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March 2017 Newsletter

Table of Contents

Adam’s notes from the garden

Preserving Ancient Giants at Peckerwood Garden
Volunteer appreciation
Plant of the month: The mysterious upland naked-flowering Spider Lily – Hymenocallis sp. 
Slideshow of March photos

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Adam’s notes from the garden

Double-coning on Cycas revoluta.
Fuzzy red new flush on Quercus crassifolia.

It almost feels like summer as we approach April, but at least all our fresh new growth wasn’t nipped back with a sudden freeze like portions of the southeastern U.S. recently experienced. I never like to think we are out of the woods until May rolls around, having experienced a hard freeze in mid-April in north Florida years ago that impacted even the native plants. We only protect a few of John Fairey’s select frost-tender plants in the garden and aren’t going to expand on things that require time rushing around with frost blankets when the weatherman reconsiders his forecast at sunset. We will continue to trial things, but if it doesn’t survive unprotected, then it wasn’t meant to be, and we won’t recommend it for local landscapes. I’ve wasted a lot of money and plants with optimistic “zone pushing” over the years and now sit back comfortably while friends who excitedly tout their prize specimens weathering three or four mild winters only to be defeated when the inevitable harsh winter arrives. Gardening shouldn’t be stressful. These days I have no problem watching something die for the sake of knowledge, as long as it is backed up in other suitable collections. We would never know a plant’s limitations otherwise, and hardiness surprises abound in the most unexpected tropical plants.

Bauhinia lunaroides pink form

Though John never put much emphasis on flowers as stars of the garden, we do have lots of floral color complementing various foliar forms and textures. The Mexican orchid trees have been flowering nicely since they didn’t sustain dieback after the two consecutive nights in the teens in late January. First, the deep purple flowers of Bauhinia bartlettii nestled snugly within its glossy leaves in the shape of a deer hoof print.  This was followed by B. ramosissimum, with its delicate, airy crown of miniature leaves, each almost completely divided into kidney-shaped lobes and equally delicate fuchsia flowers. Next in succession is B. macranthera, with much larger grey-green leaves bearing a noticeable rippled margin and masses of dark pink flowers. Found in both Mexico and parts of Texas, the native B. lunaroides normally is white-flowered, but we have a pink form which grows near the Devil’s River area in Val Verde County, a locale also famous for having the state’s only native stand of Monterrey oak, Quercus polymorpha.

A vining Mexican Philadelphus sp. with flowers clustered near the shoot tips.

A still-underutilized yet significant component of the gardens are John and Carl Schoenfeld’s collections of “mock oranges” (Philadelphus spp.), which are beginning to flower. There is tremendous diversity among these Mexican collections beyond the commonly cultivated old-world species that often sucker aggressively. Most of these Mexican plants don’t spread at all, and come in a variety of sizes and growth forms. One at the entrance to the woodland garden forms a liana, with its thick woody vines growing up through the canopy from which long pendulous branches form a curtain over the walkway. Some form single-stem shrubs with rigid or pendulous branch tips and still others are dwarfed with delicate pinky-nail sized leaves on thin wiry stems. Flowers on many are quite fragrant and borne in profusion.

Phlox douglasii from the northwestern US, at home so far in Texas.

The rock and scree gardens around the office area are coming alive with color. I’m always a sucker for various species of Penstemon and Phlox, so they are well-represented and currently flowering nicely. The blinding reds of Silene regia and S. virginica catch the eye from some distance, along with Verbena peruviana which is of incredible intensity.

Spathicarpa hastifolia – a tropical that has been reliably returning for a few years.

The delicate yellow flowers of Genista sagittalis are coming into show from this newly acquired groundcover legume with curious winged stems that are at first erect then lay flat on the ground after flowering.
When it fills in it should be a sea of sulfur yellow. Some of the collections from the Colorado and New Mexico foothills are doing well, including a Lomatium sp. that flowered upon emergence from its carrot-like taproot. This member of the parsley family has exceptionally finely cut, lacy foliage that feels like it is made of plastic, and sports umbels of yellow flowers. Phlox douglasii from the northwestern U.S. is at home so far; this particular selection was received from Denver Botanical Garden having lavender flowers. Even some Ephedra species are happily flowering, along with Texas natives like Viola pedata and Calylophus drummondianus. The shale barren-dweller Dicentra eximia ‘Dolly Sods’ continues to bloom up a storm. I am hoping two recently planted forms of globe mallow (Sphaeralcea sp.) will be happy in the well-drained, exposed conditions.


