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Connoisseur Plants Program History

Musa velutinaNote: The Connoisseur Plant Program is an ongoing program at the JC Raulston Arboretum. The following was written by J. C. Raulston in 1995 and is provided for historical purposes only.

The mission statement of The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) states that the purpose of the arboretum is to enrich and expand urban and residential landscapes by promoting a greater diversity of superior and better adapted landscape plants. Two major activities lead toward this goal. First plants must be collected, planted, and evaluated for their landscape potential - for both environmental adaptability and landscape value and use. Most arboreta do this work well - with fine collections throughout the U.S. for homeowners and professionals to observe and learn from. But this alone does not necessarily result in fine, adapted plants actually appearing in public landscapes.

A second essential general area of distribution of propagation material and/or plants, commercial production, and plant promotion is necessary for the plants to end up actually being used. It is in this second arena that The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) has its unique effectiveness. In The Collector's Garden - Designing with Extraordinary Plants, a recently published book by Ken Druse on new, wonderful and rare plants and the people and institutions that promote and use them, it states: "(The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum)) is perhaps America's preeminent missionary; spreading the gardening gospel and disseminating plants."If hoarding is the sin of the collector, then Raulston is an angel. Generous is an understatement."

This dissemination takes many forms - each reaching a unique niche of opportunities for plant use and awareness. Commercially the arboretum shares plants with nurserymen for their further evaluation and production. Each year, packs of young plant propagules are taken to the North Carolina Association of Nurserymen (NCAN) trade show and distributed to growers. Over the years over 65,000 plants have been shared in this manner - many of which have made their way into commercial trade. The NCAN also has a program of selecting specific plants for buildup and promotion from arboretum selections. Over the years, 24 different plants have entered the nursery trade through this program. (see list)

Since there is an enormous range of plant markets - no one institutional distribution program can encompass all the possible plants in the arboretum that might be of interest to one specialty nursery or another. With this in mind, the arboretum has promoted the concept of nurserymen coming to the garden to collect propagation wood or seed from plants of their specific interest under our supervision. An estimated two to three million cuttings and seed have gone out in this direct manner, with further expansion to additional millions of plants reaching homeowners as nurserymen multiply their original collections.

Interested nonprofessional but serious gardener individuals are also strong advocates for new plant use within their communities and among neighbors. In addition, both growers and serious gardeners comprise the financial (and emotional and spiritual) support which allow the arboretum and its programs to exist at all with the financial reality of public institutions at this time in history. As a means of getting plants to this important audience, and in expression of thanks for their support - the arboretum has for many years had our traditional "members free plant distribution" each fall. This allows us to both thank our supporters, and clear the nurseries before winter of excess and duplicate plants (and discard those pesky "unknown-but-wonderful" plants that suddenly appear sans labels). Thousands of plants go out to our members through this program each year and it has become one of our legendary "grand events" with people driving from Atlanta to Boston to participate in this frenzied five minute "grab and run".

But there are many members who regrettably cannot personally attend this event, yet would like to have a special plant directly from the arboretum, and there are also individuals and organizations who support the arboretum at other membership levels with additional specific benefits according to their annual contribution to the arboretum (e.g. an annual director's dinner, etc.). In 1993 we decided to add a Connoisseur Plant benefit to the $100.00 and above membership levels which would enable the member to receive a listing of a range of exceptional plants available and have one of their choice shipped to them anywhere in the U.S. Such programs are in use by many other public gardens, probably most notably by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with their "Signature Plant" program (managed by NCSU graduate and plantsmanextraordinaire, Bob Hays), which offers an entire catalog of plants for members of a certain subscription level.

Our first 1993 listing contained 45 different plants and went out to the relatively small number of people we had at that time at the $100.00 and above annual membership level. The uniqueness of The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) Connoisseur Plant offerings is the extreme rarity or unavailability of many of them. Whereas other garden offerings, though choice, are usually obtained through commercial propagation sources for their offerings, many of the items on our list have never been in commercial trade. Or we may have the only plant in the U.S. at that time - and are offering the first 5 plants ever propagated from our initial plant. Our stocks of individual plants in the list can range from 5 to 50 plants each. We ask people to rate the top 5 plants of their choices from the list - and we will send the highest rated plant still available when we receive their list. Luckily with the great diversity of "tastes" of plantsmen - we were able to give essentially everyone their first choice.

