Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Trying for a Southern Accent

A ten foot tall thicket of Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus Parviflora) grows inside the Sarah Duke Gardens. This attractive shrub stands near the Millstone Pond in a six acre woodland garden devoted to southeastern native plants. High pines shade a curved gravel walk beside the under-story specimen. The plant, path, and entire property lie within Duke’s middle campus and only a ten minute stroll from my desk at work. Almost two weeks ago, during a Bottlebrush Buckeye site visit on my lunch-break, I was reminded of three reasons why I would recommend this planting choice to anyone with a little patience and room in their garden.

Reason one is that it is a native plant, occurring in forested coastal plains and piedmont areas from South Carolina to Alabama. You can stick one next to some woods in Durham and reasonably expect it to act as if it were born around these parts. Local gardeners should collect all the congratulations such an eco-friendly choice deserves. The more stringent native plant enthusiasts might point out that this is not really a natural occurrence for my clay, since we are north of its real habitat but I like to bend this rule. North Carolina lets the rest of the South mess around with smoked pig dishes without getting too upset—we can share regional delights.

The second reason is in the name. Bottlebrush spikes of creamy flowers, some over 12 inches long, make a wonderful announcement in mid-June. This is a welcome time of flowering for any small tree or medium woodland shrub in the landscape. After a first encounter with one in full bloom, I immediately bought a gallon-sized Aesculus Parviflora of my own. My new purchase from Niche Gardens Nursery near Chapel Hill was not blooming at the time, but it held a promise of flowering candles that would perfectly coincide with my son’s future birthdays. White, bee-attracting, and showy panicles are the hook for many people and likely a good part of the reason why the late founder of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, William Lanier Hunt, referred to it as one of the most beautiful shrubs in the world.

A third reason to try this shrub is a fall leaf which turns the color of a ripe golden delicious apple. I have to confess that I did not learn this from taking autumn notes on my own up-start. Our family’s juvenile Bottlebrush Buckeye is now only 15 inches high and, from a distance, could be confused with a fallen limb. One of its four palmate leaves turned a little yellow before falling off. It has survived the summer drought, but a safe bet is that it will not be featured on any October calendar pages in the next decade.

The Bottlebrush Buckeye cannot be magically transformed from seed to sucker to stand in a season or two. This is the only downside to the shrub’s habit. A relatively thrifty gardener, like me, who settled for one item at the cash register, is confronted with a pitiful stick in winter and slow growth for the first two springs and summers. After talking with a volunteer at the Duke Gardens, I will need to wait about four more years before I can start bragging about the plant from personal experience. This illustrates what greener thumbs already know: you have to have a lot of patience if you want to enjoy the results of a well planned landscape.

One of these days my thicket is going to take off. New roots will form. Spreading offspring will join their parents in a suckering, shading, and thriving gang of Aesculus Parviflora near the west corner of my front yard. My small grove will look nice between the lawn and the road as it rises inside the partial-shade of a pecan tree. It will probably not rival the version at Sarah Duke Gardens, but a check of its progress may draw me home on a lunch break now and again. I am looking forward to it.

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