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Peckerwood is celebrating its new role as a public garden by beefing up its events calendar and strengthening ties with horticultural groups and institutions across the county, Peckerwood staff and volunteers invite you to discover what all the fuss is about by touring the garden and enjoying evening lectures. Horticulturist Adam Black will fill you in on how he’s adding to Peckerwood’s treasured plant collections.
I finally had a chance to taste the fruits of Pringle’s Sapote, (Casimiroa pringlei) several weeks ago. This interesting introduction to U.S. cultivation from John and Carl’s Shoenfeld Mexican collection is perhaps the only zone 8 cold hardy species of an otherwise tropical genus of fruit trees. Though seeds were distributed in the past from Peckerwood, and plants have been available in our nursery, it still hasn’t caught on among enthusiasts of unusual edible plants. The largest of several trees in the garden was loaded with orange fruits the size of large grapes – quite a large crop despite the fruits’ small size. They are soft textured and sweet with a slightly tangy acidic quality and a cherry pit-sized seed in the middle. Everybody I previously asked previously described it slightly different, but I’d compare it with a cross between a pineapple and a banana.
I was surprised to learn that long-time volunteer Craig Jackson had never tasted it during his tenure, so off we went to go find some ripe fruits. I had noticed the first time I sampled the fruits that the tree was looking a little yellow, and in the following days a lot of the yellow leaves were falling. We found the tree even more defoliated and many of the abundant fruits had dropped. I found a couple that looked to be at the perfect stage of ripeness as judged in my initial tasting experience, but when I tried one, it was very bitter and pungent. A second one was also quite repulsive despite appearing perfectly good. After much spitting and commenting how I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth, Craig had no interest in trying the fruit.
A week later the tree is mostly defoliated and clearly suffering from an infection in the roots or trunk judging from the quick, consistent symptoms that appeared throughout the crown of the tree. The increasingly poor fruit quality perhaps stemmed from improper ripening in the tree’s stressed state. Since it grows along the creek, the tree’s root zone was submerged in all three recent flooding events we had, and likely the tree’s current state is the result of a stress-induced pathogen. Fortunately, we have back-ups of the tree in other portions of the garden, though not as old as this original collection.
Other tree specimens are now declining in portions of the garden that were flooded. In the woodland garden, several Cephalotaxus are showing signs of fungal infections, and large portions of each plant are dying. One tall, long-leaved form of C. fortunei rapidly declined, likely due to a root pathogen, and as soon as I saw it going down I took some cuttings from the remaining healthy portion before it too died. A beautiful specimen of Taxus sumatrana unfortunately browned so suddenly I didn’t have a chance to salvage a piece. One prominent loquat-leaved oak (Quercus rysophylla) growing along the perennial border rapidly died in recent weeks, with its crown of dead retained bright rusty red leaves punctuated against the green woodland garden canopy behind, strangely beautiful despite the loss, at least to me. Though planted high up on an embankment, its feeder roots surely extended down the slope into the adjacent depression which remained quite soggy for weeks during the rainy period.
All is far from doom and gloom at Peckerwood, and aside from the prominently located dead oak, which will soon be removed, most visitors would not notice any morbidity in the garden. Though we are now wishing for rain and are having to provide supplemental irrigation to some valuable specimens, many other plants weathered the severe drought a while back without any care and continue to look great. The garden looks as amazing as it always has. Loss of some favorite specimens, though initially sad, creates new opportunities, and perhaps provides more foresight in better selection of species for a particular spot should we flood again.
Lots of summer flowering perennials are at their best right now. I’ve never been very keen on spider lilies (Hymenocallis spp.) being that they all superficially look the same. However, since they have all started flowering, it is interesting to see that at least some are quite distinctive. John has a cluster of wild-collected Hymenocallis aztecana from Mexico that started flowering recently. It has typical spider lily flowers but the foliage is quite different from most, and is a distinctive blue-grey color. It appears this may be a solitary species that doesn’t offset like most others, but time will tell. The Mexican Sweetspire trees, Clethra pringlei, are flowering up a storm right now. In the dry gardens the naturalized standing cypress Ipomopsis rubra is just coming into flower atop its tall stems that protrude from among the woody lilies and cacti. Oblivious to the dry conditions in its baking position in the garden near the office, Wright’s Skullcap (Scutellaria wrightii) is blooming like crazy. This is a must-have Texas native for any dry garden. I’ve forever been and am a fan of the durable ironweeds (Vernonia spp.) and John has a couple patches of V. noveboracensis in the perennial border displaying their deep purple flowers against dark green foliage.
