Adrian Higgins: Thinking Outside the Plot With Novel Plants

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 1, 2009

If you garden in one place long enough, you eventually run out of room to plant new goodies. This is a problem when you visit a nursery of rare and choice plants. Your eyes are bigger than your real estate.

I now have three superb shrubs in pots, a witch hazel, an edgeworthia and a magnolia, and I'm not sure where I will put them. This quandary runs counter to all my sanctimonious advice over the years, but that's what I get for traveling to Fairweather Gardens, a boutique nursery in Greenwich, a coastal town in South Jersey.

"Gardeners live for novelty," said Robert Popham, who opened the enterprise with Robert Hoffman in 1992. Since then, business has flourished as the mail-order nursery's reputation for unusual plants has spread.

My new magnolia is the Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii), which has been around for decades but deserves a lot more attention and use. It is a large deciduous shrub that needs a bit of shade and will eventually grow to about 15 feet tall and wide. The flowers appear in June and are sublime: snow-white petals surrounding a showy center of rose-red stamens. The blooms hang down and are sweetly fragrant. This shrub would make a perfect alternative to the overused big rhododendrons and, being deciduous, would spare you the spectacle of wilting leaves in freezing weather.

The witch hazel is a variety named Angelly, which I saw in flower in early March and decided I would have to get one. A recent introduction from the Netherlands, it remains more upright than other hybrid witch hazels and hence is easier to place. It has lots of enormous lime-yellow blossoms and would look great against a backdrop of evergreens. I may have to widen my screen border to accommodate it. It carries a light fragrance.

The edgeworthia is another plant deserving much more use. It is a deciduous relative of the daphne, coarse-twigged after the blue-green leaves drop. It bears through the winter conspicuous flowerbuds that come March open as clusters of tiny yellow tubes wrapped in silver hairs. I picked up a variety named Akebono, whose flowers are red instead of yellow and strongly perfumed. After a few years, it will reach about five feet tall and as much across. As with the witch hazel, it would look good placed in front of an evergreen backdrop. I can't imagine where I will plant it.

I think, though, that instead of being chastised for buying plants with no place to put them, I should be commended for the painful restraint of not acquiring all the other plants that took my eye during my recent visit to the nursery.

I'm not single-mindedly fanatic about conifers, as some are, but the conifers at Fairweather Gardens were sorely tempting. They had a new Japanese red pine variety named Golden Ghost, with variegated needles that looked stunning: a light golden that ages through the season to a near silver. Hoffman suspects it would need to be placed away from direct afternoon sunlight to prevent needle scorching.

The baldcypress becomes a big, spreading tree after many years. I was struck by an upright form named Peve Minaret, whose needles are plumelike. It would be a terrific conifer for a wet site. It grows slowly, less than a foot a year.

Ogon, a golden-needle form of the dawn redwood, needs sunlight to brighten the foliage and would serve perfectly as a large specimen tree in the landscape. Both the redwood and the baldcypress drop their needles in the fall, but not before they turn a lovely orange-brown.

The redbud variety Hearts of Gold is an exquisitely showy ornamental tree. The young leaves are tinged red but then stay a cheery yellow through the season, with the leaves at the branch tips brightened the most by sunlight. Forest Pansy is a handsome but commonplace purple-leafed version of the redbud, and if I were planting a redbud today, it would be Hearts of Gold.

There is a lovely evergreen bush native to the Gulf Coast but hardy in Washington and areas to the north. Southern gardeners know it as the anise tree, though it is a shrub with pleasing coarse leaves and novel flowers in spring, like starbursts. The species Illicium floridanum has maroon flowers. The variety Alba has white blossoms. It needs moist but well-drained soil and benefits from a little shade, as much perhaps as an azalea or rhododendron. In time, it will grow to about six feet tall and four feet across.

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