The Block Island Times

“Oddball plants for oddball people”

By Renée Meyer | Aug 15, 2014

The sunroom at the Manisses was filled with members of the Block Island Gardeners and their guests on Monday, Aug. 11. The occasion was their annual luncheon, followed by a talk entitled: “Oddball Plants for Oddball People.”

After what appeared to be a sumptuous lunch of roasted chicken and veggies (grown in Justin Abrams’ garden, of course) topped off with a fresh berry parfait and coffee, the guests retired to a darker room for a talk and slideshow by Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, Connecticut.

Wheeler is the Propagation and Plant Development Manager for the nursery, a job he clearly loves. Broken Arrow started as a Christmas tree farm in 1947 and the nursery started in 1984. Broken Arrow is unusual in that it propagates most of its own stock, and its specialties, besides Christmas trees, of course, are rare and unusual plants.

Wheeler, who has been gardening since childhood, is a self-described plant geek, fascinated with not only flowers, but foliage and form as well. “If it’s variegated, I need one…” reads one of the first slides. “If it’s contorted, I’ll get one,” reads another. “And if it’s just plain odd…”

Foliage, he explains, is the foundation; branches add structure. He favors a diverse palette of plants over the more common ones and seeks out little-known species from botanical gardens and, apparently, anywhere else he can find them. At the nursery, he propagates plants from 25,000 cuttings a year. It takes him 10 months to do so. He skips March and August. When asked why, he answered that in March the plants need to be gearing up for a season of growing. And August? Well, that’s when he goes on vacation.

Plant mutations are another source of new varieties that Wheeler seeks out. He describes “witches brooms,” whereby a mature plant seems to have a different plant sprouting out of it. There are also “branch sports,” and seedling mutations. He takes the unusual and attempts to replicate it, grow it out, propagate it, and otherwise test it for its potential as a garden plant or tree.

Then Wheeler takes his audience on a tour of his favorite oddball plants, categorized by trees, shrubs and evergreens. In addition, most of the plants he has chosen to present are suitable for Block Island. The family may be familiar; the varieties are not.

First up were Japanese maples. They are mainly known for their purple leaves, so the true oddball here is one with bright gold foliage: “Orange Dream.”

Next came some varieties of the native Cercis canadensis, or Eastern Redbud. An interesting bit of trivia about this small tree that grows as wide as it does tall, is that it is a member of the pea family with edible flowers, and yes, peas, Wheeler tells the group. Among his chosen oddballs are “Floating Clouds,” which has a unique variegation to the leaves, and “Ruby Falls,” which has a sweeping form.

On to Ginkgo biloba and its cultivars; these are known for their vibrant yellow fall color, we are told, but they need both a female and a male plant to produce fruit. They evidently will “take” salt spray, if one is near the ocean, and tolerate dry conditions. Plus, they don’t mind being pruned and so are good for sculpting, if that’s your thing. The variety “Saratoga” is especially good for espalier. (For non-gardeners, that’s a term for training a tree, usually a fruiting one, flat along a wall, with the branches trailing out horizontally from a central trunk.) Of all the unusual specimens in Wheeler’s own collection, the variety “Tuberformis” is his six year-old daughter’s favorite plant. That’s because of the way the leaves capture water in a rainfall. It’s certainly odd looking. But cool.

Most of us are familiar with only two varieties of magnolias: the star magnolia and the even more common saucer magnolia. These flower early in the season, but one oddball, M. ashie waits until June. It doesn’t hurt that it has silver-backed leaves, which make it interesting when the wind blows, even though the flowers may be long gone.

Ahh, here come the Nyssa sylvatica, commonly known as black gum and tupelo. This is a native tree (in species form), even appearing (now rarely) on Block Island. This tree is thought to be one of the top five for foliage color in the fall. Wheeler tells the group that it is “super tolerant,” doing well in all types of conditions from wet to dry. “Tough, tough plant,” he says. But he’s not here to sell us on the native variety. “Autumn Cascades” is a weeping variety with scarlet fall color. “Wildfire” has leaves that emerge burgundy colored, turn green and then scarlet in the fall. “Zydeco Twist” is from, where else, Louisiana, and is somewhat smaller than others in the Nyssa family, at 12 feet instead of the more usual 25 to 30.

Now let us consider shrubs. Here we start with the very common forsythia, hydrangeas, winterberry and willow. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of oddballs. There’s no need to limit oneself to the generic. Wheeler presents up to six unusual varieties in each category.

Winterberry, (Ilex verticilla) a deciduous holly and native shrub, gives Block Island its iconic winter look, the bright red berries adorning roadsides and shrub-lands all over the island. But did you know you can get ones with different colored berries, too? “Chrysocarpa” has bright yellow berries while “Orange Gold” has orange ones.

One could build a lovely garden using just conifers, which Wheeler terms “the bones” of a garden. Most are evergreen, so of course Wheeler will start with the oddballs that drop their needles: those of the larch (Larix) family. One in particular earns “oohs” and “ahs” from the audience. It is L. kaempferi “Pendula.” This is a weeping Japanese larch, and the “oohs” and “ahs” may be not for its particular look, but for what one can do with it. If not staked up, this plant grows like a groundcover – and it grows fast, up to 3 feet per year. When “staked,” the possibilities are endless. Staking is a loose term, for this groundcover may be grown on a trellis – of any shape or size. Wheeler shows a picture in which they are grown into shapes resembling “Cousin It.” These are from a children’s garden.

There are so many varieties of conifers that at one point an audience member asks, somewhat wondrously, “And you sell all these?”

“Yes,” says Wheeler. Broken Arrow has 1,200 to 1,500 varieties of plants. They are grown on three farms, comprising some 120 acres in Connecticut. Besides the nursery in Hamden, they also do mail order and online sales. The website is Don’t be deterred if it appears that they are out of everything. On Aug. 12, every single plant listed was “Out of stock.” This is simply because the nursery does not ship plants in August. Shipping will resume in September.

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