5-10-5: Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley Garden

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matthew Pottage


Please introduce yourself. My Name is Matthew Pottage, and I am the Curator of Wisley Garden, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

The arts or horticulture?  Horticulture.

What is your earliest memory of plants or gardens?

Making a den under a huge Hypericum bush with my brother, and the smell of it! (of the bush, not my brother!)

Any terrible gardening mistakes you wish to admit during your incipient gardening experimentation?

Planting a large Dracaena draco outside at my parents house in Yorkshire where it promptly died in the first frost! (I was around 12 at the time…..)

Conifers have become unfairly unfashionable and may be due for a resurgence in popularity. What are some of their qualities you admire about them?  

I love the value they add to a landscape, especially in winter. I love a garden that is a tapestry of colour, texture and form and find a landscape very bleak without evergreen content in winter so I find conifers really useful. I also think many of them are full of character and in the right position can be a real talking point.

How do you plan to proselytize them to the greater public?

By showing them off at Wisley to our 1.3 million visitors per year, and online through my twitter account @matthew_Pottage, that in a mixed planting, they can look really fabulous!

Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’

Two conifers, Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir) and Araucaria araucana (money puzzle and Chile pine) appear to be your favorites. Why these two taxa in particular?

I really love the cultivar ‘Aurea’ of the Spanish fir because it is so tactile, colourful and is of great garden ornament. The monkey puzzle is a childhood love – I had a teacher in primary school who was really creative and artistic and she had some branches of a monkey puzzle tree in the classroom. I was fascinated by them and immediately started to research the tree, and then started spotting them all over the place! It became a complete geeky hobby.

One of Matthew’s memorable trips was seeing the monkey puzzles in the lower volcanic slopes of the Chilean Andes.

Several years you were given a RHS bursary to travel to Chile where Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle or Chile pine) can form pure stands in volcanic mountain slopes at 600 to 1,800 m. As the experience of seeing plants in wild haunts often trumps seeing them in gardens, what did you take away from hiking among the trees?

It was an unforgettable experience, so much so I returned there in 2016 to visit them. It is like a prehistoric landscape of these giant pieces of living architecture. Seeing plants in the wild really helps the gardener understand the plants’ growing conditions and why plants behave like they do in gardens.

Another interest of yours is variegated plants, which can inspire polarizing opinions. At work, a variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’) is either admired or vilified by visitors. However, I imagine that variegated plants work well in UK’s grey skies – being beacons of light. What variegated plants can you not be without? 

I just couldn’t be without Pittosporum ‘Irene Patterson’ which has beautiful white, variegated leaves, or the exquisite Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Snow Bird’

What is a plant you desire to grow, but have not succeed despite repeated efforts?

Lapageria rosea. I love it, but need to admit defeat, it’s just impossible for me.

Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’ at RHS Wisley.

Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley has approximately 43,000 accessioned plants and 25,000 taxa. It lists the following groups as its special collections: Orchidaceae, Epimedium, Colchicum, Galanthus, Hosta, Rheum, Cyclamen, Narcissus, Daboecia, Erica, Calluna, Rhododendron, conifers, heathers, Mediterranean and Near East bulbs, and apples. Outside of conifers, are their specific plants you find close and personal at Wisley?

We have many fine trees at Wisley, and they add immense character to the gardens, each with its own personality. Some of these fine trees include Quercus robur f. fastigiataPinus coulteri, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’, and Eucalyptus dalrympleana. In total contrast, I really love the cacti and succulent collections in the glasshouse.

Within a short time, you have risen up from the ranks of trainee gardener to become the Curator at Wisley. You have held different positions that ranged from Glasshouse Supervisor, Team Leader to Deputy Curator. What did you take away from each position that informed your current role?

Always the same lessons, but with each step, a huge dollop more responsibility! Work hard, do your best, have a ‘glass half full approach’ and try to be fair and effective as opposed to always trying to be liked. Also, nothing is served to you on a plate, you have to make it your business to get things done, and all of the above has helped my journey to this role today.

Wavy patterns in the mown turf next to the Canal at RHS Wisley.

I have not been to RHS Wisley since 2007, but it has been exciting to witness the development of garden areas (Tom Stuart Smith’s Bicentenary Glasshouse Borders Landscape, James Hitchmough’s steppe garden meadow areas, and Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, designed by Robert Myers). What exciting projects should we see on the horizon under your tutelage? 

We are currently working with Christopher Bradley Hole to completely redesign our entrance landscape and how you arrive at the garden. It’s a big undertaking, which will see the creation of a new shop and plant centre, and arrivals building. Within the gardens, we are creating a new Exotic Garden, due to open Summer 2017 and in 2018 we will be refreshing and redesigning the heather garden. However, generally, across all garden areas I want to build on, and improve attention to detail and plantsmanship.

Within the last few decades, the Royal Horticultural Society has expanded beyond its original flagship at Wisley to Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor, and now Salford, securing its representation throughout Great Britain. How do you see your role as the Curator of RHS Garden Wisley in relation to other curators at these satellite gardens?  

As part of the curators’ team of the RHS, we meet quarterly to view each other’s gardens, share best practice and learning and in recent days I have been spending time with the Curator of the new Salford garden, talking him through the way I am leading things at Wisley, to help him get off to a quick start.

