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Plant of the Day

Plant of the Day - Chlorophytum cf. bowkeri

This clumping cousin of the ubiquitous spider plant houseplant is proving to be an outstanding landscape plant.
This clumping cousin of the ubiquitous spider plant houseplant is proving to be an outstanding landscape plant.

It is always fun to find a hardy species in what I otherwise think to be a tropical genus and I'm not alone as evidenced by the fascination in the last decade with hardy scheffleras.  This particular plant, Chlorophytum cf. bowkeri, or African snake lily as it is known to the 10's of people familiar with it in the US is a close relative of the spider plant that hangs listlessly in the corner of dentist offices.  The houseplant is typically grown in its variegated form where its plantlets cascade down like young spiders.  African snake lily is not like this cousin which spreads vigorously.  Instead it forms a lovely clump of stiff, bluish-green foliage.  In late summer into fall it sends up a stiff flower scape to about 4.5' with dainty, white, star shaped flowers that open from the bottom up.  The plant hails from southern Africa.  We've been growing ours in full sun where it has thrived but it would probably grow as well in part shade.  Hardiness is a bit uncertain but it should be fine to at least warm zone 7 gardens.  There is some question as to the correct identity of this plant, it was received as C. colubrinum but it does not match that description.

Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.

The flowers are a welcome addition to the late season garden and would combine well with flowering gingers and tall asters.
The flowers are a welcome addition to the late season garden and would combine well with flowering gingers and tall asters.

Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.

Plant of the Day - Sassafras tzumu, Chinese Sassafras

Plant of the Day - Sassafras tzumu, Chinese Sassafras

ARB-LogoBFin One of our most loved eastern North American trees is the sassafras (Sassafras albidum).  Much less well known is its Chinese counterpart, Sassafras tzumu.  Growing across much of southern China, it makes a tall tree to over 100' tall in open woodlands and forest edges.  In cultivation it typically is more of a medium sized tree, growing to 35'-60' in 20 years.  When grown in the open, it has a distinctly tiered habit, much like some species of dogwoods.  Late winter to early spring flowers are clusters of small gold blooms at the tip of each branch.  In full flower, Chinese sassafras is as showy as any spring flowering tree and resembles a large Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas and C. officionalis).  The leaves emerge with a touch of burgundy before becoming large and green with the typical sassafras foliage shapes - ovate, mitten-like, and tri-lobed.  Sassafras has separate male and female plants so the blue-black fruits are rarely formed unless 2 trees are grown in proximity to each other.  On occasion, typically male plants will put out some female flowers and form fruit.  Fall color is spectacular and among the best for southern gardens.  After the leaves drop, stout yellow-green branches provide some measure of winter interest.

A Chinese sassafras in full flower is hard to beat.

Pollinators appreciate the showy flowers as well.

Fall color can be spectacular.

Sassafras tzumu growing wild in the Nanling Mountains in China.

A snowfall highlights the tiered, open habit of Chinese sassafras.

The blue fruit of Sassafras tzumu.

Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.

Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.

Plant of the Day - Purple Jade Vine - Mucuna cyclocarpa

Plant of the Day - Purple Jade Vine - Mucuna cyclocarpa

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Purple jade vine's huge flower clusters resemble a cluster of grapes. I love growing vines in the landscape whether they are climbing an arbor, covering a fence, or scrambling through a tree or sturdy shrub.  They add a touch of wildness in many cases but also add interest when other plants have finished their show or haven't started yet.  It seems many gardeners are a bit afraid of vines, especially vigorous ones.  I often find myself reminding folks that it is OK for their plants to touch and a vine in a tree is only a problem when it grows out of scale.

A vine that is getting me pretty excited recently is Mucuna cyclocarpa, also known as purple jade vine or in China as min you ma teng.  As with so many other plants, I first encountered it at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens at Plant Delights Nursery where it was decorating a fence surrounding a staff vegetable garden.  It is a vigorous growing woody vine from relatively low elevations in southeast China which originally gave me little hope for its winter hardiness.  The foliage makes it easy for gardeners to place it in the bean (Fabaceae) family as the three-part leaves look much like common garden beans but are typically larger and the terminal leaflet has a cordate or heart-shaped base.

