Vitis – Trialing Grapes behind the Pineywoods Curtain

Our goal for a grape vineyard at the SFA Gardens is rather simple.  We want to plant and evaluate as many muscadine grapes as possible.  We have a perfect bottomland spot in the Jimmy Hinds Park.  This stellar native, Vitis rotundifolia, has a lot going for it.


Before you stick up your nose in the air and say something undignified, please hear me out.  Give this southern fruit a chance.  First, let’s remember that muscadine grapes are native to the Gulf South.  They are resistant to Pierce’s disease and other maladies that affect their more sophisticated cousins.  You can eat them out of hand and share them with the wildlife that like them about as much as we do.  The fruit can be green, bronze, purple or black, depending on the variety.  Well tended vineyards can produce 8 to 18 tons per acre!  They live a long, long time and can swallow your home and your barn if you leave for a decade or two.  Of course, there are  negatives.  Let’s face it, muscadine wine is not taking home the red ribbon at the enology events. Most are thick skinned a bit seedy.  The fruit ripens unevenly so grapes are normally picked one at a time and not as a cluster.  the vines can be either pistillate or self-fertile so a pollinator may be required.  While muscadine wine enthusiasts in the South, swear by the foxy and robust flavors, others see this Southern relative as unrefined, callous and not worthy of discussion.  Muscadine discrimination is what I call it.

This new planting is located at the north end of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center at Jimmy Hinds Park.  Jimmy Hinds was the first Agriculture teacher at Stephen F. Austin State University and actually farmed with students where this planting now calls home.  Jimmy had a penchant for fruit trees and vines, vegetable gardens and he is considered as the father of modern poultry farming in East Texas. The effort to create the collection led our program to collaborate with Dr. Justin Scheiner, grape viticulturist at TAMU, College Station, Texas – and one of our former students.   It’s that full circle again.  Working with Justin, other universities and a few specialty nurseries we’ve reached 54 varieties of muscadine grapes in the collection.  They are cheerful in the bottomland soils of LaNana creek.  Because of space issues, only one plant per variety is planted, and again, every plant is labeled.

What’s exciting is there are new varieties emerging all the time.  Breeders are focusing on thinner skins and the ability to pick a “cluster” rather than individual grapes.   Eudora is a recent USDA release by Stephen Stringer that produces a small cluster of high quality grapes.  ‘Southern Jewel’ is a University of Florida release, a black, self-fertile muscadine that produces grapes on clusters  It’s one we have yet to bring into the collection.  We are still on the hunt for Loomis, Doreen, Golden Isles, Regale, Sterling, Magoon and African Queen.  Vitis X ‘Razzmatazz’ is so new we’re not sure what to say other than it’s gotten tremendous promotion.  In fact, the first vines were sold by mail order nurseries for $99 each.  Ouch.  It’s a Jeff Bloodworth creation and I think it’s actually 1/2 Vinifera and 1/2 Muscadine?  It’s continuous flowering, seedless (!) and produces grapes from August until frost.  It’s a fascinating plant and flowers may need to be pruned away to prevent overbearing and the vine becoming unthrifty.  Tasty!


Vitis X ‘Razzmatazz’

Ison’s Nursery has been at the forefront of spreading new clones here and there.  The University of Georgia and University of Florida have made significant introductions.  Stephen Stringer, USDA Poplarville, Mississippi has introduced some and we are blessed with a number of his advanced selections in our trials.  While mailorder is about the only way to get many of the uncommon types, there are plenty of local retail nurseries that carry a variety or two.  Here’s our current list of varieties in our planting.

Grape varieties

Grape varieties in the collection 03-16-2017

As for pruning and training, there are plenty of fact sheets on the web that describe the ins and outs of pruning muscadines.  There are a myriad of ways to train muscadines.  We have chosen to go with a three wire system with plants about 20′ apart on rows 15′ apart.  In our system, the cross arms are at 5’6″ which is perhaps a bit shorter than the average Texan but gives kids in the SFA Gardens Educational Program a chance for an easier harvest.  Vines should be trained to a single trunk to simplify care and culture.

Insects and diseases have not been a problem but wasp nests can be an issue.  Snakes often enjoy perching on the branches to grab a bird or two.  Deer are a horrific problem for young plants and in our case we are putting a chicken wire tube around the developing plant.  We don’t like this but this is state property and even though our campus is concealed carry, we can’t take care of the problem the Texas way.

I’ll close with a little story here.  Back in the 1980s, I used to have a peach orchard on Highway 7 near Center, Texas.  “Creech’s Peaches” sat in a good spot for a roadside market.  While the 3500 peach trees was the focus, I did have other fruits and I farmed and swapped a few vegetables.  A dozen persimmons, that many pears, and a small 30-vine single trellis wire muscadine vineyard with 15 varieties planted was just a part of the mix.   When the muscadine were ripe starting in September, I would eat them every day for about a month, share them with friends and also sell a few hundred lbs. on the Houston market via my broker.  One year, I picked more than 800 lbs., packed them and set them in the cooler at the peach shed and called my broker who said she’d pick them up the next morning on her way to Houston.  I kind of forgot about them until a few weeks later I noticed a strong fragrance in the air near the barn.  When I opened the door to the cooler, I realized that the grapes were still there and the crates rumbling, rocking and rolling.  It was a fermentation party.  I called a old timer who ran a famous poultry and hardware supply store in town and told him my problem.  “That’s no problem, bring them to me.”  Well, I loaded them up in my truck and he had me back up to a barn across the road.  A couple of fifty five gallon drums had been cleaned and we’re ready to go.  There were some friends working a big gunny sack of potatoes into slices.  The grapes were dumped into the drum, along with the potatoes and some other “important stuff”.  The drums were covered and kind of sealed.  For the next few weeks you could smell the store before you got there.  I got a call a month or so later and was invited to a tasting.  The wine (?) had been bottled and it was a bronzy muddy mixture and if you let sit, the sediment piled up in the bottom of the bottle.  That’s the “good stuff” I learned.  I also learned we needed to share the bottles with friends because our product would go bad pretty quick.  I was thinking, gee, it’s already kind of bad.  How bad can it get?  Still, it was a good evening.  There weren’t any hallucinations.  While my knees were a little weak, no jake leg symptoms developed and I left cheerful that the grapes were not wasted.

