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November 2016 Newsletter

Table of Contents

Adam’s notes from the garden
Collecting in Florida’s Sandhills

Social Media
Volunteer appreciation
Plant of the month


Adam’s notes from the garden

A soon-to-be-described species of Mexican Mahonia is among the first to flower this month.
The seasonal yellows of Lindera chienii filter the sun’s rays above Sabal tamaulipana.

After the initial cool weather in October, it was quite warm until our recent first light frost. The only indication of brief freezing temperatures are the dead tips of a few tender plants in active growth such as Hamelia patens. Though we are weeks away from some of the showier deciduous trees to develop fall color, we should be seeing more in our natives. (Meanwhile, there is a beautiful fiery red clump of foliage growing near the nursery belonging to…poison ivy!)
One tree near the nursery I had assumed to be the native tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) did produce a reasonable display of flaming orange. The foliage began dropping rather fast, but in the process revealed an abundance of attractive dark purple fruit that made me question my initial identification. With fruits held singly, occasionally double on long peduncles, it did not resemble any of our native species.I asked Wade Roitsch of Yucca Do Nursery, and he recalled some seeds of an Asian Nyssa species they received long ago and planted around their former nursery site at Peckerwood. I’m now guessing the tree is N. sinensis, and our seed, which appears viable, must be hybridized with the N. sylvatica John Fairey has planted near the creek since Nyssa are dioecious.

The gold-fruited form of Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria ‘Saratoga Gold’, attempts to mimic the autumn foliage of our Mexican hickory (Carya sp.) in the background.

Signs of winter include ripening fruits on various holly species. One that always begs for attention whether in fruit or not is Ilex x ‘Cherry Bomb’. The willowy, semi-succulent leaves lacking teeth and a dense, rounded form make it a standout as a free-standing specimen. Vastly underutilized and not available as often as it should be, this hybrid was created at the National Arboretum and originally circulated under the catchy name “NA28255,” but for some reason, Dr. David Creech at Stephen F. Austin University thought the name ‘Cherry Bomb’ would be more marketable.

On the north side of the garden house are two pendulous hollies growing side-by-side and exhibiting their abundance of red berries – a large Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’ and a gently weeping Ilex decidua ‘Pendula.’ The latter will eventually shed its leaves but retain the fruits into winter. We also have gold-fruited forms of both species, I. vomitoria ‘Saratoga Gold’ and I. decidua ‘Finch’s Golden.’

The warm colors of a low fall sun and turning leaves on an Asian spicebush, Lindera sp.
The fall-flowering Pitcher Sage, Lepechinia hastata is a salvia relative that has an interesting range that includes Mexico and Hawaii.
The fall-flowering Pitcher Sage, Lepechinia hastata is a salvia relative that has an interesting range that includes Mexico and Hawaii.

Competing for attention with the hollies is the “Butcher’s Broom” Ruscus aculeatus. Our lone plant is a self-fertile female variety and therefore produces a profusion of red fruits the size of small grapes. This unusual plant lacks true leaves and instead has stiff sharp-tipped structures called cladodes that are actually flattened stems. Though not a recognized harbinger of winter due to its unfamiliarity, a winter-fruiting tree I am especially fond of in our collection is a Chiococca species that John and Carl Schoenfeld collected in Mexico. This species will be discussed in more detail in our “Plant of the Month” section below.
Every time I stroll through the garden these days, I notice more shades of pink Camellia sasanqua cultivars coming into flower, along with some white selections. These will continue into December, and eventually Camellia japonica hybrids will continue the show into early spring.
Mahonia chochoca – both the curly and typical leaf forms – are full of buds, hinting toward .a profusion of golden flowers. Another slender leafed Mexican Mahonia species, that soon will be officially named, is flowering much earlier and more abundantly than it did last year.

A Mexican ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) from Hildago with subtle clouds of yellow flowers.

A late-flowering member of the mint family is the “false salvia” Lepechinia hastata, which is unusual in being native to both in Mexico and Hawaii. I almost missed the magenta flowers held in dense heads atop arching 6’ stems tucked behind a widening patch of bamboo muhly grass. Another less prominent flowering took place on our unknown species of Mexican ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) that resembles something between Fraxinus gregii and Fraxinus cuspidata and is evergreen like the former.

Polyspora axillaris clearly showing why it earned the name Fried Egg Tree.

Wade Roitsche of Yucca Do collected this ash from Hildago, where he said it was growing almost as a creeping groundcover due to being heavily goat-pruned. Now protected from marauding feral livestock, it has turned into a beautiful upright multi-trunked tree about 18’ tall. The flowers on this male plant were quite subtle, unfortunately, but nonetheless interesting and full of pollinators. On the other hand, it’s impossible to overlook the sea of yellow crowning the masses of the leopard plant Farfugium japonicum in the woodland garden understory. The real show is just beginning, as we keep reiterating how winter is the most wonderful time of the year in the garden in terms of flowers, especially mid-January through February.


Collecting Scrub Oaks and Other Xeric Plants from Florida’s Sandhills

By Adam Black 

The Running Oak, Quercus pumila, forms an attractive groundcover less than three feet high.

Oaks are one of Peckerwood’s key collections. John Fairey’s and Carl Schoenfeld’s collections from Mexico set our assemblage apart. We maintain detailed records of where the oaks were collected, making these specimens valuable for future research and conservation. These Mexican selections are complemented with species native to Europe, Africa, Asia and representatives of species native to the southern U.S. Lacking in our collection are the diverse oaks native to Florida and the surrounding states. Originally from the “Sunshine State.” I have long been fascinated by the xeric-growing species found in the hot, dry sandhill scrub in north and central Florida. Since I am still in the process of relocating from my previous home near Gainesville, I used my past few visits to collect acorns of many of these species for inclusion in Peckerwood’s holdings and to distribute to other botanical institutions.

Kalmia hirsuta, the Hairy Mountain Laurel.

