Friday, June 13, 2008

Variegated Giant Reed...A Top 10 Accent Plant

There are two scary members of the grass family in this picture: Arundo donax variegata and that huge stand of bamboo. I remember the first time that I saw the variegated Giant Reed Grass; I was passing through Luray, Virginia somewhere around 1986 and I saw a 10' circle of what looked like the most colorful corn in the world and it was at least 10' high. Wow. Spectacular. I was aware of the straight species Arundo donax, a European native escaped and naturalized in fresh and brackish waters throughout North America. In other words a scary plant that would be best kept away from. It took em a year or so to figure out what I was looking at, but over that time, I fell in love. It is a wicked plant. Having failed to locate it in the marketplace for a few years, one day after a long, hot, laborious shift of gardening, Kyle Courtney and I returned to the headhouse sweaty and weary to find the Skip March had 2 plants, propagations of his, that he was giving away. I took one and wrongly, urged the other on Kyle. She took it and planted it on the margin of an infiltration basin in the community where she lived. Luckily it somehow passed away and didn't take over the pond.

Mine, planted in the gravelly sand in Adelphi, and lovingly tended, has survived these 20 years or so and delighted me every year. The dry sterility of the soil has prevented it from becoming a nuisance; it has stabilized to a point where it produces between 10 and 20 canes per year. (The canes are used to produce reeds for various woodwinds and parts for bagpipes.) Its on the west side of the back (south) garden so that the setting sun inflames the red flowers in Autumn. The variegation, here at its best, does viridiesce (turn green in the heat of summer). There is a cultivar that is supposed to keep its color all summer, but since I enjoy the provenance of my plant I will have to forego perfection.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Can't Photograph Fragrance!

If you could photograph a fragrance, this would be easy. This week the Agarista populifolia, or Florida Leucothoe is flowering in Fern Valley and the whole collection smells like warm honey. Seriously, it does. It isn't the most delicate floral smell, it doesn't evoke citrus, or cloves or any spice for that matter, it really smells like honey. If you come to Fern Valley this week, I guarantee (excepting any olfactory issues) you will experience it.

Florida Leucothoe, I first learned it as Leucothoe populifolia, is a mounding evergreen shrub that reaches a fair size, maybe 10 feet tall with a somewhat larger diameter. It tolerates shade which makes it a plant that will grow in your shady back yard. So far as I can tell deer don't seem to bother it, nor is it as susceptible to the leaf spots that plague the "true" Leucothoes. Now I have made it sound like a perfect plant and really I have to admit that its probably just a very good plant. Because it iis native much farther south, it suffers a bit in average winters, including yellowing of the leaves, and even some branch dieback. Severe winters produce a bit more severe symptoms. The good news is two-fold: winters are really mild now and regeneration pruning is a quick and sure solution if problems do occur.

Because it will grow in shade and so many people have shade, I have used this plant for years in garden designs. I have to admit though, that I was doing this somewhat in a state of ignorance; until I came to Fern Valley I had no idea how large these plants could grow. I had seen specimans 8' tall and 6' across, but they would be dwarfed by some of the older plants in Fern Valley that are a few feet higher and fully 15' across.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hydrangea arborescens ssp. radiata

This beautiful "lacecap" type hydrangea is a subspecies of the native Hydrangea arborescens. It differs from the species in two major areas. First, while a typical Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) has what in hydrangea parlance is called a "mophead" form, the inflorescence of this plant is clearly of the "lacecap" type. Okay, you can see that from the picture; what you can't see from the picture is the silvery pubescence on the back of the leaves that makes them look white when the wind blows. It is a beautiful effect, mirroring the Salvia discolor I just planted in Adelphi in the bed by the street.

