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October 2009

Cost of coffee

Starbucks-logo Back in the Sixties and Seventies there was standard way of comparing the cost of living around the world – you compared the cost of a Mars bar in different countries. Then we moved on and the Big Mac became the standard. Now it’s coffee at Starbucks.

Having recently been on my horticultural travels through airports in three very different countries – London’s Heathrow airport, New York’s Newark (Liberty International airport) and Cork Airport in Ireland – and having bought a Venti Latte from Starbucks in each I thought I’d compare prices – and convert them all to each currency (using the Yahoo currency converter).

London Heathrow     £2.60 = $4.25 = €2.83
New York Newark    £2.62 = $4.28 = €2.85
Cork                       £3.59 = $5.87 = €3.90

Well, the landscape in Ireland may be beautiful, the people welcoming and music great – but the coffee (and the cost of living generally) is high.

Next time - back to plants!

Trachystemon - why it is called Abraham, Isaac and Joseph?

Trachystemon orientale - ground cover also known as Abraham, Isaac and Joseph. Image:© If you're looking for a robust perennial ground cover that will even thrive in dry shade look no further than Trachystemon oriantale. Its mass of foliage does the weed smothering efficiently and its purple blue flowers are a treat in the spring sunshine. Its mass of roots also make it a great plant for holding together the soil on slopes.

But why is its common name Abraham, Isaac and Joseph? I'd really like to know. If you've any idea, pleae post a comment. Thank you!

Dan Hinkley's garden at Windcliff

Over on his Next Generation Gardener blog, plantsman and garden designer Rizaniño "Riz" Reyes is sharing his recent visit to Windcliff, the garden of plantsman Dan Hinkley, whom I expect you'll know (he founded the garden at Heronswood), and his architect partner Robert Jones.

There's plenty of pictures of this richly planted garden on the blog - as well as this video. Head over to the Next Generation Gardener and take a look

The above video is only part one of his video tour, parts two and three are not on his blog but they are on YouTube. And you can watch them here.

And here's part three of the tour of the garden at Windcliff created by Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones - shot by Riz Reyes. Thanks for sharing these videos on YouTube, Riz

Surprising bicolored vine

As the fall color fades, with only the Japanese maples that featured in the snow still at their peak, a twining vine galloping up a birch tree caught my attention.

Celastrus scandens with bicolored fall foliage. Image:© With the birch leaves long gone, its fresh green foliage amongst the bare twigs caught my eye but now, as its foliage is starting to turn, it’s even more striking. Having been evenly green all season, many (but not quite all) of the leaves are green on one side and yellow on the other. Sharply divided by the midrib of the leaf, the two colours show up brightly side by side.

I didn’t notice any flowers or fruits on this vine earlier in the season - in fact I didn’t really pay it much attention at all until now – but I wonder if it’s the American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens. This is a vine that grows in this area – although at a slightly lower altitude so its leaves have dropped - and a bird could easily have dropped a seed.

I’ll be keeping a closer watch on it next season.

Perfect fall flowering shrub – but it doesn’t exist yet!

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Ripe Corn'. Image:© Thinking about those witch hazels I was blogging about yesterday I began to wonder. Compared with the winter- and spring-flowering Asian witch hazels - H. mollis and H. x intermedia - the flowers of the American native H. virginiana are quite small and only mildly scented. What we need is a plant with large scented flowers, like the Asian ones – but which flowers in the fall. So why not cross the fall flowering American witch hazel with the spring flowering Asian species?

Doh! I know, I know –They flower at completely different times of year! No problem. Both Ruth Dix at the US National Arboretum in Washington and Peter Dummer, formerly propagator at Hillier Nurseries in Hampshire, England, have stored pollen in order to cross these two groups.

Hamamelis virginiana. Image:© Seedlings have been created, I’m told, and are being assessed. But, as far as I’m aware, no seedlings from this cross have yet been named or been available to buy. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) And of course it’ll take a few years for the seedlings to flower. Or perhaps the hybrids flower sporadically for many months and never have much impact? What we need are plants which are as large-flowered, colourful and fragrant as the Asian species – but flowering in the fall.

But the really big question is this: how can I illustrate a blog post about a plant that doesn’t yet exist? Answer: by illustrating the two possible parents. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Ripe Corn’, at the top, and H. virginiana (with thered foliage of Euonymus alatus background) lower down.

Follow me on Twitter!


Startling news! You can now follow me on Twitter at !

Don’t worry, I won’t deluge you with the day-to-day details of my life but I will let you know when new posts go up at my three blogs (RHS New Plants, RHS Trials and Awards and here at Transatlantic Plantsman) remind you of lectures coming up, tell you when I have a piece published in a magazine and occasionally bring you other hot news or ask for help with something I’m working on.