Preserving Ancient Giants at Peckerwood Garden

By Adam Black 


The massive trunk of Oaxaca’s ‘Arbol del Tule’ Photo courtesy of David Creech

When many people think of ancient, massive trees, the California’s coast redwoods or giant sequoias usually come to mind. In terms of age, perhaps 5000+-year-old bristlecone pines enter the thoughts of some despite their much smaller proportions. Redwoods are indeed among the tallest, and giant sequoias are the most massive in terms of wood mass. In Oaxaca, Mexico, lives an exceptional Montezuma cypress tree that claims the title of the world’s “stoutest” tree. Lacking any impressive height, this tree known as the Arbol del Tule is no less spectacular considering its disproportionately broad trunk that spans a mind-boggling 38+ feet in diameter across its widest point and at least 116’ in trunk circumference. This tree has stood the test of time – perhaps thousands of years – but in a changing world, its health has been declining. Though no living thing will survive forever, a piece of this tree that has witnessed so much history will be given a new chance to persist at Peckerwood Garden, in a sense rendering its genetics immortal.


The ‘Arbol Del Tule’. Photo courtesy of David Creech

Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a Mexican relative of the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and pond cypress (T. ascendens), the latter two so familiar to swamps and waterways of the southeastern quadrant of the U.S. It is found from southern Texas to Guatemala. Some taxonomists consider these various cypresses simply one variable species, but at the very least the Mexican form differs in that it does not produce the abundant “knees” that protrude upward from the roots of the U.S. bald cypress. It also has a different branching habit creating a broad spreading form, and it is nearly evergreen in mild winter climates.


Trunk of ‘The Senator’. Photo courtesy of David Creech

Though not the tallest, the “Arbol del Tule” is the oldest individual of the species in addition to its record trunk diameter. It is so massive that it had been thought to perhaps be several trees that had grown together over time. However, DNA studies confirm this is not the case. Because of the tree’s amorphous trunk shape in cross-section, accurate measurements of the diameter and circumference is subject to interpretation. The base is heavily flared along with deep vertical furrows, so simply encircling it with a measuring tape creates a significant error. Age estimate records that utilize trunk measurements also are tremendously variable, ranging from 1,400 to 6,000 years old. Regardless of different figures from varying sources, everyone likely agrees that the Tule tree is undeniably impressive.

The tree formerly grew in a swampy environment thick with cattails. As humans altered the land around it, the water was diverted, and the town of Tule sprang up on the now dry land. The tree’s decline may be due to these and other environmental changes, or simply it has finally reached its golden years. Fortunately, Taxodium enthusiast Dr. David Creech at Stephen F. Austin University brought back a cutting of the tree which he grafted and is now growing at the school’s arboretum. Upon learning that a piece of history was growing on the campus in Nacogdoches,  I had to propagate it further for Peckerwood’s collections and to further back up with other collections.

‘The Senator’ lived and met an untimely end near Orlando, FL. Photo courtesy of David Creech

During our Taxodium discussions, David was excited to learn that another superlative cypress was in reach despite no longer existing. Until recently the largest and oldest bald cypress in the world stood just outside Orlando, Fla. It was named “The Senator” after a Florida state senator who aided in the tree’s preservation. Though incomparable to the Tule tree with “only” a 17-foot trunk diameter, the Senator’s height was five feet shorter than the Tule tree’s 130 feet height. Still, it was an awe-inspiring tree with an age estimated up to 3,500 years old. I remember the morning in January 2012 when I turned on the morning news and saw live coverage via helicopter of the Senator’s long life coming to an untimely end. With a hollow trunk, flames were burning the tree from the inside out until the monster fell. It was determined that a drug addict had started a fire nearby which got out of control and ignited the tree.

Graft of a branch from the Arbol del Tule’

All was not lost, as fortunately, a nursery had propagated a fallen branch from the Senator several years earlier, thereby preserving its genetics. Eventually, one of these clones was planted in the park where the Senator once stood. This past January, Dr. Jason Smith from the University of Florida secured permission to collect cuttings of the Senator’s new embodiment. This material from the Senator, along with cuttings of the Arbol del Tule, were distributed to several collections featuring Taxodium germplasm including Peckerwood, and we will further propagate and share with other gardens.

I find it amazing that a single tree will die but can still live on forever by repropagating via cuttings that spark a rejuvenation in the genetic material. Weeping willow, for example, is one of the oldest ornamental tree cultivars. Normally with branches pointed upward, all weeping trees in cultivation go back to one mutant individual with a pendulous habit that someone found in Asia hundreds of years ago. The trees are rather short-lived, surviving for only several decades, but continual propagation of cuttings allows the genetic material to persist as long as humans continue to appreciate its beauty.

