For twenty years & counting, Louis has been growing & partnering with hundreds of uncommon & astonishing plants:
Today in Key West: 'White Ghost' Euphorbia Revisited
Two years ago, I introduced this White Ghost euphorbia, which was thriving in the delightful Martello Tower garden in Key West. In the tropics, plants grow so quickly that two years there is like a decade or two in New England. Mindful of the devastating hurricanes since, I was anxious that this singular succulent might have been crushed or, simply, swept away.
But no. Here it is, in the pink literally. But pink? Two years ago, all its young growth was tan. As Alice remarked in Wonderland, "Curiouser and curiouser."
Today in Key West: White Orchid Tree
Up North, trees with flowers so large that they are showy individually, even from a distance, are pretty much limited to magnolias. Not so in the tropics, where scores of arboreal species produce blooms as large as your hand.
Even amid such competition, the flowers of the white orchid tree are standouts. (True, it doesn't hurt to have an adorable Key West conch cottage as the backdrop.) Is this tree a possibility back North? Thinking creativity, yes.
Today in Key West: Thryallis Vine
My pair of potted thryallis shrubs guarantees that, each season from August into October, my hot-color garden in New England is graced by fireworky spikes of yellow and red flowers. This thryallis brings the same excitement to the street scene of Key West year-round—but it's a vine.
Vining thryallis: Who knew? The flower spikes are identical to those of the bushy form. Would the vine be a more effective, easy to handle, or exciting vehicle for them back North? Only one way to find out.
Today in Key West: Striped Dianella to the Horizon
My four pots of striped dianella make a rare statement up North. In the tropics—as here, fronting a municipal building in Key West—the plant is more often used as a hardworking groundcover.
This fifty-foot swathe is now hazy with spikes of minute white blossoms. Later in the season, they'll mature to colorful blue berries.
Today in Key West: African Tulip Tree
Hurricanes are normal for Key West, so stormworthy trees should be the rule. But there are just too many other tempting possibilities for this, the mildest climate in North America—especially those that wouldn't survive even in sometimes-chilly Miami. The platter-sized flower clusters of African tulip tree are staggeringly good, so the trees are planted here despite their brittle wood.
Above, what's left of my favorite: sprouts from the roots.
'Berrima Gold' Incense Cedar
Conifers with gold foliage aren't unusual. Indeed, some are horrifyingly popular. Even so, Berrima Gold incense cedar deserves a place in any garden where it's hardy. Indeed, I think of it as a category killer: Start with Berrima Gold and, maybe, finish right there.
The bright gold young foliage is just the first reason. Its coppery tones in winter, the tree's copper bark all year, and—perhaps most unusual of all—the near-white mature foliage make Berrima Gold indelibly exciting.
Pollarding the Chinese Tulip Trees
Three pollarded Chinese tulip trees front a block of ten-foot-high yew hedge. Chinese tulip trees? Leaves of this Asian tulip-tree cousin are gigantic—and burgundy when young. Pollarded? Cutting young stems back to their stubs stimulates regrowth that is particularly eager and colorful, while also keeping it at eye level.
Colorful? May to September, you'll see. Eager? These straight-up stems are last year's growth, and some of them are over seven feet long.
February Daphne Explores the Garden
So-called "February" daphne really is in bloom that month if you encounter it in Seattle or London. Here in New England, February is still too cold for the flowers themselves—but not for their green calyces.
In the strange way of these shrubs, my original February daphne thrived for years before dying for no apparent reason. But I still have the species in my garden: These are stems of one of the self-seeded volunteers.
Dwarf Sea Buckthorn
Ah, trough gardens in summer! Here's one that I've planted exclusively with plants that demand lean, dry soil. Think sand with a side of gravel. Prickly pear cactus was a natural, as were the creeping yellow-leaved sedum and (look closely) the broom at the left.
But what about the silver-leaved shrub at the center? It's the unique dwarf cultivar of sea buckthorn. The species is often a rangy monster, but this cultivar may never top two feet. Did I mention that it's hardy to Zone 3? That's Nome, Alaska.
Golden European Ash, Garden to Brushpile to Vase
With yolk-yellow bark and ebony-black bud scales, young stems of golden ash are stunning. Even more stems? An even better show. So I cut off the oldest stems to encourage plenty of new ones, and also to keep the tree as compact as a shrub. Then, everything is more-or-less at eye level.
A bigger-than-usual pruning meant a pile of older stems on the brushpile—with all their gorgeous younger stems still attached. Why leave that colorful show behind? In ten minutes, I harvested the youngsters as a hostess gift for a dinner party.
One of gardening's mysteries is why the deciduous barberries—Berberis thunbergii in particular—are omnipresent even where evergreen barberries are also hardy. This is Berberis replicata, so desirable and yet so rarely planted it doesn't even have a decent common name.