Box alternatives are showcased in a pleasing loose parterre style at RHS Wisley.

Great Britain’s tenure in the European Union dismantled bureaucratic and economic barriers to trade, hence the more porous borders ushered in an influx of plants and horticultural goods from continental Europe. The downside of this economic free trade has been the introduction of pests and diseases, such Asian box caterpillar and oak processionary moth, not seen previously in British gardens. How do you address these challenges at RHS Wisley and elsewhere in you work?

We are very much here to share the best in gardening, and support the gardening public, and through our science work, work closely to look at control, elimination or management practices which we can then share with our members and the gardening public. For example, box tree caterpillar very quickly appeared at Wisley, and while our science team can advise on control, we have laid out a planting of Buxus alternatives which we are trialing as we are finding many of our members are having problems with both the caterpillar and box blight and are eager to learn what else they can plant.

Much has been lamented about the waning interest among millennials in gardens and ornamental plants. The nursery industry in US has struggled to capture the attention of young people at a time when food, fashion, and design sectors successfully have done so. Much interest in ornamental plants have been primarily houseplants for urban dwellers and specialty cut flowers from young people seeking to diversity from edibles in farms. What do you see the horticulture industry heading in UK?

I really hope (and the RHS is trying to promote this) that people will start to understand that gardening and greenspaces is good for your health and well being, and people actually benefit from having plants in their lives, and that gardening can be accessible to all, whether through houseplants, window boxes, or just a simple planter by the front door.

A number of trainee programs in the National Trust, RBG Kew, RBG Edinburgh, and Cambridge Botanic Garden are now well established, and it is positive to see the number of young faces enrolled in these programs. How is the trainee program at RHS Wisley structured?

We have two programmes, a two year programme of intense study, coupled with a rotation through all the garden teams. It is a fully accredited course which is still very ‘hands on’ and is a fantastic, comprehensive, offer. In addition, we have a two year apprenticeship programme, which has a focus around introducing people to professional gardening, and grasping the basics. Many of our apprentices go on to the student course to continue their development.

Can you single out any of your peers whose work at other gardens, public and private, excites you?

I have a friend called Robbie Blackhall Miles (www.fossilplants.co.uk) who is growing different Proteaceae which have been collected as seed at very high altitudes, and could have hardiness potential for the UK climate. Robbie is a great planstman, and it’s always fascinating talking to him and hearing about his work.

What gardens outside of RHS, private or public, you find yourself visiting again and again?

I’m a huge fan of the National Trust gardens, two in particular, Bodnant in North Wales, and Sheffield Park in Sussex. Both have magnificent trees and have a wonderful atmosphere.

Matthew’s London terrace is full of container plants, including a variegated clivia, arranged to highlight their foliage textures and colors – the only caveat is that pests flourish year round in London’s microclimate!

On top of your busy career, you manage to garden outside of work in London and Yorkshire. I imagine that London’s unique microclimate enables you to grow plants usually cossetted in glasshouses, but Yorkshire is no banana belt, being northern and colder. What are the two gardens like?

The garden in Yorkshire is very tough – heavy and poorly draining clay soil, constantly windy conditions and near the coast, so salt laded winds. However, the clay soil can be improved and when cared for, we get great results once things establish. My tiny London is great fun, and is full of plants we’d usually consider as houseplants, like Adiantum, Clivia and Platycerium. However, the drawback is everything is full of pests year round, typically aphids and red spider mite!

Matthew’s beautifully-tended garden at his parents’ Yorkshire home.

What are you looking forward the most in the future?

I’m really looking forward to the coming years at the RHS while we deliver some projects at Wisley that will really help take it to a new level. The RHS is full of brilliant people and while each day can be incredibly busy, it’s always fun, productive and dynamic.

Thank you Matthew!

5-10-5: Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matt Lobdell


Matt Lobdell taking notes on a clipboard during the 2015 plant hunting expedition in Alabama.

Please introduce yourself
Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum

The arts or horticulture?
I appreciate the arts, but I’d have to say horticulture!

How did you become fascinated with plants?

My fascination with plants grew as I became more aware of their diversity. Through high school and my early undergraduate years I was generally aware of the differences between oaks, maples, and other trees, but my interest was really piqued when I took an ecology course during my sophomore year that involved a tree survey as a final project. I was fascinated to learn that there could be as many as 20 distinct tree species in a small transect and became curious about the characteristics used to diagnose one from another. This survey led me to take an internship at the Polly Hill Arboretum in Martha’s Vineyard, where I would learn even more about tree diversity.

Martha’s Vineyard is better known as the affluent summer playground, but it has a year-round resident community comfortable with island life. I imagine that growing up on the island enabled you to partake recreational activities outdoors. Can you single out natural areas that were impressionable?

I remember the area around my parents’ house, which was only about a half mile away from the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. When exploring the area, I encountered both oak trees and seemingly impenetrable bear oak thickets, as well as the occasional sassafras, pitch pine, or beetlebung (our regional common name for Nyssa sylvatica). I found the ecosystems at some of the beaches interesting, particularly at Lambert’s Cove Beach where I’d often pick something I called “beach plum”, but would later realize was just Rosa rugosa. At least I got the family right.

