The people behind the plants

It’s no news that gardeners love plants, but how many of us ever stop to think about the human characters whose histories are bound up with those of our favorite garden staples? Did you ever imagine that there might be an exciting tale of intrigue and adventure lurking somewhere in the past of some beloved garden plant? Often, these sagas involve the perilous travels undertaken by early plant explorers to find, collect and name new species.

Peer into Western North Carolina’s deep, rich woods and you can begin to understand what attracted such plant pioneers as Bartram, Gray and Michaux. Our fern-covered forest floors, tangled rhododendron thickets, and moss-covered stream banks lured these and other eager plant seekers deep into the wilds.

But before you start lamenting being born too late, take heart: The drama and excitement of plant discoveries continue today. And though the modern sagas don’t generally involve the kind of life-threatening conditions those earlier explorers endured, great stories of plant huntings and findings do still happen.

To help bring these tales to life, The North Carolina Arboretum is presenting “Blue Ribbon Winners — Great Plants from Great Gardeners” this summer. These seasonal landscape exhibits tell the stories of award-winning plants and the people behind them. Modern-day plant exploration involves both nursery-and-landscape professionals and common plant-crazed gardeners who roam retail-sales yards, seedbeds and wayside plantings, both locally and abroad, in hopes of finding the new and unusual plant that will become the next blue-chip addition to the ornamental-horticulture palette.

North Carolina’s nursery industry is gaining national recognition for its impressive record of introducing and producing ornamental plants, and the Blue Ribbon Winners program provides a peek at what’s possible. This year’s exhibit tells the stories of 12 Tar Heel gardeners who work professionally to bring great plants to the public. It’s a diverse group — nursery owner/manager, university professor, research specialist, public-garden director — and together, they represent the impressive talent to be found in this state’s varied gardening regions.

Sometimes, a combination of keen observation and chance produces a new plant discovery. Back in the 1970s, Ken Moore — assistant director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill — was involved in a rescue effort. Assorted wetland plants were collected from a site adjacent to an auto-repair shop near Wilson, N.C. The rescued plants were installed in a display of coastal-plain habitat. In subsequent years, one of them — a goldenrod — began to display new habit and character. This particular plant had an upright dome shape with long, gracefully horizontal, arching flower stems that lasted well into the fall flowering season. Given individual care and attention, this plant thrived in the garden, catching the attention of many visitors. After a number of years of observing goldenrods throughout the state, the garden staff began to realize they had something new and different; eventually, they named it ‘Fireworks’.

In 1993, the N.C. Botanical Garden teamed up with avid plant lover and gardener Kim Hawkes (the former owner of Niche Gardens) to introduce ‘Fireworks’ to the trade. Kim has also been responsible for introducing other plants, such as ‘Kim’s Knee High’ coneflower, a sturdy and compact-growing echinacea that’s well suited for both perennial borders and container gardens.

The work of Professor Tom Ranney of N.C. State’s Department of Horticultural Science illustrates another key aspect of modern-day plant hunting: university research programs. Tom’s passion (and, fortunately for gardeners, his occupation) is developing more adaptable nursery crops that have commercial potential. He’s also involved in evaluating, selecting and improving plants that can tolerate environmental and biological stresses.

Tom’s latest work took him to the tobacco fields of John and Daniel Allen at Shiloh Nursery in Harmony, N.C., where a seedling of the native river birch was spotted. The name ‘Summer Cascade’ best describes the graceful, weeping habit of this unique form of river birch. Like all its brethren, this plant is easy to propagate, is disease- and pest-resistant, and can tolerate most soil conditions. ‘Summer Cascade’ is being introduced into the international nursery trade this year, and a high level of interest is expected.

Of the roughly 75 plants in this year’s Blue Ribbon Winner exhibits at the Arboretum, seven are selections of native species. Three have already been mentioned; the others are Calycanthus ‘Michael Lindsey’ (a selection of the native shrub known locally as sweet bubby or Carolina allspice, which can be seen flowering in the light shade of adjacent woods). ‘Michael Lindsey’ was found by Allen Bush, the former owner of Holbrook Farm and Nursery in Fletcher who now lives in Louisville, Ky. This plant is known for the sweet fragrance of its subtle, brownish-red flowers and its glossy foliage. Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ is a golden-foliaged selection of the native spiderwort. With its deep-blue flowers, it promises to be a knockout in shady areas of the garden.

Blue Ribbon Winners of every description — annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs — can be seen in both the permanent and seasonal landscape exhibits at The North Carolina Arboretum. Coneflower-ribbon labels identify these special plants.

The highlighted plants, identified from 12 award programs, are proven performers for gardens in the eastern U.S. To get the lowdown on the people, the plants and their stories, take an Arboretum garden tour, attend an upcoming educational program, or visit the Arboretum’s Web site (

Although modern-day plant exploration generally takes place on the job or in gardens rather than back of beyond, the spirit and the hunger for new and different plants remains the same. Much like the plant-crazed botanists and naturalists who roamed these mountains in the 1700s, today’s plant adventurers are drawn to their work because they love it and because it continues to build their business — the business of growing plants and offering them to the gardening public. At the same time, the search for new plants keeps life interesting in the garden — and shows that there’s still much to be discovered in the green world around us.

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