A Fairy Wing and a Prayer

Epimediums have long been a staple of the woodland perennial garden, but it wasn’t until plantsmen like Darrell Probst (US) and Mikinori Ogisu (Japan) began discovering and sharing the amazing wealth of unknown Chinese fairy wing species that their popularity began to take off.

It wasn’t until 1998 that epimediums begin appearing in the Plant Delights catalog, because before that time, the available horticultural offerings just weren’t that impressive. Plants like Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’ are just hard to get excited about…if you’ve got much of a horticultural pulse. Sadly, that’s still the most dominant choice at most garden retailers.

Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’

Another reason epimediums have been slow to become mainstream is the difficulty in getting good images. Because epimediums are so three-dimensional and prone to flutter in the wind, it takes quite an effort to take good images. Single flower closeups, which are much easier to take, always make me skeptical about how nice the entire plant will look in the garden.

When we were preparing to offer epimediums for the first time, we were faced with the decision of which of the three common names to use; fairy wings, barrenwort, and horny goat weed. Well, it doesn’t take much marketing savvy to choose from that list. That said, if we’d known that porn megastar Ron Jeremy would soon have his own line of epimedium tablets for male enhancement purposes, we might have reconsidered.

PDN/JLBG epimedium trials and study area

Once we became enamoured with fairy wings, we did as OCD people are prone to do, and built an entire research structure for the study, development, and trial of epimediums. We currently grow over 330 different epimedium taxa…some for study, some for conservation, and some which have enough garden value to share. It usually takes us about five years to fully evaluate a new epimedium seedling, comparing it to all other varieties on the market.

Since 2000, we’ve introduced over 27 of our own epimedium selections with more in the queue. Here are a few that we’ve already introduced that have proven to be excellent performers. We hope you’ve tried them all.

So, what’s next? Here’s a sneak peak of some of selections that have passed the final stages of in-ground trialing and are ready to head to container production trials. Our standards include good garden vigor, good floral showiness, and uniqueness from all other epimediums on the market. We like to think our standards are pretty high. We’d love to hear which of these future introductions below are your favorites.

How About a Skirt?

We’re always on the look out for great skirts in the garden. Skirt is the garden design term we use for groundcovers, which reduce the need for mulch, while still keeping with the textural integrity of the garden design. Here are a few images of plants that we consider great skirts.

Erigeron pulchellus ‘Meadow Muffin’

We love this US native groundcover. The foliage is great and the flowers in very early spring are superb. At our home, we used it as a skirt for Acer palmatum ‘Orangeola’.

Ajuga tenori ‘Valfredda’

One of the top ajugas ever introduced because it doesn’t spread quickly or reseed. Very durable, but truly thrives in moist, compost rich soil. Here it is in flower this spring.

Ajuga reptans ‘Planet Zork’

Another of the absolutely finest ajugas we grow. Ajuga ‘Planet Zork’ is a crinkled leaf sport of Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’, which is a miserable performer in our climate, but this sport is indestructible. It’s so mutated that we’ve never seen a flower, but who cares.

Nepeta ‘Purple Haze’

In our climate, Nepeta ‘Purple Haze’ is one of the best performing catmints, and one that is quite unique from others in the trade. We cut it back after flowering and it starts over and flowers again.

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium ‘Campbell Carpet

Our sales of this amazing PDN/JLBG selection of the US native fine-leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthenum tenuifolium) weren’t nearly what we’d hoped, so we planted the unsold plants out along the road in front of our home, here providing a nice textural contrast to another great US native plant, Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’. We’ve made several selections of mountain mint over the years, but this is truly the star. We sure wish more people had tried this amazing plant.

Sisyrinchium ‘Suwanee’

Another native that simply didn’t sell the way it should is the iris relative, Sisyrinchium ‘Suwanee’. This is unquestionably the best blue-eyed grass ever!!! Found native in north Florida, it’s solid winter hardy in at least zone 6 and never reseeds like the native Sisyrinchium angustifolium. We believe this represents an un-named species, that’s in full flower here now if you drive by the nursery and see the mass of unsold plants we planted in our roadside ditch.

You can find more great garden skirt possibilities at our Groundcover link.

Do You Remember Ginger?

There are lots of different gingers to keep straight, starting with a memorable one that was a part of the band of misfits stranded on Gilligan’s Island. Horticulturally speaking, however, ginger refers both to a group of plants in the Zingiberaceae and Aristolochiaceae (birthwort) families. Hardy members of the Zingiber family are plants who mostly flower in the heat of summer, while the wild gingers (asarum) of the birthwort family tend to be mostly winter/spring flowering.

