February 3, 2013

Podophyllum Madness and Desire

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty', on my wish list for a year now, suddenly, I am discovering that I should have bought more when I had the chance.

I can hear my brothers now. 'It's Super Bowl Sunday and where is Matt? He's at a crazy Podophyllum lecture eating cookies and sipping tea". Actually, I was. Our local North American Rock Garden Society has a quiet little sub-group called the Hardy Plant Group which meets monthly in the winter at various locations where members show and share either plants, or share images. Each meeting has a theme, and everyone who attends is encouraged to share and participate. Yes, tis a bit geeky, but then again, that's really what this is all about. And although not for everyone, the themes are often challenging and always very interesting. In the past themes have been Cruciferae, or early spring bulbs, or even our favorite winter blooming shrubs. Today, the subject was Podophyllum, along with a discussion on other plants within the Family Berberidaceae.

 I was disheartended to learn that Chinese wild collected plants make up most of the nursery trade for these plants in the US, and even though nurseries won't admit that they are carrying such plants, the rhyzomes don't lie. Un pot a plant and most likely, you will see rhyzomes with not one or two eyes, but ones with 7, 10 or 14 eyes, each one representing a years growth in the wild.

I can admit here that I do indeed have an obsession with Podophyllum. Today's talk was lead by long-time Friend Darrell Probst, who shared with us his many images of his own seed collections, crosses and new species which he collected on expeditions to China along with Daniel Hinkley way back  in the 1990's. We are very fortunate here in the Boston suburbs, as our members are passionate and even included some well known names in the plant world.  Members today included Ellen Hornig - past proprietor of the now closed Seneca Hill nursery, of course, Darrell Probst, noted epimedium and now coreopsis breeder. Our audience also included Roy Herald and Helen Herold ( Roy, Hosta breeder and active member of the Pacific Bulb Society, NARGS and the Cactus and Succulent Society, and his wife Helen, past president of the N.E. NARGS chapter). Oh yes, and the Onion Man himself - Mark McDonough  I really can't think of a nicer group of friends.

Choice Asian Podophyllum may always be rare, even as plants are sometiems micro propagated,  this form of propagation is still not productive. In those few times when it has worked, named selections appear one year, and then disappear the next. Vegetative division remains difficult, and wild collected plants, while still appearing at some nurseries,  seem to be all that one can find. It makes one wonder about the future of this genus -  what will be depleted first, nursery stock, or wild collections?

Best thing of all? The talk today was not held at a library or in a conference room - today, it was held in a home - the cozy home of another well known plant couple - Jan Sacks and Marty Schafer, owners of Joe Pye Weed gardens, the well know iris breeders and nursery. We just kicked our snowy boots off on their cold, glassed in porch which housed an amazing collection of sassanqua camellias, citrus and pelargoniums, and grabbed a steaming cup of coffee from the stove, a comfy chair in their living room and watched the power point presentation as the snow fell in huge, fluffy flakes. It was perfectly set, and perfectly cast. Interesting friends, great talk and fascinating inspiration. It reminded me of when I was a child, and would go to a friends house to play while their parents perhaps watched a football game.

Our native Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, one of three selections we've collected in our woodland and in the nearby forests of Northboro, MA where Joe was raised.  I learned
today that there are many selections even in wild colonies of this species, some even have pink flowers.

At the end of our long walk, near the woods, two selections of P. peltatum have spread nicely ( which it tends to do), forming dense colonies where it is happy, and in this moist area, we allow it to fight-it-out with other aggressive spreaders such as this variegated Petasites japonica. 

I left with a new, and even more enhanced knowledge about the genus Podophyllum, and...a little sad ( if not crazy) since many of the great selections and clones that have appeared in the market over the past couple of years, are now gone, with little hope of new ones coming in since the genus is notoriously challenging to micropropagate and division is slow. In the wild, populations are being depleted in China as Chinese nurseries are raping the woodlands, stripping out every clone they can find, and now that medical researchers are looking at the genus as a possible cancer treatment, new plants being imported is even less likely.

Last year I planted 5 pots of Podophyllum pleianthum, a Chinese species which is still quite variable, depending on where you get them from. Watch out for white stemmed forms, green stemmed forms, and the number of blossoms. All are choice, and worthy additions to a woodland garden, especially when they mature into 3 foot tall clumps.

And now, off on my mission to find out more about this genus. I have a few plants already, perhaps one of each species available in most catalogs in the past, but now that I know that there are different populations, and different secections as well as crosses between Chinese species and American species, as well as this deficit of some very choice plants such as Podophyllum delavyi 'Spotty Dotty' which Terra Nova introduced last year, but which is impossible to find today, as well as some fine Heronswood selections from the past ( Damn - if only I had money then!). Some other selections such as P. ' Kaleidoscope' are equally scarce today in the trade. So, I am on a mission to find and collect them all. ( Oh, jeesh - another plant to collect more of), and who knows - if I don't heat my greenhouse next year, maybe I will dump my Clivia collection and start breeding Podophyllum. Or better yet, take a trip to western China.


  1. I haven't found these plants too difficult to grow from seed, although I've only tried a few different species. I'm sure you would be successful with them, and seed is probably easier to get.

  2. I think your Super-bowl Sunday was much more interesting than most people.


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