You can find this plant in a few places in Fern Valley, the easiest to find is along the road below the parking lot. The good part about looking there is that you will see lovely examples the Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' selected for its dense flower heads, packed with many white flowers. Another native Hydrangea in the section of the road, closest to the Parking Lot, is Hydrangea quercifolia, the Oak=leaf Hydrangea. This is native to the Southeast, but is perfectly hardy here. This species is one that we selected for inclusion in the Cultivar Area. This means that we are acquiring a selection of cultivars of Oak-leaf Hydrangea; we only have a few at present, but we are moving forward. There must be a lot of diversity in this species because there are a lot of cultivars already and many of them are significantly different.

Obviously all these plants bloom right around this time, which is a good time for a woody plant to bloom because the frenzy of spring is over, and while there are still plants to flower, we can appreciate these calm. cool, dependable plants that are happy to live in bright to medium shade. They are beautiful but not ostentatious and demand no more than a minimum amount of light and an average amount of water. No pest. No diseases. Good plants.

Monday, June 9, 2008

.44" of Rain in Wildwood, Florida......North Carolina Cove Forest

I guess our bizarre weather is contagious. Yesterday the Florida garden got almost half an inch of rain, 2/3s of what it has received since mid-April. Maybe the wet season has begun.

They're called "cove forests" because they are forests that grow in coves, small valleys that cut into bigger mountains. The walls are steep, the species diverisity and the rainfall are high and so is the biomass. Mark Hall showed us one ~30 acre cove dominated by Liriodendron tulipifera, yellow poplar, or tulip tree. It had apparently been measured and determined to be the densest stand of Yellow Poplar in the world. We looks, initially not fully impressed; the trees seemed larger than those we knew from Washington, but still...maybe not so much larger. Until you think about the heights. These are some seriously tall trees.

With basically twice our annual rainfall, growth is not an issue; I was surprised less by the massive Liriodendron, Acer rubrum, and typical large tree, than I was by seeing 60+' Magnolia fraseri in quantity. Or such a variety of Hickory so immense. All the trees were big.

Penstemon smallii on the Blue Ridge Parkway

On Wednesday past, traveling to the outlying stations of Shortia, we took the opportunity to spend a few miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course the views were fantastic, but the roadside flowers were pretty special too. One of the plants that we spotted regularly was Small's Beardtongue, or Penstemon smallii.

We, the ASRT's, are always being asked to come up with short articles about plants from our collection/garden that are "underutilized" horticulturally; this is a wonderful plant that is available at many larger garden centers, but only usually in limited quantities. Its a one-shipment plant. If you don't get it early, they likely won't restock. It is a tough tough plant that is a great addition to a sunny border, perennial, or mixed, with flowers over a relatively long period from late spring to early summer.

This plant is tough as nails. You can see it at the Arboretum outside the front of the Administration Building across the sidewalk from the espaliered 'Curly Locusts'. It isn't the grape colored penstemon on the corner, but the bi-colored plant a bit farther down the sidewalk beside the bench. I planted these plants with my own hands a few years ago into newly chipped tree stump with a bit of soil. They were not even 1 quart plants, but large plugs; their size and the "soil" they went into would have meant certain death to most things, but at least half of these penstemons survived. This is one tough Native.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I wasn't sure about putting the map up; if I told you an exact location I would have to kill you. We won't tell you the exact location, but it does have something to do with that Fish Hatchery.

This last station of Shortia was clearly always going to be the most problematic. It is part of a disjunct from the main large populations in Oconee County SC and adjacent environs in North Carolina. Joan had references for these Lake James Shortia from 1952 with implicit confirmation somewhat later but because this was less concrete than our first encounters, we ended Wednesday in Asheville at the Public Library looking at their files of USGS Quadrangles. We located what seemed to be our site and determined to spend the night closer, in Marion. Since we had to both locate the Shortias and drive home on Thursday making that a big day, on Jeanna's recommendation we had a nice dinner at Salsa, an excellent Mexican/Carribean eatery. Incredible Mojitas and a menu I am sure I couldn't have gone wrong with if I tried. Dinner was beyond excellent and after some issues finding lodgings in Marion, we woke up Thursday nourished and refreshed.

