Plant of the Week

The Japanese Tree Lilac, Syringa reticulata
May 21, 2014


One of the plants that I miss most from previously gardening in much colder climates is the common lilac and its wonderful sweet scent. There are lilacs that grow here in the Tidewater region and these can be quite floriferous – just not as pleasantly fragrant.

The Japanese Tree Lilac, Syringa reticulata, is an excellent tree for the small home landscape. This lilac will grow to about 20′ – 30′ in height and develop a spread of from 15′ – 25′. It has a medium growth rate, so you can expect it to put on as much as about a foot of growth each year, a rate that will provide effective landscape effect fairly quickly.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Japanese Tree Lilac grows best in a well-drained soil that is slightly acid. Full sun will result in the best bloom. The flowers are very showy and grow quite large. They are produced in attractive white panicles that can reach 10 inches wide and 12 inches long. The blossoms generally have a fairly strong scent that is more like privet than would regularly be associated with lilacs. However, this is not surprising or totally unexpected since both plants are in the Olive Family.

There are several excellent specimens along the steps outside Baker Hall Visitor Center. Be sure not to miss them as they come into full flower.

The Kousa Dogwood, Cornus kousa
May 15, 2014

The Kousa Dogwood, Cornus kousa, is a very attractive, later-blooming  complement to the native flowering dogwood that was highlighted a few weeks ago.  Like the Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida, the blossoms of the Kousa are essentially insignificant and the showy bracts are what comprise the visible “blossom.”  One difference from the Flowering Dogwood is that the bracts have a pointed tip rather than the typical notching displayed by the flowering dogwood.  A second is that the blossoms appear after the tree has leafed out.  They are displayed in an attractive layered effect along the branches.  The upward facing blossoms are often best viewed from a more elevated position such as an upstairs window. Individual trees can display masses of bloom.

Foliage is attractive throughout the season.  Leaves are dark green during spring and summer and then turn reddish puOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArple or scarlet OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin the fall.  The fruit that has been developing since spring turns into what resembles a ripe red raspberry.

The Kousa Dogwood grows to 20′ – 30′ in height with a similar spread.  It has attractive exfoliating bark that develops with age and results in interesting mottled trunk.  Grow it in full sun and a slightly acid soil.

Tung Oil Tree, Vernicia fordii
May 2, 2014

This is a difficult time of the year to select a plant-of-the-week because there are so many wonderful plants currently in bloom.  So, a bit of an unusual one for this week, the Tung  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOil Tree, Vernicia fordii.  This is a tree from China that is in the same family as the poinsettia, Euphorbiaceae.  As its name implies, its seeds are the source of tung oil which has numerous commercial uses including varnishes, paints, resins, and polishing compounds.

The Tung Oil Tree, or sometimes written Tung-oil Tree, is also used as a small flowering tree in the landscape.  It can grow to 30 or 40 feet tall with a rounded, spreading crown.  It is quite adaptable and is considered an invasive species in parts of Florida.  The five-petaled blossoms are an attractive white to pale pink with darker streaks of red or purple in their throats.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is a tree that should be viewed from a distance rather than up close and personal.  This is because the seeds are poisonous and the leaves may produce a poison ivy-like rash on some people.

Variegated Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum ‘variegata’
April 23, 2014

This week’s Plant of the Week, Variegated Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegata’, was the 2013 Perennial Plant of the Year award winner of the Perennial Plant Association.


Other common names include Striped Solomon’s Seal and Fragrant Solomon’s Seal.

Variegated Solomon’s Seal is a wonderful plant for full to partial shade. It prefers moist, well drained soil and will gradually spread by rhizomes to form easily maintained colonies in woodland garden settings. The variegated, oval-shaped leaves are produced Polygonatum002flr closeupon 18″-24″ gracefully arching stems, and turn an attractive yellow in the autumn. It has small, sweetly fragrant, bell-shaped white flowers with green tips. These are produced beneath the arching stems. There may also be a crop of bluish-black berries in the fall.

Solomon’s Seal has no serious insect or disease pests. It makes a nice “pass-a-long plant since it is quite easy to grow and divides easily in either spring of fall.

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida
April 17, 2014

The plant of the week this week, quite naturally, is the State Flower of Virginia, the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. Plantsman Mike Dirr refers to it as “the aristocrat of nativeCornus_florida01NBG04-16-14DRB flowering trees.” Even though colors include light pink and ruby-red and foliage may be variegated, it is still the pure white shining out from a woodland or landscape setting that makes one slow down and admire this Cornus_florida01NBG04-16-14DRBplant.

