12th Southern Plant Conference, Aug 5, 2013: Part II

Dr. Michael Dirr was followed by Rick Crowder of Hawksridge Farms who presented “New plants worth waiting for!”. He regaled us with an incredible arrays of plants that included the fastigiate Japanese maple ‘Tsukasa Silhouette’, the purple leaf form of chloranthus (Saracandra glabra), an evergreen shrub whose new purple-colored leaves mature to green with a hint of purplish-bronze, and Rosy Ridge Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera ‘Rosy Ridge’), a specimen that’s in it’s first leaf at the SC Botanical Garden in Clemson. By the way, Rick Crowder received the 2013 Don Shadow Award of Excellence for his involvement and quest for developing and introducing new plants to the market.

After this dazzling array of woody shrubs, trees, vines, and ground covers, John Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, NC, grounded us with a breathtaking collection of grasses and sedges. It’s “cool to be a monocot” as evidenced by so many stunning selections, such as Red October Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’), whose leaves turn intense red in the fall after the first frost, Blonde Ambition mosquito grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition) with blue-green leaves and chartreuse flowers that turn  blonde. Mr. Hoffman included my favorites: the muhly grasses, especially pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a southeastern favorite that explodes in the Fall with jaw-dropping pink cloudlike plumes. Now northern gardeners in USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 5-6 can enjoy the cold-tolerant M. capillaris ‘Aurora Borealis.’ Northwind switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) is another beaut that was chosen as the 2014 Perennial Plant Association Plant of the Year.

Hoffman showed us some wonderful sedges that tolerat shade to sun, wet to dry soils, and can be used as ground covers or lawn alternatives. Sadly, there are consumers who feel that “sedge” is a pejorative term–a shortened version of yellow and purple nutsedge, that pernicious weed of lawns and landscapes. I’ve become a serious fan of sedges after my encounter with a hillside planting at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in 2006, one of the tour stops at the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium.  The Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) with its narrow, arching leaves that created the illusion of movement as it flowed down and across the slope. Hoffman’s EverColor® series of sedges intrigued me, but these three sedges stole my heart: Carex lurida, which boasts “high ornamental value” and functionality because of its tolerance to temporary flooding. Lurid sedge can be used in rain gardens and meadows. As I’ve seen firsthand, C. pensylvanica is a suitable alternative to lawn grasses and can also be used in woodland settings.  Finally, the multipurpose, fine-textured Texas sedge (Carex texensis), is a drought and traffic tolerant sedge that can be used as a ground covers or for naturalizing and restoration projects.

Steve Castorini of North Creek Nurseries presented an enchanting collection of herbaceous plants in “Sensational plants for southern gardens.” Sure, there are gobs of coral bells, several boasting heat tolerance and an affinity for southern gardens, but the heat-tolerant Heuchera ‘Circus’ is to die-for with colorful chartreuse to green springtime leaves with maroon veins and then transitions to multicolored leaves with shades of green, yellow, and pink. The magenta flowers are a n added bonus to the extraordinary cultivar.

I also admired the tickseeds. Check out the Permathread™ & Big Bang™ series by Darrell Probst, such as C. ‘Red Satin’ Permathread™, C. ‘Cosmic Eye’ Big Bang™, C. ‘Redshift’ Big Bang™ PP20142, and C. ‘Galaxy’ Big Bang™.

I’m more partial to the fine-textured threadleaf tickseeds. Mr. Castorini showed us the threadleaf coreopsis (C. verticillata Cruizin’ Series by ItSaul Plants: ‘Route 66’ Cruizin’), ‘Sunset Strip’ Cruizin’ , ‘Broad Street’ Cruizin’, ‘Electric Avenue’ Cruizin’, and ’Main Street’ Cruizin’.

Many folks who come to the Southeast admire the giant mounds of pampas grass and their buxom plumes in fall-winter. However, they become disenchanted when they own their own clumps of pampas grass and have to cut those razor-sharp leaves down to within a foot of soil level to allow the new leaves to emerge in the Spring.  PG owners have used chain saws—others have burned these large mounds of hay, which often severely dwarves or kills it (maybe it was their intention in the first place).  Mr. Castorini suggested a kinder and gentler pampas grass alternative:  Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker,” a southwestern U.S. native. Windbreaker big sacaton–yes, that’s it’s common name–should’ve been “Big Bubba” or “Big Daddy” for those of us in the South, because this common name aptly connotes its 7 to 8 ft. high and wide stature. Unfortunately, it lacks the bodacious, in-your-face plumes of PG.

Finally, the second to last perennial in Castorini’s presentation floored me: Iron Butterfly narrow-leaf ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’), an 18 -24 in. tall cultivar that looks like a miniature Amsonia hubrichtii, is an Arkansas native that came from The Trial Gardens at the University of Georgia. I loved its finely textured leaves, its compact habit, and its late summer purple flowers.

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