Sunday, September 30, 2012

Damn good plants - Abelia chinensis

I cannot deny that I have a fondness for Abelia's.  You might of noticed it with one of my first post about Abelia 'Kaleidoscope', its a shrub that once it starts, it just keeps on giving.  There are about 40 species with the Abelia family and though not popular by itself, the Chinese Abelia, Abelia chinensis, is one of the parents of today's commercially successful glossy Abelia, Abelia x grandiflora. (A.chinesis x A. uniflora)

Even Abel's portrait
oozes arrogance
Abelia's received their name to honor Dr. Clarke Abel (1780 - 1826) who collected seeds and plants of the Chinese Abelia around 1817.  He was the Chief Medical Officer and Naturist to Lord Amherst and member of a party sent to China to improve diplomatic relations with the court of the Emperor.  At the time, the British were only allowed to collect plants on the Portuguese controlled island of Macao as tensions over perceived arrogance from the British towards China had grown.  However, when Lord Amherst learned that he had to bow before the Emperor, he refused, leading to him and his group being sent packing.  Not sure where the Chinese ever thought the Brit's were arrogant?  It was only until 1842, with the Treaty of Nanking, that the British were allowed to enter the country again.

During their short stay, Dr. Abel had managed to collect samples of the yet unnamed Abelia, in Ta-Koo-Tang, south west of Shanghai. Fortunately for Abel, a small sampling of the material was left with a colleague in Canton, which proved fortunate as trouble was ahead.  It started when the ship he was traveling on, run a ground on uncharted reefs off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. In an effort to stay afloat, a seaman jettisoned the cargo, which included his collection.  The day after, they returned to the site of the wreck on a smaller boat in an effort to salvage the plants, but were attacked by pirates who were looting the site and suffered capture.  Dr. Abel did finally make it back to England and eventually, the small collection that Abel had left in Canton, was returned in safely in 1844 also (18 years after Abel's death). Abel published his adventures in a book called; Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of Chinain 1818.  Though not plant related, he also mentioned recording the first Sumatran Orangutan, also named in his honor, as well as having an audience with Napoleon Bonaparte whilst in exile on St. Helena. Call me a geek, but I love reading how historic events crisscrosses with one another.

Now back to the plant in question.  Chinese Abelia can be a large growing, deciduous shrub, reaching 5-8ft with long flailing pendulous branches.  Pruning can be carried out in early spring if you need to control the height, by cutting back as severely as a Forsythia and at about the same time you would prune a Forsythia too.  The straight species is seen rarely in gardens and is scarcely available in the trade.  Reports from the J.C.Raulston Arboretum describes this shrub as attracting more Butterflies than any other plant in the garden.  It's without question a flowering machine, beginning in mid-summer, and continuing all the way until the first frost.  The arching stems produce large trusses of white, nectar rich, fragrant flowers, set against soft pink bracts creates a marvelous two tone effect.

Abelia 'Rose Creek' with Solidago 'Fireworks'
The Guru of all things woody, Dr. Michael Dirr, was responsible in producing two very exciting forms worthy of any garden.  Although, the flowers were open pollinated and some questions remain over its lineage, I feel that they both fit the mold of a Chinese Abelia.  'Rose Creek' is by far the best, non variegated form.  Low, but uprightly mounding, this 3x3 ft shrub has a lot of charisma!  Its seems to be more floriferous in the early part of the season, but the Rosy pink calyx's persist well into fall.   'Canyon Creek' is the larger brother, growing well into 4-6ft in height.  New leaves emerge coppery-orange turning into a soft yellow as the foliage matures.  Warm reds highlight the leaves prior to leaf drop in fall, but further south, it will remain evergreen.  The flowers have a soft pink glow, and just like Rose Creek, show off the Rosy-pink calyx's for just as long.

Proven Winners, also have released there own form, 'Ruby Anniversary', a new colored form.  The dark glossy foliage has a ruby red hue as both new growth and fall color are produced.  Last year was the first time I brought this in to the garden center and was blown away by its performance and the speed it sold out, both at the growers and in the store .  

