Human Flower Project
Vascular Visionaries Do Georgia
Allen Bush “commences” once more with his gang of indefatigable plantsmen, scouring north Georgia in the funky month of May.
Georg Uebelhart goes vertical, plant hunting
Yunnan, China, 1999
Photo: Dan Hinkley
By Allen Bush
I love graduations that feel like a tent revival: a mixture of triumph and prophecy. I see the light, no more darkness, no more night – and no more college tuition. Hallelujah!
My stepson just graduated with a mathematics degree from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He’s an algorithm guy. I’m really proud of him. There were close to 400 graduates and each had to do a senior thesis. These papers aren’t cobbled together with consecutive all-nighters; they take more than a year to finish – no cakewalk.
The titles of some fascinated me. Take this anthropology thesis: “Constructing Das Deutsche Wessen through the Native American Other. German Indian Hobbyist Identity Development through the Experience of the Noble Savage and the Pursuit of the Imagined Authentic in American Indian Culture.” I should ask my Jelitto folks, in the German home office, to look at this. Or the history thesis “The Highland Bagpipe: Tradition and Transformation in Scotland, 1600 – 1850.” Reminds me of the joke: What is the definition of the perfect gentleman? Someone who knows how to play the bagpipes and doesn’t. The physics thesis was way over my head: “Accretion Disk Geodesics in Extreme Kerr Geometrics.” One history major’s thesis intrigued me: “The Secret’s Friend: Solitude and Masturbation in American Medical Discourse, 1800 – 1850.” But that was before my time.
And then there was the sociology thesis: “‘But I, Somehow, Someway/Keep Coming Up With Funky-Ass Shit Like Every Single Day!’: Artists’ Collaboration Networks and Success in the Case of Popular Music, 1992 – 2007.” Now, we’re talking! Not the music part, but coming-up with Funky-Ass Shit Like Every Single Day. I get that. It’s the gardening life— one enriched by friendships and collaboration with funky-ass folks who’ve never had a dull day in their lives. I am never disappointed visiting friends’ gardens or making a detour with them for the woods.
Uebelhart checks his horizonal: Tai Chi in Salzhausen, Germany 2010
Photo: Iris Uebelhart
Georg Uebelhart, my colleague from Jelitto Perennial Seeds, flew to Atlanta from Germany in early May. The Swiss national, a brilliant plantsman, favors wild collected porcinis at home and prime rib (medium) on the road in the U.S.
Our days were filled with trilliums, coneflowers and Jack-in-the pulpits. They began with Tai Chi and ended with steaks. Our rule: there would be no beef in the evening unless we moved some chi in the morning. We practiced in Gainesville, Georgia’s Poultry Park (a far cry from the Shanghai Bund but just as wonderful). The small park featured a tall obelisk topped-off with a laying hen (or was it a fryer?).
Tai Chi has slow moves that the uninitiated might suspect as looking peculiarly psychotic-like, but there were no hecklers—even with Uebelhart in fine fashion—on any morning anywhere, from Gainesville to Dahlonega.
For five days we stayed in constant motion in the company of Georgia crackers with a perennials predilection. Our friends are vascular visionaries of xylem and phloem – top-notch collectors, breeders and gardeners. Plant talk was non-stop. What cracker is this…that deafes our ears…With this abundance of superfluous breath? Name a plant – perennial or otherwise—and chances are someone in this posse knows it, covets it, has had the joy of seeing it in the wild or the good fortune to grow it – sometimes very successfully. These folks follow a different drummer down unusual garden paths. All are passionate, tireless, wonderfully kind-hearted and a little odd. The world could use a few more like them.
Richard and Bobby Saul are leading breeders and garden innovators. They’re also a marquee tag team, the Coen Brothers of the plant world. The Sauls have their complementary strengths. Bobby has the horticulture degree and tends to business while Richard, who holds the business degree, looks after horticulture. World renown was sealed after their introductions of colorful Echinacea cultivars. Their Cone Crazy line includes ‘Harvest Moon,’ one of the longer-lived cultivars, and they also maintain two wholesale sales yards, catering to the busy Alpharetta and Atlanta wholesale landscape trade.
Their greenhouses are like Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse of odd mutations that might end-up one day in gardens. It’s unlikely anyone can match their diverse offering, running the gamut from pansies, perennials, green roof succulents, tropicals, andd rare ferns to their own Mr. Natural line of soil amendments. But their strongest virtue might be the talent they identify and hire. Karen Stever, a Ph.D. chemist, works miracles in the tissue culture lab, and plant collector Ozzie Johnson discovers exciting new species, and interesting new plant forms, around the world.
Ozzie Johnson tends one of his Leyland Cypresses, Marietta, GA
Photo: Lisa Bartlett
Johnson has a superb one-acre garden, in Marietta, crammed to the gills. Don’t come a’knockin’ if you’re looking for colonial Williamsburg. This is not a boxwood by the front door sort of landscape. The iconic pair of mammoth Leyland cypresses is the takeaway here. Ozzie should consider a helicopter airlift for the annual pruning (he is 66) but still handles garden adventure with a 32’ ladder and pole pruners to reach the top. He’s used to the high wire. Near Wolong, Sichuan, in 2001, he recalled “The time I got lost and stuck on a ledge, lost my balance and grabbed tufts of green that saved me and it turned out to be Epimedium davidii. I vowed never to put myself in that situation ever again… Until I went to Vietnam.”
