Monday, April 20, 2009

Old Hat or All That?

On this plant list in particular and also throughout the semester there have been a few plants labeled something like, "Plants You May Find In Your Grandma's Yard" or as Michael Dirr may say "The Over The Hill Gang". These are the plants that used to be really popular but were eventually replaced with newer, more trendy plants. As a landscape designer, horticulturalist, or someone in production, hearing this information in class may have deterred you from ever using these "stale" old plants in any area. After all, this seems to be a strategy many professionals seem to be taking since really, these plants don't appear in modern landscapes hardly at all.

As someone kind of partial to these old favorites, here's a few exciting varieties worth taking a second look at:

Syringa vulgaris or Common Lilac: The straight species of this in renouned for its intensely fragrant flowers, and great lilac spring color. But, it is also scraggly, prone to mildews and diseases, and confusing when it comes to pruning. Cultivars such as 'Little Boy Blue' (blue) and 'Prarie Petite' (pink) have a more compact habit which makes it more versatile in the landscape. 'Prince Wokonsky' has double flowers, and 'Elsa Maasik' (deep purple) is more disease resistant than the straight species. 'Albert F. Holden' is bicolor.

Chaenomeles speciosa or Common Floweringquince: This may be dismissed as too scraggly or wild, but the flower show is what really makes planting a Floweringquince worth it. Going from there, lots of different flowering varieties have been released covering the gamete between white and dark red. 'Jet Trail' (white), 'Minerva' (red), and 'Texas Scarlet' (red) are a few of the more compact varieties if the Floweringquince's legginess is too much for you. 'Scarff's Red' is a thornless variety available, although the thorns may come in handy for a barrier or hedge.

Spirea prunifolia or Bridalwreath Spirea: ... Ok that one may not have any hot new varities, but take a look at it at this time of year. Its one of the greatest for full white spring flowering, and attracts tons of wildlife including honeybees and ladybugs (both of which are necessities for any healthy garden). And the rest of the year, it makes a nice green mounded background for your summer and fall flowering colors.


Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. 215-216, 962-963, 986-991
Common Lilac picture 'Albert F. Holden' from
Floweringquince picture 'Texas Scarlet' from
Bridalwreath Spirea picture from

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tulip Mania!

Since the dawn of civilization, man has come up with currencies with which he would buy, trade, and sell things. In early Egypt, grain was a great commodity; in the Americas and some African countries, beads were used. As Americans, we are more familiar with copper, nickel, silver, or paper which represents the value in gold of what we are buying. In 16th and 17th century Holland, the insatiable desire for tulips (of all things) drove the country's economy until 1637 when the economy basically collapsed. How did the Dutch even get to that point?

Introduced to the Netherlands by a botanist at the University of Leiden, it was discovered that the very bulbs that performed so-so in other European countries happened to thrive in Holland. Struck by the beauty of the flower - the ones discolored by a mosaic virus were particularly sought after -- the royalty and the wealthy of the area would pay outrageous sums to possess the bulbs. Later on in the Tulip Craze, they would even pay for the promise of a tulip, which could take more than ten years from sowing the seed to the actual flowering. Because these seeds were hybrids and not propagated from bulblets, these people had no idea what the flower would even look like. All this in the hopes that when their tulip flowered, it may be the next hot variety -- possibly the desired black tulip (like our 'Queen of Night' today).

As could be expected, the Tulip Mania brought out some real maniacs. In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan tells a story of a poor man who finds a black tulip growing in his yard. He sold it to some wealthy businessmen for an outrageous sum of money. When they came to collect it, they threw the bulb to the ground and crushed it. When the man in horror asked what they were doing, they told him that they had developed a black tulip of their own and they didn't want his to compete with theirs on the market. Thats all pretty nuts for a bulb that only flowers for about two weeks max once a year, and only produces a single flower!

Although tulipomania and other factors brought the Dutch to economic ruin, the Netherlands remain the world's greatest tulip producing country. So when installing a mass of tulips in a large-scale project, or a nice clump in your home yard, be careful -- this bulb has a dark past.

