rodney eason

There have only ever been two plants that I had my photo taken with during my years of being obsessed with plants. The first was a Stewartia pseudocamellia in the fall of 1994 at Longwood Gardens. This was by accident as I was taking a picture of a gorgeous tree with its exfoliating bark and red fall color when a bystander insisted that I get my photograph taken with the tree. This was in the days of film cameras so somewhere in a shoebox is a picture of me in front of that Stewartia.

Rodney with Gunnera 2

The second plant I have actually had my picture taken in front of twice. In 2008, I was on a trip to England when our group visited the fantastic gardens at Great Dixter. Near the back of the gardens, past the nursery and beside of the rill was a gigantic Gunnera. You know Gunnera, right? That big leaved plant that seems to thrive in most parts of the world except for the east coast of the United States. There it was, the same plant that I had seen in so many different magazines and books. It always seems that someone is always standing in front of the leaves for a size comparison in the pictures. The leaves had to be at least 5 feet across and the entire clump was about 8 feet tall and 12 feet across. I instinctively asked one of my travel companions to take my picture in front of the plant. That, I thought, would be my first and last live encounter with the plant.

Lo and behold, the following year I had the good fortune to travel to France and see many gardens in and around Paris. One garden we visited was off the beaten path in Normandy. I was not expecting a lot as it was a municipal site but once we got in, it blew me away. Around one corner, there was the largest Gunnera that I had ever seen in my life. This plant was easily 12 feet tall and 15 feet across. The leaves were enormous. Since none of my friends were nearby, I ran around until I found one and asked that they take my picture in front of the plant.

Gunnera

Both of these plants were Gunnera manicata, which is native to southern Brazil. Gunnera tinctoria is another notable species which is native to southern Chile. I would think that G. tinctoria would be hardier and might survive our winters a bit better than G. manicata. We were growing G. manicata in our USDA zone 6a gardens at Coastal Maine for a couple of years until a really cold winter finally did it in. We supposedly have a much hardier strain which we planted in the gardens this summer. I hope that the plant has had enough time to root in and become somewhat established before the onset of winter. I am also on the hunt for some superb forms of G. tinctoria to try. I just read that it has escaped cultivation in Ireland and New Zealand to the point of becoming a noxious weed in some areas. Once we do find seed or plants of Gunnera tinctoria, it will be grown in an area where we can keep a close eye on its behavior. Being able to find a Gunnera that will not only grow but thrive in our Maine climate has become somewhat of a quest for the Holy Grail. I have heard that a hardy form exists and we are on a lifelong search to prove that it exists.

Have you ever grown any of the Gunnera species? If so, which one and how did it perform for you?

-Rodney

Images: Rodney Eason, Plantilus

Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Patrick Dempsey, Jennifer Aniston, and Sandra Bullock. I started naming random actors whose names relay beauty and attraction. If you were to do the same exercise with plants, which might come to mind? Coneflowers, roses, hibiscus, hydrangeas, and magnolias. What about Helenium or sneezeweeds? Maybe not the first plant to come to mind. Heleniums are like the Jude Law of the garden world. Almost all of you recognize the name. Some of you know exactly who he is while others of you think, “hmm, skinny British actor, right? I recognize the name but I can’t quite recognize the face.”
Helenium is a wonderful perennial with bad PR. Well, I am here to change that. The name Helenium is in honor of Helen of Troy, who in Greek mythology was Zeus’ daughter and the most beautiful woman in the world. Here is where you see the bad PR kicking in. How did a plant commemorating the most beautiful woman in the world become “sneezeweed?” I say we give it the new common name of Helen of Troy’s flower or Daughter of Zeus. Either way, it is way better than sneezeweed and since common names are colloquial, we can name it whatever we want.
Helenium hybrida 'Helbro' Mardi Gras with rudbeckia Goldsturm- lerner garden august 2013-DS7_1048
Now that we have the branding business out of the way, let us move on to the plants at hand. Any plant that can flower on sturdy stems from 4-5 feet in height from mid to late summer until frost is definitely worthy of consideration in the garden. Of the 40 or so species of Helenium, H. autumnale is the most common and garden worthy. This eastern US native begins to emerge from the ground each spring and continues to grow until it reaches its ultimate height in mid-summer. The plants maintain a somewhat uniform height and habit which makes a wonderful impact as it flowers en masse. The flowers can make quite an impact as a large group with their shades of oranges, yellows, reds, and even multi-colored flowers. Here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, we grow the red and orange striped cultivar ‘Helbro’ or Mardi Gras, the orange flowered ‘Moerheim Beauty,’ and the red with some yellow ‘Red Jewel.’ They are just finishing their flowering now and we will begin cutting them back after our first frost. Speaking of frost and cold, they are hardy to USDA zone 3 or 4 depending on your soils and location. Helenium autumnale cultivars grow best in full sun with a rich and well-drained soil. They need adequate moisture as they emerge and start to flower. As for the common name of “sneezeweed,” this is an unfortunate moniker because the leaves were at one time made into a snuff and inhaled through the nose to force sneezing. This was believed to eliminate sicknesses. Now that we have modern medicine, it is time to drop the moniker of sneezeweed forever!
Helenium Moorheim Beauty 2
Did you know that Jude Law was nominated for two Academy Awards? Did you know that there are 12 cultivars of Helenium autumnale that have been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit? This winter, as you plan your garden changes for 2015, be sure to add Helen of Troy’s flower to your garden designs while you are watching a Jude Law, Netflix marathon.
-Rodney
Images: William Cullina

