Table of Contents
Adam’s notes from the garden
November is upon us, and I’m finally finishing our October newsletter. The past weeks have been busy, but that is the case every month as we push forward with offering increasing opportunities for visitors while keeping the existing and developing gardens looking great.
Fall is setting in at Peckerwood, but in typical warm-temperate climate fashion, we don’t see the red, orange and yellow leaves that come to mind when one thinks of autumn – at least not yet. Our colorful display of changing leaves on the maples, hickories and other deciduous trees will happen, but months later. Until then, we enjoy our own unconventional late-season interest in the garden.
One signal of the coming winter is the flowering grasses. In the north perennial border, we have a nice display of Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’ that has transitioned from clouds of pink flowers to straw colored seed heads, attractive regardless of the color. More on this popular grass, which originated as a chance hybrid at Peckerwood, in our “Plant of the Month” section. At the entrance to the woodland garden, Muhlenbergia capillaris also presents stunning pink flowers, a trait it contributed to ‘Pink Flamingos’ as one of the hybrid’s parents. Several other grasses add interest including the hanging tassels of Miscanthus sinensis that brush against visitors as they are lured into the western segment of the north perennial border for a closer inspection of the curious hot pepper-shaped fruits on our Diospyros rhombifolia.
Of course descriptions of fall at Peckerwood must include the ripening of acorns on our vast collection of oaks. We have been collecting many of the rarer species and sharing them with other gardens and collectors around the world, who in return are sharing new species for us to try here. We had intended to make remaining acorns available for online retail sales, but with such a busy month, we regrettably realized that we would not be able to keep up with the anticipated demand. With acorns having a short shelf life after harvesting, we cannot store them for future distribution. It has been difficult enough to reimburse the many collaborators who have already generously shared rare and unusual species with us. In one sense we let a number of prospective customers down after promoting the acorn sale, but we also can look at it from the perspective that Peckerwood is rapidly moving forward with more tours, events and guest lectures, and we are fortunately being kept on our toes with such a great public response. There is so much we want to offer visitors and supporters as soon as possible, but then reality sets in and we need to prioritize what our small staff and valued volunteers can adequately handle.
Some exciting acorns have been received from some unexpected places, and many more are on the way. We received the giant seeds of Quercus skinneri from my longtime friend in El Salvador. Surprisingly some of the higher elevation tropical oaks have a fair amount of latent cold hardiness, so more of these deserve to be trialed in our zone 8b climate. The Q. skinneri seeds have already germinated and are approaching a foot tall. Additional Central American oak acorns from the highlands of Guatemala and Panama are on the way as are those from other foreign collaborators. We look forward to acorns from Taiwan, where acorns generally mature later than many places, to provide many exciting species. I think many of the species I collected from the dry sandhill scrub of my old stomping grounds of north Florida may do very well on our well-drained sunny berms. Noteworthy among these is the “running oak”, Q. pumila, which, surprising to some, is not a tree but a low growing groundcover oak, forming extensive multi-stemmed patches two feet tall. There are other dwarf and shrubby species I collected that have potential for smaller landscapes.
We also received seeds of the Vietnamese buckeye, Aesculus wangii, a giant in all regards. One huge seed has germinated, and within a few years we hope to see the nearly yard-wide leaves. The gigantic seeds are three times the size of our native A. pavia seeds which are normally the size of ping pong balls. The few who have grown A. wangii all note the inconvenient habit of this plant breaking dormancy in late fall, growing in winter and having soft new growth frozen back. I’m interested to see if grafting it on the rootstock of another species such as A. pavia that behaves on the preferred schedule would reprogram the A. wangii crown to hold off growing until spring. If we can find out how to make it behave on our terms, this will be a standout plant in Peckerwood’s collection. Dr. David Creech at Stephen F. Austin University was the lucky recipient of another A. wangii before us, which is now over five feet tall, so we will compare notes on our experiences with this impressive species in Texas.