Its almost boring how easy it was. We drove to what we thought was the site, questioned the staff about the Shortia, and again struck gold. One person knew about the Shortia, had seen it ~10 years ago, and gave us directions that coincided with our own conclusions. Less than an hour later we found the Wplants. They were not so numerous as at most of the previous sites, but they were there. We were soon packed up and on the road home.

Yucca rostrata flowers in the ground in Maryland after 25 years

This is one of the cooler plants in the Adelphi Garden. It is Yucca rostrata, an interesting Yucca endemic to one county, Brewster, in SW Texas and a few isolated areas in adjoining Mexico. This is a plant on the fringes of fanatical horticulture. I got it from a wild traveling succulent vendor/Lawyer, Rick Levengood, about 25 years ago and it has been in the ground since the late 1980s. Clearly hardiness is not an issue, though it does have the advantage of growing in almost pure sand. It was about three feet tall when I bought it for, if I remember correctly $125.00; that includes the pot so it wasn't very tall! Now it is somewhere over12' tall, probably closer to 15'. The leaves are, as in the picture, beautiful glaucous blue/gray approaching .5" wide and ~4' long. It is a spectacular plant.

After returning from North Carolina and the Shortia Expedition, I noticed it was preparing to flower. If you click on this picture you can barely see the spike, but I did climb up a ladder and got a bit better shot that is to the right. It is exciting to see a plant flower after 25 years. I know theses Yuccas do occasionally branch and I suppose that flowering could provide an impetus to branch, or not. I expect that all the rain we have had has been a factor in its flowering, but again, this is just an assumption.

For the past 5-10 years, it has been available in catalogs, on-line in small sizes, and from an occasional nursery. I can't come up with the name but north of Rehobeth, Delaware on the west side of Route 1 there is a Garden Center that look interesting from the road. It is; they have cool pottery, nice tropicals, and a variety of odd plants. I saw maybe 20 of these Yuccas there several years ago, but whoever was doing the watering didn't get it; these are desert dryland plants. They were soaking wet and the foliage was yellowing from root rot. Still they cost from 200-300$? It made me unhappy to see the plants so unhappy. Anyway, this one is happy and I will put up a picture of the flowers when they open.
Of course we found more Shortia around the Lower Bearwallow Falls, and the Falls itself was spectacular, but really to me, the coolest thing was the "spray community", those plants and animals that are constantly wet by the splash and mist from the waterfalls. And I just like liverworts.

Gorges State Park Superintendent, Steve Pagano, did meet us Wednesday morning; we went in on roads that are either under construction or waiting to be decommissioned from public use. The Caravan would not have cut it. We parked on the top of a ridge and "walked" down to the falls. Jeanna climbs a lot, at least once a week; she claims that that was the steepest slope she has ever dealt with without ropes. Hey, I'm just glad I didn't fall down the hill. I'm sure the people below me are happy too. It was worth it though; the falls is beautiful, the Shortia was nice and it was bryophyte heaven.

There is spectacular downloadable information available from a web sit of the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. Relevant to this particular site is Classification of the Natural Communities of North Carolina Third Approximation 1990, (Michael P. Schafale and Alan S. Weakley).The whole book is fascinating, but the section on spray cliffs beginning on 187 is to the point. As at so many other places on this trip, it would have been nice to have had a week where we had half a day, but we did achieve our goals and collected a few very nice ancillary species. I think I may be able to do some tentative identification from photos and memory (yes I do take both with a grain of salt, particularly the latter), but that's all I'be got! At the top of the ridge we got some seeds of Hieraceum venosum, a xeric plant just for contrast! I do love hawkweeds, and everybody likes this one.

Panthertown Valley...another place I've got to come back to!

We went to Panthertown Valley, not in search of Shortia, but because of its reputed botanical treasures. We were not disappointed. I guess its a debatable question as to whether the plants are as cool as the topography, but if you even get into that situation, you know you're in a good place! Panthertown is a large (<6,000 acre) relatively flat upland valley. The valley floor is 3500+' above sea level and the mountains and cliffs rise above 400". The vegetation here was clearly behind that 200" lower down. There are a number of exposed granite domes, sparsely vegetated that give the area an open look with vistas and views abounding. The cliff faces rise 200-300 feet vertically from the valley floor.