This shrub is hardy to coastal Maine, deer-proof, with quality foliage & fragrant flowers—and it doesn't seem to self-seed. Under any name, it's essential.
The Best Season Ever: Meyer Lemons in Fruit
Provided you take the place of insect pollinators, Meyer lemons eagerly produce their uniquely sweet fruits even when they spend much of their lives indoors.
Last January I was, paint brush in hand, gamely assisting with pollination of the blossoms of my pair of young trees. A year later, luscious fruits are dropping from heavy-laden branches. The crop is so precocious, so bountiful, that supportive staking seemed urgent lest the fecund branches snap. True, picking the fruit helps, too.
The Best Season Ever: Planetree Bark
In January, the garden enters its most somber season. No plant is in flower, and few even have leaves, let alone ones that are still green. And yet, for some woody plants that are leafless—deciduous, in other words—the dead of winter is a peak season. These are the shrubs and trees with interesting bark.
Like a plane tree. The bark of this one is typical, with large irregular patches that have flaked away to reveal deeper layers of contrasting shades.
Good Together: 'Dragon Lady' Crossvine and 'Gold Cone' Juniper
Crossvine comes with its own suspense this far north. It can take years of attention and protection to establish a plant, and unflinching determination to try yet again after it dies. But if you can bring the vine across a threshold of age or size or volume, then the mission suddenly changes to control.
This one of my trials of the supposedly-hardier Dragon Lady cultivar seems to have launched—and with gusto. A protected location may have been less important than pairing with the dense, snug muffler of a Gold Cone juniper. The ultimate victory will be sheets of fiery bloom come spring; but as winter descends, sheets of nearly evergreen foliage are almost as good.
Good Together: Allée of 'Limelight' Tree Hydrangeas
Creating structural garden components of living plants, not hardscape, requires boundless optimism, diligence, and patience: The constituent plants of a hedge, arch, pergola, allée, or backdrop screen aren't available full-size, and will assume their mature forms only after years or, even, decades. And all the while, only by dint of partnership with their human stewards.
Someday, this allée of tree hydrangeas will canopy the central walkway. Right now, I'm grateful, simply, that their heads of dried-in-place flowers are high enough to be visible. Give me five or ten years, and all the "hortitecture" composing this view will be finally, and fully, formed.
The Curtain of Weeping Bald Cypress
Any plant in a starring location must command it—and with style. On both counts, this young, weeping form of bald cypress, Cascade Falls, has a bright future.
Unusual for a star, it also has a prosaic function: curtaining off an extension of one of the garden's cross-axes that (long story) must cut through a giant brush pile before resuming its cartesian course.
Foxtail Lilies, Below Ground & Above
One of the counter-intuitive delights of plants—so much of whose growth is, necessarily, above-ground—is that what’s below ground is sometimes startlingly visual. Roots of yellow root are—you guessed it—yellow. Chrome yellow. Feeder roots of lotus form a starburst of white filaments, each with a pink tip.
But here's the rub: Such shows are on display only when the plants are bare-root. Keep that lotus out of water for more than minutes, and it will begin to wilt. For the day? It could die outright.
Happily, some plants are marketed as dormant tubers, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs that tolerate being out of the ground and fully visible for weeks or even months. And a few of those normally-hidden structures are stunners.
Durably Deciduous: 'Winter Beauty' Honeysuckle
Winter Beauty honeysuckle is one of my garden's most hardworking shrubs: fragrant flowers in late winter, purple bark on the new stems in summer, colorful bark on the older stems all winter and, perhaps closest to my heart, the ability to be trained into espaliers as well as standards and coppices.
Here's yet another talent: The foliage doesn't check out when fall frosts begin.
Castor Aralia, More Spiky than Ever
Six years ago, my castor aralia had just three stems. Now there are a dozen or so. They'll remain leafless until new foliage emerges in spring, so their freakish thorniness is in full reveal.
For me, even one viciously thorny branch that is naked from November through April is one kind of heaven. More please!
Viburnums lack the colorful flowers of rhododendrons and roses but, especially in climate zone 6 and colder, are far more useful. But being thought of as merely functional would be to damn them with faint praise.
Thankfully, it's possible to look beyond those other shrubs' flowers. Actually, it's a relief to do so: it frees you to appreciate the rest of the world of shrubbery on its own terms.
Such as viburnums. Below, a so-called leatherleaf viburnum.
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Wingnut Cascade
Wingnut puts on a show year-round: stripe-barked stems in winter, spikes of white flowers in summer and, summer into winter, these clusters of papery-winged seeds—the "nuts," if you will.
One quirk among many with this plant is that, while the spikes of white flowers are upright, even vertical, by the time the winged seeds that follow have matured, the spikes will have plunged downward. Ah, for a stop-action camera to capture this arc of fruitfulness.