A number of unique vines are creating quite a show on the trellises around John’s home and gallery. It was nice to see Camptosema sp. finally bearing the scarlet red flowers I had only previously seen in pictures. This member of the pea family hails from Argentina and seems quite durable.
Another of my favorites is Mucuna cyclocarpa, with tight, fist-sized clusters of dark purple-black pea-like flowers. John is especially fond of a large flowered selection of the profusely-blooming snapdragon vine, Maurandya antirrhiniflora, and rightfully so. Though it doesn’t have particularly showy flowers, a Mexican collection of Menispermum sp. (moonseed) presents exceptionally bold blue-green foliage, much larger and thicker than our U.S. native M. canadense. I reluctantly had to cut it back somewhat in order to prevent it from smothering a wild collected Mascagnia lilacina that shares a trellis.
While many visitors focus solely on flowers, I’m always trying to promote the ornamental qualities of foliage which can complement or take the spotlight away from adjacent flowers! Many cycads have recently flushed new growth, with the various Ceratozamia species bearing rusty red to bronze leaves up to five feet long. The various Dioon edule regional selections have new soft leaves ranging from pastel green to reddish-orange to even light blue. When backlit by the low evening sun the new translucent foliage glows intensely and creates interesting shadows among the older opaque leaves.
In early June I traveled to my birthplace of Miami, Fla. for the American Public Gardens Association annual meeting, where it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. One big highlight was being able to visit my friends at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and see all the progress Chad Husby and Jason Lopez had made in their world travels in search of interesting plants for cultivation and conservation. Of particular interest to me are their extensive Caribbean conservation collections. Though all of these are from tropical, frost-free habitats, we already know of a few woody plants from this region that perform in colder areas of the southern U.S. in Zone 8b as dieback shrubs, sustaining minor tip dieback or dying to the ground entirely and vigorously resprouting and flowering by summer. In Zone 9 of the Houston area they perform even more reliably, often experiencing little to no dieback in average winters which often translates to an even longer flowering season. One good example of a tried-and-true tropical shrub that returns after freezing back is firebush (Hamelia patens), naturally found only in frost-free areas of south Florida and throughout the Caribbean and into South America. Simpsons Stopper (Myricanthes fragrans) seems to be catching on in southeast Texas as well, another one of those Caribbean plants that reaches its northern extent in warmer parts of south Florida. Some Caribbean palms, including Sabal causiarum, have long been known to be remarkably hardy despite their tropical island homes in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, indicating it may have evolved from the hardier stock currently present in the southern U.S. On the more obscure side I was successfully growing a variety of Caribbean things in northern Florida’s zone 8b including Cuban beautyberries, Bahamian cycads, a Juniper from Barbados, a Honduran pine and others.
When touring the collections with Chad, it dawned on me that there must be other Caribbean plants with similar attributes – bearing either latent hardiness or the ability to vigorously re-sprout after being frozen back and quickly resume displaying ornamental features through the next hard frost. The majority of these plants definitely won’t tolerate freezes, or even cold weather, but those plants either related to the known performers, or that bear similar qualities, are worth trialing as possible new landscape plants in seemingly unlikely places. Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens is in some cases the only collection in the U.S. where these rare plants are preserved, and if we can extend the growing areas of at least some of these they can be backed up in other conservation gardens including Peckerwood and better distributed to the public.
For the die-back shrubs the key for reliable spring resprouting is having a well-established root system prior to freezing back. This entails planting healthy, robust specimens as soon as the threat of late frosts is over in spring, which allows seven or eight months for the plant to develop a healthy vigorous root system over summer through early fall prior to getting cut back. Adequate mulch helps keep the roots from freezing in its first few years. One could provide further protection if desired, but I at least am not interested in dragging out the frost blankets all the time, nor should anyone else!