Photo credit - Proven Winners, Abelia 'Ruby Anniversary'
Like all Abelia's, the Chinese Abelia is heat and humidity tolerant, pest free and deer resistant.  Once established their watering needs are minimal and can be left to put on a show with little or no interference. Modest, yet free from arrogance, unlike the person connected to its history, this Abelia will certainly be a pleasure in any garden.  The best part, you don't have to travel to China, its already here!

Abelia 'Canyons Creek'

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Growing blunders

Accidents happen, that's why its called an accident.  However, every now and then you hear stories of accidents that occur in the garden that leave you dumbfounded.  A simple mistake maybe, that leads into a big whoops.  Here are just a few that I've came across.

1. A guy came in one day, looking to buy the biggest white pines that he could.  He wanted to surprise his wife who was away visiting her family, with a garden makeover.  What a nice guy!  However, he didn't realize that existing hedge of white pines that he just cut down, was hiding the neighbors hot tub and collection of old washing machines left outside.  There are some benefits to living in neighborhood with an Home Owners Association, otherwise plant a dense hedge and don't cut it down! Needless to say, I don't think the husband will be doing anymore surprise landscaping again.

There's just some things you don't need to see
2. As unbelievable as this story might be, here's another semi-frequent problem we come across.  A tree service is employed to remove an overgrown tree from a town house garden.  The crew shows up, accesses the garden from the back gate and safely removes the tree while the homeowners are out.  In the evening, the unsuspecting homeowners return and realize that their tree has mysteriously vanished.  Stolen, abducted or just sprouted legs and walked away?  This is where it becomes apparent that the tree crew had entered the wrong back yard and removed a perfectly good tree, and in the story I heard, a prized 20-year-old apple tree.  Food for thought, put house numbers on your back gate to avoid accidents like this happening to you! ( Or, hire a company that know their trees ).

Not as easy to return and go

3. My last story of woe comes from a good friend who came in with an unusual mass plant death problem.    Though the problem may never be completely solved, the smoking gun might have been a mix up of weed-killing products with repellents, or chemical residue left in a tank sprayer.  The good intention of spraying deer repellent might of got mixed or contaminated with a weedkiller, leading to this horticultural catastrophe.  Alas, this is too common of a problem!  I've had customers call after spraying their yards with round-up thinking it was a selective weedkiller for lawns, only to find that there grass had died.  One guy sprayed his entire 40,000 square foot lawn, resulting in brown crispy lawn in as little as 5 days!  A painful lesson but one that we soon learn from. Click here to read more; Man-destroys-40-000-square-foot-lawn-mistakenly-buying-weed-AND-grass-killer.html

Hard to tell the difference when side by side!

I have to admit that I fell foul in my early days as a gardener, after being handed a plain bottle of brown liquid.  I was instructed to spray a lawn and mix this funky smelling liquid to a 1:20 ratio.  Having not been trained, I proceeded to mix it, 1 part water to 20 parts goop.  Needless to say, we had the irrigation going for a full 2 days trying to leach out the unknown toxic cocktail before plants began to die, and in this case, we won.  Just as well, because right in the middle of the lawn was a ceremonial tree that the late Queen Mother had planted herself.  I still don't know if killing the tree would of lead to treason charges being pressed, but I got very lucky.

Gardening is an ongoing experiment where we learn from our mistakes.  No gardening book will tell you to watch out for these simple and common blunders, so I hope what I have shared may help prevent you from become a victim of whoopsies.  Still, every now and then we're going to get hit by the idiot stick for which we have to eat a little crow and move on!

Monday, September 17, 2012

The hunt for the Holy grail of Trees - Davidia involucrata

Warning! I'm afraid this is a long one, but I promise if you stick with it, you'll enjoy this as much I did writing it.

'How many garden lovers ever pause to think of the means whereby their gardens became endowed with multifarious variety from distant lands and climes; of all the time and money expended in the quest, and of the toll paid in human energy and life?  Could the denizens of our gardens give speech their story would be more engrossing and more romantic than that told or conceived by authors of the "best sellers".  All who love a tree give heed for a little while and learn how gardens came into possession of one of the most beautiful and most remarkable of all trees.'  Ernest Wilson, Aristocrats of the Garden, 1926.

