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Heirloom Plants Ride A Wave Of Popularity
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Heirloom plants are making huge comebacks for gardeners everywhere, particularly in the South.
One heirloom plant regaining attention is the Vitex agnus-cactus, or the Lilac Chaste tree. They are for sale at many nurseries, but you probably don't recognize this member of the verbena family.
The gorgeous, lilac-blue flowers are fragrant and produce over a long period during the summer. Even the leaves release a spicy odor when crushed.
Vitex can be grown as a small deciduous tree or multi-trunked shrubs that may reach 20 feet in height. Some even cut back each year and grow like a buddleia. They are native to southern Europe and western Asia but thrive throughout the South in zones 7 and 8.
Another heirloom plant available today is the weigela. The name itself may conjure up images of grandmother's front yard.
Weigela is native to Japan and was imported during the Victorian era. Like forsythia, it is a large, somewhat loose shrub that if left to its own devices, matures into a lovely open arching mass. Also like forsythia, the emerald-green, oval foliage is handsome but unremarkable (with the exception of a few variegated forms), with little or no fall color.
Weigelas' small, tan, dry fruit and light brown bark are also less than distinguished but not unattractive. So why was this shrub such a favorite with American homeowners for so long?
First, it produces cascades of delightfully large and colorful, trumpet-shaped flowers that appear unfailingly each spring and sporadically through the fall. Second, weigela is one of the most reliable, persevering in-the-face-of-all-odds landscape shrubs to come out of the great era of plant exploration in the 1800s.
Weigela Florida will grow to a large rounded mass 5 to 10 feet tall with an equal or greater spread as the plant matures and branches arch back toward the ground. Weigela is mostly best when left to develop its own relaxed, graceful outline, although periodic pruning to renew flowering vigor may be helpful on older specimens.
Weigela will grow in almost any location. It prefers moist, well-drained soils in full sun, but it will thrive just about anywhere other than in dense shade.
It is for the most part disease resistant and pest free and is very suitable for urban conditions. It needs room to spread. It is completely hardy in Mississippi.
Vitex, weigela and other container-grown trees and shrubs can be planted now with good success. Dig holes no deeper than the plant is growing in the container.
Dig the hole two to three times wider than the root ball. The wider the better. After the tree is planted, form a berm around the trees root ball with the remaining backfill. This berm will make sure that all water during the summer goes to the roots.
After watering deeply, apply a good layer of pine straw or pine bark mulch to help retain moisture. Water deeply once a week if rains are sparse.