I shared a few things from Peckerwood’s Mexican collections that I figured would be suitable for Miami’s conditions, and got many cuttings of plants I felt are worth trying in Hempstead. I was especially interested in the genus Callicarpa (beautyberries) since a Cuban species, C. ferruginosa, has performed well in Zone 8, so surely other Caribbean species are worthy candidates. One that caught my eye in Fairchild’s collection was C. hitchcockii, with tiny oval cupped leaves, bearing a rough dimpled convex top surface that was dark shiny green contrasting with the light blue-green in the concavity underneath. The showy pink flowers turn into purple fruits resembling our native species. Time limitations did not allow for extensive collecting of cuttings, but we will continue our good relationship with Fairchild exchanging more of John and Carl’s important Mexican collections that would be suitable for the south Florida climate in exchange for more interesting and unexpected treasures.
I also stopped at my friend Richard Moyroud’s West Palm Beach nursery, Mesozoic Landscapes. Richard collects and promotes obscure south Florida natives and their Caribbean relatives. He generously loaded me down with additional plants to trial at Peckerwood that he felt would have potential. I was happy to receive from him his last Melochia tomentosa, a plant I was introduced to at Peckerwood as a beautiful dieback shrub that flowers profusely and offers showy silvery-green foliage. It reaches its northern extent in extreme southern Texas and south Florida where it is very rare, but more widespread in the Neotropics. Richard’s plant, of south Florida provenance, looked significantly different from the specimens I’ve seen at Peckerwood and a few local nurseries, so we will see how it performs here.
We will continue to seek new plants from unlikely places that hold potential for low-maintenance landscapes while displaying unique ornamental features, and also serving our conservation mission by preserving imperiled germplasm in cultivation.
Peckerwood Insider’s Tours have proven to be interesting to members and new visitors. These focused looks at less-visited areas of the garden showcase some of Peckerwood’s best aspects. Visits to the gardens across the creek were a rare treat. I have witnessed only two groups touring that area in my Years at Peckerwood, but now more have the opportunity to discover the plants here. Likewise, the upcoming tour of rarely visited sections of the Woodland Gardens is a treat you shouldn’t miss.
Another exciting development, the Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture Series, opens at 7 p.m. Friday, July 22 with Adam Black, who will present “Six Months and Counting – The Endless Discoveries at Peckerwood.” Adam will talk about his excitement and sensory overload while discovering the countless treasures through the seasonal transformations from his hiring in January through summer. His focus on rare plants and obscure specimens should make this a fascinating look at Peckerwood Garden in 2016.
Open Days have always been the primary opportunity for guests to visit the garden. Groups can schedule tours anytime, but most families prefer to come on a day we are open and scheduling a private tour is not necessary. With our new monthly Open Days, we are able to be consistently available and offer a predictable schedule. We welcome the opportunity share the garden with you and showcase the incredible beauty of Peckerwood Garden and to highlight the amazing variety of changes that happen all year.
Watch the calendar for additions to the schedule. Tickets are available online for all events, and some require pre-registration.
- Fri Jul 22, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm
- Sat Jul 23, 2016 Open Day, 10 am -3 pm
- Sat July 30, 2016 New Docent Training,
- Sat Aug 6, 2016 Peckerwood Insiders’ Tour,10 am
- Fri Aug 19, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm
- Sat August 20, 2016 9 am Monthly Training, 9 am
- Sat Aug 27, 2016 Open Day, 10 am -3 pm
- Sat Sep 3, 2016 10 am Peckerwood Insiders’ Tour, 10 am
- Sat Sept 10, 2016 9 am Monthly Training 9 am
- Fri Sep 16, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm
- Sat Sep 24, 2016 Open Day, 10 am -3 pm
- Sat Oct 1, 2016 10 am Peckerwood Insiders’ Tour, 10 am
- Sat Oct 8, 2016 Open Day, 10 am -3 pm
- Sat Oct 15, 2016 9 am Monthly Training 9 am
- Sat Oct 20, 2016 9 am Taking Root Luncheon
- Fri Oct 21, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm
- Sat Oct 22, 2016 Open Day, 10 am -3 pm
I am pleased to report that we are picking up steam with our garden volunteer work, both in consistency and in numbers. As I reported in previous newsletters, Brenda Wilson, Craig Jackson and Ruth McDonald were initially the stalwart volunteers making a difference in reclaiming Carl’s old garden beds around the offices and nursery. Recently Persephone Friend has joined us and will hopefully continue as a long-standing regular despite the long drive from Houston. Most recently long-time supporter and new foundation board member Pam Romig joined Craig and Brenda along with newcomers Jan Swope and Harvey Newman.
