Episode 25 – Tips for Specimen Plants, Spring Bulbs Emerging, and Flaco the Owl

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Stacey and Rick discuss specimen plants: not the “specimens” you see at working out at the gym (even though specimen plants are just like a treadmill: they will knock you off your feet), they’re the “ring the doorbell and ask what is that?!” plants. Essentially, a specimen plant is a living art piece. What makes a specimen a specimen, though – height? Color? Rare? Age? Longevity? Woody plant? We agree that a specimen is a “show off” in a conspicuous location. An extrovert of the garden, if you will.

We think of trees like Southern oaks (Quercus virginiana) or dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and coastal redwood/sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) on the West Coast but a specimen doesn’t have to be a tree.

Many colleges like Aquinas  or Albion  here in Michigan or Hofstra University on Long Island have a great collection of specimen trees and plants.

Storms of all types tend to show us the importance of specimens in our landscape, because they often sustain damage. Rick mentions after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, he was in Homestead, Florida in 1993/1994 and large tropical plants laying on their side from abandoned growing ranges became “Andrew specimens.” The neglected plants were growing to the sun causing them to have a 90 degree angle when stood upright that became very desirable.

The famous derecho thunderstorm outbreak of 1998 took out a number of specimen trees here in West Michigan. A derecho (Spanish for “straight”) is a fast-moving line of severe thunderstorms that produces a wide and long swath of significant wind damage. Storms blasted through West Michigan with winds estimated as high as 130 mph in Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Walker, Michigan, toppling large old trees across the region.

Here’s a great story about a specimen oak tree in Los Angeles: Cornelius Johnson was the first black athlete snubbed by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He took home a gold medal and an oak sapling, which he planted at his Los Angeles home. Now, that tree is a reminder of his legacy

Stacey and Rick recommend some of their favorite specimen plants:

  • Lakeshore or temperate microclimates: Bigleaf hydrangea or rhododendrons (which don’t necessarily thrive inland).
  • Rick’s Blue Atlas Cedar Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’
  • Japanese Maples make great specimen plants.
  • Legendary West Coast Wisteria
  • Specimens can be a grouping of one plant like panicle hydrangeas (Stacey mentions ‘Limelight’ hydrangea)
  • Unusual evergreens (Sting Arborvitae and false cypress  Pinpoint or Soft Serve series).
  • Customary specimens are often pendulating, aka weeping, trees, like weeping cherry, weeping beech, weeping larch weeping spruce.
  • Can be a shrub like ‘Lemony Lace’ elderberry or rose of Sharon.
  • Flowering trees like Kwanzan cherry, magnolias or flowering crabapples.
  • Can ornamental grasses be specimens? (Panicum like Prairie Winds ‘Niagara Falls’, Pampas grass (zone 8 or warmer), big bluestem, Miscanthus stricta, hardy pampas grass, and more.

Why: We’ve talked a lot on recent episodes about plants that are late to wake up in spring, so I thought I’d flip the script and talk about one that’s early to wake up in spring: Mr. Mustard false spirea. As the name suggests, it is not, in fact, a spirea, nor does it look like one – or at least not the common ones that most people are familiar with. Known botanically as Sorbaria sorbifolia, for the foliage’s resemblance to mountain ash (Sorbus sp.), it is a member of the rose family like spirea, but its flowers are fluffy spires that look more like the perennial Astilbe than a spirea. And those flowers, while pretty, are not actually the main event for Mr. Mustard false spirea. The main event is its foliage, especially in spring, when it emerges in fresh, vivid shades of chartreuse and red, and pink. It has compound leaves, which means that instead of just a single leaf like, say, an oak leaf, each leaf is comprised of several small leaflets which combine to make a leaf. This brings an element of stunning texture to the plant, especially coupled with the color of the foliage. It’s an eye-popping effect! The wild color is at its best and brightest through spring, and once temperatures start to warm, the foliage matures to a handsome emerald green. In late spring/early summer, fluffy clusters of white flowers tower over the plant and attract butterflies and other pollinators.

Who: Mr. Mustard false spirea was developed here in West Michigan by Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs breeder, Megan Mathey. It has been known for many years that Sorbaria sorbifolia is an outstandingly tough plant, tolerating very difficult soil conditions. That made it a very good choice for difficult sites, where it could be planted and essentially forgotten. But, one issue: the species was way too large and wild-looking for most landscapes. Enter a variety known as ‘Sem’, which offered a more refined habit, a less aggressive growth rate, and some color. It was the industry standard for many years until new introductions like Mr. Mustard became available.

Mr. Mustard is much more colorful than ‘Sem’ and also, quite a bit shorter and more refined. So it’s a very good choice for transforming difficult spots. This is one of those plants that’s definitely worth careful consideration as to where you plant it, however: it is suckering, which means that once it is established, it will put out new little plants on runners. This makes it apt to colonize an area, which can be a great thing if you plant it in the right spot, or a maintenance nightmare if you plant it in the wrong one. It’s really ideal for slopes and other areas that you don’t want to frequently manage, or parking lot beds. It’s very useful for erosion control.