“I am not drinking (expletive) Merlot!” – Miles from the movie Sideways

This past weekend, a group of friends and I were running in a relay race across the Adirondack mountains. When you are not running, you are spending hours in a van following the next member of your team. With all of these hours, you go through so many different conversations, including relaying the storyline to the movie Sideways to one of our team members who had yet to see this classic movie about friends discovering themselves in wine country. I guess you could say that the irony in this situation was that we may have been discovering ourselves while running in this 200 mile relay by talking about men discovering themselves. But maybe not. My running club in not the first place I think of for self-help junkies and wine drinkers. They are more the suck it up and pass me a beer kind of friends, which I need.

Cercis Merlot tree

I came back to work today feeling aware and refreshed as if I had been at a spiritual retreat. I guess if you call riding in a van with a bunch of smelly guys and running over 23 miles at various periods oner 24 hours meditation, then so be it. As I was making my way through the gardens, I walked by one of my favorite trees, the Merlot redbud, Cercis x ‘Merlot.’ In a film noir moment, I immediately replayed the conversation from the weekend along with the mental clip of Miles stating in Sideways that he hoped his blind date would not drink merlot. You are probably now thinking that is a strange and ironic story or that I am a strange person and feeling the utmost sympathy for my wife because she has to put up with these kinds of streams of consciousness constantly. If you are thinking the latter, you are welcome to mail her a bottle of merlot in order to cope with my ramblings.

Cercis-Merlot

Ok, let’s put a fine point on this story. Whether you like merlot or not, add a Merlot redbud to give your garden a refined taste. Why, you might ask? Because it is one of the most fantastic, dark-leaved, small flowering trees in cultivation. Dr. Dennis Werner from North Carolina State University crossed a dark-leaved redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ with an ecotype from Texas and Mexico know as Cercis canadensis var. texensis. Dr. Werner selected one seedling from this lot because of its dark leaf color (from Forest Pansy) and thick glossy leaves (from its Texas cousin). The Merlot redbud matures at 12 to 15′ in height and width so it will make the perfect small tree for the residential landscape. As most redbuds, it has bright pink flowers on all parts of the stems before the leaves emerge. Redbuds are one of the few trees that even flower along the main trunk. After flowering, the deep burgundy, well, I guess you could say merlot colored leaves emerge. The foliage color is held throughout the summer until the leaves drop in the fall. The trees are reportedly hardy to USDA zone 6 but I have a sneaking suspicion that they may be a bit hardier than the literature states.

– Rodney

Images: NC State Department of Horticulture, Mail Order Trees

 

Setaria palmifolia

*sort of

When I say sort of, I am alluding to the fact that this plant that looks like a palm is not really a palm. It is a grass that looks like a palm thus the common and not so creative name of palm grass. Palm grass or as is known in the Latin circles as Setaria palmifolia is a fast-growing annual grass. We brought our plants in as quart pots in late May of this year from Landcraft Environments, a wholesale nursery that operates on Long Island. June tends to stay relatively cool on the Maine coast and palm grass slowly starts to grow and stretch. By the end of summer, as temperatures reach the low 80’s on a daily basis, Setaria palmifolia plants are now over 3 feet tall and wide. The dark green leaves are around 3-4 inches in width, with ridges running along the leaf blades which make them resemble a palm leaf.

