Saturday, February 26, 2011

Guard your rubber boots, or be left with a smile

Ranger rubber boots...chalk not included.
Even with the snow and cold, I still go out and take photos in the garden. I put on my rubber boots in our sun room. Glancing down, I noticed there was something in one of my boots. I quickly discovered they had sat unguarded just a bit too long. In the bottom of the right boot was all of the sidewalk chalk my toddler decided to store there for his next Julian Beever impression. In retrospect, it was a good short-term storage method he left for himself. Long term, he unknowingly left me the gift of a smile.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Helluva lot of Hellebore, and I like it.

Hellebores (Helleborus) have been mentioned in writing as early as the fifth century1. It was thought to have been used in chemical warfare during the First Sacred War. Chemical warfare you ask? That’s right, every part of the lovely hellebore is poisonous. Its beauty and intrigue heavily outweighs this potential negative.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Royal Heritage Strain' from Wayside Gardens
In 2005, hellebores won the status of Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). It did not move terribly quickly on the market. In catalogues you would sometimes see one or two available. In the October 2008 issue of American Nurseryman, Allen Bush recommended the hellebore as one of the ten durable plants for the ages. This is a title for plants that I can appreciate. Even then, Bush mentioned that this plant remained underused, and was, "still something of a sleeper" in the home garden.

There has been serious breeding and production done resulting in great new hellebores. The colors and combination are now endless. The number of plants being sold before in catalogues ranged from zero to just a few. This has now increased significantly. On the grower end, companies like Jelitto Perennial Seeds, where Bush works now, offer 30 different varieties to nurseries. Great Garden Plants has 11 different varieties available to consumers.

This February Allen Bush, of Jelitto Perennial Seeds was one of six speakers at a joint PPA and Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) conference2. This conference set out to show new introductions, as well as more durable plants, and in general plants that made all of the presenters excited plantsmen. We were introduced to a plethora of new and exciting plants. Wouldn’t you know, hellebores were all over these lists?

What’s changed over time? A little breeding has happened for the leaves, but most of the change comes in the flowers. Originally hellebore flowers predominantly faced downward. This is not as showy. So they have been bred to have the flowers face outward and even upward. Chris Hansen, of Great Garden Plants, mentioned an anomaly about upward facing flowers being more susceptible to mildew, but giving a great show if they haven’t been hit.

I’ve had hellebores in my yard for 5 years, and have loved them. I’m excited that this group of plants has made it to market in a big way. I’m more excited to see what plants make it through my door. It’s been said, more than once, that we don’t have any more space for plants in my yard. We still have turf…we still have space.
  1. First Sacred War. Wikipedia. 2011,
  2. Passion and Pursuit, Perennial Plant Association and Indianapolis Museum of Art. Feb. 2011.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' Winter Appeal

The weather in my area has taken a 70 degree swing over a one week period. All of our snow is gone and we were teased with the sweet smell of a spring day. I took advantage of the day by grabbing my camera and taking a sun filled photo walk.

I found a nice collection of Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' (Limelight Hydrangea) that still had all of the flower heads attached. It looks like a shrub in bloom while most everything else is still working on developing buds.

It's in the buds where I now have a question about what is otherwise a fantastic plant. On closer inspection I saw that not one terminal bud was still intact on the plant. The old flowers standing proud, the lateral buds all looked good, but the tips of all of the branches were tipped by the weather.

According the Proven Winners, 'Limelight' is known to be hardy all the way up to zone 3. In central Illinois we did have this crazy little cold snap of sustained negative temperatures (F). The plants themselves looked fantastic otherwise. I'm interested to see what will happen when spring truly hits. Will the plants need to be pruned back? Will they just be self-pruning? I'm eager to see.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A glimpse into the future

A few weeks ago I was able to attend the National Green Centre Conference in St. Louis. While there, the audience was given a sneak peek of some of the newest plants being brought to the market. Growers and breeders from all over were showing their wares. It was awesome. These are the people who have bred and/or grown the plants in our latest catalogs. I love thumbing through the catalogs. This brought the catalogs to life. I was extremely pleased with how accommodating many of the vendors were at answering questions that ranged from simple to mundane.

Well known companies and the people behind the plants were willing to share information about themselves, their products, and (most importantly) their plants. I've shared just a few enjoyable encounters here.

In the warmth of the sun...
I had the great pleasure of meeting Ray Jackson of Jackson Nursery who found and introduced Cercis canadensis 'The Rising Sun' (The Rising Sun™ Red Bud). He was as enthused at seeing this plant being shown by Greenleaf Nursery Co. at the Sweet Melissa Fashion Show as he was when he discovered it growing in the field. Every person in the audience seemed equally excited to see it. I was happy to hear the details about this tree straight from the source. This small twelve foot tree offers a beautiful form in leaf which gives it a unique summer interest that many cultivars are missing. New growth comes out in "reds and peaches fading to green," said Jackson. Personally, I'm hoping to see this in my yard soon.

Photo credits: Ball Horticultural Company

At the Willoway Nursery booth, Scott Thompson shared a lot of information about a plant called Mahonia 'Soft Caress'. This was one of the plants on display at the conference Sweet Melissa Fashion Show. He broke my heart when they informed me that this lovely plant is not hardy in Zone 5, until they made the suggestion of growing it as a container plant. Then we started talking about some of the other plants that they had on display. I really found the Ficus carica 'Brown Turkey' (Brown Turkey Fig) interesting. Large mitten-shaped leaves that were tropical looking, but it looked promising for a plant in a three-season room. The plant that stole the plant show was the new Gryphon Begonia hybrida by PanAmerican Seed. This is a plant that I am super excited about for containers. I'm really looking forward to these plants hitting the market in my area.