Margaret Mead the distinguished anthropologist once remarked: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” How did you find your anthropology degree applicable to your methodology towards plants?

What I found most rewarding about studying anthropology was the integrated approach the field takes to studying and understanding a topic. As a Curator, I try to also take an integrated approach to studying and learning about plants. I strive to both understand what make a plant significant from a botanical perspective, as well as understand its historical utilization in order to assist with the interpretation of its significance to the visitor.

Eventually your minor in environmental studies influenced you to pursue opportunities to intern in public gardens. Polly Hill Arboretum was the first public garden where you interned in 2005 as its garden intern and 2008 as its first collection management intern. What were several invaluable skills at Polly Hill you took away?

During my initial internship there I learned some basic horticulture and grounds management skills which I was able to build upon in later positions. As a collections management intern I gained exposure to plant records, accessioning, evaluating plants within the collections, and some other basic skills that would cement my decision to pursue a career as a curator.

Your experience in public arboreta makes it clear that woody plants are your forte. What is it about woody plants that you find appealing? Their sense of permanence?

I think that definitely has something to do with it! However, I think the size of trees in particular also provides shade, stability, and other services that allow one to interact with it in a manner they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with other types of plants.

For two years you had worked as a horticulturist for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy which transverses Chinatown, Financial District, Waterfront, and North End neighborhoods in Boston.This position is more community-oriented and amenity-centered rather than the collection- and scientific-focused of your current job. What lessons did you take away from being a public parks horticulturist that other experiences did not provide?

The Greenway was the only position I’ve had that put me in a true urban area, so it was interesting to learn just how many challenges trees have to face when growing in those conditions, and truly impressive that some are able to grow there at all.

Your masters dissertation at University of Delaware examined Styrax in cultivation. How did Styrax, as opposed to other woody genera, come to become the focus of your research?

I was looking for a group of ornamental woody plants that might benefit from a general survey-type study, and was looking for something that hadn’t already been overdone. My advisor, John Frett, suggested either Itea or Styrax and I chose the latter. We were both surprised to learn the genus had approximately 130 described species, so we chose to focus on those with some history of cultivation in order to keep the study manageable.

Styrax hemsleyanus (Hemsley Snowbell) native to central China.

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are commonly represented in cultivation. What other members of the genus would you wish to see more grown in gardens?

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are probably the most cold hardy and suitable for a variety of landscape conditions. I’m also partial to Styrax americanus, a southeastern US native. It’s a shrubbier species with pale green leaves and though the flowers are small, they have an interesting reflexed form. Styrax hemsleyanus is also a favorite, which is similar to S. obassia but most of them I’ve seen have slightly smaller leaves with prominent venation which can look interesting while vegetative.

Stryax americanus showing its small reflexed flowers.

The Morton Arboretum’s Malus ‘Dolgo’ whose fruits are considered suitable for making crab apple jelly.


You currently work as The Morton Arboretum’s head of collections and curator, which brings tremendous responsibilities for a 1,700-acre arboretum. What does your daily day look like?

I’ve found it to be a bit different each day! I’ve been involved with everything from selecting plants for the collections, planning wild collecting trips, applying for funding to assist with infrastructure improvements, and assisting with development of BRAHMS, a plant records database. I’ve never found there to be a shortage of projects to work on, but do try to carve out a bit of time each week to walk the grounds and check on the performance of the plant collections.

The Morton Arboretum is one of the few arboreta that actively engages in scientific education and research without the appending university affiliation (i.e. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Morris Arboretum of U Penn, University of Washington Botanic Garden). How does your role/relationship fit with the science and conservation section, such as the ArbNet, the Center for Tree Science, and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative?

I remain available to share my knowledge of the collections with our science and conservation staff, and particularly encourage them to carry out research within our collections when possible, assisting with logistics as necessary.

Magnolia collection in full flower at The Morton Arboretum.

The Morton Arboretum’s living collection contains approximately over 200,000 living plants which represent 3,925 taxa. The collection is arranged in three groups: geographic, taxonomic, and special habitats. Do you have specific areas in these groups you find yourself revisiting? 

The Magnolia and Oak collections are personal favorites as they are groups of my interest. I also like to explore our Plants of China collection which boasts a diverse assemblage of material due to our history of collaborating with NACPEC (North America-China Plant Collecting Exploration Consortium).

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth at The Morton Arboretum’s magnolia collection.

If you were to take a friend or a family member around Morton Arboretum, what would be some of the outstanding trees you would take care to point out?

All depends on the time of year! However I would make sure they saw some of the large Acer miyabei on the Arboretum’s west side, as well as the Abies nordmanniana in the Central and Western Asia collection.

Most people see the Midwest as having prairies, not woodlands, and may be surprised to encounter the Morton Arboretum’s trees. What are the natural woodlands in Illinois that people can visit?

The eastern US forest extends into the Chicago region, though prairies become much more common as one travels west. Kankakee River State Park and Starved Rock State park are two must-visit sites in the area. Of course The Morton Arboretum also has an extensive restored woodland which is a must see as well.