The best time to visit the vineyard at the Jimmy Hinds Park would be mid-September to near frost.  We don’t have a plan to market the fruit.  We intend to share it with our visitors, school age kids,  faculty and staff.  Come and visit!

Ficus carica – Figs for the Pineywoods

Figs are old, odd and other worldly. It’s a big genus.  Depending on your source, there are 1000+ Ficus species.  Figs around humans are an old story and predate the fossil record of wheat, barley and rye.  Enthusiasts think they are the first record of Agriculture.  The worst of this lot are convinced that it was a fig that Eve used to seduce Adam, not an apple.  After all, apples weren’t common in the ancient paths near Jericho.  Figs were.  Shouldn’t we all agree that Eve and Adam covered their shame with fig leaves?


Fig Variety Plots at SFA Gardens

Most figs are tropical jungle plants but some edge their way into territories that facing freezing temperatures. In the modern world, they are common as houseplants.  From giant banyan trees of Asia to houseplant staples to small leafed groundcovers, Ficus wins. Only two species might be considered major food crops. Ficus sycomoro (a long term fail at SFA Gardens), and then there’s F. carica (the common edible fig).


Figs are complicated. The fruit we eat is actually a flower inside a structure called a syconium with male flowers above the female with pollen spread by a wasp who enters the structure through a hole called an ostiole.

 Caducous — Smyrna figs: Need to be pollinated to mature fruit. Without pollination the fruit will drop before it matures. Smyrna figs must be grown in the presence of Caprifigs and pollinating insects to bear fruit.

Intermediate — San Pedro figs: Do not need to be pollinated to set a breba (first) crop but do need pollination to set the main crop.

Persistent — common figs: Do not need to be pollinated to bear fruit. This is what is referred to as the common garden fig.

VARIETIES – SFA Gardens is in the early stages of a large variety trial. We are working with Allen Owings at the LSU Hammond station to create a duplicate germplasm repository of varieties and to evaluate their performance over many years.

TAMU  recommends Alma, Celeste, Texas Everbearing and recommends trialing Lemon, Bournabat, and LSU Purple.

LSU recommends Brown Turkey, Texas Everbearing, Black mission, Alma, Celeste, Kadota, Blue Giant.


Favorites at the SFA Gardens

Fig varieties at the SFA Gardens

Fig varieties 03-16-2017

Fig varieties SFA Gardens 03-16-2017

PLANTING – Choose a well drained site. Spacing at not less than 16’ apart – can have various configurations. While figs appreciate moist soil, waterlogged conditions are not good.  A surface or subsurface drainage system, berms or raised beds may be a good idea.  Plant in the early spring in East Texas.  We like to plant big healthy one to three gallon plants .  After planting, mulch lightly with pine bark, straw or other matierials.

.IRRIGATION – Critical to good plant growth in most sites. We use daily drip, one emitter per plant on young plants, multiples on older plants. Ours are ½ gph emitters and a couple of hours per day and off on rain days.

 FERTILIZATION – In most soils, a complete fertilizer spread lightly every month or two in a circle around the plant, and well away from the crown of the plant is prudent. Young plants respond to Nitrogen.  Soil tests will indicate the need for P, K or other elements.

 PRUNING – We lean to a minimalist approach. Very little pruning except to remove dead wood perhaps to cut back low hangers and on the ground branching which we do to have an unobstructed view of the base of the plant – for chemical weed control applications, mainly.

DISEASES/INSECTS – Very sandy well drained soils may be a nematode problem. In some years, rust can be difficult.  Birds, critters and friends can take out a crop quick.

 PROPAGATION – Easy by cuttings. June July and Aug cuttings under mist root quickly.  Hardwood cuttings stuck in well drained circumstances and kept moist root well most winters.  I used to tell students that if they couldn’t root a fig they needed to change majors.

FREEZE PROTECTION – Hard winter freezes are the big problem. Single digit events can take figs back to or near the ground.  The main problem is with young plants. If just a few trees, packing mulch, pinestraw, and any other insulating materials into a ring around the tree helps.  When spring arrives, pull the straw back and pray for a bud to break.  It usually will.  Homeowners can position trees on the South side of heated buildings to get some relief from low temps.


Cinnamomum chekiangensis – A Really Big Camphor Tree for the Gulf South

The SFA Gardens have always hung its hat on planting a new tree or shrub species as soon as we can hunt it down. One of our patriarch trees fits that bill is Cinnamomum chekiangensis.  If you google this interesting camphor tree relative, you can still find current blogs and fact sheets touting its rarity and good performance.  It’s been in the landscape at the SFA Gardens since 1994.


When measured January 10, 2017 our largest Cinnamomum checkiangensis tree was 44.5” in circumference (14.2” dbh) and I don’t know how tall, but it’s a well shaped towering evergreen in Asian Valley of the Mast Arboretum.  It’s another one of those surprising performers at the SFA Gardens.  At the time we planted it, I was thinking it’s a camphor tree so it’ll die here in a winter freeze.  No, it won’t.



This hardy camphor tree has been in the USA about twenty years. I lectured about this tree in late September 1998 and that lecture is still on line, as part of the Proceedings of the Tenth Conference of the Metropolitan Tree Improvement Alliance.  The conference was held in Conjunction with the Landscape Plant Development Center and the Annual Conference of the Society of Municipal Arborists, St. Louis, Missouri.  Here are my 1998 comments on a tree that was new to the USA at the time.

