The bountiful flowers of the Asian oak relative Castanopsis sclerophyllus
The gardens are beautiful with a non-stop succession of flowers and crisp new foliage, all enjoyed in this great weather. If you have never been to Peckerwood Garden, now is a perfect time to come see it for yourself.
A new benefit to visiting is that you can now purchase some unique plants to take home to satisfy your inspiration after touring the garden. More details on the newly reopened nursery as well as some featured plants are below. If you can’t make the short drive to Peckerwood, come see volunteer and propagator Craig Jackson and me in Houston on April 28th at the Garden Conservancy’s Houston Open Day.
The red new growth of Quercus crassipes in the south dry garden
Quercus rysophylla new growth can vary by the individual, some a lime green (left) and some purple-bronze (right)
We will offer a great selection of plants for sale at Itchy Acres, one of the four diverse private gardens on the Houston tour. Please see our events listings for more information. Ticket and plant sales help support both Peckerwood and the Garden Conservancy. Since we can only exist with the generosity of donors, every little bit makes a huge difference as we go forward developing John Fairey’s amazing garden into a public resource for education and enjoyment and expanding our conservation of the world’s endangered plants. See this newsletter story below of a very important tree on the verge of extinction that Peckerwood will help conserve.
Please call or email if your can volunteer on April 28th for 2 or more hours. There are afternoon openings for volunteers at multiple gardens.
Peckerwood Garden is proud to partner with the Garden Conservancy to bring you this Open Day, a self-guided tour of 4 private gardens in Houston that is part of the Conservancy’s national garden visiting program.
A portion of the proceeds of this Open Day will benefit Peckerwood Garden.
Admission to each garden is $7 for members and nonmembers without tickets purchased in advance. Or, purchase a day pass for $24 to see all four private gardens on this date; available at each location.
Peckerwood Garden staff and volunteers will be hosting a special sale of plants found at Peckerwood Garden and perfect for your own.
The Peckerwood Garden Plant sale will take place at Itchy Acres Artist Community located at 405 Martin Street, Houston TX 77018.
Peckerwood Nursery Grand Re-opening!
We are pleased to have enough plant material to officially re-open our nursery again, and our inventory will grow and diversify in upcoming months. Our open days and other visitor opportunities are the perfect time to shop, but we also are open by appointment 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Many current plant offerings are from easily propagated plants grown at Peckerwood, and we are working on several other rarities that are slower to propagate and will become available in the near future.
We are pleased to offer Senecio aschenbornianus for all who have lusted over it.
It is important to note that we specialize in seldom-seen plants, many of which are not as familiar or as flashy in color as a common petunia, pansy or marigold. Peckerwood founder John Fairey’s famous quote “If you want flowers, go to Walmart!” applies not only to his garden but also to our nursery’s unique offerings. As with his garden, it is not that flowering plants won’t be well-represented, but they take a back seat to the distinctive textures, colors and forms of a diversity of plants that both stand out with more permanence and contribute to the garden’s structural impact than ephemeral flowers.
If you are a plant collector, this will be the place to satisfy your addiction, with many plants in the pipeline that will be new introductions to horticulture. We have a few exciting rarities in short supply that we plan to auction off in the near future to help fund the garden. Please stay tuned for this opportunity.
We have volunteer Craig Jackson to thank for tirelessly propagating the majority of these offerings. Cherie and Frank Lee have been instrumental in dividing up pots of seedlings and helping with organization and labeling, as well as donating plants from their own collection for us to resell. Craig is working on an inventory list that we plan to post on our website so customers can see in advance what we have to offer before making the trip.
I’m particularly excited about the following in our initial plant sale offerings:
Daphniphyllum calycinum is a wonderfully hardy foliage shrub that provides a tropical feel, and is available in the nursery.
Seedlings of Neolitsea japonica are available, one of the most often asked-about shrubs in the woodland garden.
Mahonia pallida : Act quickly as we only have a few robust seedlings in gallon pots. Grown from garden seed of John’s plants collected in Mexico.
Senecio aschenbornianus – This multi-stemmed shrub stretches to at least 5 feet tall and bears oak-shaped leaves. In March the entire plant is smothered in clusters of bright yellow flowers that are a magnet for a variety of pollinators. Offered are rooted cuttings from John’s wild collected Mexican plants.
Trillium ludovicianum – Debatably a native to east Texas, this trillium is better known from Louisiana so it is used to heat and humidity. It prefers moist but well-drained woodland garden conditions, such as on a berm with supplemental irrigation during dry spells. It dies back in late spring/early summer but will re-emerge in February the following year.
