A fall delight: “Barney Berries”

I’m very fond of using fruiting ornamental plants in the landscape. Often, they pack a one-two punch of interest: colorful autumn leaves and gorgeous fruits. Sumacs, hollies, cotoneasters, crabapples, and viburnums are eye-candy for us and a food source for wildlife.

One of my favorite fruiting plants is the beautyberry. I’m particularly fond of our native species, American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). During the growing season this plant looks like any other green leafy shrub with long, slender branches. From June through August it produces attractive lavender-pink flowers along its stems. It’s not until late summer and fall when American beautyberry gets noticed. Clusters of golfball-sized iridescent purple berries occur along the length of each branch. Often the shiny purple berries will persist until December, long after it sheds it yellow leaves.

My daughter used to call these shrubs “Barney Berries,” in honor of that famous purple dinosaur on PBS. The fruit clusters are big, boldly colored, and beautiful. Serious gardeners may ask: “What can you grow alongside your beautyberries that will complement their purple fruits?” Since beautyberries can be grown in full sun to part shade, plant them at the edge of woodlands or in beds with ornamental grasses to serve as a foil to that earthy color scheme. Others have successfully combined its purple berries with asters and goldenrods.

If purple is not your color, then consider the white-fruited ‘Lactea’ or ‘Russell Montgomery’ American beautyberries. Their pearly-white berries will go with anything. But if you want to make folks look twice and ask: “What’s that?”, then you have to go with purple.

Callicarpaamericana_fruitCallicarpaamericana_fruitBeautyberries are rather easy to grow. In the spring cut them back close to the ground. Since flowers and fruits are produced on current season’s growth, drastically cutting them back will give you a terrific display on a multitude of gracefully arching branches. During very dry summers I water it occasionally.
If you’re also interested in growing edible fruits, such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries–the ones with antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins—then feel free to shoehorn them among your beautyberries. After all, anything goes with purple.


When is the best time to prune spireas?

Spireas are deciduous, multistemmed shrubs that have been cultivated in the South since the mid-1800s.

When you prune a spirea depends on whether the flowers occur on last year’s growth or on current season’s shoots.

Spring-flowering spireas bloom on last year’s wood and should be pruned when their flowers fade. This will encourage new growth that will mature over the summer and fall and bear next year’s flowers.

Spring-blooming spireas include baby’s breath spirea, bridalwreath spirea, double Reeves spirea, and Vanhoutte spirea.

To prune them, first remove any dead or crossing branches. Then, thin out one-fifth to one-third of the oldest branches to the ground. Shorten long, lanky branches by cutting back to a side branch or bud oriented away from the center of the shrub. Finally, tip back a few of the branches to encourage branching from below the cut to create a full-looking display.

Spireas that bloom on current season’s growth should be pruned in late winter before budbreak. They include Billiard spirea, bumald spirea, and Japanese spirea and its cultivars and hybrids.

Thin out the oldest shoots at ground level to reduce overcrowding. Cut them back by two-thirds of their height or close to the ground to encourage the production of many young shoots that will bloom later in the season. To maintain an informal structural framework, stagger your pruning cuts.

During the growing season, removing the spent flower heads will promote continuous flowering, especially in Shibori Japanese spirea and bumald spirea.

spanish moss

spanish moss spartanburg

Spanish moss hanging from a branch on the campus of Spartanburg Technical College in Spartanburg, SC (USDA cold hardiness zone 8A).


Crepe mrytle in Gainsesville, FL festooned with Spanish moss. Credit: T. Polomski.

In my travels throughout the South I’ve been fascinated by the Spanish moss that drapes the branches of many trees, notably live oaks and crepe myrtles. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) belongs to a large genus of about 550, mostly epiphytic,  species in the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae). Spanish moss (USDA zones 8-11) is native from the southern U.S. (southeast Virginia to Florida and west to Texas and Mexico).  This “air plant” lacks roots, relying almost entirely on atmospheric moisture and rainfall for sustenance. The limbs of its host tree (or telephone wire or clothesline) serve only to provide support.

The long, slender grayish-green stems and leaves of Spanish moss can reach 20 feet. They are covered are covered with dense trichomes that act like reservoirs to capture moisture and nutrients.

Three-petaled pale blue or chartreuse flowers are borne singly in the leaf axils in late spring and early summer and are pollinated by moths drawn to the musky fragrance. The small fruit capsules that result, split when ripe to release seeds that are outfitted with silky hairs.  Dispersal is mainly by wind. Reproduction also occurs  by vegetative offsets that are broken off and transported by wind or animals.

Historically, Spanish moss has been harvested and baled for use as livestock feed, garden mulch, mortar reinforcement, packing material, and mattress stuffing. It was also used  as stuffing in the seats of Henry Ford’s Model-T cars.

Visitors seeing live oak trees heavily draped with Spanish moss frequently ask if the plants are harming the tree. While Spanish moss is not a parasite in the way that mistletoe is, it can affect its host in a number of ways. First, there is the shear weight of the moss which can sometimes cause weak limbs to break. A subtler effect has been termed nutrient piracy. By intercepting wind and rain-borne dust before it can reach the ground, Spanish moss may capture nutrients that might otherwise go to feed the host plant. Such a cost is a minor one, however, and not a reason to worry about the Spanish moss that gives the Deep South so much of it’s character.



