Down in Dixie

Green, Green, Green, and Flowers!

After delivering a couple of lectures about gardening in North Carolina, I set off on a very short, whirlwind tour of the southeast, specifically North Carolina and Georgia, and ending with a stay in Charleston. How different from my spot here in New York’s Hudson Valley!

For all Charleston’s uniqueness, three characteristics jumped out. It being early March and my coming an achromatic landscape of snow, sleeping plant life, and cold, I was immediately struck by the abundance of greenery. Not the tired greenery of many evergreens here in the north, but vibrant, awake greenery in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes.

Camellia blossoming in Charleston

Camellia blossoming in Charleston

Included in all that Charlestonian greenery were fronds of palm trees — saw palmetto and sabal palmetto — fanning out above jagged trunks. Those palms were a reminder that I was now in a subtropical rather than temperate climate. Not that the weather helped make the point; some days were in the high 40s and one night temperatures were predicted to dip near freezing.

March notwithstanding, Charleston had no dearth of flowers. Camellia blossoms stared out from a backdrop of their verdant foliage. Camellia is one of my favorite plants. I tried to grow one of the hardier new varieties of camellia a few years ago, offering it some cold protection by planting it near my home; it died its first winter. I wonder if southerners become blasé about these blossoms; camellias were growing everywhere, and in bloom.

The white blossoms of sweet osmanthus belied their diminutive size with the strength with which they perfumed the air. The fragrance was fruity, apricot.

Very different was another fragrance, this one wafting from clusters of trumpet-shaped blossoms dangling from the bare stems of edgworthia, also known as paperbush. That’s another plant that won’t grow this far north but no matter. I wavered between enjoying and not enjoying its resinous aroma.

If only gardenias — another plant growing outdoors in the southeast but not hardy here in the North— had been in bloom, the olfactory part of my trip would have been complete. All I could do was marvel at what it would be like if I could have a dooryard shrub of gardenia. I might be on the verge of passing out as I hyperventilated through the bloom season.

Oranges? No. ‘Quats? Yes

Two interesting fruits turned up here and there.

One was loquat, an odd relative of apple and pear. The leaves are large, dark green, and evergreen with a matte finish, all of which makes an appearance that is subtropical, which the plant is. 

Most odd is loquat’s bearing habit. It flowers in autumn and ripens its fruit in spring or early summer. I once bought one at a fruit stand in Paris. Its flavor was unimpressive, but that’s true of many commercially marketed fruits. Loquats generally receive high praise for flavor. If I ever get to taste a good one, I might grow the plant in the loquat-perfect environment of my greenhouse.

The other fruit was citrus, two fruits, actually, and also “-quats” but not at all related to kumquat. They were kumquat and citrangequate. It just didn’t seem like citrus could be hardy that far north (except for the super-cold-hardy but hardly edible trifoliate orange, which I have growing outdoors).Kumquats in Charleston But winter low temperatures in Charleston rarely dip even to freezing but kumquat trees are hardy into the ‘teens. A few citrangequats — trigeneric hybids of kumquat, trifoliate orange, and sweet orange — that I stole from a tree proved to be tasty with sweet, edible rind enclosing a pleasingly tart interior.

Southern Faves

Three of my favorite plants that I cannot grow were present in abundance. I already mentioned camellia. Another is southern magnolia, a stately tree that differs from northern magnolia in having very large, leathery, evergreen leaves that look somewhat like the rubber trees that are common houseplants.

Southern magnolia decked with Spanish moss

Southern magnolia decked with Spanish moss

It was too early for the large, white, fragrant blossoms to appear but I would grow the tree for the leaves alone, if I could. It’s almost hardy here; I’ve seen trees in northern New Jersey.

