Three Neat Plants

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Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

It’s time for another exciting edition of Three Neat Plants (not to be confused with the three “desert island” plants I blogged about over at Gardening Gone Wild a few days ago). Here at Hayefield, Neat Plants don’t need to be pretty, practical, multi-seasonal, or in any other way especially gardenworthy; they just have to be interesting. It so happens, though, that all three of today’s picks are good-looking as well as out of the ordinary.

First up is a variation of an old-fashioned annual known commonly as shoo-fly plant or apple-of-Peru and botanically as Nicandra physalodes. (I wish someone could explain why its specific epithet is spelled physalodes and not physaloides. I have to look up the spelling every time to make sure I get the right one. I should just remember it’s the one that isn’t logical.) Anyway, the species itself is a very pretty thing, with white-centered lavender-blue blooms starting in mid- or late summer and continuing into fall. The plants are sturdy and handsome, starting with one main stem and branching out toward the top. They usually reach 3 to 4 feet tall for me, though I’ve read that they can get up to 6 feet in some areas.

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While new flowers are still forming toward the shoot tips, the oldest mature into dry, seed-filled berries enclosed in a papery husk. These enclosed fruits look much like those of ground cherries, cape gooseberries, Chinese lanterns, and other species of Physalis: hence the epithet that should be physaloides (Physalis-like). Left in the garden after frost, the dried, lantern-clad stems hold up through most of the winter, extending their season of interest far beyond that of most annuals.

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The selection ‘Splash of Cream’ offers yet another ornamental feature: creamy yellow markings on its foliage. And like the species, it too tends to develop deep purple-black markings on its stems as the growing season goes on.

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‘Splash of Cream’ comes mostly true from seed, and it’s as easy to grow as the ordinary shoo-fly plant. I start it indoors in late March; with bottom heat, the seedlings are usually up in a week or so. After a few more weeks, I transplant them to individual pots, then move them to a sunny spot in garden around the third week of May, once all chance of frost is gone. After that, they’re on their own; no special care required. In fact, they don’t really even need to be started indoors, because they will self-sow a bit. But I don’t mind the extra step, because I like to give them a jump-start on the growing season and enjoy their flowers sooner. You can find seed of  ‘Splash of Cream’ through several on-line sources, including Thompson & Morgan, JL Hudson, and The Fragrant Path.

If I have one quibble with ‘Splash of Cream’, it’s that the foliage markings can look a bit like spider-mite damage. That’s definitely not an issue with my next pick: golden wafer ash or hop-tree (Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’). Its foliage is completely and emphatically bright yellow, starting from the time it germinates. (Yes, this beauty appears to come entirely true from seed!) The oldest leaves do turn green as they age, but that’s fine, because plenty of bright new growth keeps appearing through the growing season. Wafer ash is deciduous but seems to hang onto its leaves long after most others have dropped theirs – sometimes even into early December.

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This eastern native is apparently adaptable to growing conditions just about anywhere in the U.S. It’s normally an understory tree, but mine’s in full sun, which could be why its color is so bright. I won’t go into more detail about growing it, because I can refer you to this excellent fact sheet on the species: Ptelea trifoliata; it applies equally well to the gold-leaved form. The one thing I can add is that golden wafer ash seems to work well as a cut-back shrub too. The deer ate the top out of mine and rubbed a good bit of the rest for the last two winters, so it has gotten more bushy than upright, and the new growth is quite vigorous. I’m working up the nerve to cut it back deliberately this spring and see what happens. I figure I’ll leave it a 2-foot framework: a little more than I usually leave for smokebush (Cotinus) and a little less than I do for golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’).

One more neat thing about the golden wafer ash is that it seems to start flowering when remarkably young. I think mine was just four or so when it first bloomed. It’s not especially showy in summer flower, but the fragrance is nice…

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…and the clusters of flattened seedpods are kind of cool.

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So far I haven’t found any U.S. sources for the plants, but seed is usually available through the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s Seed Exchange. Or, check with me toward the end of 2009 to see if I have any seeds to share.

Thinking back to Shirl’s recent Desert Island Plant Challenge, I’m prepared to cheat and slip one more thing into my suitcase: a packet of mixed Solanum seed. Besides eggplants and other edibles, there are so many eccentric ornamentals in this genus that I’d be sure to get some wicked cool plants. One intriguing species I tried for the first time this past summer caught my eye in last year’s Seed Savers Exchange catalog: Solanum mammosum. I started the seed as for the shoo-fly plant above, ending up with sturdy-stemmed plants clad in broad, velvety green leaves. The foliage interest was nice enough…

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…and the purple flowers were okay.

