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?