Davidia flower - - Dandelion And Burdock 

What better way to start this post than quoting the words of the explorer who was charged with the mission of collecting and introducing into cultivation, the seeds of Davidia involucrata, the dove tree.  Anyone who has seen this tree in flower will no doubt agree with the sentiments expressed.  This post is a departure from the standard description of the plant in question, often written in books or websites, but rather the story of it's becoming and the people associated with it.

Ernest Wilson was one of the great plant explorers in what is referred to as the golden age of plant hunting (mid 1800 to early 1900).  His name is often associated with other botanical heavy-weights like Menzies, Hooker, Fortune, Farrer and Douglas to name but a few, as well as with the botanical names of plants.  These collectors often risked their lives collecting plants in remote countries for very little financial reward.  I came to learn about Wilson from my time at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England where he once worked before being recruited by James Veitch & Sons, the largest family-run plant nurseries in Europe.  In 1899, Wilson signed a three-year commitment to head an expedition to China. The Veitch family was clear in its orders, "stick to the one thing you are after and don't spend time or money wondering around!"

The first leg of his journey started in Boston, where he visited the Arnold Arboretum for the first time to study techniques for shipping seeds and plants successfully, needing this information to keep them alive for the long sea voyage back to Veitch Nurseries in England. Charles Sargent, the 'Keeper' of the Arboretum, recommended Wilson track down Dr. Augustine Henry, another prolific collector of that time, who had seen the elusive Dove tree in the wild, and could furnish him with the location.  The only other person who knew where this tree was, was honored in the name of the tree, and had died in 1900, father Armand David.

Dr Augustine Henry
After sailing from San Francisco for Hong Kong, the next year was spent in pursuit of Dr. Henry. I found it strange to read about his long trek through northern Vietnam (French Tonkin) and back into Yunnan, China to reach the capitol city of Szemao near the border of Myanmar, just to meet someone.  We take the ease of communication for granted, because in today's world we can give and receive information at the blink of an eye.  Back then it was a major ordeal.  Wilson had to overcome a lack of English speaking porters, Bubonic Plague outbreaks and being held up for weeks in frontier towns because civil unrest made it too dangerous to travel.  He was even suspected of spying for the British Army due to his prolonged inability to travel through Vietnam.

When he did manage to travel up the Red River the reports of civil unrest were evident.  Official buildings were burnt to the ground, people murdered and the decapitated heads of the ringleaders were hung in wooden cages from trees.  There was great resentment and suspicion towards foreigners due to the French occupation of Vietnam at that time.  The Commissioner of Customs in Mengtsze, an American, helped assist Wilson in arranging a mule train to trek the final leg of the journey, a seventeen day trip on a road frequented by bandits.

Wilson did manage to overcome all the obstacles he faced and made contact with Dr. Henry.  He obtained the information on the supposed location of the Dove tree, but there was a problem.  Henry had completed that expedition 12 years prior, the map was hand sketched and only one tree had been found during that six month expedition.  Oh, did I mention it was in an area the size of New York State.  The proverbial 'needle in a hay stack'.

The return trip to Hong Kong completed his first year of the expedition.  He was able to send a sizable collection of plants and seeds he had gathered on his travels, to and from Yunnan, back to the Veitch Nursery in England.  His next destination was Ichang, on the banks of the Yangtze, where he would be based for the next two years.  He purchased a boat and provisions and wasted no time in setting out for his goal of finding the Dove tree.  This part of the journey, unfortunately proves to be as dangerous as the first leg.  Rapids had run his boat up on rocks at least twice leading to repairs, while traveling through sparsely populated highlands could of been disastrous should the boat sink or if he fallen ill.

