Star anise (Illicium) breeding at NCSU is producing beautiful plants with larger, more upward-facing flower and purple-tinted foliage.

A few days ago, I joined up with three fervent plant nerds for a horticultural romp in the Raleigh, NC area.

My plant-loving compadres were Dan Heims (President of wholesaler Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby, OR); Kelly Norris of Rainbow Iris Farms in Iowa (also garden writer, plant breeder, botany graduate student and all around genius-child at the tender age of 22) and Bob Pries, avid plant collector, author and publicity point man for the American Iris Society). It has been a wild ride – having never been to NC, I’ve been thrilled just by the distinctly southern tobacco fields, native pine and Liquidambar (sweetgum) woods, and the romantic, mist-shrouded hills. Not to mention biscuits for breakfast every morning! And spending three days talking about plants non-stop with three avid plant breeders and rare plant collectors has been eye-opening, to say the least.

Our adventure began with a personal tour of the NCSU Research Station with Dr. Tom Ranney, plant collector and researcher. Ranney heads up breeding on a variety of interesting landscape plants including Mahonia (Oregon grape, although many are Asian), Illicium (star anise), Miscanthus sinensis (maidenhair grass – a noxious weed in this area), and many other plants including Southeast native perennials, shrubs and trees. Dr. Ranney bred Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Spirit, a repeat-blooming, medium pink mophead hydrangea, due for release by Spring Meadow Nursery this coming spring. We rambled through fields, greenhouses and labs and were at times quite dazzled by the plants: favorites included a glorious double white camellia with tiny leaves and some compact, beautifully dark-leaved Physocarpus (ninebark). It was fascinating to see plants in the development phases and to get a sense of exactly what traits the breeders are working on – things like disease resistance, compact size, attractively-colored new growth, stable variegation, winter hardiness, flower size and color, and about a million other qualities.

The next day, our first stop was the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Built by George W. Vanderbilt with family railroad money, this mansion ("the largest residence in America") was inhabited by Mr. Vanderbilt by 1895 and represented the pinnacle of architectural craftsmanship for the time, from the woodwork to the bathroom fixtures. We could have spent the entire day ogling the place.

But we’d come for the gardens, designed by the fabled Olmsted and Olmsted firm. Our trusty leader Dan Heims had set up a tour with Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture at the Biltmore and a major plant aficionado, joined by plant-geek and landscape contractor Hunter Stubbs. To our delight, Parker Andes soon unfurled a copy of the original Olmsted map of the property, which allowed us to see how the landscape would have looked when first planted. Andes and his gardening staff have been restoring the rock work, streams and plantings to their original state. Driving along the entry road to the mansion, he pointed out areas where reconstruction had been done – and what remained. Our tour of the gardens surrounding the house revealed greenhouses stuffed with beautifully tended tropicals and succulents. The rest of the property consists of perennial and shrub beds with many southern native plants, a large formal rose garden, a walled garden, water and bog gardens and, further out from the house, natural woodlands and managed forests.

Our next stop was the wholesale Hawksridge Nursery in Hickory, NC. Dan had arranged to meet up with owner Rick Crowder – another avid plant collector – who showed us plants he’d found in Japan, as well as on collecting expeditions around the South. I was excited about a Loropetalum (fringe flower) with rich, dark burgundy foliage unmarred by brown tones and with vibrant spidery-red flowers. He also had some distinctive variegated forms of Camellia, Ligustrum (privet), Ternstroemia, and Aucuba – all fine evergreen garden plants, particularly in the winter garden. Rick Crowder is the breeder for Abelia ‘Mardi Gras’, a dwarf Abelia with white-variegated leaves and pale pink flowers. I found it really interesting to meet these passionate people who found and bred these new garden plants – who either had the eye to spot the stand-out plants either in the wild or amongst rafts of seedlings in a field or who meticulously pollinated the flowers (or fiddled with genes in a lab) with a particular result in mind until they reached their goal.

By the end of two days, I was teetering dangerously on the brink of mental overload. But that didn’t stop me from getting up at 6 am this morning (fueled by more biscuits, of course) so we could drive to the renowned Plant Delights, a mail-order nursery whose opinionated owner Tony Avent has worked to establish one of the country’s most successful mail order "micro-nurseries" while building the finest botanical garden East of the Rockies. More on that another day.