True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams


ention was made here last week of the eminent Gertrude Jekyll of the south of England and her enormous influence in the field of garden design in the 19th and 20th centuries. We only scratched the surface of her accomplishments but did mention that Jekyll said the most difficult type of garden to design is the wild garden. 

Our observation on that subject was that most people think of a wild garden as one that, like Topsy, “just growed.” These people have the idea, in other words, that a wild garden, usually wooded, takes the least amount of study and the least amount, as well, of control, on such a site. Jekyll was right in stating that nothing could be further from the truth. 

Our property consists of about an acre of “cultivated” ornamental gardens and an adjoining acre of woodland, the “wild garden.” All of the two acres have been under cultivation and management for some 46 years. 

I would like to use this column to describe the woodland. It hasn’t “just growed,” by any stretch of the imagination. True, trees there, for the most part, were there already and consist mostly of oak, hickory and poplar, just about as common as other woodlands in these parts. There was, also, an understory of native dogwoods, much of which remains but severely mauled after a tornado in 2019 roared through. Resulting downed logs from the larger trees are still scattered here and there, along with some piles of yet unburned firewood. 

We are going to list here what is left after the tornado, and we will, for convenience sake, name the flora from top to bottom, with the overstory first. I’ve already revealed the deciduous trees that were/are native, but some evergreens were planted as screening as well, including Leyland and Arizona cypresses in the edges where some sun helps them gain purchase and prove effective as screening. 

Also at the edge and in among the woods themselves are several evergreen magnolias, Magnolia grandiflora, which have proven very valuable as winter attraction, even though out of bloom at that time. Their large, glossy leaves make a real statement. 

At a somewhat lower level are some evergreen hollies, including ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ among the best of the lot with large leaves and a fair amount of berrying, even in shade. Nellie is also the fastest growing (to 25 feet) holly we have. Several other green hollies are here, but, as well, are three specimens of the variegated ‘O’Spring’ variety, which has leaves of green and yellow that stand out at a distance. Also, there are, after these many years, a number of younger hollies hybridized by nature. 

In the past few years, camellias have come to the fore, with evergreen leaves and varied colors of flower, mostly in fall and spring. These grow to some 15 feet or more. 

Then there are, at a lower level, shrubs, including evergreen boxwoods, ‘Manhattan’ euonymous (deer candy) and a climbing variegated euonymus. 

Rhododrondons (a few) have lived, but many died. The survivors are of the varieties with

known heat tolerance, the minority among a genus that otherwise does better in the north than here. One is some 10 feet tall. 

The star of the evergreen show here, however, is Mahonia bealei, the Oregon holly grape. 

It is no holly nor grape, though the trusses of large purple berries look like grapes. The foliage, also, resembles a holly, though the leaves are even larger. Bright yellow spears of flower come in late winter. 

After a planting of three or four of them some 30 years ago, they have seeded into patches, one of which is perhaps 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. It makes quite a splash in the otherwise somewhat sere winter woodland. Bird planted seedlings continue emerging.

Most of the plants I have mentioned are evergreen, with green a much appreciated feature of the woods. 

Then there are deciduous plants that contribute. The most obvious is probably the edgeworthia, that sports big white buds from November until flowering time in January or February. You need some. 

Even closer to the ground in the winter scenery are perennials such as ferns, hellebores, and the striped leaves of Arum italicum pictum, the Italian arum, the large evergreen leaves of which make excellent vase ingredients with early daffodils or snowdrops. 

Stay at work on your woodland, and in 40 years you can have one just like this.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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