Coning conifers are adding subtle interest to the fall garden, though many of these aren’t what most would recognize as cones. The scarlet color of the soft berry-like cones of Taxus chinensis makes them really stand out against the dark green foliage. Several of the “plum yews” in the genus Cephalotaxus have produced round cones that consist of a large seed inside a fleshy covering that turns purple when mature, resembling miniature plums. Torreya grandis also produced similar plum-like cones which have already been harvested. It will be interesting to see if seedlings are hybridized with the nearby male Torreya taxifolia.
It looks like we will have another good crop of seeds from Keteleeria davidiana and K. pubescens judging from the many developing cylindrical scaly cones. Podocarpus cones are unusual in that a blue-green seed is held at the end of a plump, colorful berry-like structure called an aril. Many do not realize that after the non-edible seed is removed, the aril is edible when it turns from red to purple and is quite tasty, somewhat like a sweet cherry with a slight hint of pine resin – better than it sounds! You surely will get some stares from passersrby when foraging off the next Podocarpus macrophyllus hedge you spot in Houston.
Some early flowering camellia cultivars are blooming in the woodland garden. A striking groundcover of fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is blooming profusely in the perennial border. An interesting tropical tree flowering this month is a Peltophorum sp. In colder winters, this tree in the pea family freezes back and never attains flowering size. The past few mild winters have produced dieback only in the outer tips, allowing it to quickly rebound and grow significantly. At approximately 40 feet, every branch was tipped with bright yellow clusters of flowers, readily seen from some distance away.
South to the Rio Grande Valley by Adam Black
When Steven Ramirez invited me to present at the fall symposium of the Rare Fruit Growers of the Rio Grande Valley, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d never ventured into the southern tip of the state, but I’d always been fascinated by the flora of the region, especially since some have proven quite cold hardy at Peckerwood. Steven, a long-time docent and volunteer at Peckerwood, lives in “the valley” when not attending school in Houston and had been telling me of all the great growers and enthusiasts in the area I need to meet.
On my drive south, I began to see the vegetation change to a fairly monotonous and rather floristically boring landscape as I progressed toward Corpus Christi. Then as I drove across a river, I noticed some trunked palms of the genus Sabal. I wondered if these were an outlier population of the mysterious “Brazoria palms, which were originally thought to be a natural hybrid between Sabal minor and Sabal mexicana often referred to as Sabal x texensis or Sabal x brazoriensis. Recent molecular studies show justification that it is a good, stable species and was given the official name Sabal brazoria. Later research showed that the trees I was seeing were instead the northernmost individuals of Sabal mexicana – my first wild observation of this species which I didn’t know ranged this far north.
As I got into the “King Ranch” area south of Kingsville, the vegetation became more interesting with the abrupt transition into a sandy scrub dominated by live oaks. Steven had texted coordinates to look for the beautiful Palafoxia hookeriana, but I had already noticed the bold pink daisy-like flowers on four foot high stalks readily visible from the road along with the silver paddle-shaped leaves of Croton coryi glistening in the evening light.
The next morning was the first day of the symposium held at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. It was great to meet all the growers of unusual fruit and experts in many other related fields from beekeeping to building economical “green” houses using natural materials. I was amazed to learn how warm it really is there in an average winter, similar to the growing region of south Florida where I grew up. That evening Steven took me to Tad Dyer’s nursery. He is one of the main growers of palms and other tropical specimens for the region’s landscapes. Most interesting to me at his nursery was a couple of out-of-place but otherwise happy cultivated burr oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) with their giant acorns among masses of tropical palms and cycads with seedlings volunteering among a patch of croton (Codiaeum) cultivars. After leaving Tad’s nursery, I spotted a remarkable weeping cottonwood, Populus deltoides, growing in front of a boarded-up house. The long branches hung over the sidewalk, and since nobody occupied the run-down property, I figured I was doing a service by trimming back the branches hanging in the way of pedestrians.