Most of these scrub oaks are not well-represented in botanical gardens, yet many are quite restricted in their ranges and are otherwise threatened by habitat loss, making it important to back these up in cultivation. The “sandhill scrub” habitat is a high, dry environment situated on ice age sand dunes and therefore more suitable for development as opposed to the surrounding lowlands prone to flooding.

Turkey oaks (right) and sand live oaks (upper left) dominate the scrub with scrub rosemary and saw palmetto in the foreground.

Even where preserved, this fire-dependent land is often not managed as well as it should with regular prescribed burns. In the past, these open scrublands would often be subject to lightening-sparked fires which tend to cleanse out aggressive weeds and brush, maintaining an open mix of small trees, shrubs, saw palmettos and many herbaceous plants. With proper habitat now quite fragmented, and burns occurring far too infrequently, many fire-dependent plants get smothered.  Interestingly, the sand laurel oak (Quercus hemispherica) is one of these weedy species that can form thick stands in the sandhills when fire is lacking, shading out the smaller scrub oaks.

One of the many leaf forms of Quercus geminata.

With my focus on central and northern portions of the Florida peninsula, I aimed to collect all native species restricted to the scrub. Of particular interest to me are the various types of “live oaks,” especially the dwarf forms. There is a tremendous amount of variation in these species, that botanists tend to lump into either Quercus minima for the small species and Quercus geminata for the tall species. Those new to exploring the oaks of Florida’s xeric habitats initially are confused when they attempt to identify the numerous and highly variable intermediate forms. Eventually, one begins to see that they can categorize these into several seemingly stable forms that occur in non-contiguous sites. I believe that further research using modern molecular methods may yield new species among these nebulous forms.

The cupped leaves of Quercus geminata often are strikingly white to tan colored underneath.

Complicating identification further are the many random forms that deviate considerably in leaf and acorn form, and overall tree habit. Most of these surely represent hybrids.

The first site I had access to collect on was private land near my house in Levy County. This site doesn’t have any typical Q. minima, which normally should be under 3’ tall and spreading by underground rhizomes, making a low, dense patch.

The curled leaves of Quercus geminata create quite an interesting texture on a dense tree.

This site did have plenty of Q. geminata, variable in itself but generally distinguished from its close relative, the widespread southern live oak (Q. virginiana) by the curled leaf margins making a cupped form with a light underside. I was pleased to instantly find a great crop of acorns, being that previous years had yielded next to nothing. The convex leaf accumulations under the larger trees look curious and are quite fun to walk on as they crunch underfoot. I found some forms that had leaves that were nearly folded in half, others with nicer white undersides, some broad and glossy, others narrow and roughly textured.I made many collections of the different forms, but their progeny will be similarly variable and few, if any, will exactly resemble the parents.

The crunch of the dried cupped leaves of Quercus geminata underfoot is quite satisfying!

Though there were no Q. minima, there were a number of live oak types that don’t conform to Q. geminata.  One distinctive form makes a colony of 15-20 foot tall narrow columnar trees. Another could be perhaps interpreted as a giant form of Q. minima, attaining heights of 12’ to 15’ but not as vigorously suckering, usually consisting of six or eight trunks.

A very stable form of suckering, vertically oriented scrub oak to about 20′ found at many sites in north Florida but not recognized as a distinct species.

Acorns are not very diagnostic among any of these scrub live oaks, unfortunately.Mixed in with these consistent forms were unusual mid-size live oaks that defy categorization and are often unique enough to likely represent a mixture of these complex varieties situated between Q. minima and Q. geminata.

Quercus minima, the dwarf live oak.

In between attempts to make sense of the oaks, there are many distractions in acorn season.Several species of Liatris are abundant, with their long erect purple inflorescences garnering the most attention. With them are subtle pink Palafoxia, Eriogonum with tall scapes crowned with white flat heads, and purple flat tops of “deer tongue” (Carphephorus corymbosus). I found here possibly a northwestern range extension of Persea humilis, the scrub redbay, which is endemic to fire-maintained habitats of central Florida and being significantly impacted by laurel wilt disease.

Deer Tongue Carphephorus corymbosus, is one of the sandhill scrubs beautiful fall flowers.

It differs from the common southeastern native redbay in that it has smaller leaves, a more compact habit, and most notably, gold fuzzy undersides to the leaves that make it a showy, drought-tolerant evergreen plant for the landscape.

I had passed by many turkey oaks (Q. laevis) without acorns, but since found a few that were loaded. I collected a few since we don’t  have any in Peckerwood’s collection and hope to get some representatives from other parts of its range, which extends from eastern Louisiana to southern Virginia, though always restricted to sharply drained sandy hills.

Scrub Redbay, Persea humilis has rusty undersides like some Magnolias, but is much more drought tolerant.

Having a similar range but extending further west into east Texas is the bluejack oak, Q. incana. This species is rarely grown but can be very attractive in cultivation in the right situations. At this site, it was randomly interspersed among the turkey and sand live oaks but always conspicuous with the long leaves, slightly curved like a sickle, being chalky white underneath and blue-green above.

The graceful blue-green leaves of Quercus incana are a striking white underneath

This is another that I have rarely found acorns on in the past, but many trees were producing them in abundance this year.

While in search for more species and forms of oaks, I stumbled on a patch of white flowers atop clusters of stems bearing fine foliage that radiated out from a central point of growth. This was Dalea pinnata, a plant I have never seen cultivated, but I feel would make a great ornamental for the dry garden. Those familiar with the more commonly cultivated Texas natives D. fruticosa and D. greggii would not make the connection upon first glance of D. pinnata. Growing with them in the bright white sugar sand among patches of terrestrial lichens were the fern relative Selaginella arenicola, one of the “resurrection plants” that shrivel up during dry periods and unfurl into a green rosette with the next soaking rain.