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But what I really wanted to see was what the catalog picture had shown: the bright yellow fruits. Sadly, all I got were green ones, because they didn’t have time to ripen before frost. Next year, I’m starting the seed a lot earlier! Still, the oddly shaped fruits were interesting even when unripe.

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This strange-looking solanum goes by a number of equally bizarre common names, including nipple fruit, titty fruit, mackaw bush, apple of Sodom, and cow’s udder. I’m inclined to stick with the last one if I have to use a common name at all. But I’ll offer one of my own: horsey face. ‘Cause come on, can’t you see it?

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S. mammosum isn’t edible, but the fruit-laden stems are supposed to be great in cut-flower arrangements, as well as in the garden. Seed Savers doesn’t seem to have it on their web site at the moment, but it is listed in their 2009 catalog as code number 1400. Other seed sources include Baker Creek and Reimer Seeds.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting plants! Thanks for showing them as I have never seen them (or maybe noticed is a better word) before.

    Glad you enjoyed them, Sheila!
    -Nan

  2. Hi Nan: I got my Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’ from Broken Arrow Nursery, BrokenArrowNursery.com, in Hamden, CT, which is between New Haven & Hartford. They have an incredible breadth of unusual woodies, and also ship. This year, I see, Ptelea t. ‘Aurea’ IS available, but only at the nursery itself. Broken Arrow is worth the drive from anywhere!

    Louis

    That’s awesome news, Louis; thanks so much! I’ve heard some great things about Broken Arrow.
    -Nan

  3. Posted by Lisa at Greenbow on January 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    I always look forward to your Neat plants Nan. All I need is a larger growing area. Sigh~~

    Thank you, Lisa. I’m glad you enjoy reading about the weird and the wonderful!
    -Nan

  4. Hi Nan,

    Those deer are so very helpful in the garden, aren’t they? At least you looked on the bright side and pointed out how vigorous the new growth seems to be.

    Robin Wedewer

    Um, “helpful,” yeah. But I guess they were in this case, because I sure wouldn’t have considered hard pruning my little beauty if I hadn’t seen that it could tolerate that.
    -Nan

  5. Hi Nan, like Lisa, I too look forward to your three neat plants, and also think it’s pretty neat that you are introducing us to these wild, wacky and wonderful choices. I love the seed pods on the nicandra, what great form they add. We have some wild things growing that have that type of pod, but they are not that tall. I was hoping they were chinese lanterns, but they never turned orange. Maybe an ID can be made starting with that genus name and looking at photos. The horsey face is a cutie!
    Frances

    There are several weedy/wildflowery kinds of ground cherry, so maybe that’s what you have. Here’s a site that might be helpful for ID: Wildflowers of the Southeastern U.S.
    -Nan

  6. I always read about interesting plants here, Nan! Due to a recent posting, I’ve just ordered Firetail Amplexicaulis Persicaria. Hope I can do it justice!!! Anything more I need to know about this??

    An excellent choice, Shady. Keep an eye out for Japanese beetles and pick them off for the first year or two so the plants aren’t defoliated, which slows them getting established. After that, the plants should be able to withstand quite a bit of feeding damage and still recover for a good show in fall. Enjoy!
    -Nan

  7. Oh – looks like the little wafer ash tree would actually survive here! Very interesting, Nan, since so often you tease the Austin gardenbloggers with plants we can’t grow.

    As to physalodes/physaloides : Hortus Third marks this name with an L, signifying it was given by old Carolus Linnaeus himself. My vintage Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening adds that Physalodes was the original generic name for Apple of Peru. It became the specific name, keeping the same form, when Apple-of-Peru was moved to genus Nicandra.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’d say that the plant teasing goes both ways, Annie. I do think the golden wafer ash would want some shade in your climate.

    And thanks so much for the info on the Nicandra. I still want to spell physalodes with a second “i”. But now that I know the history of the name, I should be able to remember the proper spelling.
    -Nan

  8. Posted by gailae on January 25, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Very interesting plants. I am intrigued with how short you keep the cotinus. It always seemed to big for my garden, but you’ve opened up possibilities with keeping it on the short side. Have you shown it earlier? I would love to take a peak at it. Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion but the udder plant seed looks more cow like to me! gail

    Both of my cotinus (a purple C. coggygria and the hybrid ‘Grace) were tiny when I planted them, so I let them grow as they wished for three full seasons. After that, I started cutting them back to about 1 foot every spring. Both regrow to reach about 6 feet tall by late summer. I’ll see if I can dig up some pictures to show you.

