REGIONAL GARDENS: Four Southeastern Gardens (Part 1)

Summer plantings in the 100-yard-long Canal Garden include tropical species and plants with orange and red flowers and foliage.

Summer plantings in the 100-yard-long Canal Garden include tropical species and plants with orange and red flowers and foliage.

By Extension Master Gardener Elaine Mills
Photos by Elaine Mills

 A recent trip to North Carolina and Georgia to visit family and friends afforded me an opportunity to visit four public gardens and to gain new knowledge about native plants, some indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic and others to the Southeast.

The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, located on the banks of Lake Wylie in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, about 30 minutes from Charlotte, is named after a retired textile executive from Belmont who donated land and $14 million to fund its creation. The garden’s 110 acres comprise formal garden rooms, a Piedmont prairie, a butterfly bungalow, a conservatory displaying tropical plants and orchids, a children’s garden, and nature trails.

DSBG frequently schedules special exhibits and events to enhance the beauty and educational aspect of the plantings. Grandiflora, the garden installation on view when I visited in early June of this year, featured dozens of giant glass floral sculptures by Seattle-based artist Jason Gamrath.

While photographing the formal and naturalistic landscapes in the garden, I was introduced to two native plants that are indigenous to Northern Virginia. Carex grayi (Gray’s sedge), a semi-evergreen, two- to three-foot, moisture-loving plant, has distinctive spiked seed heads that develop from May to October and provide winter interest when dry. Juncus effusus (common rush) has soft, leafless, spire-like evergreen stems and clusters of pale brown flowers in July and August. It thrives in standing water and is a good candidate for a rain garden.

Another wetland plant I spotted, which is native only to the outer coastal plain in Virginia, is Dichromena colorata (whitetop sedge). It has lovely star-like white bracts which attract pollinators from summer to fall.

The flower-like bracts of whitetop sedge are unusual in the sedge family in which plants are generally wind-pollinated.

The flower-like bracts of whitetop sedge are unusual in the sedge family in which plants are generally wind-pollinated.

The Charlotte Botanical Gardens

The Charlotte Botanical Gardens, located on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, sponsors three garden sites: the McMillan Greenhouse, the Susie Harwood Garden, and Van Landingham Glen. The greenhouse hosts six themed collections, including desert succulents, orchids, and tropical plants. The adjoining courtyard spotlights a bog collection with native plants that prey on insects. Dr. Larry Mellichamp, a former professor of botany at UNCC, is a recognized authority on carnivorous plants, particularly the Sarracenia species (pitcher plants) that are featured there.

The Susie Harwood Garden, the first of two outdoor gardens, is intended to provide inspiration for home gardeners by illustrating a variety of landscaping approaches.  Among the features are a sizeable water garden and a peaceful Asian garden representing a fusion of garden cultures from China, Japan, and Korea. The Mellichamp Native Terrace, created in honor of the former garden director, showcases many plants native to the Carolina Piedmont region.

Two noteworthy plants in the terrace are cultivars of tree species native to the Mid-Atlantic. ‘Slender Silhouette’ is an extremely narrow form of Liquidambar styraciflua (sweetgum) that was found growing wild along a railroad track in Franklin County, Tennessee. It grows to 50 feet with a spread of only five feet at the base. Its fall color is similar to that of the straight species although gum ball production is more erratic. Another interesting specimen, Cercis canadensis ‘Alley Cat’ (eastern redbud), was found in an alley near the home of a Kentucky plantsman. It has striking foliage splashed with white and gray, and this variegation is apparently stable and scorch-resistant.

Three terrace plants not native to our immediate region of Virginia caught my attention, and UNCC horticulture supervisor Ed Davis suggests that they would grow successfully in Northern Virginia. Blephilia ciliata (downy wood mint), has striking tiered clusters of lavender flowers around its square stems. Scutellaria incana (hoary skullcap), another mint family member, is an attractive wildflower with pale purple blooms from July to September. Both perennials can handle drought conditions in full sun to part shade. Ilex vomitoria (yaupon), a popular evergreen shrub in the south, is winter hardy to Zone 7.  It tolerates more drought than most hollies and comes in many forms.

Van Landingham Glen, the second of the UNCC outdoor gardens, is a naturalistic woodland area with winding paths bordered by plants native to the Carolina portion of the Appalachian Mountains. A principal focus of the glen is native ferns, and excellent educational signage on these species is located throughout.

A fern that was new to me is Dryopteris filix-mas (male fern), a wood fern species indigenous to northern temperate regions. The plant is evergreen and has tapering fronds each with 20 to 30 pairs of leaflets per blade. It thrives in rich, moist soil in partially to fully shady conditions.

A tree found abundantly throughout the glen is Magnolia macrophylla (bigleaf magnolia). Although not native to Northern Virginia, it has naturalized in the mesic forests in Great Falls and Arlington County. Except for tropical palms, this is the native North American tree with the largest leaves and flowers.

Part 2 of this article will continue next week with a description of regional gardens near Atlanta, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Check back on Saturday Oct. 19 for a review of  Dr. Larry Mellichamp’s most recent book, Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden.

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