The next stop was the home of Ken King, one of the valley’s main experts of the region’s flora, and co-author with Alfred Richardson of the excellent book “Plants of Deep South Texas”. There is no missing Ken’s heavily planted property in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood. In front is a beautiful specimen of Esenbeckia berlandieri, a rare native in the citrus family that was a treat to see. Entering his backyard it became apparent that Ken’s botanical interests are, like mine, all over the place. Among rare natives are South American bromeliads, South African euphorbias, orchids, a collection of Boswellia species from which the treasured myrrh resin is obtained for incense, tubs of various water lilies and other obscurities. Ken generously shared a number of rare natives complete with locality data for Peckerwood’s collection.
If you are a true plant nerd, botanizing doesn’t end at dusk. After some great Mexican food Steven took me to an abandoned trailer park-turned locally maintained park that still contained a number of old avocado trees and other things planted long ago. With flashlights and headlamps, we checked each tree we came across for fruits. Steven found one tree that had a distinctive avocado with perfectly smooth glossy dark purple skin that was unlike any I had seen before. Here was my first experience with naturally occurring “Anacua” (Ehretia anacua), with their dense veil of tiny white flowers appearing as ghostly apparitions in the darkness. Though it grew happily for me in Florida, I had never seen profuse flowers until now, and it was clear it was quite an abundant weedy tree in the area. As we were heading back to the car, a surprisingly giant Ficus trigona adorned with aerial roots materialized from the blackness.
Before the night was over, Steven showed me other noteworthy trees he had found between Weslaco and McAllen. We saw a massive Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum, growing in town. The stout, gnarled trunk supported a low crown of broadly spreading branches that gave it tremendous character. In front of a Mexican dessert shop – where I enjoyed an addictive cup of chilled jicama slices seasoned with cayenne pepper – there stood a massive old pine that Steven hoped I could identify. I was stumped, and there were no cones to help with identification. Monterey oaks (Quercus polymorpha) used as street trees show how wide-ranging this plant, long promoted by Peckerwood and other nurseries, has gotten around to all corners of the state.
Sunday tours of several growers in the region began at Thad Magyar’s densely planted jungle of towering palms and a wide variety of mature ornamental and fruiting trees he and his wife had collected over the years. His wonderful tropical oasis made me feel like I was back in Miami and was complete with pet parrots and a cantina where we were treated to the refreshing juice of Costa Rican sour guava. Next was the home of Gus Gonzales and his extensive groves of mangoes, avocados and citrus, clearly showing what can be done here. The tours concluded with a visit to an exceptionally diverse collection of rare and unusual tropical fruit trees.
That afternoon, Steven and I went to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary to explore the natural stand of Sabal mexicana and accompanying native flora along the Rio Grande. While I didn’t see a speckled racer, a most beautiful snake that barely enters the U.S. in this area, I did spot many new-to-me species of native plants. Exotic birds such as chacalacas and green jays further made me feel like I wasn’t in Texas anymore.
Steven took me to see more noteworthy trees and plantings in the Brownsville area that he had found, including the largest and most beautiful jujube tree I have ever seen. Working our way toward the mainland shores of the Laguna Madre behind South Padre Island, we ended up at a coastal tract remaining relatively undisturbed despite being sandwiched between condominiums. I was instantly immersed in contrasting mix of xeric plants growing side-by-side with salt marsh plants. In some areas I could reach out with one hand and touch a mangrove growing along a brackish creek while impaling my other hand on a diverse array of cacti growing on the dry adjacent bluff. These included barrel cactus (Ferocactus hamatacanthus); an Echinocereus pentalophus with ropey creeping stems that looked like someone’s trimmed dredlocks tossed on the slope; and ground-hugging, disc-shaped Mammilaria heyderi which I was more familiar with from far west Texas.
Among the cacti were the succulent rubbery stems of Jatropha dioica, fat exposed caudeces of the succulent cucumber relative Ibervillea lindheimeri, the appropriately named allthorn (Koeberlinia spinosa) and silvery clumps of cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).