“Cinnamomum chekiangensis, a recently introduced species of Camphor tree, is a promising candidate for east Texas gardeners looking for an attractive broad-leaved evergreen tree. I can’t locate the species in any of my references. Our tree was a gift of Kai Mei Parks, Camellia Forest Nursery, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and was collected in China by her husband, Clifford Parks, a botanist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The species is evidently quite hardy; only in the ground four years, the tree has endured temperatures below 11°F. After seeing a thirty-foot specimen at Camellia Forest Nursery, I am convinced we now have a hardy camphor tree for our region. C. japonicum – the common camphor tree grown in semi-tropical and tropical locations, has suffered limb damage from mid-winter freezes during most winters and is no longer with us. The Lauraceae family is large with some 250 evergreen species, mostly strong zone 9 and 10 residents. This rare under-tested species should be hardy into Zone 7. We have observed the tree at SFASU for three years and have found it to be durable and attractive. It was planted as a small specimen in a raised sandy loam bed in the bottomland section of the arboretum. The tree is fifteen feet tall, an attractive dark-green pyramid, and endured a complete blow-down during the flood of October, 1994 (propped back up, some soil thrown on top of the root ball, and then staked for a few months). We rooted the species in high percentages with a May cutting collection and have about a hundred one gallons to be distributed.”

For twenty years, I’ve thought maybe this tree would just skip on by the invasive category.  It still may but our sole tree had never flowered until evidently this past year.  I just noticed (Jan 13, 2017)a few seedlings under the tree that I’m assuming are from the tree.  The fact our 17 degree F event a week ago didn’t need the 2″ tall children is not a good sign.  Being a Friday the 13th made it even a bit more ominous, certainly sad.  We’ll keep a close eye on this situation simply because it’s a Cinnamomum and we know how the less hardy cousins have done along the Z9 coast.  Bullies.  I

As mentioned in the 1998, it did have a tragedy early in its life, blown out of the ground with roots exposed after a heavy wind.  I shoveled it back in the ground and said, “Darn it!  Stay there!” Cinnamomum chekiangensis has smooth gray bark tempting to tree carvers eager to express their love or a message for future generations. The foliage is dark green, aromatic and attractive and the tree’s form is pyramidal.  Cuttings rooted quite well on our young tree (which was a youthful seedling at the time) and I haven’t tried to root it in recent years but suspect it should root nicely.


We have other Cinnamomums that are obviously hardy. Most of those are very rare in our region but have gotten remarkably large in the Ruby Mize Garden.  To be honest, they make me nervous.  They are yet to flower and we’ve seen no seed but their growth rate and disposition are impressive.  Time will tell. C. micranthum is huge with beautiful leaves, yet to flower, and is obviously hardier than the literature suggests.  We have four others that have surprised us as well, staying unmentioned until we have more data.  One thing we can say is that the hardiness ratings found in the limited literature are not accurate, at least judging by their performance in the SFA Gardens.  Whether or not they are or should be domesticated will have to depend on their tendency to take over. C. japonicum and C. camphora are known bullies in Zone 9 and 10 of the Gulf South and should be avoided.  They die here in Nacogdoches, taken out quite quickly by even mild winter freezes.

We like other big broadleaved evergreen trees at the SFA Gardens: 1) Machilus thunbergi is an evergreen native of Asia, a member of the Lauraceae family, and looks promising in the deep South – provided selections are sought that come from cold-hardy stock plants. We have seedlings from an old  specimen in Aiken, South Carolina, that endured below zero freeze events and we have one plant surviving of six clones (National Arboretum) planted just before the 1989 freeze, 2) Phoebe chekiangensis, another rare member of the Lauraceae family, has been a durable conical evergreen tree in our gardens. As for the Phoebe, we’ve killed it.  It’s nearly gone from the garden.  The old tree was cut down simply because it liked the garden too much; it’s invasive.  I like the tree, just would like to find a seedless form!  We are still removing chance seedlings here and there, some several hundred feet from the original big tree.  Like the Cinnamomum, I can find little in the literature concerning this plant. Finally, the last tree to mention would be Nothophoebe cavalieri which lives in a protected cove between the two Art buildings.  Even though protected, it still suffers freeze damage in our severest winters.  It does thrive at Mercer Arboretum in Houston, Texas.

Cinnamomum chekiangensis has proven itself in our garden and remains impressive.  Even after twenty years, we still need to hold on to a bit of caution.  I like to think of plants as innocent until proven guilty but knowing the family as we do in the Gulf South, it’s best to be prudent and keep a steely eye on the plant’s nature for invasiveness.  Then, of course, there’s the laurel wilt issue, a new disease just now hitting our bays in southeast Texas.  Emerging disease and insect threats are not a pretty picture.


Araucaria angustifolia – The Tree That Refused to Die

The Parana pine in the SFA Mast Arboretum has a long and tortured history. The fact it’s still alive is a miracle.  It was a 1988 gift from Steven and Cathy Da Silva who ran Salamander Creek Farms, a small specialty plant nursery here in Nacogdoches, Texas.  Steve said it should be hardy but he wasn’t sure.  Having never run into the plant way back then, I called around and the tree just wasn’t part of the Gulf South picture.  So, I was skeptical from the beginning.  This is Texas and our summers are just a hair cooler than hell.  Not knowing any better we planted the tree on the South side of the Agriculture building in March 1988 in the middle of our annual display beds.  In fact, on March 13, 1988, we even had a little ceremony for the planting with Steve, five students (Dwayne Johnson, Barry Abatie, Margaret Taylor, Jeff Anderson and Tom Slack), yours truly and, of course the tree appearing in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel.  God only knew what the tree was about to face.


March 13, 1988 Daily Sentinel

For the first two years, the tree settled in and didn’t grow. It looked about the same after two years as it did when we planted it.  It was green, looked healthy enough, but there was almost no new growth.  I would tell students, “it’s making roots”.  To add to the torture test, on December 23, 1989, the Arboretum was hit with a the lowest recorded temperature of all time, a frigid 4 degrees Fahrenheit.  I assumed it was a goner and it did shudder, turn a little bronzy but it just kept living.