How to grow: Sorbaria is very cold tolerant, but not heat tolerant, growing from USDA zone 2 through USDA zone 7. It can grow in full or part sun, and the warmer your climate within its hardiness range, the more shade it should have, especially during the hottest part of the day. Once it is established, it is extremely drought tolerant and can thrive in even the most difficult soil conditions, short of wet soil. Acidic or alkaline, clay or sand, salt, low fertility: it can take it all. The happier it is, however, the more it is likely to put out those runners and colonize the area it is planted in, so difficult conditions can help to control the spread if that’s what you’re after. If the plant does start to spread more ebulliently than you’d like, you can just take a sharp garden spade, plunge it into the soil to separate from the main plant, and pull them out. Other than that, however, it needs no pruning or care. On a final note, it’s important to know that it is not deer resistant, which is pretty typical of members of the rose family, so this is not one to plant if you are visited by deer.

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

It is a bit too early for most crocus, but in any case, what’s in your picture is not crocus but rather winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, one of the earliest blooming spring bulbs. For the earliest blooming crocuses, look for what’s called snow crocus – they are smaller and paler than the more familiar Dutch crocus, but bloom much earlier and provide welcome relief from spring fever. A few other super-early blooming bulbs you might consider:  Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), and Iris reticulata.

Plants are a great solution to erosion, but you do need to choose them carefully. Mr. Mustard sorbaria, which was today’s plant on trial, would actually be a great choice for your environment, so there’s one worth considering. Aronia is another very hardy, very durable option. On the perennial side, you could consider ornamental grasses, liriope (aka lilyturf, though this may not be hardy for you in Alberta), and ferns. In short, you’ll want to look for plants with dense, fibrous root systems rather than those with tap roots. And of course, you’ll want them to be able to easily withstand the dry, sandy soil and light exposure of the area, because any maintenance you need to perform has the potential to worsen the erosion issues. 


By far, the most likely culprit behind lilac problems of all types, including dieback, is drainage. Lilacs absolutely cannot withstand any period of wet or soggy soil, and it’s quite possible that there is some drainage issue in your, or your neighbor’s, yard that is causing the problem. This spring, walk out there after a rainstorm and check for any sogginess in the area. Also, consider any overall soil issues: is your soil clay? Rocky? Both of these can cause water to stay around the roots for prolonged periods. Not only is drainage an issue for lilacs simply because too much water deprives the plants of oxygen, but it also fosters the development of a number of root rot diseases that will kill the plant as well. If drainage is the issue in this spot, consider replacing your lilacs with shrubs that can withstand occasionally wet soil, like red-twig dogwood, sweetspire, clethra, or winterberry holly

Branching News - Rick

  • NEW YORK CITY — Flaco the freedom owl is learning to live in the wild, according to devotees documenting his flight through Central Park. The Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo earlier this month has been seen hunting rats in the park, assuaging fears that the small-zoo creature wouldn’t be able to cut it in the big city. Central Park Zoo officials have been in pursuit of Flaco since he was discovered missing from a vandalized cage on the evening of Feb. 2. “For everyone saying Flaco couldn’t survive on his own, here he is with a rat last night!” Tweeted one uptown birder. “We need all the help we can get with these rats! Let Flaco live free!”
  • Sandy soils that traditionally haven’t been ideal for growing crops may become bountiful farmland with new water-retaining technology developed by a Michigan State University researcher. This farm field system involves using thin plastic sheeting buried at specific depths to better hold moisture in reach of crop roots, showing a significant increase in plant root water uptake. The system is meant to bolster crop yield, while also reducing the need for over-irrigation and excessive fertilizing as climate change increases the frequency and duration of droughts.
  • New turf surface at this year’s Super Bowl. The turf is Tahoma 31 and it’s among the newer breeds of grass that have been developed with the funding of the United States Golf Association. Tahoma 31 is a mix of two types of Bermuda grasses and rye grass developed at Oklahoma State University. The process of creating Tahoma 31 started in 2006, with a cross of China Bermuda grass and African Bermuda grass. A year later, the seeds were harvested and the grass was tested and studied all over the country until 2018.
  • Go ahead and bring your salad or fruit to bed with you. A study of 2,000 Americans found 47% have eaten snacks or meals in their own bed But 34% simply do not allow food to be consumed under the covers. Almost half of those polled opted for lounging under the duvet if eating (47%), while 46% prefer to sit on top of it. Eating fruit, veggies, chocolate, apple pie is perfectly acceptable behavior….but the no-no absolutely not list is:
  • Soup
  • Pasta and sauce
  • Roast dinner
  • Stir fry
  • Curry
  • Fish and chips
  • Tacos
  • Ramen noodles
  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage and mashed potato

BOSTON —The city of Boston has announced a comprehensive plan to allow permanent outdoor dining across the city. Since 2020 (pandemic) dining outdoors with our plants and nature has become more common place and desired.

A hydrangea in a low decorative container covered in pink and purple mophead flowers.

Episode 96 – Garden Regrets

Regrets? We’ve had a few, and maybe you have too, which is why we’re dedicating this episode to the things we wish we had – and hadn’t – done in the garden. Featured shrub: Let’s Dance Arriba reblooming hydrangea.

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