A characteristic feature of healthy scrub in the coastal plain are dense, dome-shaped plants with needle-like foliage. This “Florida Rosemary” (Ceratiola ericoides) is not related to the culinary herb, but surprisingly is an uncharacteristic relative of blueberries and rhododendrons.

Healthy scrub provides not only habitat for several interesting oaks, but also the beautiful but hard to cultivate scrub rosemary, Ceratiola ericoides.

I wish it were easier to cultivate, but seedlings never survive transplanting. It would make an amazing textural plant in the xeric garden if only we could grow it. Growing out of one rosemary clump was a hybrid oak, clearly involving Q. incana and a lobed leaf oak, likely Q. laevis.


My next stop was a site in Lake County, on private land near the unique scrubland that is Ocala National Forest. In this region, sand pine (Pinus clausa) is the dominant tree with an understory of many interesting endemics. Among the dwarf oaks is an unusual xeric variant of American holly – Ilex opaca var. arenicola. It has a very upright shrubby habit and bears rich green leaves folded in half.

I’ve never been able to successfully propagate Osmanthus megacarpa, but Tony Avent has a beautiful one growing at Juniper Level Botanical Garden in Raleigh, N.C. that shows what a fabulous and adaptable ornamental it can make. It seems to have a denser habit than its close relative O. americanus. Most beautiful in my opinion is the “Florida Scrub Hickory” Carya floridana, a small shrubby species which has a most beautiful rusty color on the undersides of the small olive-green leaves.

A medium sized scrub oak with small leaves that is somewhere between Quercus geminata and Q. minima.

I’ve already brought seedlings of this  underutilized ornamental xeric plant to Peckerwood. Low evening light makes the foliage glow a warm cinnamon color.

Quercus chapmanii has light green leaves with slight lobing.

In addition to more Q. geminata and Q. laevis were typical low-growing Q. minima loaded with acorns. Mixed in at this site were two of my favorite scrub oaks – Q. myrtifolius and Q. chapmanii. The former tends to form low, naturally dense mounds with broad oval shaped leaves – quite beautiful and with great ornamental potential in a well-drained site. With a little more open habit but nonetheless interesting, Chapman’s oak has larger olive colored leaves with an irregularly scalloped margin held on ascending branches.

Dalea carnea is very different from our Texas natives but otherwise, makes a great xeric wildflower.

Below the oaks were a few interesting finds, including another species of Dalea on my list: the pink-flowered D. carnea. A sedge with bright green glossy foliage always draws attention, looking too lush in contrast to the stark white sands.Something I hadn’t noticed in this area before was a “Blue-eyed Grass” that must be Sisyrhynchium xerophyllum, unique in that it was growing in dry loose sand, unlike all the other native species that prefer moist areas. The dwarf blueberry Vaccinium myrsinites forms a very attractive groundcover with glossy leaves among the large bold leaves of the central Florida endemic palm Sabal etonia.

A red form of shiny blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites).

My last stop before I headed back to Texas was another scrubby area in northern Levy County. Here there were more Q. geminata, Q. laevis, and Q. incana, combined with a tremendous variety of odds and ends in the intermediate dwarf live oak complex. One of particular interest was an 8’ shrub with three trunks, but it had extremely tiny leaves and acorns. No others could be found in the area, so it will be interesting to see if any of the seedlings carry on this trait. Several more distinctive forms of Q. geminata were collected.

A miniature mutant form of winged sumac, Rhus copallina, dwarf in all regards.

With a backpack full of acorns, I worked my way back to the truck around an open grassy area bordering a dry pond. There I noticed many red seed clusters protruding from the grass. Looking closer, I saw it was a dwarf sumac that was carpeting several acres, maxing out at a diminutive 12” high. Thinking I had discovered a new species, I looked closer and realized this must be an exceptionally dwarfed form of Winged Sumac (Rhus copallina.) Most impressive is that it is likely a single female clone vigorously spreading via rhizomes over such an expansive area. I could not find any males or additional disconnected patches of this miniature, and the few nearby R. copallina were the typical tall forms. I collected some out of personal interest, though I am sure this will never be the next great landscape plant. Perhaps it can be the next low-maintenance alternative lawn substitute.

Learn more about visiting Peckerwood Garden

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Follow Peckerwood on Instagram or Facebook!

Bethany Jordan and Adam Black continue to share on Facebook with regular updates on what is happening and when you can visit the garden and pictures from each of them and from a few guests that share. Visit us at “peckerwoodgarden” Our recently created Instagram account “@peckerwoodgarden” continues to develop with Adam Black and Craig Jackson sharing their images and insights. Twitter also continues to develop at “@PeckerwoodG” join us for quick views of what is happening that day in the garden.


  Volunteers Appreciation Lunch A Success

By Adam Black 

img_5388 img_5406Earlier this month we held our volunteer appreciation lunch featuring delectable food prepared by Brenda Wilson, Ruth McDonald, Craig Jackson, and Zachariah Lambright.
Following the meal and camaraderie, we held a rare plant giveaway featuring unique treasures from Adam’s stash, donations from Yucca Do Nursery and a few other volunteer donations. img_5402Every volunteer got to choose two plants when his/her ticket was called, and Ruth provided additional bare-root aloe plants for everyone to take home.

We can never thank our volunteers enough for all they have been accomplishing, from helping with events, administrative duties and lots of weeding and gardening around the offices. Nothing would happen without their regular presence.

  Plant of the month: Mexican Snowberry Tree (Chiococca sp.)