So, while it’s late winter/early spring, let’s focus of the woodland perennial genus asarum, of which we currently grow 86 of the known 177 asarum species/subspecies. In late winter/early spring, we like to remove any of the winter damaged evergreen leaves, which makes the floral show so much more visible. Few people take time to bend down and observe their amazing flowers, so below are some of floral photos we took this spring. View our full photo gallery here.

Asarum arifolium (Native: SE US)
Asarum caudatum (Native: NW US)
Asarum asaroides ‘Jade Turtle’ (Native: Japan)
Asarum asperum ‘Fault Line’ (Native: Japan)
Asarum campaniflorum (Native: China)
Asarum caudigerum (Native: China)
Asarum hirsutisepalum (Native: Japan)
Asarum ichangense ‘Huddled Masses’ (Native: China)
Asarum magnificum ‘Bullseye’ (Native: China)
Asarum nobilissimum ‘Crown Royal’ (Native: China)
Asarum nobilissimum ‘King Kong’ (Native: China)
Asarum porphyronotum ‘Irish Spring’ (Native: China)
Asarum senkakuinsulare (Native: Japan)
Asarum speciosum ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ (Native: SE US)
Asarum splendens (Native: China)

A Concrete Idea

Unless you’ve been hiding under a piece of concrete, you’ve no doubt heard of our crevice garden experiment, constructed with recycled concrete and plants planted in chipped slate (Permatill). It’s been just over three years since we started the project and just over a year since its completion. In all, the crevice garden spans 300′ linear feet and is built with 200 tons of recycled concrete. The garden has allowed us to grow a range of dryland (6-12″ of rain annually) plants that would otherwise be ungrowable in our climate which averages 45″ of rain annually.

One of many plants we’d killed several times ptc (prior to crevice) are the arilbred iris, known to iris folks as ab’s. These amazing hybrids are crosses between the dazzling middleastern desert species and bearded hybrids. Being ready to try again post crevice (pc), we sent in our order to a California iris breeder, who promptly emailed to tell us that he would not sell them to us because they were ungrowable here. It took some persuading before they agreed to send our order, but on arrival, they became some of the first plants to find a home in the new crevices. Although we’ve added more ab’s each year, the original plantings will be three years old in August. Here are a few flowers from this week.

Iris are just a few of the gems that can be found in our “cracks”, continuing below with dianthus. As we continually take note of our trial successes, more and more of those gems will find their way into our catalog and on-line offerings…as long as we can produce it in a container. Please let us know if any of these strikes your fancy.

If that’s not enough, here are some more shinning stars currently in bloom.

If any of this seems interesting, you probably should be a member of the North American Rock Garden Society…a group of similarly afflicted individuals. If you are specifically addicted to cracks, check out the nearly 2000 strong, really sick folks on Modern Crevice Gardens on Facebook

Mad About xMangaves!

We always enjoy when our customers share pictures of our plants in their gardens. Patrick, in Savannah, GA, recently shared images of a pair of xMangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ that are now a couple of years old, and apparently they are happy, multiplying, and blooming.

xMangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ (the far plant has an 8′ flower spike)
Here are the offsets Patrick potted up and used around his patio and deck.

Stay up to date with what’s going on in the world of xMangaves on the Facebook page Mad About Mangave. Thanks for sharing Patrick!

Brexit Redux – Part V (final)

Our final stop was about 5.5 hours north of Tregrehan, when we had the honor to visit Kerley and Co. I didn’t actually make the connection when this was first mentioned to me, but when owner David Kerley mentioned us seeing his primrose breeding, it clicked that this was the home of the amazing Belarina primroses that perform so well in our hot, humid summers. Kerleys’ is not open to the public and they do not sell plants. They breed the plants and then license their genetics for sale.

Breeding Trials

Both Hans and I were duly blown away during our tour with David’s son, Tim. Primula are one of several crops bred by the Kerley’s. In their primula program, the Kerley’s focus on better vigor and branching, unlike what has been done with the inexpensive common annual primroses. They do so by going back to some of the older varieties that had better perennialization and branching qualities, and then working to upgrade the flowers without losing the vigor.

So far, all of the Belarina lines released are double flower forms, but after watching Hans and Tim in the greenhouses, it wouldn’t surprise me if a line of their amazing single colors will be coming in the future. I’ve grown a lot of primulas in my time, but I’ve never seen anything like the amazing plants we saw here.

After a quick, but exhilarating trip, it was time to return home…thankfully before Coronavirus fears began to grip the world.

