I’m just back from a recent plant trip to coastal Virginia and wanted to share some trip highlights and photos. Mark Weathington of the JC Raulston Arboretum and I headed north for a quick 2 day jaunt to the Norfolk area of Virginia.
Our first stop was the garden of long time garden friend, Pam Harper. For decades, Pam was probably the most prolific and knowledgeable garden writer in the country, in addition to having what was once the largest horticultural slide library.
At 92, and despite suffering from debilitating eyesight issues, Pam still gardens, including planting and pushing carts of mulch around the garden. It was such a joy to once again walk her amazing garden, listening to the both the historical details and performance of each plant we passed.
Pam was donating the remainder (20,000) of her slide collection, which previously numbered over 100,000 images, to the JC Raulston Arboretum. There, they will be digitized for public availability.
Her 45 year-old Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ was the largest either of us had ever seen.
We both also fell in love with Camellia x vernalis ‘Meiko Tanaka’…a plant we’d never encountered in flower, but seems to have good commercial availability.
The gold barked Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’ was also showing off its stunning winter color.
Pam’s garden has always yielded some of the most amazing Arum italicum seedlings I’ve ever seen. We are already growing two of her selections in hopes of future introduction, but we found a few more that we couldn’t resist.
Our next stop was the Virginia Tech Tidewater Arboretum at the Hampton Roads Experiment Station. It had been many years since either of us had visited.
What we found was an amazing plant collection that has been mostly abandoned, except for some minimal mowing maintenance. In most cases the labeling was somewhat intact, although some required Easter egg-like hunts, and others were simply nowhere to be found.
The late Virginia Tech researcher, Bonnie Appleton had worked to get homeowners to plant shorter maturing trees under power lines. To make her demonstration more authentic, she had faux power lines installed, which you can make out among the branches. It was interesting to see that virtually all of the plants she promoted as dwarf, had all grown well into the power lines. Mark recalled conversations with her decades earlier explaining that her choices weren’t really very sound.
There were a number of amazing older specimens including one of the largest Quercus polymorpha (Mexican Oak) that we’d ever seen in cultivation. This 75′ tall specimen dated to 1989, was originally gifted to them by the late JC Raulston, from a Yucca Do Nursery wild collection.
The old specimens of Ilex buergeri were absolutely stunning. This is a beautifully-textured, spineless broadleaf evergreen that’s virtually unknown in the commercial trade.
Another spineless holly, Ilex pedunculosa (long-stalk holly), is known for being difficult to grow in our hot, humid climate. Their specimen, however, looked absolutely superb.
We caught Fatsia japonica in full flower…always a great nectar source for honeybees in the winter months.
A highlight for me was catching the amazing stinkhorn fungus, Clathrus columnatus in full splendor…both visually and odoriferously.
Leaving the Hampton Roads station, we headed to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, where Mark worked before he came to the JCRA. Much of their efforts in the fall and winter are put toward their massive winter lights festival.
Norfolk Botanical Garden is home to an extensive and renown camellia collection, so we spent a good bit of time roaming the woodland garden where they grow. We were particularly interested in their Camellia species collection, several of which had questionable labeling. Here is one that was correct, Camellia gaudichaudii.
We spent a good bit of time studying a holly, labeled Ilex purpurea (syn. chinensis). The plant was amazing, but looks nothing like that species. Hopefully, a holly expert will be able to help us identify it from our photos.
This was my first time seeing the self-fertile idesia, Idesia polycarpa ‘Kentucky Fry’. I can’t imagine why this amazing, easy-to-grow plant isn’t more widely planted. I can think of few trees with more winter interest.
The shrub/small tree that blew us away from several hundred feet was a specimen of Arbutus unedo ‘Oktoberfest’. We’ve grown Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ for decades at JLBG, but have never seen anything as stunning as this clone.
While we’re talking about plants with red fruit, I was fascinated with their specimen of Cotoneaster lacteus. I had mistakenly assumed that most cotoneasters fail in our hot, humid summers, but obviously, I’ve never tried this species, which is typically rated as hardy only to Zone 8a. I think we need to trial this at JLBG.
Finally, I was particularly fascinated with a Quercus nigra (water oak), that formerly had a planter built around it’s base. As you can imagine, the tree roots made short work of the planter, but once the planter boards were removed, the resulting tree root sculpture is simply exquisite.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of our recent trip.
The Hampton Roads area has a definite marine influence that allows them to grow quite a few plants that can’t be grown further south.
Best gardening climate on the East Coast IMO.
Indeed, it is a fascinating climate, moderated by the proximity to large bodies of water.
What a wonderful article with lots of very interesting plants, but my favorite part was about Pam Harper. I haven’t visited with her recently (due to my own personal problems), so I was very happy to see that she is doing well. Thank you for giving me the impetus to reconnect with her! She is not only a very knowledgeable and generous gardener, but also a wonderful person whose friendship I treasure! Happy Holidays to everyone at PD & JLBG!
Are the berries of Idesia polycarpa ‘Kentucky Fry’ eaten by birds/wildlife? Or are they messy like a male Ginkgo.
That’s a great question. I’ve only seen a few idesias fruit, and have seen any reseeding.
correction, in my previous comment I meant to say female ginkgo, not male ginkgo.
Thank you so much for this report.
The update on Pam Harper was particularly interesting to me since I met her 40 plus years ago. Being 82 I can only hope that I will be like her at 92, taking care of my own garden.
I am intrigued by spineless hollies, wish we could grow some in our Asheville area, or, that they would even be available.
Re Cotoneaster, I brought divaricatus with me from NJ and it is one of my favorite shrubs, even now on 12/21 it still has the most beautiful scarlet foliage. As my cliients tell me, it is not easily found in the local trade. You might consider offering it. I love the early flowers, beautiful shiny deep green foliage all season, the red berries devoured instantly by birds but then staying in stunning scarlet color for months. It does seed a bit.
The spineless Ilex pedunculosa would be great in Asheville. I also think Ilex buergeri is far hardier that most references indicate.
Thank you so much for sharing your travelogue with us. I’m delighted to know that Ms. Harper continues to thrive like the plants in her garden. Thanks also for discussing your visit to the VA Beach Experiment Station arboretum. I have such fond memories of my mentor, Dr. Bonnie Lee Appleton.