Works Cited:

Tulip Mania:
The Black Tulip story: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
'Queen of Night' picture:
Cracked tulip picture:

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mounds O' Mondo

Ophiopogon or Mondo grass is a staple of the landscape industry. Its a great groundcover that thrives in a variety of sun, soil, and moisture conditions. This flexibility is why landscapers often depend on Mondo grass so heavily, and why you should be able to find it in many of the landscapes around town. While I wouldn't say that it is an overused plant or that its boring, the genus Ophiopogon has too much variety in it to simply plant the straight species. It is for this reason that the current test list includes the dwarf and black varieties, and its important to know them and keep them in mind. Black Mondo grass can be used with bright foliage or flowering plants to help enhance their colors by contrast. Mondo grass also comes in silver varieties such as the cultivar 'Silver Mist' and golden varieties such as 'Spring Gold'. Also, instead of only mass planting one type of Mondo grass, consider mixing different colored varieties in a mass to make things more interesting. A good example of this can be seen in the shade garden at the UT Gardens where different colored varieties of Liriope brighten up a shady area. Even the straight species looks good in a smaller mass like around Morgan Hall.

Try planting these varieties for yourself and find a combination you're happy with. But whatever you do, try to make it interesting.

Photo courtesy of

Saturday, March 7, 2009

All About Narcissus

There are several different myths on the origin of the Narcissus flower, but probably the most well-known is the Roman version told by the poet Ovid. According to the legend, there was an exceptionally handsome young man named Narcissus -- a man so handsome that every girl who saw him fell in love with him. But for some reason or another, Narcissus wasn't interested in women and denied all their romantic advances. After one particular incident where Narcissus broke a young woman by the name of Echo's heart -- the heartbreak of which reduced her to only a voice -- Narcissus came upon a pool of water. When he bent down to take a drink, Narcissus was struck by the beauty of the man looking up at him. And so he spent the rest of his days sitting by the pool of water, staring at his own reflection until he was no more. But from the spot where he sat by the water sprang a flower -- the Narcissus we're learning in class.

In the legend and today, the love of Narcissus is something experienced by many. As it goes with just about any plant or flower, there are several groups dedicated to developing new varieties, informing the public about the care of Narcissus plants, and more than anything, just coming together to experience the beauty of this beautiful plant! Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the East Tennessee Daffodil Society Show and see the huge variety of plants growers had tenderly cared for and selected in the hopes that their Daffodil would be recognized at the show.

Daffodils are judged by their category, and over the years 13 categories to classify each type have emerged, and miniature varieties of most divisions. Below are photographs of an example of each category from the American Daffodil Society website -

1. The Trumpet Division: When I remember this, I picture someone playing a trumpet. These daffodils' cups are at least as long if not longer than the length of the petals. Also, like many of the daffodil's we're familiar with, it has only one flower per stem.

the trumpet division

2. The Large Cup Division: These cups are still large, but smaller than those of the Trumpet division -- between 1/3 the length of a petal and the length of a petal. These also have only one flower per stem.

the large cup division

3. The Small-Cup Division: This cup is smaller than the Large Cup division; that is, the cup measures 1/3 the length of a petal or less. Again, there is only one bloom per stem.

the small-cup division

4. The Double Petal Division: Instead of having just one set of petals, there are two, lending a more ruffled appearance. There can be more than one flower per stem on this type.

5. Triandrus Division: Take a look at the picture below, and your first thought may be that these flowers look kind of like hanging bells. According to the American Daffodil Society, this type usually has at least two if now more flowers per stem.

6. The Cyclamineus Division: Looks like a person with long hair being blown back by the wind. One flower per stem.

7. The Jonquilla Division: These are the Jonquills we hear so much about living in East Tennessee. Some of the older generation are so familiar with Jonquills that they are prone to label all Narcissus as Jonquill, but really Jonquills are only those in this category. The Jonquill flowers are really fragrant, with flat petals and narrow foliage. Can have as many as three blooms on a stem.

