My 15-year-old daughter just returned home from a six-week intensive program with the Houston Ballet. Wife Haruko flew down to watch the final performance but she made it into a “business” trip by visiting nearby Peckerwood Gardens. Then due to a screw-up by Southwest Airlines they were stranded for a day in Dallas, but put that to good use by visiting the Dallas Arboretum.
|Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost' and 'Amber Ghost'|
I've never been to Peckerwood but I was invited to speak at the Dallas Arboretum almost 6 years ago, and the year before they purchased quite a few specimen maples from me for a newly installed Maple Rill. I had never heard of the term rill before my visit, but it means a small brook. Apparently money flows in Dallas because I think the rill project cost a couple million with huge stones, imported topsoil and my expensive maples. Haruko reported that the plants appeared in excellent condition and were expertly pruned, with our introductions of Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost' and 'Amber Ghost' showing off wonderfully.
Both Houston and Dallas are ugly brown cities where the flora is boring to this Oregon plantsman. That's what makes the plant collections appear like an oasis of fantasy. If you know what you're doing – and I wouldn't – there is quite an array of plants that can thrive in the two hell-holes. Let's take a look at what Haruko saw that allowed her Texas-two-step to qualify as a “business trip,” and note that she took most of the photos in this blog.
Peckerwood is a funny word, especially coming from my wife with her Japanese accent. It is used for a woodpecker, but also used as a derogatory term for white people, especially those rustic or poor. To African-Americans in the 1920's, the woodpecker symbolically represented white people, while the blackbird represented black people. Anyway it's a curious name for a garden – but apparently founder John Fairey named his property after the plantation in the 1955 movie, Auntie Mame and for the woodpeckers that frequented the garden.
Peckerwood is well-known for its oak collection, with many species coming from Mexico. Quercus tarahumara – say it again, what a beautiful name – is a species from the Sierra Madre Occidentale that was named for the Tarahumara People, an indigenous group known for long-distance running. It is commonly known as the “hand basin oak,” for the large leaves when inverted resemble a sink. I don't think it would be hardy in Oregon, but it would be fun to try anyway if I could find one.
|Alexander von Humboldt|
Quercus crassifolia is another Mexican species with a range that extends south to Guatemala. It is a large shrub or small tree with toothed, thick black-green leaves, and its specific name – from Latin crassus – means “solid, thick or coarse.” It was first collected by Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland on their five-year journey of scientific discovery in the Americas. Its common name in Spanish is “Encino chicharron” which means that the oak's leaf looks like “fried pork rinds.” One of the ornamental features of the evergreen/deciduous oak is that the young spring leaves display a hairy purple-red color before turning to green.
Photography was brutal for Haruko due to the harsh light, and it was over 100 degrees at the time of her visit. Nevertheless she knew I would be impressed with the bark of Quercus polymorpha, yet another Mexican oak with a small population also in Texas. It is a semi-evergreen species commonly called the “Mexican white oak,” and according to the Texas A&M Forest Service it is now widely planted as a landscape tree.
|Weeping Quercus species|
Curator Adam Black led the tour that Haruko was on, since one is not allowed unrestricted access to the garden. In any case Black was pleased to show off a weeping oak specimen that does not come true from seed. It originated from seed collected in Mexico, but to propagate further it must be grafted. There is question about its specific identity as well as its hardiness, and finding out is one of the purposes of Peckerwood Garden, as it now transitions into Garden Conservancy status. Judging from the photo I don't think I would want the tree in my collection, but it seems to fit into the scrappiness of this Texas garden.
The label said Mahonia chochoco, a plant that I have never seen or heard of before, but then some taxonomists insist that it is actually a Berberis. Either way the evergreen is in the Berberidaceae family and it comes from the mountains of northeastern Mexico. I think it's funny that botanists have long argued over Mahonia/Berberis classification and there may never be consensus. Plants, like people, don't always neatly fit into cubbyholes. Birds, butterflies and poets still make use of them even though the confusion unnerves the scientist.
Clematis texensis was attractive in seed, but too bad that Haruko missed the “Scarlet Leather flower” in bloom. It is native to the Edwards Plateau in Texas where it grows on rocky limestone cliffs and stream sides. Texensis is more showy when crossed with other Clematis species, and cultivars such as 'Princess Diana', 'Duchess of Albany' and 'Etoile Rose' have been developed.
Haruko was impressed with the trunk of Pinus taeda, commonly known as the “Loblolly Pine,” a species native to Texas and the southeastern United States. It is considered a “yellow pine” and according to the US Forest Service it is the second-most common tree in the USA after Acer rubrum. The species doesn't offer much as a garden tree, but scientifically it is interesting because as of 2014* it had the largest genome size of any organism on earth, with 22 billion base pairs (7 times larger than that of humans). P. taeda is commonly known as the “Loblolly pine,” a southern reference to a “mud hole” or “mire” as the pine can often be found in lowlands and swampy areas. The specific name taeda can mean “pine wood, a wooden board or a torch.”
|Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)|
*As of 2018 the current genome champion is Axolotl, the “Mexican Walking fish” (a salamander).
|Taxus wallichiana var. chinensis|
Not all of the plants at Peckerwood are native to Texas or from Mexico, and there were a number of specimens from Asia as well. Again, the garden's theme is to grow and analyze plants that can thrive in harsh environments wherever they may be. Taxus wallichiana is a successful example, and the var. chinensis was thriving in the miserable Southern heat. The evergreen species is dioecious with male and female cones on separate plants. Actually, to call the female fruit a “cone” is not accurate because it is more berry-like, and it contains a single dark brown seed. Again, the taxonomists crab over the yew, whether it should be Taxus wallichiana or Taxus wallichiana var. chinensis or Taxus chinensis or even a form of Taxus baccata. In any case the species has been exploited for its leaves and bark across most of its range and it is currently classified as endangered by the IUCN. Besides being used as a fuelwood it is prescribed for some types of cancer, and for making tea by the Bhotiya tribe of the Garhwal* Himalaya.
