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Growing old man’s beard

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By Al Hight, Brunswick County Extension

One of my favorite things to do is visit plant nurseries. It’s always fascinating to see the innovations and all of the great plants. And, the people are some of the best folks around. It’s even more fun when I get introduced to a new, or just improved, plant. In recent weeks, I have seen a new selection of Shantung maple and an improvement of our native fringe tree or Old Man’s Beard.

Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) isn’t one you typically see in the garden centers and nurseries. Introduced from China and Japan in the 1880s, this 25 to 30-foot tree has a reputation for tolerating less-than-ideal growing conditions. The only place I had seen it until recently was in the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

During a trip to a nursery outside of Greenville, I happened upon a block of trees with brilliant orange-red fall color. This turned out to be a patented selection of Shantung maple called Mainstreet. You can probably guess they think this tree may be perfect in the limited root areas and miserable growing conditions along city streets but they selected Mainstreet because it has significantly better and more consistent fall color than the typical seed-grown Shantung maples. 

I have always thought of this small tree as one that performs better in a slightly cooler climate than ours. That may be the case, but we will be planting Mainstreet in the Brunswick Botanical Garden in Bolivia and the arboretum in Wilmington in the next couple of months. We will see how this supposedly tough tree handles our heat and humidity. 

If it handles our conditions, it will be a great addition to the plant palette. Most maples don’t handle limited-root areas. Think about all of the red maples you see in parking lots infested with gloomy scale because of the stress. This Shantung maple may be the right choice for toughness and fall color, but we’ll have to grow it for few years to know for sure.

At another nursery near Raleigh I found an improved selection of Old Man’s Beard. Its Latin name is Chionanthus virginicus, which just means the Chionanthus from Virginia. Those of you who know this spring-blooming (late March/early April) native with bright white flowers probably know that it could mean, “won’t root from cuttings.” That has stymied the use of improved selections because none of us could ever get it to root. Propagation from seed was the only choice. 

Now, we have an improved variety that is aptly named Spring Fleecing. It sports heavier flowering, excellent dark green leaves and more of a small tree form. Many of the seed-grown Chionanthus tend to grow more as large, multi-stemmed shrubs. Culture is rather easy: light shade to full sun, decent drainage, and soil with a bit of organic matter. Help it out with some extra water during the first growing season and you should be able to sit back and enjoy it from there.

The price will be may be a little higher than some of the others. Even though this nurseryman has been able to get it to root from cuttings, the percentages are very low, but one look at it in full bloom this spring and you’ll be glad you spent the extra money.