But, you may ask, how do you follow me on Twitter? This piece from the New York Times outlines the options – on my Mac I use Tweetie. And there’s a page of ideas on the Twitter website. For real newbies there’s a handy video on the Twitter help pages.

It's just another way of keeping in touch and passing on the news. First there were drawings on the walls of caves, now there's Twitter!

UPDATE: Excellent overview of Tweetie here

Witch hazels – the value of variability

A couple of years ago I wrote about the scent of our native witch hazel here in Pennsylvania, Hamamelis virginiana, wafting through the woods. Well, it’s that time again and, as usual, while some specimens along the roadside and in the woods are blooming on bare branches some still have their buttery leaves intact.

Hamamelis virginiana: four forms from the same Pennsylvania population. Image:© In fact, taking a closer look yesterday it’s remarkable how different individual bushes are. Click on the picture to enlarge it and you’ll see four flowering shoots from four plants all growing within fifteen yards of each other. (OK, perhaps I shouldn’t have used the Euonymus alatus in the garden as a background; sorry).

On the left is a shoot from a plant with plenty of flowers - but they’re over and the seed capsules are starting to form. Next is one in its prime with large flowers and plenty of them. Next is one with large flowers but fewer and with the foliage still in place and when you look at the plant from a distance you’d hardly notice the flowers. And on the right is one with relatively few slightly smaller flowers.

Now this variability is a feature which aids the long term survival of the species. For example, variability in flowering time helps ensure that if ferocious fall weather prevents insect pollination of one plant - and forty six different genera of insects have been recorded visiting the American witch hazel in search of nectar – then a plant flowering a week earlier or a week later may well be pollinated successfully.

And this is why, when restoring habitat, it pays to raise the plants from seed so that this valuable variability is more likely to be preserved. All plants of a named clone are, by definition, identical.

There's lots more fascinating information on both American and Asian Hamamelis in the only book on these essential shrubs - Witch Hazels by Clive Lane. Order it from, or order it from

Another man-made “native” plant

Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Mesa Yellow' - AAS and Fleuroselect award winner. Image:©AAS A brand new native plant has been given top awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Yellow’ has won the top award for new annuals in the USA – it’s been chosen as one of four All-America Selections for 2010 – and it’s also won the European equivalent, a Gold Medal for 2010 from Fleuroselect. Both awards are the result of assessment in trials in a wide range of climates and it’s rare for a plant to win both awards so it really must be good.

But does anything strike you as odd about that statement? A “brand new native plant”? If it’s a native plant, hasn’t it been around for thousands of years – by definition?

The citation from Fleuroselect reads: “Like the flat-topped mountains (mesas) after which it is named, this first commercial quality, yellow gaillardia from seed is native of the southern United States.”

Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Mesa Yellow' - AAS and Fleuroselect award winner. Image:©AAS In fact ‘Mesa Yellow’ is not native to anywhere, it’s a man-made hybrid. It’s a sophisticated tetraploid F1 hybrid (with twice the normal number of chromosomes) between the perennial Gaillardia aristata and the annual G. pulchella which was created in the high-tech plant breeding greenhouses of the Pan-American Seed Company. Nothing wrong with that - but does it sound like a native plant to you?

It’s true, the original version of this hybrid, G. x grandiflora, has occasionally escaped from gardens into natural habitats over the years and, according to the USDA website, is found in the wild in Indiana, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t make it native, and certainly not “native of the southern United States”.

‘Mesa Yellow’ is early flowering, prolific and colorful – it sounds like a fine plant for gardens, containers and landscape use. But it’s a highly sophisticated man-made hybrid so let’s not deceive gardeners by pretending it’s an American native. It’s no more native than the hybrid petunias and impatiens bred by the same company.

Our earliest snow storm - ever

October snow on a Japanese maple in full fall color. Image:© Well, one minute I’m looking over the dazzling dahlias in our garden in England, admiring how long the impatiens are flowering in the local gardens and soaking up the autumn sunshine – then two days later here in Pennsylvania it’s snowing. Our earliest snow storm ever, I’m told.

With dark clouds overhead, the fiery maples in full fall color are weighted down with soggy snow and our impatiens look distinctly sad. What’s more, a tree growing near the transmitter that broadcasts WJFF, our local public radio station, has crashed to the ground, bringing the electricity cable with it – so the station is off the air. And that’s our only source of really local weather forecasts.

However, I have to say, that brilliant fall colour looks wonderful laden with clean white snow although the breeze is loosening it now. And no trees or power lines are down here yet. Just as well as we have a house full for the weekend, family and friends here for our local Black Bear Film Festival.

Listening to the radio online the news is: more snow on the way. It’ll be good to be tucked up in the movie theatre.