Together they went through the nursery and surrounding areas, weeding and straightening things up, and it looks amazing! With our remote location it has always been a challenge to find dedicated volunteers who are either local in the surrounding small towns or Houston residents willing to make the drive on a regular basis. Nancy Royal and Pam Romig have continued to help in the office on a regular basis, which is always a huge help for Bethany.
Pam also helped clean a ton of seeds from a variety of Mexican mahonia species, and Linda Demet helped divvy these up into labeled envelopes for distribution. Roger Holland often goes unnoticed, but he heads up the surveying of our bluebird nest boxes. Peckerwood is a registered bluebird sanctuary, and Roger maintains nesting records in the many bird houses set up around the gardens in order to maintain our status. We set up a booth at the Hempstead Watermelon Festival offering plants and most important, public exposure. Harvey Newman was a watermelon festival recruit, and others expressed interest as well. Thanks to Pam, Craig and Bonnie Burger for helping at the booth. Now that we are ramping up with more events, year-round open days and evening lectures, reliable volunteers are more critical. We would not be able to make any progress without everyone’s help.
On my one and only visit to Peckerwood during a 2007 open day prior to my employment here, I was fortunate to attend a tour led by John Fairey. Among the other wonders, John pointed out a plant in the woodland garden that captivated me. It was an evergreen shrub holding dense foliage all the way to the ground, yet growing in fairly deep shade. The leaves were a blue-green above, with a bright tan fuzzy indumentum below. I was surprised to learn what it was, as I was familiar with the genus Litsea from both the southeastern US native Pondspice (Litsea aestivalis) which is a small shrub with tiny leaves, and I was aware of a few Asian species with larger plain green leaves, nothing like Litsea japonica. I was glad to find that Peckerwood’s nursery had a few available for purchase that day, and they became favorites in my Florida garden. Most seasoned plantsmen that visited had no clue what it was either, thinking along the lines of some strange big-leaf Rhododendron, never venturing into the laurel family, but regardless, everyone wanted it. Beyond Peckerwood, Woodlander’s Nursery in Aiken, SC was the only place that would occasionally have it available, but it still is very few and far between, even in botanical gardens. One of the few other plantings I’ve seen of it, in the wonderful campus-wide arboretum at Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah, GA illustrates that it looks equally attractive with quite a bit more sun. I kept my plants in dry sandy shade and once established they were left to fend for themselves, and they did so admirably, never looking stressed even during droughts. Of course I’ve already learned that Florida droughts are different than Texas dry spells, but goes to show it isn’t something that needs constant care after establishment. This is an indispensable plant in the southeastern shade garden as there aren’t many other shrubs that maintain full, dense habits in that situation. The flowers are not very showy – it is an evergreen foliage plant first and foremost, but I find the new-emergent growth covered with fuzzy silver hairs to be quite a spectacle. We have some young seedlings coming along in our nursery that we hope to offer soon.
Over the past few weeks several important visitors have toured the gardens. Katie Dickson, senior horticulturist at Moore Farms Botanical Garden near Lake City, S.C. visited on a plant-collecting trip from Austin to Peckerwood and back, amassing unusual plants suitable for a proposed scree garden. I’ve been excited that more southeastern U.S. gardens are incorporating scree gardens into their displays, as it is a great way to grow more Mediterranean and xeric species that prefer to stay on the dry side in an otherwise summer-wet climate. It will be fun to see what distinctive flair Moore Farms uses in the design, in addition to the incorporation of the unusual plants we’ve provided.
Other visitors included Ethan Guthrie and Amanda Bennet, both from Atlanta Botanical Garden. Ethan is in charge of the amazing plant collections at ABG’s new secondary Gainesville, Ga. garden site, located northeast of Atlanta. It was great to meet this fellow plant nerd. Amanda is in charge of the spectacular display gardens at the Atlanta site. They flew into Austin, rented a huge truck and had it a mostly full of nursery purchases before arriving at Peckerwood. We loaded them down with more plants and cuttings from the garden, and explored the greenhouses at night by flashlight looking for obscurities to share.