Word of this choice list immediately began to spread among plantsmen, and coupled with the active Capital Campaign to raise money for the new Education Center, the number of people involved grew significantly in the second listing sent in December of 1994 with 52 plants on it. We immediately encountered the same problems commercial nurseries face - who will want which plants?, and how many do you need to have available to meet their needs? With concerns of how fast the lists can be returned from distant ports - we also added a FAX number to return choices immediately and many people used them (the frenzied plantaholics!). Again due to varied tastes (often so unexpected!) - essentially everyone received either their first or second choice.

The number of subscribers at this level exploded in 1995 and at present nearly 50% of our membership income (which literally runs the arboretum, providing most of the operating costs) comes from this category. The 1995 list (sent just before Christmas as our holiday gift to supporters) contained 57 different plants. We are still processing orders from this years program and should finish it up within the next month. The letters, calls and comments we get back from those involved in this program indicate the great pleasure it gives to so many - with the exception of the agony in trying to decide from such an exceptional listing - how can one chose just one? Since so many have written of this agony - saying they wished they could have them all; as we were finishing the last mailing (late one night as usual), we jokingly said - "let's just offer the opportunity to receive all the plants at a top membership category ($2,000.00 annual membership)" - and to our great astonishment, many accepted this opportunity.

We can see a considerable expansion need in the total numbers of plants we will need to produce in the future to handle the hunger of plantsmen to participate in this distribution program. It is a year-round effort at present to propagate and produce the over 700 exceptionally choice plants shipped each year. Over the years, plants offered have ranged from small divisions of herbaceous perennials (Rhodophiala bifida, Asarum splendens, Alstroemeria psittacina 'Variegata', Hippeastrum papilio 'Butterfly') or newly propagated plants which may be sent out as a rooted cutting (Taxus chinensis, Sinojackia rehderiana, Cedrus deodara 'Compacta', Sequoia sempervirens 'Soquel') - all the way to sizable container plants which may be 2-4' tall (Rhododendron × 'Trudy Webster', Acer palmatum 'Beni Schichihenge', Michelia ×foggii, Liquidambar styraciflua var. rotundiloba).

Some have been extremely rare botanical species which have not yet been offered commercially anywhere before (Echinosophora koreensis - which came from seed provided by Barry Yinger collected in Korea, Nothaphoebe cavalieri, Keteeleria davidiana, Stransvaesia amphidoxa); others may be new European cultivars not yet in U.S. trade (Lonicera nitida 'Silver Beauty', Mahonia × 'Underway', Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki', Stachyurus praecox 'Rubriflora'); or new cultivars named and released by The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) (Ulmus alata 'Lace Parasol', Cornus mas 'Spring Glow', Camellia × 'Carolina Moonmist', Quercus phillyreoides 'Emerald Sentinel', Cercis yunnanensis 'Celestial Plum').

Some are choice plants long in the literature but rarely available (Koelreuteria paniculata 'September', Abies firma, Danae racemosa, Poliothrysis sinensis, Pseudolarix amabilis). Desirability of the plants is fascinating to watch each year - this year the most requested item was a collection of 4 Baptisia species which I expected few to ask for (and of course we only had 5 sets available). On the other hand, I expected one of the hottest items would be Stewartia ovata - the magnificent and rarely available southern native species so difficult to propagate - we had beautiful 2' gallon container plants in quantity - and only a handful of requests came in with it as the top choice. The top ten requested plants this year were: ×Amarcrinum howardii, the Baptisias, Camellia × 'Carolina Moonmist', Lonicera nitida 'Silver Beauty', Magnolia grandiflora 'Hasse', Mahonia ×intermedia 'Underway', Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus, Styrax japonicum 'Emerald Pagoda', and Zenobia pulverulenta 'Woodlander's Blue Form'.

Of course we always run into the issues of living plants - after the listing was mailed, all eighty of the Cissus incisa promptly died for totally unknown reasons (luckily only two ordered them). And of course there are always young plants which go into dormancy in fall and never emerge from it in the spring. We urge participants to let us know of problems in shipment, delivery, frozen packages, dead plants, etc. so we can make good on any losses - if you don't let us know, we can't correct our errors. (Puppy digging it up a year later in the garden or being crushed under the tires of a runaway 18 wheeler truck don't count!). For those of you already in this program - we appreciate your support and thank you greatly, and hope you're enjoying the wonderful plants. For those of you who have been considering expanding your support - we hope you'll give this program a trial in the future. Plant for a better world.

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