Subalpine meadows in the Tusheti National Park, Georgia.

Within two years of your job, you participated in your first overseas plant hunting expedition as part of the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), Given its geographical position between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and its two mountain ranges (Greater and Lesser Caucasus), Georgia has a floristic diversity that is beguiling for botanists and horticulturists alike. It is relatively underrepresented where plants are concerned in US plant collections, and has tremendous scope for woody plants like Crataegus pentagynaTilia cordata, and Fagus orientalis. What were some of the highlights in the trip?

Fagus orientalis, as you mentioned, is a spectacular tree and important component of the forests of the Caucasus. We were also able to collect from some of their oaks, including Quercus macranthera and Quercus hartwissiana, as well as two maple species I hadn’t heard about until I started looking into the flora of the region in detail: Acer ibericum and Acer velutinum. Overall, it was a fascinating country to visit and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn about their flora from the experts at the Georgian Institute of Botany who joined us for the expedition.

Matt examining plants in Republic of Georgia.

Acer ibericum in Georgia.

The Caucasus region is again the destination this year as planning is underway for Azerbaijan, one of Georgia’s neighbors. What would be the objectives of this expedition that would be different from those achieved in Georgia? 

My main objective in Azerbaijan would be to collect some of their endemic taxa, particularly those such as Acer hyrcanum and Parrotia persica found in the Hyrcanian forest. This would allow a different portion of the flora of the Caucasus to be collected separate from that in Georgia.

Magnolia pyramidata, one of the big-leafed magnolias native to eastern US.

What is your desert island plant?

If I could choose just one it would be Magnolia macrophylla. I often accuse it of being the tree that got me into horticulture. Once I saw the size of the leaves and flowers and learned it was something that could be grown outdoors in New England, I found myself really curious about plant diversity and wanting to learn more about trees.


Matt preparing a herbarium specimen of a magnolia collected in Torreya State Park, Florida.

Do you have advice for those aspiring for a career in public horticulture, especially in the curation and collection-based areas?

I  found it helpful to work at a variety of botanical gardens in order to learn both a diverse assemblage of plants, as well as several different ways to approach curation and plant records techniques. I’d also encourage those to seek out someone with a job that sounds interesting to them and ask them how they got to where they are. I’ve found most people are generous with their time and more than willing to share their experiences.

Thank you for the interview, Matt!

A Soliloquy to Nature

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Dear Jimmy

As I feel the Mediterranean warmth in your description of Cordoba last week, the autumnal nights have already arrived in eastern U.S. In place of orange groves and formal fountains are deciduous trees and dewy meadows. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to spend a few days at Meadowburn Farm, a place as secluded and rural as one can be near the border of New York State, and a slow rhythm replaced the maelstrom of my urban life. It is easy to see why the rural reaches of upstate New York and northern New Jersey inspired American transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Logan Bryant who discovered internal spirituality through communion with nature. Rural landscapes, like gardens, blur the distinction between man and nature – the glimpse of a pioneer tree sapling in a less browsed meadow hints at the stealth hand of nature poised to strike when our control is relinquished. In suburban developments, the houses and their surroundings often appear independent of one another as the houses are carbon copies and tight foundation plantings and tidy lawns subjugated. Such sameness seem less symptomatic of rural landscapes, and an early morning walk at the farm confirm the continual changes.

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It was still dark when I pulled apart the curtains of my bedroom, but my feet felt the perceptible chill on the wooden floorboards. Swaddled with layers of warm clothing, I ventured outside to see the air heavy with mist and the light bravely breaking above the trees. Only the braying of the cows awakened and led to another pasture pierced the cold stillness of the scene.


The panicles of the timothy grass quivered animatedly, gilded with silver from the first morning rays and not trampled by livestock hooves.



Crossing the road and upwards the hill I started to notice more things – how oblique the angle of the wooden gate looked with the horizontal plane of the woodlands in the distance, but playing off the slope of another hill on the right.


The mist continued to seep in, washing out colors and giving an otherworldly feeling that I felt like an interloper who suddenly found an alternate realm.




Where the trees began to taper towards the field’s boundary on the opposite side, a portal could be glimpsed and compelled me to walk closer and closer to it. But something else diverted me from that route.

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A white oak perfectly proportioned and not hemmed by neighboring trees had spread its branches out and wide like an arboreal monarch. I wondered how it had escaped the scythe of the agricultural machinery or the hungry livestock set to graze here.


Underneath its canopy, one could see its boughs furrowed with age and snaking directionless at every point. Not a leaf rustled in the still morning air, and for a moment I closed my eyes knowing full that a whole day still beckoned. The spirituality of being underneath the tree quietly biding its time season after season needed no words or no soundtrack.