By Adam Black 

img_7772 One plant I was surprised to see when I started here was a rather large tree with broad evergreen leaves and remarkable fruit clusters that were snowy white. Upon checking the tag, I was surprised to see it was labeled Chiococca alba, which I figured must be wrong. img_7782The C. alba I was very familiar with was a native of my home state of Florida, though that plant, which goes by the common name “snowberry,” can also be found throughout the Caribbean, south Texas and into Mexico. Throughout its range, it is found in quite warm lowland conditions, often on the coast, where it forms a small-leaved, low spreading shrub lacking structural integrity and often growing among other shrubs for support. Yet, here at Peckerwood, we have a freestanding tree bearing this name with a thick vertical trunk and huge round leaves. It has obviously been here through many zone 8b winters prior to my arrival, indicative of its cold-hardy genetics that lacks in the shrubby version of snowberry.

img_7783A little research revealed that Peckerwood’s plant, collected by John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld in Mexico, was surely another species of Chiococca but definitely not C. alba. There are two options from northeastern Mexico that more closely resemble our tree, and we will need to make some more observations next time flowers are available. A member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae), this species is related to more familiar garden plants like gardenias, pentas and coffee trees. The large, glossy green leaves attain the size of an average human hand, and clusters of small, pale-yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers are held at the tips of each branch. These flowers turn into clusters of blueberry-sized drupes that are stark white. These fruits ripen in late fall and are retained on the tree at least into mid-winter. The attractive tree is densely branched and casts deep shade. The true C. alba serves as a larval host plant for a few species of butterflies and moths, and this species also may serve similar insects.

Visitors from Near and Far

By Adam Black

Wow, it’s been a busy month with visitors. First, I gave botanist Yalma Vargas from Universidad de Guadalajara a tour of Peckerwood. She stopped by before her lecture at Stephen F. Austin State University on her research of Mexican sugar maples to see our garden’s collections of Acer skutchii and Acer grandidentatum. I was amazed she recognized the provenance of our big-tooth maple from the San Carlos Mountains from quite some distance without reading the tags. She was happy to get foliage samples of this wild collection to bulk up her DNA studies. We also discussed the many other noteworthy, threatened flora she and her collaborators had been discovering in the mountains of Jalisco, including a new maple species she soon will be describing, and the unsuccessful attempts to convince the government to preserve these diverse habitats. She was thrilled to learn that we would be interested in backing up germaplasm from these sites before these environments disappear. I showed her plants I already had indirectly received from her collaborator, Antonio Vasquez via the lab I formerly managed at the University of Florida. These were two species of unusual poplars endemic to that area – Populus guzmanantlensis and P. simaroa which will now be housed at Peckerwood. We eagerly look forward to working with Yalma, Antonio, and others to preserve the unique flora in the mountains of Jalisco.

David Parks of Camellia Forest Nursery collecting cuttings off Mahonia chochoca.

A day later, we were visited by David Parks from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C. His Open Day presentation, “Exciting Camellias You Can’t Have,” teased us with the many enticing hybrids being developed in China but currently can’t be legally imported into the U.S. David also provided examples of other desirable plants offered in China that we would all die to have. Following the talk, David and I raided the garden for cuttings with Darrin Duling and Jacob Martin, director and horticulturist respectively at Mercer Botanic Garden. It was good to have David give more information on our past purchases from his nursery to improve our records while stumping him with plants originating from him years ago that he had forgotten.
The following week, assistant director of Chicago Botanic Garden Andrew Bunting visited while in the area collecting plants. His talk, “Magnolias for the Garden,” was tailored to species and hybrids worth trialing in our area. Andrew was a tremendous resource for advising on the challenges we face as a growing public garden. We sent him back with a variety of plants from our nursery, which were loaded into his van already packed with garbage bags of gingers obtained from Mercer and ferns purchased from Darla Harris at Fern Plantation Nursery near Magnolia, Texas.
Scott Reeves and Jessica Lowery from Creekside Nursery spent time touring the garden and collecting propagation material to trial for potential future product lines. Peckerwood serves as a great source of new material for nurseries to promote for diversifying our landscapes, and it is nice to know we have these local plant geeks interested in expanding the palate of offerings. Scott and Jessica generously donated an eclectic mix of plants to incorporate into our developing rock garden plantings around our office.




Monthly training classes continue with Flowering Shrubs. The next session is November 19. Though geared toward training our docents, all active volunteers are invited to participate for free to learn more about refined topics pertaining to the garden. Members may join us for $15. Pre-registration required.

Sign up Now


From welcoming visitors to leading tours, working in the garden or in our office, there are many ways to lend your talents! Let us know how you would like to get involved. Sign up to assist at an event or to join a bi-weekly gardening session here.
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October 2016 Newsletter

Table of Contents

Adam’s notes from the garden
South to the Rio Grande
Social Media
Volunteer appreciation
Plant of the month
Noteworthy Visitors


Adam’s notes from the garden

November is upon us, and I’m finally finishing our October newsletter. The past weeks have been busy, but that is the case every month as we push forward with offering increasing opportunities for visitors while keeping the existing and developing gardens looking great.

Fall flowering grasses in the perennial border

Fall is setting in at Peckerwood, but in typical warm-temperate climate fashion, we don’t see the red, orange and yellow leaves that come to mind when one thinks of autumn – at least not yet. Our colorful display of changing leaves on the maples, hickories and other deciduous trees will happen, but months later. Until then, we enjoy our own unconventional late-season interest in the garden.

Muhlenbergia capillaris producing a puff of pink above fall aster Symphyotrichum oblongifolium

One signal of the coming winter is the flowering grasses. In the north perennial border, we have a nice display of Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’ that has transitioned from clouds of pink flowers to  straw colored seed heads, attractive regardless of the color. More on this popular grass, which originated as a chance hybrid at Peckerwood, in our “Plant of the Month” section. At the entrance to the woodland garden, Muhlenbergia capillaris also presents stunning pink flowers, a trait it contributed to ‘Pink Flamingos’ as one of the hybrid’s parents. Several other grasses add interest including the hanging tassels of Miscanthus sinensis that brush against visitors as they are lured into the western segment of the north perennial border for a closer inspection of the curious hot pepper-shaped fruits on our Diospyros rhombifolia.