Having this texture in the mixed border is a nice contrast, especially in an area where palm trees seem to grow in various shades of greenish-yellow during the summer while taking on a perma-brown cast during the winter months. There is a good reason why palm trees have evolved not to live in New England. They hate the weather! That said, I love New England and I love palms so this is a seasonal compromise after our experiment growing needle palms this past winter turned into a mushy disaster.

The leaves and texture of palm grass are coarse with the plant forming a slightly upright clump. The palm grass makes for a nice backdrop for finer textured plants such as kangaroo paws, salvias, and foxgloves. Here in New England, I would grow the plants in full sun, with adequate moisture and ample nutrition. We mulch our plants early in the season with compost and then give them an extra boost with organic liquid fertilizer as soon as the temperatures start to reach their summer highs.

Setaria-palmifolia

We are planning on digging up a couple of clumps this winter and storing them in our greenhouse for safe keeping for next summer. I am looking forward to seeing how large this clump will become next summer from an established plant. If you live in a warmer climate where palm trees grow extremely well outside, year-round (USDA zones 8 and above) I would caution you to consider sticking with your palms over the palm grass. Setaria as a genus has a tendency to be a weed grass in southeast Asia and India. There are reports of palm grass self seeding in warmer parts of the United States so I would advise against its use in these warmer climes. For us here in New England who do not have the luxury of growing palms outside, year round (maybe it is the 3 to 4 months of snow and cold that do them in as it does in most people), palm grass is a wonderful annual to provide that tropical texture in mixed plantings.

– Rodney

Images: Rodney Eason, Lifestyle Home

Pycnanthemum muticum en masse
Of all the plants that I would recommend most everyone include in their garden, mountain mint or Pycnanthemum muticum would be near the top of this list. I knew of mountain mint before moving to Maine but really had not paid it a lot of attention because someone had first described the plant to me as being weedy and too floppy for the well-kept garden. I now wish that I would not have taken that person at their word and tried mountain mint on my own.
In this age when more and more gardeners of all levels are looking for good native plants, here is an herbaceous perennial native to most of the eastern US states, including Texas. It can tolerate periodic drought, is relatively pest resistant (including deer!), and pollinators love the flowers. On top of all of the good qualities of Pycnanthemum, the leaves also have a wonderful smell like peppermint oil. The leaves contain the essential oil pulegone, which can act as an insect repellant. If you rub mountain mint on your skin, the pulegone oil from the leaves can help deter mosquitoes.
Pycnanthemum muticum with insects
Mountain mint has attractive, pointed leaves and while the pink flowers may be extremely small, their silvery bracts are beautiful when the plants are massed. We can plant our mountain mint in the full sun here in Maine but as you move southward, you probably want to give the plants more shade. Pycnanthemum can survive many different soil types but will do best in soils that stay moderately moist. If your soils are rich, loose, and moist yet well-drained (i.e. perfect gardening soil), you definitely want to give Pycnanthemum muticum some room to run. The plant will spread, once established, via stolons that emanate from the main clump. Mountain mint grows best in USDA hardiness zones 4-8 and again, I would recommend that you provide a bit more shade and moisture, the higher the number of your hardiness zone.
As you begin to edit your garden this fall and think about changes for 2015, be sure to consider adding mountain mint as it is a wonderful native with a beautiful appearance and is great at attracting pollinators including our native butterflies.
- Rodney

This weekend I was mowing the grass when our 21 year-old Honda pushmower finally gave up the ghost. We had limped it along for several years until the most recent service visit when the mechanic finally said that it needed a new carburetor and the cost to fix it and everything else on the mower was probably more than a new mower. I would rather use $300.00 to purchase more plants than another mower so I pushed the dead mower into our barn and called it a day. I logged into Facebook later that evening and saw where a friend was selling their 2 year old push mower for $100.00. Boom. I sent an instant message and the mower was ours. Simultaneously between the time our old mower died and the new mower was bought via Facebook, our daughters had decided to check out what daddy was doing in the back yard and ventured out to explore. Right around the time I was purchasing the new mower, one of our daughters said to my wife, “mommy, did you know we had an apple tree in our backyard?” We have lived in our home for 2 years and for some reason have neglected to notice the apple tree growing right on the edge of our property. It is funny how sometimes you miss things for years only to catch a glimpse of them as something new.