Anatomy of a Garden: Two Plantings at Lurie Garden

The principal genius of the Lurie Garden, conceived by Kathryn Gustafson, Shannon Nichol, Jennifer Guthrie (Gustafson Nichol Guthrie firm), and Piet Oudolf, lies in the ingenuity with which North American prairie plants are mixed with exotics to spectacular effect in an urban environment. A 15 ft tall hedge, a physical manifestation of Carl Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders’, gives muscular heft and the maple allees (Acer x freemanii [Autumn Blaze] = ‘Jeffersred’ keeps the scale proportional and intermediate between the skyscrapers and the perennial plantings. Because Chicago’s cold and snowy winters can truncate the winter interest of herbaceous plantings that Piet Oudolf is famous for, the structural stillness of the hedge and maple trees cannot be underestimated and by its virtue of solid mass, the former makes the garden’s loose naturalism more marked during the growing season, and the latter intercepting light at a higher level. Had not the Gustafson Nichol Guthire firm and Oudolf been perceptive to create this framework, the Lurie Garden overall looks lost against the domineering Chicago skyline. Below are two photographs of different plantings taken at different seasons.

One could say that the first photograph of the garden in autumn resembles abstract expressionism since colors – the scarlet ridge of maples, the angular contours of the hedge, the tawny seedheads of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, and the fine loose foliage of Amsonia hubrichtii –  are sharply demarcated.

Amsonia hubrechtii in fall


1. Amsonia hubrichtii 

Restricted to the Ouachita mountains in Arkansas and Oklahoma, Amsonia hubrichtii commemorates the American conchologist (someone who studies molluscs) Leslie Hubricht who found it in 1942. Young plants resemble straggly pine seedlings, but will mature to form billows of fine-textured stems with 3 to 4 feet spread. Like other amsonias, Amsonia hubrichtii produces light cornflower blue flowers in spring. Although some garden writers have derided its widespread availability and potential overuse in landscapes, it still remains somewhat uncommon and should not be overlooked especially for its bright yellow autumn foliage. Full sun and regular soil will be satisfactory and a bit of self-seeding may be observed. The second photograph shows Amsonia hubrichtii in its spring attire (Number 6).

2. Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ 

One of the earliest switchgrasses to be introduced to the trade for its reddish foliage, ‘Shenandoah’ is a German selection by Hans Simon who evaluated more than several hundred seedlings of ‘Hanse Herms’. Leaves emerge green in early summer and develop reddish tints in midsummer. ‘Shenandoah’ does not flop and remains remarkably upright throughout the season. The downsides is that the foliage seems more susceptible to rust than the green or blue-leafed cultivars and the roots, aromatic when dug, are irresistible to rodents, especially voles.

3. Thujas (Thuja occidentalis ‘Brabant’, T. occidentalis ‘Nigra’, T. occidentalis ‘Pyramidalis’, and T. occidentalis ‘Wintergreen’, Thuja ‘Spring Grove’)

Different Thuja cultivars fill out the hedging that surrounded the perimeter of the Lurie Garden and diminishes the unsightly effect of winter damage were one variety used. In a heavily trafficked urban environment, the thujas do not suffer from deer depredation and remain evergreen.

4. Acer x freemanii [Autumn Blaze] = ‘Jeffersred’ 

Freeman maples are hybrids between Acer rubrum and A. saccharinum that combine the best attributes of their parents. The form and brilliant scarlet foliage is inherited from Acer rubrum, with rapid growth and urban adaptability from A. saccharinum. In Manual of Landscape Plants (2009), Michael Dirr noted that Autumn Blaze has ‘rich green leaves with excellent orange-red fall color that persists later than many cultivars, dense oval-rounded head with ascending branch structure and central leader, rapid growth and Zone 5 hardiness, may be more drought tolerant than true Acer rubrum cultivars.” Indeed the scarlet color is a worthy ornamental characteristic of Autumn Blaze. Dirr does express caution over the overuse of Autumn Blaze in commercial landscapes.


By contrast, the second photograph taken in early summer depicts the Lurie Garden painterly in the Impressionist manner – the drifted plantings orient in unusual angles, the colors appearing brushstroke-like, and plants an essence of their selves. Not surprisingly, the Lurie Garden Design Narrative describes this section “bold, warm, dry and bright” and the its topography  “a contoured, controlled plane experienced by walking on its surface.” Early summer is a bounteous time for herbaceous perennials which respond well to longer day lengths and consistent warmth.



1. Monarda bradburiana 

Monarda cultivars from Europe have largely overshadowed the native species from which they were hybridized, and it’s a shame since the species seem to exhibit better mildew resistance and adaptability. Native to open dry woodlands in Southeast US and northwards to Iowa, the Eastern bee balm has attractive silver-green foliage and creamy pink tubular flowers. The calyces age attractively to a wine hue, an additional seasonal interest after the main floral display has finished. Here in the Lurie Garden, the wine calyces connect visually to the dark globes of Allium atropurpureum. Pollinators are usually drawn to its nectar-rich flowers, giving a strong case to cultivate Monarda bradburiana.

2. Allium atropurpureum

I first saw this allium at Nori and Sandra Pope’s late Hadspen Garden, Somerset, UK where the dark purple florets echoed the purplish-suffused blue foliage of Rosa glauca in the plum border. Used alone, Allium atropurpureum looks lost, receding in the background. However, its dark tone is a good chromatic foil for the purple Salvia river and Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’. Some accounts have noted the short lifespan of Allium atropurpureum although excellent drainage may be the difference between success and failure. Topping up the bulbs annually will offset any gaps and maintain the display overall.

3. Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ and Papaver orientale ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ 

Of unknown parentage (one parent is certainly Amsonia tabermontana), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ originated in the stock beds of White Flower Farm several years ago. It is a superb garden plant for its all around good looks – the buds are a winsome dark blue, habit is tidy and manageable, leaves dark green and lustrous (turning yellow in autumn), and pests seldom trouble ‘Blue Ice’.

The bright splash of red orange from Papaver orientale ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ prevents the planting from looking sedate, polite for a lack of better term. In a mixed planting like the Lurie Garden, Oriental poppies can be tricky to integrate because they left gaping holes during summer dormancy and resent crowding when foliage returns in late summer and autumn. In addition, it is easy to plant in the empty spaces vacated by dormant Oriental poppies.

4. Amsonia tabermontana var. salicifolia 

Taller (24-36″) than ‘Blue Ice’ (12-15″) and bearing lighter hued flowers, Amsonia tabermontana var. salicifolia was among the first amsonias to be cultivated and still remains a classic for the perennial border. The terminal clusters of light blue flowers appear in spring and become bean-like seed pods in late summer and autumn. Be mindful of its siting since transplanting established amsonias is not a feat for the weak-hearted as their taproots probe long and deep.

5. Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ 

Sometimes the best garden plants are happy accidents and ‘Purple Smoke’ was a chance seedling discovered by the late curator Rob Gardner in the trial beds of Baptisia minor and B. alba at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Sultry smokiness essentially sums up the appealing trait of this hybrid – the stems emerge an inky gray color rare among herbaceous perennials, the flowers a soft violet the color of evening dusk, and the pea-like foliage unfazed by heat and humidity. Mature plants can reach 50″ tall. In this planting above, the soft violet flowers are a good transitional hue between the salvias and Allium atropurpureum. Young plants do not resemble much and require some time to reach their full potential.

6. Amsonia hubrichtii 

Our Gentle Giants

DeWiersse, Vorden
DeWiersse, Vorden

Maybe it was the recent passing of Arbor day, or Eric’s response to the question,”What plant would you choose to be come back as..”, to which he chose the olive tree, or maybe it from being asked about my favorite photo; I am not sure exactly but it brought trees to the forefront of my mind. There is one quote about trees that is a favorite of mine, a Chinese Proverb that reads, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”  It often makes me think about the admiration and respect we have for trees and wonder where does our love of trees come from, what is our fascination with them? Some answers are plain to see with the obvious factors of why we love them is that they are good for the earth and environment, the air, they provide wood which we have used to build our homes and shelters and most of our furnishings too, they provide the pencil we write with to the paper we write on, among many other rational reasons. There is no doubt that we are thankful for these things that trees provide, but there is something deeper, more emotional that they stir up in us.  Trees evoke so many deep memories that probably started at a young age, maybe being pushed on a tire swing hanging from a strong limb or running in the woods with friends as children? Apple picking with the family in the autumn, when some leaves mesmerize us while turning their bright, brilliant magical colors?


Steinhardt Gardens Mt Kisco NY
Steinhardt Gardens, Mt Kisco, NY (photo: Jennifer Neumann)
Winterthur and DeWiersse
Spring blooms at Winterthur, DE and allee leafing out at DeWiersse

One of my earliest memories regarding a tree was during my kindergarten graduation.  All the students, with help from our parents, collected money to purchase a flowering dogwood (I remember the attached white tag clearly) and gave this tree as a gift to our kindergarten teacher, as it was her last year of teaching. It was all kept a secret until the end of the ceremony, when it was pulled along in a red flyer wagon, by myself and a fellow student, up to our unsuspecting teacher.  As we pulled this beautiful little tree, with its peachy-pink blooms and root ball wrapped in burlap, we were met with gasps and smiles from those seated in the auditorium.  The whole situation was fascinating and confusing to me – why were we giving her a tree, why a tree? What did it mean? Where would she plant it? We all lived in the Bronx! Would she think of us every time she looked at in in flower or in leaf? What if she didn’t like trees? And where was she going?! There were so many unanswered questions about this ceremonial act that were clouding my young mind.

Ficus macrophylla in Valencia, Spain, and a giant Redwood at Killerton, Devon, UK

Growing up in the Bronx, meant spending the weekends upstate at my grandparents house, about a 2 hour drive north to Red Hook in the Hudson Valley.  My siblings and I would climb the huge trees next to the house, which were situated just outside the kitchen window, always trying to see who could climb the highest.  Pines, I remember them with very large trunks and limbs.  When we would be called in for lunches of baloney sandwiches and fresh cucumbers, we carefully descended  branch by branch, jumping onto the soft pine needle covered ground when we were within safe proximity. Once inside, we always needed to spend some minutes scrubbing the sticky pine sap off our tiny hands before we were allowed to eat our lunch.  I am sure if I saw these trees now, they would not seem as large as they do in my memories of those times. Could these early games have sparked my fascination with trees?


Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo in the Netherlands
natural landscape in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo in the Netherlands

Texture and foliage keep a garden interesting through the season. Flowers are just moments of gratification. – Kevin Doyle

Winter silhouettes of trees and deer, Gravetye Manor, UK
Winter silhouettes of trees and deer, Gravetye Manor, UK
Magnolia campbellii anchoring the long border Gravetye Manor, UK

The sight of a single or grove of deciduous trees can invoke both pleasant and melancholy thoughts. The silhouettes of solitary trees in winter are their fingerprints on the horizon, stamping themselves against a bare sky. You might easily recognize what tree it is from a distance, whether in daytime or on a bright moonlit night.  In a Pennsylvanian winter, I always imagined the large Platanus trees in the forest were the ‘Kings of the Winter Wood’ with the  seasonal light picking up the silvery glints of their beautiful bark. Even in a mixed wood they easily stand out, it is the season for them to shine, glowing among a surrounding dreary sea of muted trunks of gray and brown, a king among men.

a single Acacia tortilis in the Negev Desert, Israel
a single Acacia tortilis in the Negev Desert, Israel

Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong. – Churchill



The sense of coolness we feel in the warm summer months, as we sit beneath the shade of a single specimen or enter a dark grove, tingles the skin and puts the mind at ease, giving us a break from the heat of the blazing sun.  A nap can easily be brought on by listening to the lullaby of the branches swaying slightly in a breeze, leaves rustling to and fro, causing our minds to wander into a sleepy landscape, protected underneath a large and looming canopy.

single tree adorning the end of a London Street and Hurricane Sandy damage, Brooklyn, NY (photo: Migan Foster)
single tree adorning the end of a London Street and Hurricane Sandy damage, Brooklyn, NY (photo: Migan Foster)
Prunus blooms and colorful washings, Colombia Road, London
Prunus blooms and colorful washings, Colombia Road, London

The plethora of trees in the countryside is always pleasurable due to their sheer amount surrounding us, so it might be possible to take single trees for granted there, but not the case for a city dweller.  They might not know what the tree is, where it came from, or its significance to the world, but that single green tree in a sea of concrete puts a smile on the face of many neighborhood folk rushing about their daily activities.  Is it the the short-lived colorful blooms they love, the soothing green color of a fully leafed out tree, or is it the thickness of the eye level trunk which quietly proclaims its sense of history in such a rapid paced environment? Perhaps it is why when we see one go down in city streets, we feel a tinge of panic, a moment of sadness, a shortness of breath because someone we saw each day is now gone, another piece of the present is now forgotten history. Some blossoming trees are sometimes further enhanced by surrounding garish city colors, letting the tree be an individual among other city folk, standing its own quirky ground just as it own citizens strive for individuality.


Vincent van Gogh Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. – Confucius


If there was only one tree I could plant, I would most definitely choose something from the genus Malus because of its continual hard work most of them provide through the seasons. Spring brings the beauty of delicate blossoms that attract and feed insects, lush foliage with developing fruits while providing good shade in summer, gorgeous and colorful delicious apples dangling from each branch in autumn and some with fall color, and finally the wonderfully twisted silhouettes to look at during the winter, especially pleasing in an orchard.

Platanus allees
Fleeting moments in Platanus allees in Spain
tree reflections at DeWiersse and Beech tunnel of 475' at Kasteel Weldam, Netherlands
tree reflections at DeWiersse and Beech tunnel of 475′ at Kasteel Weldam, Netherlands

The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration. –   Claude Monet

There is no denying that trees are the elephants of our plant kingdom; they are larger than us, old, gentle, wise, experienced, and have stories to tell. They are the plants we know have seen a lot, probably more in life than you and I have, and probably ever will. In keeping with the favored Chinese Proverb, remember to plant those trees for future generations, not just for the pleasure of ours today.   – James

Stacking Wood


Storm knocked over a few trees in your garden? Have a ton of excess firewood and not sure where to store it? Once your wood pile is stacked to the brim, take a tip from these creative folks.  When visiting gardens in the Netherlands, I came across this beautifully built decorative fence made up of tree trunks.  I am not sure if this is the area where they stack the wood or if it is a semi-permanent decorative feature, how many seasons it would last. Either way it is a novel way to turn an unsightly woodpile into a eye pleasing decorative element. Just one more way to squeeze an extra use out of a beautiful tree before it is used to warm you up during the colder months.  -James

‘Whenever I see…’

newspaper and trees
view from Killerton, Devon, England

“Whenever I see a newspaper, I think of the poor trees. As trees they provide beauty, shade and shelter, but as paper all they provide is rubbish.”- American-born British violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin

Gray Monarchs of Australia

Tree from Undergrowth

It seems sad that the wanton destruction of giant trees was worldwide in the past – if one counts the coastal redwoods of California, cedar forests of Lebanon, kauri groves of New Zealand, and alerce of Chile. The initial admiration mankind had upon seeing the giants of the tree world did not always translate to sustainable harvest and environmental stewardship, and we are left wondering what centenarians fell by the wayside in the presence of the few survivors. Even Tasmania did not escape the arboreal destruction, and controversy over its logging industry still burns.

The height of the mountain ash is nearly incomprehensible, clearly cementing the species as the tallest angiosperm (flowering ) tree in the world.
The height of the mountain ash is nearly incomprehensible, clearly cementing the species as the tallest angiosperm (flowering ) tree in the world.