Araucaria angustifolia in its new home asking the question, “Why here?”

Fast forward a few years and we had a new cheerful Horticulturist on board, Greg Grant, and he wanted to do a redo of the South side of the Agriculture building, and as part of the renovation the tree had to go.  I accused him of hating the tree and after all, he had just personally chopped down a tulip tree that came from a seed from a tree planted by George Washington at Mount Vernon.  I agreed but said you have to move it carefully to a new spot on the east side of the Art building, a brand new conifer garden which was designed and planted by a long ago student, Matt Welch.  Matt was one of those rare students who would come to me asking, “do you think it would be OK if I . . . ” and before he could finish the sentence, I would say yes.  My general teaching mantra has always embraced the idea that plant nerds with passion need no brakes.  For the record, Greg’s “careful” part of the transplanting was abandoned and in the move, the root ball broke apart leaving only a few sad and pathetic roots.  It sat in its new home on the slope crying, “Why did you do this to me?”  I assumed it would die.  It didn’t.  In fact, it decided to heck with this, “I need to grow”, and grow it did.  I believe, until someone says different, this is now is the largest A. angustifolia in Texas?

In its new home, it sat a few years adjusting to the shock of such a rude transplanting but it wouldn’t die.  Amongst a bunch of relatives in the conifer world, it finally decided to grow and grow it has.  Through droughts and heat spells never seen before, the tree remains testimony to the tenacity of a species whose kinfolk go back to ancient group of Araucaria-related conifers that dominated forests more than 145 million years ago.


The Parana pine in August 2006

I don’t know how many years went by before I finally thought, “Gee, this tree is rather cheerful.  We have new growth, the bark is really showing off, and if you squint a bit, the tree looks like it could be hanging out in a subtropical forest in its home in Brazil.



Jan 10, 2017


Great slabs of exfoliating bark



Interesting bark 01-10-2017

On January 10, 2017 I measured the tree and the circumference at breast height was 40.5 inches (12.9″ dbh).  I’m not sure on the height (40′?) but will get that information soon.  The tree sheds vicious branches that are tricky to the touch.  Spiny enough to deter a hungry Brontosaurus, perhaps.  The tree self sheds lower branches that litter the floor making walking there barefoot impossible.  Not for sissies.


Araucaria needles are short, sharp and vicious

Several years ago, Janet and I used a “Big Tree Ap” on the phone to visit many of the heritage trees of Portland, Oregon.  One was the biggest Araucaria araucana (a close relative of A. angustifolia) with a 70′ Height, 37′ Spread, and 8.5′ Circumference.  I thought wouldn’t that be nice at SFA!


Araucaria araucana at a private residence, 419 NE Hazelfern Pl, Portland, Oregon


Araucaria araucana, Portland, Oregon



Bark of Araucaria araucana, Portland, Oregon

We’ve planted a few other Parana pines in the Arboretum hoping to create a colony that in a thousand years will amaze and befuddle visitors.  Because the tree is dioecious (male and female), we’re hoping to get a mix big enough to get some pollination.  The seed is hard to come by and often pricy.  Parana pine is a really unique rarely encountered tree, a prehistoric relic threatened in its home by land use changes, fire and climate change.  With time, perhaps the Gulf South will be the proper home for these botanical masterpieces.












Prunus X ‘Purple Pride’ – The Very First Purple Leaf Plum With Native Genetics

Prunus X ‘Purple Pride’ USPP 23742 is a unique introduction.  It’s a burgundy-foliaged seedling of Prunus angustifolia ‘Guthrie’ – a Chickasaw plum introduced many years ago by Charles Webb of Superior Trees in Florida.


‘Purple Pride’ in June 2012 in the SFA Mast Arboretum

I have admired a Chickasaw plum called ‘Guthrie’ since the mid-1990s. Planted on the west side of the Mast Arboretum, this tree quickly became popular for its fruit.  With larger fruit than our normal Chickasaw plums in East Texas, the tree is also more trunk forming than thicket forming.  With their parents nearby providing directions and advice, I would find kids scurrying up the tree to gather fruit.  In 2007, I confronted one of those  thieving families and told them sternly they could keep the fruit, but would they please bring Dawn the pits when they were through with them.  Believe it or not, several big bags of pits did arrive at her headhouse doorstep.  While Dawn balked a bit, thought this was  “gross”, she did clean them up and then stratified hundreds of seed.  Out of those seedlings that emerged, we discovered five that popped up with burgundy foliage.  ‘Purple Pride’ was one of those seedlings, and it grew into a tree of columnar form with denser branching and it featured strong burgundy foliage in the spring and fall.


‘Purple Pride’ Little Rock Arkansas, image by Jim Robbins

I queried Charles Webb, Superior Trees, Florida, for the history of Prunus angustifolia ‘Guthrie’ and he wrote me back 11/17/2011, “I, Charles Webb, discovered Guthrie plum in the early 1990s in Madison County, Florida. I was scouting for Chickasaw plum seed when I noticed a single old plum tree with a few large, attractive fruit that were also tasty. The old tree had more dead than live branches and no growth suitable for rooting but I felt the plant was worthy of preserving. I made a single hack with a machete on the back of the tree to induce sprouting. Upon my return the following summer there was a nice healthy sprout that resulted in three rooted specimens that were outplanted in my fruit orchard. These three plants were the source of cuttings for the propagation of Guthrie plum. The name Guthrie was chosen because a Guthrie family was the nearest resident to the old tree. These three trees plus several more continue as our source of cuttings. I hope this information will serve your needs. I look forward to seeing your selection with purple leaves. Charles Webb”.  Isn’t that a great story?


The original ‘Guthrie’ tree in the SFA Mast Arboretum, mother of ‘Purple Pride’.



‘Guthrie’ in heavy flower

Cutting propagation of this seedling of ‘Guthrie’ was first attempted in June 2007. Since then, Dawn Stover, Research Associate, SFA Mast Arborretum has undertook many rooting studies and found the clone exceptionally easy to root (90+%).  A good starting point for propagators is to choose 4-5” softwood cuttings collected in June and rooted under intermittent mist.