Another sign of fall are the flowering Japanese Anemones

Of course descriptions of fall at Peckerwood must include the ripening of acorns on our vast collection of oaks. We have been collecting many of the rarer species and sharing them with other gardens and collectors around the world, who in return are sharing new species for us to try here. We had intended to make remaining acorns available for online retail sales, but with such a busy month, we regrettably realized that we would not be able to keep up with the anticipated demand. With acorns having a short shelf life after harvesting, we cannot store them for future distribution. It has been difficult enough to reimburse the many collaborators who have already generously shared rare and unusual species with us. In one sense we let a number of prospective customers down after promoting the acorn sale, but we also can look at it from the perspective that Peckerwood is rapidly moving forward with more tours, events and guest lectures, and we are fortunately being kept on our toes with such a great public response. There is so much we want to offer visitors and supporters as soon as possible, but then reality sets in and we need to prioritize what our small staff and valued volunteers can adequately handle.

Quercus skinneri germinating from wild collected seed from El Salvador

Some exciting acorns have been received from some unexpected places, and many more are on the way. We received the giant seeds of Quercus skinneri from my longtime friend in El Salvador. Surprisingly some of the higher elevation tropical oaks have a fair amount of latent cold hardiness, so more of these deserve to be trialed in our zone 8b climate. The Q. skinneri seeds have already germinated and are approaching a foot tall. Additional Central American oak acorns from the highlands of Guatemala and Panama are on the way as are those from other foreign collaborators. We look forward to acorns from Taiwan, where acorns generally mature later than many places, to provide many exciting species.  I think many of the species I collected from the dry sandhill scrub of my old stomping grounds of north Florida may do very well on our well-drained sunny berms. Noteworthy among these is the “running oak”, Q. pumila, which, surprising to some, is not a tree but a low growing groundcover oak, forming extensive multi-stemmed patches two feet tall. There are other dwarf and shrubby species I collected that have potential for smaller landscapes.

The giant seeds of the Vietnamese buckeye Aesculus wangii

We also received seeds of the Vietnamese buckeye, Aesculus wangii, a giant in all regards. One huge seed has germinated, and within a few years we hope to see the nearly yard-wide leaves. The gigantic seeds are three times the size of our native A. pavia seeds which are normally the size of ping pong balls. The few who have grown A. wangii all note the inconvenient habit of this plant breaking dormancy in late fall, growing in winter and having soft new growth frozen back. I’m interested to see if grafting it on the rootstock of another species such as A. pavia that behaves on the preferred schedule would reprogram the A. wangii crown to hold off growing until spring. If we can find out how to make it behave on our terms, this will be a standout plant in Peckerwood’s collection. Dr. David Creech at Stephen F. Austin University was the lucky recipient of another A. wangii before us, which is now over five feet tall, so we will compare notes on our experiences with this impressive species in Texas.

The berry-like cones of Taxus chinensis

Coning conifers are adding subtle interest to the fall garden, though many of these aren’t what most would recognize as cones. The scarlet color of the soft berry-like cones of Taxus chinensis makes them really stand out against the dark green foliage. Several of the “plum yews” in the genus Cephalotaxus have produced round cones that consist of a large seed inside a fleshy covering that turns purple when mature, resembling miniature plums. Torreya grandis also produced similar plum-like cones which have already been harvested. It will be interesting to see if seedlings are hybridized with the nearby male Torreya taxifolia.

The strange, edible fruit of Akebia quinata

It looks like we will have another good crop of seeds from Keteleeria davidiana and K. pubescens judging from the many developing cylindrical scaly cones. Podocarpus cones are unusual in that a blue-green seed is held at the end of a plump, colorful berry-like structure called an aril. Many do not realize that after the non-edible seed is removed, the aril is edible when it turns from red to purple and is quite tasty, somewhat like a sweet cherry with a slight hint of pine resin – better than it sounds! You surely will get some stares from passersrby when foraging off the next Podocarpus macrophyllus hedge you spot in Houston.

Peltophorum sp. flowering for the first time, thanks to the recent mild winters.

Some early flowering camellia cultivars are blooming in the woodland garden. A striking groundcover of fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is blooming profusely in the perennial border. An interesting tropical tree flowering this month is a Peltophorum sp. In colder winters, this tree in the pea family freezes back and never attains flowering size. The past few mild winters have produced dieback only in the outer tips, allowing it to quickly rebound and grow significantly. At approximately 40 feet, every branch was tipped with bright yellow clusters of flowers, readily seen from some distance away.

South to the Rio Grande Valley by Adam Black

Salt crystals on a log in La Sal del Rey

When Steven Ramirez invited me to present at the fall symposium of the Rare Fruit Growers of the Rio Grande Valley, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d never ventured into the southern tip of the state, but I’d always been fascinated by the flora of the region, especially since some have proven quite cold hardy at Peckerwood. Steven, a long-time docent and volunteer at Peckerwood, lives in “the valley” when not attending school in Houston and had been telling me of all the great growers and enthusiasts in the area I need to meet.

On my drive south, I began to see the vegetation change to a fairly monotonous and rather floristically boring landscape as I progressed toward Corpus Christi. Then as I drove across a river, I noticed some trunked palms of the genus Sabal. I wondered if these were an outlier population of the mysterious “Brazoria palms, which were originally thought to be a natural hybrid between Sabal minor and Sabal mexicana often referred to as Sabal x texensis or Sabal x brazoriensis. Recent molecular studies show justification that it is a good, stable species and was given the official name Sabal brazoria. Later research showed that the trees I was seeing were instead the northernmost individuals of Sabal mexicana – my first wild observation of this species which I didn’t know ranged this far north.

Palafoxia hookeriana in the sandhills of the King Ranch area

As I got into the “King Ranch” area south of Kingsville, the vegetation became more interesting with the abrupt transition into a sandy scrub dominated by live oaks. Steven had texted coordinates to look for the beautiful Palafoxia hookeriana, but I had already noticed the bold pink daisy-like flowers on four foot high stalks readily visible from the road along with the silver paddle-shaped leaves of Croton coryi glistening in the evening light.