    And you know what – I think you’re right about the cow!
    -Nan

  9. Posted by Nancy on January 26, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    With regards to a comment above about Broken Arrow Nursery: This is a WONDERFUL nursery and one which I am thankful is only a 30 mile drive away from where I garden. They have “woodies” there that I am hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The nursery’s owner is THE expert on Mountain Laurels (the state “flower” of CT) and the selection of laurels and magnolias available to plantophiles has to be seen to be believed. They also have a really neat selection of witch hazels and named enkianthus varieties. BAN is also fortunate to have a staff of total plant geeks, and I can always count on the nursery to have something unusual to pique my interest (BAN had ‘Beni Kaze” hakonechloa grass at least 2 years before it showed up anywhere else on the internet or otherwise). Woody plants are the primary focus, but there is also an ever-improving selection of perennials, as they seem to be ordering from a wider range of more obscure sources. Last spring, I found 5 or 6 varieties of arisaema at the nursery as well as 3 or 4 different hybrid cypripediums. The catalogue is available on line. Prices are pretty good too — I picked up a double-flowered form of sanguisorba canadensis for about a third of the price of what it was anywhere else. Oh, and they had Heronswood’s strain of double-flowered hellebores ahead of every one else too. What can I say: I love the place.

    Thank you for another enthusiastic recommendation for Broken Arrow, Nancy. With neat-plant fanatics like you and Louis singing their praises, they *must* be good. Here’s a direct link so others can find their way: Broken Arrow Nursery.
    -Nan

  10. Hi Nancy! Long time no blog. I’m back at it for a bit. Good to catch up. Love to hear about your plant suggestions.
    Carol in Mass.

    Good to see you again, Carol! Thanks for stopping by.
    -Nan

  11. Once again, Nan, new plants to learn! Interesting architectural foliage on the Nicandra. How about we plant some of that Solanum mammosum aka ‘titty fruit’ (your words) with the Gomphocarpus physocarpus aka ‘Hairy Balls’ for a truly x-rated garden! We could have a garden based on raucous names. I know, I have a juvenile sense of humor! That fruit in the last picture looks a bit teddy bearish.

    NOT my words for the solanum’s common name! But your suggestion did make me chuckle. I can think of several more plants we could include but am too polite to name them. I dare you to do a post on The Raucous Garden at Ledge and Gardens!
    -Nan

  12. Nan: Okay, but you will have to email me those other choices! LOL Can you tell it is a bit of ‘stir crazy’ here in New England and anything, anything at all will incite frivolity!

    Ok, be prepared! An e-mail is on its way to you. Might want to check your spam filter, in case it finds some of the words questionable.
    -Nan

  13. Beautiful collection of plants. I don’t think I’ve seen any of them, which makes it all the more interesting. I’ll be back again, I’ll need to spend time at your blog learning about all those amazing and oh-so-beautiful plants.

    I’m so glad you visited, Kanak. I know your climate is rather different, but I hope you find some plants that you may be able to grow yourself.
    -Nan

  14. I have grown quite bored of the winter standbys now too. I did silk flowers last year for one of my bloom day posts. Sigh. Spring will be here soon though.

    Poor Cinj. I feel your pain. Here’s hoping the weather eases up a bit sooner rather than later.
    -Nan

  15. Hello Nancy
    Run across your blog by searching for a photo of Agastache rugosa. I didn’t find the photo, but found some interesting plants. I live in the desert climate of Utah. I am always looking plants with the potential of being drought tolerant.

    Hey, thanks for visiting. It’s been so long since I grew A. rugosa that I didn’t have any digital images. It sure was a beautiful plant, though. Thanks for reminding me that I should try it again.
    -Nan

  16. Posted by Delia Harverson on May 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Hello Nancy – greetings from the Scottish lowlands, somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow – isn’t the internet wonderful! I found your blog when looking for more information about Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea, so that I could the right spot to plant it (I used to work on the principle that plants could be moved around almost as easily as chairs, but I know better now). Wonderful photo of your deer-trimmed Ptelia – I would love to know what width it achieved after this treatment – and did you cut it back this spring? How’s it doing?
    Delia

    Hello, Delia! My ptelea is now about 6 feet across, because some of its stems are arching outward. This spring, I really wanted to remove those stems and leave just one upright stem, but I was afraid it would get eaten again. And, I was too cowardly to try cutting the whole thing back hard. I have a new pot of seedlings coming along, though, so once they put on a few years of growth and I know I have them as replacements, I’ll experiment with the original plant. Good luck with yours!
    -Nan

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