The fun continued the next day with a trip to Mike Heep‘s wonderful native plant nursery. Like Ken King, Mike is a highly respected authority on the native flora of the region. Our friends at Caldwell Nursery in Rosenberg make special trips to Mike’s in order to offer his unusual selections to collectors in the Houston area. I filled my truck with all sorts of things, some long on my wish list and others completely new to me. All are especially valuable to Peckerwood’s collections as Mike retains collection information with his plants.
Later I made a solo trip to South Padre Island to explore the dune vegetation. After crossing the causeway I traveled north until the road ended in a desolate area with nobody around.
Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised that there was a complete absence of woody plants in the natural areas of the island. In contrast, the barrier islands of the east coast of the southern states all have quite an assemblage of wind-sculpted trees and shrubs, but here there was not one to be found. The dunes were instead covered with an attractive mosaic of grasses and low-growing annuals and perennials. The closer I got to the water, the more my eyes began to sting and an uncontrollable cough developed.
I wasn’t sure what was going, but then I spotted many dead fish at the water’s edge – thousands of menhaden along with scattered black drum, redfish, seatrout and others. I concluded my respiratory discomfort was due to the red tide that also had killed the fish.
Retreating from the irritating emissions from the algae bloom, I hiked behind the first set of tall dunes, and breathing became more comfortable. Any remaining discomfort was soon forgotten as all sorts of plants new to me begged for closer inspection. Several metallic silver or gold croton species dominated the loose sands on the dunes and stood out sharply. Joining them were Conoclinium betonicifolium, Baptisia leucophaea, Solidago sempervirens, Liatris, Agalinis and other wildflowers.
After becoming familiar with most of the representative plants on South Padre Island, I decided to find another floristically interesting spot with fresher air.
Looking at Google maps, I zoomed into a green patch that usually indicates a natural area. It was the Laguna Madre National Wildlife Refuge. After negotiating a road that was more potholes than pavement for miles, the vegetation suddenly became interesting, as was an “ocelot crossing” sign and then the entrance to the park. Dry thornscrub was the dominant feature here, composed of mesquite, Texas ebony (Chloroleucon ebano), Parkinsonia, Condalia, Leucophyllum and others. The most interesting find was a young vine of Cissus incisa that had solid silver leaves.
The next morning, it was time to begin moving north. Steven had told me about some salt lakes nearby that sounded like they deserved to be explored. Finding an access, I was soon hiking among the open dry woodlands characteristic of the “Tamaulipan Thornscrub” ecological zone. Before getting far down the trail to the lake, a loud cry from the top of a large mesquite grabbed my attention. Homing in on two animals, I saw spots.
Thinking excitedly that I found an ocelot, I soon realized the lack of a long tail meant I was instead staring into the eyes of a bobcat that then became spooked by my presence. After it shot down the tree and disappeared in the tall grass, I focused on its intended quarry, still quivering at the tip of the branch. It was an orange domestic cat, way out in the middle of nowhere, which almost became a late breakfast for the wild relative. Clearly not tame, it also quickly descended the tree and shot off in the same direction the bobcat had retreated.
It was here that I got to see my first wild occurrence of Cordia boissieri, the Texas wild olive that is so commonly planted in the region and sparingly the further north in the state one travels. After enjoying the starkness of the sterile, snowy white salt flats surrounding the lake of brine, I headed back to make some progress north. Around the same place I had observed the cat scuffle, a Texas indigo snake shot across the trail and off into the bramble patch before I could get a closer look.
My final stop was North Padre Island just offshore of Corpus Christi. Here the flora was similar to that of South Padre Island, but this time with a few woody plants consisting of scattered stunted live oaks and wax myrtles. New perennials not seen on South Padre were flowering mounds of Phlox glabrifolia ssp. littoralis, the fuzzy silver mats of Stemodia lanata and several additional species of Croton. Liatris elegans was abundant in a mix of colors ranging from dark purple to pink to solid white, with their arching inflorescences glowing as the descending sun put an end to this fulfilling introduction to the southern Texas flora and the horticultural and botanical experts of the region.