From the Arnold Arboretum Archives
Patung river valley
When he reached Patung, the head official begged Wilson to turn back and abandon his expedition, a situation that would of put off anyone searching for what could be a lone tree in a vast area.but to no effect.  Rioting a couple of years back in the region between anti-Christan and Christian villagers had left hundreds dead and many villages burned to the ground. A roman Catholic priest had even been brutally murdered and mutilated during the violence. Now, two years later, bitterness and hate still resonated around the region.

Finally, Wilson reached the hamlet of Ma-huang-po and the house where Dr. Henry stayed when he found the Dove tree.  The people of the property remembered the visit and furthermore, remembered the tree.  With high spirits, the villagers lead the party on a two-hour hike to a rather new looking house.  Near by, was to their dismay the stump of Henry's Dove tree!  Cut down just a year before to construct the beams and posts of the house.

Close to being defeated, Wilson returned to Ichang to regroup, this time with a plan to head to the original location, a thousand miles west to where Father Armand David first discovered the Dove tree in 1869.  This time lady luck was on Wilson's side, as five days into the trip his party found the elusive Dove tree.  Further scouting uncovered ten more trees in a one hundred mile radius and all eleven were then watched carefully until they fruited.  Seeds were instantly dispatched to England until 1902 when Wilson returned to England and the Veitch Nursery.  To Wilson's dismay, none of the seeds had germinated and grave fears loomed about the failure of the expedition.   However, this panic didn't last long, the first seedling poked its head up out of the soil and by the time the last one emerged, Veitch Nurseries was sitting on a crop of thirteen thousand trees, nearly a 100% success rate.

After all that hard work, Wilson realized he wasn't the first to introduce the Davidii tree into cultivation.  In 1897, a Roman Catholic Missionary in China had sent seeds to Monsieur Maurice de Vilmorin in France, and in 1898 one seedling was raised.  From that, 3 others were propagated from cuttings and one each sent to Kew Gardens and the Arnold Arboretum, both places Wilson had been connected too.  If knowing that fact, would Wilson have been so ambitious to travel through areas that proved deadly for foreigners?  I guess we'll never know.

The story of the Dove tree had captivated me, so when I discovered stock of this tree being sold through Monrovia's nursery in Oregon, I jumped at the chance to bring it in.  My discovery is no where near the magnitude of Wilson's epic conquest, but seeing it arrive completed a dream to have one for my garden.  Somehow, the final price of $49.99 doesn't seem like an amount worthy of putting on such a great tree, but who am I to say?!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Green fingers, Sticky fingers

Nothing is safe anymore and this has become evident in our own gardens. A troubling trend is beginning to grow on our shores, one that is all too familiar for me from my homelands. Plant theft is very real crime but sadly not taken seriously by the bodies of Justice. Plants aren't cheap and many thieves will seize an opportunity to dig up a prized tree, shrub or other plant to decorate their own gardens. However, the police aren't as interested in missing garden items as they are in headlining crimes on drugs or homicide. I haven't yet seen an episode of 'C.S.I.' where the outline of a missing tree was painted on the lawn, while forensics was dusting the wheel barrow for prints.

Home security has become so good that thieves are resorting to raiding the garden, looking for anything that might generate a few dollars.  Patio furniture, statues, yard machinery and even plants have become fair game for the opportunist crook.  Lets face it, we consider our home to contain more treasures than our own back yards, but tally up what you have spent for the garden and you'll realise just how much of a honey pot you've left unsecured.  Lawn mowers can run in excess of $400 and patio furniture into the $1000's, most of which isn't insured or protected. Still finding this hard to believe, click on one of these to read more;, 'There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before', Sherlock Holmes - A study in Scarlet.

It's sad someone stole the Basil, it's sadder that someone actual took its photo before it disappeared!
Just this week a couple came in with a claim of a stolen tree.  They were going to close on a house the next day and had completed a walk through on their soon to be new property.  On approaching the house they noticed something different but couldn't put their figure on it.  Later, looking over photos they noticed that the corner of the house was missing a 10ft Southern Magnolia, that was replaced by a hastily put together, planting of small shrubs and fall mums!  The visit to the garden center was to arm themselves with figures of obtaining a replacement at closing or the deal was off.  "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact", Sherlock Holmes - The Bascombe Valley Mystery.

