Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Hydrangea arborescens

 Mt. Cuba Center recently released the results from their Hydrangea arborescens (and relatives) trial, and I want to offer some of my views on their results. For those unfamiliar with them, they're in Delaware and their trails are excellent for recommendations of what performs well in the mid-Atlantic region. 

I'm a fan of H. arborescens, it's a reliable performer for gardeners throughout much of the country. For us here in the upper mid-west, it's hardy, blooms well, and grows beautifully in bright shade to a fair bit of sun. It also happens to be soil adaptable and generally attractive to a range of pollinators including flies, bees, and wasps. Butterflies and hummingbirds aren't terribly common visitors, but they do occasionally utilize Hydrangea.  

The first thing I want to say is that I'm mostly unsurprised by the results. The top ten are varieties known to be excellent performers and maybe the only one that surprises me is the old 'Grandiflora'. Which brings me to another surprise; 'Annabelle' received a 4.0 rating, which is higher than several newer varieties that I would rate higher than due to better habit. 

'Haas Halo' took the spot of top performer with a 5 star rating. We've been selling this one for a few years now and my plant was recently planted and isn't mature but I'm already happy with its performance. Foliage is dark green, the lacecap flowers are large have a good balance of sterile and fertile flowers, and it's fairly attractive to pollinators. For Mt. Cuba this one reached 7' tall and wide; here in the far north I expect this one to be a bit more reasonably sized, but time will tell. Cutting it back in spring can bring the height to 4' or so and the flowers will be even larger. This is the standard by which all lacecap H. arborescens should be judged.

I don't have a photo, but ‘SMNHALR’ LIME RICKEY® PP28858 took second place with a rating of 4.6. This variety has relatively flat mophead clusters that are smaller than 'Annabelle', which leads to the overall habit being sturdy and upright. It was one of the largest plants in their trial, reaching almost 6'x8' and I'd expect it to be slightly smaller here in the far north. Sterile flowers start out lime green, mature to creamy white, and age back to lime green. Fertile flowers are pink. This is a hybrid of  H. radiata x H. arborescens 'Pink Pincushion' and was bred by Spring Meadow Nursery and introduced as part of the Proven Winners® line of plants; unfortunately it has already been discontinued and is no longer available. If you see it for sale, it's worth picking up if you're looking for a reliable mophead. 

I also don't have a photo of ‘NCHA4’ INCREDIBALL BLUSH® PP28280, which came in with a rating of 4.5. This is tied for the top rated pink variety in the trial with the next variety; and the flowers are large, medium-pink maturing to blush pink, mopheads on sturdy stems to 4' tall. Foliage is dark green and overall habit was 5' wide. It grew best in full sun and they found that cutting it back in spring led to larger flowers but weaker stems, so don't cut it back. 

Tied for third place was ‘NCHA2’ INVINCIBELLE SPIRIT II® PP28316 with a rating of 4.5 as well. Like INCREDIBALL BLUSH® this was bred by Tom Ranney at NCSU and has a similar genetic background. Flowers are darker pink and slightly smaller. Habit was sturdy and upright. Of all the mopheads, this variety was the most attractive to pollinators. It scored much better than its predecessor, ‘NCHA1’ INCINCIBELLE SPIRIT® (pictured below in several gardens) for having a more robust habit and darker pink flower color (along with more pollinator visits). 


So far, my experience has not been the same. INVINCIBELLE SPIRIT® has been more sturdy and flower color has been a cleaner, clearer pink. It is however several years older and maybe gets slightly more sunlight, so I'm not judging INCINCIBELLE SPIRIT II® too harshly yet. For the record, INVINCIBELLE SPIRIT® scored 3.7, lower than 'Annabelle' which is a huge surprise to me and I strongly disagree with this rating. But it's kind of irrelevant since it's not available any more. 

Third place was a three-way tie and the third of these plants was, unsurprisingly, ‘Abetwo’ INCREDIBALL® PP20571. Foliage is medium green, stems are sturdy, mophead flowers are large and start lime-green maturing to white, and habit is 5.5'x7.5'. This plant is an improvement over its parent, 'Annabelle', in every possible way and it baffles me that some nurseries are still growing that and not this. The above picture was taken at Rotary Botanic Garden in Janesville, WI post-bloom and the flowers were still held nicely upright. 

