REGIONAL GARDENS: Four Southeastern Gardens (Part 2)

By Extension Master Gardener Elaine Mills
Photos by Elaine Mills

: Shale-barren pussytoes has rosettes of small silvery leaves and spreads slowly to form a thick mat.

: Shale-barren pussytoes has rosettes of small silvery leaves and spreads slowly to form a thick mat.

Part 1 of this article described two gardens I visited in the Charlotte, North Carolina area in early June. Part 2 focuses on two additional Southeastern gardens, one near Atlanta, Georgia and one in Asheville, North Carolina.

Native Plant Botanical Garden

Dr. Larry Mellichamp, a recognized authority on native plants, whom I met at the UNC Charlotte garden, highly recommended touring the Native Plant Botanical Garden located on the Perimeter College campus of Georgia Southern University in Decatur, Georgia. Designed as an educational installation, the main garden area consists of more than twenty beds of sun-loving perennials and shrubs with an adjacent woodland area for shade-loving species. In all, the collections comprise 4,000 species of plants native to the Southeast or the greater United States.

While visiting, I learned about a native species of pussytoes with which I had been unfamiliar. Antennaria virginica (shale-barren pussytoes), is indigenous to Northern Virginia, and while once thought to be endemic only to regions with Devonian shale, is now known to grow in open forests, rocky woodlands, and clearings on other substrates. Like field and plantainleaf pussytoes, this mat-forming plant would make a good ground cover in a rock garden or in other xeriscape conditions. The GSU garden was also the first location in which I saw Pycnanthemum virginianum (Virginia mountain-mint). It has a more limited range in our state than several of the other mountain-mints, but is native to Arlington and Fairfax Counties. As with the related species, it is highly attractive to a wide range of pollinators, can be used as an insect repellent, and is unpalatable to deer.

Among the new Southeast native plants that I enjoyed seeing were Mimosa strigillosa and Rudbeckia maxima. The first, known as sunshine mimosa or powderpuff, is a diminutive perennial groundcover with charming puffy, bright pink, one-inch flowers. Unfortunately, its native range is Georgia to Texas and is suitable for growth only in USDA Zones 8a to 11b. The second, commonly known as large coneflower, has a basal clump of large bluish- green leaves, 7-foot stalks, and flowers with yellow rays surrounding elongated, dark brown central cones. Goldfinches enjoy its seeds. While not native to Virginia, it is reported to grow in USDA Zones 4 to 9 and could be a successful addition to gardens in our region when used at the back of beds with sunny, somewhat dry conditions.

Adjoining the GSU principal garden is an area devoted to “Ferns of the World.” This internationally acclaimed section, created by former DeKalb College botany professor and avid fern collector George Sanko, comprises what is possibly the largest collection of ferns in the United States. Native and non-native ferns, including xeric specimens from Georgia and the Southwestern U. S., are sited in a woody, naturalistic setting among, pines, needle palms, and other shrubs.

A beautiful shrub I saw in the forested display here was Aesculus parviflora (bottlebrush buckeye). This 8- to 10-foot deciduous shrub has the same palmate leaves as red buckeye, but its 12-inch-long cylindrical flower panicles are white with conspicuous red anthers and pinkish filaments.  Although native to woodland areas of Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida, it is winter hardy as far as USDA Zone 5. It should be noted that the seeds and foliage of Aesculus species are poisonous to humans if eaten. Horticulturalist Tony Dove and landscape architect Ginger Woolridge recommend this plant as a large spreading specimen in their new book on trees and shrubs for the Eastern United States.

North Carolina Arboretum

On the route home from Atlanta, I spent some time in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, where I had a chance to spend a day at the North Carolina Arboretum. This 434-acre public garden boasts 65 acres of cultivated gardens that include a world-famous bonsai exhibition, a stream garden, a forest meadow, and a collection of most of the azalea species native to the United States. Other unique features are the Quilt Garden, a floral representation of traditional quilt patterns in annual flowers; the Heritage Garden that includes plants associated with the medicinal herb and craft industries of Southern Appalachian culture; the Plants of Promise Garden that spotlights award-winning plants appropriate for home landscapes in the Southeast; and a garden-scale model train.

Two perennial species native to Virginia were used especially effectively in the cultivated beds. Maianthemum racemosum (false Solomon’s seal) was planted en masse, intermixed with ferns and iris against a backdrop of shrubs.  Spiraea tomentosa (steeplebush) was also planted in a broad sweep and contrasted nicely with taller shrub layers of Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire) and Buxus sempervirens (boxwood).

In addition to more formally landscaped beds, the arboretum has over 10 miles of groomed trails of various challenge levels that pass through pine, mixed hardwood, and ericaceous (acidic-soil) forests. Interpretive signage explains the woodland species, including native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns.

Two large plants located on the entrance road were particularly eye-catching as I left the arboretum. It was nice to be able to get a photograph of the flowers of Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) since I had never seen it in bloom before. The large pinkish-white flowers of Rhododendron maximum (great rhododendron) were stunning and were covered with pollinators, including a tiger swallowtail butterfly.

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