An Eye for Award Winning Plants

As I’ve said previously, one of the most satisfying aspects of hunting for and introducing new plants is getting affirmation that you’ve introduced a good plant. When growers and gardeners respond positively then I know my eye for a good plant is still working and on the right track. On that front, this last week has been a good one.

Just today I received a report from the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley (England). They’ve been conducting an all European Buddleia trial that includes all cultivars available in the trade. That’s 107 different Buddleia cultivars in all, so the competition is very intense. In public voting this year, between July 31st to August 20th, , the top vote getters, by a decisive margin, were Buddleia x ‘Miss Ruby’ and Lo & Behold™ ‘Blue Chip’ respectively. The trial coordinator commented that the votes for Lo & Behold™ ‘Blue Chip’ would most likely have been even higher had the voting continued longer. That is because Lo & Behold™ ‘Blue Chip’ continued to flower well beyond all other cultivars. This is great news and is a good indication that each plant is in the running for the prestigious RHS award of Garden Merit. Dr. Denny Werner should be pleased that his plants took the top two spots. I expect that his breeding will garner ever more accolades in the future, as his Buddleia breeding is the best in the world.

I also got word that one of our new Oso Easy™ Roses won an award. The Rose Hills International Rose Trial awarded a Gold Medal to Oso Easy™ ‘Paprika’ as the Best New Ground Cover rose for 2008. Congratulations to Chris Warner and his outstanding breeding of disease resistant roses. Awards are nothing new to Chris. He has won over 100 international awards including two President’s Trophies and three Gold Stars.

Breeding a Better Spiraea

When evaluating a plant species, its cultivars and its future potential, I like to start by growing all the available cultivars in our test garden. This gives me a better understanding of the strengths and weakness of a species and each cultivar. It helps me to know how a new plant stacks up and if it has potential for release. It also helps us identify breeding opportunities.

After growing and evaluating every possible cultivar of Spiraea japonica, we came to the conclusion that there was an opportunity for plants with new and better flower color, better foliage color, improved mildew resistance and better branching. Feedback from our growers indicated they wanted more impulse appeal, mildew resistance, burn resistant foliage, more flowers. Lastly they wanted plants that required less care in production and in the landscape. With this information in hand we started breeding Spiraea.

After six years of breeding Spiraea and three more years of evaluation, we were able to narrow 1,500 potential field seedlings down to twelve candidates. We then propagated and grew on these twelve selections and evaluated them in production as one gallon and three gallons. Plants were also placed in our test garden and again compared to what was on the market. Additionally test plants were sent to key growers across the US to get their feedback. The most difficult part of the process is narrowing the selection down to one or two potential introductions. A cool wet spring made our task a lot easier. It was the perfect spring for powdery mildew. If a plant was going to get mildew, this was the spring. Mildew eliminated about half of the selections left in program.

By August two plants rose to the top as clear winners and were chosen for introduction under a series name call Double Play™. The name Double Play™ was chosen because each plant delivered two or more improved traits; primarily improved foliage and improved flower color. The first introduction is called Double Play™ Artist. This plant was a clear winner early in our field trials because it was compact, had attractive foliage coloration and unusual purple flowers. The foliage is unique because the new growth is a vibrant purplish-red color. As the season progresses the leaves mature to an attractive bluish-green color. The flowers also caught our attention. The flower color is a unique shade of rich purple that we’ve never seen before.

Double Play™ Gold is a dwarf gold leaf selection. It stood out from the other seedlings because it had no mildew, tight branching and a tidy dwarf habit, eye catching pure pink flowers and the plant did not burn when grown in full sun. This plant also stood out in our container trials, as each plant produced was a perfect little soldier with very little pruning.

Growers will begin producing the Double Play™ series next spring and I expect that will be at retail in Spring of 2010.

The Best In the West: Planting Hunting In Oregon

I've seen a lot of plants in the last five days; I've been in Portland, Oregon visiting nurseries and gardens. This is a great area to visit nurseries and see interesting plants, especially if you get into some of the smaller, more specialized nurseries. Here is just a few plants that caught my attention. What do you think?

Agastache 'Cotton Candy'
This plant is a sea of flowers. It's an easy growing, vigorous perennial that blooms from mid-summer until frost. The dense flower spikes have numerous light pink flowers. It has a compact, low branching growth habit. It tolerates dry conditions and prefers well drained soils. All Agastache are popular with hummingbirds.

Agastache 'Summer Love'
This new Hummingbird Mint has masses large red-purple flowers all summer and into fall. It forms an attractive upright mound to 36" tall and has bright green, fragrant foliage. This is a great perennial if you're in zone 6 or warmer and have good soil drainage.
Jasminum officinale 'Flona's Sunrise'
This colorful vine is a yellow version of the Poet's Jasmine vine. It is a strong climer that can reach twenty feet if you give is something to twine up. I especially like its fragrant white flowers in summer. It is hardy to zone 7 and warmer but those of you in Zone 6 might have some luck if you plant it in a protected location and mulch it each year to protect the roots.