*Home to the beautiful mountain Nanda Devi (25,643', 7,816m), the second-highest mountain in India.
There are probably a number of maple species that would do well at Peckerwood, such as Acer truncatum, Acer griseum, Acer coriaceum and others, but the only species that Haruko recalled seeing was A. coriaceifolium, a Chinese species that should not be confused with southern Europe's A. coriaceum. Both were named from Latin coriaceus, referring to leathery leaves. For some reason De Beaulieu in An Illustrated Guide to Maples does not list A. coriaceifolium, while Oregon State University says that it is sometimes known as A. cinnamomifolium (not listed by B. either) or as a variety of A. oblongum. Whatever, the Peckerwood tree is a semi-evergreen shrub or tree but it is only hardy to 10 degrees F, USDA zone 8.
I was surprised that Haruko encountered a Keteleeria davidiana, not out of a winter hardiness issue, but that the Peckerwood soil might not be to the Chinese conifer's liking. I had the species once but it croaked in a hard winter, but on the other hand I saw a happy specimen at Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina and their winters are pretty much like ours. The first time I encountered Keteleeria was in Hong Kong, but at the time I was still wet behind the horticultural ears. It looked like an Abies with the erect cones but the foliage wasn't exactly fir-like. Now I assume that it is not native to Hong Kong and a landscaper must have planted the tree. K. was discovered by Pere David in 1869 and introduced by Augustine Henry in 1888, and was named for J.B. Keteleer, a French nurseryman. He was also “honored” with a cultivar of Juniperus chinensis 'Keteleeri', a boring female tree with a pyramidal habit that the bankrupt neighboring nursery used to grow.
|Taxodium mucronatum in Tule, Oaxaca|
A creek (rill) runs through Peckerwood and Taxodium with protruding knees impressed Haruko. When I saw her photos I asked her what was the species of Taxodium and she returned with a blank stare. Since Peckerwood is so fond of Mexican plants I wonder if some or all of the specimens might be T. mucronatum. According to The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014), the Mexican cypress is “A small to medium sized tree, closely resembling T. distichum, but with leaves semi-persistent in warm areas.” Oddly, after calling it a small to medium sized tree, Hillier mentions the famous specimen in the town of Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico, which is thought to have the largest girth of any tree in the world with a circumference of 42 m (138 feet). I have seen the behemoth, and though it was far off the beaten path – out in the “tules” – it was one of the greatest thing I have ever seen.
Naturally the Peckerwood landscape featured Agaves. They are in the Asparagaceae family and the genus name is New Latin, borrowed from Greek agaue, feminine of agauos for “admirable, illustrious, brilliant,” and certainly I find them so. A. nickelsiae is the “King Ferdinand Agave,” and was previously named A. ferdinandi-regis. The gardener must be patient because it can take from a dozen to one hundred years to flower, but when it does the stalk can shoot up to 15' and produce clusters of yellowish-red blossoms. I like the blue-green evergreen foliage that has white markings, and that each blade terminates with a black point. A. nickelsiae is probably hardy enough to overwinter in Oregon, but the problem is that we are too wet, so I keep my few Agaves in pots and overwinter them in a dry greenhouse. Various species of Agave can be made into a powder with a mildly sweet flavor that can substitute for sugar. More famously, Agave is also used in the production of tequila.
|Agave protamericana 'Miquihuana Silver'|
Agave americana contains the subspecies protamericana which comes from the Sierra Madre Orientale in Mexico, and also from Texas. The cultivar 'Miquihuana Silver', according to the Peckerwood Garden, is still an unidentified species. John Fairey collected it near Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Their website states, “At first glance, young plants might resemble just another common silvery blue agave abundant in the area's landscapes. However, once this plant gains some size, it is a real standout with an elegant form to the 6 feet long leaves, most of which point straight up, creating a vase-like shape. Unlike the more common silver species, this great selection maintains a clean matte coloration free of blemishes.”
Peckerwood is a collection of over 3,000 plants, and John Fairey says, “It is a garden that looks to the future, not to the past. Yet, most essential, it is my studio, a place where artistic and horticultural research are fused to create an environment that stimulates all of the senses, including the most elusive of all, our sense of time.”
That's probably enough of Peckerwood, and certainly Haruko needed to get out of the heat. My 15-year-old was ready to go also, and she summed up the experience (unfairly) by stating, “Well, I like my Papa's garden better.”
|Dallas Arboretum flower garden|
The next day at the Dallas Arboretum was also hellishly hot, but Haruko and daughter dutifully fulfilled their “business” mission. I'm sure that 95% of visitors to both gardens would prefer the Dallas Arb. because of the green lawns and well-tended flower beds. It is more touristy with abundant color versus the drab laboratory of Peckerwood. I would be more interested in the latter garden I suppose, but I am proud to have supplied maples to Dallas.
I was happy to have my girls back home, and my daughter certainly matured after her six week absence. I cannot use her name because she doesn't want creeps to google her, but if you care about dance, you can google Houston Ballet Summer Intensive Performance and see the show. However, I must keep working so I can pay for it all.
Oops...sorry, the performance post has been removed. Too bad.