That rounds out the top 3 plants, from here I'm going to talk only about plants I've grown or observed. In fifth place was ‘Dardom’ White Dome® PP14168. I don't have any pictures, I grew and sold this commercially for a bunch of years and it was always a tough sell. I think partly because it's a lacecap, which are never as popular as mopheads, but also because it is an incredibly vigorous variety and never looked great in pots! But if you can find this one for sale and want a lacecap it's not a bad inclusion for the garden. Plants are robust, stems are sturdy, flowers are large and extremely attractive to pollinators, and foliage is dark green. 


‘NCHA3’ INVINCIBELLE RUBY® scored 4.0. I've only seen this one in pots at retail, but I'd like to get one in the garden. Flower color was a nice dark pink, similar in color to BELLA ANNA but larger in all ways. Foliage was dark. For Mt. Cuba this variety was only 2.5'x4' which seems excessively small to me; I'd expect it to grow larger. It performed best in full sun for them, so plant in a bright location. They had trouble with broken flower stems, but cutting back in spring alleviated this issue. 

Ruby-throated hummingbird on 'Annabelle'

'Annabelle' is the most popular H. arborescens on the market. I may be overly harsh on it, but when I encounter it, it's floppy and weak-stemmed more often than not. It scored 4.0, which is higher than I'd rate it; I'd probably move it down to a 3.5. These days there are any number of better varieties.


‘PIIHA-1’ ENDLESS SUMMER® BELLA ANNA PP21227 was such a promising plant when it was released. Unfortunately it failed to deliver on that promise and ranked 3.5. Flowers start out green and gain pink tones. Overall effect is green, turning mahogany, then pink; it's an effect that I quite like, but not everyone appreciates brown flowers. Stems are very weak and brittle, leading to floppy flower stems laying on the ground. Foliage is yellow-green to medium green and fairly small. I still have one for posterity, but maybe I'll ditch it some day. 

Ranking even lower are some varieties that I grow here and have sold, would sell, or will sell. 


The first of them is 'Hayes Starburst', known for its double flowers. Unfortunately it's also known to be quite floppy and totally sterile, making it unattractive to pollinators. These two characteristics gave it a 3.2 rating. We did have a few to sell last year as some people (like me) still want this for its flower effect. We may occasionally offer it with the caveat that it's not sturdy. 


One of the most unique Hydrangeas on the market has 3 different names, but they're all the same plant: 'Green Dragon', 'Riven Lace', or 'Emerald Lace'. Being that I'm a fan of fantasy fiction and RPG games, I prefer 'Green Dragon' personally. This scored a low 3.1. it was unattractive to pollinators and they experienced leaf burn even in the shade. Here in the north, leaf burn isn't an issue and I would score it higher. Due to the uniquely twisted and serrate foliage, this is worth growing for its ornamental characteristics, but should be avoided if pollinators are your focus. I'll keep an eye on mine for pollinator attraction here, maybe it's a regional preference. I'm interested to see if pollinator friendliness can be bred into it, but I don't know if I have time for that project. This is one that I will absolutely offer for sale in the future. 


H. radiata 'Samantha' scored a low 3.1. The species shows drought stress readily (which matches my experience) and in sun the sterile flowers of this mophead variety quickly turned brown. Even in shade the flowers aren't as long lasting. The foliage tends to be medium to dark green and the leaf backs are beautifully white. I find the stems fairly sturdy. Given my northern location, I would rate this a bit higher as the flowers don't brown out so badly in shade here but are still short-lived. The straight species, H. radiata, with its lacecap flowers scored the lowest at 2.5 which I can't say I agree with. It's been somewhat slow growing here and exhibits the short-lived flower problems above, but it does tend to have a nice habit when I've seen it. Pollinators were fairly attracted to this species as well. But, other than the silver leaf backs there are many varieties far superior to either of these forms. I do look forward to seeing white leaf backs on modern hybrids with good performance some day, but until then we may occasionally offer either of these as a horticultural curiosity. The leaves turn and flip in the wind and the effect of flashing white backs is compelling, if nothing else. 