Stokesia laevis 'Purple Pixie'
My friend and trusted Perennial Diva Stephanie Cohen turned me on to this little beauty. It is the first ever dwarf Stoke's Aster! It has large violet blue flowers and a short, compact habit that does not fall apart with maturity. It blooms in early July and sporadically until fall. It's a great little plant for the areas with high heat and humidity. Hardy to zone 5, it is happiest in full sun. It's best to avoid soils that are wet or high in lime.

More New Plants: The Plant Hunter In Europe Part II

It was quite evident that there is a lot of shrub breeding going on in Europe. It appears that the trend in shrub use continues to grow in Europe just as it is here. And based on what we saw Hydrangea breeding is as strong as ever . Here is a small sample of what we ran across on our last trip across the big pond.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Selina'
developed by Kwekerij Sidaco. These flowers were quite striking as the flower color is an unusual color. I'm not sure how to descripe the color.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Selma' developed by
Kwekerij Sidaco. I love the ruffled sepals and the cream and pink coloration.

Quick Fire Hydrangea paniculata - The origianl plant developed by plantsman Mark Bulk

Pinky Winky Hydrangea paniculata - The original plant develpoed by Johan Van Juylendroeek at the Belgian Breeding Station in Flanders. Note how new white flowers continue to emerge from the tip of the inflorescens.

Edgy Hearts Hydrangea macrophylla - A new series of dramatic, "edgy" plants developed by master breeder Katrin Meinl.

Edgy Orbits Hydrangea macrophylla a new lacecap with doubled sepals in the Japanese style developed by yours truly.

On the Hunt: New Plants In Europe

Having been in Belgium and the Netherlands the last week I have a back log of 7200 emails to get through. Still I promised to share some new plants with you upon my return. I don't have the time to give you greater detail than the photographs and the names but I think you enjoy the post anyway. I'll share a few more new plants as I have time.

Dicentra 'Burning Hearts'

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Gloria Polonica'

Daphne odora 'Rogbret'

Populus deltoides 'Purple Wave'

Prunus laurocerasus 'Ivory'
What do you Like?

One Sweet Clethra

Clethra has long been one of my favorite plants. I’m a sucker for fragrance and few plants pack more olfactory punch than Summer Sweet (Clethra alnifolia). If you’re a subscriber to my blog then you know that I’ve been breeding shrubs for about eight years now. The first plant introduced out of our breeding program was Summer Wine Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Since then I’ve introduced two new reblooming Hydrangea called Let’s Dance Moonlight and Let’s Dance Starlight, a compact Hypericum called Sunny Boulevard, Chardonnay Pearls Deutzia, Fine Wine Weigela, Ghost Weigela, and Incrediball Hydrangea. Vanilla Spice™ (Clethra alnifolia ‘Caleb’) is one of our newest introductions and at the moment is only available at wholesale as small liners. If all goes well you will see it at retail in the spring of 2010. Vanilla Spice, like all Clethra, has wonderfully fragrant flowers in late summer. Its foliage is dark, glossy and very attractive. Most remarkably this plant has flowers that are larger than typical. Each flower is roughly 30 to 50% larger than normal.

Vanilla Spice® Clethra

This native beauty is best when planted in a location where you can best enjoy its wonderful fragrance. I like to plant Clethra is large blocks to increase the fragrance potential. Ruby Spice is a special cultivar with reddish-pink flowers, so Vanilla Spice with its white flowers makes a nice companion for this favorite. While white flowers are not as exciting dark pink flowers, I am partial to white flowers. They simply show up better than red in garden, especially in the evening when I am typically in the garden.

Stay tuned, or better yet subscribe to my blog and have it emailed every time I post (Just click here). I will be sharing more new introductions over the next few posts.

Gardening on TV with the Plant Hunter

I just completed a short trip to the East Coast with stops in Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The expedition was both interesting and entertaining. I started out in Rhode Island where I was interviewed for the television show Cultivating Life with Sean Conway. It was the first time I met Sean Conway in person so I was pleased to learn that he was more than just a television personality; he’s also an experienced horticulturist, garden designer and nurseryman. Just like me, Sean had a nursery that specialized in rare and hard to find plants. But unlike me, his nursery became a regular destination for magazine editors, authors and style conscious personalities. And unlike me, Sean became a repeat guest on Martha Stewart Living and NBC’s Today show. I, on the other hand, went on to became a guest on Cultivating Life with Sean Conway.

Being on TV is not new to me. I’ve done numerous television appearances, both locally and nationally. I’ve even appeared all of South Korea’s two television stations, so I can tell you from experience that Cultivating Life is first rate production. Sean and his entire production crew are skilled professionals and it was a pleasure to work with them. In TV Land this is not always the case. During a break, I told Sean about my most memorable television experience. It was a live, 30 minute television show and it did not take long to realize I was in big trouble. Five minutes prior to air the host asked me if I was a Master Gardener. When I responded "No", she touched my shoulder and replied in a low, sympathetic voice “I’m so sorry. Don’t you worry; I won’t mention that on the air.” And then, to make matters worse, about halfway into the show she started calling me Tim Cook. I couldn’t believe it. She continued on and on even while the producer frantically waved a big card board sign reading “His name is Tim Wood!!!” How embarrassing is that?

