Sunday, September 25, 2011

Plant Buying Road Trip

On Thursday I attended a plant buying trip hosted by the Mt. Cuba Center. While at one of the nurseries I found this sight of Honeybees working some Liatris microcephala. I've always ignored this species because of how scraggly it looks. This was my first time seeing it in person though and it's reminded me of Purple Prairie Clover, Dalea purpurea. I'm curious if it's common for them to have so many shoots poking up. Liatris species grow from underground corms and slowly divide, but how fast does this happen with this species?  Online photos suggest that multiple flower head stalks are typical, but how long does this take? If it takes 5 years for one corm to reach the size in the video above then is it worth buying? Questions I can't answer, but I'm curious enought that I might buy the species someday.

How was my trip?
Going on these things, I'm something of the odd man out. The general crowd of 16 was comprised of middle aged women, married couples (and or husbands willing to go with their wives) were in the minority, and then there's myself a single 27 year old male. (A friend of mine joked I was there to pick up a cougar.)

As typical for my age I only got 2 hours worth of sleep the night before. I drove an hour from New Jersey to Delaware, where the Mt. Cuba Center is located. From there I got on a bus to be driven back into New Jersey. Somehow I stayed awake but looking back I regret not sleeping.

I'd rather not promote the locations we visited simply because the first two nurseries only sell wholesale to garden centers, and the last place is too expensive to be worth mentioning. 

At our first stop, we were given a tour of a nursery and shown what it takes to grow plants wholesale to be shipped out across the state and sold at your local garden center. They focused a little bit to heavily on just showing up plants but I got to see various stages of one I wanted to buy.

Bottlebrush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, is fought over by swallowtail butterflies when it blooms in June, through July. Almost no one locally sells it, and I was thrilled to see half a green house full of them! One year seedlings came up to my knees. Second year plants came up to my waist, and they kept getting taller and bigger as we walked farther into the greenhouse. Five Gallon pots were taller than me and if I recall right only take 3 or 4 years to grow that big. In the wild this shrub can get to be 15' tall and form its own groves in full shade to full sun. Hopefully this isn't that big of a weed as I bought one.

Where our tour started going down hill was when we walked by the areas devoted to Butterfly Bush. To my dismay there's no shortage of these in the world but they were at least covered with Monarch butterflies.

Location two was an old dairy farm converted into the nursery trade, and run by the current generation of owners. We were served lunch in an old colonial farmhouse original to the building. Today it's used for weddings and easy to see why. The place is as authentically rustic as they come. The living room wreaked of smoke from decades of wood burning fires keeping the family warm.

What we were served for lunch scared me a little as I'd never had... uhhh, Is that a Tuna Fish Pizza? Taking my first bite I found that I was wrong on the tuna fish and completely in love with it enough to ask the cook for the recipe. The chef was a heavy set, elderly women, who'd probably worked hard every day of her life. She was a sweet old thing and I got the idea she was related somehow to the owner but I never thought to ask. Returning from the kitchen, she handed me a photo copied page for "Tomato, Basil and Cheese Tart" she'd taken from her grandmother's cook book, which dated back to the 1800's. You could somehow taste the decades in the recipe; people just don't cook this kind of food anymore. I would be thrilled to eat this at any wedding.

After lunch we headed out to the fields where armies of Rhododendrons were lined up in formation waiting to be shipped out. We got another brief lessen on how the nursery business works. Cultivars are maintained by cuttings taken in the spring and allowed to root in flats for the next two years. Year three they're finally upgraded to small 1 gallon pots and kept there for another two years, before being upgraded again to a 3 gallon. It takes 5 years for each Rhododendron to hit the market. Christmas trees take 7!

Whole sale prices for some of these cultivars varied from $20 to $25. I'm not sure why at all. Some of these varieties are sold at the last nursery we were going to visit for regular mark up so it was best to get our shopping done here. I've been paying attention to one cultivar in particular which is marked up to $70! Rhododendron 'millie mac' which is very unique looking and pretty, for whatever reason, has been randomly picked for price gouging! Why $70? The whole sale nursery doesn't favor this one cultivar at all, and there's no shortage of it either! Every green house had two types of plant growing in them. Rhododendron 'millie mac' is simply a name on a list to the wholesaler but at the garden center they sell their stock to it's suddenly put on a pedestal simply because they can.

The trip ended pretty much after the last nursery. We road the bus all the way back to Delaware, making my total time spent on a bus close to 7 hours for the day. The truck hauling everyone's plants was 40 minutes late showing up. And it was another hour for me to drive home.

I ate dinner and attempted to watch a TV show before going to bed. I found myself in one of the oddest states of mind I've ever been in. I started passing out in a series of cat naps without realizing it. I'd blink my eyes and suddenly there'd be a different show on the TV, and it took three times before I realized it was happening. 

I had fun but I'm not sure buying plants on a bus full of strangers is the best way to go about it.