Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2005
Regional Report

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'Tiger Eyes' sumac, a new variety of the native staghorn sumac, adds brightness to the garden with its golden to chartreuse foliage.

Tantalizing Native Trees and Shrubs

Breathes there a gardener whose pulse doesn't quicken at least a little at the mention of the new, the rare, the unusual? Add the word "native" and, for me at least, it's a real pulse pumper. So I was in gardening heaven several weeks ago, when I attended the 9th Biennial Southern Plant Conference, sponsored by the Southern Nursery Association.

The meeting is an intense review of new and superior cultivars, as well as new applications for old varieties. Many of the plants singled out in the lectures were natives, which means that there will be more diversity of native plant material available in the coming years. Many natives are already staples of the landscape, plus there are others that need to be utilized more. With the increasing awareness of using native plant material, universities and nurserymen are either looking for natural variations or breeding for certain characteristics, such as variegation or other leaf colors; weeping, columnar, or compact form; seedlessness; improved flowering or flower colors; and pest resistance. Annuals, perennials, grasses, vines, shrubs, and trees are all under scrutiny.

Although "new" isn't necessarily better, many of the plants discussed have attributes that are significant enough to make them worth considering. The only downside is that local nurseries are often slow to carry these plants. Learn to ask for plants by name, and if they're not available, ask if these plants can be ordered. Another option is to find mail-order sources. Web searches often turn up suppliers. The plants may be small when ordered through the mail, but there is a certain pleasure in nurturing these special treasures.

I can't even begin to cover the range of plants discussed at this meeting, which for trees and shrubs alone included viburnums, sweet shrub, silverbell, buttonbush, witch hazel, tulip poplar, evergreen and deciduous hollies, sweet spire, summersweet, black gum, sweet gum, buckeye/horse chestnut, river birch, sumac, and bald cypress. The following, however, particularly stood out.

Redbuds are hot! That seemed to be the consensus at the meeting as they were mentioned more often than any other genus. 'Lavender Twist' is currently the most widely available weeping form, but better ones are on the way, including 'Cascading Hearts' and 'Traveler'. 'Appalachia Red' has ruby-red flowers covering the branches in spring, while 'Pauline Lily' is a light blush pink, and 'Tennessee Pink' is a hot pink.

Research is on to develop other variations of the species' magenta color that will be easier to use in the landscape, including more white forms. 'Silver Cloud' is the best variegated form so far. 'Hearts of Gold' has yellow to chartreuse foliage. 'Ace of Hearts' and 'Little Woody' both have compact growth, and 'Don Egolf' doesn't produce any seed.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a staple of the spring garden, but many trees are susceptible to anthracnose. In a search for a resistant cultivar, 'Appalachian Spring' is the clear winner so far. Although no other native dogwood is as showy, it's worthwhile to consider the pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia), with its layered branching and small but numerous white flowers.

Who doesn't love the brilliant colors of maples in the fall? The U. S. National Arboretum and the USDA have been working on developing maples with consistent fall color, pest resistance, and no seeds. Their best so far are 'Brandywine', 'New World', and 'Red Rocket'.

Hydrangeas in all their many species are among the most popular of shrubs right now. No matter what any ad copy may say, though, the fanciest ones do not bloom for me -- or at least none that I've tried so far in my Zone 5-6a climate. The good news is that I've always loved the native hydrangeas (H. arborescens and H. quercifolia). Both of these species are seeing a renaissance of new varieties that will continue to keep me content. 'Annabelle' is a H. arborescens variety that has been around for years. Now there is 'White Dome' with lacecap flowers and 'Hayes Starburst' with double, star-like flowers.

As for the oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia), 'Pee Wee' and 'Sikes Dwarf' are both small forms that easily fit into the landscape, while 'Little Honey' brightens it up with golden yellow to chartreuse foliage.

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