Anyway – if you want to see a first rate gardening show, check out Cultivating Life with Sean Conway. The show’s not live - it’s taped one year in advance - so you won’t get to see Tim Cook, but if you’re lucky you just might catch Tim Wood.

What's Your favorite Gardening Show? Tell me why.

New Plants from Witches' brooms

You can find new plants in the most unusual places and you might be surprised that some are right under your nose. Most likely you pass them by every day and never even notice. Such is the case with Witch's Broom mutations. I found this witch's broom along a busy highway and I’m certain that hundreds of people pass it each day without any notice.

What’s a witch’s broom you ask? They’re point mutations that cause the formation of dense, dwarf growth in an otherwise normal tree or shrub. Horticulturists and plant collectors utilize these mutations to create cultivars such as dwarf conifers and weeping trees. If you root cuttings or graft stems onto seedling rootstock you get a new variety.

Now before get visions of cash and start sending me bags of sticks, I should tell you that most of these types of new plants have already been discovered. There are already a hundred different forms of bird’s nest spruce and we don’t really need another. Sure send me you broom photographs, I’ll be glad to post them, but please don’t send scion wood!

Brooming, the technical term looking for witch's brooms, is a fun and interesting thing to do when hiking a trail or riding in a car. The odds are that if you start looking you’ll find many of these mutations. Some will be high up in the tallest tree while others will be closer to the ground. Joe Stupka, an old brooming buddy from Western Pennsylvania, showed me my first broom back in 1984. We spent the afternoon driving around Mill Creek Park in Youngstown, Ohio and found dozens of interesting brooms. Once you find your first broom the next one is a lot easier. Joe was so broom crazy he would actually breed with brooms. This hobby is not for everyone; it requires lots of time and patience. You rarely find flowers and/or seeds on a broom, but if you grow enough plants and look hard enough it can be done.

The thing I like most about brooming is that it teaches us to look closer at nature and the world around us. Typically we go through life and miss a lot; the miracle of a living tree, the sweet smell of a flower, the community of plants, the diversity of seed and seedlings, the smile of a child, or the tears of someone in pain. But with a little practice, we can learn to notice. And we just might discover a new plant right under our nose, (and a lot of other wonderful things as well).

Have you discovered a witch's broom? Send me a photograph so I can share it with the group.

Want to be GREEN? Promote Gardening

I recently read an annual report for a botanical garden entitled Hope for Healing the Planet. Among other things I learned that they were embarking on a new strategic plan. Over the last twenty years botanical gardens and arboreta have evolved to the point where they are faced with redefining their purpose. I recall a conversation with Peter Ashton, the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, in which he explained that his most daunting task was justifying the Arboretum to Harvard in an age of molecular biology. Since that conversation, I have watched with interest as public gardens have evolved to redefine their relevance.

What is botanical garden’s greatest asset? Why do people visit? Why do they become members? What do we do best? These are the questions to be asked during the strategic planning process. Do the visitors come to see the rose garden, the children’s garden, the home idea gardens, the prairie, or is it they’re intrigued by their conservation efforts?

You know the answer – they come because the botanic garden is an oasis of breathtaking beauty in an urban jungle. The garden inspires; it reveals the beauty of plant diversity, and give us ideas and hope that plants and people can coexist, and shows us that life is enhanced when we are surrounded by a diversity of plants.

And now in this time of Sustainability and Green, the clear need, the necessary message, and the great opportunity being neglected is that plants and gardens need to be at the core of the Green movement. But why plant tree seedlings in a distant forest as carbon offsets when we need to be planting trees, shrubs, perennials in our cities and yards; close to the sources of carbon and pollution, and where people can actually be healed by the power of plants?

I would encourage everyone to champion gardening as a green lifestyle. A year ago, standing on top of a hotel in Nagoya, Japan I was saddened by the prospect of concrete to the distant horizon. What a contrast to Chicago which is a beacon of green to all other cities in its devotion to plants and gardens. What a unique time and place we are in to promote the healing power of plants by planting our own yards and neighborhoods! Change happens locally.

What can we do to promote the healing power of plants and plant diversity at a local level? Encourage people to grow plants in their yard then expand to their neighborhoods and city. I know a man that loves to collect trees and shrubs, but he quickly ran out of yard space. He asked his neighbor if he could plant some of his trees and shrubs on his property and the neighbor agreed. Soon this yard was filled with new species of plants so the man went to another neighbor and did the same. Today his entire neighborhood is a beautiful, mapped and labeled botanical garden accessible to all. While in Korea a man told me the native species of White Forsythia, Abeliophyllum distichum was endangered, and that as a conservation effort the government made is illegal to grow or sell. He was in awe when I told him we sell about 5,000 a year and that people actually plant it in their yards.

While I commend botanical gardens and garden writers for picking up the banner of global warming, invasive plants, habitat conservation, etc., I question whether this should be our main role. If it is Conservation that makes a botanic Garden relevant and defines its purpose (as the annual report I read suggested) then why do they waste the time and money maintaining a garden?

Many of you reading this blog have the knowledge and voice to promote gardening as way for everyone to heal the planet. I urge that you keep this at the center of your personal mission statement. Something to consider as you revise your personal strategic plan. Share this with a friend and ask them to comment.