You’ll miss a lot on a garden walk-around in Johnson’s garden if you only do one circuit. Take another look. You might miss the epimedium that saved Ozzie from peril. Much of what’s here, Johnson has found in the wild in remote corners of China, Vietnam, or Japan where he has been over 35 times—collecting species in six prefectures and developing close relationships with Japanese nurserymen.
Woodwardia unigemmata, a Chinese woodland fern collected by Ozzie Johnson
Photo: Georg Uebelhart
Woodwardia unigemmata, a stunning woodland fern with broad arching fronds, was collected at an elevation of 4,500’ near Peng Jia Ba, Sichuan, China, in 2004. Schefflera megaphylla, a handsome, small shrub, hardier than many tropical species, was collected in the mountainous Lao Kai Region in Northern Vietnam. And many of Johnson’s asarums (over 40 species and cultivars) – lovely woodland wild gingers—have been wild collected in the southeastern U.S. and Asia or procured in Japanese nurseries.
Scott McMahan and Ozzie Johnson, funkiphiles and plantsmen, in the jungle
northern Vietnam near the Chinese border
Photo: Dan Hinkley
Scott McMahan owns McMahan’s Nursery, with his wife Kristie, in Clermont, down the road from the Saul’s Alpharetta operation. His Asia plant collections are trialed and propagated here with the help of Tiffany Jones. He is also a partner in Gardenhood, an innovative downtown Atlanta retail nursery that was bustling on a unusually cool Saturday. McMahan, in his mid-30s, is the bright, young star in a horticultural demographic overcome with aging dirt daubers. He gained an appreciation for the outdoors from his grandfather but cut his teeth in Sichuan in 2001, while in his twenties, then employed as Nursery Manager for the Atlanta Botanic Gardens. He has returned to China twice under his own auspices and also ventured to North Vietnam, Bhutan and India.
In Clermont, he is at home wandering the hoop houses pointing-out hardy impatiens, meadow rues and Solomon’s seals from far-flung outposts. An Aristolochia species, perhaps A. aff. kaempferi, collected near the Tau Yuan village in mountainous northern Sichuan in 2004, not far from the Gansu border, seems destined for more U.S gardens. The rare, semi-evergreen Clematis repens, with yellow bell-shaped blooms, and the narrow-leaved form of Impatiens omeiana – a perennial species with good heat tolerance—look promising, too.
Impatiens omeiana, a narrow leaved variety, collected by Scott McMahan and being trialed at his Clermont, GA, nursery
Photo: Georg Uebelhart
Don Jacobs moves through the garden with a dancer’s grace, impressive for a garden legend who will be 91 this fall. He continues to sow seeds, divide nursery stock and mail order plants from the five-acre Eco Gardens he has tended since the early 1970s. (Jacobs has co-authored, with son Rob, the highly respected American Treasures: Trilliums in Woodland and Garden.) Trained as a botanist, with time served as a wholesale tropical fish supplier, he was, in 1983, riding one of first waves of western plant explorers in Sichuan, after Richard Nixon normalized China relations with Chairman Mao.
Jacobs’s nimble mind keeps track of an extraordinary assortment of plants, tucked in the ground around his ranch-style house, in sections he calls China Cove and the Japanese Corridor. He has also collected an impressive collection of native plants from the southeastern U.S. including lady’s slippers, trilliums and phlox species. His coral bell introduction, Heuchera americana ‘Eco-Magniflora’, found in western North Carolina, grows as well as any of the newer fancier cultivars. (Eco is the familiar name associated with many of Jacobs’s plant introductions.) His Asian garden influence parallels the evolutionary development and subsequent glacial separation of 120 genera that have disjoined populations in eastern Asia and temperate North America. Cypripedium, the lady’s slipper genus, is one good example; Jacobs has brought some back together after millions of years apart.
Bobby Saul, half of Georgia’s horticultural tag-team
Photo: Georg Uebelhart
Richard Saul guided Uebelhart and me in the north Georgia mountains for a day—not fifty miles from where Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, evaded FBI capture for five years, holed-up in hillside caves. Rudolph was finally caught while dumpster diving in Murphy, NC. (Uebelhart is a mad man for plants, not a profile high on the list for U.S. Homeland Security and apparently no threat. “Are you going to the Kentucky Derby? “ U.S customs asked. “No, it was last weekend,” he answered. )
Saul drives while Uebelhart sits in the back with his x-ray eyes trained on the roadside. He can spot odd forms of wild gingers (Asarum species) 100 feet deep in the southern Appalachian forest while driving along windy mountain roads, where peanuts are being boiled in country stores around Suches and Turners Corner. Crested iris, mayapples, galax, golden Alexander and twinflower are on view. For the first time, we see Indian cucumber, Medeola virginiana, and the American columbo, Frasera caroliniensis – that’s some Funky-Ass Shit.
E.H. “Chinese” Wilson wrote about plant exploring on Sichuan’s sacred Mount Emei in Naturalist in China published in 1914. Resting briefly in a transitional zone of temperate and subtropical species between 4,500’ and 5,000’ in southwestern China, Wilson reminisced, “Everything around us looks so smiling that all nature seems to be at peace.” Uebelhart and the Georgia Funky-Ass Folks, all of them in love with gardens and nature, know the feeling.