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Bethany Jordan and Adam Black continue to share on Facebook with regular updates on what is happening and when you can visit the garden and pictures from each of them and from a few guests that share. Visit us at “peckerwoodgarden” Our recently created Instagram account “@peckerwoodgarden” continues to develop with Adam Black and Craig Jackson sharing their images and insights. Twitter also continues to develop at “@PeckerwoodG” join us for quick views of what is happening that day in the garden.
- Sat Nov 5, 2016 Peckerwood Insider’s Tour, 10 am, Conifers of Peckerwood
- Sat Nov 12, 2016 Open Day, 10 am – 3 pm; David Parks Guest Lecture 11 am
- Fri, Nov 18, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm, Andrew Bunting
- Sat, Nov 19, 2016 Monthly Training, 9 am, Shrubs
- Sat, Nov 26, 2016 Open Day, 10 am – 3 pm
- Sat, Dec 3, 2016 Peckerwood Insider’s Tour, 10 am
- Sat, Dec 10, 2016 Monthly Training, 9 am
- Fri, Dec 16, 2016 Evening at Peckerwood Garden Lecture, 7 pm
- Sat, Dec 24, 2016 Open Day, 10 am – 3 pm
- Sat, Jan 7, 2017 Peckerwood Insider’s Tour, 10 am
Volunteers Making a Difference
By Adam Black and Bethany Jordan
As things become busier in the garden, volunteers continue to step up and make miracles happen. Though we were unable to come through with retail acorn sales as hoped, we still wanted to satisfy some bulk orders from a few key species that we have in quantity. With time of the essence to collect the acorns before they drop, Pam Romig sprang into action and enlisted some of the Waller County Master Gardeners to strip our trees of their seeds. Thanks to Glovena Hambly, Harvey Newman, Craig Jackson, Brenda Wilson and Pam for collecting a ton of acorns in such a short period of time.
We had a return visit from the National Society of Black Engineers chapter out of Texas A&M Prairie View campus who volunteered a half a day clearing brush from around the garden house. An extraordinary amount of area was cleared, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with this hard-working group. That same day we had a tour scheduled, and Burton Knight once again made the three-hour drive to help our other regular volunteers with the day’s many activities. Suzzanne Chapman, Pam Romig, Craig Jackson, and Harvey Newman spent the day working with these teams and with the tour group.
After all the clearing our regular volunteers have done around the offices, I look forward to planting some interesting specimens soon. Thanks as always to Craig, Brenda, Harvey, Pam, and for their help on Tuesdays and Fridays.
We will honor all our volunteers at an appreciation lunch at 11:30 a.m. November 15th in the garden house. We have made great strides over the past year and look forward to more advancements in the next, but without our valued volunteers, none of this would ever be possible.
Behind the scenes in the office and on the computer, Ruth, Craig, and Nancy Royal continue to be not only huge assets but a major force in moving things forward. Nancy is once again transcribing interviews with John Fairey about the history of Peckerwood Garden and his Collection trips. Ruth McDonald has been a key part of the developing volunteer program and her help and research has made both the upcoming and ongoing changes possible. She has also taken on coordination for our Volunteer Appreciation lunch and is working with Bethany and Adam to ensure the success of the event. Craig continues his remarkable work with the plant database and mapping software.
If you have joined us for one of the recent lectures, you have enjoyed the excellent refreshments and careful preparations of Ruth, Craig, and Brenda. Their care and excellent refreshments have ensured the evening was a success each time.
Plant of the month: Pink Flamingo Grass (Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’)
If you have been following us on Instagram or Facebook, you will have noticed quite a few photographs recently of the billowy clouds of pink that lend such a soft yet strikingly bold presence in the perennial border. Prior to the introduction of Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’, the closest gardeners in the southern U.S. could get to such an effect was by using Muhlenbergia capillaris, a striking grass in itself which also has pink flowers but the inflorescences are not as tall or as puffy. It wasn’t until this species happened to cross with Muhlenbergia lindheimeri that ‘Pink Flamingos’ was born – and it all happened right here at Peckerwood Garden!
