely mature unless taken indoors for the winter. The evergreen foliage of Woodwardia orientalis will show damage at about 10 degrees F and Zone 7b is the northern-most range of its cold hardiness.

The King’s Arum

One of the last plant exploration trips the late plantsman Alan Galloway made, was to Majorca, Spain. Alan was so excited to return home with some special selections of the fall-flowering Arum pictum, which typically has solid green foliage…except on Majorca. This beautiful form is known by collectors as Arum pictum var. sagittitifolium, although the name isn’t considered valid due to the natural variability in leaf patterns. This is Alan’s favorite form from his trip, to which we added the cutlivar name, A. pictum ‘King James’. It seems that back when Majorca had kings (thirteenth and fourteenth century), before its merger with Spain, they had a propensity for naming most of them, James.

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.

Blue Ribbon Winner

One of many exciting new introductions for 2022 is Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Ribbons’ PPAF. This variegated version of our wonderful native woodland phlox was discovered here as a single sport in our garden by our plant taxonomist, Zac Hill. Instead of being all green, each leaf is edged with a wide creamy border and flushed with pink during the colder months. In early spring, the entire clumps are topped with sweetly fragrant blue flowers. We think Phlox ‘Blue Ribbons’ is an incredible design addition for the woodland garden. Hardiness is Zone 3-8. The new catalog, with this and many other amazing gems, goes on-line in 2 weeks!

Winter Onions

Starring in the rock garden in early December is the amazing Allium virgunculae ‘Alba’. This delightful dwarf allium to 8″ tall is similar to the better known and slower offsetting Japanese Allium thunbergii. Allium virgunculae, which typically has lavender flowers, hails from Japan’s far south Kyushu Island.

Narrow-leaf Sweet Box

Sarcococca saligna is one of our favorite species of sweet box, but sadly one of the most tender. If winter temperatures drop below 10F, it dies to the ground, but has always resprouted. When we have mild winters, it becomes an extraordinary woodland garden specimen as is evidenced by this current photo.

A Rolling Stone gathers no moss, but a stationary stone…

Indeed the old proverb about a rolling stone is correct, but a stationary stone, especially in the water, gathers all kinds of amazing things. This rock in one of our garden streams has not only gathered moss, but several young maple trees, a carex, a couple of sanguinaria (bloodroot), and a handful of various ferns. Isn’t nature just grand if you stop long enough to pay attention.

Purple color echos

Here’s a photo we took right before our first big freeze of the year, with the purple-foliaged perennial, Tradescantia pallida and our Iris ensata gate, built by NC sculptor Jim Gallucci. Gardens are an amazing canvas on which to paint with both plants and structures.

Fall Fatsia Flowers

Here is the wonderful Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ in our garden on Oct 25. This fabulous shrub is a member of the aralia family, and a first cousin of the off-despised running ivies. Not only do we love Fatsia for its amazing bold texture and evergreen foliage, but we love it because it flowers in fall. The second photo was taken a mere four weeks later, when it had exploded in full bloom.

Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’
Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’

Fatsia japonica is a superb pollinator plant at a time when so little is in full bloom. Our winter low temperatures so far have been 27 degrees F, which hasn’t affected the flowers. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’

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.

Washington’s Palm ready for winter

Due to having three consecutive mild winters, with no temperatures below 20 degrees F, we’ve actually been able to get a trunk on our Washingtonia filifera palm. Typically not hardy in our climate, our plant was grown from seed collected from a wild population in Arizona that had experienced 10 degrees F. We’ll see what this winter has in store.

Reineckea…the unknown cousin

Most gardeners in mild winter climates are familiar with Liriope (monkey grass), and Ophiopogon (mondo grass), but almost no one is familiar with the third cousin, reineckea (false lilyturf). Like both better known cousins, reineckea is an evergreen groundcover, but unlike the others, here is our clump of Reineckea ‘Little Giant’ in full flower for Thanksgiving. Depending on your taxonomist, there is between 1-3 species in the genus. We’re certain of three and think there may be more. We have assembled a collection of nearly 30 wild collections and will be working with other researchers to sort out the taxonomy of this group.

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).

Cycad-o-Rama

We are just loving our hardy hybrid cycads in the garden this time of year, and here are two we photographed this week. The first is Cycas x bifungensis (bifida x taitungensis), and the second is Cycas x panziholuta (panzhihuanensis x revoluta). We have found that hybrids between hardy species are even more winter hardy than the species themselves. Hardiness for both is probably Zone 7b and south.

Cycas x bifungensis
Cycas x panziholuta

A Laurel and Hardy Garden Perennial

How could you not love a plant with the name poet’s laurel? Poet’s laurel has a long history in Greek and Roman culture representing praise for a victory or great achievement in the form of a laurel crown. Danae woven-stem wreaths were also bestowed upon revered members of society who, if they then lived off of their past glories, were said to be “resting on their laurels.”

The laurel referred to, is Danae racemosa, a classic pass-along plant in Southeast gardens, although it originally hails from half-way around the world…Iran and into the nearby Caucus Mountains. In the florist trade, where it’s highly prized, it’s often referred to as Italian laurel.

The evergreen Danae racemosa is hardy from Zone 7a and south, and fruits best in very open shade to a couple of hours of morning sun.

Holiday Gift for your plant lover

In the “in case you missed it”, this clever gag gift for the plant lover in your life has appeared on-line just in time for the holidays. Not sure what else we can say, other than watch for fire ants and chiggers.