‘Purple Pride’ cuttings root at good percentages and overwinter well

In the container, ‘Purple Pride’ is very vigorous and a saleable plant can be produced in a three or five gallon container in one year.


‘Purple Pride’ plants going into a Fall plant sale at the SFA Gardens

The characteristics of this cultivar have been stable and are reproduced true to type in successive generations.  Key features of this small flowering tree include, 1) foliage that is deep burgundy in color with new leaves emerging bright dark red. The foliage coloration is retained from spring through fall, with only slight greening during the summer months, 2) ‘Purple Pride’ exhibits foliage that appears clean and disease free, 3) ‘Purple Pride’ can be readily trained into a single trunk, 4) white flowers that are conspicuous against the burgundy foliage, 5) the red fruit has a nice flavor 6) easily propagated by cuttings, softwood and semi-hardwood under mist in June for best results, 7) strong drought resistance once established for a few years.,  finally, 8) we feel that ‘Prunus Pride’ would be useful when planted in wildlife food plots in the south as the burgundy foliage allows land managers to easily recognize ‘Purple Pride’ plants in a brushland and avoid them during mowing regimes.


Blooms appear in late March in the SFA Gardens



‘Purple Pride’ needs a pollinator variety nearby for fruit production

Chickasaw plums enjoy a large range including Missouri, west to Kansas, southern Nebraska, and extreme southeastern Colorado, south to extreme eastern New Mexico, to Texas and Louisiana. It is naturalized east to central Florida, north to New Jersey, western Virginia, southern Ohio, and Illinois. It was extensively naturalized and spread by Indians in prehistoric times (Little, 1979). According to Sargent (1965), the original native range was thought to be central Texas and Oklahoma. In William Bartram’s travels through the southeastern U S in the late 18th Century, he wrote that “he never saw the Chickasaw plum wild in the forests but always in old deserted Indian plantations”. He hypothesized that the Chickasaw Indians brought it from the Southwest beyond the Mississippi River (Bartram, 1791).

Fruit is red turning to burgundy. We have seen very light crops at SFA and ‘Purple Pride’ definitely needs a pollinator variety to improve fruit set.  Plant Methley, Morris, or a similar variety nearby.   Tree blooms in mid-March at SFA and usually avoids frost but fruit set has been poor, certainly no comparison to the heavy crops of the parent, ‘Guthrie’.

The tree has been evaluated in a wide range of testing locations.  Jim Robbins, University of Arkansas ( has had the plant for years at three locations: Fayetteville, Little Rock, and Hope. Four plants at each location, full sun in the field, with drip irrigation.  No pruning or training.  Plants exceeded expectations.  Planted in early 2011, the following image was in the Fall 2012.  Jim’s comments are relevant: “A wow plant.  Fast growing.  Upright habit.  Will lend itself to a single trunk tree.  No bacterial scorch.  A burgundy foliage Chickasaw.  Fruiting yet to be determined.  Image below was taken in the Fall 2012 and illustrates upright plant habit.  In these three test plots, there was a trend to increasing growth South to North.”


Sept 3 2013 Little Rock Arkansas, Image by Jim Robbins

Doug Arnold and Gary Price of Trees USA, Lindale, Texas report the tree looks good in container production. Good foliage quality with no sign of scorch, unlike other purple leaf plums.  Other reports from cooperating nurseries suggest good foliage quality free of diseases that normally torment other purple leaf plums, particularly those with a background of P. cerasifera, the European or Asian myrobalan or cherry plum. Nurserymen interested in getting a start of ‘Purple Pride’ plum or finding sources of this variety should contact Dawn Stover at Email:


Bartram, W. 1791. Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida. In Little, E. L. Checklist of United States Trees. USDA FS Washington, D.C.

Little, E. L. 1979. Checklist of United States Trees. USDA FS Washington, D.C.

Sargent, C. S. 1965. Manual of the trees of North America. 2nd Ed. Vol. II. Dover Pub., Inc. New York. 934p.

Rhododendron X ‘Koromo shikibu’ – A Purple Spider Azalea and her SFA Child, ‘Speckled Spider’

The signature plant of the front line of the Ruby Mize and Gayla Mize Gardens at SFA is an azalea named ‘Koromo shikibu’. This unique “spider azalea’ features purplish-pink strappy flowers with 1 1/2 inch long and ½ inch wide petals  with darker spots at the base.  The variety produces produce a good number of blooms “out of season”, primarily in the Fall.  While never touted for its fragrance, and unlike most indica azaleas, ‘Koromo shikibu’ does have a distinct sweet smell especially if you put your head right into the mass of flowers.  In recent years, others have finally recognized its value and it was given the prestigious “Rhododendron of the Year Plant Award” in 2015 by the American Rhododendron Society.


SFA’s colors are purple and white so when we were deciding what azalea to line the front of the Ruby Mize Garden, ‘Koromo shikibu’ came to mind. Barbara Stump, our then Azalea Garden designer and implementer, though it was a great candidate for this 880′ long front line.  I agreed.  It had flowered well across the creek in the Mast Arboretum, a single plant we had planted in 1988 in a collection of azaleas and Japanese maples in an area we named “Asian Valley”.  Our original plant was acquired from Margie Jenkins, Amite, Louisiana, and when the Ruby Mize Garden began in 1997, we went back to her with an order.  Margie became the mother of the hundreds of plants needed for the project.


Margie Jenkins, Amite, Louisiana with a ‘Koromo shikibu’ bloom

‘Koromo shikibu’ one-gallon plants were planted on the inside of a rustic cedar rail fence where they remain to this day.  Under sprinkler irrigation and on a slope with great drainage, they took off.  Over a decade later, when the Mize family, led by the patriarch Ray Mize, created the endowment for the Gayla Mize Garden, it was a no brainer, we just had to plant more.  This created a perfect mirror image on both sides of the wide expanse of University Drive planted to the variety.