Another favorite is a deciduous plant also almost cold-hardy here: crape myrtle. The plants are decked with bright flowers in various shades of red all summer, but are bare of leaves or flowers in winter, even in South Carolina. No matter, crape myrtle has a mottled, shedding bark that puts on a good show when its flowers are offstage.Crape myrtle bark

And A Dark Cloud

A dark cloud that hangs over Charleston is its role in the slave trade. About 40% of all slaves entering America entered through Charleston. And it’s not just a statistic like this or a visit to the Slave Museum, site of one of Charleston’s many slave auctions, that recalls the horrors of human bondage. I couldn’t help, when visiting the plantations in and near Charleston, constantly reminding myself that they were only possible with the labor of enslaved humans. Reminders are everywhere; even the bricks of the buildings right in town were hand made by slaves.

Many of the slaves auctioned off in Charleston were separated from their families and transported to other sites throughout the colonies, making all the colonies and then states culpable. 


Nuts for Fruits

What a fool I am; I can’t even follow my own advice! A couple of days ago I planted an apricot tree that I had ordered a few weeks previously. All of which compounds my foolishness because I had plenty of time to ponder the purchase, even cancel it if I came to my senses before it’s arrival mail-order.
Planting an apricot tree may not seem foolish to you. But it is, as I’ve advised many people. The reason is that here in the northeast, perhaps even east of the Rocky Mountains, an apricot is unlikely to bear fruit. The plant hails from regions where winters are steadily cold and spring temperatures creep steadily upward. Over most of continental U.S., winter temperatures fluctuate wildly up and down, predisposing the plants to

My apricot hope for the future.

disease such as ominous-sounding, and truly debilitating, valsa canker. Trees typically die either quickly or slowly.

If only that were all . . . Apricot blossoms open at the first hint of spring warmth. The pinkish buds unfolding against the brownish red stems are a beautiful and welcome sight on the heels of winter, but those early blooms could — usually are — knocked out by subsequent frosty weather. Damaging, late frosts are least likely to occur near large bodies of water, such as the ocean and Great Lakes. Late frosts are most likely to occur in low-lying regions into which cold air sinks on still, spring nights; that would be here on my farmden in the valley of the Wallkill River.
If only that were all . . . Even if the trees stay alive through winters and their blossoms escape spring frosts, the fruits themselves are the target of a number of insects and diseases. Plum curculio, oriental fruit moth, brown rot, black knot . . . the list goes on of afflictions that can reduce the crop to zero. Oh, and did I mention squirrels. My father had a tree that every Father’s Day was stripped of every one of its small, green developing fruits by squirrels.
Did you ever taste a perfectly ripened apricot, one that’s soft and ready to travel no more than arm’s length from the branch to your mouth? I have (when I worked at the USDA Fruit Laboratory and at a friend’s orchard; he has a good site). Perfectly ripe, the fruit tastes nothing like a lemon, as market apricots usually do, but has just a hint of tartness to offset its rich, sweet flavor. For that, I planted the tree.
My friend Lev with his apricot trees
I wrote that “apricot is unlikely to bear fruit.” “Unlikely” does not mean “never.” A crop of apricots even one year out of — say — every five years will justify, for me, the space and trouble the tree will entail.
I was smart in a couple of ways with my apricot tree. I bought it from a nursery that specializes in fruit trees ( and I planted in full sun in well-drained, moderately fertile soil. And the variety is Jerseycot, one of the varieties most resistant to some of the pests and the vagaries of our winter and spring weather.
More foolishness: I just received a confirmation for a nursery order, soon to arrive, that includes a camellia bush. Let me explain. I love living in the northeast but do bemoan the inability to grow certain plants not hardy here, among them southern magnolia, citrus, and camellia. I’ve been tempted to plant the hardiest southern magnolia, Edith Bogue, but

My “citrus” plantation.

restrain myself realizing that the plant might survive but would never become a majestic specimen the tree is meant to be. Citrus? I resign myself to growing some citrus in pots, indoors in winter and outdoors in summer.

The last few years have seen the development of hardier camellias. Long Island Pink is one of the hardiest, with compact stature, glossy evergreen leaves, and single pink flowers in autumn. Still, it’s not really hardy here. I’ll plant it in the partial shade near the northeast corner of my home, protect it through winter its first few years as it develops cold-hardiness, and perhaps my foolishness will pay off.