8. The Tazetta Division: These fragrant flowers clusters generally come with more than three on a stem. This profusion may be the reason why the stems are so thick -- the plant needs to transfer more up and down the stem than if there were only a few flowers.

9. The Poeticus Division: White petals with a crinkley disk. The disk color generally follows the same color scheme: green, yellow, red rim. Also fragrant with just one flower per stem.

10. The Bulbocodium Division: This is a weird hybrid division, where the flowers look like a woman wearing a hoop petticoat that fell over.

11. The Split-Cup Division: Instead of having a tea-cup, petticoat, or trumpet shaped cup, these flowers' cups have split to fall with the back petals usually at more than half the length of the back petal.

12. Miscellaneous Division: These flowers don't fit into the previous 11 divisions, probably because they're a hybrid between two or more different divisions.

13. The Wild Division: Narcissus as you might find them in nature.

14. The Miniature Division: Blooms tend to be less than 1.5 inches in diameter.

Narcissus are great to use in the landscape as specimens (for a little while at least, as they divide relatively quickly), mass clumpings, or even as an alternative lawn! And if you're interested, you can find daffodils that flower in early spring, or early summer. In my home landscape, you'll see daffodils from late February until early June. But keep in mind that these bulbous plants don't like to be planted in poorly-drained soil. I'd recommend planting at the top of a slope or hill, or maybe a container. Another thing to remember is that even after the flower is gone, you should leave the foliage so the plant can store up energy for next year's flowers. As this isn't very attractive, try inter-planting with a summer-flowering plant like daylilies that can mask their foliage. Like most plants, daffodils like to be fertilized, you just have to do it at the right time. If you fertilize in spring or summer, you risk burning their delicate roots. The best time to fertilize is definitely fall, because it won't damage the roots and it will boost your flower performance the next spring!

To learn more about the genus Narcissus, you should go experience some first-hand. If you take a look at the UT Gardens this spring, you will surely be able to find several of these types of daffodils. Another great way to learn more is to check out the East Tennessee Daffodil Society Show that will be in the Hollingsworth Auditorium in the Ellington Plant Sciences Building this March 15-16. Its really interesting and there are plenty of informative people to talk to about these beautiful flowers!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Darker Side of Lenten Rose

Over the years in my yard, I've made several attempts at creating a woodland wildflower garden. Having two dogs in the yard has made this particular task difficult. Over time, the dogs' trampling, digging, and shady naps on all the hot summer days has weeded out the Trilliums, Toad Lilies, and ferns from those beds. All that not only survived, but thrived under this abuse was the Lenten Rose.

The early spring flowers of Helleborus orientalis come in a wide variety of colors including creams, pinks, greens, speckles, and purples so dark they could be black. These dark varieties are especially unusual and add great specimen interest to any shade garden. These "black" varieties come in the typical petal type (one layer of petals) as seen in 'Black Diamond'. Even more dramatic is the recently released double-petaled 'Onyx Odessey'. In February's issue of The American Gardener, published by the American Horticultural Society, Doreen Howard mentioned in her article "Plants and Trends for 2009" that she had tested this Lenten Rose variety in her garden. According to her, it was the first in flower and its ivory stamens (Helleborous typically have yellow stamens) provided a great contrast to its dark petals. Howard went on to suggest interplanting with green flowering varieties of Lenten Rose for a nice contrast in the landscape.

So if you're looking for a resilient plant with early blooms and a striking color, don't forget about the "black" cultivars of Lenten Rose.

Helleborous 'Black Diamond':

Helleborous 'Onyx Odessey':

Howard, Doreen G. "Plants and Trends for 2009". The American Gardener. January / February 2009. 18-19. or

Stills, Steven M. Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants: Fourth Edition. 340-341

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Get Passionate About _______!