Manihot walkerae, an extremely rare native of south Texas, in Ken King’s collection

The next morning was the first day of the symposium held at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. It was great to meet all the growers of unusual fruit and experts in many other related fields from beekeeping to building economical “green” houses using natural materials. I was amazed to learn how warm it really is there in an average winter, similar to the growing region of south Florida where I grew up. That evening Steven took me to Tad Dyer’s nursery. He is one of the main growers of palms and other tropical specimens for the region’s landscapes. Most interesting to me at his nursery was a couple of out-of-place but otherwise happy cultivated burr oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) with their giant acorns among masses of tropical palms and cycads with seedlings volunteering among a patch of croton (Codiaeum) cultivars. After leaving Tad’s nursery, I spotted a remarkable weeping cottonwood, Populus deltoides, growing in front of a boarded-up house. The long branches hung over the sidewalk, and since nobody occupied the run-down property, I figured I was doing a service by trimming back the branches hanging in the way of pedestrians.

The tropical blue waterlily, Nymphaea elegans

The next stop was the home of Ken King, one of the valley’s main experts of the region’s flora, and co-author with Alfred Richardson of the excellent book “Plants of Deep South Texas”.  There is no missing Ken’s heavily planted property in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood. In front is a beautiful specimen of Esenbeckia berlandieri, a rare native in the citrus family that was a treat to see. Entering his backyard it became apparent that Ken’s botanical interests are, like mine, all over the place. Among rare natives are South American bromeliads, South African euphorbias, orchids, a collection of Boswellia species from which the treasured myrrh resin is obtained for incense, tubs of various water lilies and other obscurities. Ken generously shared a number of rare natives complete with locality data for Peckerwood’s collection.

Steven exploring the botanical riches along the brackish creek

If you are a true plant nerd, botanizing doesn’t end at dusk. After some great Mexican food Steven took me to an abandoned trailer park-turned locally maintained park that still contained a number of old avocado trees and other things planted long ago. With flashlights and headlamps, we checked each tree we came across for fruits. Steven found one tree that had a distinctive avocado with perfectly smooth glossy dark purple skin that was unlike any I had seen before. Here was my first experience with naturally occurring “Anacua” (Ehretia anacua), with their dense veil of tiny white flowers appearing as ghostly apparitions in the darkness. Though it grew happily for me in Florida, I had never seen profuse flowers until now, and it was clear it was quite an abundant weedy tree in the area. As we were heading back to the car, a surprisingly giant Ficus trigona adorned with aerial roots materialized from the blackness.

An immense jujube tree Steven found growing in the Brownsville area.

Before the night was over, Steven showed me other noteworthy trees he had found between Weslaco and McAllen. We saw a massive Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum, growing in town. The stout, gnarled trunk supported a low crown of broadly spreading branches that gave it tremendous character.  In front of a Mexican dessert shop – where I enjoyed an addictive cup of chilled jicama slices seasoned with cayenne pepper – there stood a massive old pine that Steven hoped I could identify. I was stumped, and there were no cones to help with identification. Monterey oaks (Quercus polymorpha) used as street trees show how wide-ranging this plant, long promoted by Peckerwood and other nurseries, has gotten around to all corners of the state.

A bluff of cacti and other fascinating xeric plants adjacent to a mangrove creek on the right

Sunday tours of several growers in the region began at Thad Magyar’s densely planted jungle of towering palms and a wide variety of mature ornamental and fruiting trees he and his wife had collected over the years. His wonderful tropical oasis made me feel like I was back in Miami and was complete with pet parrots and a cantina where we were treated to the refreshing juice of Costa Rican sour guava. Next was the home of Gus Gonzales and his extensive groves of mangoes, avocados and citrus, clearly showing what can be done here. The tours concluded with a visit to an exceptionally diverse collection of rare and unusual tropical fruit trees.

That afternoon, Steven and I went to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary to explore the natural stand of Sabal mexicana and accompanying native flora along the Rio Grande. While I didn’t see a speckled racer, a most beautiful snake that barely enters the U.S. in this area, I did spot many new-to-me species of native plants. Exotic birds such as chacalacas and green jays further made me feel like I wasn’t in Texas anymore.

Ferocactus hamatocactus, Mammilaria heyderi and Echinocereus sp growing overlooking a mangrove creek

Steven took me to see more noteworthy trees and plantings in the Brownsville area that he had found, including the largest and most beautiful jujube tree I have ever seen. Working our way toward the mainland shores of the Laguna Madre behind South Padre Island, we ended up at a coastal tract remaining relatively undisturbed despite being sandwiched between condominiums. I was instantly immersed in contrasting mix of xeric plants growing side-by-side with salt marsh plants. In some areas I could reach out with one hand and touch a mangrove growing along a brackish creek while impaling my other hand on a diverse array of cacti growing on the dry adjacent bluff. These included barrel cactus (Ferocactus hamatacanthus); an Echinocereus pentalophus with ropey creeping stems that looked like someone’s trimmed dredlocks tossed on the slope; and ground-hugging, disc-shaped Mammilaria heyderi which I was more familiar with from far west Texas.

Among the cacti were the succulent rubbery stems of Jatropha dioica, fat exposed caudeces of the succulent cucumber relative Ibervillea lindheimeri, the appropriately named allthorn (Koeberlinia spinosa) and silvery clumps of cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).

A beautiful weeping Forestiera angustifolia at Laguna Madre National Wildlife Refuge

The fun continued the next day with a trip to Mike Heep‘s wonderful native plant nursery. Like Ken King, Mike is a highly respected authority on the native flora of the region. Our friends at Caldwell Nursery in Rosenberg make special trips to Mike’s in order to offer his unusual selections to collectors in the Houston area. I filled my truck with all sorts of things, some long on my wish list and others completely new to me. All are especially valuable to Peckerwood’s collections as Mike retains collection information with his plants.