The “blossoms” are actually enlarged and colorful flower bracts. Bracts, if present, are ordinarily much reduced leaves that grow beneath the flower blossoms. The true flowers in the case of the “dogwood blossom” are in the center of these showy bracts, and are a greenish yellow. They are relatively unimportant from an aesthetic standpoint.

Dogwoods, a naturally occurring woodland plant, are surprisingly adaptable. They grow well in full sun or shade, though generally have sparser bloom in the latter. They prefer a moist, slightly acid and well-drained soil. If planted in a poorly drained soil or one that dries out readily they will not last long. Add 1″ – 2″ of mulch around the base, over the root area and not right up against the trunk, will help retain moisture and keep the soil cooler.

Unfortunately, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA anthracnose has killed a large number of dogwoods in the fairly recent past. Keeping trees in good health with adequate waterinOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAg, pruning, cleanliness and limited nitrogen fertilizer can help avoid this disease. There are also a number of resistant cultivars. A group hybridized at Rutgers University include: ‘Aurora’, ‘Celestial’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘Ruth Ellen’, ‘Star Dust’, ‘Stellar Pink’ and ‘Constellation’. Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring’ also has a high level of resistance to anthracnose. It was discovered in Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland because its good health stood out from all the other dogwoods that were succumbing to anthracnose. It has subsequently been propagated and made available to the gardening public.

The link below will take you to a 32 page booklet published by the University of Tennessee providing a wealth of information on the many species and cultivars of dogwoods.


Weeping Higan Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
April 2, 2014

Weeping Higan Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’ is at its peak bloom right now.  This is a wonderful specimen tree for the larger landscape as it can grow to 40′ high with a similar spread.  If you do not have room for a tree of this size, visiting the Garden during bloom and enjoying the ones here is always a very pleasant option.

The Higan cherry is native to Japan and is reliably hardy here in the Tidewater region of Virginia as it will withstand the colder temperatures of quite a bit farther north.  It prefers a moist fertile soil and blooms best if grown in full sun although it will grow fine in partial shade.

The blossoms, which are not fragrant, range from white to pale pink.  They are not particularly long-lasting, especially if the weather warms considerably.  A unique treat is to stand underneath the tree when the blossoms fall.  Children often enjoy playing beneath the dark green canopy in the summer as the pendulous branches make a very inviting “secret place” for them.

Laeliocattleya ‘Firey’

February 27, 2014

Orchids are in bloom in the tropical House. They are a “must see” for anyone interested in plants or who simply enjoy beauty. The plant pictured is Laeliocattleya ‘Firey,’ a rich and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcolorful combination of yellow-orange and red. For those interested in the taxonomy, Laeliocattleya is an intergeneric hybrid orchid between the parent orchids of the genera Laelia and Cattleya. For those just wishing to enjoy or record its beauty, visit and bring a camera. After viewing the orchids in the Tropical House you may desire to have some of these spectacular plants in your own home. They are long lasting, relatively easy to maintain and give a daily sense of satisfaction. Following are growing tips, courtesy of Logee’s Tropical Plants, for growing Laeliocattleya.

  • Light – partial sun with direct sunlight sometime during the day is beneficial.
  • Temperature – minimum night temperature above 50 degrees with a 10-degree increase during the day.
  • Humidity – preferably 50% or higher.
  • Watering – if growing in bark or coir chips thoroughly water every 7 – 10 days.
  • Fertilizer – ½ teaspoon of 15-15-15 per gallon every four weeks. Do not over fertilize.
  • Pruning – cut off old flower spikes after flowering.
  • Comments – Repot every 12 – 18 months ensuring that the plants are held tightly in the pot. Good root health is critical to successful orchid culture.

For hands-on experience and discussions with experienced orchid growers contact the Tidewater Orchid Society at

Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Primavera’


Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Primavera’, common name witch hazel, is a deciduous shrub that is hardy from growing Zone 5-8.  It has vase-shaped growth with ascending branches and a spreading habit. It’s mature height and width are both between 12 and 15 feet.  Exposure preference is full sun to partial shade sited in an average, well-drained soil.  The showy, yellow, spider-like flowers, which bloom in February and March, are fragrant.  It has no serious insect or disease problems and is reasonably deer tolerant.  An attractive example of this plant is in the Winter Garden.