The exact parentage of ‘Koromo Shikibu’ remains a mystery. Most often it’s considered a hybrid with R. macrosepalum (the large-sepaled azalea’) with the pollen parent unknown.  Still, there’s confusion on nomenclature.  In the past, it was listed as Rhododendron linearifolium var macrosepalum, the Spider Azalea, and was renamed R. stenopetalum ‘Linearifolium’.  A recent attempt at nomenclature sees the plant as a variety of ‘Linearifolium’, the Lavender Spider Azalea, and ‘Koromo shikibu’ is now more commonly designated as the cultivar, R. macrosepalum ‘Koromo Shikibu’, and no longer considered to be a unique strain of R. stenopetalum.  My conclusion is I don’t know and I’m not sure I care, so I’ve taken to calling the plant Rhododendron X ‘Koromo shikibu’.  You decide.  The difference between a horticulturist, a forester and a botanist is simple to understand.  Horticulturists like to grow plants and enjoy them.  Foresters like to grow plants and cut them down.  Botanists like like to huddle in rooms, talk about plants and rename them to annoy foresters and horticulturists.  End of story.

There are a couple of forms of ‘Koromo shikibu’ worthy of a place in the Gulf South Garden.  One is ‘Koromo White’.  No one is exactly sure where the origin of this plant derived but one source suggests it was developed by Dave Wagner in Burtonsville, Maryland, and was modestly distributed as “Wagner’s White Spider #1”.  I’ve seen the plant called ‘white princess’ as well.  Evidently, those two names have never really stuck.  It’s mostly sold as ‘Koromo White’.  Whatever the name, it’s a great plant with the same bloom characteristics, modest fragrance and habit of ‘Koromo shikibu’.rhododendron-kormo-white

Finally, there’s the SFA Gardens introduction, ‘Speckled Spider’. This unusual sport first appeared in 2010 in the 880‟ long line of ‘Koromo Shikibu’ spider azaleas that define the front of the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden. Spotted first by Duke Pittman, technician for the garden, the big branch sport appeared as a bright beacon against the darker blooms of ‘Koromo Shikibu’.  This variety has been propagated and sold under a number of names, including ‘Margie’s Speckled Spider’, a name I deemed best.  However, I guess that was just too long and that name is gone.  It’s commonly seen as just ‘Speckled spider’.  It has all the blooming characteristics, fragrance and habit of it’s parent.rhododenron-speckled-spider-1


To complicate things, eagle eye Duke Pittman spotted another sport in the spring 2017.  This one was found in the long line of Koromo shikibus of the Gayla Mize Garden.  It’s actually a bit different than ‘Speckled Spider’ and features no striping and primarily white petals with a few purple splotches.  Whether this holds up and stays stable after we take cuttings in June 2017, I don’t know.  Time will tell.

koromo white sport 1

Duke Pittman’s newest sport in Spring 2017


koromo white sport 2

Sport of Koromo Shikibu with no striping


Like in life, some things work out in gardening, some don’t.  This one worked out.  In the spring, the two front lines on University Drive are a fender bender display of purple blooms.  Over the years we’ve discovered the plants tolerates sun, drought and the challenges of its Texas home.  The “out of season” blooming can vary from a little to a lot.  In fact, we’ve noticed late November and December flowers so heavy we worried that the subsequent spring show might be shorted.  Nope, so far, that hasn’t happened.  ‘Koromo shikibu’ likes to bloom.

Lagerstroemia fauriei ‘Bayou View’ – Is This The National Champ or Not?

Prior to the 1950s, the only crape myrtles grown in the USA were primarily Lagerstroemia indica.  Crape myrtles are in the genus Lagerstroemia in the Lythraceae.  While there are over fifty species in the genus, two species make up most of our flowering varieties.  The second species made a very late entry into the USA.  In the 1950’s, John Creech of the US National Arboretum made his way to Japan looking for new and interesting plants.  He sent back seed in 1956 from the Japanese crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia fauriei, a species that had never been grown in the USA before.  Five of these seedlings were planted at North Carolina State University on a spot that later became the JC Raulston Arboretum.  They are magnificent.    One of those seedlings exhibited an attractive upright form with interesting exfoliating bark and it was later named ‘Fantasy’.  Another tree there was named ‘Townhouse’.  They remain in the trade to this day.


The two old Lagerstroemia faureis in the JCR Arboretum, winter 2004

While these two trees have received fame and fortune and photographs have appeared in national magazines, there’s one other one that deserves attention.  It’s a plant along a bayou in Shreveport, Louisiana.  It’s history goes back to the 1950s and a seedling that Frank Akin or Sherwood Akin planted.  Exactly which brother planted the tree is still conjecture – and exactly how they got the seedling is another question lost in time and space.  I knew Sherwood well.  He had a nursery near Shreveport in a town called Sibley, Louisiana.  He was certainly the plantsman and yes, he communicated with folks all over the USA.  Every day Sherwood was on a mission to find a new plant for culture.  I  remember him saying he got the plant from the National Arboretum.  I don’t know if it was a seed or a seedling.  It doesn’t really matter.  It was planted in the mid to late 1950s.  Akins nursery still exists there on King’s Highway and the tree can be seen from afar.  Foster Cook is now the owner and years ago I suggested we propagate the plant and distribute it –  and he said sure.  I asked if he would give it a name.  He thought about it a bit and came up with a really nice name, ‘Bayou View’.  Perfect.  How big is the tree?  Well, the circumference tapes over 100″ at breast height and I’m unsure of the height.  It’s up there.   Is it the National Champ?  My Eastern brethren rarely mention the tree – gravitating to praise the lofty fellows at the USNA and at the JCR Arboretum.  ‘Bayou’ View doesn’t mind being ignored.  With it’s feet in the bayou, I’m sure it’s still growing.