Agave sp. ‘Miquihuana Silver
’ – At first glance, young plants might resemble just another common silvery blue agave abundant in the area’s landscapes. However, once this plant gains some size, it is a real standout with an elegant form to the 6 feet long leaves, most of which point straight up, creating a vase-like shape. Unlike the more common silver species, this great selection maintains a clean matte coloration free of blemishes. It’s one of John’s favorite agaves, as of yet unidentified, that he collected around Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Quercus rysophylla (loquat-leaf Oak) – Although becoming more popular, this amazing Mexican oak is so unlike any other with its dark green and highly textured leaves, it therefore deserves wider use in the area’s landscapes.
Quercus glauca (Japanese Blue Oak) – This beautiful evergreen Asian oak tends to form multiple trunks bearing a dense crown of glossy green leaves with chalky blue undersides.
Acer coriaceifolium – This subtropical Asian maple looks nothing like a maple. You won’t see fall color with this species as it is mostly evergreen with unlobed elliptical leaf shape that is perfect for fooling your gardening friends as to its identity. A very tough plant once established.
Daphniphyllum calycinum – Here’s a little- known yet spectacular evergreen shrub for sun to part shade. With insignificant flowers, it is grown for its dense form and large paddle-shaped leaves which give it a tropical appearance, yet is fully hardy in our area.
Litsea japonica – very rare in cultivation, this slow-growing shrub is among the few that maintains a dense form in medium shade without pruning. Blue-green above with fuzzy golden undersides, is attractive foliage is reminiscent of the cool-climate big-leaf rhododendrons that we can’t otherwise grow here, and therefore lends a unique presence in the garden you’d otherwise expect in the Pacific Northwest. With such amazing foliage, you won’t care that the flowers are tiny and ornamentally insignificant.
Plant of the month:Yucca desmetiana
By Adam Black
Another highlight in our nursery inventory and our plant of the month, is a regularly asked- about specimen on our Peckerwood Garden tours. This distinctive and mysterious yucca is unlike any other, with a lot of conflicting information surrounding its true identity.
Originally described in 1870 from a cultivated plant, more recently folks have suggested it could be a hybrid of natural or garden origin, but it may be a naturally occurring species – I don’t know if anyone really knows for sure.
They can be seen growing staked for vertical growth near the Pool Plaza.
Yucca desmetiana may want to creep along the ground when the stems get too long, or they can be staked up.
Adding to the confusion are a variety of names it has been offered under in cultivation, including
Yucca x desmetiana (reflecting the hybrid theory),
Yucca aloifolia ‘Purpurea,’ Y
ucca samuelii, and cultivar names including ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Spellbound,’ all appearing to be the same plant. Though there are reports of it flowering in cultivation, I can’t find any photos, and to my knowledge it has never flowered here. Its chalky blue-green foliage displays purple blush on the new foliage, which intensifies after some winter chilling. Unlike many other species, this yucca has soft rubbery leaves that won’t result in loss of blood. A smaller-statured species, it starts with an erect stem that will produce a cluster of additional stems from the base, but with poor structural integrity it will eventually start leaning under its own weight and soon be scrambling in a twisting manner along the ground, which can create an interesting effect spilling over rocks, especially when it produces multiple stems. John made an interesting grouping of them near the pool plaza where they are staked up, but when they get too tall and lanky for his liking they get cut back to allow new stems to take their place. It is also great for containers, and maybe even a large hanging basket when it starts creeping around.
Its main requirements is sun to partial shade in well-draining soil. It easily tolerates our region’s extremes of heat and cold without any issues. Come purchase one from our nursery while they last.
The chill-intensified purple blush that fades somewhat when the temperatures warm.
Darla Harris of Fern Plantation Nursery and president of the Texas Gulf Coast Fern Society will be presenting an interactive demonstration using a variety of live and even fossil ferns. Some plants will be for sale from her nursery as well as Peckerwood Garden's nursery.
There will be a pre-lecture tour at 3:30 (pre-registration required)
Beyond Peckerwood’s excellent collections of oaks, magnolias, maples and conifers, there are additional trees unfamiliar to most gardeners yet worthy of attention. Come explore areas of the garden less-traveled as we track down the odd and the beautiful trees that stand out among our more familiar species, all while enjoying the beauty of Peckerwood in the throes of spring.
Bronze new leaves on the Mexican sugar maple (Acer skutchii).
My life among the “Stinking Cedars” – Saving the Endangered
By Adam Black
I’m back from a whirlwind trip to my old stomping grounds of Florida, a trip mainly focused around an important event spotlighting an imperiled tree that has fascinated me over the decades, and which Peckerwood will soon play a role in conserving.