So overall, based on the above results, look for 'Haas Halo' (we sell it!), INCREDIBALL BLUSH®, INVINCIBELLE SPIRIT II®, or INCREDIBALL® as the current best options. There are other good options out there as well and a few that are at least interesting enough to include if you have the space or desire for something different. More varieties have been introduced and aren't included in this trial, so it will be neat to see how they compare. 


















Wednesday, January 5, 2022

2021: A Year in Plants Review


Warning: This is going to be wordy early and then become a very picture heavy post. I took a LOT of pictures last year. This will be but a fraction of them. I suppose I ought to review the actual year though first, yeah? 

Maybe equally important: a quick 2020 recap might be in order. Otherwise you may be a bit lost if you don't follow the nursery's website, social media, or know me personally. I don't think I discussed this on the blog at all. In January 2020 I was diagnosed with early stage stomach cancer. I had surgery, chemo, and some setbacks. It was hard, but mostly it was an upward trajectory and I never lost hope or my positive outlook. I came through it feeling good about the future. 

2020 started low and had a mostly steady upward climb. 2021 was much more of a roller coaster. We brought in a good selection of neat new and old plants. Due to industry shortages and other factors we got shorted more plants than ever in my 25 year career. Area for the nursery got graded. It was a longer process and slightly more expensive than expected. We had record sales. We had record expenses. I got to go out and do a lot of botanizing in early spring. I didn't get back out to collect seed. The pandemic started to abate a little. We got a new logo, new shirts, and A BANNER! We did a couple in-person events, including hosting our first open house at the nursery, and got to see some old friends. A monitoring CT scan found a new mass, we thought I was dying. I got a lot of new plants in the ground. I got lyme's disease. I did some hybridizing. We found out I'm not dying (any faster than normal anyway). Several friends from the Hosta hobby passed away. I started more chemo, but the side effects aren't awful. We got the hoophouse up before winter. We got the website (mostly) done for spring. The pandemic got worse again. Because of industry shortages I'm getting ready for 2023 and even 2024 already. 

I think that about covers it. I'm not gonna lie, it was a rough year. It took almost 6 weeks to get a full diagnosis with good news and another 6 weeks to have a treatment plan and path forward. Basically all summer. By fall, for the first time, plants felt like work that I didn't want to do. Luckily it was a short phase - I'm over it and plants are fun. I'm looking forward to hopefully selling plants at conventions in 2022. 

Ok. Less talk, more rock. 

Bloom season started out, of course, with witch hazel. Hamamelis vernalis 'Purple Prince' purchased from Songsparrow in 2020, gave me blooms at the end of March.

Some succulents that I wasn't sure would survive our wet winter did fairly well. I've heard lots of reports of Sempervivum 'Gold Nugget' struggling even in crevice gardens. It had some winter damage as you can see, but recovered beautifully. Orostachys spinosus did great, but unfortunately the chipmunks decided it was offensive and removed it. I'll need several new ones. 
Our hundreds of naturally occurring Trillium grandiflorum and cultivated Trillium luteum are always impressive. 
Brunnera perform well here. 'Sterling Silver' has grown well since last year and does indeed seem to be an improvement over 'Jack Frost'. I added 'Diane's Gold', which seems to be a love it or hate it plant. I do like it. I also think it could be better. 
Allium listera is maybe the rarest plant in my collection, thanks to my friend Mark McDonough for sending it to me. He thinks we're possibly the only two people in the US who have it. 
Polemonium 'Heaven Scent' continues to be amazing. It's easy to grow, fragrant, and beautiful. Why don't more people buy this? 
The native Swida (formerly Cornus) sericea that emerges with gold foliage I found many years ago still looks great in spring. It's planted at my in-laws' house. I finally moved a small rooted layer from this plant to our house. 
The Iris x robusta that start out with purple foliage were somewhat unimpressive this year. 'Gerald Darby' (top) was barely purple at all. 'Dark Aura' is still superior in my garden, but even it was less than great this year.