Later I made a solo trip to South Padre Island to explore the dune vegetation. After crossing the causeway I traveled north until the road ended in a desolate area with nobody around.

Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised that there was a complete absence of woody plants in the natural areas of the island. In contrast, the barrier islands of the east coast of the southern states all have quite an assemblage of wind-sculpted trees and shrubs, but here there was not one to be found. The dunes were instead covered with an attractive mosaic of grasses and low-growing annuals and perennials. The closer I got to the water, the more my eyes began to sting and an uncontrollable cough developed.

I wasn’t sure what was going, but then I spotted many dead fish at the water’s edge – thousands of menhaden along with scattered black drum, redfish, seatrout and others. I concluded my respiratory discomfort was due to the red tide that also had killed the fish.

Purple foliage on Agalinis sp., South Padre Island

Retreating from the irritating emissions from the algae bloom, I hiked behind the first set of tall dunes, and breathing became more comfortable. Any remaining discomfort was soon forgotten as all sorts of plants new to me begged for closer inspection. Several metallic silver or gold croton species dominated the loose sands on the dunes and stood out sharply. Joining them were Conoclinium betonicifolium, Baptisia leucophaea, Solidago sempervirens, Liatris, Agalinis and other wildflowers.

Golden foliage of wax myrtle with sky blue flowers of Conoclinium betonicifolium on North Padre Island

After becoming familiar with most of the representative plants on South Padre Island, I decided to find another floristically interesting spot with fresher air.

Looking at Google maps, I zoomed into a green patch that usually indicates a natural area. It was the Laguna Madre National Wildlife Refuge. After negotiating a road that was more potholes than pavement for miles, the vegetation suddenly became interesting, as was an “ocelot crossing” sign and then the entrance to the park. Dry thornscrub was the dominant feature here, composed of mesquite, Texas ebony (Chloroleucon ebano), Parkinsonia, Condalia, Leucophyllum and others. The most interesting find was a young vine of Cissus incisa that had solid silver leaves.

The seed pods of screwbean mesquite (Prosopis reptans) growing on the shores of the Laguna Madre

The next morning, it was time to begin moving north. Steven had told me about some salt lakes nearby that sounded like they deserved to be explored. Finding an access, I was soon hiking among the open dry woodlands characteristic of the “Tamaulipan Thornscrub” ecological zone. Before getting far down the trail to the lake, a loud cry from the top of a large mesquite grabbed my attention. Homing in on two animals, I saw spots.

Vegetation of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub, La Sal del Rey National Wildlife Refuge

Thinking excitedly that I found an ocelot, I soon realized the lack of a long tail meant I was instead staring into the eyes of a bobcat that then became spooked by my presence. After it shot down the tree and disappeared in the tall grass, I focused on its intended quarry, still quivering at the tip of the branch. It was an orange domestic cat, way out in the middle of nowhere, which almost became a late breakfast for the wild relative. Clearly not tame, it also quickly descended the tree and shot off in the same direction the bobcat had retreated.

It was here that I got to see my first wild occurrence of Cordia boissieri, the Texas wild olive that is so commonly planted in the region and sparingly the further north in the state one travels. After enjoying the starkness of the sterile, snowy white salt flats surrounding the lake of brine, I headed back to make some progress north. Around the same place I had observed the cat scuffle, a Texas indigo snake shot across the trail and off into the bramble patch before I could get a closer look.

Two silvery white species of Croton decorate the dunes on North Padre Island

My final stop was North Padre Island just offshore of Corpus Christi. Here the flora was similar to that of South Padre Island, but this time with a few woody plants consisting of scattered stunted live oaks and wax myrtles. New perennials not seen on South Padre were flowering mounds of Phlox glabrifolia ssp. littoralis, the fuzzy silver mats of Stemodia lanata and several additional species of Croton. Liatris elegans was abundant in a mix of colors ranging from dark purple to pink to solid white, with their arching inflorescences glowing as the descending sun put an end to this fulfilling introduction to the southern Texas flora and the horticultural and botanical experts of the region.

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Bethany Jordan and Adam Black continue to share on Facebook with regular updates on what is happening and when you can visit the garden and pictures from each of them and from a few guests that share. Visit us at “peckerwoodgarden” Our recently created Instagram account “@peckerwoodgarden” continues to develop with Adam Black and Craig Jackson sharing their images and insights. Twitter also continues to develop at “@PeckerwoodG” join us for quick views of what is happening that day in the garden.


  Volunteers Making a Difference

By Adam Black and Bethany Jordan

A colorful harvest of Quercus rysophylla acorns picked by Craig Jackson small

As things become busier in the garden, volunteers continue to step up and make miracles happen. Though we were unable to come through with retail acorn sales as hoped, we still wanted to satisfy some bulk orders from a few key species that we have in quantity. With time of the essence to collect the acorns before they drop, img_4970-smallPam Romig sprang into action and enlisted some of the Waller County Master Gardeners to strip our trees of their seeds. Thanks to Glovena Hambly, Harvey Newman, Craig Jackson, Brenda Wilson and Pam for collecting a ton of acorns in such a short period of time.

We had a return visit from the National Society of Black Engineers chapter out of Texas A&M Prairie View campus who volunteered a half a day clearing brush from around the garden house. img_4965An extraordinary amount of area was cleared, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with this hard-working group. That same day we had a tour scheduled, and Burton Knight once again made the three-hour drive to help our other regular volunteers with the day’s many activities. Suzzanne Chapman, Pam Romig, Craig Jackson, and Harvey Newman spent the day working with these teams and with the tour group.

Harvey Newman picking acorns from Quercus polymorpha

After all the clearing our regular volunteers have done around the offices, I look forward to planting some interesting specimens soon. Thanks as always to Craig, Brenda, Harvey, Pam, and for their help on Tuesdays and Fridays.