An Aristocrat in the Crape World

Over the years, I’ve visited the tree many times.  I’ve taken friends like Richard Olsen, the current Director of the US National Arboretum, and Todd Lasseigne, Director of the Tulsa Botanical Gardens to the tree.  They come away amazed.  It helps that my wife lives in Shreveport, Louisiana – and I spend plenty of time there.


Foster Cook is the owner of Akin’s Nursery, Shreveport, Louisiana


Todd Lasseigne in 2004 by ‘Bayou View’


Richard Olsen, Director of the US National Arboretum in 2009

Crape myrtles typify the Deep South.  Native to Southeast Asia, crape myrtles were introduced to the United States more than 200 years ago. Records from Mount Vernon indicate in 1779 that seeds of crape myrtles made their way to the George Washington plantation. Many 100-year-old and older specimens still dot historic landscapes and abandoned properties from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas.  Lagerstroemia faurei is different.  It’s been an immigrant in the USA for about 60 years.  What these remarkable trees will look like in the future is difficult to say but in China we know of trees making their mark into the hundreds of years.


Come sit a spell

There’s one other rarely encountered L. faurei worth mentioning.  I first admired this plant near Woodlander’s, Aiken, SC.  It was in the nearby landscape of George Mitchell who worked at the nursery.  George was a native of Grenada and an enthusiastic plantsman and he let me take a few cuttings.  I brought them back to Texas, took some cuttings and scattered a few plants here and there as ‘Woodlanders Chocolate’, named for its very dark bark.  It was reported to me as a seedling of L. faurei and the flowers suggest that. Our original tree is quite impressive and I’ve long admired the  dark bark.


‘Woodlanders Chocolate’ was found in the landscape of George Mitchell, Aiken, SC





Melliodendron xylocarpum – Woodyfruit

Melliodendron xylcocarpum, or woodyfruit melliodendron, is described by He Shanan as a small deciduous tree 20-60’tall, and 6-8” DBH. This is a monotypic species endemic only to China in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Fuja. It calls home the moist but well-drained valley floors and the wetter portions of the mountain slopes at altitudes of 3000 – 5000’.   He Shanan served as editor of the Rare and Precious Plants of China, Shanghai Scientific and Technical Publishers, 184pp. A treasure trove of high quality color photographs with both Chinese and American descriptions, a must for the serious plantphile.


A scanned image of the 2000 Melliodendron xylocarpum flowers


The Mast Arboretum plant comes from seed collected September 28, 1993 by Clifford Parks (accession number 83H47). The site was on a mountain just above the village of Yuyuan, Yuyuan County, Guangdong Province, China. Clifford describes the site as a rich, mesic slope above a stream along the roadway just beyond the conservation station (protected forest). The elevation was 900 to 925 m. Our plant was acquired in 1996 as a small rooted plant. It was grown one year in the Mast Arboretum nursery, a robust one gallon which was then planted in December 1997 in the Arboretum. In part-shade with some strong afternoon sun, the  10’ plant bloomed for the first time in 2000. This plant may be the first to bloom in the U.S. ever (surely not?).   Todd Lasseigne, JCR Arboretum, reports their plant first bloomed in 2000 as well, but was two weeks later than this Texas plant. A plaque is in the mail. For our single tree, the bloom in May 2001 was excellent, lasted three weeks and everyone thought the plant had sex appeal.   With the removal of a competing Viburnum awabuki ‘Chindo’, which was trying to own the place, the tree has bloomed annually.


Bloom show in 2006

Drought tolerance appears to be poor. For example, in summer 2001, our small tree went without irrigation for only a little over a month, took on a sad and wilted appearance, and then shed many of its lower leaves. Irrigation (hose-dragging) brought the plant to life. Interpreting He Shanan’s description of the habitat suggests that this plant be trialed in sites that can mimic stream side habitats. Well drained soil near a moist area or drainage way.


Frost tolerance is yet to be determined. This plant has not suffered tip damage during the last three winters, which have been mild. All we can say is that the plant has survived several bouts into the high teens, a few more in the low twenties, and plenty of late/early frosts with temps in the mid-high twenties. There was no apparent tip damage with early fall or late spring frosts. For now, we think the plant should be classified as Zone 7-9 candidate. Time will tell.

Propagation.  Dawn Stover, Research Associate, seeded a flat of several hundred of the small seed (easy to get a lot of seed).  The flat quickly produced a good stand in the greenhouse this fall 2001.  No chilling needed.  Plants were distributed in 2002 to a wide range of gardeners.  We have never attempted to root the plant but suspect it should root well.

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Blizzard’

‘Blizzard’ is a rarely encountered chance sport mutation of Chinese lacebark elm.  Chinese lacebark elm is a strong nursery and landscape participant in the southern USA tree industry.  While many sold are seedlings, there are many superior varieties and ‘Blizzard’ is unique in several respects.  First, it’s going to be slower-growing smaller version of the lacebark elm.  Second, it’s decidedly variegated, and appears not to revert, at least for us.  The unique paint-flecked variegation is guaranteed to lighten up any part shade garden and for us in the Pineywoods, it’s best in almost full sun.  Yes, it’s a bit slow, but not ridiculously so.  From a distance, the variegation is blended to create a lime-green glow.  Up close, the variegation is cheerful, clean and crisp. 