Podophyllym pleianthum

This type of event also happened to me at work last week. As I was walking through the gardens, I noticed a large, glossy leaved plant with big, yellow-green fruit hanging from underneath the leaves. There were probably 20-30 of these egg-shaped fruits hanging under the leaves in clusters. It really was a cool sight to see. As I got closer, I realized this was the Chinese mayapple or Podophyllum pleianthum. The Chinese mayapple is similar to our native mayapple, Podophyllym peltatum, with the exception of some noticeable differences. For one, the Chinese mayapple does not go dormant in the summer. Another is the size. The height and spread of the Chinese plant can be up to twice the size of our native mayapple. Also, the leaves are dark green and shiny on the Chinese species versus the matte green appearance of our native P. peltatum. I love our native mayapple and think that incorporating the Asian species into the garden is a nice contrast.

Podophyllum pleianthum flowers

For us here along the Maine coast, having the big, almost tropical like appearance of the Podophyllum pleianthum is a striking addition to our dry-shade garden areas. From what I am learning about the plants, they resent being in areas that stay wet or being in too much sunlight. Once you plant them in dry shade, be sure to water frequently until established. During periods of dry weather, I would be sure to give them a supplemental drink or two of water. They will continue to look great in the gardens until our first hard frost which typically comes in late October. That turns out to be around 6 months of interesting foliage in the gardens. If you are adventuresome, be sure to have your guests crawl on the ground in late spring to see the attractive, deep red flowers. Unfortunately, the flowers are usually hanging under the big foliage so they are hard to see. As mentioned above, then in the fall, they produce attractive yellow-green fruit over an inch long and half as wide.

Rodney

Images: Linda Cochran’s Garden, UBC Botanic Garden

Sporobolus High Line

Walking through New York city brings to mind a unique combination of good and bad smells. Cooking onions and sausages from street food vendors, fresh roasted coffee from the one of a kind coffee shop, and of course, urine from the subway and parks. Maybe it was the sense of smell that set the High Line apart from all of the other experiences I had while in New York. The first time I walked up the stairs to the High Line was probably in the early fall of 2009. The garden plantings were still fairly new but the experience was memorable. Up above the city was a place away from traffic and the smells of the city. I noticed at this time, a most unusual smell. After meeting with the staff of the High Line, I asked them where that unusual smell was coming from. It was an earthy smell, kind of like popcorn without butter or even coriander. I like toasted, earthy smells and this smell was one of them. The gardening crew from the High Line told me that was the flowers of a native grass called prairie dropseed or Sporobolus heterolepis. At the time, I was working at Longwood Gardens and we later added some plants to a dry, parking lot planter. Over the next couple of years, they filled in and on cue each fall they provided that nostalgic smell of the High Line.

Sporobolus flower

To even go farther down nostalgia lane, I think my affinity for these smells is due to the fact that my grandpa always wore English Leather aftershave. That woodsy, clean scent always made me feel comfortable as my grandfather and I used to go off exploring in the North Carolina mountains around Boone, where he lived. In our gardens at Coastal Maine, we have a couple of mass plantings of prairie dropseed and have even added a few more this past spring. Sporobolus heterolepis is an easy to grow, perennial grass native to most of the eastern and middle states of the US. Once established, the plants can survive drought and reach 3 feet in height and width. In late summer, airy, white inflorescences emerge above the dark green wiry foliage. Once in flower, the wonderful scent of the High Line and my grandpa’s English Leather starts to waft through the garden. After flowering, the plants set seeds which are a good food source for seed eating birds.

As a post script, when I think of this plant, I not only think of the High Line and my grandpa, but the ever-present, High Line horticulturist with the hipster haircut and Wayfarer glasses, Johnny Linville. I met Johnny during my first visit and we corresponded occasionally about various gardening matters. During our last trip to New York in May of this year, a group of us were fortunate enough to spend time with Johnny and Thomas Smarr, walking the entire length of the High Line. Johnny passed away suddenly in August at a very young age. Johnny, you are missed.

-Rodney

Images: The High Line, Rodney Eason