With only a few hours we covered a good deal of territory seeing several bog communities, numerous Rododendron calendulacem, Robinia hispida, Calycanthus, Chimophila, Leucothoes, Vacciniums, Houstonia serpyllifolia, and so many more, The cherry on the sundae was a 150' long drift of Pink Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. We were tired, but we estimated more than 400 flowers. There are a number of waterfalls on the Tuckasegee River. We saw one (pictured to the right somewhere), then walked through tunnels of Rhododendron and Clethra acuminata, with its wonderful exfoliating bark, to the base of the escarpment. (at least Jeanna did)

Impromptu rescheduling, waterfalls, and more cool plants

Tuesday (6/3) we switched to North Carolina really only moving a few miles, from Devil's Fork SC to Gorges State Park NC. We met with Park Superintendent Steve Pagano who had planned for us a visit to a Shortia station adjacent to a beautiful waterfall with a fascinating "spray community of obscure and uncommon plants. There was a problem though; our vehicle would not be able to handle the 8 mile drive to the trailhead, and our schedule couldn't handle the day it would take to hike in and out. Not to worry. Steve cleared his schedule for Wednesday morning and we agreed to meet back at park headquarters at 8:00 the next morning so that he could drive us in and out.

We modified our schedule and drove <10 miles to Whitewater Falls on the Whitewater River; at 411 feet this is the tallest falls east of the Rockies. We descended from a parking area past several viewing areas then took a steeply descending trail/stairs that brought us to the base of the falls. In Devil's Fork, we had been encountering Shortia along streams. Clearly it likes moisture. The first day though, the moisture had been localized at the streams while the rest of the area, though receiving 80-100" of rain a year, was steep and well drained (hence the Xerophyllus). By contrast, the descent to the base of Whitewater Falls took us through rich moist soil and we could only imagine what it would have been like tw0 months earlier with everything in bloom. Jeanna at least, will try to get back next spring.

This is actually one of the few places we looked for Shortia and didn't find it. The literature suggested limited quantities and describes the locations obscurely but it was spectacular territory for botanizing anyway. We saw any number of Hexastylis, various violets, Goodyera, Halesia, Trilliums, Mitchella, and on and on! The fungi were nice too. Apparently there is a "spray community" here under the falls, but not accessible by our trail. This was our first 500'+ down then back up again. No doubt good for me.....Since we got back to the van about 2:00 PM we decided to go for one more location that day: Panthertown Valley.

No Shortage of Shortia in Devil's Fork

Monday morning after breakfast we met with with Mark Hall, a biologist and forester with South Carolina DNR. He was our source for site information on the South Carolina Shortia. He was a great source; knowledgeable, generous, helpful, even recommending a wonderful camp site for Monday night.

A portion of his duties involves overseeing Devil's Fork State Park. This park, in Oconee County, is appropriately home to a lot of Oconee Bells. Mark showed us to several large stands and directed us to more, leaving us on our own to collect seed while he, went off in search of what is the first recorded nesting of peregrine falcons in the park. On his return, he showed us pictures of a fledgling and then drove us to a stand of Xerophyllum asphodeloides, or Turkey beard. This is a very cool plant; from grassy clumps grow 3-4' flower stalks topped with an extravagant, almost elegant, inflorescence. There is a photograph of the flower head somewhere to the right. Other interesting plants that day were Polypodium polypodioides, the Resurrection Fern, Pediculars, Lousewort or Wood Betony, a variety of Trilliums setting seed, lots of and a wide variety of Ericaceous plants. We also saw great number of Magnolia fraseri, a plant I had been looking forward too.

Although we were successful at locating just about every station of Shortia Joan had targeted, the sheer volume of those stands in Devil's Fork, dwarfed everything else we saw the rest of the trip. Since we were permitted to collect seed there, that first day guaranteed the trip would be a success, but there was a lot of great stuff to come.