Now there is a bit of controversy on the original source.  If you google the plant, the first thing that comes up is a Wikipedia: “The Chinese Elm cultivar Ulmus parvifolia ‘Blizzard’ arose in 2001 from a sport mutation on a tree growing in the Louisville Gardens, Kentucky. It was cloned at the Mast Arboretum of the Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas.”  I’m not sure this is totally correct.  It’s partially correct, however.  The clone in the SFA Mast Arboretum is via Mike Hayman, Louisville, Kentucky.  In September, 2001, I was in Louisville making a presentation to the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Association and Mike took a day to squire me around some of the great Louisville gardens.  His personal garden was one of those special places brimming over with all kinds of interesting plants – a cornucopia of diversity.  Mike allowed me to take a few cuttings of the little variegated lacebark back to Texas.  I can’t remember exactly, but I think Mike had acquired the genotype via seed from a University of Nebraska expedition to China.  One came up variegated.  At SFA, we were able to multiply the clone via cutting propagation, and, to be honest, and as we’re prone to do, we scattered it far and wide.  Several years after the plants were well established in our garden, I learned from friends in Kentucky that the clone had been given the name ‘Blizzard’.  This is a great name and it fully describes the flecks of light green and cream spots splashed on the foliage.  Years later, I learned that Tony Avent of Plants Delight in North Carolina ( ) offered a clone ‘variegata’, described in one of those rave reviews that only Tony can conjure up.  In an email, Tony said he got the plant via Glasshouse Works in Ohio and he remarked that the clone he had had been floating around there since the early 1970s.  Unfortunately, this clone fails to root and Tony won’t graft, so he sows seedlings and picks the variegated seedlings.  Wow.  Diversity rules even in the little lacebark tree variegated world.  However, this means that there may be Blizzard-like plants floating here and there that are not actually the true ‘Blizzard’.  That should concern no one.  The fact that the ‘Blizzard’ at SFA Gardens roots at all is encouraging.  Tony’s website image was strikingly similar to the ‘Blizzard’ we know here in our East Texas garden.  In our environment, the variegation has been stable and we’ve yet to see a reversion – but that might not be the case in other areas – and it may break green tomorrow. 

Propagation has been easy via late spring and summer cuttings placed under mist, with or without hormones. Because the variety is prone to thin branches, finding suitable cutting wood is often a bit tricky.  The thicker young wood from vigorous shoots roots easier than the thin twiggy branches.  We generally apply a 2500 to 5000 PPM K-IBA rooting hormone as a five-second dip.  In our work, roots appear in three to four weeks.  While our rooting percentages have been lower than desired (25 to 50%), I’m convinced that careful selection of the right kind of cuttings would increase that number.  After rooting, ‘Blizzard’ has been a slow grower in the container for the first few months, but soon becomes well established and thrifty if the container substrate is well drained and good nutrition is applied.  A saleable one gallon container can be developed in one year.  A well-drained container substrate is essential to good growth; soupy wet mixes can kill plants quickly.


Because the clone is relatively new to the garden world, I’m not sure just what the ultimate height might be.  Our oldest plant is a specimen about 15′ tall and 10′ wide in a part-shade location of the Arboretum.  ‘Blizzard’ should be planted in a well-drained garden location and appreciates mulch.  In our area, the plant performs well in part shade – or at least protected from the harsh western sun in summer.  We have had a few container plants burn in full sun in the nursery but this might have been moisture related.  In more northern climes, the variety does quite well in full sun if attention is paid to soil moisture.  The variety should receive timely irrigation during the establishment years.


Ulmus X hollandica ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ – A Dwarf Elm for the Gardener Who Has Everything

This is a really dwarf elm – basically a densely branched wider than tall toadstool blessed with a blanket of tiny green leaves. Each leaf is typically elm-like, less than an inch long, and arranged in a closely spaced herringbone pattern along the branches.  This unique variety arose as a chance hybrid seedling in a garden in Birmingham, England.  While sometimes encountered as Ulmus elegantissima ‘Jacqueline Hillier’, the Royal Horticultural Society seems convinced that this variety was created by a cross of Ulmus glabra and U. plottii.  ‘Jacqueline Hillier’, whatever the exact name or parentage, deserves much more use in the landscapes of the southern USA.  We have grown the clone for years and have found it to be a conversation piece.


I have encountered ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ as specimens in a number of botanical gardens, arboreta and private gardens in the South, and I’m convinced this is a cute little shrub of considerable merit. There’s a fine older specimen in the Missouri Botanical Garden near the conservatory.  The variety is very hardy, reported to survive -25o F (!), and if kept in a conservatory, “Jacqueline Hillier” remains essentially evergreen.  In the garden, this variety can be left unpruned to become quite large in a decade or two. On the other hand, careful winter and summer pruning can keep the shrub within almost whatever small volume you desire.  Popular in the bonsai crowd, the species can be pot grown quite easily, but again, this is not a plant that one can leave for very long without taking care of watering. In one garden, the proud owner had limbed up the variety to remove the dense branching and expose the bark.  While more elm tree shaped, I didn’t care for the effect. The plants seemed unhappy and I concluded it wants to be a toadstool.  The branching is unique, a herringbone ambience to its form.


‘Jacqueline Hillier’ appreciates a very well-drained soil and (in our area) needs timely irrigations to keep the plant crisp and clean.  Hot dry conditions, particularly for plants sited in full sun, often creates leaf burn.  This clone is not tolerant of wet feet and can succumb to saturated soils – and we have lost the plant in several wet locations over the years.  While the variety can survive such bouts with drought, it’s not the way to grow the plant.  ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ has excellent resistance to Dutch elm disease. Various wilts, rots, cankers and leaf spots are reported but I’m convinced they are primarily drainage related.  Insects reported to visit the plant include aphids, borers, leaf hopper, beetles, mealybugs, caterpillars and scale.  We’ve never seen that as a problem.

We have found ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ very easy to multiply. Small cuttings taken late spring and summer and given mist propagation often root in just a few weeks, with or without hormone.  Despite their dwarf nature, they grow fairly fast when young and a saleable one gallon container plant can be produced in less than one year.  A saleable 3 gallon can be produced at the end of the second year.  ‘Jacqueline Hillier” is rarely available in specimen sizes and I suspect shipping this wide statured plant will always be a problem.  If cinched up tight for shipping, broken and bent branches are the norm.

Awhile back, I was wandering in the garden and I spotted a couple and their kids. From a distance I saw that they had spotted our ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ and watched them wander into the bed to get a closer look.  I was a bit surprised to see the family actually “petting” the plant.  That did it for me.  Any plant that people want to pet has got to be worth a place in the landscape.  It’s pettable.