When you go onto any field in Plant Sciences (Public Horticulture, Landscape Design, Horticultural Production, etc.), the key to success is to find what you're passionate about. Finding your passion will drive you to find the newest and coolest cultivars of the plants you love and install them in your landscapes, gardens, or greenhouses. Some people are passionate about one thing and one thing only, while others may go through phases of collecting all the plants they can't live without. Dr. Armitage has said before that he went through a Salvia phase, and if you are into plants and haven't gone through that yet, its possible you will. Other people may never be able to escape the Salvia phase, but this isn't a bad thing. These salvia nuts are the ones who develop, propagate, and sell all the cool new varieties like Salvia 'Hot Lips' which look like the flower is wearing lipstick. When you plant a new, rare, or unusual plant it sets your landscape or garden apart from all the ones laden with 'Stella de Oro' daylilies and Dwarf Chinese Hollies, but its hard to keep track of unique plants unless you have passion!

Here are some examples of passionate people:

Benny Zhang is originally from Japan, and he creates and sells bonsai trees (or as he calls them, "bonsai art"). When asked why he has taken up a career in bonsai, his response was that he sees bonsai as a way of bringing part of his culture to the West. "This is not a hobby," Benny stated. His business is bonsai: Celestial Gardens, Inc. has been around since 1991, and Benny himself has 20 years of training. "My hands have touched and shaped every bonsai I sell." Passion for artistry and culture is what sets his business apart, which includes more than only selling bonsai trees. He brings the beauty of bonsai to corporations and wedding receptions. For more information on Benny, go to

Benny Zhang and his bonsai art

The gentleman I spoke to from Owen's Orchids (I forgot to ask if he was the Owen or not), had been in the orchid business about 30 years. When asked if developing, growing, and selling orchids was what he had wanted to do originally, he laughed and said, "No!" He actually had a degree in marketing, but orchids had seduced him (as they do many plant lovers) into the industry. A passion for orchids has driven him to develop many new orchids, many of them named for his home town, his friends, and his family. For more information on Owen's Orchids, go to

Representative of Owen's Orchids with an orchid named for his father

Now we get to the inspiration for this blog. I went to find a cool variety from the current plant list, and settled on a dwarf Hinoki Falsecypress that only grew half an inch per year. The one I was looking at was seven years old and not even four inches tall. When I asked for more information, I ended up getting a crash course in variegated, dwarf, and weeping conifers. Jody had a golden umbrella pine he wouldn't part with for less than $500! When asked why he went into the rare conifer industry, he said, "I don't want to sell all the plants you can get anywhere else. They're boring!" Jody's passion for rare conifers has led to him landscaping ten acres of his land with these plants. "I look at it this way," he said, "I've already seen the world. When I'm gone, I'll leave these beautiful plants. By then they should be big enough to propagate and sell or donate or something!" You can learn more about Jody's business at

Jody Karlin with his collection of rare and unusual conifers

So in conclusion, find what you're passionate about -- there's lots to choose from! It will make you more successful in your plant sciences classes (like this one) and in your future career.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cedrus atlantica 'Aurea' - Golden Atlas Cedar

One thing that you may come to find from taking plant identification classes, is that cultivars that have different habits, heights, and colors are usually more valued horticulturally. The specimen of Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' the class saw in front of the Ellington Plant Sciences building is valued compared to other coniferous options because of its blue color and the horizontal habit it gains with age. Dirr, the writer of the text Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, points out that C. 'Glauca' could even be taken as the true variety of Atlas Cedar, and that the blue color occurs naturally (like with Colorado Blue Spruces). The needles are held in spherical bundles, generally of 15 needles per bundle. Dirr says of this Atlas Cedar that it is an, "extremely picturesque and interesting tree, its beauty perhaps unmatched by any other confier."

Cedrus atlantica 'Aurea' is a cool Atlas Cedar because in addition to its foliages' striking blue color, there is a shock of yellow at the tips of the branches. When planting golden varieties of confiers, its usually a good idea to plant them where they can get full morning sun and partial sun in the afternoon. This should prevent foliage damage by the sun. The golden variegation should be more noticible in the Spring when it has more new growth. In the UT Gardens, yellow spring-flowering plants such as daffodils are nearby to accentuate the Gold Atlas Cedars golden foliage.

Source: Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. 196-197.