Iris odasaenanensis 'Ice Whisper' bloomed already in spring, despite being small and newly planted in September 2020. 
Iris dabashanensis also bloomed already. Very excited by these woodland Iris. 
I added some Magnolia this year, including 'Sunsation' which I hope will survive our winters. 
Phlox divaricata looks great in a naturalized area. 
There is some debate whether Phlox 'Chatahoochie' is a selection of P. divaricata ssp laphamii or a hybrid of P. divaricata ssp laphamii x P. pilosa. Talking to Peter Zale and reading accounts from others, it seems like there are several clones of 'Chatahoochie' out there. This one definitely seems like a hybrid; it emerges from dormancy and starts blooming later than my P. divaricata ssp laphamii, and the foliage is darker green, stiffer, and narrower. 

Dicentra spectablis 'Cupid' is a nice pale pink form of old-fashioned bleeding heart. 


The Primula were all really nice this year, and I got some first time blooms on seed obtained in 2019 from the American Primrose Society. I highly recommend joining if you're at all interested in these plants. 

Syringa x chinensis 'Lilac Sunday' is impressive. It sets both terminal and axillary flower buds, giving the appearance of one massive flower cluster. 

Lamiastrum galeobdolon 'Herman's Pride' is a well-behaved selection that is clump-forming rather than running. Cheery yellow flowers and silver patterned leaves are delightful. 

Epimedium are continuing to establish and do well. This E. wushanense 'Sandy Claws' is surviving so far and even gave me some flowers. 

Convallaria majalis 'Albostriata' is beautiful but may be aggressive. I may relegate this to a container if it seems to get to rambunctions. 

'Stainless Steel'
'Peachberry Ice'
'Carnival Peach Parfait'
Seedling
'Color Dream'
'Regina'
'Silver Scrolls'
Heuchera continue to be an obsession. I found some nice specimens of 'Silver Scrolls' at our local post office, which is nice to see. Despite its popularity many years ago, I don't see it around much. It's a great older variety that survives in the midwest beautifully, like most introductions from Charles Oliver. I continue to slowly update The Heuchera Library

'Restless Sea' in spring
'Restless Sea' in September
'Winter Snow'
'Frisian Pride'
'Nancy'
'Bitsy Gold'
'Blue Mouse Ears'
'Candy Kisses'
H. clausa var. normalis
'Con Te Partiro'
'Country Melody'
'Cranberry Wine'
'Deep Blue Sea'
'Family Crest'
'Feng Shui'
'Flemish Sky'
'Frosted Dimples' with Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Gold Angel'
'Frosted Frolic'
'Fruit Loop' with Chelonopsis yagiharana
'Gemstone'
'Indigo'
'Katie Q'
'Millennium'
'Mito No Hana'
'Mount Everest'
'Munchkin Fire'
'Olympic Edger'
'Patriot's Fire'
'Pixie Vamp'
'Punky'
'Satisfaction'
'Silver Threads and Golden Needles'
'Singin' the Blues'
'Slim and Trim'
'Sparkling Burgundy'
'Spooky Scary Skeletons'
'Sterling Medallion'
'Valley's Ruffle Shuffle'
'Vulcan Ears'
'Yellow Polka Dot Bikin'

Hostas of course are still the most numerous plants in my collection. I got several new ones this year, moved several here from the in-laws' house, and was gifted two from one of my chemo nurses who is a certified Hostaholic. I also did some hybridizing for the first time in a few years. I didn't get all my seed collected, but I got enough. If you're a Hosta nerd like me, consider joining the American Hosta Society

Baptisia 'Cinnamon Toast'
Baptisia 'Dutch Chocolate'
The false indigos are all settling in beautifully. They're starting to get dense and bloom very well. Just another few years and they'll be mature clumps. 

Penstemon 'Dark Tower'
Penstemon hirsutus
Clematis 'Asao'
Clematis texensis 'Duchess of Albany'
Lily bloom season kicks off in June with the martagon hybrids. We're ground zero for red lily beetle in Wisconsin so I've stopped adding to my collection. A single spraying of acetamiprid gave me good control all season. It's a more friendly systemic neonictinoid in that it doesn't translocate through the plant but has good translaminar action. This means it moves from the top surface of the leaf to the bottom of the leaf, but it doesn't move through the plant to pollen or nectar, which greatly reduces exposure to pollinators. 