Fabulous and Foolproof

In one of my previous posts I asked everyone to complete a Hydrangea survey to give me a better idea what type of plants I should be looking for, breeding and introducing. The survey was primarily about Hydrangea macrophylla and its cultivars.

One comment that caught my attention went something like this:

I think instead of forcing Hydrangea macrophylla to do something they weren’t designed to do, we should focus the hardy species that bloom on new wood, like Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens. I agree, these two species are fabulous and foolproof just about anywhere in North America . There are many superb new varieties of Hydrangea paniculata. I've written about it on this blog and mentioned Pinky Winky, Little Lamb, The Swan, and Limelight. These are are all easy to grow and dependible plants.

I also wrote about Hydrangea arborescens in an earlier post. To remind you I said …

Smooth Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens (Eastern U.S, Zone 3), is a wonderful, hardy plant that blooms in midsummer. It has the great advantage of blooming on the current season’s wood. This results in very reliable blooming plant regardless of frost or winter injury. The species itself is not a spectacular garden plant with its small mostly fertile flowers, but there are some noteworthy cultivars that are worth growing.

'Annabelle', introduced by Joe McDanials of Champaign, IL, is the most commonly grown cultivar. One is hard pressed to find any other cultivar of Hydrangea arborescens being sold today. There are some nurseries unknowingly selling the cultivars 'Hills of Snow' as 'Annabelle'. True 'Annabelle' has very large, perfectly symmetrical blooms, while the blooms of 'Grandiflora' are often quartered and irregular. 'Annabelle' is very showy, but often collapses under the weight of its own blooms.

If you remember, I said there was a need for more selections of H. arborescens and that I would like to see an improved 'Annabelle' with sturdier stems. At the time this was only a wish, however I was breeding and selecting with the goal of developeing an Annabelle with strong stems. Annabelle is such a great plant but is a mess after it rains. The stems are just not strong enough to hold the large flowers. Well I have exciting news to share; I found a plant with very strong stems. This was not a big of a surprise, but what came as a surprise was that this selection had strong stems and incredibly larger flower heads too. When I counted the individual flowers this selection had 4x as many flowers as Annabell. I call it Incrediball Hydrangea. Here are a few photos I took of the plant. What do you think?

Don't ask be where you can buy it because it's not for sale - yet. Hopefully you can get it from Wayside gardens next Spring.

Roses and Roller Coasters

Some people love roller coasters. My kids love the coasters, but for me I get enough thrills introducing new plants. Introducing new plants can be fun and exciting, but it’s also scary as hell. Sure it’s really fun to be the first person to see a new plant with great garden potential. And it’s especially exciting the first time you see that new plant in someone’s garden or landscape. But introducing a new plant is also very scary. First off everyone is a plant critic. As horticulturists we are trained to find fault with every plant. And to be sure every plant has its weak points. No plant is going to do well in every state in the union, in every soil type and withstand all the abuse that gardeners dish out. So I introduce plants and brace myself for the criticism. No matter how good the plant it always comes.

But there is nothing better than hearing and seeing the good reviews. A couple of weeks ago we took a trip to a local mail order nursery called Garden Crossings. They’re a small grower that has a unique view of the market. A few years back they decided to grow and sell the complete line of Proven Winners plants, including the Proven Winners ColorChoice shrubs. During our visit it was exciting to see the 2 ¼ inch liners he brought in just a few months earlier and potted up into two gallon containers. It was especially exciting to see his crop of Oso Easy Roses. They were superb! Each plant was like a soldier, full and robust, and all budded up and ready to flower. The leaves were glossy and clean.

Oso Easy paprika

When I selected the Oso Easy Roses I knew they were extremely good plants. I work with five different rose breeders and in our trials we do not spray any of their selections. In our hot, humid production environment it’s the perfect conditions for disease. Not many roses cut the mustard and as a result only few varieties (out of hundreds) remained clean during our trials. So far only four varieties have made it into the Oso Easy line.
But, regardless of how well the plant perform in our trials, I always worry about how people will perceive our plants. How will perform in nurseries and in the garden. So it was a good day when I saw the Oso Easy roses looking so darn good, especially compared to the most popular roses on the market. Cleary they were stand-out plants. It came as a great relief because several people had told me I was crazy to introduce new roses. The rose market is being dominated by just a few new selections and no one is asking for new roses. But if you’re in the business of introducing new plants, and if you believe you have something special, you have to stand firm. You have to stick your neck out. Lots of people are going to take swipes and some will call you crazy, so you need to have thick skin. It can be a roller coaster ride of emotions, but in the end there’s a real satisfaction in weathering the storm. This week the roses in our display house came into full bloom. I brought some three gallon Oso Easy roses into the office. Everyone, including the people in bookkeeping, went crazy over the plants. More confirmation.

But for me the roller coaster ride never ends. Each year there are more introductions, more worries, more criticism and more reviews. But that’s ok. It's not the horticulturists that decide the fate of a new plant, it's the consumer. And I can live with that.

NMPro Magazine Interview

No one was more surprised than me when NMPro Magazine put my picture on the cover of their April issue. When Kevin Neil interviewed me for the magazine I suspected that my story would end up in the back next to the classified ads.