Torreya taxifolia is one of the rarest conifers in the world, and has a very interesting story, and I am fortunate to have been involved in various aspects of our knowledge of this enigma. With a natural range limited to the ravines along a short stretch of the Apalachicola River in the Florida panhandle and barely into southern Georgia, it was nonetheless once a dominant, towering constituent of the region’s diverse forest. It then suddenly plummeted close to extinction when a fungal disease and perhaps other factors began impacting this species back in the early to mid-1900’s. Now there is new hope for preserving this species, with Peckerwood playing a part in this endeavor.
A Torreya taxifolia in a north Florida ravine
When the once-mighty torreyas began dying back, many theories emerged as to their decline, but biologists could not conclusively find an answer. Though disease symptoms were noted, no consistent pathogen could be detected…at least using the standard methods employed by labs of that time. Known ecological changes to the forest by human activities such as selective logging and alteration of the adjacent uplands for agriculture, were factored in. The popular idea that seemed most feasible to biologists was that they were a relic from the ice age, pushed south when the climate in the Appalachians was inhospitably cold, and when the glaciers melted, they were somehow unable to migrate back to the cooler haunts further north. The only argument for this was that the trees showed an abrupt decline after appearing rather happy in the preceding years, and cultivated specimens outside of their habitat north Florida continue to thrive.
The team collecting data from a new torreya individual I found in November.
Due to a variety of conditions present, the ravine slope forests where these trees grow contain one of the highest concentrations of plant diversity in all of North America. I have made many hikes to Torreya State Park and the adjacent Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve to explore this amazing botanical wonderland. Having read about them, I remember the first time I encountered wild remnants of these once-towering trees, now reduced to spindly resprouts from the root systems of the former giants, similar to how the disease-ravaged American chestnuts that once blanketed much of the eastern forests sparingly persists today. These sprouts grow to several feet high and ultimately die back and resprout again, a cycle destined to exhaust itself eventually. This conifer just looks so out of place – like something you would expect in a more northerly forest, yet many of the trees here are southernmost extremities of species more familiar in the cool mountains of northern Georgia. Since one of its common names was “stinking cedar,” I was always compelled to crush a few of the sharp, stiff needles and enjoy the resinous yet skunky scent – displeasing to most but strangely appealing to me.
Encountering the few surviving vestiges of this species gave me a bittersweet sense of fortuitous sadness that I was perhaps one of the last generations that would get the full experience of seeing their glistening dark green foliage in the understory, smell the its pungency, and in the process even shed a few drops of blood from being poked by needles while pondering the weathered, rot-resistant stumps of what once was.
Deer antler rubbing is an additional threat to the already-stressed trees, so caging is often necessary
For many years, the varying ideas as to the species’ path to extinction were debated, yet no further scientific research was conducted for decades. Dr. Jason Smith, forest pathologist at the University of Florida, decided to take a new approach to solving the mystery. In 2011, armed with significant advances in modern laboratory diagnostic techniques, his lab and collaborators were finally able to discover a species of pathogenic fungus new to science that was proven to be impacting the torreya trees. Good to finally know but not leaving any room for hope that the tree could be saved, or so I thought.
Quite unexpectedly, things fell into place in my life where I, the passionate amateur botanist at the time, ended up managing Jason’s forest pathology laboratory. Amazingly, I found myself among those at the forefront of understanding the tree’s plight. I was invited to participate in field surveys, where along with folks from the Florida state park service, we would search for undocumented tree resprouts, tag and record their locations, rate their health, and revisit these trees on subsequent trips to update their health status. Cuttings were taken both for future genetic studies as well as for propagation at Atlanta Botanical Garden, where the conservation and horticulture staff led by Ron Determann has been on a mission to backup all remaining wild individuals in cultivation before they are lost in the wild. Further collaborators at the University of Georgia were working on tissue culture methods to produce clones of these individuals that were disease free, with the hopes of creating a backup colony of trees kept isolated away from the pressures of the disease.
All trees found in the wild are tagged, propagated for backup in cultivation, and revisited for health assessments
Unassociated with this conservation project, there exists a group whose mission was the “assisted migration” of the torreyas. They still subscribed to the notion that torreyas missed their opportunity to shift their range north to cooler haunts after the last ice age, and felt that planting propagations in the Appalachians and elsewhere was the key to the species survival.
One of the ghosts of what once was, a still-standing trunk of a torreya being sampled by mycologists from the University of Minnesota.
