Home & Garden

What Is So Rare As A Day In June?

Plant connoisseurs debate at auction

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The name “Rare Plant Auction®” is a registered trademark and no organization but the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH) is permitted to use it,” says auction plant expert and longtime committee member Charles Cresson. This annual auction is a one-of-a kind gala evening event held at Longwood Gardens, offering drama, sociable schmoozing, fine dining, great plants with rare personality, and great personalities famous for their horticultural expertise.

These legendary plant nerds have the assignment of helping other attendees find and buy the landscape collection of their dreams or the “envy” plant of the year. Name dropping, especially of plant names, is the game. Caution: if you go, watch out for cases of unleashed plant lust and don’t stand between anyone and the plant he or she is after.

This year’s “celebrated plant expert” will be Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). Experts of the present or the past include Allan Armitage, Richard Bitner, Ray Rogers, Dan Hinckley, Patrick Cullina, and more.

Hardy plants designated PHS Gold Medal Plants will be among those featured. A catalog of the plants that will be auctioned is sent in advance to subscribers. The booklet is a treasure trove of information and does its job of enthusiastically informing attendees about what will be offered, with headers such as, “The Cutting Edge,” “The Rarest of the Rare,” and so on. People make their plant lists just as spring warms our area and they arrive at the auction ready to bid. If they need help, they consult with the auction’s “plant experts.” Charles Cresson, a well-known author, says he has served as an expert about 15 times and it is an honor to be asked.

Proceeds benefit Delaware Center for Horticulture’s amazing Community Greening Program, which uses horticulture to beautify Delaware and improve the quality of life for residents in urban neighborhoods.

In recent years the auction has drawn more than 300 avid plant collectors and industry professionals, from Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, and other states. Six hundred or more rare, newly introduced, or difficult to propagate plants are donated by more than a hundred nurseries and individuals from across the country. In 2008 the auction netted over $150,000; 150 volunteers help plan the event and keep it running smoothly.

Each year there is a live auction of astonishing plants. For the last 15 years this has been faithfully conducted by Dean F. Failey of Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers. There is a multi-part silent auction with hundreds more, with items of particular interest at tables in Longwood’s large conservatory. People keep an eye on open bids at different tables. It’s all for a good cause, but people want to win. Fortunately these auctions are sequential, not simultaneous, and plenty of plants are included.

The top prize at last year’s live auction was a mature specimen of Quercus castaneifolia, a 25-foot chestnut-leaved oak. When bids were in, the gavel went down for $6,400.

Tom Armstrong, Honorary Chair for two years and the former head of the Whitney Museum in New York, says he attends each year because of the place, the people, and the plants. He doesn’t mind a competitive situation and enjoys the trees and shrubs he has won and added to his home landscaping on Fishers Island.

Charles Cresson told me that the auction began in 1980 when famous plantsman Sir John (John Thouron) decided to raid his estate greenhouse and donate a rare yellow Clivia, which now has the cultivar name Clivia miniata “Sir John Thouron,” to the DCH. He’d found the parent plant in France many years earlier. Occasionally over the years he would give an offshoot to one of his hort buddies such as J. Liddon Pennock of Meadowbrook Farm, but it was impossible to buy one. It was easy to see one, though, for he showed the broad Clivia clump in all its blooming glory at the Philadelphia Flower Show each year. As you can imagine, this did nothing to lessen demand for this plant.

The DCH decided that the best thing to do with this coveted donation was to auction it off to raise money for their activities in inner-city Wilmington. Members, staff, and volunteers pulled together a gala event. Attendees were eager, bidding was feverish, and the tradition was launched. The auction has continued and grown each year since then. Eventually it grew so large it’s been held at Longwood Gardens since 1987.

Marilyn Hayward, a former Honorary Chair, says, “We go; I donate plants and support it. I’m a plant geek—or is it a chloraholic?—and collect unusual plants. You just can’t get enough plants.”

The auction will be held on April 25, 2009 in the conservatory of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. Ticket prices begin at $200. A Young Collectors ticket price of $100 is available for those 40 years and younger. All reservations admit entrance to Longwood Gardens for the day and include cocktails and a gourmet buffet dinner. For more information: 302.658.6262, rareplantauction.org

In recent years the auction has drawn more than 300 avid plant collectors and industry professionals, six hundred or more rare, newly introduced, or difficult to propagate plants are donated by more than a hundred nurseries and individuals from across the country.

Some Rarities

Camellia azalea A rare camellia discovered in China in 1984, but known only from herbarium specimens until 2000 when cuttings and seed were collected in the southwest of Guangdong Province and plants were introduced into cultivation. This species is threatened with extinction in its natural habitat due to overgrazing by local goat herds. Only several plants remain in the wild, and therefore their exact location is not disclosed. This camellia has large, bright red flowers, and is unique in its ability to bloom nearly all year. It is reputed to be “one of the rarest plants at Longwood.” Donated by Longwood Gardens in 2006.

Wollemia nobilis In the Aboriginal language “Wollemi” means, “Look around you, keep your eyes open, and watch out.” David Noble, an Australian National Parks officer, did exactly that when he noticed this unusual conifer in 1994 while trekking in Wollemi National Park outside Sydney. Presumed extinct for approximately two million years, the ancient Wollemi pine is considered one of the greatest plant “re-discoveries” of our time, and much effort has gone into conserving and propagating it. The exact location of the plants is still a guarded secret, visitors are limited to select researchers; seedlings are kept in enormous cages to avoid cuttings being taken illicitly. The found populations of mature trees are notable for their pendulous foliage, distinctive bark, and unique branching pattern. While it can reach 100 feet in the rainforest gorges of New South Wales, Australia, here in North America it makes a perfect conservatory specimen. Donated by Harold Davis in 2007 and 2008.

Descaisnea fargesii Bring on the bizarre—here’s a plant for thrill-seekers and fun-lovers alike. Commonly referred to as the Blue Bean Shrub, Blue Sausage Fruit, and even Dead Man’s Fingers, it hails from China but is rarely seen here in cultivation. Grown for the pendulous blue fruits that resemble long, fat beans and are said to actually feel like the eponymous Dead Man’s Fingers, it offers the further garish appeal of seeds lodged in a gelatinous—and edible!—goo. Spring’s purplish foliage gives way in early summer to bell-like flower clusters that droop from long arching stems. Perfectly timed for Halloween, the blue fruits reach their peak at October’s end. Fast-growing and hardy in our area, it will develop into a multi-stemmed, exotic-looking shrub. Donated by The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in 2008.

Diervilla sessilifolia “Cool Splash” is going to put Diervilla on the map. So hopes plant breeder Peter Podaras, whose work with the Landscape Plant Development Center resulted in this first ever variegated cultivar of Diervilla sessilifolia, our native southern bush honeysuckle. Working out of Cornell University, he seized upon a single seedling that showed a hint of white, growing it out into a plant with stable variegation. Reaching only three to four feet wide and tall, ‘Cool Splash” has showy variegation and clusters of small yellow flowers at the tips. Adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, including windy sites, it’s a tough plant for small spaces, containers, or planted en masse. The striking marginal variegation demands attention and shows up best in full sun. “Cool Splash” will not be released until 2009. Donated by Landscape Plant Development Center in 2008.

The Hunt Spring 2009  Issue

This article was published in Home & Garden from the Spring 2009 issue.
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