'Burst of Joy'
'Coral Cove'
'Nuits De Young'
R. wichuriana 'Curiosity'
'Miracle on the Hudson'
Roses are a love I don't talk about much for some reason. I've ground hundreds of varieties in a production environment and have grown dozens in the garden. Some may be short lived since I'm so far north. I don't fully expect our new additions of 'Coral Cove', 'Burst of Joy', or 'All the Rage' to survive winter, but obviously hope they do. If not, I'll replace with something else. 'Nuits De Young' is an old moss that's very  hardy, 'Curiosity' is probably hardy as long as we have good snow cover, and 'Miracle on the Hudson' is outstanding so far. 
Veronica 'Charlote' might be the nicest Veronica I've ever grown. It hasn't gotten mildew, it doesn't struggle here, and it's variegated to boot!
Cirsium rivulare 'Trevor's Blue Wonder' is more delightful than I ever could have hoped. It bloomed repeatedly through summer and was usually covered in bumble bees and butterflies. This is the odd insect free moment. 
Asiatic lily 'Purple Dream' 
Asiatic lily 'Night Rider'
Asiatic lily 'Stracciatella Event'
Asiatic lily 'Chocolate Event'
Asiatic-Oriental-Asiatic hybrid 'Hotel California'
Oriental-nepalense hybrid 'Kushi Maya'
Oriental-nepalense F2 hybrid 'African Lady'
Lily bloom continued in July with the asiatics, AOA, and finally interdivisional hybrids. The interdivisional hybrids are very fragrant. You can see some lily beetle damage that occurred before I sprayed 'African Lady'. 

Astilbe 'Visioin Inferno' is a great plant with a name I strongly dislike. Nothing about pale pink flowers screams INFERNO! to me. But it seems to be one of the best of the visions series I've grown. 

Silphium perfoliatum 'The Holy Grail'

'Burnin' Down the Town'
'Field of Screams'
'Fringed Sweetheart'
'Fujita Scale'
'Gala Finale'
'Gigantosaurus'
'Paul Voth'
'Red Nova'
'Strutters Ball'
I've had a long time love affair with daylilies and a few new ones were added again this year during our annual trip to Solaris Farms. Nate Bremer is a great guy and I can't recommend them highly enough for daylilies, peonies, or lilies. 

Hydrangea arborescens 'Haas Halo'
Hydrangea arborescens 'Hayes Starburst'
Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Spirit II
Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Spirit
Hydrangea arborescens 'Emerald Lace' aka 'Green Dragon', 'Riven Lace' 
I continue to add more Hydrangeas. They're indispensable shrubs for shade gardens. 

Echinacea sanguinea from Texas survived winter which was a big surprise. Hopefully it continues to do well. 
Echinacea 'Wild Horses' has gotten even more impressive and is one of my favorite subtle hybrids. It starts out a pale peach and matures light pink. 
Aconitum uncinatum 'White Witch' was added late last year and bloomed this season. Delightful selection of an eastern US native. 

Clethra alnifolia 'Woodlanders Sarah' was a new addition this year. I'm excited to have good conditions for the species here and look forward to adding more. 

Hibiscus 'Holy Grail' came back beautifully and finally started blooming in August. 
I finally got a chance to visit Glenn Herold this year. He has a great collection of plants, including this mature Symphoricarpos 'Sofia' Proud Berry. He also gifted me Hydrangea arborescens 'Green Dragon'.
I thought Vernonia 'Southern Cross' had died, but it was just very late to come up and didn't emerge form dormancy until June. But it was big and beautiful by September. 

I wasn't sure Rabdosia longituba would even survive, much less bloom. But bloom it did. Though it might be killed by frost before bloom most years. 

I did manage to get out to the county arboretum and collect seed from a couple specimens of Hamamelis virginiana. It's a delightful species, even if the flowers are usually hidden by yellow fall color. It's an important last food for pollinators here. 

The bloom season concluded with this Hamamelis 'Beholden', just in time for Thanksgiving. We had a fairly mild fall, it will be interesting to see how this variety blooms in the future. It's known for November bloom in warmer climates. It may hold off until late winter here most years.
The last plant picture I took of 2021 is of Hamamelis 'Winter Champagne', which is likely a hybrid between H. virginiana and H. vernalis. It's known for blooming in December, but we're too cold for such foolishness here. It will wait until we have a warm spell, buds ready to bloom. I suppose it signifies hope for 2022. Stay warm. Stay safe. Stay healthy.