I had heard stories of garden crimes while working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England.  The culprit there was often the inconspicuous old lady with a large handbag and sharpened thumb nail.  Walking around nipping off bits of botanical treasures with that sharpened claw before stashing it into the handbag for propagation later.  The image of a little old lady being criminal mastermind is quite unnerving.  Ironically, I now order plants for the garden center from the man who was discovered doing the same, while interning at Kew Gardens some 20+ years ago.  He was found up a tree sourcing propagation material along with a shopping list in hand to supply a speciality grower.  Gardeners can be a fanatical bunch of obsessive collectors!

One of England's county governments went as far to micro-chip plants as so many where disappearing under the cover of darkness.  The chips weren't to help them locate the stolen plant but to prove that they actual belonged to them, should the police ever uncover the stash of botanical booty.  It all seems very high tech for a few plants, but the micro-chips only cost a few pennies and proved beyond doubt that property was stolen. 'Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth', Sherlock Holmes - The Sign of Four.

Does this mean that gardening will slip into the dark underworld of black market trading? Or do we have to arm ourselves against marauding hoards?  Harry Cook, from Leicestershire, England has done just that when discovering thefts trying to rip off his prize winning Petunia's.  The 67 year old, armed himself with nothing but a garden trowel and chased off the floral thefts.  I have my doubts over the rest of story, with the wife claiming she was out of town.  Why would you run from an old man wielding a trowel, unless his wife was packing heat with an Uzi 9mm, like the gardening version of the Terminator!  Sadly, Sherlock didn't have a quote for that.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Retail Therapy

This past August was a 'Blue Moon' month when two full moons occur in the same month, for which, a lot of weirder than normal, going on's around the garden center.  It could also be the fact that our summer temperatures have broken and people are coming back out from their air conditioned isolation, so the social integration is proving harder on some.

Full Moon-itus
Of course with the flood of re-awakened home owners and gardeners comes the return of many dead plants, every one as crispy as the last.  According to the victims of plant loss, "I watered it and it just died", is the common excuse, but like I've written before the next thing to come out of their mouths is, "its your fault and I want to know what you're going to do about it"?  Of course we buckle and give the customer what they want as the motto in retail is to keep the customer happy (customers are always right!)  Apparently, someone leaked this information and now the customers know this too. Let's face it, plants mainly die because of watering, normally a lack of watering. It's not because we sold a dead plant in the first place.  I occasionally see the after effects of a plant that I remember selling and wonder how they bridge leaving here with a healthy plant, to us being responsible for it now being dead is ever made.

I have learned to spot the grumpy customer as they walk through the door.  The tone of voice, the defensive stance and deep breathing before the conversation is a dead give away to how the rest of the discussion will go.  Some will come in with their partners, playing the good cop/bad cop routine or in some cases fight amongst themselves like a pack of angry dogs trying to assert dominance.  Sometimes a domestic dispute will erupt, leaving us in an awkward position of playing devils advocate or in most cases,  just to run for cover.  Often the return of the  plant is premeditated and well rehearsed in the car, leaving us little room to have a discussion.  All we can do is smile nicely and write the credit even though there's an overwhelming desire to scream, "You plant murderer!"

Maybe its time we look into a different retail model, one where the ownership is placed on the consumer and not the retailer.  A retailer who accepts returns needing to absorb the loss by charging a higher mark up.  Just as an example, if a retailer doesn't offer a warranty, but instead prices the plants lower, knowing that they don't have to absorb that loss, would that make a difference to the consumer?  Let's face it, warranties were only created to keep up with box stores that even guaranteed the health of their Annuals for a year!  Annuals by nature, are supposed to die in under a year away.

In an ideal world, it would be great to be just like the soup Nazi from Seinfeld, determining who can and cannot buy plants with a saying, 'No plants for you!'.  Instead we massage every customer, agreeing with them that it was our fault their plant died just so they can come back and do it again.  Isn't that the definition of insanity?!