The 12th Southern Plant Conference held on August 5 at the Georgia International Convention Center in Atlanta, GA, was the greatest show on earth. Fifteen presenters, hand-picked by Don Shadow, internationally recognized plantsman and owner of Shadow Nursery, Inc. in Winchester, TN, spoke from 9:00 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. with an hour break for lunch. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see thi s austere group of individuals on stage at one time.
The Southern Plant conference was book-ended by two legendary horticulturists now retired from the University of Georgia. Dr. Mike Dirr opened the event with his presentation titled ‘The realities of introducing new plants in a cluttered, competitive, combative market place.” As co-owner of Plant Introductions, Inc. in Bogart, GA. Dr. Dirr discussed his company and their introductions. Hydrangeas received a lot of face-time during his presentation. Remontant (reblooming) mopheads continue to dominate the market: according to Dr. Dirr, mopheads are favored 10:1 over lacecaps by consumers (I happen to be in the minority).
I was happy to learn that Hydrangea paniculata still has a niche in the marketplace. Having grown up with Pee Gee hydrangea, I can see how it “has come a long way baby” (to borrow a Philip Morris give-away-your-age slogan). The gangly, gargantuan Pee Gee (‘Grandiflora’), which can reach a height of 8-10 ft. in full sun and difficult conditions, has given rise to more compact, floriferous cultivars such as ‘PIIHP-I’ [Baby Lace™], which grows 3-4 ft. high and wide after 5 years. Although ‘PIIHP-I’ and other H. paniculata cultivars are small in stature, they’re still as tough as nails in the landscape.
Dr. Dirr also discussed Distylium, a relative newcomer to the palette of southeastern landscape plants. He has selected hybrids of blueleaf isu tree (D. myricoides) and Isu tree ( D. racemosum) that include ‘PIIDIST-II’ [Blue Cascade™], ‘PIIDIST-I’ [Emerald Heights™]–Dirr’s substitute for ‘Schipkaensis’ cherrylaurel with bright green new leaves that turn lustrous, almost black-green (5 to 6 ft. high), and ‘Vintage Jade’ are introductions from McCorkle Nursery, Dearing, GA, and Plant Introductions, Inc. Dirr feels that Dystilium spp. and hybrids will become sought-after substitutes for English cherrylaurel, which fall prey to shot-hole disease. Shot-hole disease—a complex that includes a bacteria (Xanthomonas prunii) and fungus (Blumeriella gaapi and/or Cercospora sp.)–produces holes in the leaves and is exacerbated by overhead irrigation, which is often used in production nurseries.
Despite its landscape merits, Dirr bemoaned the fact that Distylium has no marketing muscle to make it a “Garden Idol”. He spotted Linda Guy, partner of Plants Nouveau in the audience and asked her to recall her 2007 visit to his nursery where she viewed 21 Distylium selections with her husband, J. As described by Dirr in Nursery Management & Production* magazine, LInda thought the selections looked attractive, but she asked him: “‘Who knows Distylium?'” Dirr wrote in NMPro: “Her comment has haunted me since that day, but at one time, who heard of pink loropetalum, Encore azalea, remonatnat hydrangea, and Knock Out™ rose?” And so his crusade continues to make Distylium a bread-and-butter foundation plant.
*April 2009, 25(4):40-43) article by Michael A. Dirr, “Distylium: hybrids in Georgia trials prove to be exciting shrubs with lustrous winter foliage”.
Robert F. Polomski, Ph.D.
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