Though well-meaning and garnering a lot of support, there was great concern with their movement of plant material which was likely carrying the fungal disease. The fungus is thought to be introduced to the U.S. from overseas, considering how quickly it decimated the torreyas. If the disease is introduced to a new environment, what are the chances it might find another conifer species to be a suitable host, potentially creating another, possibly worse, ecological disaster? Aaron Trulock, one of Jason’s students, yielded concerning finds in a preliminary study when various conifers native to the Appalachians were artificially inoculated with the torreya’s fungal pathogen and subsequently produced symptoms. There is still much to learn about how the disease is spread, but moving plants, and likely the disease, is not necessarily the best idea until we have more information.
The Florida torreya is a great poster child for a modern-day extinction happening before our eyes. How has the loss of its dominance in the forest canopy affected the environment? How many less-apparent organisms depended on it in some way, and have also declined? To raise awareness and start asking these questions that will help guide future research and conservation efforts, Jason spearheaded the “Torreya: Tree of Life” event held in early March. In addition to various expert speakers, the keynote presenter was appropriately the legendary “father of biodiversity,” E. O. Wilson. It turns out that Dr. Wilson had spent some time doing field work on ants in Torreya State Park in 1957 and was among the first to notice that something was seriously wrong with the trees, recognizing their loss would create conflicts in the delicate ecosystem. This all echoed the message he popularized to the world bringing attention to the importance of biodiversity, connecting the fact that every organism in an ecosystem from protozoans to megafauna, slime molds to pine trees, is dependent on one another. When pieces of the puzzle, like the torreya, are removed, things go awry. Humans tend to focus on the larger, highly visible pieces when extinction occurs, but so many critical components to the ecosystem are not at all apparent to the casual observer, and their subsequent loss can create a domino effect, or one of the buzzwords commonly used at the conference – an “extinction vortex.”
Hope for the future of a species, and all that depend on it. A seedling Torreya ceremonially planted by Dr. E. O. Wilson.
E. O. Wilson (2nd from left, foreground) and key torreya workers Dr. Jason Smith (L), Emily Coffey from Atlanta Botanical Garden, and Raya Pruner from the Florida State Park Service.
The grassroots event was intended to kick off a larger collaborative look into the diversity of life dependent on the torreya to better define what it means if we were to lose it. Discussions led to thought provoking questions – what else can we do, and should we? How can modern technology play a role, and is it ethical? After all, extinction occurred many times before humans entered the picture, and life as we know it seems to have adapted. Are we positive we have ourselves to blame, or is this a natural event where we shouldn’t intervene? Though always a subject of controversy among some, breakthroughs in gene editing technology could offer realistic hope to rendering the genetic diversity preserved in cultivation at Atlanta Botanical Garden and partner institutions resistant to the disease for reforestation. The goal of assembling the “tree of life” by identifying the organisms dependent on the torreya is a good step at answering the controversial questions and justifying our involvement.
In Madison, Florida, a towering healthy female Florida torreya has stood the test of time. Unlike the shaded understory where the ungainly surviving sprouts reside in their habitat 100 miles due west, this free-standing cultivated tree growing fully exposed under the baking sun provides a majestic view of what a healthy torreya should look like, and seems to go against the thought that this species is unhappy in the hot coastal plain. There are others in cultivation, though much smaller, that look similarly vigorous, and often the best are also growing in full sun. Have these simply remained isolated from the disease, or are they in more favorable conditions?
One of the bigger surviving, but declining specimens seen. Note the foliage only at the very top. This tree will likely die, and then resprout from the roots.
It was during the event that it all came together for me on a personal level. In a ravine I knew well from previous explorations in my younger amateur botanist years, the esteemed Dr. Wilson settled on the ground with the attendees circled around him, all silently transfixed on his every eloquently powerful word. I had never experienced such attentive silence before. When he spoke it seemed as if the wind blowing through the trees temporarily ceased, the birds stopped singing and the cicadas refrained from chirping…all seemingly to hear his messages but perhaps more to remind us of what could happen if we lose that context. It was then that I thought back to when I was an agile youngster sprinting up and down these same slopes so much faster than I can now, considering myself lucky to find a waning torreya before the perceived inevitable extinction, never knowing then that decades later, in one of the very same ravines, I would be listening to reinforcing messages of hope from this living legend, surrounded by like-minded collaborators I had become a part of, all with the common goal of preventing that extinction I was previously told was inevitable. Furthermore, I never would have thought that I would now be leading the conservation mission of a wonderful botanic garden that would be helping ensure the future of those sharp, smelly, ungainly remnants of the “stinking cedar.”