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Plants Unique to Biltmore’s Gardens

Posted on 07/05/2017

With more than 2.5 miles of paths in our manicured gardens, it’s easy to stumble upon unfamiliar species of plants.

Starting in late May, summer annuals fill the Walled Garden, Estate Entry, and Winery beds. Other estate blooms include roses, perennials, and lush perennial borders in the Walled Garden, Winery, and Antler Hill Village. From June through August, you can find native rhododendron and perennials.

But what about those plants you’re less familiar with? We asked Travis Murray, Walled Garden Crew Leader, about plants unique to our gardens. Here are some of the most unique plants found at Biltmore:

Shiny black coleus Shiny black coleus

The Shiny black coleus was discovered by John Alexander in the Walled Garden in 2007. At the time, John was the leading gardener over the ornamental turf in the historic gardens and was working for Travis in the Walled Garden. They had planted a border in the pattern beds. The display was a yellow Lantana standard, underplanted with Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria blue,’ bordered with Dark star coleus.

John and the rest of the crew were removing dead flower heads from the salvia in the corners when he pointed out that one of the coleuses looked like it had wet leaves. The coleus was not a whole plant, but a sport, which is a part of a plant that shows variations from the rest of the plant. Sports may show differences in foliage shape or color, flowers, or branch structure.

John and Travis took cuttings of the sport and turned them over to Gardener Mark Waldroop, who propagated those cuttings and cared for them. He grew the plant and watched it closely to monitor any changes, as many do not remain viable and will revert to the mother plant. To ensure viability once the plant was rooted and healthy enough for cuttings, Mark began propagating the sport. After several successful propagations, the sport held its characteristics and a new coleus was born. We named it Little John, after the man who discovered it. 

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

The Cercidiphyllum japonicum is one of many unique plants that can be found at Biltmore. Commonly called Katsura tree, it is native to Japan and China. It is a deciduous understory tree with a dense, rounded habit, and bark that resembles an American white oak. It typically matures to 40–60 feet, but can reach 100 feet or more in the wild. The Katsura presents a picture-worthy structure and shape, bearing attractive foliage that resembles those of a small redbud.

Reddish-purple leaves emerge in spring. As the tree releases its sugars to push out new leaves, there is a faint, sweet smell in the air, similar to cotton candy. The leaves mature to medium green with a slight bluish tinge in summer and turn to shades of gold, orange, and red in fall. “In autumn, the fallen leaves have a faint smell of cinnamon, sugar, and apples,” says Travis. The Katsura can be found in the Shrub Garden, with a larger specimen found near the circle in the Azalea Garden.

Dawn redwoodEucomis sparkling burgundy

Eucomis sparkling burgundy, or the pineapple lily, can be found in the Walled Garden, particularly in the Victorian border. This unique cultivar has dark burgundy leaves and boasts flowers that form on 20- to 30-inch stalks, bearing tight, smoky, pinkish-purple florets reminiscent of pineapples.

These tender bulbs hail from South Africa. However, we have successfully been able to keep them over winter.

Dracunculus vulgaris

The Dracunculus vulgaris, also known as the voodoo lily or dragon plant, can be found in the Walled Garden and is seeded in the scented border. The plant is native to the Balkans, extending as far as Greece, Crete, and the Aegean Islands.

The species can be identified by a large purple spathe and spadix, which has a somewhat unpleasant smell to attract flies as pollinators. The large palmate leaves have occasional cream flecks along the veins. If ingested, part of the plant is poisonous. The plant opens in May and lasts just a few weeks.

The historic gardens are full of interesting plants and trees, many of which are state champions, such as the Heritage birch, or the Double winged silverbell. There are also the Weeping and Non-weeping blue atlas cedars, and the Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood), which is a fast-growing, endangered deciduous conifer. This is the only living species of the genus Metasequoia, one of three species in the subfamily Sequoioideae.

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