Forestfarm Nursery - A plant lover's paradise

When I was a young, reluctant nurseryman around the age of 10, I had an extremely important job at my Dad's nursery; cleaning countless, rancid, one gallon, sharp and jagged tin, tomato cans to be used as nursery containers. After cleaning the cans I would add four drain holes using a beer can opener. It was a nasty job that left me with numerous hand lacerations and a strange foul smell. After researching the history of Forestfarm Nursery in Williams, Oregon I found it comforting to learn that Ray and Peg Prag began their nursery and honeymoon doing the same nasty task. It’s a small world.

Forestfarm is a nursery that every plant lover and fanatic should know and patronize. While Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood Nursery to the north, garnered the press and praise of Martha Steward, Forestfarm quietly grew into a plant hunter's paradise offering over 5,000 types of plants. Accoring to Ray “…we just like plants.” The nursery started somewhat romantically as a means to allow Ray and Peg “do something together, something away from the city, something constructive." Voila! The concept of Forestfarm was born in 1971.

The Forestfarm catalog is one of my favorites. I keep the latest edition close to my desk at all times and a dozen older versions on my bookshelf as reference. Listed at $5 a copy and measuring around an inch thick, it is, in my mind, the bargain of bargains. Here you can find the single best selection of trees, shrubs, perennials, conifers, grasses, vines and palms all in one place. Each plant is succinctly described providing the most critical information for growing each plant and making a buying decision. Plant related quotes, customer testimonials, plant comparison charts and line drawings are interlaced to make this a gem of a read. But to me, it the vast number of plant species and cultivars located all in one place that makes this catalog so fun. Where else can you find over 50 different types of willows. Is it any wonder that botanical gardens from around the world hunt for their plants at Forestfarm?

Sure you can go to and access all the same plants and information, but to own the book is a joy. Get your copy today.

The more color the better – Red Majestic Corylus

The more color the better.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, or the Contorted Filbert or Hazelnut, (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') has never been hard to find in better garden centers, but is it by no means a common landscape shrub. Prized for its corkscrew-like stems it’s at its best in the winter and in early spring before the leaves emerge to hide its interesting stems. During the rest of the year it is a plant that simply fades into the background, unnoticed until the next winter.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick had had an extreme makeover with the introduction of Corylus ‘Red Majestic’ (patent #16,048). This gem is great addition to the garden pallet because it has red-burgundy foliage in addition to its interesting curly stems. ‘Red Majestic’ is at its best in the spring as the new, bright red foliage emerges and begins to grow. As summer approaches and as the temperatures rise, the foliage turns to a dark burgundy and then by mid-summer the mature foliage turns to a dark green. Even when the older leaves turn green, all is not lost; the new growth continues to push out red foliage to contrast with the old.

The more color the better, that’s what I say. If a plant is to get from the nursery into the garden it has to have more color, more seasons and more ornamental interest than four to six weeks of duration. I don’t know about you but I no longer have room for shrubs that offer just one season of interest. That being said, I have made room in my garden for ‘Red Majestic.’

Red Majestic was developed in Germany by Rolf de Vries. Garden centers can purchase the plants from these officially licensed wholesale growers: Bountiful Farms Nursery, Broken Arrow Nursery, Canadale Nursery, Ekstrom Nursery, Handy Nursery Company, Hollandia Gardens, Means Nursery, Monrovia Growers, Pierce & Son Nursery, Willoway Nurseries.

Retail purchases can be made at on line Wayside Gardens.

Holly Reaches New Heights

I love the saying “Standing on the shoulders of giants” because it reminds me that most all great accomplishments are built on the people that labored before us. This is especially true in plant breeding.

Holger Hachmann, a plant breeder from the Holstein region of Germany is quick to remind people that his breeding work could not have been accomplished if not for his father and a housewife in Long Island, New York.

Holger grew up the son of a nurseryman and renowned plant breeder Hans Hachmann. His father was, without a doubt, the most prolific Rhododendron breeder ever. In addition to introducing hundreds Rhododendrons, he develop a number of popular Potentilla cultivars including Potentilla ‘Hachmann’s Giant.’ Plant breeding was taught to the young Holger by example, just as he learned to weed the fields and to root cuttings. Hans taught his son the secrets of plant breeding. His most important lesson was to start by identifying a problem or weakness in a plant, and then solve it. Certainly Holger was well trained and well equipped to begin his plant breeding career. He had a great teacher.

In stark contrast, years earlier a housewife was laying a new foundation. An amateur horticulturist by the name of Kathleen Kellogg Meserve, told a reporter "Not knowing what I was doing was an advantage. I didn't know what could be done and what couldn't. So I just did it." And without any formal training and without understanding chromosome numbers she develop what we now call Blue Holly. She crossed the beautiful but tender English Holly (Ilex aquafolium) with a hardy, low growing Rugose Holly (Ilex rugosa). At first glance this may seem trivial, but in actuality this cross made it possible for millions of people in Middle America to grow Holly.

