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Trip to southern gardens, nurseries broadens horizons

Trip to southern gardens, nurseries broadens horizons

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 8:00 pm

A treatise here a few weeks ago on hydrangeas mentioned several of my favorites. Just following that, my hydrangea horizons were broadened with a bus tour south and east with other West Tennessee plant enthusiasts.
Jason Reeves, curator of the gardens at the University of Tennessee Research Center in Jackson, got up the trip for (mostly) Master Gardeners.
I am not a bona fide Master Gardener, but have spoken at enough of their meetings and seminars that I was able to slip in.
Hydrangeas were highlighted at the gardens — public and private — and nurseries we visited, but were no means the only attraction.
We started with a long bus ride from Jackson via Tupelo, Miss., where a couple of Elvis sightings were claimed, and on to the first stop, the Birmingham Botanic Garden.
We were free to roam the considerable acreage for hours, taking notes and gathering useful information. Then it was back in the bus and on to Atlanta and Athens, Ga., and environs.
The Atlanta Botanic Garden offered more excellent browsing on numerous hydrangeas, the early ones of which were in full glory, ranging from pink to blue to purple and everything in between.
The botanic garden has a number of attractions besides hydrangeas for the serious gardener, including a collection of dwarf conifers suitable for the South, and omitting those (the majority) that thrive only in cooler temperatures.
Among them was a Japanese black pine, Green Elf, some four feet across and three feet tall that caught my eye.
The needles were glossy dark green, with erect cylindrical “candles” six inches or so long. A most attractive plant indeed. Incidentally, there were two other specimens at the entrance to our (excellent) hotel in Athens. I pine for one, no pun intended.
The highlight of the trip, for me at least, was a visit to a research and plant breeding center headed by Michael Dirr, a world-class horticulturist and professor at the University of Georgia.
Dirr’s virtual textbook on shrubs and trees, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, is the bible of such works. I have three editions and keep one in my truck for reference at nurseries.
I found Dirr to be amiable and patient, as he led us through the acres of newly- developed plants, kindly deferential in answering questions that, I am sure, were academic to him.
We spent two hours or more viewing hundreds of hydrangeas in full bloom, and it was a spectacular sight. He explained that of every 100 new plants trialed up until maturity, more than 90 are thrown out for some minor imperfection. Only the cream of the crop go on the market.
Hydrangeas are all the rage now, particularly with the advent of the remontant kinds that will flower on new wood all summer long. Dirr was instrumental in their development after observing a Macrophylla type in full bloom in Minneapolis an unheard-of occurrence, some years ago. That plant led to the Endless Summer variety and, under his tutelage, numerous other rebloomers.
The center works with development of scores of other woody plants, including some sensational crape myrtles we observed with deep purple foliage that does not fade in summer heat, and re-blooming gardenias.
Not only was Dirr a patient and considerate host, but he was generous as well, giving all the tourists plants to take home, even three-gallon Japanese maples. Among my treasures from there is a small specimen of a yellow-leaved catalpa.
Then, to top it off, he invited us to his new home after dinner that evening for a tour of a work in progress, as we saw what a real plant aficionado can do with his own property. Other than a few obligatory Knockout roses, most of the plants there were varieties on the cutting edge.
We visited, also, one of the finest private gardens I have ever seen in this country, exceeding many British ones. The grounds were rife with more rare and unusual plants, including many Japanese maples and uncommon perennials.
Water features abounded, with a number of waterfalls and connecting rushing streams, all operated with pumps with none of the mechanism to be seen. It must take a resident hydraulic engineer to keep it all up.
Visits to nurseries offered opportunity for plant shopping, and by the time we started home we had to skip a stop at a Chattanooga nursery because the large cargo area of the bus was crammed full. The mark of real plant enthusiasts.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 6.12.12

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