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.