And so the foundation was laid; Holger’s father had taught him the tools of plant breeding and Kathleen Meserve invented a hardy holly. And as blue hollies became more popular, Holger found himself growing a good number at his nursery. In time, he soon came to realize that Kathleen’s work was not yet complete. Growing a good quality blue holly took a lot of time and care. The plants grew slowly and required a lot of shearing to make a full plant. Additional people expected hollies to be upright pyramidal evergreens and not round bushes. Here was a breeding opportunity. To solve this problem, Holger crossed the hardy Blue Prince holly with ‘Alaska’ a pyramidal, glossy leaved English holly which was considered the hardiest of all English Holly.

With time and patience Holger made his selections and introduced two new plants. And fittingly, he named his plants Castle Hollies; stately, yet rugged plants built on a strong foundation laid down by two previous “Giants” of the breeding world. Growers in Europe and America have been growing his plants for about four years now and the reports have been very favorable. Castle Spire holly is fast growing female selection with bright red berries. It has a traditional Christmas tree shape. The foliage is quite unlike Blue Holly, being extremely glossy and rich green in color. Castle Wall holly is a very functional male selection. This is Holger’s favorite because it makes good container plant and a great hedge. Its dense, upright habit makes it a good replacement for the over used ‘Hicksii’ yew. With its useful shape and attractive glossy foliage, this plant is more than just a pollinator. It will find a home in the landscape as a specimen, hedge and foundation plant.

Castle Spire

Brick by brick, stone by stone and trait by trait, breeders continue to improve upon the work of their predecessors. Clearly it takes a strong foundation to build a beautiful castle that will stand the test of time.

Create the Perfect Hydrangea

It’s that time of the year when I go through all my notes and photographs and complete my evaluations on all the new plants we’re testing. Right now, I’m reviewing all of our potential Hydrangea macrophylla introductions.

Evaluating and introducing Hydrangeas is a long process. For example we work with several Hydrangea breeders in Europe that are doing some really cool work. The picture above shows my travel buddy Dale Deppe, the owner of Spring Meadow Nursery, in a breeder's greenhouse surrounded by unnamed Hydrangea varieties. Our job that day was to determine which plants were good and worth pursuing. It wasn’t easy, but we made our initial selections. Later that year cuttings were shipped to us in Michigan. There's a two year quarantine on Hydrangea (a well as many other species) so during this time we test, evaluate and try to determine if the plants will work for our customers and the American gardening public.

I’ve invested years combing the globe for some really cool Hydrangeas. I’ve also committed years to my own hydrangea breeding program. In all, I have assembled a wide range of excellent plants with a wide array of attributes.

We have plants that rebloom and those that don’t rebloom. We have plants with mop-head flowers and lace-cap flowers. We have miniature plants, plants with bi-colored (variegated)flowers, ground covering plants, plants with dark black stems, and plants with massive flowers. You name it we have it. But what should we introduce? That is the question.

I need your help. Take a short survey and tell me what you think about Hydrangeas. Your answers will help me decide which, if any, of my Hydrangeas will hit the market.

Click here to take survey

Plant Exploration: Past, Present, and Future

The plant hunter will be speaking at the Fernwood Botanical Gardens and Nature Preserve on Saturday March, 29 at their Spring Symposium:

Plant Exploration: Past, Present, and Future.

If you are in the area please join us as we take a closer look plant hunting.

Presentations begin at 8:45 am. Registration fee is $60 for Fernwood members and $75 for non-members and includes all sessions, breaks, and lunch. The symposium fulfills 2 hours of Michigan Master Gardener continuing education credits. Please call (269) 695-6491 to register or for more information.

Plant Exploration and Early Plant Explorers of China
Ed Hedborn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois

Ed Hedborn has been the Plant Records Manager and Plant Recorder for The Morton Arboretum for the past 30 years. He is responsible for life-history information about all plants in the Arboretum's living plant collections from 1922 to the present. He also teaches classes for the Arboretum's education program and the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area. Ed speaks about the earliest recorded plant exploration and the classic period of Chinese plant exploration of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He covers some of the renowned plant explorers of that time and offers some insight as to why we explore for plants.

Plants For Today
Tim Wood, "The Plant Hunter" from Spring Meadow Nursery
Tim Wood is the Product Development Manager for Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Michigan. He has taught at Michigan State University, co-hosted a garden radio talk show, and written three books. Tim is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and was named the Michigan Nurseryman of the Year in 2001. Tim discusses recent explorations as well as what we may expect in the future of plant exploration.

In Search of New Plants: Recent Discoveries
Galen Gates, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois

Galen Gates is Director of Plant Collections for the Chicago Botanic Garden, and is responsible for the management and development of the Garden's collection of 2.3 million plants. He is Chair of the Plant Collecting Collaborative, a consortium of six public gardens that searches the world for new plants. He has planned and led several foreign plant collecting expeditions, further enriching the botanical diversity available in the U.S. Galen tells of recent discoveries from his trips to China, Russia, and the Republic of Georgia. He also talks about the cultures of the countries where he does his research.