We will honor all our volunteers at an appreciation lunch at 11:30 a.m. November 15th in the garden house. We have made great strides over the past year and look forward to more advancements in the next, but without our valued volunteers, none of this would ever be possible.

Behind the scenes in the office and on the computer, Ruth, Craig, and Nancy Royal continue to be not only huge assets but a major force in moving things forward. Nancy is once again transcribing interviews with John Fairey about the history of Peckerwood Garden and his Collection trips. Ruth McDonald has been a key part of the developing volunteer program and her help and research has made both the upcoming and ongoing changes possible. img_4962-smallShe has also taken on coordination for our Volunteer Appreciation lunch and is working with Bethany and Adam to ensure the success of the event. Craig continues his remarkable work with the plant database and mapping software.

If you have joined us for one of the recent lectures, you have enjoyed the excellent refreshments and careful preparations of Ruth, Craig, and Brenda. Their care and excellent refreshments have ensured the evening was a success each time.

  Plant of the month: Pink Flamingo Grass (Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’)

Pink Flamingo Grass in the south perennial border
Pink Flamingo Grass in the south perennial border

If you have been following us on Instagram or Facebook, you will have noticed quite a few photographs recently of the billowy clouds of pink that lend such a soft yet strikingly bold presence in the perennial border. Prior to the introduction of Muhlenbergia x ‘Pink Flamingos’, the closest gardeners in the southern U.S. could get to such an effect was by using Muhlenbergia capillaris, a striking grass in itself which also has pink flowers but the inflorescences are not as tall or as puffy. It wasn’t until this species happened to cross with Muhlenbergia lindheimeri that ‘Pink Flamingos’ was born – and it all happened right here at Peckerwood Garden!

The hybrid Pink Flamingo grass (right) with one of its parents Muhlenbergia cappilaris (left)

Since then, Pink Flamingo Grass has become a staple among nurseries from the mid-Atlantic states through the southern U.S. Sometimes the cultivar is mistakenly listed as ‘Pink Flamingo’ (singular) in nursery catalogs but the plural form is correct. Fall flowering, it is still very attractive the rest of the year with its dense clump of narrow blue-green arching foliage.  When the pink flowers fade, the straw-colored seed spikes remain attractive through late fall.  Like both parents, this hybrid requires full sun and well-drained conditions. Older clumps losing their tidiness benefit from cutting back to the base during late winter before new leaves emerge. With time, a dead bare patch may appear in the center of the clump as the outer, younger leading edge expands outward. This is best remedied by dividing the clump into thirds or quarters, leaving one section in place and planting the others elsewhere, as you can never have too much of this distinctive ornamental grass.

 Recent and Upcoming Noteworthy Visitors

We have had a parade of important visitors over the past month, and more are on the way. We had a great day with Bob Lovett and Jim Carcano of Lovett Pinetum. So what’s a “pinetum”? It’s an arboretum focused on not just pines but all conifers. To take advantage of different climates, Bob’s pinetum is actually spread out in three states, with units in California, Missouri and one near Lufkin, Texas. Jim is in charge of the Lufkin (Angelina) unit, a wonderland of conifers that I was very impressed with during my spring visit. Though not generally open to the public, they are open by appointment, and not to be missed if you are a true conehead!

Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken (foreground) from Far Reaches Farm with Patrick Kirwin and Scott Ogden small

Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken of Far Reaches Farm were in the area after generously delivering specimen-sized plants to our friends at Mercer Botanic Gardens to be used for restoration efforts following their devastating flood. I had a memorable time when I visited their Port Townsend, Washington nursery, one of my all-time favorite rare plant sources. Kelly and Sue are such kind-hearted souls, so the pressure was on for me to reciprocate at Peckerwood. They brought with them a number of unusual plants for Peckerwood’s collections, including several new distinctive Asian species of Mahonia to add to our ever-increasing collection of this genus, plus one of the few fantastic Mexican species we didn’t have – Mahonia russellii. After an ambitious day collecting several garbage bags full of cuttings, they gave an enthralling presentation on their collecting adventures in China portraying so many lust-worthy plants and beautifully rugged scenery. Kelly and Sue are so famous that a number of well-respected figures in the horticultural world drove 2-3 hours just for the evening lecture and social. It was great to finally meet renowned garden designer and author Scott Ogden along with fellow landscape designer extraordinaire Patrick Kirwin (Kirwin Horticultural Services) who both came all the way from Austin for the night of botanical geekery. From the opposite direction, Rick and Veronica Lewandowski made the nearly three-hour drive from Orange, where Rick directs Shangri-La Gardens. Scott Reeves from Creekside Nursery and his wife, Ginny, added more plant enthusiasm to the room, and we thank them for their kind donation of some much needed wine glasses for future events. Many other local enthusiasts came out for what amounted to our most well-attended and enjoyable evening lecture so far.

We look forward to a similar attendance during our November 12th open day when we will have special guest David Parks from Camellia Forest Nursery giving a presentation at 11 a.m. on hybridization efforts of the rare and beautiful Camellia azalea in China. Rare in the U.S., this species is among the most beautiful and I’m curious to hear how hybridization may be making some exciting selections for the future. For our November 18th Evening at Peckerwood Lecture, we are proud to have Andrew Bunting, assistant director of Chicago Botanic Garden, to present “Magnolias for the Garden”.  Andrew is an expert on woody plants and especially magnolias, and recently published “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias”.  We have additional luminaries of the horticultural world planning to visit, and I’m twisting their arms into sharing their knowledge with our local supporters through lectures, so please keep your eye on our events calendar.


Monthly training classes continue with Flowering Shrubs. The next session is November 19. Though geared toward training our docents, all active volunteers are invited to participate for free to learn more about refined topics pertaining to the garden. Members may join us for $15. Pre-registration required.

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From welcoming visitors, to leading tours, to working in the garden or in our office, there are many ways to lend your talents! Let us know how you would like to get involved. Sign up to assist at an event or to join a bi-weekly gardening session here.