Bob Flanders of Botanico, Inc.  spent a fair amount of time talking plants with me, and then asked if I wanted to see something really cool. I did. He was kind enough to give me a sneak peek at a Cornus kousa sp. (Dwarf Kousa Dogwood) that looks to have serious promise for small gardens, or as an accent specimen . This Dogwood has dense compact growth, with the same beautiful full-sized white flowers that we love. After over 10 years the mother plant is still only around 7 feet tall. He was kind enough to share these images with me.
First crop of grafts grown from the mother plant
(photo with permission of Botanico Inc.)
Mother plant more than 10 years after discovery
(photo with permission of Botanico Inc.)

I spoke with Raymond Evison of Raymond Evison Clematis briefly about his newest line of plants. Feeling a bit under the weather, this world renowned expert on Clematis was still able to shine.  He enthusiastically showed a number of the newest Clematis vines coming out. I have to admit that I am a fan of the doubles and already own an older variety named Josephine. So it was no surprise that I was most fond of the new Clematis Diamantina™, a purple double-flowering variety. Simply gorgeous.

Being a tree and shrub girl, I spent the most time talking with Terry Hines of Hale and Hines Nursery out of Tennessee. They had an interesting display with unique plants that also caught my attention. They had a large Thuja 'Green Giant' as a center piece. It was already towering above many plants being 14', but stood even higher on the ball and burlapped base making an excellent presentation. Other gems that stood out that are way to big for this gardener's yard were, Salix 'Scarlet Curls'  with spectacular fine red tipped, contorted branches. The Phellodendron amurense (Amur Corktree) which has a beautiful mature form, but only look at males (the females have been found to be invasive),  and Celtis magnificus (Hackberry) were both great looking trees. For an urban area, this tree is really strong.

I've had a few opportunities to talk directly with growers and the people bringing us new plant introductions before. This was a truly uplifting event to see the excitement in the eyes and hear it in the voices when these people shared information about these particular plants. It made the catalogs pale in comparison. I would love to feel the exhilaration of finding that potential new hot plant, and it makes me long for another glimpse into the future of the plant world.

Friday, February 4, 2011

When in doubt, guess Viburnum

Frequently when I go on photo walks with friends we not only take pictures, we talk plants. I love talking plants. I also love to field id questions. I'm better than average, but frequently get stumped myself. I've found a funny common occurrence.  When someone is stumped, I find myself saying, "it's a Viburnum" on more than one occasion.

Viburnum carlesii (Koreanspice viburnum) backlit.

I thought about this anomaly a bit. Viburnum is a relatively small genus with lots of cultivars. All of my sources (didn't list quick searches on google) narrow it down to about 150 species. Compared to other genera like Ilex (Hollies) at 600 species, or Euphorbia at over a whopping 2100 species (not including cultivars!). Yet, in trying to describe a viburnum, I found myself at a loss for consistency. I started asking myself how can this be? How can it be so difficult to identify a small number plants from just one genus?

Viburnum lentago (Nannyberry viburnum)

Perhaps it comes from the variability in the size of the plants, the leaves, or the flowers. Viburnums can vary in size from small landscape shrubs at a couple of feet (Viburnum acerifolium), to small trees at 30 feet (Viburnum lentago). These plants can be light and airy or densely packed with branches. The leaves can be toothed, smooth, hairy, glossy, arrow-shaped, oval or even look like a maple leaf.

Viburnum carlesii (Koreanspice Viburnum) in bloom.

The flowers of Viburnum carlesii, can be mistaken for the flowers of Hydrangeas from a distance. In fact a number of plants that were once listed under Viburnums have been moved to Hydrangeas(1). The flowers can be showy (like Viburnum plicatum with lacecaps type flowers--very similar to Hydrangea), small, fragrant, putrid, or even fragrance-free.  Flower colors can range from white to pink.

Viburnum x juddii (Judd viburnum)

What are you left with for identification of Viburnums?
Viburnum x rhytidophylloides
(Lantanaphyllum Viburnum)
There are very few key characteristics of the Viburnum genus that are the same across the whole spectrum of these plants. One similarity is that they seem to develop their flowers on the last year's growth and should not be pruned until after blooming. Otherwise you risk losing one of the best seasonal interests of these plants. Michael A. Dirr mentions that the fruit is relatively the same in all of the species, too. On page 15 in his book, Viburnums, he says, “1. the fruit is a drupe, generally ellipsoidal, flattened, ovoid to rounded, with a fleshy coat, hard bony endocarp, and a single seed within; and the leaves are always arranged opposite;". The other method of identifying Viburnums he says is DNA (carry that test in your pocket).

How do I know when I see a viburnum? Hard work learning them, testing myself at gardens and garden centers, luck, and gestalt.  I've said, "it's a viburnum" enough to friends now, that when my friend Chris at From the Soil asked his wife to guess a plant, without even looking she said, "Viburnum". She was right.

  1. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program.
    Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN)
    [Online Database].
    National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland.
    URL: (03 February 2011)
  2. USDA, NRCS. 2011. The PLANTS Database (, 3 February 2011). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
  3. Dirr, Michael. Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season. Portland, OR, Timber Press, 2008. 262 p. 
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