Plants in Print: The Age of Botanical Discovery
Edward J. Valauskas, Lenhardt Library, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois

Edward is the Curator of Rare Books at the Lenhardt Library and an instructor at the Graduate
School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.
Edward addresses how five hundred years of rare books, journals, and manuscripts reveals a complex and detailed history of botanical research around the world. Solving problems of taxonomy, evolution, and ecology, botanical explorers in their records provide details on the floral world around them. These works in turn took advantage of the latest developments in
printing and illustration, with the best artists of their times working to illustrate plants as naturally as possible.

The Story Behind That Plant: Fernwood's Plant Collection
Steven Bornell and Ann Desenberg, Fernwood

Since the 1940s Fernwood's founder, Kay Boydston, and subsequent garden staff have searched near and far for hardy ferns and many other interesting plants for Fernwood's collections. Steven Bornell, manager of Fernwood's plant collections, along with Ann Desenberg, Fernwood's plant recorder, share their "picture album" along with some interesting facts and anecdotes behind some of the noteworthy plants on the property.
Weather permitting, an optional short walk at the end of the program is offered to see some of the plants discussed earlier.

Shrubs with Unique Architecture

Some years back, I received a call from Gary Koller, a well-respected garden designer in the Boston area. Gary urged me to find and offer more shrubs with narrow, columnar growth habits. In his opinion, we needed plants with a smaller footprint that took up less space in the landscape. He also felt these shrubs added interesting architecture to gardens. The trend toward smaller home lots dictates the need for smaller and/or narrower shrubs. After all, who has the space for a Spiraea x ‘Vanhouttei’ in their garden anymore?

Narrower shrubs have another great benefit; they require less care and maintenance. Growers spend less time spacing and pruning them which saves them money. Homeowners also benefit from these shrubs as they save them both time and effort. Berberis t. ‘Helmond Pillar’, Sunjoy™ Gold Pillar (Berberis t. ‘Maria’), Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’, Sky Pointer™ (Ilex crenata ‘Farrowone’), Castle Wall™ (Ilex x meserveae ‘Hechenstar’) and Fine Line® (Rhamnus frangula ‘Ron Williams’) are a few narrow plants that have seen increased popularity over the last few years. I suspect this trend will continue.

Fine Line Rhamnus

ANLA New Plant Pavilion

I just got back from the ANLA Management Clinic in Louisville. Each year at the clinic, NMpro Magazine hosts their New Plant Pavilion where growers and breeders showcase their newest offerings. This year the pavilion featured 42 new plants. That's right - 42 new plants! There seems to be no shortage of new varieties.

While at the conference I heard someone say that we have way too many new plants. In some respects I agree - there are too many new plants. The problem is that there is no way that people, let alone nursery professionals, can digest so many new introductions, let alone grow them.

I see the same thing when I travel overseas. New plants are a dime-a-dozen. As I've said before the difficulty is not finding new plants, it's finding new plants that are better and superior, and that people will want to put in their yard.

To make matters worse, in one of the clinic lectures, one retail expert said that garden centers need to cut back on the number of plant varieties they offer. His point was that by offering so many choices, we are overwhelming the consumer. Again, In some respects I agree. Unless a garden center has a customer base of avid gardeners and plant collectors, too many plants can make it overwhelming for casual shoppers.

So what’s the Answer? In my opinion the free market will solve the problem. The best plants will rise to the top as growers, retailers and consumers vote with their pocket books. With this in mind, it’s very important for growers to be careful in introducing new plants or they’ll soon discover that they’ve wasted a lot of time and money.

To help me avoid making these kinds of costly mistakes, I’ve developed a check list that reflects the plants attributes I feel are needed to be successful. Here’s my simplified check list that I use when considering a new plant:

More Color. The trend in gardening or more correctly - yard decorating is color. Plants with a longer bloom season, multiples seasons of color (flowers, fruit, fall color), colorful foliage that lasts beyond the flowers, etc. are all high on my list.

Easy to grow. The majority of people do not know much about gardening. They want to plant it and enjoy it, so I look for shrubs that are dwarf or compact that requires little or no pruning. I look for plants (particularly roses) that do not have to be sprayed. And I look for plants that do not require special fuss.

Lastly, I look for plants that connect with our emotions. In other words, plants that make us feel good. Everyone likes to feel good. Who can resist the sweet fragrance of a Lilac or the joy evoked by a flock of brightly colored butterflies darting about a Butterfly Bush? Not me, and I suspect most people feel the say way. Certainly a rose connects with our emotions, but the need to spray it can negate those feelings - so even plants that connect with out emotions must be easy to grow.

The days of breeding plants strictly for bigger flowers are long gone. Sure big flowers are great. A Dahlia has a remarkable flower, but only the rare enthusiast is willing to overlook its ugly habit and excessive need for care. Times have changed, and so must the nursery industry.

What do you think?

Is Sumac Garden Worthy?

Rhus (Sumac) gets little attention from gardeners, but the species does offer some real gems that are especially well-suited for the landscape. While most of the species in the genera are not showy enough to suit the typical gardener, many of the plants have outstanding attributes such as showy fall color, drought tolernace, showy fruit and the ability to thrive with neglect .

The fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, is the most commonly grown species. The cultivar ‘Gro-Lo’ is a favorite of landscape architects. It is a hardy (zone 3-8), low growing plant (24”), with glossy leaves and superb orange to red fall color. Its dense, suckering habit make it an excellent ground cover especially for slopes and other difficult sites.