In late June I attended Stephen F. Austin University’s “Wild about Woodies” nursery industry field day. It was great to finally meet Dallas area tree enthusiast David Richardson, a long-time friend of John’s and supporter of Peckerwood. Many unique plants, especially obscure oaks, bear his name as the source on our tags. He shared a wonderful group of seedling oak species to add to our collection. As always David Creech from the SFA Mast Arboretum generously shared cuttings from the diverse arboretum and a variety of exciting plants from the nursery.
In addition to visits from collaborators I’ve made a number of my own visits to other nurseries, gardens and enthusiasts from which Peckerwood has mutually beneficial relationships. On my frequent Florida trips I try to break up the monotony of hours of driving by stopping by Gardens of the Big Bend located at the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, FL. Dr. Gary Knox is director of this relatively new garden and he strives to seek out new and interesting things not commonly utilized in the southeastern U.S.. I try to share whatever I can with them, and I end up leaving his greenhouses loaded down with more (and much larger) plants than I brought him! Gary is especially interested in magnolias and has shared a variety of rare species and unique hybrids with us, not to mention a collection of interesting species crepe myrtles that are far different than the common hybrids. Other odds and ends were added to the mix included a hardy Schefflera hoi which Gary had obtained from Ethan.
While touring the garden there, I was mesmerized by a Quercus nuttallii selection with the most brilliant, longer-lasting red new growth. It is a named cultivar called ‘Firecracker’. Gary put me in touch with Southern Tree Source’s Buster Corley who selected this tree from a batch of seedlings and monitored it for years to make sure the intense, long-lasting coloration on the new growth was a consistent trait before applying for a patent. Buster generously donated a ‘Firecracker’ oak to Peckerwood, and since he also had promised one to David Creech at SFA, I brought the tree back to Texas for eventual delivery to the arboretum. I sent David’s tree to SFA with Ethan and Amanda on their big truck following their Peckerwood visit. It’s always fun to think of how the plants we love get around though our networks!
Prominent ginger expert Tom Wood fortunately lives right down the road from my Florida property so during my last visit I stopped by to see what was new. He shared with Peckerwood a variety of new hardy ginger species and hybrids of Kaempferia, Hedychium, Curcuma, Globba, and Siphonochilus including his own creation Kaempferia ‘Purple Lace’.
Also nearby is Don Goodman, founding director of Gainesville Florida’s Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, where I used to work for a number of years. Among the many sights there, many come visit Kanapaha from summer through fall to see the two species and one hybrid of the giant Victoria water lilies that Don has expertly grown from seed every year for decades. Also known as water platters, winter-germinated seedlings quickly turn into massive plants by August, dying when water temperatures get too cool in mid-fall. Though individual leaves can get nearly 10 feet in optimum conditions, they are usually less than 6 feet in cultivation, but Don grew the US record leaf several years ago, just shy of 8 feet. He generously donated some young plants to Peckerwood which I am establishing in the lake behind the guest house.
Despite the challenges of keeping the nursery plants looking good in the hot dry conditions we’ve been facing, there are still some great plants in the nursery. I know many folks don’t want to plant anything until fall, let alone be outside in the first place, but there are some drought tolerant things that, with a little initial care, can be a great addition to the summer landscape. A real winner, completely shrugging the harsh conditions, is the Texas native Wright’s Skullcap, Scutellaria wrightii. Naturally occurring in dry open areas, it has been blooming like crazy for the past several weeks in our revamped rock gardens around the office with no supplemental water.
Another not-so-rare but still indispensable plant is Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii – commonly known as Firecracker Bush or Hummingbird Bush. We have some nice gallon size plants in full bloom now. We continue to have an excellent selection of Kaempferia gingers for that shady area in your yard. With a little moisture they will continue to flower for another few months within their beautifully patterned ground-hugging foliage before going dormant and starting the show over again early summer next year. Of course we always have interesting Agaves, Aloes, Dyckias, and other xeric plants that you don’t need to worry too much about establishing if you want something to plant right now.