History of Pomaria Nursery Exhibit


Taking Root: The Summer Brothers and the History of Pomaria Nursery. Source:

Last week I saw an exhibit at the University of South Carolina McKissick Museum in Columbia, SC titled
The contributions by the Summer Brothers at Pomaria Nursery in Pomaria, SC predated
the land grant institution and seemed to even influence the creation of the land grant system
AND extension service. It runs until Sept 20, 2014, 2nd floor, North Gallery.








When courts threw tomatoes

When I want to get a room full of gardeners engaged in a lively debate, I bring up the topic of tomatoes. A question that transforms shy, reserved types into outspoken, opinionated verbal wranglers is this one: “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In The American Heritage Dictionary, fruit is defined as a “ripened, seed-bearing part of a plant, esp. when fleshy and edible.”

From a legal standpoint, the tomato is a vegetable. More than 100 years ago this question was litigated in the courts, according to Michael S. Heard in his paper titled “The Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? A Nonhorticulturist’s Perspective” (July/September 1996 issue of HortTechnology).

On Feb. 4, 1887, an importer named Nix brought a case against one Mr. Hedden, a collector of the port of New York. Nix, the plaintiff, wanted to recover the duties he paid on tomatoes that he imported from the West Indies the previous year.

Nix argued that tomatoes were fruit, thus exempt from a tariff. Hedden, the defendant, considered tomatoes vegetables and followed the regulations of the 1883 Tariff Act, which imposed a duty on vegetables, but not fruits.

The court had to decide if the tomato was a fruit or vegetable according to the 1883 Tariff Act.

Both parties used dictionaries to prove their cases. Nix’s counsel read the dictionary definitions of fruit and vegetable. He followed with a definition of tomato, proving that it was a fruit.

Hedden’s counsel countered with dictionary definitions of pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash and pepper.

Nix closed with dictionary definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The court ruled in favor of Hedden by declaring the tomato a vegetable. Nix appealed.

In 1893, the higher court defined the case of Nix v. Hedden as a “single question: whether tomatoes are to be classed as ‘vegetables’ or as ‘fruits,’ within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883.”

Justice Gray delivered the court’s opinion: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.

“But in the common language of the people, all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which, constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The higher court agreed that dictionaries call the tomato a fruit; however, the dictionary definitions were not admitted as evidence because “in the common language of the people (tomatoes) are vegetables.”

The ruling of the court: “Tomatoes are vegetables and not fruit within the meaning of the 1883 Tariff Act.”

When I was recently cornered by a group of truth-seeking gardeners during a lunch break at a symposium, I was asked if the tomato is a fruit or vegetable.

I calmly replied, “Yes,” and quickly ducked out in the direction of the sliced tomatoes, salsa and gazpacho.
(c) Bob Polomski

Hooked on chastetree


Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus). SC Botanic Garden, Clemson, SC. 06/28/2014. (C) Bob Polomski

Chastetree often draws attention to itself with aromatic, grayish-green leaves that look like marijuana. It garners even more interest when it blooms—now in June to September in the Southeast—with blue spikes of 3- to 18-inch long flowers. Pollinators find these flowers irresistible as well.

Chastetree was recognized by the Greeks for its medicinal properties (they believed the flowers curbed lustful desires). Since 1570 the British cultivated it in their gardens as an ornamental. Native to east and south Asia and the Phillipines, chastetree is quite at home in the Carolinas where it revels in our heat and humidity. It’s also drought-tolerant, easy-to-grow, and has no serious pest problems.

Chastetree can be cultivated as a multistemmed shrub by pruning it back to within 1 to 2 feet of the ground in late winter before new growth begins. You can also maintain it as a small deciduous tree that will reach a height of 10 to 15 ft. or more. For the best floral display, site it in full sun.

There are several cultivars to choose from that include ‘Blushing Spires’, a blush pink; ‘Rosea’, pink flowers; ‘Silver Spire’, white; ‘Shoal Creek’ produces spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 18 in. long; and ‘Montrose Purple’ has rich violet flowers. Try any one of them, and you’ll be hooked.

(c)2014 Bob Polomski

Panelist on Making It Grow!

On May 13 I had the good fortune of appearing on the Emmy Award-winning television program Making It Grow!MIG!_5_13_2014a live, interactive call-in program produced by ETV and Clemson University.  Clemson Extension Agent and Host of Making it Grow! Amanda McNulty is on the left, fellow Clemson Extension agent, Mark Arena is in the center, and I’m on the right. On this program Dr. John Nelson from The University of South Carolina Herbarium Skyped in with his weekly “Mystery Plant”. On the side counter we had Lavanya Sabin with Lavanya’s House. She spoke about her delicious  curry sauces with Jackie Moore from theSouth Carolina Department of Agriculture. (Ms. Sabin had several prepared dishes with her curry sauce and unfortunately located them about 8 ft. from my left elbow. The appearance and aroma of each of the dishes was intoxicating.) The featured segment was a trip with Dr. John Nelson and his botany class to the Broad River Canal in Columbia, SC.