The Senator and the Arbol del Tule will live on in our collections, but will likely never attain the proportions of the original behemoths. Still, even as a humble sapling, it is mind-boggling to touch these plants and realize these are still the same organisms that have outlasted most other living things on the planet.


March Slideshow

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Learn more about visiting Peckerwood Garden


Plant of the month: The mysterious upland naked-flowering Spider Lily – Hymenocallis galvestonensis

By Adam Black 

For most of my life, I could care less about spider lilies (Hymenocallis spp.). It wasn’t because I didn’t think they were attractive, they were just everywhere in the swamps and waterways and even salty beaches I used to frequent in Florida, not to mention those in cultivated settings. I recall trying to identify one I had found in north Florida to species level, but quickly gave up when I realized it was akin to splitting hairs to determine all the overlapping features that supposedly make each of the region’s native species distinct.

I then came to Peckerwood and found several species that John and Carl had collected in Mexico that actually had some distinctions compared with those native to the southeastern U.S. However, one particular patch caught my eye last spring. There, at the base of a sand live oak, was a bare, un-mulched mound of sun-baked soil from which maybe a dozen or so evenly spaced patches of erect, blunt leaves in a stiff, fan-like arrangement that weren’t the typical rich green, but instead had a glaucous blue cast. Without supplemental irrigation, the plants looked flawless and never showed signs of wilt. The tag read “Hymenocallis galvestonensis, Navasota, Tx.” Intrigued, I asked John about them, and he told me they were rescued prior to the widening of a highway and were not from a moist haunt like I had assumed all hymenocallis needed.

The late summer re-flowering is similar to that of Lycoris sp.
A secondary flowering occurs in late summer after the rest of the plant has died back.

The real surprise occurred in late summer. Earlier in the year, the plants flowered nicely with typical white spidery clusters, and then the entire plants died back into dormancy by early summer. The withering infructescences had spilled their marble-sized fleshy green seeds all over the bed.  In late August, I was amazed to see the sudden emergence of inflorescences jutting up out of the mound, completely lacking any foliage. Soon they all flowered heavily, yet with no attempt to produce any leaves – just bare flower stalks sticking up out of the ground, mimicking the “surprise lilies” (Lycoris sp.) that also produce flowers from the underground bulb without foliage. The spectacle of this secondary, leafless flowering of a xeric-growing Hymenocallis changed everything I thought I knew about the genus.

Leaves are very rigid, blunt-tipped, and have a blue sheen.

Researching for more information on this upland spider lily only produced confusion and headaches. It is clear others also were intrigued, but it also was apparent that there were varying opinions as to how it relates to the other east Texas natives. Though we had it labeled H. galvestonensis, it also had been known as H. eulae and simply had been considered a form of the otherwise swamp-dwelling H. liriosme or H. occidentalis. I have read several justifications for each of these differing names, and there was quite a bit of overlapping ambiguity in the claims. A few descriptions mention the upland form as having uniquely brown seeds, rather than the typical green of the mesic versions. Ours produces olive green seeds, so more confusion. Adding to the challenges is the possibility that “wet” and “dry” populations hybridize.

The dry, exposed conditions favored by H. galvestonensis

I keep scanning the roadsides near Navasota in an attempt to find this xeric spider lily in the wild but have yet to spot it anywhere. This species, variety, or perhaps more accurately, “ecotype,” also is documented from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, so it would be interesting to develop a collection from these different localities to study them further. A few weeks ago, when touring plantsman Greg Grant’s property north of Nacogdoches, I was surprised to see Hymenocallis growing in his restored longleaf pine uplands. The foliage on his plants was significantly more powdery blue than our blue-green Navasota form. He generously shared a plant, which I planted in our full-sun xeric scree bed, and it will be interesting to compare how it behaves compares with our other collection.


Volunteers Needed for Open Days

By Bethany Jordan

 Spring is off and running and our volunteers have consistently been here several days a week working, weeding, leading tours, and more. We have a special thank you to those volunteers that worked with us and with the Garden Conservancy in Houston last week. Also a special thank you to Grace Pierce and staff gardener Adolfo Silva for hosting a large group when we were in Houston this week.

March, April, and May we have additional Open Day events and will be here on both the second Saturday and the Fourth Saturday. please contact us if you are interested in volunteering for any of these dates.

Weekly workdays on Tuesday and Friday continue and we will need plenty of volunteers to help with the spring season. We hope to begin heavier clearing work soon and would like to hear from volunteers interested in heavier work and preparing trails in the developing areas.

Please email