The scent of eucalyptus and mimosa always seems Californian before I finally found myself in Australia nearly fifteen years later. Horticulturally I was only familiar with Eucalyptus cinerea, the silver dollar beloved of florists. Despite being pleasingly aromatic, eucalyptus had that incendiary whiff I found suspicious, only to learn that its flammable quality was essential to its regeneration on a fire-prone continent. In the United Kingdom, I encountered the beautiful sinewy trunks of Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila (alpine snow gum), its gray mottling rivaled by Platanus occidentalis in North America and Pinus bungeana in China. It fascinated me that New Zealand had no eucalyptus (only introduced species) when the Australian continent was three hours away by flight. Tasmania itself has 29 species, which dominate much of the island’s vegetation. The record holder belongs to Eucalyptus regnans, a species too found in isolated patches on the mainland. It has suffered the indignity of being turned into woodchips exported to Japan.

Eucalyptus possess some of the world's most beautiful bark, and E. regnans is no exception.
Eucalyptus possess some of the world’s most beautiful bark, and E. regnans is no exception.

Eucalyptus regnans flourishes in high altitude forests full of Atherosperma moschatum (sassfaras), Nothofagus cunninghammii, Dicksonia antarctica (man ferns), and celery top (Phyllocladus asplenifolius) trees. These forests have high precipitation by Australian standards and such cool moist habitats are a rarity in a desert- to arid-rich continent. Eucalyptus regnans does not reach maturity until they are 20 year-old trees, which makes their large-scale destruction from logging and intentionally lit fires more heart wrenching. If left un-felled or unburnt, the trees can live up to 500 years. This longevity is one of the traits E. regnans shares with other trees in old-grown forests across the world. Like the spotted owl in the old-growth Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest U.S., the mountain ash has its faunal emblem, the endangered Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobedelius leadbeateri), reduced to a few hundred surviving individuals (the 2009 Marysville bushfire wiped out half of the population). This possum prefers forests neither too young nor old – a mixture of mature surviving trees for food and dead ones for shelter and nesting is essential to their long-term survival. A few insectivorous herbivores use E. regnans as its primary food source, and the rare swift parrot inhabits its canopy.

Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) flourish at the base of the trees.
Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) flourish at the base of the trees.

In its genus, Eucalyptus regnans has the unique distinction of being a true pioneer rain forest tree. Although it possesses the ancestral trait of fire-adapted eucalypt epicormic structure, E. regnans instead invests heavily in rapid juvenile to adolescent growth, compromising bark thickness in the process. The resprouting capacity of E. regnans is rather poor compared to other eucalypts. Where other rainforest tree seedlings are able to withstand the low light, E. regnans will die off in natural circumstances. Downed trees become excellent nurse logs for other species in the same way the redwood trees avail themselves for its successors taking advantage of light.

Last year I learned from friends about the discovery of the tallest E. regnans a mere 2.5 miles (4 km) from the popular tourist destination Tahune Airwalk, a hour’s drive from Hobart, Tasmania’s largest capital city. Knowing that I was to visit Tasmania this past February, we made arrangements for a day’s outing. Our drive took us past the apple orchards and farmhouses of the bucolic Huon Valley before the scenery shifted to arid forests. The route was so circuitous that I had to ask for the vehicle to pull aside since I was feeling unexpectedly carsick. It was easy to witness the destructive effects of forestry – the abandoned quarry that once supplied gravel for the roads, the burnt stumps of the clear-cut forests, and the Pinus radiata plantations. Logging has always been a divisive issue in Tasmania, with only a small minority supporting the industry. Gunns, the major logging juggernaut in Tasmania, recently was wrecked with bankruptcy and mismanagement, forcing it to scale down and eliminate forestry plantations. The logging roads, riddled with pot holes and creeping vegetation, indicated the beginning signs of neglect. Our 4 x 4 vehicle plowed down several shrubs in the midst of the road. There were no designated sign posts nor were any trails carving through the forest towards the trees. Altogether it was a 20-minute hike uphill through the tangled undergrowth before we were able to see the trees. Tallest and oldest trees are often found in valleys and gullies, which affords protection against logging and fire and abundant consistent moisture. It is this reason that the record holders Centurion and Triarius, sheltered by winds, fed by moisture trickling down the gully, and relatively inaccessible save by foot, escaped unscathed. The area already had a precarious history with wildfires in 1966 and 1967, which devastated forests and human habitations alike.

What led to the discovery of the trees only in 2008 was through an airborne laser scanner (LiDAR), which produces digital imagery in surveying. Within the imagery were two tall trees whose heights had reflected off the laser signals, piquing the forestry surveyors to visit and pinpoint their specific locations. They were incredulous at the trees’ stature, noting that Centurion, currently 327 ft (99.5 meters) was once higher, evidently regenerated a new crown at the broken top.  Nearby was a close second Triarius at 283 ft (86.5 meters).

The girth of this trunk is at least over 40 ft (12 meters), and the diameter at 13 ft (4 meteres).
The girth of this trunk is at least over 40 ft (12 meters), and the diameter at 13 ft (4 meteres).