Alyssa’s List

Nearly five years ago, in need of another key team player for our business, we decided to beseech for its help. Our hire was, and still is, an energetic, focused professional, acutely in tune with the “green industry.” Alyssa’s dedication to our company and her craft are commendable and appreciated every day. Recently we were discussing underrated plants in our industry, and I challenged Alyssa to a “Top 10” list of, in her estimation, undervalued plants. A list that came quickly to her and one that I wholeheartedly agreed with, the following is a collection of plant material we both feel should be more mainstream.

The genus Amelanchier has never been revered like other flowering trees. Magnolia, cherry, redbud, pear and even crabapple have held that spot in landscapes. Serviceberry, Amelanchier, is a quintessential tree, however. Flowers, fruit, bark appeal and fall color are all glorious on this medium sized tree best used in naturalistic plantings.

American Hornbeam, Blue Beech, or Ironwood, Carpinus caroliniana, is a native, again best used in natural settings. Tolerant of “periodic flooding” and heavy shade, this tree has appreciable fall color. The bark of this tree has been described as slate gray and smooth; “the overall appearance is comparable to the flexed biceps and forearm muscles and, hence, the name Musclewood.”

Oddly enough, I spoke of Northern Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa, last month and Alyssa included it in her list too. Not to belabor what was said in last months article, let’s just say showy, orchid-like flowers, giant heart-shaped leaves and hanging bean-like pods on this native tree should be enough for others to consider it as a shade tree.

Common Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles speciosa, is a plant I always want to have in stock but is seldom requested. Scarlet red flowers are common, but a range of color exists today thanks to the boundless cultivars in the market. Extremely hardy “and like Nandina almost unkillable”, this medium sized shrub is quickly forgotten once it’s done flowering. However, a resurgence sometimes occurs when one sees certain preserves or jellies, a contribution of the plants fruit.
Common Smoketree or Smokebush, Cotinus coggygria, presents itself as a small tree or larger shrub. A striking focal point or useful mass planting, purple-leaf types drive most of the sales here. Smoketree’s flowers morph from ho-hum to WOW as their tiny hairs (pubescence) show off in the summer. An almost fiberoptic display, cultivars with changing foliage and pink flower panicles, like ‘Grace’ are among my favorites.

A European Beech type, Fagus sylvaticaRoseomarginata’ (‘Tricolor’) is a purple leaf type with rose, pink and white markings too. A shockingly gorgeous shade tree, known since the late 1800’s, you think it would be seen more in today’s landscapes.

Common Witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a medium sized “stunner”. A native with fragrant, yellow flowers, a kind of quilted green foliage with surprising yellow fall color… sometimes. So many cultivars, so little garden space.

Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides, “is the most widely distributed tree in North America.” Shuttering leaves in the wind, measurable yellow fall color and striking white to cream colored bark. Fast growing let’s not forget; the Native Americans reportedly used the “Aspen Powder” on the bark as a natural sunblock.
Wheel-tree, Trochodendron aralioides, is for the doubters who say a small, broadleaf evergreen tree is hard to find. Appearing as often as “Brigadoon” in landscapes, its dark green, leathery leaves and bright green, spoke-like flowers, resembling a wheel, would make Gene Kelly proud.

Chastetree, Vitex agnus-castus, has never been able to bump Butterfly-bush, Buddleia, off its pedestal as a strong summer flowering deciduous candidate. However, Chastetree’s flowers, I feel, are far more prominent. Fragrant, lilac-colored flowers suspended above its foliage, this plant because of its speed, can easily be left as a full-sized shrub or be limbed up into a spectacular small tree almost “Crapemyrtlesque.” Hopeful that a new cultivar ‘Chicagoland Blues” brings more attention to this plant type.

Our average professional, at our company, has over 20 years of experience in the field. And while all of us are competent in our work, we are also quick to say we don’t know everything. The world of horticulture is ever-changing. New plant cultivars, products, insects, disease issues, not to mention the occasional horticultural anomaly that contradicts textbooks, reminding us that plants are alive and not static. Yet, despite all this, those involved in our industry typically have a love for their work with a voracious appetite for learning. Our team, like most, share ideas, tricks we have learned over the years and bring to the table new product lines. A camaraderie I am extremely grateful for and a team second to none.

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