Mucuna is a fairly large genus with about 100 species of vines and shrubs found in the tropics.  As a general rule, the leaves are composed of 3 leaflets, the flowers are in panicles and are generally showy purple, red, orange, or green.  The bean pods often have wings along their margins which may help them to float in water as a dispersal mechanism.  Some species are used in medicines, especially M. pruriens which contains serotonin, L-dopa, and some hallucinogenic compounds.  Many species have hairs on their seed pods or stems which can cause an itching reaction.

Mucuna bennettii, a tropical vine, growing over shrubs and an arbor in Hawai'i.

While the foliage of M. cyclocarpa makes a lovely backdrop, the flowers of purple jade vine are what really excites.  Huge clusters the size of a grapefruit dangle from the stems.  The Flora of China says it flowers on old wood, but my experience says otherwise.  The flower clusters are composed of dozens of deep, dusky purple blossoms with a texture like thick plastic.  The flowers can be somewhat obscured by the foliage but when grown on a horizontal structure like the top of an arbor, the clusters will dangle like grape bunches.  Bean pods are formed after the flowers if they are pollinated, so far we have not had much seed set.  Pods are bumpy with roundish seeds and are initially covered with a sparse layer of reddish hairs.

The flower clusters of purple jade vine are quite large with thick-textured blossoms.

While purple jade vine grows as a large woody vine in sub-tropical climates, it will usually die to the ground in a colder area but spring back in summer with a vengeance.  In fact, our plant went in the ground in late summer of 2012 and by mid-summer of 2014 has grown to cover one side of a shade structure easily 12' wide by 10' tall and looks likely to double that size if left un-pruned.  It doesn't seem to have any problem climbing on its own but may need some help if it is to be grown up a single post.  Full sun to light shade.  Ours is growing in a very rich, light soil, we have not experimented with it on heavier clay soils.

Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.

Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.

Bold foliage makes a great backdrop to Mucuna cyclocarpa.

Plant of the Day - Acer pictum, The Painted Maple

ARB-LogoBFin There are a handful of maples that garner most of the gardening world's attention - Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), red & sugar (A. rubrumA. saccharum), Norway (A. platanoides) and a smattering of others.  While these are all excellent garden plants and you would be hard-pressed to find many maples that aren't beautiful, it seems that the painted maple (Acer pictum) often is over-looked.

A very old specimen at the Arnold Arboretum.

Painted maple ranges across a wide swath of eastern temperate Asia from Siberia through Mongolia and Korea into China and along much of the Japanese archipelago.  It was first described in western literature by the Swedish botanist Karl von Thunberg in 1784 but was widely known as Acer mono after it was introduced to the west in the 1880's.  It's name continues to cause confusion with some authorities using A. pictum to cover the entire species while other botanists break it down into several subspecies including A. pictum subsp. mono.

The broad leaves and buttery fall color make a bold statement in autumn.

By any name, it makes a wonderful small to medium-sized tree to about 40' tall, ideal for suburban landscapes looking for a shade tree in scale with today's smaller lot sizes.  Since it ranges over such a wide area, there is considerable variation in foliage but the typical forms found in cultivation have 5-7 lobes which usually have entire or smooth margins.  The lobes are not deeply incised and often form broad triangles.  Fall color is usually a rich, buttery yellow and the smooth bark found on most varieties is quite attractive.

The drool-worthy speckled foliage of Acer pictum 'Naguri Nishiki'.

The Japanese have selected several variegated forms which can be exquisite additions to the garden.  My favorite, 'Naguri Nishiki' is heavily speckled with a dusting of white spots to the point where it is more white than green.  Another unusual form, sometimes known as the bat wing maple but more correctly as 'Usugumo', is also stippled with white but what sets it apart from other maples is the tissue between the veins.  It looks almost like umbrella fabric stretched between ribs of the umbrella (or like a bat wing I suppose).  It always elicits comment and discussion.  A third variegated form, 'Tokiwa Nishiki' has broad sections of its leaves sectored and splashed with white often with entire leaves lacking any green coloration.  I imagine it requires some selective pruning of reversions but it is widely used in Japanese landscapes.

'Tokiwa Nishiki' makes a striking statement in the garden - definitely not for the faint of heart.

Painted maples are easy in the landscape requiring a loose, well-drained soil.  Variegated forms may need some afternoon shade in hot climates and plants will appreciate supplemental water in dry spots especially while establishing.  In Japan I have seen various selections kept small through regular root and branch pruning in order to fit in smaller landscapes or large containers.

Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.

The odd bat wing-like foliage of 'Usugumo'

Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.