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September 2008

Elephant grass – by the acre

MiscanthusCrop2-500 Down by the river near our English home in rural Northamptonshire is another of the new agricultural crops springing up around the country – Miscanthus (elephant grass). Miscanthus has been grown as a crop in Britain for 20 years and this local planting for five or six, I think. People often ask not only what it is but what it’s for. And then I got word of a new planting, it looks as if it’s only been in since the spring, and the farmer has thoughtfully surrounded the whole field with bird-friendly annuals, mainly sunflowers and amaranthus.

MiscanthusCrop1-500The species used, Miscanthus x giganteus, is a sterile cross between the M. sinensis familiar as a garden plant, and M. sacchariflorus which has sometimes been used as a (startlingly over invasive) screen. It makes steadily expanding clumps, produces no self sown seedlings to engulf the hedgerows and is cropped in the spring using a forage harvester after the previous winter’s growth has dried. Needless to say, the crop attracts a useful European Union subsidy.

But why, you ask, plant a whole field of miscanthus? What’s it for? Well, here’s a list of some of the things it’s used for (sometimes blended with sawdust of other timber by-products):

  • shredded, as garden mulch
  • in pellet form, as a fuel for domestic and industrial boilers
  • bailed or shredded, as a fuel for combined heat and power units or power stations
  • compressed in briquettes, for domestic fuel
  • baled, as bedding for horses, cattle, poultry or pets
  • compressed and blended, for the manufacture of bio-degradable plant pots
  • manufactured, into chipboard, plywood or MDF and into insulation materials

Useful stuff. And of course, once it’s matured and growing to 2-3m in height, it’s the best place anywhere in the world to play hide and seek. The only problem is that in a field of 20, 40 or 60 acres – your little treasure might be a little hard to find at the end of the game.

There’s a useful overview on growing Miscanthus as a field crop on this Irish website.

Recently on my New Plants bog

HellWalbertonsRosemary1-500 Over the last few months I’ve brought news of a whole host of new plants to gardeners over on my New Plants blog on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website.

In recent weeks I’ve looked at the first variegated acanthus, a delightful dwarf daffodill, a new dahlia from Holland, spectacular hibiscus, new roses, the first ever red rudbeckia (below right), a new blend of award-winning pansies, a double orange echinacea, a begonia that smells of roses, vertical berberis, new crocosmias, an edible honeysuckle, new plants from the British flower shows and more – AND the first hybrid between Helleborus niger and H. orientalis that will actually be on sale (in Britain at least) to gardeners (top left).

Of course, as it’s on the RHS website, it’s all aimed at British gardeners. But I’m sure North American and other gardeners will also find plenty of tempting new plants – a Google search will usually reveal who’s selling them in North America.RudbeckiaCherryBrandyTM-600

And check back on my New Plants blog regularly for news of another lovely new echinacea, the revival of an old agapanthus, and seed of the wonderful Salvia patens in five (yes five) colors and more.

Pioneering heuchera breeder

HeucheraMoonlightCO-400 I’m just back from a visit to check on the work of pioneer Heuchera breeder Charles Oliver. Based in south west Pennsylvania, his introductions, derived from selected forms of east coast native species, were the first of the current generation of Heuchera varieties.

He made the first stride in the dramatic march which heucheras have taken in recent years with the introduction of the Larenim Hybrids in 1988, bringing together the floriferous Bressingham type and a form of the hardy and large-flowered H. pubescens from West Virginia. Later successes include ‘Regina’ (1997), ‘Silver Scrolls’ (1999) and ‘Frosted Violet’ (2002) as well as heucherellas including ‘Quicksilver’ (1997) and tiarellas including ‘Pink Brushes’ (2002). All are still well worth growing and he’s still making new selections and new introductions.

Toughness has always been an important factor in his selection process and it was encouraging to see the rigorous conditions in which his potential new varieties are grown. They’d not been watered at all during the long summer drought and some which were unable to cope with such a severe test had already expired. HeucheraTrial-500 And after all, dying is the perfect way for weak plants to exclude themselves from further consideration - and further breeding. Only genuinely robust plants survive to be considered. That really is the way to ensure that new introductions are genuinely good garden plants and won’t fade away in less than perfect conditions.

Charles has six new heucheras on the way. Four will be available from nurseries next spring and all four have been selected with emphasis on large and colorful flowers as well as good foliage. They include ‘Moonlight’, with large luminous pale green flowers held on dark crimson stems over prettily patterned smoky purple foliage and ‘Caroline’ with large creamy white flowers opening from dark reddish buds over silvered soft bronze leaves.

HeucheraCarolineCO-400 Next year sees the arrival of two more, I’ll update you on them when they’re closer to being available. And while continuing to work on these tough heucheras, tiarellas and heucherellas I was intrigued to see what else Charles has in the works. But more on that when they’re ready for release!

For US gardeners: The next four introductions are available exclusively through Monrovia - who sell ony to nurseries, not to gardeners. You can see more about them here – use the zip code search to find a retailer near you - and on Charles Oliver's own website.

For British nurseries: When I have news on the UK availability of these plants, I’ll let you know.