Over weeks each fall, truckloads of container specimens decamp from the garden to the greenhouse. Add the gradual die-off of the warm-weather annuals, plus the digging up of the tropical tubers, and you have a massive seasonal exodus.
The hardy plants are left in high relief. This, then, is the season to rediscover them. What have they been doing, and how well are they doing it?
Take box-leaf privet.
Red Oak Topiary-to-Be
Topiary is the training of any plant into a shape it couldn't achieve on its own. "Training" mostly means pruning, so topiary also makes plants compact, not just shapely. Topiary from shade trees, then, is an ultimate victory, maintaining a creature that might otherwise become eighty feet high and wide at a fraction of that.
Beech trees are the usual choice for shade-tree topiary. (I'm on it!) But what about oaks? Here's a very young red oak, at the fall peak of its namesake coloring.
Swamp Mallow Summer to Fall
Cherry-red flowers of swamp mallow begin in August, and the last blooms might not appear until November. Mallow stems are colorful, too. Burgundy in summer, they turn salmon as frost nears, and keep up the show even into winter.
Burgundy and salmon play well with many other colors, but cherry red is tricky: It's too pink for a red garden, too red for a pink. This perennial performs best when it has the stage to itself. No problem!
The Best Season Ever: Bat-Wing Passion Vine
Passion vines are rightly renowned for their flowers, which are typically as large & colorful as they are complex and numerous. It's a sophisticated thrill in reverse, then, to grow bat-wing passion vine, because its little green flowers can be difficult to locate even when full-on. But, oh, the foliage!
A bat-wing leaf reminds me of a boomerang Odd Job would have thrown if he'd had a change of heart an become a green assassin. Up to a foot wide but only inches long, each seems too willfully strange to function merely as a photosynthesizer. Surely depraved cognoscenti know a dangerous and possibly erotic use for them. I plan to grow the vine annually. Here's this season's report.
The Best Season Ever: White Paintbrush in Bloom
Alright, it's true: I neglect my pot of white paintbrush for months at a time. Does it ever receive water while overwintering in the greenhouse? That's six months of maybe / maybe-not. Even when outside in a shady spot from May through October, rainfall might be it.
Nonetheless, my baby clump of three years ago has thrived: now there are six stalks of bloom; back then, just one. Could it be that what I guiltily think of as neglect is, from this plant's viewpoint, skillfully laissez-faire?
Good Together: Caribbean Copper Bush & Naranjilla
Weeks into fall, and still no frost! As warm weather last and lasts, summer-peaking displays of tropicals and annuals grow long in the tooth. This month, before everything is put away for the winter, is the time to ponder what worked and what didn't. Which plants and combinations will be reprised whole-hog next season, and which will either be reimagined or abandoned.
Take this quintet of huge summer containers: four bell-pots of Caribbean copper bush and naranjilla quadranting a four-foot stock tank of striped giant reed and purple-leaved aquatic cannas. From June on, this was just the mega-thing for the large lawn due west of the giant jammed-with-plants beds that crowd the first 150 feet out from the house. From a distance, the quintet was a killer. What about in detail and up close?
The Best Season Ever: Seven-Son Tree in "Afterbloom"
The countless white flowers of seven-son tree are showy in themselves, and are even more welcome because they lead to countless deep pink doodads that last into October. Truth to tell, these are even showier than the flowers—and a heckuva lot more obscure.
After all, blooms are about petals, pistils, and pollen. We all know more or less what they are. The pink doodads? Much quirkier.
Cypress Vine's September Seedlings
Cypress vine germinates readily, grows quickly, begins flowering when still a toddler, and doesn't stop until cut down by frost. Over the growing season, then, many hundreds of its flowers come and go. And because they are popular with hummingbirds as well as butterflies, it's no surprise that at least some of those flowers might mature to seeds. And that some of those seeds might fall to the ground & germinate.
Cypress vine plants aren't hardy even in subtopical Miami, but its seeds are reportedly hardy into climates as severe as those of coastal Maine. How rampant must this vine be where both plants and seeds are fully hardy!
Waking Up the Frangipani
Frangipani in bloom is one of the iconic thrills of the tropics. In almost every color but blue, flowers emerge in large clusters month after month after month. No wonder the temptation is strong to grow frangipani in a container, enjoying it anywhere it can receive sufficient warmth and sun.
But first it must come into leaf. And to come into leaf, the tree must be rooted-in and thriving. Frangipani are typically propagated from cuttings that, conveniently, can be shipped anywhere as leafless, rootless, dormant sections of stem. The suspense is in waking up such a cutting, so that it takes root, begins forming foliage, and—eventually— favors you with glorious flowers. I'm discovering just how much patience that wake-up can require.