Rhus typhina, the Staghorn sumac, is perhaps the best ornamental shrub of the group. The plant has fuzzy stems (like a stag’s horn), great orange to deep red fall color and attractive red seed heads. I learned this plant as a young boy when my dad tought me how to make staghorn lemonade with its fruit. It’s a native shrub that is commonly found along highways forming dense clumps. At 70 mph, it's easy to see that each clump differs genetically in size, fall color, and fruit. Unfortunately, as it is a suckering plant, most gardeners don’t have the room for a clump in their garden. There are several excellent cultivars that are garden worthy; ‘Disecta’ aka ‘Laciniata’ is grown for its attractive lacy cut leaves. Tiger Eyes or ‘Bailtiger’, is a yellow leafed selection of ‘Disecta’. This plant has all the wonderful attributes of the species but with bright yellow leaves that gives summer-long interest.

Staghorn Sumac

Rhus copallina is commonly known as Flameleaf or Shining Sumac. This native shrub can reach upwards of twenty feet in height. The cultivar Prairie Flame aka ‘Morton’ is a compact selection that remains under seven feet tall. It has exceptionally brilliant, red fall color. Over the last few years I have been selecting plants that are as short as 12 inches tall. I think these may have great landscape potential. I have also heard of a cultivar with dark purple leaves called ‘Lanham’s Purple.’ While I have never seen this plant, I think it may have garden potential.

Shining Sumac

Rhus chinensis (pictured above) is a sight to see both in flower and in fall color. It is one of the larger species, forming a small tree up to 24’ in height. Like all the other Rhus mentioned here, this is a suckering plant so use good judgment when choosing a place to spot Rhus chinensis. This species has perhaps the showiest of flowers. It has large, 6-10” creamy-white panicles in late summer, that mature into orange red fruit.

As Rhus are suckering plants that are propagated by root cuttings, they will never be commonly grown. This does not mean they are not worth growing. I saw wonderful mixed shrub planting at a hotel in Portland, Oregon that was simply spectacular. I was instantly impressed with the creativity of the designer because he/she incorporated Rhus typhina into the design and pulled it off. All of these Rhus species have a lot to offer in terms of drought tolerance, fall color, fruit and fall color that can be utilized by creative designers. So yes, in my opinion Rhus is garden worthy.
What do you think?

New Plants at the Mid-Am Tradeshow

I just got back from a week in Chicago at the Mid-Am nursery tradeshow. Nursery tradeshows are a great place to get a feel for the nursery and gardening industry, to see what’s new and to discover new trends. Here are a few of the highlights of the show and a taste of what’s to come in terms of new plants.

One of the highlights of the show was the appearance of Dutch nurseryman, and My Monet Weigela originator Bert Verhoef. Bert was at the show signing posters of his new 18” tall, green, cream and pink Weigela. It was interesting to see people lining up to get their personally signed poster, and to hear their glowing comments of how the plant has brightened the home garden. I was able to procure some of these beautiful posters and will send a signed copy to the first five people (North America addresses only) that send in a request.

In terms of new plants here are some of my favorites:

Reblooming Hydrangea continue to hit the market. Blushing Bride Hydrangea is a new addition to the ‘Endless Summer’ line. This plant has white flowers that are tinged with pink. Personally I like this plant better than the original Endless Summer. The white flowers combine well with other plants in the garden, and the plants themselves are not as tall as the original.

I am particularly excited about Let’s Dance Hydrangea ‘Moonlight and Let’s Dance ‘Starlight; two new rebloomers with large mop-head and lace-cap blooms respectively. I had better be excited about these plants, because the Let’s Dance series comes out of my personal breeding program (full disclosure). My breeding goal was to develop rebloomers with more intense flower color and improved foliage quality. I think I’ve achieved my goals and this is particularly exciting because Endless Summer is just the starting point in the reinvention of the Hydrangea macrophylla.

Two new yellow leafed Barberry were launched at the Mid-Am; Sunjoy ‘Gold Beret’ is a new dwarf mounded plant that stands less than 12” in height, and Sunjoy ‘Gold Pillar’ is new upright, columnar plant with bright yellow foliage. Both plants are noted for superior sun burn resistance. Gold Beret was developed by Stanley Talago of the US and Gold Pillar is a new introduction out of Poland.

When looking for the best new perennials Dan Heims at Terra Nova is always a must visit during tradeshow season. The plant breeding at Terra Nova goes well beyond Heuchera. I was particularly excited about his new, zone 6 hardy Begonia ‘Metallic Mist’ that looks a lot like a tender Rex Begonia, and his new intense orange coneflower, Echinacea ‘Tiki Torch’. While there are many new Echinacea hybrids on the market this beauty is the result of a wide cross recovered through embryo rescue. In layman’s terms this means it will not set seed and become weedy in the garden like other Echinacea hybrids. I’ve always hated unwanted Echinacea seedlings in my garden and Dan has solved the problem and delivered really exceptional color.

All I can say is thank goodness I’m in the plant business. There is always something new and better each year. And what beautiful products we have; products that make the world a better place, one yard at a time.