Dwarf Crape Myrtle – Dow Whiting’s Next big adventure
Once upon a time there were four Little Princesses, whose names were Holly Ann, Zoey Deshea, Kyle Grace and Lyla Jane. You may not have heard of them yet, but wait – let’s not get our begonias in a bind weed.
When you think about gardening, there is a hierarchy. There are those of us who like to admire beautiful gardens (and photos); those who love to get their hands dirty, who may eventually discover there is method to the madness of gardening. A few of us become Master Gardeners to help others understand the science of plants and enjoy success.
And then there are a very select few who are so passionate about plants that they try mightily to make them better by developing new varieties.
Many may try. Only a few succeed.
Dow Whiting is one of those. Twice now, he has ventured onto the national stage with a new cultivar. Ask him about Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Dow Whiting’ and he still gets a certain gleam, just as he did a few years ago when his patented dwarf conifer was trademarked and sold by Garden Debut as Soft Serve Chamaecyparis.
Now Dow has a new gleam. Four of them, actually. They are dwarf crape myrtles, a favorite of gardeners who like a show of color in the heat of summer. Crape myrtles deliver various hues of pink, red and white to the garden like no other perennial, even if they are challenging to grow in cooler climates. They also demand space, and if you have it, they will be their own reward.
But not all of us have space. Those who don’t often turn to dwarf varieties, shrub-sized varieties, or even ground cover plants. The sacrifice was that many of these crape myrtles didn’t exactly explode with color.
"My goal going into this was to create a full line of dwarf crape myrtles with nice flowers," says Whiting, who recently unveiled four new varieties. "There are a lot of dwarf crape myrtles, but they don’t have the flowers."
Not that there isn’t competition.
"There are hundreds of people doing exactly what I do all over the world."
Jim Thompson, vice president of Greenleaf Nurseries, explains:
"There is a lot of competition in the marketplace for new entries, some varieties more so than others.Finding a brand that is willing to test and evaluate your selection is the first hurdle. Once the brand decides to go forward with the new plant there is contractual agreements to be worked out, marketing evaluations and studies along with growers partnerships."
Most don’t have to deal with unpredictable Ozarks winters, when it can turn from the 60s one week to sub-freezing the next, complicated by the ice storms. Or flood at odd times of year that can wipe out a business or at least a season of work. That nearly happened two years ago at Garden Adventures, located adjacent to a dry creek bed that turned into a flash flood that wiped out the protective berm that normally does its job.
Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia)originated in China and India, but they’re been around since the earliest colonial days. George Washington grew them as did Thomas Jefferson.
"They all did, but the difference is then they were new," says Whiting. As a horticulture major at Missouri State University, Whiting studied the science of plant propagation. By the time he and Linda founded Garden Adventures in 2007, he was already developing Soft Serve.
Crepe myrtles were next. His other passion is a unique approach to marketing, which includes weekly plant seminars that include guest speakers sharing their knowledge with visitors who, presumably, will walk among the thousands of plants in search of the one they didn’t know they needed.
Another passion is the Nixa Azalea Festival, now in its fifth year, which seeks to develop the Gardens at Woodfield, a public garden in Nixa. The festival also sponsors a golf tournament at Fremont Hills Country Club. In 2011, Nixa was designated an "Azalea City" by the Azalea Society of America.
Anyone who has traveled in the south knows about two plants. One is azaleas in springtime. The other is crape myrtle, which blooms voraciously throughout the heat of summer, and can be pruned into a stunning semi-tropical tree in bright red, hot pink and deep purple.
Plant breeders have always been there, but in the mid- to late-90s, the world of plant research just boomed, along with popularity of gardening, often based on TV and the Internet, magazines and the desire of homeowners to have something different. Big box stores stimulated the market, but so did smaller independent garden centers. Boutique growers might sell a few plants at farmers markets, which have grown in number as well.
There are hundreds of varieties of azaleas and crape myrtles and more being developed.
Whiting started with Pocomoke, Tightwad, Catawba and Dynamite. Tightwad and Dynamite were developed by Dr. Carl Whitcomb of Oklahoma State University, a household name in plant research.
"The thing now is that you can find crape myrtle in sizes ranging from ground cover to the size of trees."
Nurseries such as Greenleaf and Garden Debut are always looking for something new, usually a plant that blooms earlier (Mother’s Day), longer (well into fall), brighter, or in some new shade. But resistance to winter kill and disease can be just as important, and a cultivar that thrives in Ozarks winters opens up a whole new market.
Proven Winners is aptly named. Its familiar brand is on many of the plants the rest of us peruse each spring in our annual rush to have the brightest garden in the neighborhood.
Thompson again: "After Dow has completed his breeding and testing, the grower will be evaluating to make sure the plant fits within the growing practices established on their nursery. Testing takes two to three years minimum and another two years before the plant reaches the marketplace, market demand will factor the return the breeder will receive for his work."
These new plant varieties came out of a hybridization program now in its sixth year. To gain the plant volume necessary to reach the national market, Garden Adventures partnered with Greenleaf Nursery, headquartered in Park Hill, Okla., to introduce the new series through Garden Debut. The nursery has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Sierra Club and the Southern Nursery Association for leadership in self-directed environmental stewardship.
Greenleaf Nursery is one of North America’s largest wholesale nursery growers, producing more than 14 million plants annually on nearly 2,000 acres in three states.
Once upon a time is now.
The Little Princess series, will be named after the Whitings’ four granddaughters, Holly Ann, Zoey Deshea, Kylie Grace, and Lyla Jane.
Dow’s Propagation is by cloning rather than seed, which is the only reliable way to control what you’re getting. Lest you think anyone can do it, imagine planting hundreds of plants, only to discover nothing is new.
From 2007-2009, Whiting planted 200 crape myrtle each year and found three that had promise. In 2010, he planted 500 seedlings, and found none that showed promise. In 2011, he added 1,000 more seedlings. Of those, 40 percent bloomed, and he saw roughly a dozen plants with promise.
While plant development is not a new concept, it is rare that a small, locally owned nursery can introduce new plants on a national level. Garden Adventures Nursery was founded in 2007, and is a full service garden center offering a complete line of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.
Why a smaller plant?
"Homes are smaller now; the lots are smaller now. Not everybody’s home occupies a big space, and hopefully that’s the market (for dwarf and semi-dwarf).
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