Despite another significant bureaucratic shipping snafu, which was thankfully resolved after only a week of our plants being held hostage, we did receive our plants and most are recovering nicely.

Other than the bureaucratic landmines that await those trying to import plants, there are tremendous costs involved. For every $100 of plants we imported from this trip, we incur a landed cost of $250. In other words, each $10 plant we purchase actually costs us $25 by the time it arrives home.

We would be remiss if we didn’t thank the US Import Inspectors for their hard work in keeping American agriculture safe from new foreign pests. Now, if we can only have a productive conversation with their permitting division to revise a process and regulations that can only be described as draconian, overly complex, and barely functional.

Brexit Redux – Part I

With the ink barely dry on the Brexit signing in early February, and well before Coronavirus panic hit, it was time for a return trip to the UK for another round of plant collecting. Accompanying me is Walters Gardens plant breeder, Hans Hansen of Michigan. Who knows how much more difficult it might become to get plants from across the pond into the US in the future. In reality, it’s pretty darn difficult even now.

Our trip started with a return to John Massey’s Ashwood Nursery, which is widely regarded as home to the top hellebore and hepatica breeding programs in the world. Although I’d been several times, I’d never managed to catch the hellebores in flower, and although it’s hard to predict bloom timing, we arrived at the beginning of peak bloom. We were able to visit the private stock greenhouses, where the breeding plants are housed, and what amazing specimens we saw. Below are the latest selections of Helleborus x hybridus from the handiwork of long-time Ashwood breeder, Kevin Belcher. We were able to return home with a nice collection of plants very similar to these to add to our gardens and breeding efforts.

I had long wanted to see some of Kevin’s special hybrids (below) with Helleborus niger. The first is Helleborus x ashwoodensis ‘Briar Rose’, a cross of Helleborus niger x Helleborus vesicarius.

Helleborus x ashwoodendis ‘Briar Rose’

The other is Helleborus x belcheri ‘Pink Ice’ , a cross of Helleborus niger x Helleborus thibetanus. I’m pleased to report that both are now in the US.

Helleborus x belcheri ‘Pink Ice’

Next we were allowed to visit the hepatica breeding greenhouse…an amazing greenhouse where plants were just beginning to flower. Below is Ashwood owner, John Massey (r) and Hans Hansen of Walters Gardens (l).

John Massey (r) and Hans Hansen (l) at Ashwood’s hepatica breeding greenhouse
Hepatica world…thousands of pots
Hepatica japonica carmine flower
Hepatica japonica pink striped flower
Hepatica japonica x maxima
Hepatica japonica ‘Benten’
Hepatica japonica Burgundy

Our final treat before we departed was a walk around John’s amazing home garden…a treat during any season…even winter. Although the light was too bright for good photography, I hope these photos can in some part convey the amazing wonder of his garden.

Cyclamen coum and C. hederifolium combo
Polystichum settiferum and galanthus
Fern stumpery
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Doorenbos’

For the Love of Hostas

Hostas are incredibly tough plants and will get along fine in almost any garden…but they look their absolute best with just a little extra attention. Here are some tips to grow beautiful hostas in your garden.

Despite hostas durable nature, there are many myths circulating about growing hostas, one of which is the term Originator’s Stock. Originator’s stock is simply a superfluous term for saying that the plant in question is the correctly named clone. Click here for more debunking!

Cold Hardy Palms of the Carolinas

Did you know that North Carolina has twice as many native palms as California?

Join garden volunteer, Mike Papay, on a virtual tour of Juniper Level Botanic Garden as he discusses native and cold hardy palms of the Carolinas as part of our Gardening Unplugged garden chat series, held each day of our Open Nursery & Garden Days.

Windmill Palm – Trachycarpus

Agave x striphantha

When creating hybrids, especially with plants like agaves, it takes many years to know exactly what the offspring will look like. We have a pretty good guess, since we’ve done this for so long, but here’s an updated photo of a cross we made in 2013 of Agave striata x Agave lophantha. The hybrid, that we call Agave x striphantha is now 3′ wide, which is the same width of the Agave striata parent. We expected the hybrid to stay a bit smaller, but it did not. What we still don’t know is what will happen when it flowers. Agave striata is the only hardy species that doesn’t die after flowering, while the flowering rosette of the other parent, Agave lophantha cashes it in after its sexual encounter. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we know about the hybrid, and hopefully it will produce viable seed.

Learn more about growing agaves.

Agave x striphantha (striata x lophantha)
This is the Agave striata parent
This is the Agave lophantha parent.