Beyond Flowers

We love the appearance of plants like agapanthus in the fall, long past the season when the showy blue flowers graced the top of each now browning stalk. In fall, it’s more like looking out on a mass of punk rock hairdos. These garden features are so much more interesting than flat beds of mulch, created far too early by garden neat freaks. This is the cultivar Agapanthus ‘Prolific Blue’ which puts on a superb fall/winter show.

Find you a Redneck Girl

The splendid, giant-growing Salvia madrensis ‘Redneck Girl’ is a JLBG introduction and has been at peak the last few weeks. This is so superb for climates where you can avoid an early fall frost.

A Rush of Azure

Although we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Geranium ‘Azure Rush’ is still flowering as though it was mid-spring.

Bamboo Ferns

Another genus of ferns that we just adore are the bamboo ferns of the genus coniogramme. We’ve grown these amazing gems for two decades, and after all that time are still in love. Although these woodland ferns are deciduous, they are tardily so, so they still look quite fresh into mid-November. Here are a couple of favorites, photographed this week.

At the top is the texturally fascinating Coniogramme intermedia ‘Shishi’ from Japan, and below this is our 2006 introduction of the Chinense native Coniogramme emeiensis ‘Golden Zebra’. We rate both of these as winter hardy from Zone 7b and warmer.

Coniogramme intermedia ‘Shishi’
Coniogramme emeiensis ‘Golden Zebra’

Leaping Lepisorus

We love ferns of all types, but especially the single-leaf types. Our clump of the Chinese Lepisorus macrosphaerus really stands out in the fall and winter garden. In the wild, most lepisorus grow on rocks or tree trunks, but most we’ve grown have adapted well to growing in the soil. They tend to thrive better when growing on slopes, and in well-drained soils.

Lepisorus macrosphaerus

Blackburn’s Palm

We love plant mysteries, and Sabal ‘Blackburniana’ fits the bill nicely. This pass-along seed strain has been considered by some to be an old hybrid of Sabal minor, while others consider it to be synonymous with Sabal palmetto, yet others consider it to be Sabal domingensis. Whatever it is, our plant is looking quite good in the garden. After growing it, unscathed, since 2008, we finally decided to propagate some for the upcoming Plant Delights catalog. If you know any more historical background about this curiosity, please share.

We don’t need no stinking leaves!

We’ve been experimenting to see how many species of asclepias will survive in our climate, and one that has been quite fascinating is Asclepias subulata. This odd species from the southwest deserts of the US has evergreen glaucous stems, and not much in the way of leaves. It will be quite interesting to see what the butterfly larvae actually consume. It did flower for us this fall for the first time. This will be our first winter, so fingers crossed it can take our cold and wet temperatures. We sited this on a slope in one of our crevice gardens, so it wouldn’t drown in our summer rains.

Jammin’ Jame

Salvia regla ‘Jame’ (pronounced Haam-hey) is looking so wonderful this time of year. This amazing North American native (US/Mexico) was originally shared back in 2000, by the late Salvia guru, Rich Dufresne. It has adorned our gardens every year since with these amazing fall shows. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Saliva regla ‘Jame’

Have a Fall Flowering Show

There are few plants that put on a better fall show than the amazing Eupatorium havanense, now known as Ageratina havanensis. This oustanding Texas native is flowering now, having burst into flower in early November, providing nectar for a wide variety of insects, and great floristic enjoyment for a wide variety of gardeners. Plant Delights offered this for a number of years, but sadly, few people could be enticed to purchase one. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Eupatorium havanense

Sunrise over Maui

Here’s a recent image of the amazing Colocasia esculenta ‘Maui Sunrise’, still looking great in late October! Moist, rich soils and full sun are the key for your plants to look this spectacular! Winter hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.

Colocasia esculenta ‘Maui Sunrise’

Pale Puma

We love the winter hardy spiderworts, and Tradescantia ‘Pale Puma’ is one of our favorites. This hybrid of two northern Mexican species, T. pallida x sillamontana forms a lovely compact deciduous groundcover. Here it is in the garden this week, colored nicely and awaiting the first frost, which will send it into dormancy. In colder climates, it makes a great hanging basket plant.

Mexican combo

Just caught this image of two North American (Northern Mexico) natives snuggled up closely together in the garden. At top is one of the spider lilies, Hymenocallis acutifolia, and wrapped around its ankles is Tradescantia pallida. We truly love Tradescantia pallida as a great combination-enhancing perennial that’s completely winter hardy here in Zone 7b.

Riding the Wave

Looking nice this week is this cool selection of the North American (Northern Mexico) native Manfreda undulata. All commercial forms of this are heavily spotted, but we really love this this amazingly rippled-leaf form that we picked up at Bob Brown’s wonderful UK nursery a few years ago on a UK plant roundup trip. We’ve named this seedling, Manfreda ‘Crested Surf’. Hardiness should be from Zone 7b south.

Cooperi…Aloe, not Alice

Our patch of Aloe cooperi has been beautiful in flower this summer, but every time I see it, my mind automatically associates it with rocker, Alice Cooper. I guess he made quite an impression on me as a child. Aloe cooperi is the hardiest of the aloes, first cousin to the better known Aloe vera. Aloe cooperi has been fine here in Zone 7b for decades, but we doubt it would be winter hardy much further north.