Since then, Pink Flamingo Grass has become a staple among nurseries from the mid-Atlantic states through the southern U.S. Sometimes the cultivar is mistakenly listed as ‘Pink Flamingo’ (singular) in nursery catalogs but the plural form is correct. Fall flowering, it is still very attractive the rest of the year with its dense clump of narrow blue-green arching foliage. When the pink flowers fade, the straw-colored seed spikes remain attractive through late fall. Like both parents, this hybrid requires full sun and well-drained conditions. Older clumps losing their tidiness benefit from cutting back to the base during late winter before new leaves emerge. With time, a dead bare patch may appear in the center of the clump as the outer, younger leading edge expands outward. This is best remedied by dividing the clump into thirds or quarters, leaving one section in place and planting the others elsewhere, as you can never have too much of this distinctive ornamental grass.
Recent and Upcoming Noteworthy Visitors
We have had a parade of important visitors over the past month, and more are on the way. We had a great day with Bob Lovett and Jim Carcano of Lovett Pinetum. So what’s a “pinetum”? It’s an arboretum focused on not just pines but all conifers. To take advantage of different climates, Bob’s pinetum is actually spread out in three states, with units in California, Missouri and one near Lufkin, Texas. Jim is in charge of the Lufkin (Angelina) unit, a wonderland of conifers that I was very impressed with during my spring visit. Though not generally open to the public, they are open by appointment, and not to be missed if you are a true conehead!
Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken of Far Reaches Farm were in the area after generously delivering specimen-sized plants to our friends at Mercer Botanic Gardens to be used for restoration efforts following their devastating flood. I had a memorable time when I visited their Port Townsend, Washington nursery, one of my all-time favorite rare plant sources. Kelly and Sue are such kind-hearted souls, so the pressure was on for me to reciprocate at Peckerwood. They brought with them a number of unusual plants for Peckerwood’s collections, including several new distinctive Asian species of Mahonia to add to our ever-increasing collection of this genus, plus one of the few fantastic Mexican species we didn’t have – Mahonia russellii. After an ambitious day collecting several garbage bags full of cuttings, they gave an enthralling presentation on their collecting adventures in China portraying so many lust-worthy plants and beautifully rugged scenery. Kelly and Sue are so famous that a number of well-respected figures in the horticultural world drove 2-3 hours just for the evening lecture and social. It was great to finally meet renowned garden designer and author Scott Ogden along with fellow landscape designer extraordinaire Patrick Kirwin (Kirwin Horticultural Services) who both came all the way from Austin for the night of botanical geekery. From the opposite direction, Rick and Veronica Lewandowski made the nearly three-hour drive from Orange, where Rick directs Shangri-La Gardens. Scott Reeves from Creekside Nursery and his wife, Ginny, added more plant enthusiasm to the room, and we thank them for their kind donation of some much needed wine glasses for future events. Many other local enthusiasts came out for what amounted to our most well-attended and enjoyable evening lecture so far.
We look forward to a similar attendance during our November 12th open day when we will have special guest David Parks from Camellia Forest Nursery giving a presentation at 11 a.m. on hybridization efforts of the rare and beautiful Camellia azalea in China. Rare in the U.S., this species is among the most beautiful and I’m curious to hear how hybridization may be making some exciting selections for the future. For our November 18th Evening at Peckerwood Lecture, we are proud to have Andrew Bunting, assistant director of Chicago Botanic Garden, to present “Magnolias for the Garden”. Andrew is an expert on woody plants and especially magnolias, and recently published “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias”. We have additional luminaries of the horticultural world planning to visit, and I’m twisting their arms into sharing their knowledge with our local supporters through lectures, so please keep your eye on our events calendar.